Powderfinger by Keller Yeats

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Chapter 24

Alan needn’t have worried about Nick’s reaction to the news that the report get together, was going to have an extra guest, or so in attendance. The whole point of the meeting, was to discuss his long heralded report on the Ravens Gate Area. As enjoyable and informative as it was, looking through all of those old clippings, was hardly the point of the exercise. Nick had, after all, volunteered to do the research, both as a favour to Alan and because it fed his natural historical curiosity through his fascination with historical documents and newsprint. The Micro Fiche and computer information, had completed the time line of knowledge. Put together with the facts he had garnered from Alan’s Listing Report, the story he had uncovered was curious but incomplete. This vexed him. He wanted to know just for himself, the fuller picture. He realised, that to get a more informed story, he needed access to old police reports. So, he would need allies in the police and having a DCI on board, was no bad thing. For Nick, the days leading up to the clandestine meeting at Alan’s place, were peppered with concerns about the presentation of this information.

Hugo had spent a frustrating evening helping him to develop his presentation on Power Point. So, Nick now owed him a meal and a night out in The Barn for his troubles. 'Small price to pay' he thought and decided he would get them both tickets to go see a band together, by way of a better thank you. Nick had played with his report until it was perfected and had practiced his presentation skills. He wanted to impress his audience.

Secretly, he asked himself would the divulgence of this data lead to anything more?

'Well, if you’re not ready now, you never will be,' he thought as he headed out to his car and set off for the scheduled meeting at The Old Toll House. 'The first time, is always the toughest,' he thought. Then he reassured himself “it only gets easier from this point,” as he negotiated the exit from Lilac Cottage and turned his old Volvo, down the deserted dark road towards ’Turnbull Acres.’

As he drove off in the direction of Gildabrooke, he felt for the two Memory Sticks, which were safely secured in the buttoned down breast pocket of his jacket. One was just a back up in case of problems or to give as a copy. He patted them, reassured and smiled.

“It’s not much use turning up for an important meeting, if you forget to take the relevant information with you,” he commented aloud, as his car started to pick up speed on the by-pass.

The journey from Willowbank passed in the blink of an eye, as his mind was entirely filled with thoughts concerning the strange history of that section of the canal bank.

“It’s all there on the stick. Stop worrying yourself,” he repeated as he climbed out of his old volvo. “O.K, Deke, you just wait here, while I go inside and lay some heavy shit on these people. Back soon, baby” he said as he almost silently closed the drivers door and patted the bonnet, on his way past to ring Alan’s front door bell.

Alan swiftly answered and after the traditional, “How’s it hanging” and “Really average to see you,” greetings and after checking to see if he was alone, invited Nick inside. Alan led Nick up the stairs and into the ‘Pleasure Dome.’ No sooner had he started to pour him a drink, when the doorbell rang again.

“Oh for the love of god,” he cursed, while handing Nick the half filled glass and the bottle. “I’m afraid you’ll have to serve yourself, there seems to be another waif at the stable door. You might as well break out another glass......” and then, almost as an after thought as he left the room and made his way down the stairs, he called out to Nicks, “This should only take a minute, talk amongst yourself, I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

Nick, not requiring a second invitation, rapidly poured himself a large one and quickly took the top off it, he didn’t want to look like a drunkard in front of Alex Findlay & Co. “Impressions may count for something but I’m sure as hell, not going to encounter the police totally straight,” he muttered to himself. Then, hearing the sound of voices approaching, Nick purposefully moved over to the Telescope and striking a considered pose, peered earnestly out of the window, towards the far horizon. He hoped this would make Alex Findlay see him as something of an intellectual, he didn’t really care what Arch Deacon thought. When Alan and the two final guests entered the room, he casually spun around and greeted DCI. Findlay, with a hearty,

“Good to see you again, would you two care for a drink?” That seemed to be the correct approach as Alex responded with a cheery,

“I’ll just have whatever you’re having, if that’s alright with you.” DS. Deacon, followed suit, only adding, a request for some ice. Feeling that it was now going quite smoothly, he moved off towards the 1960’s themed mini bar, which was tastefully located behind the leather settee, to pour and serve the drinks.

