|SIYE Time:23:52 on 17th October 2017|
Strangers at Drakeshaugh
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Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/AB, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Drama, Fluff, General, Romance
Warnings: Mild Language
Summary: The locals in a sleepy corner of the Cheviot Hills are surprised to discover that they have new neighbours. Who are the strangers at Drakeshaugh?
Hitcount: Story Total: 160224; Chapter Total: 3645
Awards: View Trophy Room
I haven't had time to send this to Amelie, any errors are mine.
Stranger at Drakeshaugh
Henry and James were on their best behaviour, and listening carefully to my instructions. I was trying to make the drills and exercises fun for them, and it seemed to be working. They were trying to outdo each other, but they were obviously having fun, too. It was a joy to teach them, and it was so much easier than dealing with Henry alone.
Until the end of the session, when I allowed the boys some time to play, I was alone. Ginny and Mike were stuck in the small pool with Lily, Annie and Al. This gave me plenty of time to ponder Ginny’s remarks about secrets. It seemed to me that she had all but admitted that she, and by default Harry, were keeping things from us.
I reminded myself that Harry had already admitted that his job was covered by the Official Secrets Act. He probably shouldn’t even tell Ginny about some of the stuff he was dealing with, although I had known them long enough to realise that they shared everything.
Did it matter if there were secrets, I wondered? Our kids got along well together. So, I believed, did Ginny and I. She had invited us back to Drakeshaugh for a meal that evening. If she didn’t like us, she’d have made an excuse and not even come swimming. If James had insisted–and I knew that Henry would have–she could even have come up with a reason why James alone could come with us.
I cursed myself for my continued uncertainty. Mike has always said that I was a glass-half-empty girl.
We were slipping into a routine, I assured myself. The Saturday trip to the pool, which for some time had been a feature of the Charlton family weekend was, it seemed, turning into a Charlton/Potter event. James certainly appeared to be enjoying himself in the water. He was becoming more and more confident, and Al was desperate to join the big boys.
‘You’re both doing really well,’ I told them as our swimming session drew to a close. After we’d dried and changed, we headed back to the cars.
‘What’s for tea, please, James’ Mum?’ Henry asked as we walked across the car park.
‘Tea?’ asked Ginny worriedly. ‘I’m making dinner, Henry. There’s a Lancashire hotpot in the oven. I hope you like it.’
‘It’s yummy,’ James told Henry.
‘Tea and dinner are interchangeable terms for an evening meal, Ginny,’ I explained. ‘I think it’s a northern thing, but I’m not sure. Rest assured, if you try serving Henry a “high tea” of cucumber sandwiches, cake and a cup of Darjeeling tea, he won’t be happy.
‘My like cuppa tea, an’ cake,’ Annie assured us earnestly. Her father grinned at her words, opened his boot, took our swimming bags from us, and put them all into the boot of his car.
‘Come on, my team,’ Mike announced when he closed the boot. ‘The sooner we get back to Drakeshaugh, the sooner we’ll eat.’ The boys trotted obediently across to Mike’s car. I was about to reprimand him, but Ginny caught my eye and winked at me.
‘That’s not true,’ said Ginny sternly. ‘The hotpot will be ready at half past five, and no sooner.’ She waved an admonishing finger at him. ‘You can’t rush good food, Mike!’
‘Sorry, Ginny,’ he said worriedly.
I laughed at his discomfort.
‘Are you two winding me up?’ he asked.
‘Possibly,’ Ginny grinned. ‘But if your Henry is like my James, then he’ll take you at your word, and I’ll be asked “is dinner ready” constantly until it finally is.’
‘Point taken,’ said Mike, smiling. ‘It was probably wishful thinking on my part, too. See you at Drakeshaugh.’ He got into his car, and Ginny and I got into mine.
‘Thanks for everything, Jacqui,’ Ginny said as we pulled out of the car park. ‘The kids expect to see their daddy at weekends, and so do I. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we won’t see much of him for the next few days. They were all really looking forward to the trip to the pool, even Lily; so thank you for making it happen.’
