Read unholy rites epub format

Authors: Kay Stewart,Chris Bullock

unholy rites

The third book in the Danutia Dranchuk mystery series reunites
RCMP
constable Danutia Dranchuk with her friend, drama critic Arthur Fairweather. Danutia is observing a youth rehabilitation program in England when Arthur returns to the Peak District to attend his mother's funeral. Suspecting foul play in her death, Danutia and Arthur question the feuding villagers. They soon discover the dark and dangerous side of ancient Celtic rituals still practiced in the town.

In a region with chilling reminders of child labor during the Industrial Revolution, Danutia must navigate through a community with a complex and layered history. When a boy from the village is abducted, the race to save him leads Arthur into extreme danger. Only Danutia has a chance of rescuing both Arthur and the child from an “unholy rite.”

PRAISE FOR
Sitting Lady Sutra


Sitting Lady Sutra
works both as a mystery and a synthesis of our beliefs and sorrows: honest and complex storytelling.”

—Don Graves,
The
Hamilton Spectator

“[Stewart] keeps the action moving and the characters peppy.”

—
The Globe and Mail

“Stewart's literary background shines in this breakout novel . . . a complex novel with rich layers of plot and characters reflecting the Canadian multicultural stage.”

—Lou Allin, Crime Writers of Canada

“Stewart loads the novel with issues and manages to keep everything on track, while maintaining suspense in the mystery and fascination with the character development.”

—
Times Colonist

“A well-written mystery with a solid plot and sub-plots that intertwine and surprise. Stewart knows how to write a compelling novel with dialogue that is sharp and believable . . . It's always a pleasure to find a strong female protagonist who is also good at her job. Danutia Dranchuk is definitely one.”

—Mystery Maven Canada blog

To Cousin Joan and Cousin Ann

One

Stephen stared down at
the man's head and torso, fascinated. It wasn't a leather shirt he was seeing, it was dried, wrinkled skin. One arm lay out to the side, two bare bones reminding him of the chicken wing he'd had at dinner. He felt his own arm between wrist and elbow. One bone or two? Hard to say. He'd ask his teacher. Mrs. Rosson knew lots of stuff. He wouldn't tell her why he was asking, though.

He moved his fingertips across the bony skull where the man had been hit hard, then down the back of the neck to the thin cord used to strangle him. When his fingers reached the cuts in the throat, he held them there as though to stanch the flow of blood. He could almost feel the warm red fluid pulsing out, as his own palm had pumped out blood when Eric cut him.

“Stephen,” called a voice as if from another world.

He jerked his fingers away, slapped the scrapbook shut, and stacked it on top of the others, knocking down sprigs of lavender hanging from the low rafter in the process. No time to clean up. He fumbled frantically among the books and papers on Auntie Liz's small desk. Where was his textbook anyway his mum would kill him—

“Stephen,” the voice called again, and then his mum's tired footsteps on the stairs. He bent over a page of numbers, pencil in one hand, maths text under the other.

The door creaked open. “Stephen, didn't you hear me calling you?” His mum looked worried as always, but the soft light in her eyes let him know he wasn't really in trouble.

He put on his most apologetic look. “Sorry, Mum. Is it time to go already?”

“No, Mrs. Fairweather isn't feeling well. I said you'd walk her home.”

Mrs. Fairweather! Stephen's eyes strayed to the scrapbooks. Ethel Fairweather. That was the name neatly penned on the inside cover. What if she found out he'd been reading them? Maybe she had the second sight and knew already. First she'd give him a lecture, and then she'd tell his mum, and his mum would tell his dad, and Dad would— No, maybe Mum wouldn't tell Dad, because she knew what would happen. Still, better not to take any chances. He fixed his gaze on his mum. “But what about my homework? Mrs. Rosson will kill me if I haven't finished.”

His mum sighed. There were dark smudges under her blue eyes, and when she spoke her voice was tired. “Be a good boy, Stephen. It's only five minutes down Mill Lane. Some fresh air will do you good.”

Slowly he laid down his pencil and pushed back his chair, stiff as an old man. He was tired too, tired of being Mum's good boy. He wanted to be bad like Eric, tell his mum and dad to fuck off, leave him alone, smash things—

“Yes'm,” he said.

After what
seemed like ages, Stephen had done what he could for Mrs. Fairweather. He pulled on his boots and was out the door before she could think of anything else.