Although Arch was a little more reserved, he seemed to be fitting into the casual meeting quite well. Nick, who was now starting to relax for the first time this evening, reckoned that Deacon would chill out a little more, as the evening wore on. Meanwhile, Alan, Alex and Arch made themselves comfortable, sitting back in their seats, cupping their glasses of Single Malt and tapping their feet, to the rich sounds that were emanating from the invisible speakers of Alan’s expensive ‘Jukebox.’ Nick, placed the whiskey bottle down on the coffee table and seeing the seat he usually occupied in the 'Pleasure Dome' was free, quietly sat down, being careful not to disturb the mood within the room.

Once he was comfortably seated, Nick, looked around and attempted to sum up the other guest’s reactions to the evening so far. To his right, Alex Findlay was peering intently into the deepening twilight, merrily tapping his feet and gently drumming his fingers on the side of his chair, keeping time to the music. Deacon, on the other hand, was sitting there like a dog on guard, protecting its owner and never quite relaxing fully. Alan, was cupping his stomach in his two intertwined hands, resting over his middle, imperceptibly nodding his head to the beat. Nobody spoke, there seemed no need. There would be plenty of time for all that serious stuff, over Coffee. This evening’s culinary delight, was a dish that had been in preparation for several hours, one which Alan considered was possibly his finest concoction. Now, the aroma of tonights food was permeating the lounge and stomach’s were beginning to gently rumble as Nick suddenly realised, just how hungry he was.

Whenever, thoughts like these entered his head, he would recall a trip to Glastonbury and some delicious Snapper’s, he and Joanne had purchased, after going two days without any food at all. They had seemed like nectar of the gods. At 8.30pm precisely, they were all ushered into the dining room and Alan announced the impending arrival of his legendary ‘Boeuf D’Alain,’ which was in fact, as he would explain later,

“Welsh Braising Steak marinaded in garlic and herbs, then slow cooked in a Dark Stout and garnished with a rich Chestnut and Mushroom Sauce.”

Alan, liked to think of himself as a bit of a Cuisine Meister and tonight, there was nothing to prove him wrong. His mother, a solid Welsh woman had seen to that. She used to fill his head with endless tall tales and phrases often misattributed to Lloyd George, or Mr. Bevan but it didn’t really matter, the messages were well received.

“You’ll never go hungry, if you can make fire.” Like most of the things she said, it was fundamentally true, but it lacked a certain, ‘something.’ Still, she had produced Alan and if it hadn’t been for his culinary skills, Nick feared that he may have starved to death during his school years. The meal was delicious and Alex, was obviously impressed.

“I’ll be coming here again, if that’s alright with you,” he joked, as the Coffee, was being served back upstairs in the 'Pleasure Dome’.

With his easy conversation and manner, it was easy to forget that Alex Findlay was a member of the Police Force. On many occasions during the meal, Nick found himself having to quickly change his story or language to maintain a certain degree of privacy.

Thankfully, it was Alan who raised the issue of Nick’s report, giving a general introduction whilst Nick connected his Laptop computer, to Alan’s large screen TV.

“This is your opportunity to turn heads now, Nicks. Blow us away, dude,” he said in a much too loud a voice. Perhaps Alan shouldn’t have had those last two drinks but it was too late to worry about that now. There seemed to be no other alternative, but to plow on regardless, so Nick reached into his pocket and withdrew the Memory Stick. He held it out for all present to see, like some magician, then plugged it into the port on the machine and opened the report.

Nick stood up, stretched his arms and then leant forward, placing the knuckles of his clenched fists, on the flat surface of the desk in front of him. He could see that both Alan and DCI Findlay, were waiting on his every word. Arch was still looking dubious but a touch more laid back, than he had appeared a while ago. His confidence grew as he looked at their expectant faces, just waiting to hear whatever it was he had discovered.

Nick, then casually waved his hand in the general direction of the big screen and began his presentation.

“Gentlemen, as you can see,” he said, drawing their attention, once more to the display, with another wave of his hand. When I started this exercise, all I could see at first, was just a jumble of random reports, none of which, meant anything viewed in isolation ........ but,” He purposely paused, hoping it would build a touch more tension into the proceedings. Satisfied, his ploy had achieved it’s goal, he continued .......... “If you only look for key words, such as death, murder, ghostly, as in apparition, or spectral for that matter, in the headlines and having found your prize, you work backwards from that point, you discover the beginning of the event.” Alan was nodding his agreement with Nick’s approach to the problem.

“Some of the artists impressions, which were meant to assist in the reader’s appreciation of the event, are to say the least, a little fanciful and more than a touch lurid but none the less, consistent.”

Alex Findlay, was also nodding his head in unison with Alan and Arch, so Nick pressed on.

