The old house had never known such activity as during the late hours of that June day. The police arrived quickly; uniformed officers, plain clothes detectives, a photographer and finger-print expert filled the ground floor with their activity. They took statements from Bert and Taff, photographed the corpse as it lay in its recess but, then as swiftly, departed leaving only one constable on duty after the pathologist had indicated that the corpse had probably lain there forover one hundred years.
Later, Taff carefully removed the last of the bricks at the bottom of the recess to enable a medical team to painstakingly slip a sheet of plastic under the body and transfer it onto a stretcher which was bourn away to the pathology department of the hospital.
It was late evening before the excitement died down, the remaining constable departed and the workmen were given permission to lock up and go home. And then the Press arrived and the explanations started all over again and more photographs were taken, this time of Bert and Taff standing in front of and gazing into the now empty recess.
'The press' consisted of representatives of the local evening paper, one reporter andthe photographer who,as soon as he had taken his pictures, left to cover another job. Bert joined Taff in giving an account of the afternoon's discovery but when pressed for more background refused to stay, complaining that he had a family to get home to and was already very late.
'I'm sure Taff will fill you in,' he said to the attractive young reporter, when they stood outside the locked front door.
She turned to Taff, her head on one side, her eyes raised enquiringly. 'What about it Mr Thomas? Can you spare a few minutes?'
Her smile was most persuasive. Taff guessed she was about twenty five, had straight black hair that fell over the side of a pale face dominated by a large pair of designer spectacles that gave her an air of mature professionalism. She was dressed in a neat linensuit that starkly contrasted with the dust covered overalls that he wore.
He shrugged. 'Why not!'
'I can't keep calling you Mr Thomas,' she said. 'I'm Gemma Sutcliffe.'
'David Thomas,' he replied. 'Everyone calls me Taff.'
He returned her smile. She was unlike any woman Taff had previously met. Ambition and determination showed through her soft femininity and he found himself a little in awe of her.
'There's not going to be much of a story for you if that corpse is over one hundred years old. They'll probably never find out who it was.' He paused, the memory of the afternoon returning. 'At least his restless spirit can now be properly interred.'
'What made you say "his restless spirit"?' she asked.
Taff was immediately on the defensive. In the cold printof tomorrow's newspaper the possibility of strangers understanding the experience that had led to the discovery of the body was most unlikely, and he had no intention of giving this young lady the opportunity to make a fool of him in her report.
He shrugged; 'It's just terrible to think of someone being bricked up alive and trying desperately to scrape his way out. That's an awful way to die.'
Gemma Sutcliffe visibly shuddered.
'What sort of a person could do such a thing?' Taff mused, 'and why?'
'And who was the victim?' Gemma added. 'Don't you feel you want to find out?' She rested her hand on Taff's arm. 'David, there is a story here, a wonderful story if we can discover it.
Don't you see? A real historical murder mystery.'
'But how can we begin to find out what occurred so long ago?' he asked, suddenly intrigued by the notion.
'Well....from the pathologist for a start, and from the room where you found him; from the house deeds and the Council records. There has to be ways of tracing the occupiers of the house if we look in the right places. People are researching their ancestry all the time these days, it's a real craze. The difference here is that we must trace the history of the house before we can establish the name of the person we want to investigate. What do you say? Shall we play Holmes and Watson? Will youhelp me do it?'
'I suppose it would at least mean we could put a name on his grave,' Taff said, grudgingly, feeling he was being dragged into something over his head.
'And it would help my career,' Gemma said, looking at him through lowered lids.
He smiled, all resistance gone. 'OK, we'll try,' he agreed.
'Great! We'll start straight away,' she said. 'We'll go back into the house. You do have a key?'
'Well yes, but... tonight?’
'Why not. Let's look at the room again but this time withan enquiring eye. We might see it differently.'
He hesitated. He did not know if he wanted to return to that room, but neither did he wish to try to explain the reason why. He simply shrugged and allowed himself to be dragged along by her enthusiasm. As he inserted the key in the front door his uncertainty returned, but he said nothing. The house was dark and he had to fumble along the hall wall to find the light switch.
The bare bulb, hanging from the ceiling, brought the hall to life, its bleak glare sending spiders scurrying for the cover of cracks and crannies.
'Oh, its a bit spooky at night,' Gemma said, a little less enthusiastically.
Taff closed the front door and crossed to the back room. He stopped, his hand on the door handle. His pride had brought him thisfar but now his doubts returned. Would the room still hold its terror for him? He paused and looked at the girl, half expecting her to protest at his hesitation, but she seemed to understand his uncertainty and said nothing. He reasoned that the body had been found, removing the need for the power it had exerted over him. There should be no reason to fear the room any longer.
He slowly turned the handle and opened the door. Immediately he sensed that the terrible cold had gone. The room was in dark- ness but he felt no fear, no disturbing, clinging silence. He realised he had been holding his breath and let it out in a long sigh of relief.
He threw the light switch and the room greeted him with a yellow, shadowy welcome that held nothing to question, nothing to distrust. They entered and, if anything, it was Gemma who hesitated.
'It's all right now,' Taff said, taking her arm. 'Its just an ordinary room with no more secrets.'
She smiled. 'I suppose so, but I can't help remembering that people lived and worked here with a body lying behind just four inches of brickwork.'
'Don't think about it. Think about what we came for.' He laughed. 'What did we come for?'
'Well, we must look for anything that could help us. We must try and establish when the false wall was built.' She looked around the room. 'You had just taken the fire place out? Is there a clue there, perhaps?' she asked, touching the marble of the surround.
'I don't think the surround and this ironwork is as old as the rest of the house. We think the house is Queen Anne, built around the beginning of the eighteenth century. The surround looks later.'
He picked up his chisel from the floor and walked over to the half demolished chimney breast. 'I suppose that if someone was installing a new fire surround it could have provided the opportunity to build the false wall.' He scraped plaster away from the area of brickwork in the chimney breast that had not that afternoon been demolished, and examined thebricks, then picked up a brick from the debris of the wall he had furiously knocked down to open up the recess.
'Look,' he said, turning to Gemma. 'These are different bricks entirely. Different texture and even a different size.' He scraped away more plaster, 'and look here, there's a biggerbrick built into the chimney breast where someone has made good. I'm certain the wall was put up at the same time as the fire place was installed, but a long time after the house was built.'
Gemma said, 'How exciting. Our first clue.'
Taff smiled. 'You were right about looking at things in more detail.I was just bashing out the brickwork withoutgiving it a second glance. The original bricks are hand made and the sizes vary slightly, but they are smaller than these in the false wall. I remember something from my Tech. days about a brick tax, when they started using bigger bricks to reduce the number and the tax bill. I'll look it up in my books tonight; that could narrow down the period of our search.'
'And tomorrow I'll try and date the fireplace,' Gemma said.
'Ring the architects and ask them for the name of the antiques dealer who bought the surround and ironwork. He has probably already dated it and could save us a lot of time.' Taff stood at the door and looked around the room again. He had been wrong when he thought that finding the body was the end of the matter. It had been a beginning and the real story was yet to be discovered.