The Flower Girl Case
There are five steps to a good hoax:
1. You need an audience.
2. You need an impossibility.
3. You need to create the appearance of the impossible.
4. The impossible needs to be discovered.
5. It has to strong enough to stand up to simple scrutiny.
I say this because we see a lot of hoaxes, some good, some not so good. It’s our job to separate the real ones from the truth. And sometimes the truth is even more incredible than reality.
It was one of those rare winters when it does actually snow and the countryside had been neatly blanketed over the last few days by the steady, gentle fall of hundreds of thousands of tiny flakes of snow. They made the road slippery and the verge a bank of muddy, greying ice where they had been bulldozed aside.
I wasn’t paying attention to the icy road, I wasn’t even paying attention to the snowy fields on either side, but that was fine because I wasn’t the one driving. On the other hand, I wasn’t really listening either and Bill’s meandering monologue had become as much a background drone as the engine. Harry looked like he was asleep, Don was driving and I was leafing through the case file in my lap. We were in rural Suffolk, trundling through the snow in a black Land Rover.
Because someone had found some flowers.
It didn’t really qualify as a Police matter as far as I could see, and no doubt someone else thought so too, just before they passed it down the line to us, the Hoax Investigations Unit. Yeah, it’s hardly the most inspiring name, not exactly Scotland Yard or the Flying Squad, but it’s descriptive and simple and keeps people from asking too many questions.
I looked over the notes again and guessed at best the charges that could be raised would be trespass and destruction of property, at a push. If it was, then we could just hand it straight back to the Suffolk Constabulary and be on our way. If it wasn’t and there was something interesting to be found, then we could be here for a few days.
Either way, while we’re waiting I may as well introduce everyone.
The old boy with the grey hair in the passenger seat up front, currently rambling about Sutton Hoo is Bill Colbert, he’s pretty much in charge. Don’s the one driving with that studied squint of concentration in his eyes over his scrubby beard, he’s going grey too, around the ears and chin. Don does the forensics and is one of those all round good guys that you know you’re going to like just from the handshake and smile on his face.
Don drives and Bill does the briefing, it’s something of a tradition, I suppose.
Harry and I are in the back with the kitbags. Harry’s got his cap pulled down low over eyes, head tilted back and looks like he could be asleep, legs sprawled over the bags opposite. If Bill and Don are the veterans, I guess that makes Harry and I the new boys by comparison and that much younger too. Harry runs security for the team.
I guess that leaves me. If Bill’s in charge, Don’s the forensics man and Harry keeps an eye on the surroundings, what do I do? Officially, I’m and expert and specialist in the pseudo-miraculous (that’s all things ridiculous to you and me), my H.I.U card helpfully says, “Virgil Brannen, Hoax Investigator”, if you’re still wondering.
Unofficially, in our modern world where stunt men can walk through walls, dragons are regularly seen on TV and the internet can make a whole new you, its all too easy to forget that some things are still unexplainable. Those are the cases that get handed to us; the weird, the wonderful and the foul.
We pulled off the main road at the edge of what I can only describe as a typically Middle England Village, and it was. As we turned off I caught site of a church spire in the distance, an open village green and the smoke rising from the chimney stack of Tudor pub that was probably called The Cricketer’s Arms.
An unsalted, narrow lane led us a short distance before we turned again, onto a gravel drive that led us to an equally Middle England house; white-washed walls, lattice windows and an old dovecote perched on one end of what appeared to be an ivy-bound garden wall. Icy gravel crunched under heavy tires as we shuddered to a halt next to a snowy BMW, presumably belonging to the occupants of the house.
‘This is it,’ Don drawled as I belted up my jacket and yanked on the handle of the rear door, letting it swing open and chill air flood inside. I jumped down on to the solid gravel and looked around as Harry unfolded himself from his seat and ducked his head to step down beside me, reaching back into the Land Rover to pull a knobbly walking stick from under his seat. He tapped it against the gravel experimentally as Don clambered down from the driver’s seat and Bill fussed with his suit jacket before leading the way towards Middle England’s front door.
Before we reached the door en masse, the frosted glass of the upper was darkened by someone approaching from the far side and we stood back to let them open it. A bespectacled man, around forty, opened the door and putting a hand on the frame, asked, ‘Can I help you?’
He wore jeans, a grey jumper and a slightly curious expression, past him I could see a tiled entrance hall and a staircase leading upwards.
Bill took charge, producing his identification card from inside his jacket and offering it to the man, ‘Good morning, Sir, my name’s Bill Colbert from the Hoax Intelligence Unit, I believe PC Holling informed you that we would be in contact. You must be Mr Hansworth?’
