The year is 1920 and Mary Loxley’s sister has been hanged from a tree in the gardens of Loxley Hall. The authorities have ruled it a suicide, but Mary knows her sister was murdered, and she intends to hunt down the culprit.
One hundred years later, John Quinn is discovered dead on the floor of his factory. Detective Inspector Andy Bliss, from New Scotland Yard CID, leads the murder investigation and as he delves deeper into the life of the victim, he discovers that there is much more to the Quinn family than meets the eye.
Inspector Bliss follows the evidence to the outskirts of Sheffield, where Loxley Hall has stood towering for generations, and what he and his team uncover underneath the ‘Killing Tree’, will haunt them forever and horrify the entire nation.
‘Underneath the Killing Tree’ is the bone-chilling debut novel from exciting new author Marijka Bright. This wonderfully intriguing tale spirals between 1920 and the present day. Detective Inspector Andy Bliss and his team must unravel a mystery which has its roots embedded firmly in the past, while Mary Loxley tries frantically to piece together why her sister, Emlyn Quinn, was murdered and she must uncover the conspiracy whose web she had become inextricably entangled in.
My debut novel, Underneath the Killing Tree, will be released next week. In anticipation of this wonderful milestone in my writing career, here is the very first chapter to whet your appetite.
- Two Birds, One Stone
Emlyn Quinn was never much one for parties; which was why, when she slipped away quietly from the revelling crowd, she knew that no one, including her husband Malcolm, would think anything of it. He might have played the role of her keeper more often than that of her husband, but even he knew there were limits to her civility and that there were times when it was better to allow her the space she needed, rather than to push her beyond her threshold.
“Tiresome vultures,” she mumbled to herself as she traversed the terrace and came to rest her weary body against the cold stone of the balustrade.
Living in a small town, which some would classify as quaint, had started to get the best of her, and from the very moment that Malcolm had suggested hosting a party on the grounds of their estate, Loxley Hall, she had dreaded being on the receiving end of all the attention from the small minds and the big mouths of the village. One could not sit in the shade long in such a town without the wheels of gossip beginning to turn, and now was not the time to be inviting the crowds into their inner sanctum.
She had pleaded with her husband to postpone the affair, however Malcolm Quinn had always been a man who did as he pleased and her protestations over the party had fallen upon deaf, if not uncaring ears.
She gazed out across the gardens, admiring the dew drops, which glimmered in the well-manicured lawn, refracting the rays of the mid-morning sun. It gave the impression of a sea of diamonds scattered amongst the blades of grass. She inhaled the cool, fresh, morning air deeply into her lungs and closed her eyes as she tried to banish her anxious thoughts from her head. Some distance behind her, muted voices and laughter floated on the early autumnal air, punctuated by the clinking of glasses.
A touch as light as a feather brushed her shoulder. Addie, her Lady’s maid, came to rest on the balustrade next to Emlyn and placed a long, fringed shawl around her Lady’s shoulders.
“You’ve been ill My Lady – you don’t want to go making it any worse; standing out here in the cold with bare shoulders like that,” Addie said, as she made some minor adjustments to the shawl’s final resting place. “Master Quinn is looking for you; shall I tell him that you’re unavailable?”
“Leave my husband to me, dear Addie – it’s not him that I’m worried about right now anyway,” Emlyn replied, closing the shawl more tightly around her shoulders, a shiver pulsing through her body.
“Yes, it seems that the vultures are already circling – looking for any morsel of gossip to peddle about town, especially after the reception held here for Captain Hope last week,” Addie said.
Emlyn stared out towards the embankment at the back of the property and replied, “It’s not really them that I’m so concerned about either, although they do make my life particularly uncomfortable.” She ran her finger along the cold stone of the railing and turned to face Addie; her voice lowered and asked, “Have you been able to contact him?”
“You mean Captain Hope?”
“Yes. Have you been able to find him?” Emlyn repeated.
“No My Lady, I haven’t and his mother hasn’t seen him either; not for at least two days.”
“And no word from him?”
Addie’s response hung in the air between them for a few moments.
