On his second morning at the B & B Japp wasn’t woken by the whistling kettle, as loud as it was. He was already awake, having been startled by a train whistle and the vibrations as it dragged its heavy load along the tracks. Then there was the noise of the trucks crashing together as the train came to a halt and the sound of voices as some kind of running repair was carried out. Japp had driven over the level crossing but knew it was from a piece of track taken out of service by Beeching and now run by a steam railway. He had thought this meant it would be quiet at night. He checked his clock. OK, maybe early in the morning would be more accurate. Very early.
PCSO Farquharson was waiting for him when he reached the station. He needed to visit the site of the disappearing Smiths, or whoever they were really, and she’d scoffed at the thought of him finding it on his own, let alone finding his way back to the car without getting thoroughly lost. She’d pointed out that not only was there no mobile signal but GPS was iffy, so any map apps would be useless. If, indeed, they showed any paths at all in the swathe of green.
Although he was expecting to see her he was a little startled to see that she was carrying a chainsaw. She looked pointedly at his shoes – which were the same ones he’d been wearing all week – having not packed anything else. ‘You’ll be needing some proper footwear, so I’m taking you to the Country Store.’ That’s all well and good, thought Japp, but that still doesn’t explain the chainsaw. Somehow he didn’t feel up to asking her about it. She did have a chainsaw in her hand, after all.
Kitted out to Martha’s satisfaction, which appeared to include tough hiking trousers and some leather gardening gloves, they headed off. Martha told him to park by the old hospital, which made Japp look at her quizzically. ‘There’s more than one entrance to the forest’ she explained. ‘This one gives us a shorter walk to the house.’ This sounded good to Japp, until he discovered how wet and muddy the track was. He wondered if he’d ever get used to the feeling of sliding several inches every time he took a step. It was several adjoining woods, according to the Ordnance Survey, but once on the ground there were no boundary markers, no signposts, and very little to tell you where you were. Japp started to feel very grateful that Martha had insisted on being his guide. The chainsaw came with them, though, along with a bag full of safety gear.
They didn’t enter forestry commission land until they’d walked past fields of sheep and picked their way through a wood that Japp would have ignored. He didn’t see the path entering it until they were almost on top of it. After that they climbed steadily, turning this way and that until they came upon the central clearing. The paths they took had brambles and nettles growing into them and Japp was suddenly aware of why he was wearing hiking gear and not his best suit. As he pulled yet another branch away that had grabbed onto him as he walked, he understood the gardening gloves too. He was only surprised Martha hadn’t made him get one of the astonishing variety of secateurs that had been on sale. Or even one of the machetes. She probably thought I’d hurt myself, he thought, they looked vicious. As he noticed that Martha seemed to be untroubled by the brambles, and managed to avoid them without thinking, while he stumbled over yet another tree root, he realised that she would have had a point.
The house really wasn’t deserving of the name. The outer walls were no more than a couple of feet high, the inner walls virtually non-existent. The brick chimneys and fireplaces had lasted longer and were almost intact, but everything else was disappearing back into the ground rapidly. When Japp peered in he noticed that there was something missing. It took him a while to figure out what and then it hit him – no roofing material. There should have been piles of slate or tiles, or something that wouldn’t have rotted down when the roof timbers collapsed in. Martha didn’t see any significance to their case though, ‘They were stolen years ago. The house was more or less intact in the 90s and then the roof tiles were nicked. It’s a common problem round here if an unoccupied building has Kent Peg tiles. They fetch a good price on the black market. Of course, once the tiles went the house collapsed in on itself pretty rapidly after that.’ Japp nodded, then carried on poking around aimlessly as he thought. He didn’t really know what he was looking for, but he knew he had to at least look like he’d tried.
