Village of ghosts, p.1

Village of Ghosts, page 1

 part  #2 of  DCI Arthur Ravyn Mystery Series


Village of Ghosts

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Village of Ghosts

  Village of Ghosts

  A DCI Arthur Ravyn Mystery

  (DCI Ravyn #2)


  Ralph E. Vaughan

  Dog in the Night Books


  Village of Ghosts

  ©2016 by Ralph E. Vaughan


  Cover by Ralph E. Vaughan

  Table of Contents



  Note to Readers

  Some Notes on Hammershire County


  Chapter 1 It All Starts With the Ghost Tour

  Chapter 2 His Heart Wasn’t In It

  Chapter 3 The FOG Moves In

  Chapter 4 A Solicitor, a Squire & a Ghost Lover

  Chapter 5 Not From Around Here, Is He?

  Chapter 6 Cadavers and Elevenses

  Chapter 7 Sign of the Warlock

  Chapter 8 Lo, ‘Tis a Gala Night

  Chapter 9 The FOG Thins

  Chapter 10 The Curtain Rises

  Chapter 11 The Last Séance


  About the Author

  Also by Ralph E. Vaughan

  How to Contact the Author

  Coming Attractions


  This novel is a work of fiction. Characters and places, especially legend-haunted Hammershire County and its villages, are fictional. No real persons or places should be inferred from any description. In the rare instances where actual historical personages or places are used, they are portrayed in a fictional manner.


  Village of Ghosts is dedicated to friend and artist Nick Petrosino, with whom I created Lost Lands and brought to life Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth. He helped me more than he can know to produce many of my Small Press projects, back when print yet held sway and a typewriter was still a writer’s best friend. He is the only artist I know who could produce great illustrations and covers from such vague descriptions as “an apocalyptic moon over Easter Island,” “Shaka Khan meets New York,” and “a weird eye-bird over Antarctica.” More importantly, he did not forget me as the decades passed, though I was not so conscientious…I never am, alas. But, thanks, Nick…SPQR!

  Note to Readers

  Because the characters in this novel are English and the setting is England, I have opted to use British English spellings in dialogue and narration. In vocabulary I have tried as much as possible to adhere to English conventions and to the regional variations found in Hammershire County and elsewhere. I have tried to consistently do so, and I apologise (especially to my British acquaintances and friends) for any lapses that crept in, despite my best efforts.

  Some Notes on Hammershire County

  There is no shortage of ghost stories in Hammershire County. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the region’s rich heritage of folklore that there are places where ghostly inhabitants seemingly outnumber the living. All villages claim a bridge where a love struck swain threw himself into turbulent waters, an oak where an unlucky witch was hanged (by Matthew Hopkins’ own hand no less), or a deserted cottage where blood-curdling screams are heard at the dark of the moon. Some talkative villagers (hard to find in Hammershire, but they do exist) will expound upon lost souls represented by glowing will-o’-the-wisps or point out a lonely stretch of road frequented by a headless knight. Yew’s Reach, in eastern Hammershire, is home to a haunted bookshop where the restless spirit of author Sir Lyle Whately (1807-1889) is said to, at night, straighten the shelves left in disarray by the day’s patrons. There is, however, one village, Little Wyvern by name, which claims an inordinate number of hauntings. Not only do most villagers claim to dwell in haunted cottages (even putting out place-settings for their phantom boarders), but soul-lights wandering the graveyard (and the church itself!) have been reported for more than five hundred years. Add in sightings of Druids and Roman legionnaires, cursed glades, drowned maidens refusing to stay underwater, phantom battles between Roundheads and Cavaliers, ebony coaches driven by Death, weird sounds, prehistoric terrors at the forest’s heart, spectral Vikings, and now-and-then visitations from pagan gods, and you have a village that can confidently claim to be the most haunted in Hammershire, even if not in all England.