Emlyn sighed and said, “He has only just returned to me and now he has disappeared once again. I hope he hasn’t become suspicious. I need to get to the bottom of all of this before my husband figures out exactly what I’ve been up to.” She inhaled deeply and continued, “Well, our Baden Hope has always been a man of his word, so I’m sure that the meeting will go ahead as planned. Is everything prepared?”
“I’ve done everything that you’ve asked,” Addie answered confidently.
“Good. Now, I’d better go and see to my husband – did he say what he wanted?”
“The men are preparing to leave on the hunt and he wanted you there to see them away.”
Emlyn reached into her dress pocket and pulled out a small, apricot coloured envelope. She handed it to Addie, who nodded and walked purposefully across the terrace and out of view.
Emlyn returned to the drawing room, where the morning’s revelries had begun. The room was now emptied of the shrill and watchful wives of the men, who would be accompanying Malcolm on his hunt. She picked up a champagne flute from the silver tray which lay upon the table and drained it of its contents. Emlyn was going to need many more of those, before this day was through – she just knew it.
“We’ve been missing you at the party,” Malcolm said from the doorway behind Emlyn, giving her a start.
She picked up a fresh glass and turned to see Malcolm striding through the open doorway, his rifle slung on his shoulder and a riding crop hanging lazily from his left hand. His eyes scanned her from head to toe.
“I’m happy to see that you decided to cooperate and participate in today’s festivities. Your dress is rather sufficient,” he said.
“Well, you have Addie to thank for that,” Emlyn replied shortly.
He walked to her, hooked his arm through hers and escorted her towards the rest of the group.
“I know you didn’t want this party, but I just need you to see out this one day, and then you will have all the time you need to rest. And remember, I won’t tolerate any misbehaviour in front of Lord Southby,” he said.
If her plans came to fruition, it would be more than misbehaviour that Malcolm would have to fret about that afternoon. But for Emlyn, there was still so much more to do. She was close – but she needed the final pieces of her complex puzzle to fall into place.
She nodded up at him and said, “I’ll do as you ask, as it is my duty.”
Malcolm eyed her suspiciously and in an unconvincing tone he said, “That’s the spirit, my love.”
They rejoined the guests who were now in the front courtyard, where the horses were waiting to be mounted. The women were clucking like a gaggle of tipsy geese, who were more preoccupied with the cut of each other’s outfits, rather than wishing their husbands any kind of fortune on the hunt.
For a man of middle-age, Malcolm climbed atop his horse with ease, and the men trotted off towards the tree line just beyond the stables, each with their very own rifle strapped upon their backs and each with the intention of taking at least one life that day.
Time dragged for Emlyn that morning. Every instance that she looked up at the time piece, which sat in all of its glory above the mantel, it was as though time had barely moved at all. On a couple of occasions, she would have sworn to it that the hands of the clock had moved backwards. She kept drifting in and out of the conversations adding platitudes and niceties wherever it seemed appropriate, all the while contemplating the coming meeting with Baden and the plans to finally confront her husband that afternoon.
This situation was entirely new for her. She had never been the type of person to care about anything. She had her duty to her family and to the household, but other than carrying out those basic functions, she had never taken up any kind of cause. The compulsion had never struck her; however, this time it was different.
Emlyn was one of the last people to have seen little Cecil Watson before he vanished. She felt responsible and if Baden or Malcolm had something to do with the disappearance, then she was going to get to the bottom of it – even if she didn’t quite understand the evidence which she had uncovered so far.
The clock struck quarter to eleven and moments later, Winnie the housemaid, cluttered noisily through the door. She held a tray of canapés in one hand and an open bottle of champagne in the other. As Winnie turned towards her, Emlyn made a movement to take one of the devilled eggs from the tray and with a discreet swish of her hand, she knocked the champagne bottle out of Winnie’s grasp and directly onto her own lap.
The champagne splashed from the bottle, covering her blue chiffon dress in a fractal shaped splatter. In the ensuing chaos and rush of apologies spewing forth from Winnie’s mouth, Emlyn stood, excused herself and made for the door under the pretence of going to ‘tidy herself up’.
