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Death on the Fells
A missing person is seen walking the Lakeland fells – by three witnesses, at three different locations in a remote pass, but at exactly the same time. The impossible problem facing Inspector Lucy Parker and Harry Slater is that when the man was spotted, he was already dead.
Death on the Fells
An Inspector Parker and Harry Slater story
The national policing conference had been tough.
Not because of the terrible catering, which seemed to offer every shade of beige known to man. Nor was it due to the hard-hitting seminars on gunfight-related head traumas, with its colourful, gut-wrenchingly high-definition slide presentation. Or at least, it wasn’t tough just because of these things. The thing that really dragged on for Inspector Lucy Parker was the endless preening from constables and detectives from across the country, each wheeling out their favourite, time slurred anecdote to a crowd apparently not tired of hearing them.
Regardless, it was all over now - for another year at least.
The scenery flashed past her on either side – in a rare break in fortune, the traffic on the M6 was mercifully quiet, and the miles were clocking up. It had been a long slog up to Manchester from her constabulary in Warwickshire for the conference, so it felt strange to be heading even further north now that it had wrapped up. That was, she reflected, one positive from the event. One of her old friends from her time in London – who was now working up in Preston – had booked some time in a remote B&B up in the Lake District for his family, but case work had ambushed him over the past week, so he’d offered the booking to her. This made him, as he’d joked in the hotel bar, the real victim of a triple chainsaw homicide.
Lucy was glad the conference hadn’t been a media event.
As chance would have it, one of her friends – although she used the term tentatively – from Warwick was working up in Carlisle that week, so she extended the invite to him. Harry Slater was an architect who, despite a general aversion to the dedicated, hard work that usually marked out professionals in that field, had managed to develop a strong, credible reputation. He was arrogant, and at times spiky, as well as being incredibly reclusive, but in spite of these things, they had struck up a firm bond ever since she was sent to investigate a murder in his village several years ago. Strictly speaking, it was his lateral thinking that helped unlock the peculiar case and later, on more occasions than she’d be willing to admit, he’d helped her solve some of her most baffling cases. Sometimes this was through providing the space and time to think, away from the frenzy of the office and the media at his remote house in the country, but more often than not it was by engaging the strange, eclectic mind he possessed. Harry seemed able to unlock doors others couldn’t – to have just the right flash of inspiration at just the right time.
Soon, the peaks of the lakes began to rear up into the sky. Parker turned off the motorway, and after a short jaunt along some A roads that cut through the swooping fells and mountains, she found herself on the narrow, perilous lanes of the national park. Tall, dry-stone walls towered over the single-track lane on either side of her, interspersed with the odd wooden gate or ancient tree. The B&B – the Waters Rest Inn - was hidden in the far north western corner of the park, far beyond the tourist traps and honeypots closer to the motorway.
No famous writers, painters, or poets had made it out this far.
The landscape was dotted with rickety old farmsteads and cottages, scattered a few miles from each other, all of which produced wispy, tapering lines of smoke from their chimneys. The last days of autumn were upon them, and the weather had started to turn. No more long, golden days to enjoy this year – just falling leaves, warm mugs of tea, and roaring fires. This seemed a perfectly acceptable trade off to Lucy. It took a full hour to finally reach the Waters Rest after she’d left the main roads. It was nestled in a high pass, between two competing chains of rugged mountains. They weren’t the tallest in the Lakes by any means, but they more than made up for it in their ruggedness and bulk, and they shielded the pass between them like zealous brothers guarding their little sister. The road up from the village at the base of the pass felt genuinely treacherous, with crumbling rocks on one side, and steep, sheer slate walls on the other. With barely enough space for two small cars to cross paths, Parker drove up the pass in a nervous sweat, and cheered to herself when it opened out to reveal the cluster of buildings around the Waters Rest.
Gravel broadened the road about halfway up the valley, with the inn on one side, and a rusted metal barn on the other. Set back further up the lane, behind the inn, was a farmhouse, with a set of stairs on the roadside, running up to what Parker assumed was a first-floor annex. The inn and farmhouse both had the small, charming scale of a past era, with tiny slate porches and little windows on the upper floor that were so low, Parker could practically reach up and touch them.
She had barely cut the engine and got out of the car before a large man, the spitting image of Harry, ducked out of the inn and walked over to her, his hand outstretched.
His voice seemed to boom and echo around the entire pass. Until that moment, Lucy hadn’t quite realised how absolutely quiet it was.
“Ms Glover?” he said with the polite warmth of a career host, as he shook her hand.
He interrupted himself before Lucy could answer.
“No…no… she’s not due until tomorrow. You must be…Ms Parker? The police officer?”
She smiled gently.
“Yes, that’s right. Although I’m definitely off duty for the week.”
“Of course! Of course!” he bellowed again, as if he thought he was in a packed nightclub, struggling to be heard, and not in the middle of a silent valley at the far edge of England.