The man nodded, reading the card and adjusting his glasses before glancing at the rest of us, ‘Call me John, come in, come in. Lizzy’s just put the kettle on.’
He handed the card back and shook hands with Bill, who introduced us as we filed inside, ‘Lieutenant Donald Drogue, Virgil Brannen and that one’s Harry Uckst.’
I shook John Hansworth’s hand firmly and and moved out of the cold, though Harry hung back, his flat cap still pulled low on his forehead, mismatched eyes turned toward Bill and his head tilted slightly in silent communication. Bill translated for Mr Hansworth’s benefit, ‘Harry’s going to take a look around outside if that’s alright with you, Sir. You’ll have to forgive him, he’s not one for idle chit-chat.’
Hansworth merely nodded again, adding an, ‘Of course,’ and Bill closed the door behind him and Hansworth gestured us through a doorway, ‘Kitchen’s through there, help yourself to a seat, the kettle should be done soon.’
We found the kitchen and a nervous looking brunette, also in jeans and a loose wooden jumper, who ummed and ahhed for a moment before offering tea and coffee and telling us to sit down. John Hansworth entered behind Bill and introduced his wife, Elizabeth Hansworth while Bill and Don sat down. I found a counter to lean against and watched Harry make his way across the drive through the window.
‘So, how can we help you?’ Bill asked, taking his notepad and a pencil from another jacket pocket, as though we hadn’t read through a case file on the way over.
Suddenly John Hansworth looked as anxious as his wife, ‘Yes… well, that’s the thing you see, it’s not really a problem a s such. It’s more of… well… we didn’t really think the Police would be interested, but we though it someone had been snooping about… and they were good enough to send out PC Holling…’
He trailed off and collected himself, looking a little embarrassed and slightly flushed, ‘It’s really something you need to see for yourself,’ he finished.
‘That might be best,’ Don replied kindly and stood up again as the Hansworths led the way into an adjoining sitting room with wide french windows.
Despite the case file, I began to see why John Hansworth was having trouble explaining how we could help. Outside the windows, despite the chill air, the layering of snow, a rather elegant snowman and the small, frozen ornamental pond, the sloping garden was in full bloom.
It wasn’t like looking at a summer garden, either. Every single plant that could be seen was decked out in gorgeous colour, made only brighter by the solid white backing of the snow.
After the general murmurs of disbelief and initial questions died away I excused myself and made my way back outside, across the solid gravel lumps and around the dovecote at the end of the garden wall. The snow on the pawing that ran around the side of the house had been compressed into ice and I slowed my pace, glad I had worn my boots.
I emerged on a patio terrace on the other side of the french windows and could Bill taking notes as the Hansworths tried to explain what had happened. I could guess the questions Bill was asking: When did this occur? Has anyone else been on the premises? Would anyone have a particular reason for doing this? The usual. I made my way out onto the lawn, following the footprints on those who had already been out to investigate this miraculous bloom.
There was a rose bush at the edge of the terrace, heavy with flowers, a rhododendron covered in pink blossom, a spray of gentle, purple lavender, red hot pokers jutting up around the border, blue gentians, yellow daffodils, rosebay willowherb, foxgloves, daisies, poppies and forget-me-nots. There were so many flowers that they almost seemed to be pushing one another aside just to be seen. And half of them shouldn’t even have been flowering at the same time, let alone during the second week of January.
The profusion of colours seemed ever brighter against the simple white background of snow and ice as I gazed over a garden that should have been impossible. You wouldn’t find this much colour in a dutch tulip field in April, let alone the middle of winter. It was astonishing.
I trampled through the snow to a patch of flowers that didn’t have footprints all around it and gently picked a vibrant blue gentian. I half expected to feel plastic or paper, but no, there was simply the velvety chill of cold petals and stem.
A further five minutes sampling convinced me that every single one of the flowers I could see was real. There was no doubt.
I looked up to find that Harry had silently joined me in the garden was gently moving flowers aside with his walking stick to peer at the ground beneath the plants. I joined him and looked down. They appeared to have simply grown up through the snow. A few sweeps with the stick cleared the snow and revealed frozen earth, as solid as the gravel at the front of the house, green shoots simply emerging from it. No pots had been placed, the earth didn’t even looked as though it had been disturbed recently.
For all intents and purposes it looked as though the flowers had simply got together and decided that it would be a good time to have an en masse flowering, or perhaps just start spring early.