“You can’t just go off and leave all your guests,” Emlyn’s elderly Aunt Bett trilled, swirling her champagne glass in Emlyn’s direction.
“You can’t expect me to sit here wreaking like the town drunk,” Emlyn retorted. “Anyway, I’m sure that you are more than capable of keeping everyone entertained in my absence, my dear Aunt Bett,” she added, realising that her initial tone required some tempering.
As though the gaggle had only just noticed her presence in the room, they turned their beaks towards Emlyn.
“So, what are you going to do about the return of that delicious Captain Hope? I hear that he was your suitor before he left for the Great War,” asked one.
“If I were a few years younger, I’d be after him myself,” giggled another.
“Surely, you’re not encouraging my niece to commit adultery?” Aunt Bett chided – facetiously waggling her finger at them both. “I’m the only eligible lady around here, and I have my sights set on someone much more regal,” she continued, drawing the cluck of the crowd away from Emlyn.
She used this distraction to excuse herself once again, walked across the hall to the sewing room and locked the door behind her. The window was unlocked, as Addie had promised. Emlyn hesitated for a moment, running through the directions which Addie had given her late the night before; she was to slip around behind the greenhouses, to be out of view of the terrace and the drawing room windows, to get down the embankment unseen.
It was as easy as Addie had described. Beyond the greenhouses, the vast gardens began to slope away from the house and in no time Emlyn had arrived at the agreed upon meeting place – on the worn, wooden bench, underneath the old linden tree, hidden by the embankment at the far end of the grounds. She felt like a criminal, sneaking around her own estate, but she couldn’t risk the scandal of being seen alone with a man who was not her husband; not if she wanted her allegations to be taken seriously.
She thumbed open her golden snuffbox and admired the mother-of-pearl which lined the inside as it glinted in the sunlight. She took a pinch of snuff between her thumb and forefinger, raised it to her nose and snorted the powder deeply. The effect was instantaneous and she lay back upon the bench and enjoyed the lightness of her mind and of her body.
The moss-laden branches of the linden tree reached upward like tentacles being drawn towards the water-coloured sky. The light breeze caused the rustle of a million leaves and she listened to the sounds of nature which surrounded her.
The toll of the church bells began in the distance; four dim rings to signify that the hour had arrived – one ring for each quarter represented. She stood and straightened her dress; the champagne had already dried. Without much thought, she started to pace. She had hoped that the party had not scared Baden away. They had planned this tryst before the party had even been considered and Emlyn had not been able to get in contact with him to reschedule – so eleven o’clock that morning it had remained.
As the distant bells began their steady toll, quiet footsteps approached Emlyn swiftly from behind.
Clang; she froze, closed her eyes and awaited the kiss to brush the side of her neck – the way that Baden used to always greet her. It was one concession she could give to him knowing that the last time they had met he was starting to get impatient with the entire situation.
Clang; she cocked her head to the right, her blond ringlets fell from her shoulder to reveal her long, slender neck.
He was close now.
Clang; his hand shifted her hair from her neck and he took it back as if he were tying it up. The coolness of the air danced across the nape of her neck; the anticipation of Baden’s touch caused her skin to tingle.
Clang; his breath warmed her neck as the goose bumps rose across the small of her back. It had been so long since Malcolm had touched her, that her knees felt weak at the caress of another. She thought for an instant that maybe she had made a mistake. How could Baden be involved in any of that sordid business?
Clang; his lips swept passionately across her neck, the part where the neck itself meets the shoulder. She felt the moisture of his lips on her skin and in that moment her entire body quivered. It felt so good. It felt different however, softer. Maybe the time he had been away had made him a gentler, more caring lover.
Clang; breathless, she felt compelled to turn around and kiss him as she used to all those years ago, but as she tried to turn her head, her hair was yanked back hard, so ferociously that her neck was jolted and fully exposed. A gloved hand clamped itself tightly over her mouth. Her heart thumped and she struggled against the strength of her attacker, unable by the circumstance to breathe. She reached both of her hands backwards; clawing and scraping to find any point of weakness. Try as she might however, her arms were not long enough.