  —The English Counties: The Journeys of an Antiquarian

  by Alfred Herron Altick,

  James Nisbet & Co., Publishers,

  21 Berners Street, London

  1979 (revised)


  Margaret Banberry sat up in bed, clasped the tumbler always kept on the stand, and frowned. Even before she brought it to her lips, she realised she had forgotten to fill it, again.

  For pity’s sake, she thought. Wasn’t getting old bad enough, listening to ones joints creak and snap with every movement, having to visit the loo three times a night, without having to wonder if one’s mind might be going too? It was very annoying, and Margaret did not like being annoyed, not by anything.

  Folding back the heavy eiderdown, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and nestled her feet into comfortable old leather slippers. She felt the cold wooden floor through soles grown thin over six decades.

  She almost pulled out of the slippers and crawled back into bed, but between the loo visits and the warmth of the eiderdown she was quite dehydrated. It was, she knew, a vicious cycle.

  It was also, she knew, a situation that could not be ignored.

  She sighed at the triple annoyance of forgetting to fill the water glass, the floor being so cold and having to get her own water. In the old days, she could order her husband or call a serving girl to fetch her water, but one had been dead more than thirty years and who could afford the other anymore?

  She heard a sound in the cottage, as of small feet hesitantly treading the darkness toward her. She tightened her grip on the glass, anticipating footfalls upon the stairs and a dim form in the doorway. But the sounds grew faint, then vanished altogether.

  She sighed and shook her head in disgust. “Harry, you always were an old fool.”

  Apparently, thirty years of death had not changed any of his bad habits. Yet, for all that, she missed him still.

  Margaret stood, shuffled across the floor and made her way down the stairs to the kitchen. She drew the water and stood sipping it as she gazed out the window over the sink.

  Her cottage was one of several along the curve of Wrait Lane across from Pooks Wood, bordering the Smythe Estate. An autumn moon cast a pale ochre sheen through thin scudding clouds. The road was clearly lit despite the hour, but no light penetrated the forest. It was a black shroud upon the earth. The deeper ebony between the trees was lightless, bereft of even the gentle glimmers often provided by wandering will-‘o-the-wisps, the poor souls.

  The glass was less than half-empty, she noted with an annoyed pang. Now she would have to drink it all the way down before she could fill it again and take it upstairs. It was a bother, but it had to be done. There was no point offending any of the local water sprites. Of all the elementals, they were the most temperamental, and, considering all they could do to plumbing systems, any effort made to placate them was well worth the trouble.

  Margaret drank the water, though she knew it would come back to haunt her. A vicious cycle indeed! She filled the glass, started to turn from the sink, then stopped, peering out the window.

  Two faint ghosts walked in Wrait Lane, heading toward Pooks Wood. It was possible, she supposed, that they were merely men on some mundane errand, but that was unlikely given the hour.

  They tread the dappled moonlight and vanished into the black immensity of the woods. Despite the foolhardiness of doing so, for it was always unwise to
pry into the secrets of the dead, she lingered. After seven minutes by the kitchen clock, another signifier of the unearthliness of the sighting, she saw a single form emerge.

  She wondered what had happened to the other ghost, but not too much. Better to remain ignorant than be educated by a ghost, an old village saying went. She had not recognised the other spirit, but this one was oddly familiar. Perhaps it was Hezekiah Boil, also called Warlock and Heart-Eater, hanged in 1645 from Hopkins’ Oak. Or perhaps it was another spectre, she thought. There were so many, almost too many, to keep track of.

  Margaret ducked when the ghost stopped and looked around. A useless gesture, she knew, for ghosts could as easily see through walls as they could pass through them. When she chanced a peek, the ghost was gone. She mounted the lonely stairs.

  Yes, she thought, climbing into bed. The returning ghost had seemed very familiar. But why did she think it the Warlock, a ghost she had never seen? Eventually, the answer would come to her.

  Just before sleep stole over her, Margaret heard clinking glassware and running water.

