The archivist at the Records Office was a formidable lady who ruled her domain with a firm hand and a glaring eye. She was nearly six feet tall, heavy limbed, severely coiffured, tweed clad and brogue shod, but for all her appearance of ferocity she turned out to be affable and incredibly knowledgeable.
'My dear girl, there are so many pitfalls, you could waste days following wrong leads,' she said, as soon as Gemma had explained her mission.
She emerged from behind her counter. 'Come with me. The first job is to make sure we are investigating the correct house; sometimes whole streets are re-numbered or the names changed,so we need maps, ordinance surveys, city maps, sewer plans, that sort of thing. I've got them all.'
In a side room, she examined a card index and then opened a large draw filled with old maps. She looked through them and drew Gemma's attention to several which clearly showed the house and its number.
'Good,' she said, packing them all back. 'It has always been number one. Now I'll get you the rate-books and you can sit quietly and plough through them.' She briskly led Gemma back to the main reading room. 'Find a comfortable seat, you'll be at it for a while,' she said and marched away, back to her records.
Fifteen minutes later she placed twelve large, leather bound ledgers in front of the reporter.
'I've checked the last few years and it has been occupied by Dunster and Cropper, the solicitors. They were there as Dunster Twist, Cropper and Blackstone in the years from 1899 to 1948 when Twist and Blackstone disappeared from the scene, so that covers this century and will save you some time.'
Gemma thanked her for her help.
She smiled; 'I love a mystery.' She opened the first ledger.
'You will find the rate-books from the middle of the last century fairly straight forward since they indexed the properties by number and street name. Before that it will be more difficult as the entries were looked upon as simply the means of recording the payments made and often show the names only. See how you get on.'
She got on very well. Her pad gradually spelled out a history of the house through its occupants. She found that the Dunster family acquired it in 1858 from a John Brewer who took over the freehold in 1850 from the widow of Joseph Fulkes who lived there, originally with her husband, from 1838.
In 1835 and 36 she noted the payments were made by a Hugh Bartlett and though she failed to find an entry for 1834 Bartlett was again noted in 1833. There was a clear note that the house had been unoccupied in 1832 but from 1831 back until 1827 it had been occupied by "Widow Hemmings”. In the books for 1826 and before, she came to a frustrating halt. She was so near completing her list that she found herself near to tears.
'Can you help me please?' she asked the formidable Miss Betts.
She explained her problem; before 1827 no numbers appeared and hunt as she might, although she found references to Cathedral Close, she could find none to number one.
'We'll make a chart,' the archivist replied positively.
They took the last clear year and wrote down the names of the occupiers of all the dwellings in the Close and used them as the headings to a grid, then slowly, year by year, they found the same names and entered them in the grid. In each year they filled any blanks left in the grid with new names, until they had completed all the years to 1821.
They discovered, by this means, that a John Hemmings filled the square under Number One each year from 1822 to 1826 when he presumably made his wife a widow. Try as they might, however, they could not fill in the square for the house in the year 1821.
'Of course it's possible the house was empty,' Miss Betts said, after they had spent a long time searching the rate-book.
'That's it,' Gemma cried, suddenly elated. 'That's how the work was done without anyone becoming suspicious.'
'Does that solve your problem?' Miss Betts asked.
'Not quite. We must go back a couple more years. I still need to find out who actually owned the house before 1821.'
They returned to their task and once more hunted through the old ledgers to find the names that would fill their grid, until finally the chart was complete.
Gemma threw her arms around her companion; 'You are wonderful!'
Miss Betts protested weakly with an "Oh my dear girl!"
Gemma didn't notice the lady's confusion. She had drawn a black circle around the name that had filled in the last squares of the grid.
In the years 1819 and 1820 she had written "Matthew Browett".
They had a name.
'It's amazing, David. You can very nearly read the history of the house from the names.'
They were sitting over coffee in the restaurant of the Glebe Hotel and gazing at the list of occupants that she had proudly presented.
Taff ran his finger down the list; 'So, the Hemmings occupied it in 1822. Can we be sure that the house really was empty the previous year?'
