17. Japp and the nursery rhyme

Graptus looked at the pile of bricks in front of him, and sighed. On the one hand, as the first attempt they weren’t that bad. On the other….well, let’s just say they left a lot to be desired and he would have allocated them as wall-filler if he’s been in Rome. He looked up at Cleon, his second in command, who shrugged and rolled his eyes at him. They’d worked together long enough that the message was clear and translated as, ‘What can you expect? These people have never made bricks before and they don’t like us very much. This is as good as can be expected from a half-hearted first attempt. Let’s not push our luck too far.’ In return Graptus grimaced and nodded, which meant, ‘You’re right of course. These’ll do to start. Let’s hope they get better at it as we go along.’

Cleon had arrived in the area before him, not having gone to the far North with Hadrian over the summer. As Graptus’s chief surveyor it had been his job to explore the area and decide on a rough plan of action. His grumpiness had not been improved by his extra time here. He hadn’t gone to the far western edge of the forest – they knew from previous expeditions that it went deep into the lands of other tribes. The whole area was like a vast oval dish filled with oak trees, with a raised section in the middle. The rim of the bowl was a series of hills that went around most of the edge, except that it was missing on the far eastern side where the forest instead petered out into flatter lands that led to the sea. The hills around the edge weren’t totally impenetrable, they had been cut through by rivers in various places. One of these, to the North of their temporary camp, had been settled with farms and villas. The port of Anderitum was to the South and West, so one road would connect the two settlements. The Regional Capital, Durovernum Cantiacorum, was to the East and North, and there were other ports to the East as well, so a spur road would head that way. They both sighed and looked at each other, knowing that it was going to be a long and difficult task to cut their way through the trees and carve roadways. At least they didn’t have to be the same standard as military roads, Graptus thought.

A few weeks later and Graptus was happier. He’d got his brick vault built for the strong box, and a much more comfortable building on top. It was only timber frame and clay walls, this being what was freely available in the area, but the walls were thick and had no gaps, and the roof was clay tile. The whole area was forested with oaks, not many other trees liking the heavy clay that was sodden in these winter months. Even on the higher ground of the middle section where Graptus was, the drainage was so bad that water sat on the top of the ground after the trees were cleared, which meant that everywhere they worked the surface was soon a churned up mess of treacherous, slippery, slurry. On the one hand the abundance of oaks meant that the timber they harvested was strong enough to take the extra weight of clay tiles over thatch, on the other it meant that Graptus sometimes wondered if he was going to start growing webbed feet like water fowl. It had seemed a little extravagant to go to so much extra trouble for a building they’d abandon once their work was done, but they were a long way from civilisation and Graptus wanted the protection; from the elements, from the wildlife, and from any marauding bands who might want to take the strong box, their food, their lives.


Japp was sitting at his desk in the Ashford police station, wondering what it was he was missing. There was no word yet from Stu, and Japp was beginning to think he was on a wild goose chase as far as the ‘clues’ Stu had left him were concerned. The map, so far as anyone could tell, was simply a photocopy of the one Martha and Sarah Bacon had spotted hanging over the mantelpiece in the Frensham’s house the day before yesterday. His nap in the hospital and a good night’s sleep back at the B&B were not helping as much as he’d hoped.

Slightly bigger than A4 it had been copied in two pieces, with considerable overlap in the middle. Some quick work with another photocopier, larger paper, some Sellotape and scissors, and Japp had managed to recreate the map more or less as it was originally. ‘Here’s one I made earlier,’ he muttered to himself as he looked at the final product. The original was old enough to have been drawn up before the railway line had been built, so pre-1900, but Hatty Sackville was sure it wasn’t old enough to have been owned by Mary Frensham’s smuggling ancestor. She had turned up at Martha’s bedside in the hospital, looking for Japp, and had introduced herself as the local forensic pathologist who would be examining the bodies of those brought up from beneath the forest. Her eyes had lit up as she saw that he was holding what looked like an old map, but had lost interest as soon as she knew it was Mary’s. At the same time Japp was making a mental note that there was a strange interconnectedness in small rural communities. It seemed that almost everyone knew everyone else, and not just in one capacity: he was starting to feel like he’d walked into a hugely complicated web of human relationships that he just didn’t experience in the city.

It turned out that Mary had brought along a copy of the map to her first meeting of the local history society, convinced that it was going to lead to something interesting, but that after looking into the matter for a while Stevie Kilner had declared it was a dead end. The map wasn’t old enough to have been around at the time that The Hawkhurst Gang were operating, although it wasn’t that long after. It was simply a large scale map of the local area, nothing written on it and definitely no X to mark the spot. Having compared it to the modern Ordnance Survey map Japp couldn’t see anything significant about it at all. The farms were the same, so were the roads, although new ones had appeared to serve modern housing developments. Even the field boundaries looked much the same. No wonder Stevie Kilner hadn’t been very interested.