So far whoever had come up with this was five for five. It looked real, it even smelled real and as of yet, I didn’t have an explanation. As a supposedly specialist hoax investigator, I was at a loss.
‘Well?’ I asked Harry.
Harry withdrew his stick from the flowerbed and tapped it against him open palm thoughtfully, still staring down, then he looked up at me and shrugged. A simple rise and fall of the shoulders and that was my question answered.
The cold was getting to my hands, so I thrust them into my pockets, ‘I’m heading back inside,’ I told him, looking up towards the house.
I missed what could have been a shrug, nod, or no reply because something caught my eye and it took me a moment to figure out what I had seen. A flicker of movement in an upstairs window, mayhap a reflection from the trees at the bottom of the slope, but I doubted it. I considered the age of the Hansworths and pursed my lips.
I trudged back up the snowy lawn to the house, that tea sounded good about now.
‘Well?’ Bill asked as I emerged in the sitting room.
Although, Bill and Don and have been with H.I.U far longer than Harry and I, it’s up to Harry or I to decide whether or not to take the case. It’s not a learning exercise or anything, it’s just a simple fact that Harry and I know a lot more about what we’re looking for. Sometimes you can just feel it.
Well?’ Bill asked as I emerged in the sitting room.
Although, Bill and Don and have been with H.I.U far longer than Harry and I, it’s up to Harry or I to decide whether or not to take the case. It’s not a learning exercise or anything, it’s just a simple fact that Harry and I know a lot more about what we’re looking for.
The Hansworths looked to me to see what I had to say; no doubt Bill had named me as the specialist.
I put on my serious, professional face and combed a hand through my somewhat tousled hair, ‘They’re all real, no hidden pots or signs that they have just been planted; the earth hasn’t been disturbed, it’s still frost bound.’
Bill nodded, making a note on his pad, ‘Mr and Mrs Hansworth have said as much.
‘I took some photos of the garden the other day, would they help at all?’ Mr Hansworth suggested as I eyed the fresh mug of tea that Don was clutching.
All three of us nodded and Mrs Hansworth was kind enough to offer me a cup, asking if Mr Uckst might like one too.
I had to hide my confusion at the name before I realised she meant Harry and refused on his behalf, ‘He’s not much of a hot drinks person,’ I told her.
‘If you’ll come through to the study?’ Mr Hansworth suggested and led the way to the other end of the house.
The study was a snug room that made up for its small windows with soft, but brilliant lighting that highlighted a old, well-used desk and a comfy looking green leather deskchair.
Hansworth fired up a desktop computer as we clustered about him, listening to the sound of the kettle beginning to boil through in the kitchen. As we waited, Hansworth tried to fill the silence; something that seems to happen a lot with nervous people during investigations.
‘I’m a bit of an amateur photographer you see,’ he began, ‘and with the snow coming down I thought it would be nice to get a few shots of the pond starting to freeze over and the snow starting to lie. A sort of landscape, time-lapse series, if you understand.’
He glanced round at us and Don gave him an encouraging smile and nod. Don’s good at getting people to talk, it comes with looking like someone’s favourite uncle I’d guess.
‘Anyway, I was setting up the tripod and I realised I must have forgotten to charge the battery on the camera. A shame really, because the light was still good at that point. So I had to leave it till the next day.’
He looked at Don and got the nod to continue.
‘So I charged it overnight, with the idea I’d make sure I got a few shots of the snow the next day. Unfortunately…’ he trailed off for a moment as he began searching for the files on the screen, ‘Unfortunately, you can’t blame her though, by the time I’d got back from work, Jenny had had the day off school because of the snow and been out building that snowman.’
‘Jenny is…?’ Bill prompted, though I was already thinking of the movement upstairs.
‘Our daughter,’ Hansworth confirmed, ‘she’ll be seven in May.’
I pursed my lips again silently, wondering.
‘Anyway, I got a few photos of her snowman to keep her happy and took some of the garden at the same time. Then, what with all the flowers… I took a few more this morning.’
As he said this, he found what he was looking for and clicked to bring up a photo of the flower filled garden, then, resizing the window he double clicked again to bring up another photo.
They were the same photo, taken from almost exactly the same place, height and angle. There was snow on the ground and plants in both images, the bushes were in the same places, the leaves on the evergreens were positioned the same, only, in the first image all of the plants were in full bloom. The space between the perennial plants and bushes had been filled in with the smaller, annual wild-flowers and bulbs that had seemingly just burst through the snow.
It was as though there had just been a huge amount of growth over night. And that simply wasn’t possible.
The options I could think of were running out very quickly.