'Not absolutely positive. We may have missed an entry, but we searched very carefully. What struck me as significant was the pathologist's opinion that if no fire was lit in the grate for some months after the death it could have helped the preservation of the body.
An empty house would explain that.'
'And explain how the work was done, I suppose,' Taff added.
'Let's assume it was empty and the murder was committed in 1821. That would suggest that the villain was either John Hemmings or Matthew Browett.'
Gemma shook her head; 'Do you think Hemmings could have lived in that house knowing the body was behind the wall?'
'It's been known.'
'May-be, but my money goes on Browett. He probably sold it because he couldn't live with the knowledge. Maybe it haunted him,' Gemma said jokingly, but noticed that Taff paled a little and looked away. She reached across the table and took his hand.
'David, there is something you haven't told me, isn't there. Yesterday, you mentioned his restless spirit. Did you experience anything strange in that room. Is that it?'
He nodded. He thought he knew this girl well enough now to trust her with his secret.
'Please tell me,' she begged.
He made her promise she would not publish her knowledge, then told her everything from his first presentiments to the appearance of the worn cross. She was silent for many minutes after he finished, round eyed and shocked.
'When we went back last night, was there anything?' she asked, eventually.
'No. Everything had been taken from the room, so it was all normal; warm and ordinary.'
She was suddenly aware of the skin on her thighs turning to goose flesh; her mind had caught a fleeting idea and clung to it, the consequence of which at once excited and frightened her.
'David, what if something was returned to the room. How would it affect you?'
'What do you mean?' he asked.
'The cross. What if it was returned to the room. Would it guide you to a solution? Would it, do you think, affect you?'
He looked at her, puzzled. 'Even if it had some effect, how could it help us, there's nothing more to find.'
'There may be. If I could get the cross, would you try?'
He hesitated, remembering his fears, but he wanted to please Gemma and could see no reason for a repetition of his past experiences. 'All right,' he said.
'We'll do it now,' she said, standing. 'I'll tell the Path. Lab. I need to borrow the cross to photograph it for my article and we'll do it tonight.'
'Hang on, Gemma! Trying is one thing, but tonight.....?' he protested. 'Can't we do it tomorrow?'
'No. Tonight is perfect. Come on, David.' She dragged him tohis feet and called for their bill. She had not been so excited for a long time.
The room seemed to change the moment Gemma entered carrying the cross in a plastic bag. Taff had purposely gone in first. Nothing had changed from the previous day, all work suspended at the request of the police.
The rubble in a pile near the recess,
the light of the naked bulb yellowed by dirty walls and dusty surfaces and the partly demolished chimney
breast with brickwork exposed where he
had scraped off plaster on their last visit. But above all he felt no tension,
'OK, Gemma, you can come in,' he called.
Seconds after she joined him he felt the change.
She was standing at his shoulder, but her voice sounded hollow and distant. He turned towards her and saw that she had slipped the cross from the package and was offering it to him. When he did not take it from her she glanced at him and responded to the look of shock on his face.
'You feel something, David.'
He saw her lips move but heard nothing. He saw his hand move to hers and take the cross and immediately felt its presence burning into his palm. The room began to spin and he staggered against a wall and slid down slowly, uncontrollably, until he sat with the cross resting in his lap.
The room was full of whirling shadows and a confusion of sounds; voices arguing, shouting, screaming, screams that pierced his ears, and sobs that floated in the air and faded into the chaos of sound that engulfed him. And the shadows spun like frenzied dancers, like fog swirling around in his brain; but then, like fog slowly clearing, the shadows took form and two dim figures emerged from the whirlwind and filled the room with their presence.
One was tall with broad shoulders, fair curling hair and a full mustache; he wore a well cut jacket over jodhpurs and fine leather riding boots. The second man stood to his shoulder, was thin and pale with fine straggling hair. A priest, dressed in a plain, black gown that hung to his ankles. On his bare feet he wore thin leather sandals.
Their movements, now, were heavy, like a film in slow motion; arms raised in anger or defiance, fists clenched, a finger cutting the air, a violent quarrel played out in shadows and orchestrated by echoes. The movement slowed still further and the sounds faded, as though approaching the climax of the tableau, as the priest snatched a riding crop and swung it furiously across his antagonist's face, and even as he gazed on this scene.