The cold and snow smacked him in the face but he didn't slow down. Then he caught a movement on the footbridge, just past the old well that Mrs. Fairweather had gone on about. The moon had risen, silvering the rushing water and the dark shape outlined against the trees. Metal glinted. Someone was beckoning him. Eric said the Grand Master wore a black cloak with a silver pendant. Eric had been to his cave, with its candles and silver cups filled with blood, but wouldn't show him.

“Nobody goes in there except the Grand Master and me,” Eric had said. “He'd kill us both if he found out I'd told you about it. Swear you won't tell.” That's when Eric had cut his palm, to bind him to his promise.

An owl hooted. That meant somebody was about to die, Mrs. Rosson said. Stephen began to shiver, then his feet took over again and propelled him onward, down the road to Auntie Liz's and safety.

Two

The Transpeak bus slowed
to a stop in front of St. Anne's Parish Church, Mill-on-Wye, Derbyshire. As
RCMP
Constable Danutia Dranchuk stepped onto the icy pavement, she glanced at the clock on the square stone tower. She was late.

The church was dim, lit only by flickering candles and February's weak sunlight. The scent of burning candles and massed lilies was almost lost beneath the smell of damp wool. Through rows of dark-coated shoulders she could just glimpse her friend Arthur Fairweather in the front pew, his coppery head bent forward. She slipped into a back pew as the organ died away.

The man next to her passed over an Order of Service. Danutia fumbled with the pages, her fingers still numb from the biting cold. No photograph, merely the words
ETHEL MARIE FAIRWEATHER SEPTEMBER 17, 1933–FEBRUARY 3, 1997
. She'd never met Arthur's mother, though Ethel had apparently been eager to meet her. She needed Danutia's advice about a problem, she'd told Arthur.

A rustling drew her attention to the front. A petite gray-haired woman in a green cassock had stepped to the lectern. The Reverend Patricia Wellcome, according to the program. Danutia was surprised to discover a female Anglican priest in this tiny village, having imagined that it would be as conservative as the small towns she'd known on the Canadian Prairies.

“Black is for mourning, and we are here to mourn the loss of a woman who was dear to our hearts.” The priest paused to clear her throat and push her round granny glasses into place. When she began again, her voice was stronger. “We are also here to celebrate life, Ethel Fairweather's life, and the larger life of which we are all a part. And so I am wearing green, as a reminder of Ethel's love of life, and of the life force struggling to break through our sorrow and bring us joy again.”

“Amen.” The deep bass came too loudly and too quickly, this priest's black gown flapping crow-like as he hurried towards the lectern. The organ swelled. “Let us sing,” he said, motioning the congregation to stand.

Danutia rose, glad for the chance to move. The damp cold had seeped upwards through the stone flooring and turned her legs to ice.

Only Arthur remained seated, his head bowed, shoulders hunched. No stiff upper lip there, Danutia thought with a rush of tenderness. There's hope for men yet.

He was alone in the front pew except for a woman who stood but didn't join in the singing. She was tall like Arthur, with dark silver-streaked hair in a braid down her back. An aunt? Danutia wondered. Surely he had at least one relative among this crowd.

When the hymn ended, the woman swept up the steps to the lectern, a sheaf of papers in one hand. Danutia consulted her program. This must be Elizabeth Hazelhurst, who was to give the eulogy. No mention of a family relationship. But then there wouldn't be. She would be known to everyone else here. Putting her papers aside, the woman arranged her shawl, burgundy and gray like her long dress, and began to speak in a clear, strong voice.

“A little over a week ago, Ethel Fairweather was in my home, celebrating Candlemas among her friends. By the next morning she was lost to us. Her death was both untimely and unexpected . . .”

As the words sank home, Danutia felt a sharp pang of guilt. Perhaps she shouldn't have dismissed Mrs. Fairweather's concerns so lightly. She could have come straight to Derbyshire instead of sightseeing in London. Now she would never know why Mrs. Fairweather wanted her help. Unless she'd told her friend. Danutia brought her attention back to the woman at the lectern.

“As most of you know, Ethel and I grew up in Mill-on-Wye. Her family lived on a farm above the station, up Wormhill way, and every morning she would ride in with her dad when he brought his big canisters of milk to the train. I'd meet her at the station—my dad worked in the lime works—and we'd stand there shivering with excitement as the train roared in.”