Stevie had said that the riddles on the back weren’t going to lead to any buried treasure that had been hidden by Mary’s ancestor, no matter what her family might have believed over the centuries. As he’d pointed out, if the people who had written the riddles down in the first place hadn’t been able to find the stash, why would they be able to? Or so Hatty had said yesterday. It looked like he was going to have to interview Mr Kilner again, as all this had come out long after Sgt. Nickerson had talked to him.

Wearily Japp pulled out the record of that interview and went through it. Nothing much of interest. Sgt. Nickerson had been left with a vague feeling of being suspicious, but nothing she could put her finger on. He’d explained away what he’d said by being over-excited and misinterpreting what Arthur really said, which was that he wished Martha had never got involved with the police investigation and that if he found who was responsible he’d make them pay. It still wasn’t quite what Arthur did remember saying, which was nothing much, but given that he had been under the influence of some pretty heavy-duty sedative at the time he’d had to concede that he couldn’t be absolutely sure he hadn’t said something similar. It was all highly unsatisfactory, thought Japp, and why it was important that some proper evidence should be found as soon as possible. Not that the map and riddles looked like being what they needed. He picked up the copies of the back of the map again.

They looked like they had all been added on to the back of the map at the same time. So far as Japp could tell from the copies the ink used was the same for all, and they were in the same hand-writing. Hatty couldn’t be sure, but she thought that Mary had said that her smuggling ancestor was called Jeremiah something or other, but as the group had lost interest and turned to investigating the Roman iron workings shortly afterwards she couldn’t be certain. He read them again, but still wasn’t sure that they even counted as riddles, just snippets of doggerel that seemed to be instructions, all except the last one.

Take the Cinders to the prize
Gray is the colour of disguise
My foe has robbed me of my due
Finding him is down to you.

Be strong my son, not weak
Our Irish friends I seek
If our tides do turn
Then our beacons burn.

Seek, do not fear,
Take revenge on the Peer.

They were dotted around the back of the map, but in a haphazard fashion, as if they didn’t really relate to each other at all. Japp found himself wondering who had written them down and why. If it was true that the map had been printed decades, at least, after the smuggling gang had been broken up then why bother? He really needed Stu to contact him and fill in the blanks. He turned to the last thing written down. As he read it the tune of Yankoo Doodle Dandy played in his head, and Japp recognised the words as a nursery rhyme his grandmother had sung to him when he was very small, but he felt that the words weren’t quite right. The last line didn’t belong, he knew that much;

Lilly Locket lost his pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it
Only robbing round it
White by name, black by heart.

A quick google revealed that the rhyme had been changed, but Japp couldn’t think why. Apart from the last line just two words had been changed, Lilly for Lucy and robbing for ribbon. Given the poor handwriting of all the riddles, Japp wasn’t even sure if he was reading them correctly. If it wasn’t for the added last line he’d have put it down to him misreading badly formed letters, but if he looked closely he could see that the words were really different from the ones he remembered. On a whim he followed the link in Kitty Fisher’s name and was surprised to learn that she had been a real person. As he read through her life story he was startled to find that she had married into the family that had owned Hemsted House, the old manor house that had given its name to the forest where all this had started.

Well, thought Japp. That’s a turn up for the books. Perhaps there’s more to these riddles than I thought.


About kentishlol

Wife, mother of three, dog owner, and rank amateur at everything. You don't really want to know that I bake, knit, garden, make marmalade and sloe gin, do you? Thought not.
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4 Responses to 17. Japp and the nursery rhyme

  1. betunada says:

    just when it seems it’s getting wrapped-up, i sense it’s not?


  2. The peek into the history of the Roman workers is a nice addition. I’ve always been one for purposeful flashback.
    And of course, the riddle has me mulling over any number of possibilities. That’ll keep the reader guessing.
    Have you joined any writer critique group, Laura? It’s always so important for writers to get good solid feedback on their works in progress. And then to do a 180 and edit other people’s works as well.
    By the way, many thanks for the lovely words on my post today. They were so comforting. Also, thanks for the tip on the two Roman gods. I’m itching to do a little research about them.


  3. kentishlol says:

    Thanks, I was a little hesitant to introduce the Romans – nearly chickened out and just had a historian telling Japp what he needed to know, but I thought this might be more immediate. I haven’t joined a group, no. This really all started out accidentally so I’ve not thought about it too much, do you mean an online group or a meeting up in person one? I shall have a look for something local but if you can recommend an on-line group that would be willing to let me join I’d be grateful.

    I’m glad you found them comforting, it’s such a difficult stage of life to go through, but you seem to be doing it with much grace and understanding. Enjoy your research, I hoped you’d find them interesting. 🙂


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