The Lost Sister [5/6]
Part five of our book serialisation
The Lost Sister
by Paul Harris
This story is serialised in six parts and does not appear in the print edition of The Ambler
The story so far…
Through a series of strange visions Jim Smith has been drawn into events from a distant time. He asks for help from an expert in ancient history, between them they begin to unravel a puzzle that has always baffled historians.But as more evidence is found linking Smith to the past the story seems all the more outrageous.
Romans, in a part of England where they were not supposed to be, a valuable artefact that was thought lost in Germany and now Smith learns he may have had relatives in Iron Age Briton.
There must be a reason for what has been happening, but what can it be?
And more importantly to Smith, where is all this going to end?
Meet your Ancestor
During the next few days the dig continued and the excitement mounted. There were many small objects coming out of the ground that surrounded the church, mostly pieces of pottery, until the eighth day at about 4.30pm, when a young student digging out a section of one of the trenches felt her trowel strike something solid. The distinctive sound of metal hitting metal made her stop scraping at the soil and use a more delicate touch.
As she teased the earth open to reveal its contents she gasped, she rubbed a finger over the exposed surface. She did not know yet exactly what it was but she realised as soon as she caught sight of the object that it was made of gold.
The girl let out a whoop of delight and raised her arm in the air to attract attention. Stone, who was just about to give the signal to the team to finish for the day and his assistant, who was waiting for the signal to finish and was having a crafty pre-finishing smoke, started toward the trench, closely followed by Smith.
“Found something Trish?” said Stone.
“Just a bit” replied the girl. “Look at this”
They all leaned over the shallow trench and tied to see what was causing the excitement.
“Can I step in and take a closer look” said Stone.
“Just a second Doctor Stone, let me see if I can free this up a little bit more first”
She carefully enticed the object free from its earthen casing. Using a brush and a small wooden spatula, she was extremely careful not to scratch or damage the find in any way. As the earth of centuries was removed the unmistakable gleam of pure gold was reflected by the afternoon sunshine. It was a drinking vessel or goblet of some kind. The quality of the metal meant that it had not tarnished at all. As soon as it was unearthed and the surface dirt rubbed away it shone with lustre as bright and captivating as ever.
“OK Doc come and take a gander”
Stone stepped gingerly down into the opening and kneeled down in the soil. He examined the two thirds of the goblet that was visible, he did not touch it at this stage he wanted to assess its condition first. Although he pretty much knew that if it was pure gold, as it appeared to be, then it would probably be in tact.
“Anyone got any gloves I can borrow” Stone enquired.
The girl reached for a haversack on the edge of the trench and pulled out a pair of thin polythene gloves. She passed them to Stone.
Smith was standing fascinated by all this at one end of the oblong hole that temporarily scarred the normally picturesque church grounds. So many unusual events had occurred lately that he thought nothing would ever surprise him again. He looked around at the team, people of all ages working with equal enthusiasm and vigour, becoming genuinely excited, even ecstatic, about objects that were of no real practical use and mostly no monetary value, buried and dirty having lay in the ground for hundreds of years. As he watched their efforts the dedication and commitment was apparent. They were doing something they loved, they were fulfilled they had a sense of purpose. And he knew at that moment how much he envied them.
Stone had finished his preliminary examination of the golden artefact and had now begun to carefully flick and brush away the remainder of the soil that had encased it for so many years. The dig team were so caught up with the incredible tension that they hardly dared to breathe. Smith was sure he could hear his own heart beating.
After what seemed a very long time Stone very slowly and carefully lifted the object from the ground.
Gasps came from all the team standing around the trench at what they were now witnessing. It was indeed a golden goblet, exquisite and magnificent. Stones gloved hand caressed it like baby bird, so precious and so rare, he could not risk harming it.
Stone stepped out of the trench and raised the goblet up in front of him so the team could get a look at it. Although it was in need of a good clean, it still looked impressive.
The goblet was about 7” high in total, the bowl shaped cup was 4” across set on a stem with a flat circular base.
The letters SPQR were engraved around the rim.
“Senatus Populusque Romanus’ The Senate and the People of Rome” smith said softly.
Around the base the inscribed words were still plainly visible.
PONTIFF MAXIM XXXIIII AVGVSTVS IMP
“Well Jim, this nails it for me” he said.
“This is definitely Roman in origin, it is of the highest status possible. It has almost certainly come from the palace of Emperor Augustus himself. I am not absolutely sure but I would say it is probably a gift to someone from the Emperor, someone he wanted to impress perhaps”
“Or someone he wanted to appease”
For a moment or two Smith just stood motionless and stared at the cup in front of him. He could see the refined appearance and the craftsmanship of the ancient vessel, even to his untrained eye the quality of the workmanship was apparent. He could plainly see that this was a thing of rare and great beauty. It was the treasure that men in adventure stories risked everything for. But with a difference, it was real and here in front of him.
“Appease, what do you mean. I thought the Romans were top dogs in those days” asked Smith.
Stone continued –
“Well they were, and by some distance, but they didn’t have it all their own way. The Germanic tribes in particular gave them a very hard time and inflicted heavy defeats on them on more than one occasion. Now you would think that after a bloody nose or two that they might give it up, but oh no.The thing about the Romans was that they did not like to live and let live, rub along side by side, as it were. You were either with them, which meant you were part of Rome and agreed to be assimilated into Roman culture. Or you were not with them and wanted autonomy and independence. Whichever way it went the Imperial Roman War Machine eventually got its way. Especially if there was something in the country that they wanted, such as minerals or precious metals. They either subjugated a country and its people, as they did in Briton, or they wiped them out, as they did in Carthage or Dacia. The early records from Roman historians contains a passage that actually states that ‘Rome creates a wasteland and calls it peace’ and that came from their own academics.
If Rome wanted a territory they would stop at nothing.
It didn’t matter how many Legions were lost, they would get more men.
They were not bothered about how long it took, they would spend fifteen years on a campaign if necessary.