Listening to the story of what seemed a very ordinary life, Danutia wondered again why Mrs. Fairweather had wanted her advice. Perhaps, like all mothers, she simply wanted to check out someone she considered a potential daughter-in-law. She needn't have worried. Arthur had helped Danutia solve her first homicide case and they'd become casual friends, that was all.

“Then Ethel met and married a handsome railway conductor,” Elizabeth Hazelhurst said, “and my life took a different path.” She pulled the shawl more closely around her and stood silent, looking down at the lectern. Danutia wondered what her story was: more troubled than that of her friend, she surmised.

The woman was gazing at Arthur now. “Your mother was a great comfort to me when she chose to live here after your father's death,” she said, choking on the words, “and I hope I was a comfort to her.”

Regaining her composure, the woman took up her story. “When Ethel returned to Mill-on-Wye, she immersed herself in village life. Most particularly, she helped to keep the primary school going by reviving the ancient tradition of well dressing. For that, we owe her a deep debt. This is the Ethel we knew and loved. The Ethel that today we lay to rest. Well done, my friend.”

What in the world is well dressing, Danutia wondered as she followed the other mourners into the churchyard for a blessedly short burial service. Though it felt warmer outside, the grass was still tipped with frost. She hung back as the casket was lowered, the final words murmured, the symbolic handfuls of earth dropped into the cold dark hole. At a signal from the green-robed priest, Hazelhurst sang out, “May there always be sunshine . . .” As the women on each side touched her hands, Danutia felt her own tears well up. A few months ago she'd sung this same song in honor of women who'd died at the hands of men, and in celebration of the river of life that flows ever onward.

As the song ended, Danutia lifted her head to find Arthur staring at her, plainly surprised and pleased. Eyebrows raised in a silent question, he mimed taking a drink and nodded towards the low white building next to the churchyard. How different he seemed from when she'd first known him, almost three years ago now. He still looked like a young though slightly flabby Michael Caine—curly, coppery hair, slightly bulbous nose, thin lips. But then he was still smarting from his divorce, and his face and body had been tight with anger, disappointment, cynicism. Grief had opened him up—at least for the moment.

His hand dropped and he began to turn away. Quickly she gave him a nod, though she'd planned just to say a few words of condolence and then explore the village until time for her bus back to Buxton.

When she reached the church hall, the black-gowned priest was standing at the top of the steps, greeting people. As she passed, he said, “I'm Father Marple. Thank you so much for coming out in this dreadful weather,” smiling as though she'd done him a personal favor, his lips large and rubbery. She couldn't help but feel that the Reverend Mr. Marple considered himself the star of God's latest television show.

She nodded and stepped inside. A long corridor stretched ahead, a row of closed doors on the left. From behind the doors she could hear chalk squeaking, small voices singing “Frère Jacques,” a teacher reading about Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. This must be the primary school Elizabeth Hazelhurst had mentioned, still in use. At the end she emerged into a large open room, where a few people talked in quiet murmurs.

From behind a table, a stout woman in an apron said, “Tea and coffee on your left, luv, sandwiches and sweets on your right if you're peckish.” She had a bright, open face and curly white hair that escaped in all directions. She nodded towards the church. “Friend of Arthur's, are you? Sad business, this, with him so far from home. Ethel doted on that boy, but that's the way of it, isn't it? We always dote on our sons, whether they deserve it or not.”

“Some people dote on their daughters,” Danutia retorted, angered by the all-too-common cultural bias. Luckily the woman had already turned her attention to a newcomer.

Arthur seemed trapped near the door, surrounded by people. Danutia picked up a coffee and filled a cracked china plate with crustless finger sandwiches, egg salad, ham, cucumber. Spying a hissing radiator with a broad windowsill above it to serve as a table, she made her way over. She might as well be warm.

A knot of women balancing cups and plates formed around the woman who'd given the eulogy. Elizabeth Hazelhurst's shawl was now draped loosely over her arms, revealing a large silver pendant carved with a Celtic knot. She had a strong face, with broad cheekbones and heavy dark eyebrows. She wore no makeup, as though proud of or indifferent to the deep furrows across her brow and the fine lines around her mouth.

“Lovely eulogy, Liz,” said an anxious-looking woman. Straight ash-blond hair hung like a curtain over her forehead and cheekbones, but didn't conceal the dark circles under her tired blue eyes, or the fact that she'd been crying. Another special friend of Ethel's?

