"Cinderella is in the bluebell woods at Poacher's Dell...."
The anonymous note means nothing to ancestor detective Natasha Blake. Then one of her clients, an enigmatic old man who had commissioned a family tree of his granddaughter's boyfriend, is shot dead at his isolated farm in the Cotswolds, just as shocking facts about the past are brought to light. Is there a link?
Seemingly unconnected yet haunting stories begin to emerge, like slowly developing photographs: two young soldiers---one German, one British---playing football; two young women---inseparable friends until a fatal mistake tears them apart; and the eerie echo of a child in an English country house.
It is these individual lives that becomes the clues in Natasha's investigation, ghostly fingerprints that she must use to solve a cold-blooded, blue-blooded crime, hidden for generations in the bluebell woods at Poacher's Dell.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Fiona Mountain worked for the BBC for nine years and now runs a public relations company. Her first novel, Isabella, published in 1999, is the only first novel to have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Isabella is a fascinating retelling of the story of the mutiny on the Bounty from the point of view of the forbidden lovers.
Pale as the Dead, her second novel, is the start of a highly original new mystery series starring ancestor detective Natasha Blake. Fiona Mountain lives in the Cotswolds, is married to composer Tim Mountain, and has three sons.
Read an Excerpt
By Fiona Mountain
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Fiona Mountain
All rights reserved.
THE ABBREVIATION, SUS, next to an entry in the criminal records, was short for the Latin suspendatur, meaning 'Let him be hanged'. It never failed to make Natasha Blake break out in goose bumps.
She'd been a genealogist for over a quarter of her twenty-nine-year existence, since she graduated eight years ago, and she'd been coming to the National Archives, what used to be the less grandly titled Public Records Office, in Kew at least once a month since then.
Let him be hanged. Him was a her, in this particular instance.
Alice Hellier was just a parlour maid from Fulbrook, Oxfordshire, until she became a murderess at the age of nineteen, when she shot her 64-year-old employer, Samuel Purrington, on 11 August 1852. A bonafide black sheep to add a splash of colour to the rather humdrum family tree Natasha had spent the past month and a half researching.
What had led her here was a small paragraph she'd stumbled across in the Oxfordshire Gazette of August 1853, at the start of Alice's trial. The headline 'Murderous Maid' had been enough to get her going. Now she had come for the official proof. She went over to a computer terminal, keyed in her reader number and searched the online catalogue to order the Burford Gaol Book, which she'd collect downstairs.
This was the type of history she loved best, the reason she did this job. Kings and Queens, famous explorers and military heroes were all very interesting, but what gave her the best buzz were people like Alice. People on whom the spotlight of history shone very faintly and for just a millisecond. Those whose names were recorded in a few dry and dusty old papers that only saw the light of day when someone summoned them from the vaults to touch them with white-gloved hands.
A few minutes later the gaol book was waiting for her at the document collections counter. Impatience kicking in, she found the entry on the way back to her allotted desk.
A whole page was devoted to Alice. In the history of lowly people like her, it was infamy that gave you your fifteen minutes of fame. If you lived a blame-free existence, the odds were that all but your vital statistics – name, dates, address and trade – were lost to future generations. Little of your essence remained. But a brush with the law left a stain that lingered as long as archives were preserved. Natasha often debated committing a crime of passion or staging a heist in an antique arcade, something to create enough intrigue for any family historians who might follow in her footsteps.
Fixed to the centre of the page was a sepia mug shot of Alice. She sat demurely with her hands clasped in her lap, a dark cape around her shoulders, her hair parted in the middle and drawn back from a solemn but pretty, round little face. She looked a lot more like a parlour maid than a murderess.
Natasha added the information to the notes she'd already made on Alice's descendants.