They were not concerned about the financial cost, they would eventually recoup any cost by stripping the conquered cities of all wealth.
And the taking of lives meant nothing to them, they used to celebrate killing twenty thousand plus in one go by having a procession called a triumph. Being recognised as the one responsible for this obscene amount of slaughter was a great honour to the victorious Generals and the Romans considered it a good reason to have a party”
“So what makes you think the goblet may have been sent to appease someone” Smith was looking puzzled.
“It is only a theory but based on what we learned earlier about the journey being made by Libertina it would fit. Rome sends the girl to wed the tribal chief. Along with her they include a handsome dowry to keep the Germans sweet. The purpose of which is to create an alliance between the tribes and Rome. Once done, this would allow them unchallenged access to the territory north of the Rhine. It would only be a matter of time before they began to strangle any resistance to their rule, and of course if necessary they would choose their moment and then smash the opposition to pieces”
“Do you think that the goblet was part of that deal then”
“I would think there is a very good chance it was. This is definitely a match for all the criteria of our theory. I think this goblet was part of the bride’s dowry or accompanying gifts sent from Rome to the tribes of Germania. When the survivors of the trouble in the forest all tipped up in northern Briton, the bridal treasure or at least some of it must have come across with them. Whatever happened after that we don’t know, but I would guess they ran into some major hostility from local Britons and were killed. Which would explain why the party was never heard from again. All Rome knew was that they were massacred along with the 13th legion in the forest beside the Rhine. The dead bodies were probably unrecognisable. They would have had no idea back in Rome that some of them, including the sister made their escape across the North Sea.”
“So what is the plan now?”
“There isn’t one to be honest, the only thing we can do is keep looking and see what we find. And of course wait and see if anything else happens to you that might take this on a stage. But at least we are now piecing together a scenario of what could have happened all those years ago. I know Smith, what you want to know is why are you involved in all this, that is something I cant be definite about. In fact we may never know for certain. Let us just hope that we turn up some more evidence of a connection”
About 2.30pm that day a red estate car pulled up in the square of the village. A woman stepped out, she was about thirty five years old and dressed smartly. Smith noticed her immediately as he knew just about everyone in the village and he did not recognise either the person or the car. She looked around her as if expecting to see someone she knew. She looked at her watch and checked the time, perhaps she had arranged to meet a friend at the dig site. Or perhaps she was reporter for one of the local papers. Up to now they had not shown much interest in what was happening at the site. As far as they or anyone else was aware this was just a routine excavation with no Newspaper circulation boosting property. So apart from a couple of lines in the gazette they were not covering the story. Smith decided the unfamiliar face did not belong to a reporter, he guessed she was probably connected to the dig team in some way.
Smith watched the woman for a couple of minutes as she walked towards the control centre van, she spoke to someone out side and a minute later was invited in. After a short while Smith observed Dr Stone making his way across the square to the van. A few more minutes elapsed and Stone and the woman both left the van and walked across to the red estate car. The woman opened the rear door and Stone reached in and took out a box about 2ft square. The both then returned to the van and went back inside,
Smith watched inquisitively. He decided to go and see for himself what was happening at the control centre van. He started towards it and before he had gone ten feet his mobile phone rang.
“Hello! Jim Smith”
“Jim, its Al here. Can you come up to the van? I have someone with me I want you to meet”
“I am only a few yards away, I will see you in a minute”
When Smith arrived at the van he went inside. As soon as he stepped into the vehicle he saw the smartly dressed woman, she looked at him with a strange stare. Her eyes widened and she said –
“Er I don’t understand”
Stone turned to the woman and said “Helen this is Jim Smith, he is helping us with the dig, local knowledge etc” He glanced at smith and winked.
“Jim let me introduce you to Helen Burrows. This is the very talented lady who has been working on the facial reconstruction of the skull we found”
“Hello said Smith very pleased to meet you” He held out a hand for a greeting handshake.
The woman reluctantly shook his hand, Smith noticed there was hardly any strength in her grip, as if she could not wait to let go. She looked genuinely startled by his appearance.
“I am sorry said Smith, is there something wrong”
“Well I don’t know” said the woman. “This is the most bizarre thing I have ever come across. You must excuse me Mr Smith but your sudden appearance took the wind out of my sails, so to speak. I was just about to show my work on the skull to Dr Stone when you walked in. This is remarkable, really remarkable. In fact I have never experienced anything like it before”
By now everyone in the van was baffled, Stone asked the woman if she would like to sit down or would she like a glass of water.
“No No, said the woman I am not feeling unwell, it was just the shock, that’s all. I had better explain before you think I have lost my marbles”
She walked over to the desk where the box that Stone had taken from her car had been placed. Carefully she opened the lid and took out the packing that was there to protect the contents.
She reached into the box and with great care removed the results of her work. As they expected it was a moulded reconstruction of what the skin, muscles and facial tissue would have looked like on the original head. It was complete with shoulder length dark hair.
The members of the team present were eagerly anticipating what it would look like and were exited about the prospect of seeing the face come to life after 2000 years.
As the head was placed on the desk and turned facing towards the assembled viewers, silence fell on the chatter in the van. All present stared wide-eyed at the head, everyone thinking similar thoughts but not knowing quite what to say.
The spell created by the stillness was broken by Stone, who after a few seconds cleared his throat and murmured into the air, and to no one in particular.
“Oh my goodness, I don’t believe it”
They all looked at the model of the head, then at Smith. It was a dead ringer. It couldn’t have looked more like him if he had posed for a sculpture. The hair was slightly longer and unkempt in its style. But there was no doubt about it, the head had the same face as him.
The Legion had been on the march now for almost a month. They had seen the landscape change as the days passed. The heat of the Mediterranean, being replaced by a more temperate climate as they slowly moved further north. Each day Libertina would gaze from her litter at the passing scenery, not really noticing anything, just feeling more and more wretched with every hour she had to endure. The blue lakes lined with forest pines, the distant snow capped mountains, the lush grassland speckled with a myriad of wild flowers. All meant nothing in comparison to what she had left behind her. How could she exist anywhere else, this burden was too much to bear. And it also seemed very unfair, but she knew in her cold heart that she must endure, at least for now. The Emperor had made the decision, and no one questioned that, not even his sister.
