Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Murder on the Tor’ by Frances Evesham.
MURDER ON THE TOR
Sunlight bathed the ruined tower in gold. Libby leaned on a stile at the base of Glastonbury Tor, looking up at the summit far above, Bear by her side. The huge sheepdog panted, tongue lolling, keen to begin their favourite climb. ‘Wait, Bear.’ Libby’s fingers sank into coarse, thick fur round the dog’s neck as, mesmerised, she watched the first pearly wisps of mist rise, shift and coalesce. Soon, a heavy grey blanket cloaked the hill, blotting out the tower on the summit and the sun’s rays.
She loved to walk on the Tor in the early morning. Her first visit had been years ago, when she’d spent a holiday in Exham on Sea with Trevor, her late husband, and the children. The whole family had loved the windy climb to the top to see Somerset spread below.
Those had been happy days, before Trevor became so difficult and controlling.
Bear barked, shattering the silence. He slid from under Libby’s hand and bounded up the slope, mouth wide, paws muffled on the grass. Libby ran, breath rasping, legs trembling with effort. ‘Come back,’ she called, but the dog disappeared into the mist without a backward glance. Libby ran a few more steps and stopped to breathe, suddenly reluctant to follow.
What was that? A single howl drifted out from the cloud. Libby took a step into the damp mass and the mist closed in, chilling her lungs. Strands of wet hair clung to her cheeks, but she brushed them aside and climbed higher, isolated and blind, sliding on the grass. Her feet stumbled on to a solid path and she followed the easier track, expecting every moment to break through the mist. Time and distance shifted, until she had no idea how long she’d been walking.
Just as she began to think she’d be stuck in the white wilderness all day, she burst through a swirl of damp cotton wool cloud into a blaze of light. She blinked, blinded by the sudden glare, and the tense knot in her stomach unwound. Glorious sunshine bathed the top of the Tor, warm on her face. In the brilliant morning light, St Michael’s Tower stood out, sharp against a blue sky. In a burst of relief, energised, legs no longer tired, Libby followed a series of steps cut into the hill, climbing fast. ‘Bear? Where are you?’ Her voice carried, thin and high in the morning air, but the dog was out of sight.
Libby sank onto a wooden bench, watching the mist below. A sound at her back brought her to her feet, nerves jangling. A small girl, hair a tangled mass of black curls, stared, motionless, eyes wide, clutching a furry brown toy monkey. Libby smiled. ‘Hello. You made me jump.’ The child snuggled a cheek into the monkey’s fur. Libby tried again. ‘Is Mummy here?’ The girl shook her head. ‘Daddy?’ The round eyes slid away from Libby’s face. ‘You’re not alone, are you?’ The child stuck a thumb in her mouth and sucked.
Libby remembered Bear. ‘Did you see my dog? A big, cuddly one. He’s up here, somewhere.’ The girl smiled, showing tiny white teeth, and pointed up the hill to the tower. Libby screwed up her eyes against the sun but saw no sign of Bear. A finger of ice crept up her back. She shivered and turned to speak to the child but the words froze on her tongue. The girl had disappeared.
‘This is ridiculous.’ Libby spoke out loud. She was letting the Tor get on her nerves. The child must have wandered down through the mist to a waiting parent. She wouldn’t come to much harm on the Tor.
Libby marched on up the hill, as fast as her wobbly legs allowed, determined to shake off her unease. She’d been reading too many stories of Glastonbury and King Arthur’s ghost.
She turned the final corner of the zig-zag path in record time, with no further stops. Such a feat would normally fill her with pride, but today, Libby was too worried about Bear. She covered the remaining few yards at a run and stepped into the cool, dark, deserted interior of St Michael’s Tower.
Crossing the flagstones in three quick strides, she was back in daylight. Bear lay on the grass, ears flat, tail twitching. ‘There you are.’ The dog’s tail flickered as he staggered to his feet. ‘What’s wrong?’ His head hung low, the fur of his neck standing out in a prickly ruff.
Libby knelt by Bear’s side and slipped her arms round his chest. ‘Are you hurt?’ She ran gentle fingers over the animal’s body, searching for lumps and bumps, finding none. She lifted the coarse top layer of hair and inspected the soft inner coat for blood, but there was no injury to be seen. She scrambled to her feet and, hands on hips, gazed over the mist that hid the nearby fields and woods to a range of distant hills, shimmering blue in the sunshine.
