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Cherringham - The Secret of Combe Castle

Contents

  1. Cover
  2. Cherringham — A Cosy Crime Series
  3. The Authors
  4. Main Characters
  5. The Secret of Combe Castle
  6. Copyright
  7. 1. A Shocking Event
  8. 2. Now What?
  9. 3. A Consultation with the Detective
  10. 4. The House on the River
  11. 5. The Scene of the Crime
  12. 6. More than Meets the Eye
  13. 7. Comparing Notes
  14. 8. Truth and Lies
  15. 9. City Slicker
  16. 10. Long Memories
  17. 11. The Hidden Legacy
  18. 12. A Table by the Fire
  19. 13. Jack’s Plan
  20. 14. Into the Castle
  21. 15. Madness at Midnight
  22. 16. A Winter’s Night on the Goose
  23. Next episode

Cherringham — A Cosy Crime Series

“Cherringham — A Cosy Crime Series” is a series made up of self-contained stories. A new episode is released each month. The series is published in English as well as in German, and is only available in e-book form.

The Authors

Matthew Costello (US-based) is the author of a number of successful novels, including Vacation (2011), Home (2014) and Beneath Still Waters (1989), which was adapted by Lionsgate as a major motion picture. He has written for The Disney Channel, BBC, SyFy and has also designed dozens of bestselling games including the critically acclaimed The 7th Guest, Doom 3, Rage and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Neil Richards has worked as a producer and writer in TV and film, creating scripts for BBC, Disney, and Channel 4, and earning numerous Bafta nominations along the way. He’s also written script and story for over 20 video games including The Da Vinci Code and Starship Titanic, co-written with Douglas Adams, and consults around the world on digital storytelling.
His writing partnership with NYC-based Matt Costello goes back to the late 90’s and the two have written many hours of TV together. Cherringham is their first crime fiction as co-writers.

Main Characters

Jack Brennan is a former NYPD homicide detective who lost his wife a year ago. Being retired, all he wants is peace and quiet. Which is what he hopes to find in the quiet town of Cherringham, UK. Living on a canal boat, he enjoys his solitude. But soon enough he discovers that something is missing — the challenge of solving crimes. Surprisingly, Cherringham can help him with that.

Sarah Edwards is a web designer who was living in London with her husband and two kids. Two years ago, he ran off with his sexy American boss, and Sarah’s world fell apart. With her children she moved back to her home town, laid-back Cherringham. But the small town atmosphere is killing her all over again — nothing ever happens. At least, that’s what she thinks until Jack enters her life and changes it for good or worse …

1. A Shocking Event

“Oswald!”

Oswald FitzHenry was about to pull off his wellies, still slimy wet. The mucky pools that always formed in the castle dungeons after a heavy rain were — if anything — getting worse.

Not that there was anything he could do about it.

Sealing up all that stone?

With their cash flow?

With receipts at the ‘Combe Castle Heritage site and House of Oddities’ plummeting?

No wonder the bank wants its pound of flesh at the end of the month, he thought.

Regular trips to London and dining out had long been sacrificed just to keep the place running and get food on the table regularly.

He sighed and turned to face his wife, Edwina. She sat propped up on pillows, clutching a hot water bottle, peering at him over the top of her reading glasses.

She had barked at him in a way that Oswald imagined would cause a stag to freeze in its tracks, ready for a welcome blast to the head.

Anything better than that voice aimed at you.

Oswald knew exactly what was coming. He was about to be rebuked for coming to the draughty bedroom in the castle ‘tower’ with his wet wellies.

“Just what on earth do you think you are doing?”

He smiled haplessly.

One thing Oswald had learned in his long years of wedded bliss was that it was not wise to use sarcasm in any riposte to his spouse.

“I was about to,” he said as if it was the wrong answer in a quiz, “take my wellies off. Still so bloody wet down there —”

“Oswald! Language, please! This is my boudoir.”

He nodded.

Of course it was. This was the only room that had heating on a dependable basis, the only room they could afford to heat.

He mumbled. “Sorry dear.”

“I mean, what in heaven’s name are you doing with those sopping wet boots anyway? You weren’t thinking of taking them off here, actually leaving them there, were you?”