Even now she was scheming, lying in her mobile prison trying to think of a way to turn this to her advantage. Who in the entourage would be the most susceptible to her will. The officers had all been warned about her ability to charm, none of them would be left alone with her, she would not get the chance to work her sorcery with them. She needed to select a victim, someone who she could bend to her desires, someone who was weak, someone who was greedy. These were traits that she could exploit, like a seagull prizing open a doomed shellfish, she would pick and poke and agitate her prey, unrelenting in her efforts. Eventually the sheer strength of her will and evil intent would prevail.
The objective for now was to travel to the destination set for her. Once there she would fully assess her surroundings and find some poor unsuspecting soul to become her latest hapless victim. Unwittingly laying their very life on the line for her.
She had not met her betrothed, and of course, more importantly, he had not met her. She had been promised to him and portrayed as a sweet young maiden who would be completely subservient to his wishes. What a surprise someone was going to get. Instead of a gentle lamb of a girl he would find himself embracing a snake, a cobra that would strike with lethal venom at any choosing to oppose.
It was another day in the progress of the legion, Libertina was as usual trying to pass the seemingly endless journey time, whichever way she looked from her transport she was surrounded by sweaty Roman soldiers and even sweatier horses. The one thing that kept her spirits from rock bottom was the knowledge that the journey would not last much longer.
They had entered the land of the Germanic tribes and were making steady but definite progress through the heavily wooded region. As they moved further into the territory the forest became increasingly more dense and difficult to negotiate, eventually the pathway through the forest was reduced to a narrow lane, not more than six feet at its widest point.
As the forest deepened the light dimmed and sound became trapped by the overhanging foliage. This gave an eerie atmosphere to the march and the feeling of being enclosed was having an alarming effect on the horses.
The officers had recognised the vulnerability of the legion in this circumstance and had tried to reduce any noise as much as possible. They did not want to attract the ears of unwanted visitors, even the cowbells around the necks of the oxen pulling the carts had been stuffed with straw to complete the silence.
On either side of them the path had steep sides, too severe for a horse to climb and very restricting to a man in fighting armour. The denseness of the undergrowth was increasing with almost every yard of progress. Because of the narrowness of the path the men had to begin walking at two abreast after half a mile and were now having to go to single file just to avoid the barb like thorns on the overhanging bushes. All this meant that the front of the legion was completely out of touch with the rear. Eight thousand fighting Romans in broken ranks. With all the accompanying entourage and livestock that formed the support for the soldiers the line was stretched at times to five miles in length. When they reached a point about seven miles into the interior of the forest the sides of the pathway were almost twice the height of a man. They became sheer and vertical, it was not possible to see over them or what was on the other side of them.
What the Romans did not notice was, every twenty yards a small peephole about the size of a man’s fist appeared in the sides. This was a man made side-wall and stretched about a mile and a quarter on either side of the most densely wooded part of the forest pathway. Behind the wall was the Romans worst nightmare, hidden, lurking in wait for them was death.
Varillius and his escort were about fifty yards back from the front rank of the marching column. The thin strip of men stretched along the narrow path behind him and out of sight into the trees. There were probably about 300 men actually in his vision, and they were hampered in their view by the overgrown thickets.
The column moved ever forward, gradually getting deeper into the forest. Hardly a sound was heard from the troop, just the soft pad of foot on grass and the occasional snort from one of the beasts. Suddenly the horses, now being led by hand began to rear up, unsettled and frightened. Was it the enclosed, claustrophobic nature of the forest or had something else spooked them. Roman trained horses were not easily alarmed, all of the beasts on this mission had been in battle conditions at least once and would only react to a danger that was real, a human enemy.
As the horses became more agitated the men became concerned as to what was causing them to react in that way. Varillius knew something was not right and turned to the men behind him and halted the march. The bugler raised the horn to his lips to sound the signal to halt. As he was about to blow a deafening roar erupted from each side of the path. The walls were pushed forward onto the lower ground and behind them stood an army of tribesmen, screaming fury and anger beyond measure, painted with the crudely daubed colours of battle and armed to the hilt, they raised up from their concealment and began the attack.
This was the style of warfare that the Germanic tribes excelled in. Waiting patiently, drawing the enemy into an inescapable trap. Positioning their men where they were unassailable. It was the type of attack that would spare no one. They intended to wipe out the 13th legion on that day.
A deluge of spears and arrows fell upon the hapless Romans, most of them did not stand a chance. Some of them took arrows simultaneously through the eye and throat, or in the face. Others had spears pass through the unprotected thigh area, pinning them to the ground and causing fatal bleeding. Huge axes were hurled at them, taking the head clean off any man in the line of trajectory. As the horses panicked they kicked out and reared up high, now frothing at the mouth with fear, crushing the ribs or smashing the skull of the men trying to calm them.
The Romans were packed into such a tight space that they could not move sufficiently freely to respond to the attack, the hail of weapons and the thrashing about of the now crazed horses made the situation impossible to defend. They were like fish in a barrel.
Varillius, like all the men in the attack knew in this situation it was every man for himself. His experience in battle would stand him in good stead, even in this carnage. He summoned 10 of the men beside him to form what they called the testudo, or tortoise, Three shields raised above their heads to protect them from above and the other seven to protect their sides. This formed a crude but effective mobile shelter that would get them far enough out of harms way to regroup the men and try and fight back. In the narrow space available to them they could only stand together in single file, shields raised, arrow after arrow bouncing off them or lodging in the outer surface. But it was either that or nothing.