A stiff breeze sent her to seek shelter on the other side of the Tower, where she sank on to the grass, back propped against the ancient stones, and drew both knees up to her chest. Her gaze swept in an arc, searching for signs of company. No one appeared but at least she had Bear as a companion. Libby pulled the huge animal close, glad of his earthy, doggy smell. ‘What happened, Bear? What frightened you?’ She rubbed the dog’s head. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’
Her right leg hurt. She shifted position, rubbing her calf, and searched in the grass, curious, expecting to find an abandoned shard of glass or the ring from a beer can. Instead, her fingers closed on one smooth, round pebble, then another. She searched until she’d uncovered a handful of muddy beads joined by a length of rusty wire.
Libby rubbed the stones and the mud fell away to reveal a necklace of even, smooth beads that glowed golden-red, as radiant as the sunshine. Amber. Libby dropped them into her pocket and called to the dog. ‘Come on, Bear. Time to go.’
Listless, the dog plodded down the hill, staying close to Libby’s side, tail tucked under his body. The mist still blocked their path and Libby hesitated, reluctant to step back into the clammy white blanket. Bear whined. ‘You don’t like it either, do you? I wish we could find another way down.’ Unless they intended to stay on the Tor until every last trace of murk had dispersed, she’d have to face it. ‘Take a deep breath, Bear, and follow me.’
She pulled her jacket tight. ‘Right, here we go.’ This time, she took only half a dozen steps before bursting out into the June sunshine, laughing, relieved beyond common sense. She reached over to pat the dog. ‘That wasn’t so scary, was it?’
Bear whined, shivering despite the warmth of the sun. He coughed. ‘You can’t have caught a cold, not in just half an hour.’ The dog coughed once more and slowed his pace, struggling to keep up with Libby. Every few paces, he stopped to sniff the ground. ‘Did you see something that frightened you?’ Libby asked. ‘I can’t take you back in this state. What will Max say? I only borrowed you because I wanted to stretch my legs and everyone else was busy.’
When she’d called to collect the dog for their walk, early that morning, Libby found Max Ramshore engaged in an animated phone conversation. He opened the door, grinned, winked and gave a thumbs-up sign. By the time Libby finished snapping Bear’s lead to his collar, Max was scribbling notes on a pad of paper. He’d taken early retirement from his banking career and now undertook various consultancies. Libby had only a vague idea what this meant. Max had a habit of avoiding her questions, admitting only to tracking shady financial deals. He was too engrossed in the call to stop and talk, so Libby waved and led Bear to her small, battered but much loved purple Citroen.
The noise of a car, brakes squealing as it screeched to a halt, brought Libby back to the present. Doors slammed. Raised voices floated up the hill and, in a flurry of movement and shouting, two figures burst from the woods. The uniformed police officer in the lead ignored Libby and staggered on up the Hill. A policeman in plain clothes followed and Libby groaned. Blond, blue eyed, the man was easily recognisable as Max’s son.
Detective Sergeant Joe Ramshore stopped in front of Libby; weary exasperation written on his face. ‘I don’t believe it, Mrs Forest. Always in on the action, aren’t you?’ He waved to his companion, urging him to keep running. Libby recognised Constable Evans, older, stouter and less fit than Joe, round face brick-red with effort, panting and gasping as he stumbled higher.
Joe groaned. ‘I might have known you’d be involved, Mrs Forest. Did you phone it in?’ His raised eyebrows and folded arms made Libby feel like a criminal. It must be a trick he learned at police college. Her fingers closed on the beads, safe in her pocket. Did he intend to accuse her of theft?
More police appeared; too many, surely, to search for a single string of amber beads. Close to the summit, a fitter, younger officer overtook Evans. A dreadful thought struck Libby, turning her hands clammy. ‘Has something happened to the little girl?’
‘Girl? What girl? We had a call about a dead man on the Tor. Was it you on the phone? Did you see him?’
Libby pulled out her phone, waving it at the detective. ‘I haven’t made any calls today.’
Joe narrowed his eyes, reluctant to believe anything without proof. ‘Well, someone did. You need to go, Mrs Forest. We’re about to cordon off the Tor.’
