Black Maria

Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'

It was under the Euston arch that I farewelled Sidney Wainwright for the final time. I had travelled with him that far, carrying his portmanteau, but I had not been permitted to accompany him any further. It was still raining heavily, continuing from the previous day, and despite our large umbrellas, our trousers were soaked from the huge puddles we had had to traverse. What was worse was that we had been arguing all morning.

“Why now? Why this case,” I asked, yet again.

It had been the previous evening when the lady called upon us in Wainwright’s attic. Sidney and I had only just commenced the work he had in mind for me, the work outside my role as his solicitor. He had given me large bundles of government files to go through, without yet telling me why. At first, he just wanted me to “get to know them”. We had resumed our casual conversation for some hours. Later we were roused by the sound of footsteps on the three flights of stairs which led from the street and passed the rooms of the other lodgers. They stopped just outside Wainwright’s door. There had been a long pause before the knock, but it was firm when it came.

The lady who had crossed the threshold was very striking but drenched to the bone. Her damp dark hair was long, more akin to the styles of the thirties than anything of today. The long cloak she had worn had been blown around by the elements and the damp had penetrated to her cardigan and shawls underneath. If she had been wearing any makeup, it had long since run off her face. Yet her natural beauty was starker than any cosmetic perfecting could ever make it.

I was introduced to her only as Mrs Blainey. Sidney and our guest, after a large nip of whisky to warm her, had a hurried conversation. It had all been about a “vanished room,” and that what she had feared had been found. She begged for his help, and, after consideration at the window, Sidney agreed. Naturally, I understood none of it and got a strong sense that even if Sidney had been open with me the lady would never reveal whatever it was that they had to discuss with anyone else.

Mrs Blainey, whoever she was, had left a short time later, and Sidney was quiet for the rest of the night, before announcing, as the embers of the fire died away, that tomorrow he was to go away, “on a case”. Sidney never accepted invitations to investigate a mystery on behalf of others. And it was not infrequent that requests would arrive, only to be rejected. Whatever was different this time, it had been clear that it was of great significance.

“In short, Jerome,” said Sidney, with a note of finality under the arch that morning, “I go away not to investigate something new, but to go back to where I began. Maybe, after I take this train, this could be the end of the line for me. Yes, I think that is the perfect way to put it.” He smiled to himself. “I can only hope, that the circle is about to close.”

Long after Sidney Wainwright had vanished into the crowd, I stood there, wondering. I thought of following him, of discovering which train he was to catch and shadowing him until his destination, of somehow remaining undetected and then joining him on his adventure. But alas, I knew the old man was too clever; he could evade me if he wanted to, and plan such a deception with his choice of route.

In the cab that morning, as we ambled through a wet and foggy London, he had told me a story, the story of ‘Black Maria’. “I admire you, Jerome, your mind,” he said. “I care about you too much to bring you with me on this particular venture.” The story he told me was to be a caution, that maybe an ignorant life would be a happier one. I was not so sure.

“Once, while taking a detour from my route to the Cheltenham races,” began Sidney, “I took a drive through some lovely villages in the Cotswolds. It was by a field near the top of the hill above Wintersford that I almost ran into a great shaggy dog. He’d come from nowhere, through a farmer’s gate I supposed. But when I’d slammed on the brakes he was already off on one of the paths of his own making through the hedges. It was only later, though, when I recalled that the name Wintersford seemed familiar for some reason, I discovered this story. It had been in all the papers, and yet what you would read in the press told you almost nothing of what really happened and the deep feelings that run in that little corner of England to this day.”

“It is said that once every year a lonely figure is seen high on the hill above Wintersford with his head bowed, praying for forgiveness for his failure to solve its most haunting of mysteries. But others say that the policeman did solve the case and that he knows who killed Maria Taylor.”

Sidney finished the tale that follows by the time we reached Euston, and it was the full stop to his decision. I would not be going with him. Little did I think, under the grand arch of Victorian stone, that I may as well have been standing at St Peter’s gate, that Sidney Wainwright was going somewhere I would not be able to follow.

*

“The body of a young woman was found yesterday evening…”

Detective Chief Inspector Garth Edwards had first heard of the murder, like anyone tuning into the morning news on the wireless, accompanied by the name of a place, “Wintersford”. After more than a fortnight, when the local police had failed to make any inroads in their investigation into the death of Maria Taylor, the DCI had been sent up especially by the Yard. There were stories spreading in London that the superstitious local plods had been spooked by Wintersford. Utter nonsense, Edwards had thought. Now, with the end to his investigation in sight, he had sent for the local Superintendent to help make the arrest.