“Thank you, Alice.” Liz Hazelhurst gave the woman a quick hug. “I felt so sad writing it, but comforted too, as though Ethel was sitting there beside me.”

A quiet murmur ran around the group.

“And that story about the trains,” Alice went on. “I can still remember hearing them rumble across the viaduct when I was a child, and how frightened I was of all that noise.” Her breath caught when she said this, as though she still knew what it meant to be frightened. Danutia found herself wondering about the woman, about the story behind the makeup applied a little too heavily and the navy blue dress that hung loose, as though she'd lost weight. Illness? Family problems?

A slightly older woman in a smart black dress chimed in. “You could have said more about the problems we'll have now that Ethel's gone, but I guess it wouldn't have been appropriate.”

Intrigued by this suggestion of a problem concerning Mrs. Fairweather, Danutia moved closer. “Excuse me,” she said. “I'm from Canada, and I've never heard of well dressing, but I gather it was very important to Mrs. Fairweather and to the village.”

Liz Hazelhurst introduced herself. “You must be Arthur's friend. Bev said she'd spoken to you. Have you had one of her sticky buns?” She lifted a half-eaten pastry.

Before Danutia could respond, the woman in black cut in. “I'm Justine, Justine Clough. I'm chair of the well dressing committee.” Her pixie haircut revealed good bone structure, but there was nothing pixieish about her rapid speech and forthright manner.

“It's the money from the well dressing that keeps this building open and the primary school going. If the school closes, the families will leave and the village will dry up again. Without Ethel, we may be in trouble.”

“That's what happened when the trains shut down,” Alice explained. “The village dried up. First the railway people left, and then with no railway to ship the stone, most of the quarries closed down and the workers moved away. Like a sleepy little ghost town, it was, Mill-on-Wye, until a few years back. It was the well dressing as brought us back to life.”

Justine carried on as though Alice hadn't spoken. “Giving thanks for the water that sustains us is an ancient custom, going back to pagan times, isn't it, Liz? It has persisted here in the Peak District because this whole area is limestone—”

“Give off, Justine, the lady doesn't want a lecture on quaint Celts,” said the man who had planted himself in the circle of women. He was short and chunky, with stylishly cut light brown hair, a downy mustache, milky blue eyes hard as marbles, and a supercilious grin. “Geoffrey Nuttall,” he said, his accent flatter, more clipped than the speech around him. “Dr. Geoff to my patients.”

“I'll try not to get sick,” Danutia said, put off by his condescending manner. She turned back to Justine Clough. “What were you saying about well dressing?” She caught a surprised look on the doctor's face as he murmured to Liz Hazelhurst, “Now what did I do to deserve that remark?”

Justine didn't need any urging to talk about well dressing, it seemed. “It's an ephemeral art form, like ice sculptures or Tibetan sand paintings, only it's created out of flower petals and other natural materials. We spend a week making it, and a week later, it's falling apart.”

“Sooner, if the vandals get at it,” piped up a fourth woman, hitherto silent.

“Oh, you know how lads are,” Justine said with a pitying look at Alice. “Mothers do what they can.”

“Eric had nothing to do with that,” Alice retorted, her face reddening.

After a moment's uncomfortable silence, Justine said, “No, no, of course not.” Then she began to explain the history of well dressing, most of which Danutia missed. Her attention had shifted to the conversation behind her.

Liz Hazelhurst and the doctor had moved away a few steps and dropped their voices.

“Why did you call Ethel's death ‘untimely and unexpected?'” The doctor's voice was quiet but intense. “She was a woman with heart problems, for Chrissake.”

“Because when she left my house, it was her stomach she was complaining about, not her heart.”

“No doubt you gave her one of your potions, and she died, and now you're feeling guilty.”

“That's unfair,” Liz protested.

Danutia became aware that Justine was waiting for an answer to some question. “I'm sorry, I missed that,” she said.

“Our well dressing celebration is the first Saturday in May,” Justine repeated with a frown. “Will you still be here?”

“Until June first,” Danutia said. “I'm—” Liz and the doctor had returned to the circle and everyone stood looking at her expectantly. “I'm doing some research.” No point in mentioning her police connection. The news would get around soon enough.

Disturbed by what she'd overheard, Danutia looked around for Arthur. He was making his way towards her.

“I'd better have a word with Arthur,” she said, gathering her cup and plate.

