Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel. At the end of each weekly instalment there will be at least one poll where you will decide what happens next. Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote.
The Ninth Instalment
Professor Ashcroft stopped outside the tool shed. Looking through a nearby gate into the walled garden Nigel spotted a pair of gardeners harvesting apples. He recognised them as pallbearers from the funeral. The Professor circled the shed. Nigel followed examining the red brick building. The tool shed had a heavy wooden door and the only windows were small portholes near the roof for ventilation.
“This is where Mr Neville was discovered,” the Professor said. “Just to remind you of the facts. He was found barricaded inside the building. From our inspection it is safe to say the only other way in and out of the building is via the windows. Yet we both agree that not even a child could fit through them. Now when the door was broken open Mr Neville was found dead. It looked as if had been beaten to death by a mystery assailant. Furthermore, his eyes and tongue were missing and to this day they have not been found. As he was barricaded from the inside it has been assumed that Mr Neville carried out an act of self-mutilation.”
“That seems a little bit unlikely, sir.”
“On the contrary. Inflicted by bouts of madness people can commit the most unbelievable acts. It does not see out of the realms of possibility that Mr Neville inflicted these appalling injuries on himself. Now our job is to go in there and look for any evidence that may have been missed on previous searches.”
With that the Professor pushed open the door. Dust swirled in the beams of light shining down through the small windows. Rows of tools were propped up against the far wall, there was a stack of pots in one corner, and a set of shelves full of miscellaneous gardening equipment. On one of the walls hung cruel looking traps for moles, rats, and other vermin, there metal jaws looking like the teeth of some prehistoric beast ready to snap shut if anybody drew too close. There was an earthy smell in the air that Nigel found strangely pleasant.
“We will need some more light. There is a candle and lantern in my bag,” the Professor said.
Nigel placed the heavy leather bag down at his feet. He rummaged in the bag pushing aside a role of scalpels, a bone saw, a splattered apron until he found the small lantern and a box of candles. He placed a candle inside the lantern and passed it to the Professor. The Professor produced a match from his breast pocket. Holding the lit lantern up high the Professor stepped inside the shed.
Nigel placed the bag in the doorway and followed him inside. It was just a precaution to stop the door swinging shut and locking them inside, after all the last man that had been trapped inside the shed had been found dead. Cobwebs cluttered the beams above. In the eaves was a discarded bird’s nest with powdery droppings on the floor beneath it. Clumps of mud and dust covered the floor by the walls. The floor in the middle of the room was clean enough to see the blue tiles.
“It’s not very tidy is it?” Nigel muttered looking at the powdery droppings on the floor.
“It is a tool shed, Nigel. What were you expecting? Carpet and oil paintings? Right let us get to work. We know that Mr Neville barricaded himself inside.”
The Professor held the lantern up to the door. There were holes in the frame where nails had been pulled loose. One rusty nail remained bent and twisted where it had been pulled through the timber. The door itself was new. The old door had been smashed to splinters when the men had broken into the tool shed to retrieve the body.
“He nailed the door shut. Seems he did not want to be disturbed in what he had planned.”
Standing inside the tool shed and looking out on to the patch of rhododendrons opposite, Nigel was struck by another thought. “Sir, what if he barricaded the door to stop something getting in?”
The Professor tutted. “That is obvious, Nigel. He did not want to be stopped from mutilating himself.”
“That’s not what I meant. What if he was hiding from something? What if he barricaded the door because he thought it would make him safe from an evil spirit or some sort of demon conjured up to torment him.”
“A demon that our hoaxer tricked him into believing,” mused the Professor. To his credit he did consider Nigel’s suggestion for second. Then shaking his head, he dismissed it. “Highly improbable. That theory does not explain his injuries. We both agree that nobody could have escaped from this barricaded shed. The windows are far too small for a child to fit through let alone somebody strong enough to beat a full-grown man to death. His injuries are self-inflicted there is no other explanation.”
Nigel nodded. Sometimes it was easier just to agree. The Professor turned his attention to the floor. He scrambled down to his hands and knees to get a closer look.
“You’re blocking my light,” the Professor said. Nigel shifted away from the door. The Professor lowered his nose so that it was inches away from the tiles. “This must have been where he was found. They have washed the tiles down. No doubt to remove the blood and unfortunately for us any evidence.”
The Professor straightened up. Stroking the small strip of hair at the bottom of his chin he looked around the room. “I will search the shelves you have a look through those pots and buckets in the corner.”
Nigel began picking his way through the pots. “What am I looking for, sir?”
