Murder at the Mill by MB Shaw
An Iris Grey Mystery #1
Trapeze | November 2, 2018
Christmas Day 2017
The sound of the water was deafening.This stretch of the River Itchen was narrow, little more than a stream in places,but it was deep, and the current was fast, causing the ancient waterwheel to churn and splash and creak with unexpected ferocity, like a battlefield’s roar. Somewhere in the distance, church bells were pealing, fighting their way through the din. Five o’clock. As good a time to die as any.
Tying on the stone was easy, despite the darkness and the noise and the cold that numbed one’s fingers. Everything had been easy, in fact. All that fear, the stomach-souring anticipation of the act, had been for nothing in the end. Everything had gone exactly according to plan. So far, anyway. There was a symmetry to that, at least, the satisfaction of a job well done. One could even call it a pleasure of sorts.
Across the bitterly cold water, the lights of Mill House glowed warm and inviting. Through the sash windows of the Wetherbys’ grand draw- ing room, a Christmas tree twinkled. Gaudy and colourful, rising out of a shiny sea of discarded wrapping paper, torn from joyously opened gifts, it had clearly been decorated by children, as all Christmas trees should be. Few things in life were sadder than an ‘adult’ Christmas tree, tastefully decked out in themed colours. Where was the magic in that?
Not that it mattered anymore. Nothing mattered anymore.
The water was as cold as stone, cold enough to make one flinch. But only momentarily. It was time to let go. The river opened up eagerly to receive its Christmas gift, pulling it down into the familiar black depths with the cloying,greedy embrace of a lover.
Feet first. Then legs. Torso. Head.
On the opposite bank of the river, a torchlight danced.
Lorcan Wetherby, youngest son of the celebrated author Dom Wetherby and his wife, Ariadne, had ventured outside to play with his Christmas presents: a Scooby-Doo flashlight and a motorized toy boat, his pride and joy. Lorcan could still feel the excitement of the afternoon, when his oldest brother Marcus had pulled the big parcel wrapped in holly-sprigged paper out from under the tree. Handing out Christmas presents one by one under the tree after lunch was a family tradition, prolonging both the agony and the ecstasy for generations of Wetherby children.
‘ “To Lorcan”,’ Marcus read aloud. ‘ “Merry Christmas and all our love, Mummy and Daddy.’ ”
Lorcan had torn at the paper like a puppy, emitting a squeal of pure delight when he saw it. Exactly like the one on TV.
‘Remoke control!’ He beamed at his mother. ‘It’s remoke control!’ Ariadne beamed back. She adored her son. ‘That’s right, darling.’
Waiting for his father to put the batteries in and set the boat up had been torture.But after inhaling two slices of Ariadne’s homemade Christmas cake so quickly Marcus could have sworn he saw marzipan chunks coming out of his little brother’s nose, the boat was finally ready and Lorcan had raced down the sloping lawn to the banks of the Itchen to play with it.
Dark had long since fallen. Recently Lorcan had felt afraid of the dark, and particularly of ‘ghosts’, which he saw constantly, hovering around every tree or lichen-covered wall. His father, Dom, blamed it on Scooby-Doo, a new obsession. His mother wasn’t so sure.
‘I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it. Maybe he’s really seeing something.’
‘Like what?’ Dom Wetherby frowned. ‘Things that go “bump” in the night?’
Ariadne smiled patiently. For a writer, Dominic could be terribly unimaginative at times. ‘This house is over four hundred years old, dar- ling,’ she reminded him. ‘There may well be ghosts here. Children like Lorcan often see things other people don’t, or can’t.Maybe he’s just more attuned to the supernatural than we are.’
Attuned or not, Lorcan wasn’t afraid tonight. He had seen a ghost as
it happened, less than an hour ago, moving through the woods,white and tall and looming. But the ghost hadn’t seen him. He was too busy with whatever he had in his hands. Besides, Lorcan had his Scooby-Doo torch, it was Christmas, and he was at home at the Mill with Mummy and Daddy. He was safe. Cocooned. It was like Mummy said: ‘Ghosts are only people, Lorcan. Ordinary people. It’s just that you’re seeing them in an extraordinary way.’ Lorcan wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but it made him feel better.
Ghosts were people.
People, in Lorcan’s experience, were nice.
He played with his boat till his hands were so cold they hurt. The church bells rang. He counted them.One, two, three, four,five . . . six. Time to go in.
Crossing at the bridge safely,where his father had shown him, he reached down gingerly to pull his boat out of the reeds. Behind him, he could hear the waterwheel turning, the familiar sound of rushing water that was the soundtrack to his life. Lorcan Wetherby loved the river. He loved it like a person. He loved the waterwheel and the Mill. He loved his home. His family.
The boat was stuck. The spiky part at the bottom – the‘keel’, Marcus had called it – had become entangled in something, some part of the cold, watery underworld of the Itchen. Lorcan tugged harder, but still it wouldn’t budge. Carefully setting down the remote-control hand- set next to him on the bridge to get a better grip, he tried again, with both hands this time, plunging his arms into the frigid water right up to the elbows. Leaning back, he pulled as hard as he could, his muscles burning with exertion as he yanked and twisted the precious boat, willing it to break free.
Beneath the surface, something snapped.
A small movement at first, then a bigger one, then in one great rush up came the boat, rising out of the water like the kraken. It was still heavy, still caught up in something, but Lorcan had hold of it now, the whole, beautiful vessel safe in his two strong hands. He sat back triumphant and exhausted. After a few deep breaths,he began to try to unwind the slimy strands still coiled round the boat’s bottom.
And then he saw it.
It wasn’t reeds that had wrapped themselves,vise-like, round the keel. It was hair.
Lorcan stared down in horror into the face of the corpse, its skin stretched tight and ghoulish from being pulled by the scalp. White, sightless eyes stared back at him.
Not even the sound of the river could drown out Lorcan’s screams.
M.B Shaw is the pen-name of New York Times bestselling writer Tilly Bagshawe. A teenage single mother at 17, Tilly won a place at Cambridge University and took her baby daughter with her. She went on to enjoy a successful career before becoming a writer. As a journalist, Tilly contributed regularly to the Sunday Times, Daily Mail, and Evening Standard, before turning her hand to novels.
Tilly’s first book, ADORED, was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming an instant New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller. She now divides her time between the UK and America, writing her own books and the new series of Sidney Sheldon novels.