‘Fanks,’ Lily confirmed from behind us.
‘Annie likes swims an’ all,’ Annie added.
‘You’re most welcome, Lily; and you do indeed, Annie,’ I said before turning back to Ginny. ‘It must be hard for you,’ I observed as I reversed out of the parking space. ‘At least Mike keeps fairly regular hours. Does Harry often have to work weekends, or stay away overnight?’
‘It’s actually very rare,’ Ginny told me. ‘Before we were married, and before he was promoted, it was different; he was often called away at a moment’s notice. But even then we had a rule, no more than two nights away from home. Thankfully, things are a lot quieter these days. Big cases which require his full attention, like this current one, are mercifully rare.’
‘Hmm.’ I hummed in acknowledgement and understanding, switched on the nursery rhymes CD, and we began the drive back to Drakeshaugh. For the first mile or so, as we drove through Alnwick, Ginny said nothing. I checked my mirror, to make sure that Mike was still following us. He was, of course. We were out on the moorland when the girls, who had been chattering happily in the back of my car, fell silent. When they did, Ginny spoke.
‘Harry thinks Gaheris Robards has been kidnapped, or killed,’ she said quietly. ‘This hasn’t been in any of the papers, Jacqui, but all of the victims did have bite marks on them; and they were wolf bites. Harry’s team actually managed to identify the wolf from the bite marks, and a few hairs.’
‘A real wolf; and they found it?’ I shook my head as I heard myself. My astonishment made me sound like I’d inhaled helium.
‘It was a stuffed wolf, long dead. And it was in a museum where Robards was a curator. After the second killing, everything seemed to point towards Robards being involved. He’s a childless widower who lives alone, and he didn’t have an alibi for the killings. But Harry wasn’t convinced. That didn’t matter to his bosses…’ She paused. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this, Jacqui, please don’t tell anyone else.’
‘I won’t,’ I promised. ‘Not even Mike, if you don’t want me to.’
‘Best not,’ said Ginny. Her tone became confiding. ‘I’d normally talk to Hermione about this, but Ron’s taken her off to Marrakech for four days, just the two of them. It was her birthday, her thirtieth, a few weeks ago. Rosie and Hugo have already spent a couple of days with Hermione’s parents, and now they’re spending a couple of days with mine.’
‘Marrakech, how exotic,’ I said.
‘It was a surprise birthday present. Hermione didn’t know anything about it until Wednesday evening. They left early on Thursday.’
‘That’s romantic,’ I said wistfully.
‘It’s astonishing,’ said Ginny. I could hear the amusement in her voice. ‘Romantic isn’t a word which springs immediately to mind when I think of Ron.’
‘You confide in Hermione. Are you and she close?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Ginny admitted. ‘She–and Luna–were probably my first real girl friends. But Luna’s away too, and Hermione doesn’t know what’s been happening over the past few days. Ron will try to keep her away from the papers, because it’s the only way he can be sure she’ll relax.’
‘A stuffed wolf,’ I murmured thoughtfully, while wondering how Hermione, or Luna, would deal with Ginny’s confidences.
Hermione Weasley, from the little I’d seen of her, seemed to be an intense, intelligent, and inquisitive woman. I was certain that, were Ginny discussing the case with her and not me, Hermione would be firing all sorts of awkward questions at her. Luna’s theories, I was equally certain, would definitely revolve around the idea that werewolves really existed. I smiled to myself but, as I was neither as forthright as Hermione nor as eccentric as Luna, I remained silent.
‘The stuffed wolf sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?’ observed Ginny.
‘Everything about this case is odd,’ I said. ‘Because of the nature of the killings, a death every full moon, the police and the papers started off by assuming that this is a serial killer. A lunatic, with the emphasis on Luna.’ Realising what I’d said, I hastily added, ‘As in the moon, not your Luna!’