Now Oswald searched his memory bank for the answer least likely to produce another vocal volley.

“Don’t know really, dear, I suppose … I forgot. I can—”

Now Edwina leaned forward, her head and shoulder supported by the mound of pillows.

“Well you can jolly well take them straight downstairs again. Which is just as well, because I do believe I didn’t hear you check ‘the rooms’ tonight.”

He nodded.

He knew she would ask about that, about checking ‘the rooms.’

By ‘rooms’ he knew she meant …

The Odditorium.

His pride and joy.

The warren of chambers devoted to the castle’s long and honourable history of incarceration, torture, and execution.

The rooms also featured the only bit of wiring that really needed to be checked each evening.

To confirm that things were indeed shut down.

They hosted the castle’s grisly electric displays during business hours. But at night it was a hell of a lot safer to have them totally off — if a fire broke out the whole building was a death trap.

“Did you forget?”

He shook his head as if disappointed in his own lapse.

“I — don’t know dear. I think I got caught up down in the dungeons, and …”

“Well, what a stroke of luck you’ve still got your wellies on. Now go and check that the displays are properly shut down, timers, lights — everything.”

Oswald watched her fall back onto the pillows, her work done. “And then perhaps I can try and get some sleep. Though quite how, I really don’t know.”

Oswald knew what was worrying her.

He had shown her the latest notes that had come in the post.

Grubby things, he thought. In fact — grubby people who keep sending them.

People who either didn’t like the castle or simply wanted them to sell up so that something less grisly could take its place.

Something less grisly, he thought, and probably less entertaining!

A shopping mall! Retirement homes! Or worse — what did they call ‘em these days …? Social housing!

Contradiction in bloody terms that was. Anti-social housing they should call it!

He raised a hand in the air, finger pointed to the turret roof of their bedroom — a sign of commitment.

“I shall go and check now.”

He knew those notes had really upset Edwina. So double-checking that the place was all shut down, nice and tight, would be even more important to her tonight.

Although — rather like removing the wet wellies — he didn’t quite share her concerns to the same extent.

They were only nasty notes after all. Sticks and stones …

*

Oswald made his way slowly down the stone spiral staircase.

He brought the big torch that was always plugged into the bedroom socket. Charged and ready in case of a power cut, which these days seemed to strike the castle with alarming regularity.

“You need to re-wire,” Todd Robinson had told him. “The whole place.”

Instead, Oswald had asked Todd to apply a bandage to the system to get power back on. “This whole set-up … bloomin’ illegal if you ask me,” the electrician had said.

Oswald had nodded. A summons for defying the great God of Health and Safety was the least of his worries.

The bright torch made the curving steps ahead glow as if on fire, and with those below hidden, shadowy as if someone might be waiting in the lurch.

Finally, he hit the flagstone bottom, and the damp corridor that led to ‘the rooms.’

He stared down that corridor.

And though he knew what to expect, what was ahead, he still felt a tinge of … what? Apprehension?

It was one thing to see crowds of people — well, maybe not crowds, but whatever number of customers they got — walk through here, nervously enjoying being spooked before they hit the big, grim displays …

But to do it on your own?

Lights off?

Even knowing the layout of the Odditorium so well, it was definitely rather scary.

He came to the first room.

The Witches’ Cell.

Here, back in the 1600s — according to legend or, Oswald guessed, the bullshit of some previous entrepreneurial ancestor — the Mabb sisters, witches were detained before being taken to Oxford and summarily hanged.

There were no lights on in the room now to send the usual sick green glow onto their wild-eyed faces.

Oswald didn’t aim his torch into the room.

Could do without seeing those hags, he thought.

Then onto the next room.

The King’s Torture Chamber.

Another bit of family legend traced the FitzHenry line all the way back to Henry V.

Or in some stories, Henry IV.

Anyway, one of the Henrys.

‘Royal blood in our veins!’ was the family cry, even though paying the utility bills in a timely manner often proved difficult for the FitzHenry royals.

Here he looked in, his torch scanning the display.

