Plunging Into Our Mystery: 1989-the present
Vera Howarth walked out of her house, into the bowels of the earth, and was never seen again.
At least that is how the Legend had grown.
That had been twenty-two years ago. Despite the official missing person report, searches by villagers and police, and posted monetary rewards, Vera remained missing. Her clothes waited in the wardrobe; her family waited by the phone. Traces on her bank account, credit card statements, and mobile phone showed no activity. Psychics and sniffer dogs zeroed in on their targets, only to come up with nothing. No trail, no scent, no body. As though she had never been born. As though the earth had swallowed her. As though she had vanished into thin air.
With the seasonal changes, her story faded into the folklore of the village and surrounding countryside, told in the same breath one used to speak of lamenting brides, lost miners and glowing-eyed shucks. Whispered around wintry fires and on moonlit nights, with a hint of fear and a glance over a shoulder. If Vera Howarth, fiancée of a policeman, could vanish so completely, so could anyone.
Vera’s legend had transformed with the telling and retelling, enlivened by snippets of other local tales until the arrival of the current variation. Even if most people didn’t believe in ghost dogs or phantom horsemen, the area sported enough spooky spots to make the staunchest scoffer rethink his decision at night.
And wonder if the recently discovered bones were Vera’s or somehow had nebulous ties to the other missing villager.
“I know two people have gone missing.” Graham looked at me before returning his attention to the bones. “But the one’s disappeared only a day ago, so this obviously can’t be he. And as for Miss Vera Howarth….” His head tilted slightly to the right and his right eyebrow rose slowly. “The problem, as you know, Taylor, is the site. Have these bones been recently unearthed after lying buried for decades, or have they been constantly out in the open to be buffeted by the weather? Makes a difference.”
Of course it did. But with the tales of people gone missing from the village--plus the local ghost story that still haunted me--immediately putting a name to the bones didn’t seem that far fetched.
The bones had been found about a quarter of a mile into the forest that hugged the village. An ancient forest of conifer and deciduous trees--and ghosts. Fairy tale fiends were said to roam the valley’s dark dells and disused coal mines, though flesh and blood murderers also imprinted its past. The bones merely confirmed the truth of the tales, though village speculation favored Death by Ghost for the unlucky victim. A logical choice, considering the abundance of local spirit dog sightings. But I had never known a ghost to bury anyone, so I favored the human hand in all this.
Which was why we were here--the CID Team of the Derbyshire Constabulary.
Though not originally to investigate the bones. We’d been called out on the missing person. The bones kind of fell into our lap.
Walking over to an oak, I watched the Home Office pathologist slowly separate a long bone from a fragment of blue fabric before carefully sealing the bone in a transparent evidence bag. The site had been thoroughly photographed and a scale drawing made well before she had been allowed into the area--a procedure from which Graham never varied. Graham, a detective-chief inspector and my immediate boss, stood outside the cordoned off area, aware of the dangers of compromising the scene and the evidence. And the possible danger of bubonic plague spores nestled and still alive in the remains.
I shook the water from the hood of my mackintosh as I eased it off my head.
Rain, relentless and driving, threatened the integrity of the bones earlier this morning. Scattered along a haphazard trail several feet long, the skeletal remains now glistened under the brilliance of the police work lamps. Raindrops eased down sodden ferns, tufted hair-grass and tree branches to break on the forest cast-offs and rocks, throwing back the lamp light with the intensity of faceted gems. The light found a handful of bones and drew them from the muddled earthen browns harboring them. From beneath their woodsy covering, the bones--damp and white--peeked out at us. Bleached and broken ends hinted at years of arboreal rest. Graham conferred with the pathologist while I glanced at the sky. The dark clouds had rolled on to the west, leaving a sodden recovery site but drier working conditions. And the haunting question: Who Is It….
Copyright © 2011 Jo A. Hiestand