|The Buttertubs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
You’ve come so far with me, now we’re approaching the climax. Continue to enjoy the ride.
For those who haven’t been following the free read, I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January. Subsequent chapters have appeared each Friday, and will continue to be posted until all 50 have featured here. You can find those already posted via the archive; just search by chapter number. If you missed the start, you’ll find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Read, enjoy, invite your friends along. As an author, I want people to read my writing, simple as that.
The police said the mountain rescue teams would be out at first light, assuming she hadn’t returned. Once I’d confirmed with an anxious Matilda that Netta hadn’t somehow made her way home, I persuaded her to stay put in case she did arrive there. Ma insisted I ate, and prepared a quick meal for me. She glowered as I prepared to set off with a torch and my backpack stuffed with warm dry clothes from Netta’s case, and a couple of flasks of hot coffee generously laced with brandy.
‘You’re wasting your time, Leigh; you’ve no idea where she’s gone. And it’s dangerous out there in this lot.’
‘No, Ma. I have some idea. She told me once, when she was trying to taunt me, that she has a favourite place for sunbathing. She laughed and lifted her shirt. “Lovely Seat.” You know it; top of the pass leading down to Buttertubs. Three, four miles as the crow flies.’
‘I can just see that ‘un flaunting hersen up there, knowing full well there’d be tourists within sight, teasing them with her body. Little hussy.’
‘It’ll not be easy, walking and searching in this lot in the dark. Don’t wait up for me, Ma. I’ve no idea when I’ll be back. But leave the door unlocked in case she’s somewhere else. She won’t have her key.’
‘Serve the little madam right to be kept out all night.’
‘Mebbie. But I’d not do that to her, Ma. She’s done a great deal for me.’
‘Done a great deal to you, more like. Done a lot of damage; I know that.’
I was in no mood to argue. I’d started the morning with two beautiful young women available and wanting me. The most important had abandoned me out of some incomprehensible need to find herself, whatever that meant. The other had run off, pretending anger and hurt, into the hills. Faith was safe, as far as I knew. But Netta might very well be in danger. She was bound to be cold and wet. I must, at least, attempt to find her and bring her back into the warmth and shelter of my home. Even if I did intend to throw her out once there.
Crossing the river on stepping-stones, at night, even with the aid of a torch, was no fun. The rain had swollen the river and a slip could well have put me into real danger. It was slow going to reach the far side where I began the laborious trek across the fields by the side of the river and up the fells.
She was unlikely to have remained on top of the hill, where the viewpoint gave panoramic vistas of the surrounding fells and dales. In this storm, it would be exposed and very dangerous. But it seemed likely that, had she made for her special place that morning, she might have fallen on her way back and hurt herself. If I found her, it was most likely to be somewhere near the path, en route.
I was sparing with the torch at first, though I had fresh batteries with me. Occasionally, I called her name into the pouring rain and the blackness.
Nothing replied but wind and rain. From time to time, a rumble or a crack of thunder drowned the sound of rain, followed by sheets or jagged forks of lightening.
It was a difficult, tiring journey to the top of that fell, with many stops to search pockets of darkness on the way. And there had been no sign of her near the path, none as I reached the soft, round summit at last. It looked as though she’d chosen some other secret location to sulk for the day.
I decided to do a quick search around the top of the hill and then return to Longhouse until daylight gave me a better chance of finding her. Disappointment at the futility of my search vied with growing conviction that she was already back at Longhouse, laughing at my concern and waiting impatiently for my return.
As I swept the area with the powerful beam of the torch, thunder crashed overhead and lightening crackled out of the sky and along the length of barbed wire fence a short distance away.
The narrowness of my escape paralysed me for a moment. My first thought was to run like the devil from the isolation of the exposed hill. But, in the bright brief light, I’d seen something white, flapping wetly in the wind. It was some two hundred yards away along the fence and I couldn’t leave without trekking across the boggy ground to find out what it was. Even though it would most probably turn out to be nothing more sinister than an abandoned fertiliser sack left behind by a careless farmer.