In Wintersford there once lived a wolf among sheep, or so they said. Edwards never presumed he would have to carry out his work in such a lonely place. Yet here he was, wandering through that very village at first light. All was quiet, and yet faces appeared in doorways and from behind curtains, so that almost every limestone cottage, store or pub had a pair of eyes searching through the gloom to catch a glimpse of the new arrival.

The villagers had been the same when he had wanted to question them. Some houses sent the children to answer the door to discourage Edwards’ interests, with the parents watching from the windows. Others seemed to have occupants that were watching him from the shadows, trying too hard to avoid making signs that they were home. Typical village people; always keeping their heads below water, but with their eyes close enough to the surface to watch, Edwards had thought. He supposed he couldn’t blame them, for trouble was well and truly about.

Trouble had first met him the day after his arrival. He had been given some mail by the publican and amongst it was an otherwise unmarked envelope which contained photographs of Edwards as he’d got off the bus, and walking around the village. They’d been taken by a long lens from concealed places. Someone wanted him to know that was being watched.

It was a wet morning and Edwards could already feel the layers of his overcoat weighed down with damp. As he passed by the cottages and beneath the twisted branches of the dormant trees, he sensed more doorways ajar, more hidden eyes, watching him, the alien outsider. They did not scare him, but something about this place did unsettle him. Something was not right. A murderer lay hidden.

After the photos, the next disquieting incident had been the following evening. Edwards had gone out to get his thoughts straight for a couple of hours and was watching a rather battered old print of ‘Rebecca’ in the specially adapted village hall. The air in the cinema was clammy. Near the climax of the film, when two of the reels were changed over by the projectionist, some eerie footage, deathly silent, appeared of Edwards walking down one of the village lanes. It was filmed from behind, and the cameraman had come up quite close.

Edwards’ heart almost stopped. There were gasps around the cinema, and a few people even looked at him, knowing he was there. A moment later the film came on again, but there were disquieting murmurs amongst the audience for the rest of the screening. The detective, whose hands were white as they gripped the armrests, couldn’t help but look behind him. He even went to the projection room, but nobody was inside. That had been three days ago.

With dawn approaching, Edwards made his way past the manor house, venturing uphill directly across the fields. As he trudged through the mud, in the heavy mist ahead of him he saw something moving, and after a few moments, his eyes were able to make it out. There was a boy up ahead, with a shaggy dog by his side. The dog had no leash but it seemed the boy had been walking it.

“You’re out a tad early young man,” said Edwards. The boy, who oddly enough in such weather was wearing shorts above his Wellingtons, nodded.

“You’ve come like all the rest.” The boy just knew it seemed. “Are you trying to catch the killer?”

“Yes, I am,” said Edwards. The dog circled around him, wandered off a short way down the hill towards the village, then turned, barking invitingly.

“Follow him, he’ll lead you,” said the boy. He seemed as sure of this as if he had said: “The sun is about to rise.”

“What do you mean? Hadn’t you better take your dog home with you?”

“Oh, he’s not mine.” The dog continued on down the hill, but, when Edwards didn’t follow, it turned and barked again. He was on the point of asking the boy who the dog belonged to when he realised the boy had vanished from his side. Edwards scanned the lines of the hedges but there were no signs of movement. The boy had disappeared into the mist.

The dog barked once more. Edwards did not follow. Instead, he continued on course, up the hill. He turned his head once and the dog was there, but when he turned to look again the creature had gone, just like the boy. Still, he felt that he was probably not alone.

The last attempt to undermine Edwards’ resolve had been that very morning. Reviewing his files after dinner in his lodgings above the pub the night before, with a double scotch in hand, he had fallen asleep in the armchair by the window. When he woke to the sound of his bedroom door closing, he found a small cinema projector set up by his bed and aimed against the wall. Edwards played the reel in the projector: it had been grainy footage of a window, his window. Through the glass, his sleeping form, and that of a figure right beside him, wearing a deathly looking mask with no eyes, could just be discerned.

Someone had broken in, come within touching distance, close enough to slit his throat, and had developed that film within several hours, before planting it for Edwards to find. That was what had sent him out so early. He could stay in that room no more. Before dawn, he had fished out the map of the area from the police report and set off under torchlight. Normally he would not thrilled about venturing out in darkness while it was still raining and misty, but he felt safer on the move at the moment.