“The missing tongue and eyes of course.”
Grimacing Nigel gingerly picked up the next pot. It would be just his luck to find the gruesome appendages. He began to sweat at the thought. He had always struggled with autopsies he had been forced to endure. He hated to admit it, but he had a weak constitution when it came to blood and gore.
He lifted the last pot. Something moved. Groaning he dropped the pot and backed away.
“What have you found?” the Professor said striding over eagerly. He lifted the pot to one side and sighed. A large spider scuttled away from his lantern light. “Really Nigel? A spider? I despair with you sometimes. Why must you test my patience?”
“Sorry s…” He fell silent. Something had caught his eye. Ignoring the Professor, he knelt to have a look at the wall. “Sir, I think you had better have a look at this.”
“This better not be a fool’s errand,” the Professor said kneeling beside him. The Professor’s eyes widened. “My goodness you have actually found something.”
The Professor held his lantern closer to the wall. Etched into the brick was an upside-down pentagram no bigger than a watch face. Within the star was a picture of a man. He had a wiggled line for a mouth and each of his eyes.
“The star is definitely upside down,” Nigel said before the Professor could disagree. “What does it mean?”
“I consulted my text on symbology while you were out galivanting with Miss Berwick. An upside-down star is a symbol of the occult. The two points of the star pointing upwards are an affront to the natural order.”
“So a symbol of witchcraft?”
“That is what our hoaxer wants us to believe. I bet this was scrawled into the brickwork after Mr Neville was found. You can see by the lack of dust on the brick and the brightness of the indentations that it is recent.”
“Why would the hoaxer hide it behind the pots? Surely they would wanted it to be found?”
“Found, yes, that is what they desired. But they could not put the mark out in the open, otherwise somebody would have realised it was not there when Mr Neville’s body was found. They hid it behind the pots knowing one day somebody would find the symbol and link it to his death.”
Nigel did not contradict him. There was no point. The Professor would not listen to his conclusion. Nigel suspected the symbol were somehow part of the ritual involved in casting a spell. The pentagram in the church had been used to summon the horde of rats while this small marking had caused a man to beat himself to death after gouging out his own eyes and tongue. He was looking at the mark of a witch.
Leaving the shed Professor Ashcroft headed into the walled garden. One half of the garden was an orchard of apple and pear trees. Along one wall were canes of raspberries, gooseberries, and blackberries. The rest of the garden was dedicated to rows of vegetables – or whether it should be. Nigel knew enough about gardening to expect the beds would be full of growing winter vegetables and the last of summer plants, not barren batches of dirt. The two gardeners were plucking apples from the trees. The younger of the pair was upon a stepladder throwing down the apples for the older man to inspect. The baskets at the foot of the ladder were empty and the men were flinging the produce into a heaped wheelbarrow.
“Gentlemen my name is Professor Ashcroft, and this is my assistant Nigel,” the Professor announced as he walked towards the gardeners. “We are here to get to the bottom of these stories of witchcraft. We would like a moment of your time. Your names?”
“David Boyd,” said the elderly of the pair tipping his flat cap towards the Professor. He pointed to the younger man up the ladder. “That is John Johnson. What can we do for you, sir?”
The Professor glanced at the wheelbarrow full of apples. “Are you binning all these apples? What on earth is wrong with them?”
“They’re for the pigs, sir,” said Boyd. He reached up the ladder. “Chuck us one down.”
Johnson plucked an apple from the tree and threw it down to Boyd. Boyd held up the apple for the Professor to see. It’s green skin was peppered with holes. The gardener took a knife from his pocket and cut the apple open. The inside was full of wriggling black and yellow worms.
Nigel gagged at the thought of biting into the apple and feeling the wriggling mass in his mouth. He looked at the wheelbarrow piled high with apples. “Are they all like that?”
“Every single one of them,” Boyd said casting the apple halves into the barrow. “In all my years I have never seen an infestation like it. The pears are the same. Full of worms.”
“That is rotten luck,” the Professor said.
“I wish it was just luck, sir. But the worms are just half of it. You see, all the berries have grown small and shrivelled no matter how much we watered them. We have had to dig up all of the brassicas as they were rotting. The root crops grew plenty of foliage but scrawny thin roots that aren’t worth eating.”
“So every crop has failed?” the Professor said.
“We grew plenty of potatoes. But you wouldn’t want to eat ‘erm, sir.”
“They bled a dark bitter fluid that looked like blood. There is something going on around here and it ain’t natural.”
“It’s witchcraft,” Johnson called down from the ladder. “A witch has cursed this garden, so nothing grows.”