I walked into another fence, catching myself on the sharp barbs, as the strands of wire on their waist high posts joined the more substantial barrier that constituted the parish boundary.
‘Bugger!’ I sucked at the cut on the back of my hand and tasted blood.
Following the beam of my torch along the wire, I picked up the patch of white that had caught my eye. From this close, it was clearly an item of clothing. I struggled over the lower, less substantial field boundary without further injury, and reached the spot, wondering why Netta would bother to make such an effort.
I knew at once it was her summer dress. Not just a portion of it, torn off as she climbed the fence, but the whole garment caught on the barbs as, presumably, she’d climbed the barrier and jumped down the other side. The weight of her body must have attached the barbs so firmly she’d been unable to free it without first slipping out of it. But why had she left it here?
When I began to untangle it, I found it relatively easy to disengage from the wire. It was caught only lightly on a couple of barbs, for all the world as if it had been tossed there in careless abandon.
I stopped to consider; rain soaking my hands and face. Why had she been going away from Longhouse? It was hard to believe she would still have been so upset by that time. Her sulk was no more than an attempt to make me feel guilty; there was nothing genuine about it. She’d always come back once she’d made her point in the past. Returned hungry for food and sex, ready for the fun of reconciliation. There was no need for her to behave any differently this time, unless she felt more than straightforward lust for me and saw Faith as a threat.
I pointed the torch through the fence and searched the ground beyond, but could see no sign of her. When I aimed the beam closer to the fence, I discovered one of her sandals lying abandoned and half covered by black peaty water in the mud beyond the fence.
This made no sense. Why would she abandon her dress? And why leave her shoe? What possible reason…? Unless she was being pursued. Try as I might, I could think of no other set of circumstances that would cause her to act that way. Someone must have chased her.
I struggled over the fence and discovered how easily she would’ve caught the dress as she jumped down. I almost hung up on my backpack, even though I was in no hurry and forewarned of the danger. My landing sank me ankle deep in the black muddy water where her shoe lay. I bent and retrieved it, placed it inside the dress I’d tied loosely to the strap of the pack.
Carefully, I walked forward, scanning the ground ahead with the beam of the torch. Another peal of thunder startled me with its proximity and the accompanying flash of lightening scared the pants off me for a second time. I sat down heavily in the soggy grass and cursed as the wetness soaked into the seat of my trousers. For a while, I stayed put, though; unsure what to do or where to go.
I rose again and scanned the ground ahead, all too quickly discovering her second shoe lying upside down a short distance ahead. At least I seemed to be moving in the right direction. I slowly continued in what I hoped was something like a straight line as the ground began to fall steadily away from me before it rose for a few paces and then fell away again more steeply. Soon I was in danger of losing my footing, as the slope grew ever more precipitous.
I stopped and tried to picture my whereabouts in my mind’s eye. I knew the area well and was aware of dangerous scars and steep slopes on certain parts of the hill. My torch shone into blank darkness when I pointed it more than ten or twelve feet ahead. It was simply too dangerous to go on in this manner. If I continued, I may well end up lying at the foot of a scar, as perhaps, Netta had in her flight from whoever had pursued her.
I checked the time. It was well after dark, around eleven o’clock, when I’d set off. Since then, I’d covered a few miles at snail’s pace due to the nature of my search along the way. But I was staggered to discover it was approaching half past four in the morning. The sun would rise in less than two hours. I could do nothing more until it brought its light to guide me.
Sweeping a full circle, I noticed a small rocky outcrop a short distance to my right and higher up. I made for it, falling knee deep into a cold black puddle on the way. At length, I reached the rocks and sat there, wet, chilled, weary and now desperately anxious about Netta.
I did a quick search of the backpack and took out a flask of coffee. Its heat and spirits revived me a little. The storm moved away to the southeast. Two more cups of coffee and I was dangerously close to setting off down the hill again. But I recovered my senses when I noted the shapes of hills emerging as pitch black silhouettes against a sky that was now merely inky and studded with stars in the east. The steepness of the slopes dissuaded me from setting off again.