“Tell him I'll see him later in the week,” Liz said. “I have some things of Ethel's to return.”

Danutia nodded, unaware that those “things” would plunge her into the search for a killer.

Three

Barely conscious of hands
reaching out, voices murmuring words of sympathy, Arthur wormed his way through the chattering crowd. Ancient hands plucked at his sleeve.

“Excuse me, but I must say hello to a friend from Canada,” he said, pulling free. A few more steps and he wrapped Danutia in a bear hug. “Am I glad to see you,” he said. “Let's get out of here.”

“I was so sorry to hear about your mother,” Danutia said the moment they were outside the church hall. “I found your note when I went to work this morning. Her death must have come as a shock.” She touched his arm, her brow furrowed with concern and, he thought, pity. “How are you doing?”

That was the last thing Arthur wanted to talk about. “You know what, I'm starving. Too many people talking to me to eat anything. How about a drink and a bite at the pub?”

“I'm stuffed, but I'd love a coffee. I should warn you, though—I don't have a car.”

Arthur couldn't resist teasing. “No checkerboard police car with flashing lights?”

Danutia didn't smile. “I have no status as a police person here, remember? Buxton Constabulary did arrange a rental car, but I didn't want to risk driving on the wrong side while the roads are icy.”

“No problem. The pub's just over there. Even I can walk that far.” Arthur pointed down the slope and to the left, where a row of buildings stretched along the River Wye. Leafless beeches and horse chestnut trees overhung the river and marched upwards, creating an intricate latticework of branches below jagged limestone cliffs. A ragged flock of crows—a “murder” of crows—disappeared behind the high cliffs, cawing noisily.

At a break in traffic they dashed across the main road and down the public steps to Mill Lane. On the corner stood his mother's whitewashed cottage with its triangular garden tucked between the two roads. Not trusting his emotions, he hurried past without a word.

His gaze fell on the old village well on the other side of the road, a moss-covered stone chamber with a heavy grate. The well hadn't been used in years—except by his mum, he thought ruefully, remembering the buckets he'd hauled up for her during her illness.

Other memories came flooding back, memories of a childhood he'd left behind when he followed Thea to Canada. “I did a lot of walking around here with my father when I was a boy. This road leads to the notorious Monsal Mill. After lunch I'll give you a tour.”

Danutia glanced at her watch. “It will have to be quick. I thought you'd be tied up with relatives and such, so I have a ticket for the two o'clock bus back to Buxton.”

Arthur tried to hide his disappointment. “Not much left of the Fairweather clan, I'm afraid, just an uncle and cousins in Australia. First things first then. To the pub.”

“What was so awful about the mill?” Danutia asked as they walked.

“The owners abused the children who worked there, mostly orphans from Bristol and London. They were called apprentices, but they were slaves, working from dawn to dusk with virtually nothing to eat or drink. Many of them died.”

“I noticed a lot of children's graves at St. Anne's,” Danutia said. “Are some of the apprentices buried there?”

“No, St. Anne's wasn't built until later. But that's enough gloom and doom.” Arthur stopped in front of a two-storey stone building with gabled windows, its walls almost completely hidden by ivy. He gestured towards the wooden sign hanging above the door.

“Here we are,” he said. “The Anglers Reward. When I was a kid, we used to call this building Heaven. In Sunday school we were told our reward would be in heaven. When our dads talked about popping up to the Reward for a quick one, we put two and two together and made five, as kids so often do. Though maybe we weren't so far off.”

Danutia laughed at his story, and Arthur felt encouraged. He ushered Danutia through the pub door, then hesitated. Voices and the rattle of cutlery drifted into the hallway from the pub's main room. “The main bar will be full of people who knew my mum. Let's share the Hiker's Bar with the dogs and muddy boots.”

As he'd hoped, the Hiker's Bar was almost empty, just a fit-looking older couple with a black Lab at their feet. Settling Danutia at a table invisible from the corridor, Arthur went to the bar and ordered fish and chips and India Pale Ale for himself, coffee for his guest. He carried their drinks back to the table. “So, you've been in England for how long now, two weeks, three? I've rather lost track of time.”

“Just over two. My posting in Buxton officially started on February 1. I came early to play tourist. My nephew wanted photos and postcards from all the famous places, the Tower, Buckingham Palace, the wax museum.”