  Oh, Harry, she thought. You always did have the worst timing.

  Chapter 1

  It All Starts With the Ghost Tour

  Alfred Pettibone struggled to keep up with Agnes Swanner’s long strides. She was more than a full head taller than him, and all of that seemed concentrated in her legs. She also outweighed him by five stone, but none of that weight held her back.

  She reminded him of one of those titan locomotives of the Age of Steam, clad in black, highlighted with gleaming brass, barrelling across the English countryside, oblivious to any obstacle on the rails, tossing aside carts and cows with reckless abandon. Her clothes, her many necklaces and bracelets, and the cigar she smoked furiously did nothing to dispel the image from his mind.

  He reflected that it was much safer to be at her side, or, better yet, slightly behind, than in her way.

  “What’s the flaming rush?” he demanded. “We’ve plenty of time to get there, Aggie.”

  “This is not me rushing, Freddie,” she told him. “It’s nothing more than me moving with a purpose.”

  “If the purpose is to give me a great bloody heart attack, you’re going to do it,” he said. “Slow it down, Aggie.”

  “Man up!” she replied. “Quit your whining.”

  He tried to grab something, anything to slow her passage. The trailing end of a scarf flapped within reach. He grabbed it, but when he tried to hold her back he was nearly jerked off his feet. In the end, it was either release and try to keep up or be dragged to his death.

  He trotted determinedly behind her, windmilling his thin legs as fast as he could.

  The main reason she tread the late afternoon high street so quickly was a lack of impediments. All residents of Little Wyvern knew the folly of standing in Agnes Swanner’s path when she was bound anywhere of even minor import. Pedestrians leapt into shop doorways or into the street where only cars might run them down. Mothers and nannies yanked toddlers and tots to safety.

  Even as villagers leapt from the path of the Swanner Express, they smiled, chuckled and even a few guffawed, mostly from Pettibone’s predicament. Long before the disparate souls had become comrades in FOG, they had been boon friends. Differences in form and nature should have pushed them apart, people reckoned, he, the studious little bug, and she, the big and loud pushabout ever eager for a knockdown, but somehow they had been drawn together, brain and brawn complementing each other.

  “Don’t dawdle, Freddie,” she tossed over her ample shoulder.

  Pettibone would have answered, but he did not have the breath to spare. Instead, he doubled his efforts not to be left behind, a goal for which he had striven since the two of them were old enough to ramble about the village alone.

  “We have to make sure Simon hasn’t gone on another one of his benders,” she said. “That would just throw a spanner into the works, wouldn’t it now?”

  He made an inarticulate gasping sound in agreement.

  Pettibone and Agnes had been constant companions all their lives, but no one made the mistake of linking them romantically. Had anyone done so, the foolish wag would suffered derisive and incredulous laughter from fellow villagers, polysyllabic insults from Pettibone, and a punch in the face from Agnes Swanner, followed by medical ministrations from the unsympathetic Dr Webber, who had delivered them both into the world.

  “Oh, look, Freddie, there’s a good crowd outside the Blithe Spirit,” Agnes observed. “That’s a good sign!”

  Pettibone gulped some precious air and peeped around her as she slowed. “Maybe,” he gasped. “But shouldn’t they all be inside the pub? You know, that’s what Michael is hoping for, why he’s letting us start here.”

  “Probably too crowded inside,” Agnes suggested.

  “They don’t look like they’re drinking.”

  “It’s half-full, Freddie, never half-empty,” Agnes said. “You’ll never get anywhere being a gloom-and-doom pessimist.”

  Pettibone sighed. “Yes, Aggie.”

  “Besides, don’t we get enough of that from Anguished Allen?” she said. “And he’ll throw in hellfire and brimstone for free.”

  Pettibone looked about nervously. “Do you think he’ll be here? You know, he preached against Ghost Week on Sunday.”