Slowly the clouds moved away until the whole sky above was clear and stars replaced the blank darkness. The moon, a pale sliver of crescent waning toward the new phase, was no help at all and I sat awaiting the glow of sunrise that would shortly illuminate the sky in the northeast.
I was shivering when the first signs of sunrise gave the ground vague shape and contour at last. But I remained seated until I could see enough to move safely. There was little point in me falling to my death or serious injury in my search.
As I moved and retraced my steps to the point I’d ended my hunt in the darkness, I struggled to find new reasons why she’d abandoned her clothes. Perhaps she was just being more of an exhibitionist than usual, perhaps the storm had brought out the pagan in her and she’d given in to primeval urges to run, a free spirit in the rain. But, knowing her terror of thunder, I knew I was clutching at straws. Perhaps her dress had caught up as she sought a more comfortable spot to sunbathe before the clouds had descended and she just couldn’t be bothered to retrieve it there and then, thinking she would reclaim it on her way back from wherever she’d decided to go. Her love of the freedom of nudity certainly fitted that fantasy.
As I made my way slowly down the slope I discovered that fifty or sixty yards further on I would have fallen down a steep scree slope onto the road. In the growing light, I managed to slither and slide down to the tarmac in one piece, stepping onto the highway as the disc of the sun broke the horizon.
I stood and pondered. She’d apparently been heading in a specific direction. Would she have continued the same way on the road or would she have turned and headed the other way, knowing she would eventually come to Simonstone and the hope of help? I shrugged. If she’d chosen the hamlet, in all probability she was safe and snug in some lucky farmer’s bed, probably with the farmer. The other way, the road clung to the side of the steep valley, passing through the Buttertubs; strange pots that were sunk into the ground, like limestone wells: vertical caves in all but name. Further along, the road dropped down a steep hill to pass through the villages of Thwaite and Muker. It was that route I followed.
I decided to go as far as the Buttertubs themselves, search the area and then return home. I could go on forever and never find her on my own and I was already weary, cold and hungry. The professionals would be out soon with their numbers and knowledge to make the search more productive. Unless she had somehow returned to Longhouse and Ma had called off the search.
The road made walking easy and I covered the distance to the tourist spot in minutes. During that time, the sky faded from indigo through azure to iris with a hint of rose around the now full orb of the sun. It was light enough to read and colour was returning to oust the black and greys of predawn.
The holes in the ground, varying from two to ten feet in diameter and from six to fifty feet in depth, spread across a small area of the saddle shaped hillside. The fell sloped down to this area quite steeply and the road ran through the middle. At the valley side of the road a small lay-by marked a place for tourists to park their cars before the ground began to slope again. It ran down towards the valley slope, which was precipitous and dropped into a deep, narrow, serpentine canyon too close to vertical even for sheep to crop.
I moved to the side next the valley first. Here, the holes were less spectacular and fewer.
The light was clear enough now to reveal the bottom of each pit as I approached, and each was empty as I expected. My search had no conviction but was simply something I must do whilst in that place with its vaguely sinister feel.
I crossed the road, aware it was an unnecessary exercise, a completion of my futile quest. I would return home, as soon as I was done, and find Netta asleep in my bed.
Would I join her? Would the tide of elation at finding her safe, overcome my sense that I was no longer a free agent but must remain true to Faith? And who imposed this condition? Faith had made it clear she expected my fidelity if she was to be mine. But recalling so easily our single night, such a short time past, when we’d made love, I knew it was nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with what was right. I wanted to be faithful to her. I wanted to be hers and hers alone. No, if Netta were in my bed, she would remain there alone until I roused her to take her home to Matilda.