Arthur took a long and appreciative pull at his
IPA
. “The innocent abroad. I'll drink to that. So what do you make of us, the English at home?”

“There are so many of you, all in a hurry. Except for ticket sellers and shop clerks, who seem too busy filing their nails or reading the paper to take any notice. In London, at any rate. It was a relief to discover there's so much open countryside here in the Peak District, even if there isn't anything I'd call a peak.”

“Don't be fooled by the name. It's thought to come from the Pecsaeten, Anglo Saxons who moved into this area in the sixth century, killing off or absorbing the local Celts. If it's mountains you want, you'll have to go to Wales.”

“I'm no rock climber,” Danutia said. “There are fabulous trails in this area, from what I've read. I'm itching to get out when the snow's gone, as I'm told it will be in a few days.”

Arthur's fish and chips arrived, an opportunity to change the topic to one he found more congenial. “Did you see any plays in London?”

“Afraid not,” Danutia said, though she didn't sound sorry. “I spent my evenings reading up on this pilot project I'm involved in.”

Arthur attacked his beer-battered fish. “I know you told me about it when we had dinner last month, but the details have gone out of my mind.”

He tried to pay attention as she talked about crime reduction initiatives and tracking repeat offenders and Community Service Orders. All the while, the anxious chattering in his mind grew louder. He'd been living as though his mother was simply away for a few days. Now that he'd seen her body—no, he hadn't been able to face that, her coffin—laid to rest in the churchyard, he could no longer maintain that illusion. How could he return to that empty cottage down the road?

“. . . That's why the
RCMP
is funding me to do on-the-ground research here.” Danutia put down her coffee cup. “Have you heard anything I've said?”

“Sorry, I'm a little preoccupied.” He pushed his plate over. “Have some chips, I mean fries.”

Her face softening, Danutia took a long crisp slice of potato and sprinkled salt on it. “It's my fault,” she said. “I get carried away. It must be hard dealing with your mother's death among virtual strangers.”

“You can say that again. I was only six when we moved to Stockport, a suburb of Manchester. We came back for visits, and Mum kept in touch with a few people, so when Dad died it was natural for her to move back. Liz Hazelhurst and the others I've met on my trips to see Mum have been helpful, but it's not like having family. They only see me as Ethel's son. They aren't in the least interested in me or my life.”

Arthur knew he was talking too much, but he couldn't seem to help it. Danutia's presence had unlocked some part of himself he'd kept closed while he'd been dealing with his mother's death. “Sorry, I'm rambling.”

“No need to apologize. I can imagine how that feels. No one at the reception asked me anything about myself or Canada.” Danutia lowered her voice. “Speaking of the reception, I overheard an argument between Liz Hazelhurst and a doctor—Dr. Geoff, he called himself.”

“Oh, Geoff isn't a bad sort,” Arthur responded, pleased at the hint of aversion in her voice. The doctor was handsome, in a dandyish sort of way, well off, and a good conversationalist, qualities that seemed to charm his mother. Still, he didn't like the thought of Danutia falling under his spell. “Arguing, were they? It wouldn't be the first time, from what I've heard. Professional jealousy. The herbalist versus the man of science.”

Danutia waved her hand impatiently. “It was more than that. The doctor objected to Liz calling your mother's death ‘unexpected and untimely,' and implied that Liz's remedies made your mother sicker than she needed to be. I hate to say this, but it made me wonder whether there was something suspicious about your mother's death.”

Arthur pushed the thought away. “Mum had high blood pressure and she'd had a stroke. She often had sick and dizzy spells. Geoff says it was just a matter of time before her heart gave out.”

Danutia sighed. “Maybe I'm just feeling guilty because I put off calling her until it was too late. Are you sure she didn't tell you why she wanted to meet me?”

“I don't know any more than I told you at the time. When I mentioned that you'd be in Buxton soon, Mum said, ‘Tell her to ring me. There's a problem she may be able to help me with.'” Arthur drained his pint. “To be honest, I didn't take it too seriously.”

“Frankly, I didn't either,” Danutia said. “What if she really did need help? Did she keep a diary? It might tell us what was on her mind.”

Arthur felt the heat rise up his neck and into his cheeks. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I don't know. I couldn't face going through her things by myself.” His gaze shifted to the framed watercolor above her head, the old railway viaduct arching over the Wye. “I was hoping you'd help me.”

Danutia checked her watch. “I'll have to catch the 4:30 bus. I have to prepare for a case conference tomorrow morning.”