‘Cup of tea, Mr Brannen,’ Mrs Hansworth said with a smile from the doorway.
‘Well, Virgil, what do you think?’ Bill asked quietly.
The Hansworths had been politely asked to vacate the study while we had a second look at the photographs and discussed our ideas. I had a few thoughts on how I might replant a garden over night milling around my head, but even as I explained them I knew they were beyond far fetched. The photos proved that.
‘The obvious idea would be to simply go in and replant the garden with imported, flowering species,’ I began, ‘however, I’m finding that hard to believe; there’s no way you’d be able to find an exact match to the size and shape of the established plants that those two photos show.’
Don murmured his agreement, scratching at his beard.
‘So, unless one of the Hansworths is an absolute genius with a photo editing program, I’d say that the rosebush out there and the rhododendrons are the same ones that have always been there. I’m sure we could find older photos to support that.
However, that doesn’t mean the rest of the wild flowers haven’t actually been planted over night.’
‘And if we say that the flowers were planted last night?’ Bill asked.
I gave a Harry-like shrug, ‘I can’t remember a huge amount of school biology but would it be possible to give them a massive dose of growth hormones?’
‘Enough for them to bud and flower overnight?’ Don asked, before shaking his head, ‘They would need sunlight, or at least light, to grow, as well as water and nutrients. The Hansworths would have noticed someone setting up a platoon of spot lamps in their back yard. Besides, they would have left traces and lamps like that would produce enough heat to melt the snow on the lawn.’
Bill summed it up for us, ‘So the bushes haven’t just spontaneously grown and you don’t think they’ve been replaced. What about the flowers?’
It was my turn to shake my head, ‘The ground is solid; Harry had a poke at it and it’s still frozen. That and it doesn’t look like it’s been disturbed recently, let alone last night. The flowers look as genuine as the bushes.’
Bill frowned, twiddling his pencil between his fingers, ‘So how did they do it? Whoever did this?’
That was it. We were here to look into a hoax, was there one?
It was time to revise my five steps.
So far we had the Hansworths and their daughter, a Police Officer they had mentioned and us. As far as I knew they hadn’t contacted any local Press and weren’t interested in publicity, there weren’t even any close neighbours who would be able to see the bloom. The garden was surrounded by walls, the house and fields.
An apparent spontaneous flowering. So far seemingly legitimate.
They had simply phoned the Police who contacted us. Nothing overtly suspicious there.
And it was resisting my scrutiny, if you wanted to count that as simple.
There was one more person I could talk to.
‘Mrs Hansworth?’ I asked, smiling a disarming smile, ‘Would it be possible to have a word with your daughter?’
We’d left Don in the study, checking the authenticity of the photos John Hansworth had provided and looking for any editing programs that might be on the computer. Bill had accompanied me back to the kitchen where the Hansworths were quietly discussing the state of their garden.
‘Just a few routine questions,’ Bill assured her, ‘Nothing to worry about, is she upstairs?’
Both Hansworths looked a little surprised, tensing with parental concern, but John nodded, saying warily, ‘Yes. I can go and get her, she’ll be in her bedroom.’
It was a normal reaction. Parents and children and policemen don’t normally mix, well we aren’t the Police, but to the Hansworths we were as close as the same thing.
‘I’ll go, Bill,’ I said tactfully, ‘it’ll be best if she’s comfortable in her own space, and two strangers appearing at the door will probably put her on edge. We don’t want to scare her. I know my niece is always shy around strangers.’
It wasn’t quite true, but the tension softened and Lizzy Hansworth gave me a thankful smile.
We left Bill and John Hansworth where they were and headed into the hall and up a flight of stairs, Mrs Hansworth asking, ‘How old is she? Your niece, I mean?’
‘About six and half,’ I lied.
‘Oh! A similar age to Jenny then?’ the tension was leaving her shoulders, I wasn’t a policeman any more, I was young man with a family.
‘I guess so.’
We doubled back on the landing and stopped outside an open door on which was stencilled, ‘Jenny’s Room’, surrounded by colourful, stylised flowers.
‘Jenny, darling?’ she called gently, ‘One of the gentlemen from downstairs would like to ask you a couple of questions. Is that alright?’
A young girl’s voice answered that it was alright and Mrs Hansworth led the way into the room.
As soon as I stepped through the doorway I knew the flowers in the garden were not a hoax. No, there was a much more pressing question than, how did they do it?
How do you explain to a six year old girl that summoning faeries into her parents’ garden to help the flowers grow, is a bad idea?
Faeries… You probably don’t believe them.
That’s alright, most of them don’t believe in you either.