Slight irritation returned to me as I walked the ground, searching. Netta’s childish sulks had caused me grief in the past. It was absurd that I should have to be out here hunting for her when she’d had no need to run off in the first place. It would serve her right if she had been in some sort of trouble. Perhaps, then she might think twice before pulling such a stunt again. Though, on reflection, that was unlikely to present a problem for me any more.
I started with the pit nearest the road. They were wider on this side and significantly deeper. Tourists had made paths through the grass with their passage and I followed one to the edge of the nearest sinkhole. As I swayed at the top of the opening, my fear of heights made me step away from the brink. The dark bottom of the pit was wet with the rain but was otherwise as it had been for centuries. I moved to the next and the next and found them devoid of all but damp and early morning darkness.
The last pit was the deepest. Furthest from the road, it bored into the ground close under the slope of the fell. A small rowan struggled to grow at the lip of the gaping mouth, leaning over the hole and lending the scene a touch of lightness to dispel the sinister aspect of the pit. I moved towards it, knowing I would end of my search here and then return to Longhouse, still uncertain of Netta’s fate but content I’d tried to find her. She would be lying warm, dry and eager in my bed, ready to demonstrate her sexual prowess, mistakenly determined to show me Faith’s simple love was no match for her own experience and skill.
I stopped for a moment, listening to the silence of the hills. A soft breeze soughed through the grass, a sheep bleated wetly somewhere out of sight, and closer, the sound of trickling water, falling, caught my ear. I shrugged myself back into action and approached the edge of that dark pit quite certain it was empty like the rest. On the brink, I hesitated; it was deep and foreboding, a threat to my fear of high places. The sound of falling water was rain run-off trickling in a small fall over the edge near the tree. I leant forward and followed the falling water to the bottom.
She was on her back; her arms flung out and above her head. One leg was almost straight, the other bent at hip and knee. Her skin was pallid, almost without contour in that dim reflected light, uniform but for the stark contrast of her dark nipples and the smudge of short hair. I looked at her face and had to kneel to stop myself falling. Her eyes stared up past me to the sky they reflected.
I called her name, softly now she was in hearing. I upbraided her for running off like that, asked her why she hadn’t retrieved her dress, why she’d left her shoes.
‘I’m sorry. I came as soon as I could. You were so hard to find. I’ll go for help and we’ll get you out of there. There’ll be rugged men with ropes to lift you. You’ll enjoy that; all the attention, the way they’ll look at you with admiration and desire. We’ll warm you up with soup and blankets. I’ll make them jealous; cuddle you beneath the blankets for warmth.’
I heard sounds of other people. The mountain rescue team had found the place I’d described to Ma and were searching in vain.
‘I’ll call them in a minute. I just want a little time with you alone. You don’t mind, do you? Not too cold? Only, you look so beautiful, so very beautiful.’
I think it was the thought of the sweet beauty gone and wasted that dragged me back from that temporary madness. I found my feet and stood and waved to the professional rescuers, yelling until they noticed me at last.
They brought ropes and the other paraphernalia of climbers; contacted the police on their special radiotelephones.
‘It’s obvious she’s dead, so we’ve not to move the lass until they give the word. Jack, Monty and Jim, if you’ll hang on with me so we can lift her when they’re ready? Rest of you might as well go home. Thanks for the effort, lads.’
A beautiful young woman lying naked at the bottom of an isolated pit was too good to miss. They must lean over and look at her with eyes that saw her naked skin, her woman’s body but forgot she was a person.
The rescuers had food and brought me warmth with insulated blankets. I told them what I’d discovered, how I’d spent the night. One or two seemed ashamed they’d waited for the light, but castigated me for taking risks that might have meant another body to retrieve.
The policemen had to come from urban distance, so the sun was warm, the ground drying by the time they arrived. They were all questions and procedures. I should have left her clothes where I’d found them. I would have to take them to the exact location I’d found each item, though there would be precious little use in the tracks after I and the rescue team had pounded the ground. Where was her underwear? I explained and they looked at me with cynical curiosity and I became a suspect.