While he was circling the house they were joined by someone who looked just like a lumberjack. This turned out to be because he was one, or a tree surgeon at least. Martha introduced him as her brother, Arthur. They both smiled in amusement at Japp’s expression. ‘Yes, our parents had a strange sense of humour when it came to naming their children.’ It turned out that Arthur had found one of the main paths blocked by a fallen tree, and had asked Martha if she could bring a spare chainsaw and give him a hand. As they were turning to go, Martha promising to be back in an hour to guide Japp back to the car, Japp had an idea. ‘You said the house was intact twenty years ago – does that mean you saw it? Did you come here then?’ ‘Oh yes’ they said more or less in unison. ‘So it wasn’t considered spooky then, and no-one kept away, or were you particularly adventurous kids?’ They both looked thoughtful for a while before Arthur said, ‘Now you mention it I don’t remember it having a bad reputation back then. That didn’t start until the house started to rot away. Our parents used to walk us past it often when we were out with the dogs. I think other people used to come here regularly too, back then.’
Curiouser and curiouser thought Japp, as he turned back to his search after waving them off. Perhaps someone was trying to keep people away on purpose? With that in mind he focussed on looking for things that might repel dogs and wildlife, an essential part of the house’s reputation. After half an hour he sat on the stump of an outside wall to think, having found nothing obvious. I need help, he thought, someone who knows the natural world better than I do and can tell me what I ought to be looking for, or if I’ve found it already and just not noticed. Being late in the year the sun was still quite low in the sky, and as Japp idly cast his eye over his surroundings he noticed a groove in the ground leading indirectly from a gap in the wall to one of the fireplaces. That’s odd, he thought. Almost like a path. Wouldn’t it be bare earth, though? It was only the shadow that made the slightly dipped ground stand out in amongst the lumps and bumps of fallen beams and masonry. It twisted and turned around them, but once he’d seen one section Japp could trace the rest of it with his eye.
He jumped up and went to the gap. It was on the same side of the house that the last known footprints of the Smiths had been found, and only a few feet away. He got down on his hands and knees, grateful once again for the hiking trousers, and had a close look. There was nothing outside to indicate that the Smiths had walked towards the house, and he knew forensics had concentrated there and almost ignored inside the walls. He looked, but knew he was unlikely to find anything new in that area.
Inside the house was another matter, and he poked at where he thought the path started. To his astonishment the weeds moved and rucked up like a rug. He grabbed a handful of grass and pulled. It lifted away to reveal that the plants were rooted in some kind of fabric that hid a path, complete with footprints, although it looked like someone had done their best to brush them out. Taking care to stay off the footprints and path, Japp gradually rolled up the covering. It turned out to be in several lengths, all carefully matched together to join invisibly. That’s some effort, Japp thought. Someone has got a lot to hide if they’ve gone to all this bother.
Finally he reached the fireplace. It was one of several, but Japp noticed that the others were all much closer to the outer walls – this one was almost dead centre. As he stood up he noticed that the odd smell he’d been aware of for a while was much stronger here. He was no country lad but he was fairly certain that it wasn’t natural – there was an odd tinge to it that was definitely not decaying forest. It was acrid and made him remember some of the more interesting chemistry lessons from school – the ones where the teacher decided that the way to keep the class’s interest was to explode something or set it on fire.
The smell has got to be coming from somewhere, he thought, as he looked around him. He examined the fireplace for discarded bottles, but there were none that he could see from a quick glance. There were nooks and crannies though. Some from falling brickwork, some built in. It was an inglenook – goodness knows where I dragged that name out of, he thought – and you could stand several people in it. There was some rusted ironwork that might have been made for hanging a cauldron from and niches that looked like they were for putting candles in, from the blackened brickwork.
Japp spotted something pale further up the chimney and reached up for it, putting his foot in one of the holes of the brickwork to gain extra height. As he did so he felt the brickwork give way beneath him and the hearth slide aside to reveal a staircase. The smell was far stronger down there. Japp made his way down a few steps to see where it was coming from, but all he could see was a long tunnel. The floor was covered in bits of rubble and he nearly tripped, but managed to put his hand out to save himself from falling flat on his face, only to hear the sound of the hearthstone closing above him, leaving him in total darkness.