Is that a little harder to get your head around? Thought it might be.
They have their world, we have ours and most of the time we happily ignore each other.
Which leads me to the Hoax Investigation Unit. It’s a good name; it’s obscure, yet believable. Most people don’t ask questions, generally because when we turn up something weird has happened and they just want a legitimate explanation and proof that they’re not going crazy. They’re glad we’re there to make sense of it.
I did warn you: truth is sometimes more incredible than reality.
That’s because in your reality and most people’s, faeries don’t exist. Unfortunately, in little Jenny Hansworth’s reality they did exist.
The result was: flowers, lots of them.
Hardly worrying, other than the fact it’s mid-January and flowers shouldn’t really be springing out of the snow, but not exactly dangerous, right?
The Fae are always dangerous. Have you ever heard the story of the Changeling?
An evil faerie steals away a human child and leaves an enchanted piece of wood in its place. Soon the fake child appears to become ill and dies. The parents mourn their dead child and no one is none the wiser, but the faerie and the stolen child.
Jenny Hansworth had somehow caught the attention of faeries and they had decorated her garden with beautiful flowers.
What had they been offered in return?
I was once told that there are perhaps one hundred people like me in the world.
One hundred. Out of more than seven billion.
Before today I had met one other, a man named Ostanus Magden. A man, I joking called, Oz, the Great and Powerful. He taught me everything I know about the difference between the reality we live in and the Truth.
Today I met Jenny Hansworth. She too had seen the Truth, even if she didn’t understand it.
I looked around at this young girl’s bedroom and immediately began to worry for her safety. What had I seen? Nothing sinister.
Only what you might find in any young girl’s bedroom whose parents have indulged her wishes. Jenny was going through the ‘fairy princess’ phase of a young girl’s life and her bedroom was bursting with all the paraphernalia that went with it. Fairy dolls, dresses, wearable wings, a fairy doll house, even a large painted mural on the wall inspired by a recent Disney film. All of that wasn’t proof though, that was just a side-effect.
The proof was the tangible feeling that sunk into me as I stepped through the door, a drifting tangible sense that made Lizzy Hansworth smile and relax, and me wary. It felt like hope, a daydreamy warmth and impression that everything would be just fine.
It wasn’t. It was an illusion, a glamour, lingering in the aftermath of a Fae incursion.
I brushed it aside, smiling a little sadly, and crouched down to talk to the little dark-haired girl in front of me, ‘Hello, Jenny,’ I said, ‘Do you like faeries?’
It was an open and shut case.
Don went out into the garden with some test tubes and took samples while Bill explained to the Hansworths how plant growth hormones such as auxin have the potential to build-up naturally in the ground soil, and underground water table flows can precipitate an accumulation of those hormones. He told them how this has a greater chance of occurring in shallow valleys like the one they live in due the gradient of the water table, and it was likely that the insulating capacity of the snow caused a temperature spike in the soil, that activated the auxin uptake and initiated a spontaneous flowering response among the plants. Lieutenant Drogue was taking soil samples to confirm back at a lab and that we would forward the results as soon as they were available.
He told them that this was unusual, but not unheard of. He told them what they wanted to hear.
That’s Bill’s job really, he takes the impossible and puts some interestingly scientific words behind an explanation and almost everyone is ready to accept that as the truth. Why? Because the alternative is that faeries used magic to grow flowers overnight in the garden and that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Yeah, suddenly Bill’s explanation seems very believable. Long words, an honest-looking old chap and some official I.D. can make people believe a lot, but not that faeries are dancing round the garden. We like to keep the world simple.
So what did I do?
I went back upstairs and had a quiet chat with Jenny.
I told her how plants blooming in the middle of winter was really, very pretty, but it was bad for them and they might very well die as a result. I asked how bad she would feel if all of her parents plants died because of what she had done. I told her that the little folk who had appeared weren’t what they seemed, that they could be mean and nasty. I told her that there were others like them that might come and take her away if she kept doing it.
I told her that there weren’t monsters under the bed and that she was safe, but out there are wild places that are not and she was turning the garden into one of those places. I told her that if she kept making them appear, we might have to take her away from her parents.
God knows I’m not proud of upsetting a little girl and definitely I scared her. But when I made her look up at me with those huge, teary eyes and sadly promise that she would never do it again, I believed her.
I gave her a hug and hoped she wouldn’t get nightmares.
Then I went outside and called the office, requesting ongoing, general surveillance of Jenny Hansworth, aged six, who was going to be seven in May.
Have you ever heard of the Dark Ages?