As Varillius and his small group of men moved slowly back down the pathway they were now stepping on the bodies of their fallen comrades, their feet splashing in what were literally puddles of blood. One of the men took an arrow in the foot and howled with pain, like a true warrior he reached down snapped the arrow off 3 inches from the skin and carried on. Varillius knew, if they came out of this alive it would be a miracle. Suddenly in the midst of all the mayhem Varillius remembered Libertina. He knew she was well back in the line and was probably not under attack yet. He was aware how important her delivery was to the interests of Rome and how the responsibility for her safety had been entrusted to him. He needed to do something quick.
He broke free from the testudo and looked around him, he saw a large black horse about fifty yards down the track. The fighting at that spot was not as intense and he could see men further down the line who were as yet unaffected. He decided it was his only chance to reach the Imperial carriage. With his shield raised and running almost bent double he managed to reach the horse. In a second he was mounted and riding down the forest path, keeping his head low so as not to catch the overhanging branches.
He was shouting at the top of his voice to make way as he rode through the ranks, the men diving to one side as he came thundering through. As he came to the end of the line of fighting a spear flew towards him, it missed him and hit the horse on the left side of its head. The weapon pierced the animals skull and it fell immediately. In one movement he dismounted and drew his sword. At the edge of the path a Germanic warrior was preparing to launch another spear at him. Such was his fury now that he ran at full pace toward the foe, he lunged forward with his sword and the blade entered the body of the German. His years of training made the next part merely a reflex action. He twisted the deadly blade then withdrew it and as the tribesman fell he was already looking around for further danger and moving to avoid another attack.
He ran toward the end of the line, he could see the carriage and Libertina and her servants. They were looking around trying to comprehend what was happening. Behind him the swarm of tribesmen were already heading down the path, bloodthirsty and merciless. He could here their screams and curses as they headed towards him.
Varillius arrived at the carriage covered in blood and breathing heavily, he shouted to the surrounding guard to ignore the battle and follow him.
“We must save the Lady Libertina” he shouted.
Around the carriage were the various non-fighting personnel who were in complete confusion as to what to do. He pulled one of the young auxiliaries from his horse and through him to the ground, the boy offered no resistance. Varillius steadied the horse and leapt onto it.
He reached onto the carriage and with no words spoken put a burly arm around the small female frame, he whisked her light body onto his horse and a second later they were turning, ready to ride. One of the handmaidens to Libertina approached them in terror for her own safety, she was a girl of about 16 years and away from Rome for the first time. She reached up to the General, her eyes pleading for help, he wheeled the horse round and delivered a heavy kick to the girl’s head, she fell wailing to the ground. A moment later they were galloping to safety, the soldiers who were still alive and able to find a mount following. Behind them they could hear the screams of dying comrades as the battle raged, they rode on powerless to help.
The band of escapees headed in a Westerly direction, they rode like the wind for the first five miles and then slowed the horses to a walking pace. Once they felt they were out of immediate danger they stopped at a small stream and dismounted, they needed to decide what to do next and to give the steeds a chance to rest and take water.
Once they reviewed their position the options became limited. They could not head North as they had come from there. East was heavy thick forest and they would be just as likely to be ambushed again. To head South would be what the Barbarians would expect them to do, this could lead them into another trap. So it was West, they would meet the Rhine river and improvise from there.
Two days later they reached the Rhine, Libertina had moaned and whined the whole way, telling them they would all be flogged to death when her Emperor discovered what had happened. They travelled as quietly as possible along the path of the river, headed downstream. After a day they came upon a small village, it was quiet and showed no sign of being defended against attack. What interested them were five large boats moored on the bank. These were used by the local people for trading the village produce up and down the river systems of Northern Europe. The settlement was so far into Germania that the people there had no fear of being attacked. Who would venture so deep into their territory, it was too risky.
Varillius and his men concealed themselves in the surrounding undergrowth. They would not openly try to overpower the villagers, they preferred to be anonymous under the circumstances. They would wait until dark and the village was asleep, any night watchmen would be silently strangled or knifed from behind. And the ships would take them on the next stage of their impromptu journey.
Varillius had heard many stories and rumours about the mystical island of the Britons, he would not let his men know the destination he had planned until just before they spied land. Although he knew that some of them would figure it out themselves. The tales of fierce fearless warriors who paint themselves blue, ride chariots and fight half naked, the cannibal Druid priests who worship unrecognisable gods, dance round fires in the moonlight and practise human sacrifice, the foul weather. All these things had helped to create a myth of an island of dread and evil goings on. He knew that heading for Briton would be a great risk, but he also calculated that it was his only hope of coming through this alive.
For the last week Leah’s whereabouts had not been known. She had rung into work and spoken to Mrs Littleton who was standing in at the post office temporarily. Leah had explained that she could not come in to work and she was not sure when she would be back. Mrs L had asked her to ring back and have a word with Jim but she had not. Smith had been too busy with all of the goings on at the site to worry about it, he just assumed that Leah was under the weather and having a few days off to recover. He intended to get in touch but he thought he had better not bother her for a while as she seemed a bit stressed. As for the cheerful Mrs L, she was just happy to be kept busy and appreciated.
Leah had spent most of the time listening to her good friend Libby, she had been telling her the truth about how wicked her so called friend Jim really was and how he had destroyed her dreams. She was convinced now that Smith was aiming to do the same to her. That was why he was employing her, that was his way of getting close to her life and learning how he could ruin it. But Libby had a plan, a plan that would turn the tables on him.
The two young women had been out every day into the village. They had approached the dig site wearing hooded jackets and scarves so they were unrecognisable. One or two of the villagers gave them sideways glances but they were not approached by anyone. They watched the activity at the site from a safe distance, they saw people rushing around excitedly and heard the shouts when discoveries were made. They also could see the van and the equipment being used.
Libby had been incensed when the grave was unearthed, she saw the bones and the remains of the swords being removed. This seemed to put her in a state of great agitation, a low moaning, almost growling noise came from her throat as she watched and her eyes burned like coals in a fire. After a while Libby began whispering to herself very quietly. The words were not familiar to Leah, and sounded more like an oath or a curse.