“The cottage isn't far,” Arthur said, fearing that she might change her mind.

Soon they were retracing their steps down Mill Lane. A cold breeze had come up. The bare branches along the river swayed in the wind. When they came to the old well he said, “Liz mentioned Mum's part in reviving well dressing in the village. That's where the main panel is set up. It's assembled in the garage across the road.” He took a deep breath and pointed at the whitewashed building next to the garage. “That's my mum's place. Well Cottage.”

A two-storey addition had been tacked onto a tiny workman's cottage, giving the dwelling an odd L shape. The result wasn't beautiful, but his mum had loved being near the river, loved her triangular garden.

“Why didn't you tell me this was your mother's cottage when we passed?”

Arthur couldn't explain. He led the way up the flagstone path and flung open the heavy wooden door. Shit. The place reeked of stale pipe tobacco.

Danutia coughed and took a step back. “When did you start smoking?”

“Just a pipe,” he said, spying the long-stemmed churchwarden in its makeshift ashtray beside the couch. He hadn't had a puff since before the funeral and he could feel the craving. “I gave it up when I came to Canada, but I've fallen off the wagon. It's the stress. I'll open the back door and the house will be fresh as a daisy in a minute.”

Leaving Danutia to take off her jacket, he scooped up a handful of empty wine glasses, the dregs congealed like dried blood, and made for the kitchen. Why had he let the place get into such a mess? He put the glasses on the counter, propped the back door open, put the kettle on to boil, and returned to his guest.

“I'll make a cup of tea, and then we can get started.”

Danutia was scanning the bookshelves and didn't look around. “Coffee for me, if you have the real stuff. If not, don't bother.”

Arthur snatched up the duvet from the sofa and stuffed it into the laundry basket in the kitchen. On his first night back he'd tried sleeping in the guest bedroom upstairs, across from his mum's. No dice. The creaking timbers were her restless twitchings, her slurred voice calling. At 3:00
AM
he'd stumbled downstairs with his duvet, uncorked a bottle of wine, and drunk himself to sleep. He hadn't slept upstairs since.

Hoping Danutia wouldn't notice the difference, Arthur spooned instant coffee into a clean mug and tossed a tea bag into the one he'd used earlier. He filled both mugs with boiling water, put them on a tray with spoons, a bottle of milk, and a box of sugar cubes, and hurried back.

Danutia was sitting in a wingback chair beside the fireplace, immersed in a book. She was still wearing her jacket, he noted with a guilty pang. He hadn't lit the fire, and he'd forgotten to close the back door.

He set down the tray and fiddled with the knob for the gas. Orange flames sprang up behind the fake logs. “Have you found something?”

“Nothing like a diary or journal.” Danutia angled the book so he could see the cover. “
Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles
. You told me your mom used to run a charity thrift shop. You didn't tell me she was a specialist in Celtic culture. Look at these.” She picked up books from the pile beside her chair. “
The Pagan Celts. The Celtic Heroic Age. Life and Death of a Druid Prince.

“She was always bringing books home from the shop, romances mostly, and books for me. Nothing on the Celts that I remember. Maybe she got interested in the Celtic stuff because of the well dressing. Sorry, you probably don't know what well dressing is.”

Danutia sipped her coffee, made a face, and set the mug on the tray. “Instant, isn't it? Never mind. A woman named Justine started telling me about well dressing, but then the conversation between Liz Hazelhurst and the doctor caught my attention.”

“Mum had a little book on well dressing. It must be here somewhere.” Arthur located it on a bottom shelf, then found the right page. “This well dressing from Tideswell is like the one I remember seeing with my grandparents when I was about ten. The sky, the buildings, everything is made of seeds and leaves and flower petals pressed into clay. The wooden frames are about six feet by eight feet. On a special day, the frame is put up, usually in front of a well, like the one across the road, and there's a ceremony.”

Danutia thumbed through the slim volume. “These are beautiful, Arthur. Now I understand why your mother was so keen on the custom.”

“Beautiful but conservative. As you can see, almost all the panels show churches and scenes from the Bible. I was glad she got herself an interest after my father died, but to me all this stuff is mumbo-jumbo. I asked her about it a couple of times, just for the sake of conversation. She said, ‘Arthur, you may fool people when you're on the stage, but you can't fool me. I'm your mother. You're not really interested.' And she was right.”