‘There was a child on the hill, but she disappeared.’ The mist seemed to thicken again. Or was it Libby’s eyes, as they strained to focus against the sun? She took a step towards the Tower.
Joe swung round. ‘Keep away, now. This is a police matter.’
Libby dragged a listless Bear back to the car, fear lying heavy in her chest. A death on the hill. Not the child, please. Not that little girl. Libby’s lips shaped the words, repeating them under her breath as though they were a mantra.
Joe said it was a man. A dead man. Libby clung to the thought, but her heart still thudded and bile rose in her throat. If something dreadful happened to the curly haired girl, it would be Libby’s fault; her responsibility. She should have grabbed one of the small hands, chaperoned the child into town and refused to rest until she found the parents.
Channels on the car radio buzzed and blared as Libby drove back to Exham. The local station was playing a jaunty tune that ended abruptly, cut off. A presenter’s broad Bristolian vowels made the announcement, his words drawn out, savouring the drama. ‘A body has been discovered on Glastonbury Tor. Police have yet to make a statement. The body’s believed to be that of an elderly man, but we have no confirmation as yet. Our reporter is at the scene and we’ll bring you breaking news as it happens…’ Libby’s hands gripped the steering wheel until they hurt. A rush of relief brought hot tears to her eyes, scorching the eyelids. An old man had died but at least the little girl was safe.
Bear whined, dragging Libby back to the present. She forced a shaky hand from the wheel and fumbled the key out of the ignition. Her thoughts raced. How did the body come to be on the Tor? ‘Did you see anything strange, Bear? Something I missed?’ She glanced over one shoulder. The dog whined again, and Libby touched his nose. It felt hot and dry. ‘Poor old fellow, you don’t seem at all well.’
She snatched a glance at her phone. Ten thirty? That couldn’t be right. Had the battery given out or something? She switched off the phone and waited, counting to five before hitting the restart button, but there was no mistake. Most of the morning had slipped away despite their expedition starting so early. Libby calculated. A six thirty arrival and the climb to the summit; a brief conversation with the child; a rest at the top while she found the necklace. How could that have lasted four hours?
She must have wandered in the mist, following a circular path, disorientated, for longer than she realised. No wonder her legs ached. She shivered, one hand resting on Bear’s head. She’d never seen the dog so exhausted. Bred to walk for hours in the mountains of Romania, he was usually a ball of boundless energy. ‘I can’t take you back to Max in this state.’ There was a veterinary practice on the road leading to the beach. Before Libby took Bear home, she’d get him checked over. She’d never forgive herself if anything happened to the animal.
Bear hung back at the door of the surgery, reluctant, eyes mournful. ‘I can’t carry you. You’re far too heavy. It’s no good looking so miserable.’ It took Libby a combination of pushing, pulling and pleading to coax him through the door.
‘Poor thing,’ murmured the receptionist, a cheerful, middle-aged woman. ‘Isn’t that the dog old Mr Thomson used to own? I’m sure Tanya will fit him in straight away. It’s a quiet day, today.’ She muttered into a telephone. After a moment the vet appeared, pulling on a pair of blue disposable gloves and beckoning Libby and Bear into a consulting room.
Tanya Ross, the vet, had a wiry, lean body that hinted at a jogging habit, despite the woman’s apparent age. Older than me. In much better shape, too. Libby pulled in her stomach. Only five foot, four inches, tall, she knew every ounce of spare flesh on her body showed. The vet must be well over retirement age, judging by the ruddy, outdoor complexion and collection of crows’ feet round her eyes, but she skipped across the floor, quick and light, eyes robin-bright, to examine the dog with firm but gentle fingers. Bear lifted his head and licked her hand.
Libby’s spirits rose. ‘He’s feeling better, already. Must be your magic touch.’ By the time the vet finished weighing, measuring and inspecting the dog, Bear looked far more cheerful; almost back to normal. ‘What do you think was the matter?’
Tanya Ross fondled Bear’s ears. ‘His temperature’s low but he seems to be recovering fast. What happened? Has he had a shock, or been chilled?’