A great chair held a wax life-sized dummy, fashioned decades ago from some rubbery plastic, now well cracked, making the torture victim look even more pathetic.

On the dummy’s head — a metal skull cap was closed halfway on the scalp, and painted blood dripped down from where the circle of spikes penetrated the rubber flesh.

In the daytime, a small motor wired to a cheap timer would make that torture device open and then close, accompanied by a pre-recorded scream.

Made all the visitors scream too!

Ha, still puts joy in my heart to watch ‘em jump, thought Oswald. All the girls squealing. Chaps too, sometimes …

Now, nothing moved, and the dummy prisoner sat silently.

Okay, he thought.

Now to the big room, around a long curved section in the stone hallway.

Walking around that curve, the lights only caught the next bit of darkness ahead.

So familiar, yet Oswald walked slowly.

His old wellies making a sloshing noise with each step.

Damn things must have a crack — some dank basement water trapped there. Or murky water that had leaked in from the river.

The river.

Beautiful to see, he thought. But a pain in the arse to keep out of this thousand-year-old building. Even parts of the main manor house attached to the ruins were perpetually wet.

The curved path opened up into a larger room, a hall.

The Executioner’s Room.

A true Chamber of Horrors! Oswald loved to proclaim as he showed visitors around.

And with little regard for history, three different types of execution were represented here.

First, a wooden gallows, with an enemy of the King dangling, his Roundhead eyes popping. Over the years this victim’s neck had stretched, giving the corpse a goose-like look.

Then, moving on to another hapless mannequin, this one chained to a stone wall, a bowl of food just out of reach, his emaciated body showing ribs jutting out … suggesting death by starvation.

Finally — for this part of the ‘historic’ site—the piece de resistance.

The Electric Chair!

No one ever raised the awkward truth that there had never been one here, or questioned the historical plaques on either side that referred to a time in the twenties when the castle served as prison and homicidal lunatics were killed here … ‘in just this way …’

Everyone loved it when ‘Old Sparky’ came to life — suddenly, without notice — and ripples of lights and electric sparks travelled along the chair; all harmless, nothing more than a light show with the force of static electricity.

For safety’s sake, that light show and its timers had to be shut down as soon as the last customer had left.

And anyway, such displays aren’t cheap to run.

Each night Edwina, always anxious, insisted that he make sure all was quiet down here.

Tonight — he’d told her he’d forgotten.

He lowered the torch.

Then turned the light off.

Almost … enjoying the scary gloominess.

When suddenly a lightning bolt flashed in the painted window, and the man in the chair opened his eyes wide, mouth gaping open too, rubbery, exposing rotten teeth that had grown blacker over the decades.

Oswald instinctively took a step back.

Then — the chair sparked. Pops of electricity exploded where manacles held the victim’s wrists. Then the spark travelled up to where the head was held tight in place by a steel band.

Small lights on the chair popped like mad flashbulbs.

While — frozen, numb — Oswald watched all alone.

And when he raised his torch, flicked it on, he could now see everything else that had changed in here …

2. Now What?

A little later, Edwina lay in bed, blanket already turned off, multiple covers pulled tight, while she waited.

And waited.

What her husband had been sent to do should have only taken a few minutes.

But this had been much longer than that.

She spoke to herself. Something she did quite frequently these days since she’d discovered self-conversation to be immeasurably more stimulating than trying to discuss virtually anything with her husband.

“Whatever is he up to? Dilly dallying! Getting himself a last little snifter, I’ll bet!”

That’s what she said.

But what she thought was a bit different, and threatened to make these solitary moments more resemble a three-way conversation.

She thought: he should be back by now.

After all those nasty letters telling us to get out, leave, sell the place, something might happen.

Anonymous letters!

This ancient castle was scary enough without threatening letters sent by who knows who!

She stayed in bed for a few minutes more, blanket tight against her chin, hoping that a wellie-free Oswald would soon come thumping up the curved stairs.

But when that didn’t happen …

“God …” she said.

She slipped her feet into her slippers — once lined with cosy lamb’s wool, now worn away by years of cold draughty nights. Then, she put on her heavy flannel dressing gown, tying the belt tight.

She picked up her mobile.

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