Danutia considered him with what seemed a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “I didn't know you acted.”

Arthur settled into the chair across from her. “I'm a natural-born ham. Or at least I developed a talent when we moved to Stockport. Mimicking the teachers was an easy way for a new boy to fit in. I was in quite a few productions before I moved to Victoria. Couldn't earn enough as an actor there, so I turned to reviewing.”

“Hard to mix the two, I guess,” Danutia said. “You'd lose your credibility. Like a cop dealing drugs on the side.” She glanced at her watch. “None of this tells us what your mother was concerned about. Where shall we start?”

Arthur hesitated. He didn't want to pry into his mother's life, now or ever. He'd much rather drink tea and talk with Danutia about the theater and the excitement of seeing a new play or a re-interpretation of a standard. But she'd never shown much enthusiasm for drama, any more than his mother had. Like his mother, she had a tenacious grip on reality. He thought back to an incident in the fall.

“One night in December, I came in from the pub to find Mum very agitated. She said she had some things she needed to put in a safe place. I asked her what they were, and why. She wouldn't tell me. She said she didn't have the answer yet. When I mentioned the incident to Geoff, he said people who've had strokes often become paranoid. Mum didn't talk about hiding things again, and I forgot about it. But if she kept a journal, she probably hid it.”

Standing up, Arthur considered the possibilities. The two front rooms of the original cottage had been knocked together to create the spacious sitting room. Beyond lay the dining room, its French doors opening onto the conservatory she'd used as a bedroom when she came out of hospital. The rooms were neat, uncluttered, all evidence of his mother's illness tidied away. “Mum had a lot of visitors. If there was anything she wanted to keep private, she wouldn't have left it downstairs.”

“That makes sense.” Danutia gestured towards the stairs. “After you.”

Upstairs, two bedrooms opened off the corridor, with a bathroom at the end. Arthur opened the door on the left. “This is Mum's room, with a view over the garden.”

He'd seldom been inside the room, certainly not since his mother's death. Family photographs covered the walls. He studied the photos of grandparents and great-grandparents, his father as a boy and in his railway uniform, with his pipe and splendid mustache. His father had just missed the Second World War. Maybe that's why the uniform meant so much to him, why he'd never seemed the same after the railway closed down and they moved to Stockport. He'd become withdrawn and irritable then, given to angry outbursts. Depressed, Arthur supposed now, but as a child he didn't understand, thought he must be at fault.

“What about this trunk?” Danutia indicated the steamer trunk that had stood at the foot of his parents' bed for as long as he could remember, a sturdy wooden box with leather straps for handles, two metal clasps, and a keyhole lock with no key in it.

“It was always locked when I was a child. Mum threatened me with a hiding if she ever caught me trying to open it.”

Danutia knelt down beside the trunk and undid the clasps, then pushed upwards. “It isn't locked now.”

The lid creaked open, releasing the acrid smell of mothballs. Arthur peered over her shoulder, curious about what they would find.

“Here's a cricket bat, and a box of tin soldiers.” Danutia handed them to Arthur. “Who played piano?”

Arthur laid aside his childhood toys and took the dog-eared music book she held out. Bach's
Anna Magdalena Notebook: Adapted for Beginners.

“I did, when I was a kid. My best friend and I used to take lessons from this fearsome woman who lived down the street in Stockport, Miss Leach. She made us play dumb things like ‘Elves in the Forest' and rapped our fingers with her pointer if we made a mistake. Even so, some pieces in the
Notebook
got through to me. I can still play ‘Für Elise' and ‘Minuet in G' with my right hand.”

Danutia pulled out a blue cap with gold braiding. “Was this part of your school uniform?”

Arthur gazed at the cap, puzzled. “I've never seen that before. Our school colors were green and red.”

“Maybe it belonged to one of your cousins,” Danutia said, moving aside as he knelt down.

“The rest of this is mine. She's even kept my badges from Wolf Cubs.” He lifted out some favorite books from his childhood,
Wind in the Willows
and
A Child's Garden of Verses
. “That's odd,” he said a moment later.

Danutia peered inside the trunk. “What?”

“Mum's scrapbooks. When I was here in the fall, they were on the shelf by her bedside. She had me bring one down so she could show me a clipping from a school play,” he said. “I was Mercutio, in
Romeo and Juliet.
Why would she put them in the bottom of the trunk?”