Clang; her head still felt light from the snuff and her body was weak from her illness. She mustered her determination and threw her body weight backwards with one mighty shove of her feet. Her flailing arms were able to grasp the top of her attacker’s head; she gripped at it as hard as she could. But all she felt was the fabric of a hat as she wrenched it off the top of his head. Unadulterated panic burned through her.
Clang; she dropped her knees and made him carry her weight. It was harder for her to breathe and the veins in her forehead began to swell. In a last ditch effort, she tried to bite the arm that was holding her captive, but the grip that was imposed upon her was too steadfast for her weak, ailing body to fight.
Clang; something thick and rough slid over her head, abrading her nose and ripping at her lip as it scratched along the length of her face, over her chin and down around her neck. The attacker loosened his grip and her hands reflexively shot up towards her neck to protect it from the rope which now encompassed it, but she was too late.
Clang; she felt the violent jolt which took her sailing upward and her feet could no longer feel the safety of the ground beneath them. She tried to cry out for help, for salvation, but the only sound which came was the gurgle of a desperate woman. A second and more vicious jolt caused an intense pain to shoot through her entire body, radiating from her neck down to the very tips of her fingers and toes as it raised her up higher and she could feel her eyes bulging, trying to escape from their sockets. She let out her final, staggered breath as the last of her hope evaporated and she realised that this was her final moment and there was nothing else that she could do.
Royal Trudeau was falling into the most marvellous of dreams, in which he was about to become the first ever person to cross over the Einstein-Rosen bridge, when his slumber was rudely interrupted by the sharp ring of his phone. Dazed and confused, he reached his hand towards the noise and swatted at it like a fly. After a moment of sleepily wondering why his actions were not quashing the sound emanating from his bedside table, he came to his senses enough to realise that it was his work phone ringing and that it wasn’t going to answer itself.
“Trudeau here,” he said drowsily into the phone.
“I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
Royal could hear the wind blustering in the background as he recognised the voice of his old friend, Detective Inspector Andy Bliss, and he knew that this wasn’t going to be good news for his slumber and he would have to put his Nobel Prize winning dream back onto the shelf.
He had already risen as he replied, “My subconscious and I were about to venture beyond our solar system and make contact with other civilisations, actually.”
“Well, you’ll just have to reschedule your space travel for some other time. We’ve got a messy one for you here on Earth; and you know what? You’re never going to guess who it is!” Andy exclaimed.
Royal was half dressed and trying to button his shirt with one hand as he answered, “You’re way too enthusiastic about a dead body; especially at this time of the morning.”
“I know I am Royal,” Andy replied, “but it’s John Quinn.”
“Oh God – it wasn’t you, was it?” Royal said, suddenly feeling much more awake.
“You got me, case solved. How do you do it?” Andy jested.
He gave Royal the details and then they rang off. Royal wondered exactly how John Quinn had met his end and he was certain that however it had eventuated, it would not be punishment enough for what he had done; especially to Andy.
Royal watched the kettle boil and then filled up his thermos. He was getting older and these middle of the night wake up calls were not getting any easier. However, being able to keep one eye on Andy was motivation enough for him to keep coming back for more.
He arrived at the scene, took out his ID card and showed it to the officer, who was assigned to guard the outside of the factory. There was already a small crowd gathered out the front, mostly workers who had arrived to start their morning shifts from the way that they were dressed.
‘Good, no media; yet,’ he thought to himself.
The officer held out the card in front of him and looked from Royal’s face, to the card and back again.
With a furrowed brow he said, “This doesn’t look much like you.” And he shook the card at him.
“Well, yes – I’ve cut my hair and lost some weight since that photo was taken,” Royal replied, irritated that the young officer didn’t already know who he was talking to.
“Some weight?” the young man said with his eyebrows raised. “Look, I can’t let you in here, until I verify this with the Inspector.”
He wandered away from Royal, said something into his radio and awaited a reply.
“You should really get this updated, Doctor Trudeau,” the officer said as he handed the card back and waved him through.