‘I know what you meant,’ Ginny assured me.
‘But the victims were bitten by a fake wolf, which is bizarre,’ I continued. ‘And then there were the demands, which were even more bizarre, if that’s possible. “Free Greyback!” What does that even mean? That reminds me! Since the weekend we first met, there’s been no mention of this Greyback, whoever he is. It’s been a month since he was mentioned. I wonder why? It’s as if the entire country has forgotten all about him. Are Harry’s bosses simply keeping his name out of the papers?’
Ginny said nothing. It seemed to me that she was waiting to see what else I came up with.
‘The Greyback incident made me wonder if someone was using serial killing as blackmail, or terrorism,’ I said, ‘which is very strange! And even if it’s true, why suddenly kill two people rather than one? Overpowering two youngsters can’t have been easy. And then why frame an elderly museum curator? Perhaps the victims are immaterial, perhaps the killer has a grudge against Robards and is trying t frame him.’
‘That’s what Harry’s boss thinks, too.’ The relief in Ginny’s voice was obvious. ‘He’s got most of Harry’s staff chasing down Robard’s enemies.’
‘But, Robards has gone missing, why? Either Harry’s wrong, and he is the killer, or he’s dead,’ I said, as my second thoughts arrived with a vengeance. ‘But if he’s dead, then the killer doesn’t need to frame him, so why were that young couple killed? Robard’s involvement must be a coincidence, and the killer has kidnapped, or killed him to put everyone off the scent, to make people think he really is the killer.’
Ginny sighed. ‘That’s what Harry said, too. He’s had an argument with his boss about it. I hoped that Kingsley would be right, because that would mean we’re coming to the end of this. But it was a ridiculous hope! I was almost certain Harry was right; he usually is about this sort of thing. It’s nice to have someone agree with us.’
‘I read a lot of murder mysteries, Ginny,’ I admitted. ‘And I watch a lot of crime drama on the television, too. But I’m no expert, so you’d best take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I know enough to know that Waking the Dead is gloomy and unreal, but I still enjoy watching it. I think it’s the puzzles I like in crime dramas, and Harry’s case is certainly a puzzle.’ I laughed to myself. ‘Perhaps Grace Foley could give you some insight into the killer’s mind,’ I suggested.
‘Who’s Grace Foley?’ Ginny asked seriously.
‘Sorry Ginny, she’s a fictional character, a forensic psychologist, I think they call her,’ I explained. ‘I forgot that you don’t own a telly.’
‘What do you think?’ Ginny asked.
I shrugged. ‘I’ll do my best to theorise for you, but I’m no expert.’ I paused and thought before continuing. ‘It’s the why’s, isn’t it? Harry knows where the victims were killed, and how they were killed. Motive is the key! Without it, he can’t figure out who he’s looking for.’ I stopped, and tutted to myself. ‘Listen to me; you’d think I knew what I was talking about.’
‘Go on, please,’ said Ginny. ‘Lily and Annie are napping. We probably won’t get another chance to talk.’
I glanced in my mirror, and realised that Ginny was correct; the swim had apparently exhausted our daughters. I turned off the nursery rhyme CD.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘If I’m going to play detective, here are my questions for Harry. Why a wolf? Why on earth would anyone choose to kill someone and then try to make it look like a wolf did it, on a full moon night?’
‘Why choose those particular victims? It’s not like the killer is going for blondes, or down and outs.’
‘I can answer that. It’s simply circumstance. Each of the victims was walking through that part of Sheffield on the evening when they were abducted and killed. Once Harry’s team discovered that they’d been killed elsewhere, they started looking to see if the first two victims had anything in common. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until that poor young couple disappeared, two days ago, that Dennis and Bobbie had enough information to figure out that all four of the victims had all passed through the same area. That’s when they started searching for a base of operations,’ Ginny told me.