“From the first reported death in 1740, when a worker, by the name of August West, was found floating in a water trough in the Tar Works on the day of it’s inauguration, to the present day killings, you will see that there is a continuous thread running through these events. If you care to observe the artists impressions, they all bear a remarkable similarity.” Nick, saw his audience was rapt by the illustrations displayed on the screen. “You will appreciate, that things appear to run in a continuous, smooth line, from incident to incident.” He then paused for a moment before continuing. “Sometimes, there is no relevant activity for years, even decades and sometimes it seems that this path that you are following so diligently, only leads you up another Cul-de-sac. However, if you persist and delve below the surface, something rears it’s ugly head. Then just when you think the trail has gone cold, the hunt suddenly continues anew.”

Alex, Arch and Alan, were hanging on his every word, so Nick carried on bringing up relevant reports on screen as he talked.

“In 1747, a woman called Florence Wilkinson, reported seeing something, which she described as etherial, in a reflection on the water. It seemed to be crossing Jenkins’ Walkway. She was ignored and the authorities put the whole episode down to something which they dubbed ‘The Gin Genie‘ and dismissed it, as being a Laudanum induced hallucination.” So far, this was going well so, gaining confidence, he simply carried on.

“In 1755, The Ravens Gate bridge, that we see today, was built by Joel Battersby Senior after completing a then fashionable, European Tour. He had been mightily taken by the canals of Venice and sought to reproduce, in iron, his own version of The Bridge of Sighs, complete with his own form of decoration, metal Ravens.

Nick stopped at this point and took another sip of his drink, before continuing with his tale. “The tragedy at the works continued when the old man’s daughter, Henrietta, was found floating under the new bridge, with multiple stab wounds and her throat slashed. Then, a few weeks later, an un-named worker from the tar works, was also found dead, floating underneath the Bridge. This body, showed none of the hallmark wounds and was probably, a simple act of misdirected vengeance.”

Nick, glanced up and he noticed that his audience, was just sitting on the edge of their seats, silently waiting for him to tell them more, so he obliged. “Then it all goes silent, until 1759, when five more bodies, two women and three children were found rotting, in the new excavation, that was being dug out, to enlarge the original Basin. The authorities at the time declared to the public, that they had all been brutally slain, by someone, or something unknown. That was the trigger for a bout of hysteria and the press played their part, in promoting a killer they were now calling, 'The Phantom,’ but as before, nobody is arrested and given time, peace returned to the waterway.”

Alex nodded to himself, yes this was indeed the fascinating stuff, that had been promised by Alan. At this point Alan called for a break so he could go and relieve himself. Findlay and Nick, both picked up their glasses and moved over to the large window, where they were joined by Arch Deacon and they all just silently stared down the now, mostly disused waterway illuminated by a full moon in a clear night sky. This position, in Alan’s darkened ‘Pleasure Dome,’ afforded an almost uninterrupted view, right the way down the Canal to Jenkins’ Walkway and beyond.

“Breathtaking, isn’t it?” offered Nick, “especially in moon light.” His appreciation of the area, now greatly enhanced by his research, enabled him to fully absorb it’s melancholy beauty. “When we are all sufficiently revived, I will show you the rest of the pictures I was able to recover, of the various artists efforts to illustrate the different events, for the public’s benefit. I think, that you may be taken aback by what you see” and after a dramatic pause, he added, “I know I was.”

A few minutes later, Alex, Arch and Alan, were seated again, looking intently at Nick, waiting for him to reveal the next installment, of this local historical drama.

“I have placed these images in the context of their times and hopefully, this neutral treatment of the material, will give you a better picture of the events in question. Is that alright with you all?”

The other three participants in this ’conspiracy of the willing,’ simply nodded their approval of his methodology and eagerly awaited part two of his expose. “Very well Gentlemen, if you’re sitting uncomfortably, I will begin,” Nick said and brought up the first set of images, for them to view.

“As you can see, if you allow a little license, there is a striking similarity, in many of these artist’s renditions.” Arch and Alex, seemed fascinated by this revelation and were just staring at the images, of ghoulish presences and ghostly apparitions, which the public, swore they had seen around that area of the canal.

Nick, went on with his presentation. “I have placed some of the comments, that terrified members of the populace uttered at the time, next to the incident, that they were referring to, in order to emphasise the point.”

Alan, was most impressed and uttered a barely couched, “Bravo,” when the opportunity arose. Nick, appreciated this gesture of solidarity and the glimmer of a smile passed across lips, as he continued his report.