Her baby son, Thomas, was cared for by Alice's aunt after Alice was hanged, and, at the age of thirteen, he would be sentenced to twenty-one days' hard labour for larceny. His previous crimes were listed as arson, setting fire to a stack of wheat, night poaching. By the time he was thirty he had a wife and two children and had served two years in prison for robbery with assault. His son Jack went the same way, sentenced to one month's hard labour for stealing a pair of boots and five years in reformatory school. A bad lot, the Helliers. They came good in the end though. Jack's son became a blacksmith and his son a farmer.
She glanced out of the angled plate glass window. Flaming June, the sun Mediterranean-bright but everything still fresh and green. She hadn't minded the early start this morning, walking across the dewy Cotswold fields with her Red Setter, Boris, at six-thirty so she could catch the seven-fifteen train from Moreton-in-Marsh, with about two seconds to spare thanks to the Sunbeam Alpine. Her beautiful old car relied on its beauty to excuse its refusal to start just when she needed it most.
It was her third trip to London in the last seven days. She'd never worked so hard as she had for the past weeks, or earned as much money in so short a time. Bloody hell, had she earned it. It was no easy task to compile a comprehensive genealogical chart going back about eight generations, to 1750 to be exact, in just thirty-five days.
The precise cut-off point had been imposed by her client, Charles Seagrove, who'd also, mysteriously, demanded confidentiality so complete she wasn't even allowed to tell anyone who she was working for. Why the great secrecy? And why, when Seagrove had gone to some lengths to impress on her that he was a proficient genealogist who'd worked for Debrett's, had he employed her to do this research instead of doing it himself? While she was at it, she'd also like to know why he was so interested in the family of the person at the top of the chart, John Hellier, now aged twenty-one? Why the need for so much detail and all this great hurry to unearth the Hellier roots? Either Charles Seagrove liked to be thorough, or there was something important at stake.
Just what that could possibly be, when it didn't even look as though any of the Helliers were related to her client, she couldn't begin to fathom. She had expected to discover a branch intertwining the Hellier and Seagrove trees, but hadn't found a single one.
Too much work, not enough play and even less sleep – she was breaking all the rules the trusty Internet Doctor offered on how to beat insomnia. No mentally taxing activities late at night, minimize stress, don't take your work to bed with you. She knew what she was supposed to do but doing it was a different matter. Since she and Marcus had split up eighteen months ago, she'd become more a workaholic than ever. She'd had her laptop plugged into the socket by her bedside table, had been up until the early hours trawling online databases after long days at the Family Records Centre, ploughing through census returns and wills, the trade directories at the Society of Genealogists, coroners' inquests, deeds, old newspapers. She'd practically taken up residence here in the Reading Room and she'd lost count of the numbers of documents she'd requested to view. Military service records, apprenticeship books, correspondence of the Lunacy Commission, calendars of prisoners. She'd spent nearly a whole week, all in all, in the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine, sifting through clinical and patient records, the first time she'd been asked to do that as part of genealogical research.
Hellier, if not as common as Smith or Jones, was not a rare surname, and, as usual, each line of enquiry had thrown up several possibilities. There were rather more question marks in the Hellier genealogical chart than Natasha's professionalism and perfectionism usually allowed, but that was deadlines for you and time was up. She'd done all she could. But that didn't stop her itching to go back to the contemporary local newspapers, to try to find the original news account of the murder, with the inevitable speculation on the motive, and the trial reports.
On the way to the underground station she rang her friend Toby, a researcher based in London. From a recent conversation she knew his current project was the history of brewing for a television production company.
'You're not by any chance planning a trip to Colindale in the near future?' The newspaper archive was the perfect place to find out more about Alice, but Natasha couldn't justify a special trip there herself now that the job was over.
'Might be,' Toby said, obviously guessing that she was about to ask a favour.
She gave him Alice's details, asked if he would have a scout around, if he had a few minutes to spare.
'I'd be glad to.'
She passed an over-ironed couple heading towards Kew Gardens, discussing the merits of snapdragons, though they didn't call them that.