“Charlie Briggs. I run this fine establishment, for my sins. Very pleased to have you here.”
He went to help with her bags, but Lucy politely waved him away – she had packed ruthlessly and meticulously, so there was not much to carry – and followed him into the inn. It was almost exactly as Lucy had envisioned when she was offered the chance to stay here; low ceilings, walls cluttered with ersatz paintings, and the gentle smell of woodsmoke. The kitchen, along with the innkeeper’s personal lodgings, were at the far end of the narrow entrance corridor, and a winding staircase split off on Lucy’s right, which led up to the guest rooms. On her left was the blackened wooden door to the main lounge.
It must have been the biggest room in the building, but it still managed to feel endearingly cramped. The entire room was centered around a large, stone fireplace, with a chunky wood burner already kicking out buckets of heat. Sofas and chairs surrounded it, like campers huddling for warmth. In the far corner was a large table, already set for the next meal, and behind them was a rustic bar, with heavy glasses hanging from shelves above and three antique looking draught beer pumps in the centre.
Beams crisscrossed perilously above them, dark wooden panelling ran around the lower half of the room, and the stone walls above it were barely visible through the landscape paintings, toby jugs and horse brass medallions that adorned practically every free space.
“This is where we serve breakfast,” said Charlie, rattling through his host’s patter, “and other meals as well. We usually do dinner, and I can rustle something up for lunch if you need. It’s a long way to the next restaurant, down by the lake.”
“Looks lovely,” said Lucy.
“Now,” declared Charlie, “lets settle you in to your room.”
He turned and led Lucy back out and up the narrow staircase, demonstrating an agility that seemed completely out of sync with the size of the man, dodging beams and avoiding knocking any of the hundreds of items off the wall. There were four rooms upstairs, all clustered around the top of the staircase, and Parker’s was located practically above the front entrance. It had a small, slate hooded window that gazed out over the eastern fells of the pass.
“I’ve shuffled things around a little to ensure you’ve got the best room,” he said with a friendly wink, “can’t be upsetting the constabulary, can we?”
With that, he made his excuses and left Lucy to herself. Although twee, the room was meticulously set out, with a tea and coffee tray with individual packs of locally sourced biscuits, and personal notes from Charlie scattered around.
She unpacked her bags quickly, efficiently storing her clothes in the old, oak wardrobe in the corner of the room, and laying her shoes – all boots and trainers of varying descriptions – in a neat row by the door. She placed her water bottle on the bedside table, next to her copy of 23 Steps to a Restful Mind; a book she’d bought several years ago to read on her holidays, but had so far not managed to get any further than the introductory blurb.
The crunch of gravel outside heralded Slater’s arrival. She glanced out the window to check it was his car, and then made her way downstairs. It had been several months since she’d seen the curmudgeonly architect, with both of their working lives taking them to different parts of the country and keeping them very busy. She walked outside, expecting to see him ambling towards the pub, but he was nowhere to be seen. His car; a battered, old, land rover, was parked unceremoniously next to hers, but she couldn’t see or hear Harry at all.
“Huh…” she muttered, as she considered going back inside, entertaining the possibility that he’d somehow snuck past her and was already at the bar.
Just then, she heard a rustling noise and turned to see Slater striding down the side of the inn, past a small enclosure for the farm’s chickens. He had lost some weight since their last meeting, but he still retained a bulky silhouette. He wore a crumpled shirt under a big, waxed jacket, that bulged with all manner of items stashed and stored in its many pockets. His shaven, bald head contrasted with the refined, tortoiseshell glasses that perched on his rugged nose, hiding keen, intelligent eyes.
“Hello Lucy!” he exclaimed, a broad smile running across his face.
“Did you just…do a lap of the inn?” she asked, mystified by his antics.
He just nodded, as if it was the most obvious thing to do on arrival at a remote B&B.
“Lovely looking little place this,” he said. “What are the rooms like? No, more importantly, what have they got on tap?”
Just like that, Slater blustered inside, almost bumping straight into Charlie, who was on his way out to greet his new guest. Awkward apologies ensued, but despite this setback, it wasn’t long at all before Slater had dumped his bags in his room (next to Lucy’s) and settled down in his natural habitat - the bar, by the fire, with a pint of ale.
“Seventeenth century, I’d say…maybe seventeen eighties?”
“Yup,” chuckled Charlie, “finished in eighty-six. Got a good eye for this stuff, eh?”
“He is a trained architect – so it’s not all that impressive,” Lucy added, always keen to avoid Harry getting any more big-headed than he already was.
Slater held up his hands, appealing in mock forgiveness.
“Don’t worry Inspector,” Charlie chipped in, “if we get a dead body turning up out of nowhere, heaven forbid, I’ll be sure to come straight to you.”
“I’m off duty, remember?”