Shortly after Edwards’ curious meeting with the boy and the dog he came upon the spot he was seeking. He recognised the place where Maria Taylor had been discovered at once, having been there when he first arrived. It was near the corner of a hedge that bordered the top field of the manor, but there was almost no trace of the sinister events that had occurred there. The rain had soaked the blood from the blades of grass into the soil and the only sign of disturbance in the paddock was the excessive trampling of the area by police, onlookers and locals that had churned up the ground.


A stone was there too. It seemed to have been a pillar of some significance that had been put there long ago. It was about two feet tall and reminded Edwards very much of the small stone Druid circle he had found once while walking on Dartmoor. Except there was one thing wrong, and Edwards searched around extensively with his torchlight to no avail. There were no other stones, nor even impressions in the landscape where they might once have been.

The pieces were fitting together at last. Edwards found himself shivering in his boots on the lonely hill, recalling the facts of the case one by one.

The body of Miss Maria Taylor, a spinster and midwife in her early forties, had been found in that spot, the top field of the manor estate, on All Hallows Day during a gusty sunset. The stark black and white prints in Edwards’ police file presented her exactly as she was found, lying on her back with her glassed over eyes still staring at the clouds racing above. There were great slashes to her chest. But these wounds had not been fatal. What had been was the pitchfork that had impaled her to the ground. She had lain in a pool of blood for some hours before a farmhand had found her.

According to the reports Edwards had been given, the local constabulary had no tangible leads and little possible notion of what to make of the matter, except one idea that was scarcely mentioned in print but everywhere implied. The murder bore all the hallmarks of a witch killing. But such things did not enter into the records of modern policing. They were tales, stories handed down of a darker age most thought was now left behind. No supposed ‘witches’ had been put to death in decades, for more than a century, or so most thought.

There had been a newspaper clipping as well in the file, with a full body portrait of Maria Taylor. It was only because he had been told the story a week prior by an old colleague that Edwards knew the sinister truth. There were no photos of the deceased in life that anyone could trace and so, after the autopsy, a well-connected young journalist had paid the mortician’s assistant to pose the body and have it photographed. The mortuary sacked the fellow but not before the picture had been printed. Maria Taylor, sitting in a wicker chair and seemingly staring vacantly into the distance. If you didn’t know, thought Edwards, you would be none the wiser.

Edwards, however, saw little stock in the notion of a witch killing. It was a ruse on the part of the murderer, he had thought to himself, a way to conceal the true motive.

Sir Alfred, the elegant and very eligible estate holder of the manor, had been Edwards’ first port of call when he arrived. Having read the statements taken from some of the villagers, he had decided upon approaching the case from first principles. Sir Alfred was the one figure in this case so far without a verifiable alibi, and so Edwards interrogated him.

“Tell me about your relationship with Miss Taylor,” Edwards had asked, to stunned silence. Nowhere in Sir Alfred’s statement did he refer to a personal involvement with the victim, yet there was hearsay in the village and Edwards had needed something to go on.

“Maria and I, Miss Taylor, were on friendly terms,” Sir Alfred had finally replied. Edwards recalled the lie in his face, it was written so clearly that it may as well have been printed on his forehead in black ink. “She is, was, one of my better tenants, and also, I might add, the only medical help in the village. We lost our doctor several years ago and have failed to attract another. It was one of my contributions to the village to sponsor her as a healing practitioner, although she needed little from me.”

“Why so?”

“The people would not see her,” Sir Alfred had said.

“The same people who knew of your affair I presume?” Edwards had retorted. The aristocrat’s thin and usually confident face had gone white.

“Talk! Whispers and gossip!” Sir Alfred had retorted. “Yes, we were involved. We wanted it to be kept quiet. Of course, though, the whole village seemed to have guessed. You know what at least some of them thought her to be!”

“A witch? Who do you think would have wanted to commit such a vicious attack?”

“There is a wolf among the sheep in this village, Mr Edwards, you must find the trail of bloody paw prints!” With that, the conversation had finished.

But there was one other name of interest from the file, one that Sir Alfred had suggested to the local detectives himself. Mrs Flora Grey, a widow from the village who seemed to be the community socialite, had had a long-running antipathy for the deceased that was well known in the district. It was also no secret, it seemed, that Mrs Grey had an obsession with Sir Alfred, seeing him as her one chance to move up in the world. The problem was that Mrs Grey had been at bridge all evening on the night of the murder, with at least ten witnesses in the village accounting for her presence.