'What is it with people over fifty?' Natasha said. 'They know the Latin names for every flower, tree and butterfly, whereas I just know the Latin for "let him be hanged". What does that say about me?'
'That you're just a teeny bit twisted perhaps?'
'Bound to be. We make a living out of the dead, don't we? What time is it, by the way?'
'Five to three.'
'Shit. I'm going to be late for my train.' Again.
'The Late Natasha Blake,' Toby said.
She was spending so much time with ghosts she was slowly becoming one.
* * *
For once, it was almost as hot in Snowshill as it had been in London. On an idyllic summer's day like today, the village was straight off a shortbread tin, and the way tourists and incomers like Natasha pronounced its name, as spelt, suited it best. But on most days, certainly the winter and autumn months, its quirky and less pretty local pronunciation, 'Snouwsall', was more appropriate.
One of the highest and windiest of the Cotswold hill villages, it didn't tend to appeal to fair weather country-dwellers, but Natasha liked its isolation, the steep drive to get to it and the grey stone cottages huddled round the little green, stumpy church and spooky manor house.
It was the start of the fête season. Every village had one. Natasha must have passed at least half a dozen small roadside signs on the way back from the station, some handwritten and some composed on a computer with clip art and fancy graphics, advertising tombolas, coconut shies and cream teas. She was going to have to borrow her godson, Kieran, the son of her best friend Mary, for an afternoon.
She parked in front of Orchard End and heard Boris set up a frantic barking and wailing. He'd trained himself to recognize the distinctive rumble of the Alpine's engine and gave her about twenty seconds to turn it off, lock up and unlock the front door before he started trying to scratch his way through it.
He welcomed her as if she'd been away for a month and she accepted voracious licks and thrashings with his tail as she said hello and retrieved a trampled white envelope from beneath his hind legs. Boris immediately tried to snatch it. 'Let go, Boris.' He took no notice but she managed to wrest it off him with only a corner missing, gave him a moment to calm, then slid her finger under the seal.
Inside was a single sheet of creamy vellum writing paper, folded in half.
The typeface was courier and it had been composed on a traditional typewriter with a worn printer ribbon that had made some of the letters fainter than others. A single sentence across the centre: Cinderella is in the Bluebell Woods at Poacher's Dell.
Like a line from a nursery rhyme, or the clue to a crossword puzzle. Natasha turned the paper over and studied the envelope, looking for a proper clue to tell her who had sent it. Her name and address were in a font that matched the message. The postmark was smudged.
Stuff of nonsense. The paper equivalent of the junk emails with which she was constantly bombarded, jokes and brainteaser chain letters that had been passed on from friend to friend, or sometimes from complete strangers who'd somehow managed to get hold of her address. She chucked the letter onto her desk.
Just someone having a laugh. Trying to tell her, cryptically, that she'd been working too hard and needed a handsome prince to rescue her.CHAPTER 2
NATASHA WAS LOST.
She knew this road and the surrounding villages as well as the lyrics to a Nick Cave song, but until precisely six weeks ago she'd never even heard of Shadwell Manor Farm, even though she lived less than ten miles away.
It seemed she wasn't the only one. She'd already stopped to ask two locals – an elderly woman with a broad Cotswold accent planting pansies in front of her terraced cottage, and a red-faced man mending a dry stone wall. The man gawped at her blankly before shaking his head and the woman gave her vague and impossibly garbled directions that were no more help than the ones Natasha had taken down over the phone.
The heatwave hadn't broken. She'd fastened her thick, dark-gold hair back in a low ponytail and forsaken her beloved black for a white Victorian chemise and scarlet linen skirt. The hood was down on the Sunbeam Alpine and so far she'd enjoyed the drive through the high sheep pastures and down into the wooded valleys. But now she was getting flustered. Charles Seagrove had told her to meet him at six and at a guess – the best she could do since she didn't wear a watch – she was already quarter of an hour late. The hills and dense trees that ranged on either side of her were guaranteed to impede radio waves and there wasn't a flicker of reception on her mobile.