Libby swallowed. ‘It sounds stupid, but when the mist came down on the Tor, we lost our way. We were on the hill far longer than I thought, in the damp and cold. I can’t understand how it happened. We must have been there for an hour or more, wandering round the sides of the Tor. It gave me the creeps, to be honest, and we’d only just got out of the mist when the police arrived. They told me about an accident on the hill; about the man who died.’
Tanya Ross put her head on one side. ‘I heard it on the news. If you were on the hill when that poor man died, it must have given you a nasty shock. I think you need a nice hot cup of tea. Have a seat in the waiting room, and I’ll make one. I could do with a brew.’
She disappeared through another door while Libby and Bear returned to the waiting room, which smelled of dog and disinfectant. Libby passed the time looking at cute photos of kittens and puppies, reading a poster that warned of the danger of ticks, and admiring a row of framed certificates. She examined all four, one for each of the vets in the practice. She’d guessed Tanya Ross’s age accurately. The oldest of the team, she’d graduated from Bristol University way back in 1971 The newest vet, younger than Libby’s son, Robert, had been in practice for no more than two years.
There was nothing else to read and Libby settled on a hard, wooden chair. At once, the receptionist stopped pretending to work at a computer and took off her glasses, bursting with news. Her eyes sparkled. ‘Have you heard about the dead man?’
‘I just came from Glastonbury Tor,’ Libby admitted.
She soon wished she’d held her tongue for the woman licked her lips and, face alight with excitement, whispered, ‘Did you see the body?’
‘No. It was misty on the hill.’ Libby kept her answer brief, hoping to shut down the conversation, but she was disappointed. The receptionist, thrilled, drew a long breath through pursed lips. ‘Ooh, you be careful, m’dear. You don’t want to be going up the Tor, not in the mist. Anyone will tell you that.’
Libby raised an eyebrow, suddenly intrigued. ‘Why not?’
The receptionist leaned over the counter. ‘You’re new around here – I forgot. You see, some say there are tunnels under the Tor and King Arthur walks there every midsummer, guarded by the little people. Folk around here don’t go up on the hill, then. They reckon if one of the fairies appears, it heralds a death.’ Before Libby, stunned, could reply, the vet reappeared. The receptionist snatched up her spectacles, replaced them on her nose and resumed typing.
‘Here.’ Tanya Ross offered Libby a battered mug. ‘Strong, with milk and two sugars.’ Libby took a polite sip, trying not to wrinkle her nose. She hated sugar in tea. The vet leaned an elbow on the counter. ‘I bet Mrs White’s been telling you tales about strange happenings on the Tor.’ The receptionist typed harder; eyes fixed on the screen. ‘Oh, yes,’ the vet went on. ‘Everyone round here will tell you that local people keep away when the mist comes down.’ She raised her voice. ‘Don’t they, Mrs White?’
The receptionist pretended not to hear. Tanya rolled her eyes. ‘Take no notice of her, Mrs Forest. The stories are meant to excite the tourists, though I bet there weren’t many other walkers up there today.’
‘No. Oddly enough, there weren’t. Bear and I were alone at first. Then we met a little girl. And the dead man—’
‘You saw him?’
Libby drained the mug, trying not to shudder. ‘No. He wasn’t on the hill when we arrived, and I can’t understand how he managed to reach the top unseen.’
‘Ah. He must have climbed up the other path.’
Libby started. ‘There’s another one?’
‘Oh yes. There’s the easy way, through the woods…’
‘That’s the route I took.’
‘And there’s another entrance further down the road. The second path is shorter, but steeper.’
Libby’s laugh was shaky. ‘So, I’m not crazy. He came from the other direction. I didn’t see him because I was lost in the mist.’
‘Any idea how he died?’
‘The police didn’t say.’
‘A heart attack, that’s most likely. It’s a steepish climb if you’re not used to exercise.’
An elderly lady burst through the surgery door, struggling to control two perfectly matched Scottie dogs, as neat as a pair of white porcelain figurines. Tanya Ross handed Libby a small box. ‘Put a couple of these tablets in Bear’s food. They’ll keep him calm for the next few hours and he’ll be right as rain soon.’
She presented a hefty bill. Libby blinked, recovered, paid and left, the dog trotting at her side, tail in the air as though nothing had ever been wrong.
‘You’re a fraud,’ Libby hissed, ‘and an expensive one, at that.’
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