It was after noon when they brought her up. The pathologist went down to her first to read the signs and pronounce her dead of blood loss from a fractured skull, possibly caused by her fall, if fall it was. Her wrists had been bound at some time and she bore signs of possible sexual assault but the lab would prove or disprove that.
The policemen took me home as the van arrived to take Netta’s body to be sliced open and examined, her lovely skin ripped apart to expose the gore within. I had identified her body for them.
Ma was her wonderful usual self and dispensed coffee and biscuits for the investigating officers and roundly told them they were idiots if they believed for one second I had anything to do with it. They defended their suspicions until Ma told them the truth of things and I was grudgingly reclassified as victim and given the appropriate sympathy. They decided they wouldn’t, at that stage, take me in for further questioning.
Once I’d agreed to keep them informed of my movements and they had left, Ma slipped something from her medicine chest into a cup of tea and I slept for hours without dreams.
Matilda was downstairs, demanding explanations, accusing me of complicity in Netta’s death as soon as I returned to the sitting room. I told her everything I knew. She was beside herself; had spent a sleepless night at home at my suggestion when she should have been out searching with me. Now she wanted reasons for her daughter’s death that would exonerate her from all blame and I was the obvious scapegoat. Faith, who shared the blame for Netta’s outburst, was her other daughter and therefore not responsible, being just another victim of my lust.
‘I want Faith home. She’d want to be here. Bring her back, even if you have to drive to Scotland for her.’
It gave me something positive to do.
‘In any case, Leigh, we’ve got to try to get her back for Heacham’s trial.’
‘I know, Ma. I’ll go and see the travel agent.’
‘Fuck Heacham and his trial. I want Faith home. I want to know she’s safe at least. I want my daughter with me.’
The travel agent told me only that she hadn’t redeemed my vouchers, as they couldn’t provide what she wanted. They had no idea where she’d gone.
As I left the shop, I ran into the local bobby who seemed glad to see me.
‘They’ll tell you by letter, sooner or later, Leigh. Or, rather, they’ll tell Faith. But let the lass know she’ll not need to attend court after all. Heacham’s hanged hissen. Poor Jenny found the bugger first thing this morning when she delivered his foreign porno magazine. Saw him through the window. Stark bloody naked, he was. Looked like he’d tried to cut his prick off. ‘Ell of a mess. Bloody good riddance. Save us all a lot of time and effort.’
He expressed his condolences over Netta but thought there would be no need for me to answer any further questions now they’d discovered Heacham. That should have set my mind at rest but something at the back of my mind kept me unsettled.
I found Matilda’s anger dissolved in belated tears on my return. I comforted her as best I could, her weeping on my shoulder adding to my personal distress, especially as there was no way for me to contact Faith and bring her home for both of us.
Ma tried to force me back to business so I wouldn’t brood, but I just cancelled and postponed and explained that orders would be delayed until I could find time for them. I had no heart for work.
All I could see was the look of accusation on Netta’s face when she discovered me in Faith’s bed. All I could hear was her hurt abuse as I watched her go for the last time. If I’d followed, if I’d told her I was sorry and would make it up, if I hadn’t been so tied up with Faith, that beautiful young woman would still be alive. For all that someone else had chased her on that hillside, it was my fault she was dead.
Impatient for the last chapters? You can buy the book in paperback (through online or high street outlets) or ebook format for whatever ereader you use, just click on the cover picture or visit ‘My Books’. If you do, I’d appreciate a review, posted wherever possible - Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, or any other bookish site. Reviews get indie published books noticed, you see.
Tweet with me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/@stuartaken
Like my author page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/StuartAken
Like my author page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/StuartAken
Stumble with me: http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/stuartaken
Pin with me here: http://pinterest.com/stuartaken/
Buy my ebooks via Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/stuartaken
USA readers, see my author page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/stuartaken
(for some odd reason, this type of link isn't yet available on Amazon for UK)
Join my professional connections on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/stuart-aken/22/1b6/aaa