As she rounded a bend, she nearly ran into a girl who was walking in the middle of the road as if she owned it. She had curly silver-blonde hair, was dressed in white cotton pedal-pushers and vest top, a glossy King Charles Spaniel dancing behind her. She seemed completely unperturbed by her brush with oblivion.
Natasha stopped. 'I'm looking for Shadwell Manor Farm?'
She could have been mistaken, but she'd have sworn the girl eyed her with a mixture of curiosity and surprise, as if she were about to warn her not to venture there after darkness fell. 'The big gates up there on the right.' She pointed.
'Cool car by the way.'
A couple of minutes later, half hidden, she came upon two pillars topped with stone globes, ornate iron gates opened just wide enough to drive through. It was as if Shadwell Manor Farm was a place in a fairy tale, its gateway the entrance to another world, only appearing when the sun had started to set or you found a magic key. As she drove on she half expected the gates to swing shut behind her.
The long driveway was trimmed and perfect, not a single stray dandelion poking through the gravel. A neat line of beeches and birches surrounding the house, the rim of a wood, towered overhead. This wasn't one of the ancient Cotswold forests. Instead of vast gnarled oaks, the trunks here were slender, had been growing for decades not centuries. But it didn't take an expert in forestry to see that the trees had been planted a little too close together. They'd had to struggle and compete for the light and air to grow and stay alive, and the fight had made them tall and spindly and some oddly bereft of foliage.
The trees thinned and there was the house, standing in a clearing with a horseshoe courtyard. Manor Farm was an appropriate name, since it was too grand to be a common-or-garden farm but not quite grand enough to be a manor house. With its curved steps leading to an arched front door, its gables and bays, it was beautifully proportioned, like the best Cotswold houses.
She'd mixed with enough of the well-heeled, at Oxford and through her job, not to be intimidated by wealth and status, but as she pulled the old-fashioned doorbell she realized she was nervous, which annoyed her. From her single, brief telephone conversation with Charles Seagrove, to commission her and simultaneously set the date for her to report her findings, she hadn't been looking forward to meeting him.
He answered the door himself and her first impression was of someone very tall and thin. He made up for the fact that he was balding with plenty of facial hair, a grey beard and moustache as neatly trimmed as the drive to his house. He was crisp and smart in a dark suit and white shirt. But his feet were entirely bare, the skin a light coffee colour, dirt under the toenails, suggesting it wasn't unusual for him to forgo his shoes and socks. Was he losing his marbles as well as his footwear? With some effort, she tore her eyes back up to his face.
'I'm sorry I'm late. I had real trouble finding you.'
'That has its advantages,' he said. 'But the directions I gave you should have been sufficient.'
She chose to remain silent. She'd apologized once.
Charles Seagrove must have been at least eighty but he walked with the quick, rigorous stride of a man a quarter of his age, his bare feet flapping on the flagstones as he led her through the hall and held open the door of a study.
It wasn't at all the kind of room you'd imagine in a house like Shadwell. Not the cosy, jumbled, dusty, lived-in sort of place where Natasha would feel quite at home, with rugs and leather chairs and old paintings. Instead, it was light and airy and immaculately tidy, the books lined at right angles on the shelves, not a pile of papers or magazines in sight, the mahogany desk swept clear except for a clean jotter and slim silver ballpoint pen. The wide, open window offered a view of tiered steps that led down to an ornamental pond set in an expansive lawn.
Without asking what she'd like to drink, he poured two cups of pale herb tea from a pot on the window seat and handed her one. 'You're very young.'
What was she supposed to say to that? 'I'm nearly thirty.' She sipped the tea, which tasted like mashed-up grass.
Excerpted from Bloodline by Fiona Mountain. Copyright © 2004 Fiona Mountain. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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