“Don’t listen to her Charlie,” said Slater. “She no more off duty than a spaniel waiting for the postman. Unless you give her something to do, she’ll end up tearing the place apart through sheer boredom.”
Slater picked himself up from the bar stool he was perched on, and wandered over to a big, worn-in chair by the fireplace.
“Have you got any other guests this weekend?” he asked breezily.
“It’s a bit of a full house; we’ve got a Ms Glover arriving at one tomorrow, and a Mr Cunningham just before – although he’s coming up from London and there are some roadworks scheduled on the M6, so I suspect he’ll run a little late in arriving. Both first time guests, I’m afraid, so I can’t give you any special insight on them…” he said, before adding with a theatrical wink “Inspector.”
“A bit of time away from people is fine with me…” chuckled Slater as he reclined even further and deeper into his chair.
“It’s a beautiful, quiet spot up here,” said Lucy, taking in breaths of the woodsmoke, feeling her stresses fade away by the second. “So, it’ll just be the three of us this evening then?”
“Oh, no,” replied the innkeeper. “There’s other people who live up here in the pass. I’m not up here by myself, like some kind of fairy tale troll!”
Lucy was warming to their host – he had such a cheery outlook that it was practically impossible not to. Even Slater, the arch misanthrope, seemed to be thawing to him, even laughing at some of the innkeeper’s jokes.
“It’s hardly the metropolis mind, up here in the pass – resident with one family and the bloke who runs the pub!”
“Are they parents and their child?” asked Lucy.
“The Field-Whites? Oh, no. No children. Arthur and Amelia, and her old man Daniel. They work the farm…” Charlie said before correcting himself. “She works the farm, mainly, taking over from her dad. Arthur keeps everything around here in ship shape – tractors, fences, the roof of this damn place. That kinda stuff.”
“I bet you need that,” said Lucy, “I don’t suppose it’s easy to get anyone out to sort anything up here. I thought we were remote, Harry, but Warwickshire feels like the centre of the universe compared to this. For one thing, I don’t feel like I’m going to die in a landslide driving over to your place like I did getting here.”
“Yep, we’re a strange bunch. There’s just something about the remoteness that…I don’t know. Now, old Dan’s probably the strangest of the lot of us, he won’t mind me saying.”
“Well! Oh, my, so many ways. For one thing, he’s a stickler for routine.”
“Sounds like a man after my own heart,” said Lucy.
“Oh, no… you don’t understand. I’m a fan of punctuality – it helps me run this place, for one – but Dan Field is in a different league. Runs his life like clockwork, every hour of every day of every week.”
Charlie had an easy-going manner, but running the B&B seemed completely second nature to him. It didn’t surprise Lucy to hear that he was a disciplined, punctual individual. If you’re a one-man operation in a place like this, you’ve really got to be master of your brief.
“Which reminds me,” said Charlie, glancing at the clock on the wall, and conferring with his watch, “I’d better go and sort dinner.”
“What? For us?” asked Lucy, confused. “Do we get a choice?”
“No, no…for Dan. He comes ‘round every Friday at six o’clock for dinner. Always Friday. Always six o’clock. Always shepherd’s pie.”
“Wow…” muttered Slater.
“It’s a bit early for normal guests, but if you’re hungry I can sort something out for you at the same time?”
“You know,” said Lucy, “I’m actually getting a few pangs – maybe we will.”
“We?” asked Slater.
She turned to look at the architect.
“When was the last time you turned down dinner, Harry?”
“Fair point, well made. I’ll have the burger.”
“Very good,” said Charlie, as he trundled over to the door behind the bar, “and for the lady?”
“Well, if the regular rates the shepherd’s pie so much to have it every week, then I’ll take that as a recommendation. Maybe with some chips on the side, though?”
“Very wise,” said the innkeeper as he left.
Darkness had fallen outside, where it was now totally black. The light from the fire twinkled away in the log burner, and the sconces on the walls gave the room a gentle, warm glow.
“Gather anything from your little recce earlier?” asked Lucy. “Apart from the pub being seventeenth century?”
“Oh, I didn’t need to walk around to work that out. I am a trained architect after all.”
Lucy rolled her eyes.
“So, what was the little walk in aid of then? Just playing a disappearing trick on me?”
“No,” Slater replied innocently. “There looks to be a little stream up near the mountains in the west, but nothing nearby…”
Sometimes Slater sounded as though he was talking to himself, in a half daze, just thinking facts over, rather than having an actual conversation with another human being. It usually didn’t bother Lucy that much, but it had been a long day.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Slater laid out a coaster on the small table in front of the fire, laid his pint glass on it, and leant over towards her.
“If there’s not a pond or a lake or a stream anywhere nearby…then why is it called the Waters Rest?”
The description itself…
The description itself hooked me!
DEATH ON THE FELLS
Definitely shows promise, I could have read more, I'm an absolute sucker for anything set in the Lake District.