The Ragged Cot by Toddland, in the Cotswalds, Flickr.com, haunted house pages
Chapter One: Gothic Dimensions
Swallowtail Cottage was just as the estate agent had described. It stood in a secluded cul-de-sac off Cliff Road, a narrow bituminised lane that connected the main highway to the fishing village of Corby’s End that squatted in the curve of a small bay a brisk five-kilometre walk from the cottage’s front steps. The frontage of the compact building was almost entirely screened by a profuse growth of bright green ivy. The windows were blind, shuttered against the evening gales that regularly struck that part of the coast. They were partially covered, too, by falls of ivy. Young chlorophyll-soaked tendrils branched from the older vines of gnarled brown that clung cemented into the walls by age and sun. It was a contrast between youth and age, but a contrast that was a melding of brittleness and over-ripeness, imparting a sense of foetid decay.
Lisette Rivers could not control the small shiver that started at the nape of her neck, causing the fine honey-gold hairs to bristle, before continuing down her spine. She hoped that the holiday cottage would look more welcoming inside.
The young woman turned and surveyed the narrow dirt lane by which she had just arrived. Her rented Peugeot stood some feet from the picket gate that opened to the narrow pathway of paving stones. The pathway ran with a slight s-curve to the point where she was standing, below the sandstone steps. The gate stood half open after her passage, a metonym for Lisette’s indecision. She had arrived without an expectation of being either attracted or disappointed by what she would find. But on first sight she felt repelled.
Beyond the dirt lane she knew ran the narrow Cliff Road hat reached in both directions towards civilisation. It felt like her only link with others. She had insisted on a secluded place in which to holiday so she supposed that she should not grumble.
On the main highway she had spied a squat lighthouse standing upon a narrow promontory. It marked the furthermost extent of the cliffs into the sea as a warning to shipping. The coastline here was dangerous with reefs and undertow that could claim the strongest swimmer. Between the turnoff to the lighthouse and Cliff Road she had seen another cottage set back some distance with a long gravel driveway. Its architecture appeared similar to the cottage where Lisette now stood. What’s more, she had seen a double iron gateway about a hundred yards back, her closest neighbours. The gates were closed, but Lisette saw that they opened onto a broad vista that by its grandeur probably continued to a building more substantial than a cottage. So she was not without neighbours, though in her present mood they would be unwelcome.
Lisa Rivers, aka Lisette Ruisseau, badly needed a break from the crowded London streets and the detecting business. Her last two cases had left her drained. There is only so much that a young woman can take of being bound and gagged by a succession of criminals no matter how resilient she might be. She had left strict orders at the office that she was not to be disturbed for two weeks. Her partner, the voluptuous platinum blonde Chèrie Chalmers, was busy on a case that required her appearance in court almost daily. Chèrie was totally preoccupied, and welcomed Lisette’s absence, though she tried to hide her relief at the announcement. Lisette knew that their administrative assistant, the bubbly blonde Sophie Brush, would guard her privacy doggedly. Now that she had arrived at the cottage retreat advertised by the estate agent’s office, Lisette had to make the best of it.
She looked up the lane towards Cliff Road. Beyond it, across country, lay the cliff and the sea swirling at the foot of a vertiginous drop. She could hear the faint murmur of the wash of waves on the rocks. It was a sunny day and, apart from the distant roar of the sea, very quiet. There was a whirr of wings above her. Lisette turned in time to see a swallow disappear beneath the eaves of the cottage - a thatched roof that she admitted gave the place a certain charm. The sight lifted her spirits.
The cottage stood in about two hectares of land. That was a sizeable area, five acres in British imperial measure. Behind the cottage stretched hummocky moors. Lisette had seen them represented on the district map but had also caught a glimpse of the barren area from a hill some kilometres before the headland. Those open spaces offered good hiking. Perhaps it would not be so bad after all once she had grown used to the isolation, the welcome quiet and, she hoped, the comfort of the cottage’s interior. Lisette decided that they would enjoy exploring the grounds and the nearby walks.
“They” were Lisette and her companion.
Lisette walked back to her car and opened the passenger door. “Come on Puss. Time to stretch those legs and explore.”
A large white feline stepped in lordly fashion from the seat where he had been ruminating and dropped lightly to the ground. Rasputin Thermodux the First, or Grumpy Top Cat as Lisette affectionately glossed his pedigree name, had adopted Lisette by mutual consent following her last case. The big Persian proved himself an attractive and, usually, unobtrusive companion. His mousing abilities were not apparent. He preferred to lie in dignified repose on his silk cushion and watch with bored indifference as the mice frisked confidently to and from their hole in the wainscoting. Lisette was secretly pleased. She did not relish the thought that a dead rodent might be laid at her feet by a proud feline or, need it be said, on her bed during the night. The holiday, she decided, would do Rasputin as much good as it would do her.