As the sun began to rise in the distance, Edwards considered the barren scene of the crime around him. Witch killing! He couldn’t believe that such a thing would happen nowadays. This was the twentieth century, not the seventeenth. He dealt in facts, and there was one detail at the crime scene, staring him in the face now, that had given Edwards his answer.

Edwards felt through his coat pockets, hoping his cigarettes might have survived intact. Instead, he found the little volume on local history he had been given the previous day by Sir Alfred’s servant, Mr Barry, who had sat beside him in the bar of the Duke of Wellington in the village.

“Something you won’t find in that file,” Barry had said, flicking through the pages of the volume before handing it to Edwards, “Eighteen Forty-Three, the last witch killing in these parts.”

Edwards had read down the page. A dairymaid had been brutally murdered, by her boss it seemed. Two young children, a young boy and a girl, had found the body. They had later testified against the murderer and reported seeing a spectral apparition before the event. A black dog had led them to the murder victim but had then disappeared. Edwards ground his teeth together. It was only at the end of the page that Edwards read the name of the girl “Maria Taylor”.

“But this was over one hundred years ago, surely you can’t think?”

“Maria’s grandmother, of the same name. But it’s not a story most around here read in a book. It gets told, after a few drinks, late at night, and in such ways as to blur the truth entirely.” With that, Barry had left him.

Much as he had feared, Edwards’ cigarettes were all too damp to be any good. But, with a smoke at hand or not, his thoughts were clear now. Those were the facts of the investigation, all neatly lined up in his head, like a row of dominos. Now, he told himself as he retraced his steps back to the village, he needed to act on his instincts.

Edwards’ blood was up. It coursed through him at speed, as always before an arrest. But this time it was laced with fear instead of thrill. He would be glad to see the back of this place.

The dog!

He was sure ahead of him in the lane he could see the dog. He smiled to himself as he heard it panting, thinking of his own spaniel at home. But as he rounded the corner in the lane, the creature had vanished. No sound of it could be heard, no rustling of the hedges. It must have cut off somewhere, thought Edwards. Where could it have gone? How silly. He needed to keep his mind on the job.

An hour later Edwards cornered Sir Alfred where they had first met, in front of the fire in the manor house drawing room. He began by recounting the various acts of intimidation that had been committed against him. Sir Alfred was aware of the cinema incident, but feigned ignorance of the other circumstances. The shrewd fox just sat there with a glass of Port in hand, willing his unwelcome guest to get to the point.

“The truth,” Edwards began. “It won’t take me long, but it will be easier on you if you make it easy for me.” Emboldened, Edwards helped himself to a sherry from the bottle on the little table by Sir Alfred’s chair. “Maria Taylor?” He sat down and finished his drink in one.

Sir Alfred looked into the fire for a long moment. “We were in love, in fact, we had spoken of marriage,” he said at last. “But Flora, Mrs Grey, could not accept that a knight of the realm could choose a nurse for a bride. Whether she was jealous or not I am not entirely certain.”

“So, are you saying that Mrs Grey murdered Maria?” Edward’s could barely conceal a laugh, but he would play along, for now.

“No, not at all,” said Alfred, sounding truly desperate for the first time. “Mrs Grey went to her for help once, before her sickly husband died, asking for an alternative to the doctor’s ways that were not working for him. Maria did all she could with her herbal remedies and treatments, yet the man unfortunately overdosed on the doctor’s medication. That did not stop Mrs Grey from telling people Maria had tried to bewitch her, and that she had successfully cast a spell upon the unfortunate Mr Grey.”

“You mean she whipped up ill feeling? Incitement to violence?”

“The rumours certainly came thicker and faster: that Maria was miraculously young looking and yet was the girl from the story, that crops failed because of her. There have even been not totally unfounded rumours of the unnatural deaths of livestock. Black Maria. That is what they called her, Mr Edwards.” Sir Alfred poured himself another glass and was not even halfway through it when he topped it up again. “Some in this town believed Maria to be a witch, Detective, and someone took that belief too far up in that field.” The detective considered the man opposite. He certainly sounded convinced of such a tale.

“If I told you that the stone where she was found had not always been in that position, then what do you suppose it is?”