Libertina had waited for many years to gain revenge, she was burning with the desire to fulfil her wish. At last the time was near, she could begin to destroy his life like he had destroyed hers. She would begin by taking away his home and his income. See how he liked that, then bit by bit his life would diminish. She would bring down misery on him that he could never imagine. And best of all she would get his trusted friend to do it. She had been working hard to make sure Leah was in her control, the silly girl was easy meat and was now ready to be put to use.
The evening turned to night over the village and all was quiet on the streets. Leah made her way down to the square on foot. She was in no hurry and looked up at the stars as she walked. In her right hand she had a plastic container, in her left a carving knife. When she reached the square it was quite well illuminated by the street lighting and the security lights on the dig site. She looked around and there was no movement. As she walked across the square a shape came out of the shadows, it was one of the young students, she was taking her 4 hour stint as watchman. Her male colleague was in the van having a cup of coffee.
“Can I help you?” She said to Leah.
“No but I have something for you” replied Leah
The girl stopped and smiled at Leah, she was pleased to see it was just a young woman, even in these surroundings you could not be too careful.
“Something for me she said, What is it”
Leah stepped forward and in one swift movement thrust the carving knife into the girl. The blade was withdrawn and the young student looked at Leah as the horror of what had just happened registered in her brain. Her hands clutched her bleeding midriff, she whimpered as she let out her last breath and collapsed.
The male half of the night watch team looked out of the mobile control centre window. The young man was quite enjoying being on watch with a pretty girl. He did not have much of a social life and very rarely got the pleasure of female company. He just wished she wasn’t quite so flighty, whenever he wanted to speak to her he had to go looking to see where she was.
Where has she got to now? He thought, feeling slightly irritated.
He opened the door to the van and stuck his head outside.
“Jen, are you there? Do you want a cuppa” no reply.
As he stepped down from the van he just caught a glimpse of something coming out of the shadows, he started to turn towards the dark shape and then the knife struck again, and with the same deadly result. He didn’t even see who his assailant was, he fell to the ground and lay still and silent.
Leah entered the van and looked around, there was no one else inside, just equipment and computers. Two mugs of steaming coffee were standing on the worktop. Then she saw what she was looking for.
In the corner of the office area on the bench she could see a box, she opened the lid and there it was, the head effigy of her enemy. Leering at her, foul and ugly.
She lunged again and again at the head, the knife slashed and disfigured the wax. She smiled as she finished the frenzied attack and left the knife embedded in the top of the head, the blade almost buried up to the handle.
Silently she turned and left the van and began to walk up the hill away from the Village Square.
A few minutes later she reached the Post office, the lights were out and the shop was in complete darkness. Taking out her keys she let herself in through the back door and stepped inside. She walked through the passage and entered the shop. All was silent, Jim would have been in bed for some time and he would be sleeping soundly. As her eyes began to adjust to the darkness she saw the shop counter and the glass screen that separated the Post Office customers from the staff. By the door she could just make out the fire extinguisher fixed to the wall, she picked it up.
She turned and with all her strength flung the red metal tube forwards, it crashed onto the toughened glass screen and bounced back towards her, the screen did not break. The extinguisher caught her shoulder as it flew past and landed with an almighty crash. The noise was terrific and exaggerated by the darkness. She put her hand to her damaged shoulder and cursed the safety glass screen.
A couple of seconds later she heard movement upstairs, Jim was awake and up and about.
Upstairs in the flat Smith had just been frightened out of his wits by the noise from downstairs. He had not had to face burglars before and was now terrified. He expected that living above the shop he would, one day, encounter this situation and he had often thought about what he would do. All that was now brushed to one side in his terror and the only thing he could think of was to phone the police and hope they could get there in time to prevent further crimes being committed.
He stood at the top of the stairs in his pyjamas listening to the darkness, trying to decide what to do. He was just about to return to his bedroom to call the police when he heard a familiar voice.
“Jim Smith, is that you?
He listened intently. It spoke again.
“Jim Smith, it is me Leah”
At the foot of the stairs he could just make out a figure in the darkness. A slightly built person in dark clothing.
He switched on the stair light and the brightness dazzled him. He looked down the stairs at the small figure at the bottom. It was Leah. Looking pale and tired, her hair was a tousled mess and what was that on her hands, they were all red, it looked like blood.
“Leah, my god what have you done, are you hurt? He stepped down one stair intending to help her.
“Do not come any closer” she said.
He stopped and stared at her. He knew it was Leah but she seemed different somehow. What on earth was she doing at this hour in his home. And why was she acting so strangely.
Leah bent down and picked up the plastic container she had placed on the floor. She unscrewed the cap and raised it in the air. As Smith watched completely bewildered, she poured the contents of the container over her head and body. The liquid ran down her clothes soaking them and forming a large puddle on the floor around her.
“Leah what on earth are you playing at? This is …….. he stopped talking abruptly as the smell reached his nostrils.
He sniffed the air and he recognised the unmistakable odour of petrol.
Events then seemed to switch to slow motion, he felt like he was watching something in a detached state. Leah reached into her pocket and pulled out a small shiny object. She held it up to let him see it.
With eyes stained with tears and a pathetic look on her face she smiled thinly, clicked the object in her hand and she immediately burst into a raging flame.
Smith screamed as loud as his lungs would let him, the rush of heat from the human furnace at the foot of the stairs meant he could not move forward. But even if he could have gone towards Leah, there was nothing he or anyone else could do to help her. She was now on her knees, a searing ball of flame. The floor around her had caught fire and the flames were spreading along the floorboards, within seconds the stairway had become an inferno and was increasing its hold on the entrance to the Post Office.
Smith ran back into the flat closing the door behind him. The smoke from the blaze already burning his throat and causing him to cough. His eyes were stinging and tears streamed down his face. He slipped his feet into a pair of loafers, grabbed his mobile phone and headed for the back French window’s, they led out to a small balcony that overlooked his tiny garden. From the balcony there was an old rickety metal fire escape ladder that could be lowered. He had not tested it for some time and as far as he knew it had never actually been used, certainly not during the years he had lived there.