“There is no such thing as witchcraft,” the Professor said.
“Then what happened to Mr Neville?” Johnson said. Before the Professor could answer, he pressed on. “Mrs Berwick’s illness? The rats at the funeral? All those straw dollies they found? There is witchcraft going on here. Mark my words.”
“What nonsense. It is no wonder that you are just a gardener with such backward views of the world.” the Professor scoffed.
Johnson’s face dropped, clearly offended, but as the Professor was a guest of his employer he could not retaliate. His job was worth more than that.
“If ain’t witchcraft, sir. Perhaps you can enlighten us?” asked Mr Boyd.
“It is all a hoax. Just trickery that you have fallen for.”
“It ain’t a hoax. Its witchcraft,” Johnson said.
Nigel tensed suspecting an argument to break out. To his surprise the Professor pressed a hand to his brow and shook his head.
“On second thoughts, I think I will question Mr Gates further. Nigel you stay here and talk to these two men. I do not have the strength today to listen to such poppycock.”
The Professor marched off leaving Nigel with his bag. He suspected the Professor’s prickly demeanour was due to him struggling to find rational explanations for what was happening on the estate. Nigel waited until the Professor had left the walled garden before apologising.
“I’m sorry for Professor Ashcroft’s behaviour. He didn’t mean to cause offence.”
“None taken,” said Boyd. He looked up the ladder. “Ain’t that so?”
Johnson reluctantly nodded.
Nigel reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his notepad and pencil. “I have a few questions to ask about Mr Neville’s death? Were you both there when they found him?”
Boyd looked grave. “We were the ones that broke into the shed.”
“Did you know he was in there?”
“We hadn’t a clue. We couldn’t get into the tool shed and for the life of us we didn’t know why. We were looking for Phil. He never went home the previous night and his Mrs was worried about him.”
“I checked the tool shed in the morning,” said Johnson. “But the door wouldn’t move. I then went to look elsewhere, and it was only later that we tried to get into the shed.”
“The door wouldn’t open and you didn’t consider he was inside?”
Johnson shook his head. “No, I just thought some tools had fallen oven and blocked the door.”
Scribbling in his pad Nigel thought that it was for the best that the Professor had sauntered off. He certainly would not have been able to stomach the thought of such idiocy.
“So you eventually decided he might be inside?”
“Yes, when we couldn’t find him anywhere else. We had to use axes to smash our way through,” Boyd said. “It was then we found the wooden planks nailed to the frame and the door. While breaking in I spotted Phil lying there. I could tell right away something was wrong.”
“He was laying on the floor not moving in a pool blood.”
“Do you think he barricaded himself inside?”
“He must have done. We found some nails and a hammer inside and if he hadn’t done it then who had.”
“The thing that killed him,” Johnson piped up.
“You think someone killed him?”
“I said thing. He was beaten into a bloody mess. A man doesn’t do that to himself. Also what happened to his eyes and his tongue? You do know they were never found?”
“I have heard the reports. Professor Ashcroft believes his injuries are self-inflicted. The door was barricaded from the inside. It would have been impossible for somebody to have killed Mr Neville and got out of the shed.”
“I said it was thing that killed him,” Johnson repeated. “It was something summoned by the witch. Something that could walk through walls. The witch wanted him dead.”
Nigel looked at each man in turn. They both looked sincere in their belief. “Do you know why this witch would want to kill Mr Neville?”
Boyd shook his head. Johnson began busying himself plucking apples from the tree.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” Nigel prompted.
Johnson continued to pluck the apples from the tree and Boyd wouldn’t meet his eye.
“Don’t make me tell the Professor and Mr Berwick that you are holding information from me. They might assume that you are involved in his death.”
“Alright, alright. But you didn’t hear this from us,” said Boyd. “They say that the witch is the Richards girl. She is a maid in the house. Mrs Neville is the housekeeper. I’ve heard tales from other member of staff that Mrs Neville is a bit of a tyrant. Doesn’t take fools lightly. Well I heard that the Richards girl and Mrs Neville had a huge fallout.”
“Do you know what about?”
“No idea. We only heard this from Abby.”
“Abby Cartwright. She used to work as a chamber maid, but she left after Phil’s death. Scared that she would be next to suffer the witch’s curse. She thinks that the Richards girl summoned a demon to kill Phil to get revenge on his wife.”
Nigel looked up at Johnson. He was nodding his agreement with every word.
“Look its only what we got told,” Boyd said. He picked up the half an apple covered in wiggling black worms. “Look at this fruit. I saw you at the church with all the rats. Now you tell me that is not witchcraft.”