Lisette turned and mounted the stone steps. She came to a stop at the front door and extracted the house key from her shoulder bag. She paused, the key raised halfway towards the lock. A terracotta plaque that she had noticed from a distance as no more than a nondescript blur of fading pastel watercolours had become recognisable at close quarters. Was it a happy coincidence, the swallows in the roof and the butterfly ceramic on the door, a wry joke carried through by a previous tenant? The butterfly’s black, yellow and blue markings were beautiful.
“Swallow-tailed Butterfly dying in pond,” Genus Cressida Swainson, 1832, Wikipedia
Faded writing was impressed into the clay beneath the raised and painted image. Lisa read the words: “Swallow-tailed Butterfly dying in pond.” Once again she experienced her earlier disquiet as a faint frisson of unease lightly touching her spine. Was it her imagination, triggered into fancy by the atmosphere of neglect and decay, or was there something else, unknown and menacing, about this isolated place? She looked back over her shoulder at Rasputin. The big Persian was a good ally. It was no old wives’ tale that cats were able to sense danger. Lisette was hardly reassured to see that her feline companion was standing completely still at the top step, his tail fluffed out.
Lisette shook her head in annoyance at her suggestibility, and the spell was broken. “My, we’re both nervous this morning, Puss. Just shows how much we need this holiday.”
“Frraff,” said Puss.
She inserted the key in the Yale lock, turned it with a satisfactory click, removed it and fitted the same key into the dead lock immediately above. There was a louder click and, when Lisette pushed, the door swung open soundlessly. Someone had thought to use an oilcan. The place was not as unattended as might be thought. Rasputin stalked past her and entered the cottage first. His tail was normal, for a Persian. He must have been picking up on my emotions, thought Lisette with a sense of relief.
Indoors, Swallowtail Cottage was a lot more reassuring to Lisette’s jaded mind. The main door opened into a small vestibule, on one side of which a set of pegs lined the wall where coats and hats might be hung, with a narrow raised platform below to accommodate footwear. In fact, two large coils of thin rope hung looped over one peg, chandler’s cordage perhaps destined for a sailing boat of some sort, and a pair of rubber wading boots stood in a corner directly below them. A patina of dust showed that they had not been used for a long time.
Two paces further and a second door opened into the main hallway. A living room could be entered to the right, and another open doorway led to what appeared to be a smaller office room on the left; or perhaps living room to the left and office to the right, Lisette considered, from the perspective of occupants and not of arrivals. In the living room the previous occupants had left a number of garish foreign language detective novels scattered across the coffee table.
Les Intrus, (“The Intruders”) author unknown, published by Fleuve Noir (“Black River”), artist poss. M. Jertry
A narrow staircase rose from the hallway to an upper floor that had not been evident from the cottage’s front elevation. She explored the ground floor first, finding that the hallway ended at a kitchen that was narrow but extended the full width of the cottage so that with its pot-bellied stove and wood burner oven, together with a more up to date electric range, microwave and refrigerator it was roomy and snug at the same time. A small pantry led off from the kitchen and there was a back door, locked, a heavy iron key protruding. Lisette was amused that the signs of a security consciousness where the front door was concerned were undermined by the nature of a back door that could easily be forced. They were in the country anyway and the deadlock on the front door may have been put there for show, to reassure apprehensive city dwellers.
Returning to the staircase and shadowed by her silent feline friend, Lisette mounted upstairs to find a comfortable bedroom with en suite bathroom and toilet. The place had up to date plumbing. The centrepiece of the room was a large Queen size bed. The dresser with broad winged mirrors and padded stool had enough drawers for her lighter clothing of underwear, socks, stockings and scarves, though she was not expecting to wear city clothing often if at all. The surfaces, clear of grime, had obviously been dusted and wiped recently. Lisette wondered whether the caretaker had been in the cottage as early as that morning. She had an address for the woman in the village.
Leaving Rasputin to explore for himself, Lisette returned to her Peugeot and retrieved her two suitcases: one that held her clothing and the other smaller satchel that contained an assortment of books, makeup, toiletries, and a laptop on which she could access email from the office if she felt so inclined. There was no need, she told herself. Her latest lover, the crime novelist Bryce la Plage, had disappeared into the forests and mountains of Untervald, just as her earlier and by now almost forgotten paramour Dennis (or was it Douglas?) Casson (or was it Casement?) had done. But she knew that they were engaged on very discreet DORFIS business. When (more realistically, if) she was required, she would know soon enough. Lisette put it from her mind. Why was work reasserting itself whenever her thoughts became unguarded?