He quickly threw the window open and the cool night air felt pleasant and welcome. He reached out and grabbed the iron clasp that held the ladder in place. It would not budge, he pulled at it again, it was solid. It felt like it was rusted and had seized. He was thinking furiously about what he could do and he remembered the toolbox under the kitchen sink. The hammer, get the hammer he thought.
He dove for the toolbox, flung the lid open and grabbed the old claw hammer from inside. He went back out onto the balcony and gave the rusted metal bracket a mighty swipe with the hammer. Nothing happened. He hit it again, this time it broke off and the ladder swung out from the wall. He grabbed the end and with his right foot holding his weight on the balcony edge he kicked the ladder down with his left foot. He clambered onto the old metal structure and started to descend. As he was going down he could see the flames had already reached the outside of the entrance to the flat and they were licking the gap on the underside of the door. A few more minutes and the fire would burn through.
He climbed down to about four feet from the grass below and then jumped the rest of the way. As he hit the ground he heard the roar of the flame as the door to the flat submitted to the fire and collapsed.
Smith pulled the mobile from the small pocket in his now badly torn pyjamas and keyed 999 into the handset. He spoke to the operator and hurriedly asked for assistance. He then sat on the grass, put his head in his hands and wept.
High on the hill overlooking the village the castle stood, seemingly unassailable and impregnable, the ancient battlements were quiet and deserted, occupied only by the ghosts of long dead warriors and the faded memories of many centuries. Below, the heavy wooden portcullis was closed and forbid entry to everyone.
On the highest point of the watchtower a large pair of eyes blinked in the darkness. The owl was watching the fire take hold of the Post Office, the large bird sat on its lofty perch until the Emergency services arrived, sirens wailing and lights flashing, then with a spread of noiseless wings it disappeared into the night.
As the fire service began to fight the raging flames Smith stood watching and wondering. His livelihood and everything he owned was going up in smoke in front of him and he was powerless to do anything about it. He could only stand and watch.
His good friend and colleague had just killed herself in horrific fashion 20 feet away from him, and he could still hear her screams as she burned alive. That sound would haunt him forever. The fire grew in intensity and the building was all but destroyed, as he watched he was aware that standing in the proximity of the furnace the heat was terrific, yet he was shivering uncontrollably.
After a while someone brought him a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. It made no difference.
When the ambulance arrived he was placed on a stretcher and given a sedative. He was suffering from shock and only sleep would help now.
The ambulance started down the hill to take Smith to hospital for the night, they drove slowly passed the village square. As they passed the square the next shift on watch at the dig site had just turned up to relieve the earlier pair.
Smith was semi-conscious due to the drugs inside him, he could feel himself letting go of his senses as the chemicals took effect. But just before he passed out, through the haze, he thought he heard screams of terror piercing the night air. But now he must give in, forget everything and sleep.
The ambulance reached the edge of the village and began to speed up, Smith would be in good hands and safe, at least for the rest of that night.
As the morning light broke on the usually sleepy village the full extent of the previous nights events became apparent to the inhabitants. Early risers leaving for work and people walking their dogs saw the police vehicles and the flashing blue lights, they saw the square they usually walked across now cordoned off with tape. By 9.00am the phone lines were red hot and the speculation was becoming confirmation. Someone had been murdered in their beautiful village, someone had soiled the much loved place they called home. And not only that but the Post Office, the heartbeat of the community had been destroyed.
Mundo stood watching the events in the square, he was hoping to find out some of the gory detail. He turned to a woman nearby, as usual he was ready with an opinion and keen to share it.
“I knew it, all these strangers in the village, setting up tents and equipment. It can only lead to trouble. I blame this on them. City boys with their flash cars and flash suits. They don’t care who gets hurt do they, just another day to them. A couple of months in the trenches is what they need, that would do them good, that would show them”
The woman looked at him, as usual 30 seconds in his company was just about enough. Why did I stand next to him she thought. Shaking her head she started to walk away. As she did so Mundo continued as if the words would somehow make her stop and pay attention.
Attention, that was what he craved. Why were people never impressed with his forthright views. Why did the ladies not see he was a retired hero. What do I have to do to get some attention. He stood upright, shoulders back, shirt and tie, polished shoes, he was a fine example to everyone and yet no one paid him any attention.
He walked across the square to the edge of the crime scene, a young policeman was standing on duty keeping the villagers at bay.
“Good morning constable, I am Mr Mundy, long standing resident of Ambleworth. I am here to offer my services”
“Good morning sir” said the bemused officer. What services would they be Mr Mundy”
Mundy looked at him, slightly irritated at the thought of having to explain his expertise.
“I am an ex army man, a seasoned veteran, I have seen and dealt with this type of thing more times than you fellows have had hot dinners my boy, I also know the village and most of its inhabitants by sight. If you need a contact who can advise and co-ordinate then I am your man”
He fixed his gaze on the policeman, waiting for a response. The policeman paused for a moment and then said, “thank you for your offer sir, I will pass on what you have said, I am sure it will be appreciated”
“I will wait to see your superior, I have plenty of time”
“I am afraid you will have to move along sir, this is a crime scene and we need to keep it as clear as possible. I will pass on your kind offer”
Mundo stood perfectly still for a moment then he saluted the policeman, wheeled around like a soldier on the parade ground and briskly marched away.
The heavy clomps of his highly polished leather soled shoes echoed across the square. When he reached the other onlookers he wheeled around again and faced the dig site, standing attention like, expressionless and still.
Everyone else took a couple of discreet steps to one side.