“I don’t understand,” said Sir Alfred. “It’s not a stone I ever recalled before the murder but I’d assumed it was always…”

“Oh, I think you do understand, sir!” Edwards replied. “There is only one stone. It’s no site for rituals. It’s a grave.” Sir Alfred almost dropped his glass. “Who would notice the turned soil of an unnamed grave, when it is next to a murder victim sprawled on the grass? Especially the grave of a baby,” said Edwards, almost with a whisper. “You murdered her, didn’t you?” They had to check, to dig there to be sure, but he was in little doubt. Edwards had phoned for confirmation from the nearest hospital just minutes before. Maria had been pregnant, and she wouldn’t be the first woman in such a circumstance to find herself suddenly unwanted. “You made her have the abortion, didn’t you?. In some sleazy backstreet of Swindon, I’d wager. It broke her though. She kept the tiny thing, and buried it. And in the end she wouldn’t be silenced.”

The air hung heavy with Sir Alfred’s disbelief. The facts of the case, Edwards’ feelings, even Sir Alfred’s walls, adorned with the photographic works and stills from the amateur films that were his passion, were all thrown against the fellow now. But he looked, truly, like a man whose world had been turned on its head, not like one who had just been found out. “I would never…” But words failed him.

“Maria was expecting, sir!” It was Barry at the door who spoke. “But she lost it early, and that is where it is buried,” he continued. Edwards looked around, why on Earth had Barry intervened? “Maria didn’t go back to the hospital, because she lost it here, in the village, and couldn’t bear to tell the master. The day of the murder, I sent him away, sir,” Barry sobbed. “I sent him away so that we could… It was what she wanted.” Sir Alfred had claimed he had been sent away after Barry had received a telephone call. He said it had been a fool’s errand but had not found witnesses to prove it.

Sir Alfred swallowed hard. He was so deathly pale that he looked on the point of fainting. Barry came over to support his master in his chair before speaking further. “I left her there, sir, in the morning by the grave, and you know the rest. I shouldn’t have left her.” Indeed, Barry had been called away to his sister in the afternoon, and that was in Cheltenham. Edwards had seen that in the report.

Edwards left the house a short time later, after Mr Barry had given his master a strong sedative. They could be in on it, easily. But the more Edwards thought about it the less sure of his own theory he became. It was just as well the Superintendent was about to arrive. Edwards realised with anguish, though, that he’d be at least another night in Wintersford. The sneaking doubt entered his mind. What if he was wrong about it being just a faked witch killing? What if that was the real motive? It would put them all back at square one.

“Best not to think that way!” he told himself boldly. He just needed to find the proof to alleviate his newfound doubts.

The day was bright by now as the detective wandered down to the bus stop. The fine weather, however, made no difference to Edwards’ feelings about his surroundings. This village was no place he wanted to be, now, or ever again.

As he came down the lane, it was then that he saw the shaggy dog in front of him once more. It was closer this time, and Edwards was able to keep up with it going downhill on the firm road. Why was he following the creature with such interest? Surely, he didn’t believe the boy’s words.

As they wound around the last bend into the village, Edwards sensed something was wrong. The bus was there, already having arrived by the war memorial and waiting for departure as normal in five minutes’ time. The Superintendent was there also, waiting for Edwards, with concern written on his pursed lips. Edwards then noticed how jittery the bus driver was as he sat in his seat. He was glancing around in every direction.

The townsfolk had all come out, or so it seemed. Some were out the front of the pub, others were on the green, and more were loitering around the bus. Some of the farmers even had hoes or forks in their hands. A few faces Edwards recognised from the cinema the other evening. They were all looking at Edwards as he appeared. They had been waiting for him. Mrs Grey was there, unblinking; so too the bridge ladies, and the farm hands. Had he walked into some kind of trap?

The path to the bus was not blocked and Edwards thought it best he did not stop now. He abandoned following the dog and made for the bus as the villagers advanced on them from all directions. The Superintendent, seeing the cue, had already hopped aboard by the time Edwards approached them. Edwards was about to climb onto the bus himself when he noticed it.

The dog had found its way into the centre of the crowd. When it was there in the very centre of the green, abruptly it sat down. Edwards remembered the boy’s words to him, as he fumbled with his coins for a ticket.

“Follow him, he’ll lead you,” the boy had said.

It hit him then. The dog had led him. It had led him to all he needed to know. The driver did not wait for the appointed hour. As the people closed in on them he revved the engine. Edwards fell back into the first seat as they accelerated off along the road, away from the angry host.

There was no wolf among sheep here. Maria and Sir Alfred had been sheep among wolves.

All Sidney Wainwright correspondence should be marked "Care of the Curious Caretaker" at the following address: 

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Sidney Wainwright and Archibald Jerome are pseudonyms

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