David Thomas somehow knew that the tall man would stagger from the blow and, in a fury, swing a fist to the priest's head that would send him crashing against the marble mantle of the fire-place before slumping to the floor. Almost in a silence,the unconscious form was raised and then dropped behind a half finished brick wall.
Then the sounds came crashing back until they threatened the sanity of the Welshman. The darkness deepened and danced around the solitary figure in the mist. He crossed the room and seemed to scrape his hands along the chimney breast, then ram a brick into place before turning, and through the swirl of shadow, his face appeared for a few seconds, a cruel face with hard, evil eyes that knew no compassion and a mouth that bore the sneer of the victor.
He moved threateningly towards David and called his name and in that instant the screaming reached a crescendo, then began to fade until only the sobs remained. The dancing shadows faded and a pin-point of light appeared and grew as itapproached and filled his head, and suddenly he became aware that the voice calling him was Gemma's, and the sobs that remained were his own.
'I shouldn't have made you do it,' she said later, after he had recovered a little. 'You blacked out the moment you held the cross.'
'I saw it all, Gemma. I saw them quarrel and the younger man knock the priest unconscious and dump him behind the wall. It was as if I was in the room with them.' He got hesitantly to his feet.
'Are you all right now, David?' she asked.
He moved to the chimney breast without responding. He stood where the killer had stood before turning to face him. Before him was the odd sized brick he'd exposed the night before and which he now knew had been rammed into place in that final shadowy act. He found his chisel and scraped away the joint, eventually easing the brickout. He reached into the cavity and felt no surprise when his fingers gripped a leather roll, which he slowly withdrew and passed to the girl.
Nervously she untied the leather thong and unrolled it, revealing two ageing documents. She took them to the light.
'Oh David,' she exclaimed, 'It's Matthew Browett's will.'
Taff was spent, emotionally and physically drained. 'You read it,' he said.
She read through it quickly, skipping over legal verbosity and concentrating on the bones of it. 'It makes a great play on cancelling his previous will and speaks of wanting to make amends to his eldest son. He lists some bequests to servants and an old friend then leaves the rest of his estate to be divided between his two sons, Clarence Garfield Browett and the man known as Brother Gervais.'
'That seems straight forward. You wouldn't expect that to incite a murder,' Taff said wearily.
'There's a letter as well,' Gemma said and started to quietly read it. 'Here's our explanation,' she said breathlessly. 'I'll read it to you.'
‘Dear Brother Gervais,
Forgive me for this intrusion in your life but for nine years I have searched for you in order to keep a death-bed promise. I may have no right to disturb your life but on the other hand perhaps the right to chose your destiny should rest with you.
The truth is that I am your father. Your mother became my wife but you were born five years before we were able to marry. Her family would have none of me and denied us our love, forcing us to wait until the death of her father before marrying. When she was carrying you, she hid it by travelling to Ireland where you were born. You were taken from her at birth and we never knew what had become of you.
When we were young we lived easily with the secret, but as we grew older, the guilt bore heavily upon us. Before your Mother died, she made me promise to find you and try to make amends for the terrible thing we did.
That you have received this letter means that I have passed from this earth and am at rest with my beloved wife. I have amended my will and you are to share my considerable estate equally with your brother Clarence. He is not a man of God.
He is, if anything, a selfish man but he is your true brother and will accept you if you show him this letter.
Come home, I beg you, and claim your inheritance and in so doing forgive your parents their sins.'
May your God have mercy on my soul,
'So Clarence killed his brother and hid the second will to inherit the whole estate,' Gemma said. 'And no-one would miss poor Gervais because he could have quietly returned to Ireland.'
Taff simply nodded. He felt completely drained. He could not join in Gemma's excitement at their discovery and could only nod his responses to her eager questions. He looked at the cross. It lay on the floor where he had dropped it after regaining consciousness. He had to know if it was finished with him. He crossed to it and hesitantly picked it up. It lay innocently in his hand. He felt nothing.
It was over.
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