The policeman watched the elderly man for a few seconds, he smiled to himself, poor old devil, he means well, he thought. Although he could plainly see the man was delusional he was not inclined to mock or ridicule. He knew that as an officer of the law he was a public servant and it was his duty to give help to whoever needed it. His sergeant had told him at his last appraisal that he would do well in the force with that kind of attitude and he was already in the station commander’s promotion viewfinder. He loved the police service and was determined to get on within it. He wanted to take the advanced driving course next and work with the motorway patrol. Then if all went well the Holy Grail, C.I.D.
The young officer was day dreaming, imagining life as a case solving ace detective or behind the wheel of a speeding patrol car, when he was abruptly roused from his dreaming.
His sergeant was shouting for him.
“Move your pushbike, I nearly tripped over it then”
He hurried over to where he had left his bike earlier. He decided to put it down by the side of the church, out of the way of the sergeant. As he was chaining the wheel to immobilise it he looked down towards the river, he was startled by what he saw. Walking along the waters edge was a young girl, she was dressed in a long white flowing robe. She looked odd and she did not appear to be part of the local community, although he could not be certain about that. She may be another eccentric villager, and judging by his encounter with Mr Mundy their seemed to be more to this village than was at first apparent.
He bent down and secured the bike chain to a small tree. When he had finished he looked around again towards the river. No sign of the girl. Where did she go. He was intrigued by what he had seen but did not think it was anything to worry about. Probably some teenager on the way home from a party, she must have spotted his police uniform and done a quick detour before she was pulled.
“I might have a quick cycle down the river path later if I get time, you never know”
The village that day was alive with police and fire investigators. The Post office had been gutted and the adjacent buildings had all been evacuated for health and safety reasons. The fire fighters had soon located what remained of Leah’s body at the foot of the stairs. They had also quickly deduced that the area around the body had been the seat of the fire.
It was immediately suspected that a flammable substance had been used to accelerate the fire, the charred plastic lump that had been the petrol container was found next to the body and the intensity of the heat in that area indicated a rapid spread of flames. The building was still smouldering and the safety inspectors were only allowing the key personnel in to do what needed to be done quickly, photographs were being taken and the body was removed then the building was sealed off until it could be safely assessed and then demolished.
Dr Stone was devastated by the news about the two students, they were part of his department and he felt a personal responsibility toward them. He could not even begin to think why this should happen to them, they were two of the nicest kids he had ever met. He had just finished phoning the parents of both of them, they were understandably distraught at the news. They were asking a lot of questions about what had happened and why, all Stone could say was that he had no idea, but if he got any further news he would contact them immediately. This made Stone feel even worse,
“What a pointless waste of two young lives, and I cant even tell them what it was all about” Stone said quietly.
In all the commotion that day he had not had time to attempt to contact Smith or even find out what condition he was in. This had turned into a complete disaster and he had no explanation why. He did wonder about the amulet and the theory they had discussed, but why would that lead to a double murder. It surely could not be connected. He decided that it was too far fetched and there was not even a hint of proof or evidence that would be regarded as anything other than speculation. He new he would be ridiculed if he came up with such a preposterous story so he decided not to mention any of this to the police.
The dig would now have to be closed down. He knew that the publicity that this would generate was going to blow up in his face. Questions would be asked and fingers pointed. Whichever way he looked at it two young people had been brutally murdered on his dig, there was no possible outcome that could be good.
He must make sure that nothing else happened now, he must get everyone packed up, and as soon as the police had finished the questioning. Send them home.
It was only a matter of time now before the press besieged the village. He would have to face them, he knew that. But what would he tell them, what could he say that made sense.
Stone was feeling the strain and the pressure, he needed to get out of the spotlight for a few minutes. He decided to take a walk down to the river and have a short break from all the commotion.
He began to walk down the narrow lane that led to the river. He passed the church and the side of the dig site. He noticed a bike chained to a tree, in his mind everything was whirling, he was trying to make some sense of it all, with little success.
He put his left hand into his jacket pocket and it touched something metal. He had almost forgotten that he still had the amulet. He intended to take it for further research once the dig had been completed, but under the circumstances he felt little interest in it. He pulled the amulet out of his pocket and began to run his fingers over the smoothly polished silver.
As he approached the area by the river where the trees overhung on both sides a dark shape loomed up into his peripheral vision. He turned to the side to see what it could be. He was slightly startled.
A large owl, brown and speckled landed silently on the grass in front of him.
“Oh hello” he said to the bird. “you are a beauty, where did you come from”
The bird just looked at him with large staring eyes. Wings folded and still. Stone was curious as to why an owl would show itself to him at such close quarters, especially during the day.
“Are you hungry” he said
“I am afraid I do not have anything for you”
The bird did not move, he remained standing in front of it for a moment, looking into the wide eyes. Then he turned and continued along the path by the side of the river. He was turning the amulet over and over in his hand and wondering what next, the answer came suddenly.
He stopped and admired the view across the river, he smelled the sweet air and felt the late sun warm his face. He heard no noise but he sensed someone was near him and he turned suddenly.
Whack! The heavy tree branch hit him full in the face. Just before he passed into unconsciousness he saw his assailant, it was a girl dressed all in white. He knew that face, but where from?
Then he retreated into blackness. He slumped to the ground and rolled onto his back. As he fell his hand released its grip on the amulet and it rolled down the grass river bank and stopped just short of the water.
The girl stood over Stones motionless frame. She was certain he was out cold. She could have finished him there and then but she was not ready for that yet. She wanted what belonged to her.
Libertina bent down and picked up the amulet and with a shriek that would scare the devil himself she raised it in the air, laughed loudly and then put it on the leather strip around her neck.
At last, at last, I have it at last.
As the afternoon drew on the police continued their investigations. Although the crime was obvious, the reason for it was a mystery. A motive could not be established and the police were concerned that such a terrible act could be committed in a place where a serious crime had never been reported before. The senior officer on the case was Detective Inspector Shaw, a very experienced investigator and someone who had solved many crimes in his career.
But this time he was baffled, there was nothing to go on. They had two bodies and a kitchen knife. The knife could have belonged to anyone, it was just a standard carver, the type of thing found in any kitchen.