‘So, you found the killer’s hunting ground, and then his lair. I wonder what he will do now that his base has been found. Will he move elsewhere? Or is that the only part of Sheffield where he feels safe? Abducting someone can’t be easy. Surely he must be local?’ I asked. ‘Stop me if I’m boring you, or going off on a tangent, Ginny. I could speculate for hours.’
‘You’re fine,’ she assured me.
‘What about this mysterious Greyback?’ I asked. ‘As I said, he hasn’t been mentioned recently. Even if he exists, I don’t suppose that the government would release him. But why does the killer want him freed? Is the killer a friend of Greyback?’
‘Not so far as Harry knows,’ said Ginny. ‘Greyback’s “known associates” are in jail or dead.’
‘So, Greyback exists!’ I said. ‘And he’s in jail. What did he do?’
‘He killed people,’ Ginny said. ‘But do not tell anyone I told you. He’s… Well, if you look for that name, or his crimes, you won’t find it. It was, um, classified.’
I filed away that piece of information very carefully.
‘Perhaps a member of the one of victims’ families wants him out of jail. Perhaps this person wants Greyback free so that he can kill him. Some people still believe in the death penalty, in an eye for an eye. Or am I being stupid?’
‘I hope not,’ said Ginny firmly. ‘Harry’s just put a team on that, too. Unfortunately, Greyback killed several people.’
I didn’t answer, because we’d reached the crossroads with the Wooler road, and I needed to concentrate on getting across the main road. I’d just negotiated the junction when Annie woke up.
‘We still go Drake-soff?’ she asked.
‘That’s right,’ Ginny told her. ‘You’re coming to Drakeshaugh for dinner. Is that okay?’
‘Yay,’ my daughter confirmed. ‘Good. Let’s sing.’
‘What do you want to sing?’ Ginny asked.
Annie didn’t answer; she simply burst into song, ‘Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea, Silver buckles at his knee…’ and woke up Lily.
Fortunately, Lily was unperturbed by my daughter’s screeching, and she, Ginny and I sang all of the way through Rothbury and Thropton. Strangely neither Ginny, nor her daughter, were familiar with most of the songs we sang.
‘Nearly home’ said Annie happily as we left the Elsdon road. She was gazing out at the Cheviots, which were to our left.
‘Home,’ Lily agreed.
I’d just negotiated “the bends”, the place now imprinted in my mind as the spot where my tyre had blown out, when I saw a woman in the road ahead. She wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a bright red puffer jacket with the hood pulled up. She was, foolishly, walking on the left side of the road, her back to the traffic. She was limping a little too. From her shuffling gait it seemed to me that I was looking at someone who’d been walking for a long time.
‘Where on earth has she come from?’ I wondered aloud as I pulled past her.
I tried to catch a glimpse of her as we passed but I couldn’t. Ginny turned sideways in her seat, leaned forwards and took a good look at the stranger as we passed. As a consequence, I didn’t get a look at her face.
‘She’s quite young,’ Ginny said. ‘Early twenties I’d say. But I don’t recognise her.’
‘That’s not surprising,’ I said. ‘She’s much too young to have kids at school. I wonder where she’s going, and where she’s come from.’ My mind went into overdrive, and I began to speculate.
‘Who knows,’ said Ginny, glancing over her shoulder. ‘Mike has passed her, too.’
‘I’d have offered her a lift, if we’d had the room,’ I said. ‘And the way Mike has the seats arranged in his car, well, she’d have to squeeze in between Henry and James.’
‘It’s not a good idea to come between Henry and James,’ Ginny observed.
I chuckled and nodded. ‘Thick as thieves,’ I agreed.
Ginny again looked over her shoulder.
‘I’m sure she’ll be okay, Ginny,’ I said reassuringly. ‘The bus from Newcastle terminates at Thropton. She’s probably a local, simply walking the last few miles home. I don’t know everyone in the valley. In fact, apart from our immediate neighbours, I don’t really know any of the families without kids. I suppose a lot of them will have kids, but they’ll have left home.’