“Just tell me where it is,” Royal snapped.
“Through that door, to the left and then down the stairs – you won’t be able to miss it,” the young officer said as he turned his back on Royal and continued with his watch dog duties.
The scene that met Royal’s eyes was not a pretty one. The brightness of the spotlights made the stainless steel surfaces glimmer and the blood pools and spatters shined with great contrast to the dull and bluish face of a man once very familiar to Royal. Dried blood was encrusted on John’s clothing and his white, protective smock was now smudged with differing shades of brown.
“We haven’t touched a thing; just taken photos, so you’re free to move whatever you need,” boomed Andy’s voice from high above him, on a walkway which looked out upon the factory floor. “We’re just checking through his office now. You know, you should really get a new picture – that’s the third time this month that you’ve caused a stir,” he continued.
Royal dismissed Andy with a wave of his hand, positioned his leather briefcase, proceeded to put on his green coveralls and set about his work.
He extracted his scalpel, approached the body, careful not to step in any of the blood and he made an incision into the top of John’s thorax. He needed to use some extra force to get the probe into position, but with the condition of the body, it wouldn’t make much difference.
He studied the place where John’s arm had once been and examined the exposed section of the humerus which was protruding from the shredded flesh. With his small, pocket camera he took some pictures of the wound. Royal then looked into the machine. Flesh and bone were still clogged in the sharp teeth of the mincer.
He took a few more samples and photographs and then called out to an officer nearby, “Where’s the SOCO?”
“Oi, Benny, you’re up!” the officer shouted across the factory floor to a man who looked more like the drummer in a heavy metal band, with his long, black hair and his long, black beard, than a Scene of Crime officer.
Benny walked across the floor, already in his coveralls, tying his hair into a bun and covering his head with the hood.
When he reached Royal, he stuck out his gloved hand and said, “Doctor Trudeau, it’s such an honour to be working with you.”
Royal sidled past his hand and placed his samples methodically into the allotted sections of his bag.
“Benny is it?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Yes, Sir,” he replied.
“I’ve got everything I need from here. The scene’s yours. I need you to organise the body for transport and get that machine to my lab after you’ve taken the prints. You know where my lab is?”
“I do,” Benny answered.
Royal made his way up the stairs and found Andy sitting behind an oak desk in an office with panoramic views of the entire factory floor. Andy looked pale and drawn out, but his eyes shone with the same brightness that Royal had admired since their days at university together.
“What can you tell me, Roy?” Andy asked, a serious look on his face. “Is it just an accident or do we have a case here?”
Royal took his thermos out of his bag and poured out two mugs.
He handed one to his friend and asked, “How are you?”
Andy rubbed his eyes and replied, “I’m fine. Actually, I couldn’t be better now that John Quinn is dead.”
“You don’t look so good – have you been drinking?” Royal asked.
“For your information, this is what I look like when I haven’t been. I’m dry and I intend to stay that way,” Andy answered, taking a sip of his coffee.
“You know I only ask because I care,” Royal said.
There was a knock at the door. A petit woman in a powder, blue suit and immaculately groomed hair – especially for such an ungodly hour – stood in the doorway.
“Pridis,” Andy said with a smile. “Did you manage to get them?”
“That’s the thing Inspector; they’re all gone – not even the CCTV from the areas surrounding the factory. It’s a black spot – from about 11pm until 4 o’clock this morning. Why are we wasting our time on a work-place accident anyway?” Pridis asked.
“An accident?” Royal interrupted, unable to hide his dismay at the officer’s impertinence.
“You two haven’t been properly introduced, have you?” Andy turned to Royal and said, “This is Detective Sergeant Diane Pridis my new partner,” and he turned to Pridis and said, “This is Doctor Royal Trudeau, a Medical Examiner of the highest order, talented scientist and my long-time, best friend.”
Pridis took a step forward and began to offer her hand, until Andy gave an obvious shake of the head and she stopped and stood at ease at a point almost equidistant from the two men.
Royal looked at Andy and then at Pridis and pronounced, “This was no accident – John Quinn was murdered.”