The knife did have fingerprints on it, but when they were checked on the computer database they did not have a match. So no way to trace them.
The inspector was aware of the fire incident at the other end of the village, but he did not yet know that a body had been found in the burnt out building, and of course the significance of that discovery. He could not do much more today, the dig team had all been questioned and had made statements and it was time to let them go home. He just needed to speak with the man in charge, Dr Stone.
Where was he? He had not seen him for at least an hour.
“These boffins, they are a breed on their own, I suppose I will find him in the pub or somewhere similar”
As he was thinking about that he stepped out of the van and noticed there was indeed a very inviting looking pub just over the square, it had been a very long day and he could just sink a couple of pints. But it would have to wait. He still had business to deal with and loose ends to tie up.
From the direction of the river he could see a woman waving her arms and shouting. Her small dog was running around barking franticly and she was obviously distressed. He started towards her hoping it was something that could be sorted out quickly, he had enough on his plate for the moment.
When he got near to the lady the dog started snapping at his feet, in its excitement it was trying to protect the woman, it could sense she was upset and saw the nearest human stranger as the one to blame.
“Whoa there little fellow, no one will hurt you” he bent down to try and pat the terrier but it snapped at his hand, just missing his fingers. He thought better of it and stood up again. The woman stopped and took deep breaths, she was trying to get enough air in her lungs to be able to talk.
“Down there, he’s down there” she said, still gasping. She pointed toward the river.
“Rufus stop that noise” she wheezed at the little dog.
“Who is down there” said the inspector.
“I don’t know who he is but he looks in a bad way, bleeding from his head, not moving”
The inspector turned toward the police car parked about fifty yards away and shouted for an officer. He and the constable hurried down the lane to the river.
The two men reached the riverside and looked along the grassy bank. They could not see anyone at first so started to walk along the path. About fifty yards along they spotted what had alarmed the woman with the dog so much. A man was lying flat out on the grass, almost in the river. His head had been bleeding and the blood had dried on his face and clothes. He must have been here for at least a couple of hours, possibly longer.
The inspector stood over the man and took a quick look at the injuries, he then bent down and gently rolled the man on his side and spoke to him to check if he was conscious. He had recognised the injured man as Dr Stone and immediately realised why he had not seen him around the site for a while.
He turned to the young policeman and told him to radio for an ambulance. Taking off his jacket and placing it over the upper body of Dr Stone, he then checked for a pulse. He was still alive but he looked like he had taken a hell of a crack on the head. The inspector decided he would not attempt to move him.
“Where is that ambulance” he said to the constable.
“On its way sir, This is the man in charge of the dig team isn’t it” said the policeman. I wonder who did this to him?
At that moment Stone let out a strangulated moan and tried to move his head. The moan became a loud groan as the pain of the head wound reminded him of his injury. He regained his senses and then pushed himself up on one elbow. “
What the hell is going on” he enquired of the two policemen.
“Well sir, what a coincidence, I was just about to ask you that. A person or persons unknown have clobbered you over the head and they left you here”
“Have you been robbed sir? Asked the inspector.
Stone managed with difficulty to reach inside his jacket and check his pocket. His wallet was still there, his gold wristwatch was still on his arm.
“No I have not been robbed he said. Although wait a minute, there is something missing”
“What would that be then” asked the inspector.
He then checked his side pockets they were both empty. The memory came back to him. He explained to the policemen that he had been walking along with the amulet in his hand when someone had jumped him and the next thing he knew he was seeing stars.
“Did you see who did it” asked the Inspector.
“Yes, it was a girl, believe it or not.
“A girl, said the constable, are you sure”
“Absolutely replied Stone, I only caught a glimpse, but it was definitely a girl. She took me completely by surprise”
Even in his groggy state Stone was feeling slightly embarrassed that he had been K.O.d. by woman.
“Did you see what she was wearing?” asked the constable.
Stone thought for a moment and then said …..
“Some sort of white robe, or gown. It actually looked like the type worn in ancient times. Rome or Greece, I know that sounds a bit ridiculous but I have seen enough of them in my work to know”
The inspector looked at the constable enquiringly, he could see that this bit of information had registered some interest with his young colleague.
“I saw a girl dressed like that this morning, down here by the river. I thought her dress sense was a bit weird but she was not doing anything wrong. It looked like she was on her way home from a fancy dress party. If there hadn’t been so much going on I might have had a quick word, but by the time I had finished chaining my bike up, she was gone”
Stone was starring at the river gently flowing past, as his head was clearing so was his reasoning. He was thinking about the brief view he got of the girl before she struck him, he had seen the face before, but where? Then he remembered, the photograph, the statue of Libertina in the Vatican museum. It had the same face as the girl who struck him. This is what Smith had been telling him all along, and to his shame he had not really believed it.
“Oh my God, the murders, the fire” Stone put his hand up to his aching head and he could feel the congealed blood that had dried on his face. The awful truth was now beginning to make itself clear, how could he have been so stupid. Smith had told him all about Libby looking like the statue and he had ignored it. But how could he have known it would lead to all of this. And if it happened again would he, or anybody else for that matter, behave any differently. When it came to hard to believe this was completely off the scale”
“Are you all right sir” asked the Inspector. “We have requested an ambulance, it should be here soon”
“No, no please, I am all right. Just a bit of a headache that’s all, I will be all right after a couple of aspirin”
“I think we will let the Paramedics decide whether you are all right or not, we need to get you checked out. Just one thing, you said the murders and the fire a moment ago. Do you think they are connected to this incident?”
As Stone struggled to think of how he was going to put this into words that didn’t get him arrested for being a homicidal lunatic the Ambulance came down the narrow lane towards them, siren blaring and lights flashing. Stone breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that he would have to tell the police all he knew and all he suspected, but at least this interruption would give him a chance to think of how he was going to explain all these preposterous events to a down to earth hard nosed detective.
Ready for the final installment?