Back in the bedroom she shucked off her jacket, a smart narrow-waisted garment of brushed black velvet, and hung it in the large built-in closet. She wore dark slacks with rubber soled flat-heeled pumps on her feet, a green button-through cardigan with a V-neck, and a red silk neck scarf with black and white highlights knotted prettily at her throat. The cottage was warm. The caretaker must have switched on the air conditioning earlier that day. But outside, in spite of the wind, it would be comfortable enough to explore the grounds without wearing the satin trench coat that she was unpacking from the larger suitcase.
By the time Lisa stepped out into the back garden via the kitchen door she had made the cottage a lot more cheerful. The shutters had been taken down from the front bay windows, and from the bedroom window, allowing early afternoon sunlight to spread pleasantly through the living room and bedroom respectively. A bowl of flowers picked from the side of the house stood in central place in the living room. The kitchen was brightened with a similar spray of blooms. At the Kitchen table she had eaten her sandwiches and drunk her coffee from the thermos flask with which she had come prepared. Rasputin, who had disappeared on some mysterious errand of his own, reappeared and lapped his bowl of milk with hie usual concentrated attention. When Lisa once again left the cottage he vanished just as mysteriously. Lisa was used to the feline’s secret comings and goings. She was glad that he was enjoying the holiday as much as she was beginning to.
The two hectares of land stretched mostly from the rear and one side of the cottage. On the side facing the direction of the distant village, the boundary was marked by a waist-high stone fence that ran from the bordering corner of the cottage, at the cul de sac, to disappear towards the moor country. It belonged not entirely to the property but continued for an unknown distance. A narrow walkway followed the fence on the public side.
On the other side of the cottage Lisa could see through a tangle of bushes and tall elm trees a more substantial stone wall that was at least six feet high. It divided the property that Lisa was using from the presumably larger home next door, and it too ran from the cul de sac boundary to continue towards the moors. The fence at the rear consisted of a line of tumbled stonework no more than knee-high that connected the six-foot wall with the waist-high wall. Lisette wondered whether stones from it had been cannibalised in the past to help build the six-foot barrier. The stones in their cement settings were of the same type.
Midway between the rear boundary and the cottage Lisa found a small arbour that, upon entering, led to a raised platform and a pavilion furnished with a circular table and two chairs in filigreed cast iron. Both arbour and rotunda were smothered within ivy vines that grew thicker and more profusely than at the front of the cottage.
The large area, dominated by white elm trees and vine-smothered bushes offering many hideaways, was a veritable playground for a cat. No wonder Rasputin was not in sight. Lisette guessed that her friend was even now observing her from some vantage point with the smug detachment characteristic of his nature.
Her wanderings had taken her in literal bee-lines – here and there, turning first in one direction then in another – to the waist-high fence, back to the pavilion, to the six-foot wall, back to the rear step-over remnants of wall, and back to the six-foot wall again. A narrow footpath no wider than eight inches – more like a goat track than one made by human feet – ran alongside the high wall. Lisette followed it in the direction where she knew the front picket fence to be, though she could not see it through the tangle of growth that overhung her and brushed against the stonework as she passed through.
At one place in the wall she found a narrow wooden gate. Out of curiosity she tried the handle. It was locked. She moved on, then stopped and retraced her steps to inspect the gate more closely. Unlike the rest of the wall, the gate and its lintel were not covered in vines, and the shoulder-high foliage from the bushes looked as though it had been cleared recently to make entering and leaving easier. The limbs had been cut, but so long ago that new shoots had greened from the wounds. This entrance – or was it an exit? – could have been in use for some time. Lisa filed the knowledge away in the back of her mind for future investigation. Maybe there was a connection between the large property next door and the cottage. Perhaps at one time they had been part of the same property. She walked on.
From Silkscarfscans, Yahoo Group
Something else caught her attention and made her backtrack to investigate. Against the wall there hung a leather satchel partially screened from the narrow path by foliage. A long narrow strap attached to the bag extended upwards and over the top of the wall, to which it must be tethered somewhere on the other side. Gingerly Lisette felt the flat pouch. It seemed to be empty. What was its purpose? It was puzzling, the discovery setting off warning bells in Lisette’s mind. She decided not to interfere, however, and left it alone after making a careful note of the location by placing two flat stones one on top of the other at the foot of a nearby elm.
Lisette reached the front of the cottage puzzling over the leather satchel when her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a red Granada Ghia entering the cul de sac, its driver blowing a musical fanfare on the horn: her first unwelcome visitor.
© 2014 Brian Sands
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