‘So, you think she’s probably a local coming to visit her parents?’ Ginny asked.
‘What else could she be? We get a few hikers, and some mountain bikers, at this time of the year; but she’s not dressed for walking.’
It wasn’t long before we arrived at Drakeshaugh. Ginny climbed out and opened the gate, and waved me through. She waited for Mike to follow me through before closing the gate. Mike drove past me and continued up to Drakeshaugh as Ginny and trotted up to re-join me.
By the time we reached the yard Mike had already released the boys from his car. Henry, James and Al were in a huddle near the kitchen door, doubtless planning something. Mike was carrying Ginny’s bags, and loitering uncertainly midway between the front door and the kitchen door.
‘Kitchen,’ called Ginny cheerfully as she lifted Lily out from her seat. I’d just placed Annie on the ground when the three boys approached me. Henry took the lead.
‘Can we go an’ play inna forest?’ he asked. I looked at Ginny. She nodded.
‘An’ me,’ Annie demanded.
‘Me, me,’ Lily squeaked.
‘I need to check on dinner, Lily,’ Ginny told her daughter.
‘If you want someone to look after the kids, I’ll do it,’ Mike volunteered cheerfully. ‘I’d like to take a look at this rope swing Henry keeps chuntering on about.’
‘Thanks, Mike,’ said Ginny gratefully. She moved closer to Mike and lowered her voice. ‘Lily will tell you that she’s a big girl and can manage the swing all by herself,’ she muttered. Her eyes told him it wasn’t true.
‘Understood,’ Mike replied. ‘I’ll keep an eye on her.’
‘Thanks,’ Ginny gave him a grateful smile, took the bag full of wet towels and costumes from his hand, and led me towards the house. Mike gave me a wave, winked, and followed five happily chattering kids past the chicken coop and into the trees.
After hanging her coat on one of the pegs in the small hall, Ginny opened a door which, on all of my previous visits, had been firmly closed and placed the swimming bag inside. As I found a peg for my own coat, I got the briefest of glimpses into the room. It looked like a study. All I saw was a large and very old fashioned-looking desk, on which were an inkwell and quill.
‘Just go through,’ said Ginny, nodding towards the kitchen door as she closed the study door.
I did so. The table was already set for eight people, and the room was filled with a faint aroma of food.
‘Is there anything I can do?’ I asked. ‘Do you need any help with dinner? Shall I put on the kettle?’
‘Thanks, Jacqui, but I’m sure I’m organised,’ she told me as she followed us into the room. ‘I was going to put the kettle on, myself. Do you want tea?’
‘Yes, please,’ I said. ‘Mike will certainly want one. If you don’t need a hand in here, I’ll take it to him when it’s made.’
Even before I’d finished speaking Ginny had filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. She opened a cupboard, and pulled out a medium sized teapot, a caddy, and three mugs. I smiled, and she correctly interpreted my thoughts.
‘Yes,’ she confirmed. ‘I’ve finally got everything put away. It’s all exactly where I want it.’ She then picked up a pair of oven gloves and opened the oven door. When she lifted the lid of the earthenware casserole dish, the aroma of stewing lamb, no longer restrained, wafted across the room.
‘That smells great,’ I told her.
‘Mum always puts lambs’ kidneys in with the meat,’ Ginny said. ‘I do the same. Will Henry and Annie be okay with kidneys?’
‘Sounds like the recipe my mum gave to me,’ I assured her. ‘Henry can be a bit fussy. But I’ve yet to find anything Annie won’t eat.’
‘Great. Everything’s on time, it will be ready in an hour,’ Ginny told me. She replaced the lid, closed the door, and stood. That was when my stomach gurgled.
‘Hungry?’ Ginny asked.
‘A little,’ I admitted. ‘But don’t worry, I can last another hour.’
‘I did some baking this morning,’ Ginny offered. She lifted the lid from a biscuit barrel and tipped it forwards, allowing me to look inside. ‘Ginger snaps,’ she said. ‘Or…’ she lifted the lid from a white enamel bread bin, ‘freshly baked bread buns.’