  “Even the stuffed shirts in the ancestral pews couldn’t stay awake for that one, could they?”

  Pettibone chuckled as he recalled both the occasional stentorian snores from the front pews and the pulpit glares and throat clearings that followed. Only a fool would preach against ghosts and the spirit world in Little Wyvern and (by God!) the Reverend Dickerson Allen was that fool.

  “He doesn’t dare show his face around here,” Agnes continued. “No audience of captive sheep for him to harangue with invectives and scriptural platitudes.”

  Pettibone nodded, but not nearly with his friend’s conviction. Truth was, though he was loath to mention it anyone, most of all Agnes, there was something frightening about the vicar, the way he looked down from the pulpit like the Wrathful Almighty Himself, the way he stalked about the village in his brimmed hat, stiff collar and long black cloak, as if a demonic scarecrow had escaped the confines of his field. And his face! The last time Pettibone had seen a head so gaunt was in the Horniman Museum—a fleshless skull!

  “You!” Agnes shouted as she approached. “You people! What are you doing milling about? Why aren’t you in the pub?”

  There were, Pettibone saw, perhaps a score of people, all of them strangers, or newcomers who had only been in Little Wyvern for twenty or so years. Not at all surprising, he thought. While a majority of villagers sided with FOG, or at least were not adamantly opposed, few would actually jump in the queue and chance ghostly attention. But, then, that was what they wanted, wasn’t it, money from outside? After all, Pettibone reflected, FOG’s entire purpose was to draw in strangers who would then spend all their money in the shops and in the attractions yet to be built, afterwards exiting the village as quickly as they had come in, if not quicker.

  “What do you mean it’s locked?” Agnes demanded.

  Pettibone snapped back to the present, realising some dolt in the crowd, obviously someone who did not know Agnes, had shouted back at her. Just who that had been it was impossible to say as Agnes was almost to the door of the pub, people either leaping out of her way or getting thrown aside like unlucky bovines on a railway track. Pettibone grabbed her jacket’s hem and let himself get pulled through the throng.

  Agnes slammed her fist against the pub door, rattling its hinges. It its time, the door had held its own against angry wives, representatives of the Exchequer, and all the King’s Men, but, to save it from being knocked in, publican Michael Albertson now flung it open. Agnes whirled about, throwing Pettibone inside.

  “Now, all you lovely people, don’t you go anywhere,” Agnes said, forcing a toothy smile. “Obviously, there has been some kind of misunderstanding. Your Ghost Week tour
will start as soon as we get everything straightened out.”

  She slammed the door, turned and the smile vanished.

  “What in the name of blazes are you up to, Michael?”

  “Now, listen, Aggie…” Albertson began.

  “No, you listen,” she interrupted, poking him in the chest with a forefinger like a truncheon. “You agreed to let members of the tour gather here for a few drinks before we start.”

  “Well, yes, I did, but that was before…”

  “Where’s Simon Jones?” she demanded, looking around. “He was supposed to be here before the people started trickling in, doing his schmoozing and all the oily stuff he does far too well. Have you seen him today?”

  “Well, not yet, but…”

  “And even if he isn’t here,” Agnes interrupted, “why aren’t you letting the crowd in? They can certainly get pissed without Simon’s encouragement, can’t they?”

  “Well, you see, it’s because of the…”

  “In fact, even if they only get a little squiffy, that can only help Simon with the tour,” she said. “Make them a bit more suggestible to any bumps and knocks they might hear.”

  Michael Albertson sighed.

  Agnes glared at him with hard steely eyes. “Well, out with it, Michael. Why is the pub locked? Stop beating around the bush.”

  “It’s…” He lowered his voice. “…Patience Worthy. I heard her moving and pacing about.”

  “So what?” Agnes demanded. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

  “Aye, these two hundred years, but she’s restless,” Albertson explained. “I heard her moving about upstairs when I was readying to reopen for the tour.”

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