“My eye, just wouldn’t settle on it, no matter how hard I looked,” stated Peter Timpson. “It seemed to be constantly, moving in and out of focus.” The report, which originated in the late 1750‘s, carried this poor chaps comments but the picture that accompanied it, was to say the least, horrific. It portrayed, what seemed to be, a skeleton like figure, wearing something akin to a Monk’s Habit, baring long white teeth and snarling at the viewer.

“Now, if we move on a few years, let’s say to 1817,” he said as he was clicking onto another page of his report and trying to locate the piece that he was looking for. “Ah yes, here it is,” he gushed in relief, at finding the item he wanted to illustrate his point more clearly.

“Now, here we are some Fifty Seven years later and we come across this impression, of something ghostly, moving across the Quaker span, just two days after there had been another body found, in the water below the bridge.” He imperceptibly paused before continuing. “Note the similarity, between this newer account of the ’goings on,’ and the one from the 1750’s.”

It was Arch, who responded first, to his words. “I can see some similarity’s but there’s still nothing, that we can call a real connection,” he said while folding his arms.

Alongside the photo reproduction of the article that Nick had uncovered in the ancient binders, there was an accompanying drawing, attached to the newspaper article, supposedly showing ‘a spectral figure,’ making its way across the Quaker’s newly opened crossing of the waterway.

“Do you see any similarities between the two?” he asked the doubting D.S. “Next to the second one, you can see the comments of Constance Goodweather, one of the elders of the Quaker Meeting Hall. She could hardly be described as a fanciful individual, or one who was prone to exaggeration.” He cleared his throat again and then read out her words, to the almost silent room. “As I was approaching our new bridge, I saw this figure, wearing what I thought to be, Monks apparel, crossing over the waterway and heading in my direction. As we approached and prepared to pass by each other, I bade him ’good day Father’ but he uttered no words to me.”

Buoyed on, by the apparent success of his historical presentation, Nick pressed home the point. “Constance, continued her tale, by adding.......” He paused, at this moment, to allow his words to sink in, before he steadily continued. “As he slid by on the other side of the crossing, I looked at him, hoping to recognise him, should we ever meet again, perhaps in town, or maybe, while walking along the canal side but when I tried to view him clearly, I found that it was impossible. No matter how many times I blinked, or even rubbed my eyes in order to clear my vision, the stranger remained elusive to my eye.” Nick, stopped there, to judge the impact that his story was having on those in attendance.

Alan, was smiling gently to himself and looking from one guest to the next, hoping his observations would allow him some insight into the minds of those present. While Alex and Arch Deacon, were both intently studying the images and reading the attendant transcript. Nick, continued with his story.

“Constance, was not done yet and she then continues, with this telling insight,” said Nick, breaking the spell, that the stories had cast on these events. “The poor man, appeared and then almost disappeared again," she stated and closed with, "His soul seemed to be greatly troubled and it appeared that he was drifting between this world and the next.’” With that dramatic flourish, Nick gathered up his papers and sat down, awaiting a reaction from the other dinner guests.

Alan, was the first to respond to Nick’s presentation. “Sorry to be such a mood killer but does this sort of thing continue, as the years pass, or was it a momentary aberration, that only the god fearing, would even consider to be relevant?”

Nick, could see what Alan was getting at and he thought that he had that one covered. “I see your point but these stories, go on and on in the various reports, that I’ve read. Firstly, it’s there in the journals, report, after report, on some sort of mysterious death occurring, strangely enough, whenever there is major structural work taking place around the bridges. There are just so many linked occasions of similar deaths from stabbing and throat slitting, that only a fool would ignore the signs. When there is no structural work, there are no such murders. Granted, once or twice, there have been deaths reported, along the cutting but these are usually simple drownings, mostly of a child, or a vagrant.”

Nick, was in a groove now and he effortlessly continued. “Gentlemen, allow me to elucidate.” There were no objections, from his audience, who were all intrigued by the diligence and depth, of his research. He picked his moment perfectly and smoothly proceeded.

“In 1787, The Battersby’s Tar Works get extended and Hermione Battersby is found with the hallmark slashing and stab wounds in a water filled part of the new excavation.” Nick, now took a very professional pause to gather himself. Then, he took a slow, deep purposeful breath and continued once again. “Now gentlemen, let’s move on thirteen years, to 1800. The new weather vane is constructed to celebrate both the new century and the growing success of the venture, accompanied yet again, by another hallmark murder. Then, on we go again, to 1817 but you know about that one, so let’s try 1860, or 65 and if that’s not enough, we could take a look at 1899 and the building of the Balaclava Bridge, more stabbed and slashed corpses found in water.”