‘All this home cooking, you put me to shame,’ I said. The smells of bread and ginger intermingled with the smell of dinner, and my stomach growled. ‘I’m sure that a cuppa will be enough to see me through to dinner time.’ Even as I spoke, the kettle began to sing.
‘I’ll put some buns, and biscuits onto a plate and you can take them out to Mike and the kids. If you change your mind, you can help yourself and I’ll never know,’ Ginny joked as she busied herself making tea.
A few minutes later I found myself walking across the yard carrying a tray containing: a jug of “pumpkin juice” (an orange coloured drink which Ginny told me her kids really liked); five small earthenware beakers for the juice; a plate containing half-a-dozen ginger snaps; another containing half-a-dozen bread buns; and, a mug of tea.
The rope swing was easy to find, I simply homed in on the sounds of excited children. I was surrounded the moment they saw me. Because I was worried that the kids wouldn’t eat the meal Ginny was preparing, I tore three of the buns in half, and only allowed them to have half a bun. They all, Mike included, took a ginger snap.
To my surprise the Potter kids seemed to be used to drinking pumpkin juice. All three of them encouraged my two to try it. Henry and Annie each took a sip, and declared it “okay.”
‘No biscuits left for you,’ said Mike, grinning as he waved his biscuit under my nose. ‘Still, you’ve got three buns to scoff on your way back to the house.’ He bit into his half of the bun he was sharing with Annie.
‘There’s a barrel full of ginger snaps in the kitchen, right next to my cuppa,’ I informed him smugly.
‘This home-made bun is good,’ he mumbled, taking a sip of tea and swallowing. ‘And Ginny bakes ginger snaps, too! Who’d have thought it.’
‘Don’t you dare make any ginger jokes,’ I warned him. ‘I’ll leave the tray here, Mike, so you can bring everything else back with you.’ To make certain the kids didn’t eat too much, I took the plate of buns from the tray and turned to leave. ‘We’ll give you a shout in about twenty minutes, that way you’ll all have time to wash your hands before dinner.’
‘Just been inna pool!’ Henry protested.
‘Just been inna mud, you little scruff,’ his father told him firmly.
I walked past the chicken coop, stepped out into the yard, and stopped in surprise. The girl in the red puffer jacket was shuffling across the gravel, heading towards Ginny’s front door. She froze the second she saw me. My sudden appearance had certainly startled her.
‘Hello,’ I said.
The girl said nothing, she simply stared. I stared back. I’d definitely never seen her before. She was, I thought, in her late teens or, possibly, her early twenties. She was taller than Ginny, but not as tall as me; her face was pale, and her dark-ringed, frightened eyes were nervously scanning her surroundings. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a stick, which she pointed at me.
‘Who’re you?’ she demanded. ‘You’re not Ginny Potter.’
‘I’m Jacqui Charlton,’ I told her as I took a couple of steps forwards. My eyes weren’t deceiving me. She hadn’t pulled out a knife, or even a cosh. She was attempting to threaten me with a slender stick rather like a conductor’s baton. I again looked into her face, wondering if I’d see any signs of madness. ‘I’m a friend of Ginny’s,’ I explained. ‘She’s inside; do you want to talk to her? Who are you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said dazedly. She stared longingly at the plate I carried. ‘I’m starving, Missus, any chance o’ one o’ yon bread cakes?’
Bread cakes, I thought, she said bread cakes, not baps, or buns, or rolls, but bread cakes! I knew that expression, it was an exclusively Yorkshire word-use. Her accent was Yorkshire, the more she said, the more certain I was. It was south Yorkshire, and south Yorkshire’s biggest city was Sheffield. I was both pleased and terrified by my deductions. When we’d first met I’d impressed Ginny by identifying her West Country accent. I was not, however, about to mention the word Sheffield to this mysterious young woman.
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