It was Nigel’s turn to fall silent.
Tuesday 11th of September 1860 Part 4
With hands wrinkled and red Gertie took the dry sheets from the line. She roughly folded the sheet together. It wasn’t good enough, the sheets would crease, but she was beyond caring. She had spent all day washing sheets, table linen and towels by hand. Her arms ached from churning the washing drum and cranking the stiff handle of the laundry mangle. It was her hands that bothered her most. They were red, raw, and stung. She suspected she was having allergic reaction to the detergent.
She dropped the sheet into the basket and moved on to the next sheet wondering where Mary had got to. She had carried her full basket back to the laundry room at least ten minutes ago. She should have been back by now.
She turned to see Nigel walking towards her. He was struggling to carry the Professor’s bag. She turned back to remove the pegs from the sheet.
“Are you having a good day?” he asked dropping the bag with a clunk beside her laundry basket.
“Not as good as yours,” she said keeping her back to him.
“What do you mean?”
“I would rather go out horse riding with her ladyship than washing sheets all day.”
“You saw me going out riding?”
“I was hanging out sheets when you came back. You rode right past me.”
“I didn’t see you.”
She let out a bitter laugh. “Since when does anybody notice the staff. It is our job to be invisible.”
She pulled the sheet from the line without removing the last peg. The peg snapped. She began to fold the sheet.
“Here let me help you,” Nigel said reaching for the bottom of the sheet.
She pulled it away from his grasp. “I don’t need your help. I can do it on my own thank you.”
Nigel stepped back. He looked at her puzzled.
“Are you alright?”
“That’s good for a moment I thought you were upset.”
She looked at him incredulously. She expected such a complete lack of empathy from the Professor not from Nigel. Oblivious to her anger he continued.
“The Professor told me you saw some mysterious lights in the garden last night. You should have come back and got me.”
She turned away for him to unpeg the last sheet.
“I heard you, Nigel.”
“What happened in the garden?”
“The lights were gone.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see him watching her with a puzzled expression.
“Alright then I better get going.” He picked up the Professor’s bag. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
She spun round. “Of course I’m not bloody alright, Nigel. You’re going off horse riding and larking around with her ladyship. The Professor is getting drunk and then spending all morning sleeping. While I am slaving away from dawn to dusk. My hands are raw and feel like I have stuck them inside a beehive. I am exhausted and I have had enough of being the only one that seems to be trying to solve this mystery.”
“I have been working hard on this investigation.”
“Have you? What did you find at the stone circle?”
Nigel looked up at the sky suddenly fascinated by a crow flying overhead. “Well…erm…”
“You haven’t been yet, have you?”
“I’ve been busy looking at other leads.”
“Going for fun rides more like. Something happened to me down at the stone circle and you can’t even be bothered to go and investigate it.”
“I will do but…”
She didn’t let him finish. “As I thought. I’m the only one doing anything.”
“That’s not fair. I have just been talking to the gardeners.”
“And what did you find out?”
“They think witchcraft is causing the fruit and vegetables to rot.”
“They think witchcraft is involved. What a surprise?”
“They also suggested that Mary is the witch and she summoned a demon to kill Mr Neville in revenge for his wife yelling at her.”
“Mary is not a witch,” Gertie insisted. “Somebody is blaming her, and I bet it is your friend little Miss Perfect.”
Nigel held up his hands. “Alright. I understand that you’re cross. I’m sorry if you got the impression that we are not taking things seriously, but we are. I promise that I will look at the circle. I will get the Professor to go down there tomorrow.”
Gertie picked up her clothes basket. “You better had.”
She walked off leaving him stood beside the Professor’s bag. She knew she was being hard on him, but she felt better for venting some of her anger. It just didn’t feel fair that she was slaving away, especially when she suspected it was a futile exercise and they weren’t. How did the Professor expect her to find out anything of use by washing sheets?
The laundry lines were on a patch of grass that caught the full sun. Located beside the main drive they were hidden from the hall and the ornamental gardens by a yew hedge. She passed through the arch in the hedge and into the main gardens. She crossed past the back of the garden heading for the door that led down to the laundry. Approaching the corner of the hall she could hear voices from around the side of the building. She paused. She couldn’t make out the words but recognised Mary’s voice. She lowered her basket to the ground. She crept close to the corner of the hall. Pressing her back to the stone wall she peered round the corner to see….
What Happens Next Is Up to You. Cast Your Vote To Decide. Whatever Recieves The Most Votes Will Happen Next