He paused again and then continued, “If you wish, we could stop off in 1936. When, as tensions are rising in Europe, the new road bridge is built and that causes enormous disruption along the water for a couple of years and is again accompanied with similar murders.”

Another, longer pause, was inserted here, before Nick rounded up all his research with these chilling thoughts. ........... “Then, it’s once more apparent, in what’s documented in the more modern reports,” Nick offered. “The murders continue at various times, sometimes decades apart, but the connecting piece of information, is that they only occur when there is an ongoing disruption, along that particular section of the Canal. ‘The phrasal figure,’ is an ever present entity, since it was first mentioned, by Florence Wilkinson, way back when, all the way up to relatively recent times. The last mention of the spectral being, is in 1965, when the old Jenkins’ Mine, was bulldozed and flattened by the council, to make it safe. Then gentlemen, we come to present day. The recent murders started after the initial clearing of the shed at Jenkins’ Hollow and the erection of the gas lights as, the first stage in the redevelopment of the area.”

“Just a minute,” said Arch, interrupting the proceedings. “Wasn’t Eleanor Ross, killed down by where Jenkins’ Mine used to be?”

Alex Findlay, was quick to pick up on that one and swiftly responded with, “Yes and Debra Foxx, was killed not far from there, the week before.”

Arch, was the first to see the incongruity, in all this conjecture and he forcibly stuck his oar back into the turbulent waters surrounding this case. “If all these sightings and everything else are connected to the same perpetrator, then you’re saying, that we’re looking for a guy who’s at least 250 years old, give, or take.”

Suddenly, all this research, that Nick had undertaken, appeared to have been holed below the water line. “Does anybody spot the obvious elephant in the room.?” He asked looking at everyone, expectantly.

Nick though, was not going to give up, all that easily. He had expected this response and had previously planned to use it, to his advantage. Alex Findlay, was remembering what Samuel, the old tramp had said to Nick, that day on the bank, near Barton Basin. He had mentioned a figure moving along the Towpath, that it was impossible to see, except in the reflection that it cast upon the still water. Nick, looked at Alex, who was in turn staring at Arch Deacon, while concocting a plan that would take this thing, a little further.

“OK, so It’s extremely unlikely, that our chief suspect, is two hundred and fifty years old” commented Alex, “but it could be we’re looking at some kind of historical copycat killer and that could give us new leads to go on. Apart from Nick, has anyone else been looking through the archives?” He looked directly at Alan.

“I don’t know,” he answered “but we do keep records of access,” he said.

“Good” said Alex, “I will call in and take a look, and there’s the members of your Historical Society to consider.” He looked over at Arch who nodded his agreement.

At this point Nick, not wanting to appear to be carried away with his spooky appraisal, attempted to steer the conversation, in the direction he wanted to explore. “That occurred to me too and at this juncture, I would like to explain that my conclusions are limited by the material at my disposal, namely press reports and the Listing Report. Whilst the report is a strong academic offering the evidence garnered from the press is, of a far more salacious nature. A more rational and logical narrative, such as those provided by an investigating force would greatly enhance our understanding.” He looked directly at Alex, to ensure that he had caught his drift.

Alex raised his eyebrows and then looked at Arch, “What do you think?”

Deacon considered the proposition, then nodded slowly. He was stationed at Peel Park, which had been purposely built, to house the district police archives in it’s basement. He felt sure, that he could wangle it so that Nick, who already had security clearance, due to his position in The Probation Service, could have access to the files under his supervision. Alex, would only have to add his authorisation, for the search to begin.

“O.K. gentlemen, there’s just one thing I want to add, for security reasons, I would like everyone in this group to refer to this investigation as 'The Powderfinger Case.’ That way, no one will get any idea of what we’re actually investigating, should they overhear anything.”

They all agreed this was prudent, then Nick asked, “Powderfinger? Where did you get that one from?”

Arch jumped in at that point. “He didn’t, it was the Techie, at the Morgue, who came up with it, when he discovered the powder residues in the wounds of the victims.”

Alex, nodded his head in agreement and only added. “Hmm, it was one of Mason’s accidental gems, he comes out with these things, every so often.”

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