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Marley

Louise

Something Wicked

Evil can be tempting …


Katrina Davenport has opened a coffee shop and bookstore in the notorious Raven’s Cottage, once the home of a 17th century witch known as Magik Meg. The locals have told Kat stories, of how the cottage is haunted by the witch and her demon lover, but Kat doesn’t believe in witches, or ghosts, or anything that goes bump in the dead of night. Every strange thing that happened since she moved in must have a perfectly logical explanation.


Unfortunately it doesn’t matter what Kat believes, because something wicked has returned to Raven’s Cottage.


And this time it’s come for Kat.


Extract

Prologue


1696


I live in a cottage on the edge of the forest. I use my knowledge of plants to help heal the sick, or at least to numb the pain of their passing. I’m happy to act as midwife when needed and I will even lay out the dead. For all this, the people of Buckley tolerate me.

I have no friends but my neighbours are polite and, in the most part, pleasant enough. If they don’t like me, at least they have refrained from telling me to my face. It is a hard life. I have no husband or family and I do feel lonely, but if I ever I feel in need of company, I talk to the ravens which gave my cottage its name.

I might as well have ‘witch’ inscribed on my forehead.


From the Journal of Margaret Lawrence

Raven’s Cottage, Buckley



Chapter One


Present - Port Rell


The Detective Inspector walked carefully across the wide expanse of sand known as Fishermen’s Beach. Although wet, the sand was firm enough to walk upon, with little patterns of ridges showing where the tide had come in and then gone out, leaving something washed up on the foreshore. Something other than the usual clumps of rotting bladderwrack and tourist’s jetsam. Something that had not taken long for the unfortunate soul who’d found it to identify as a body.

His team had gathered on the sand to wait for him – and Forensics too apparently, as the body still lay stretched out on the sand, exposed to the wind and the rain, and anyone who cared to look.

“What have we got?” he asked, as he drew within speaking distance.

It was a sad fact that anything falling into the water along this stretch of the coast inevitably washed up on Fishermen’s Beach. The King’s Forest was a popular tourist destination, and a tourist could always be relied upon to fall down a cliff, off a pleasure boat or into the harbour after one too many pints at the Smuggler’s Inn. Their bodies always washed up here.

Instead of their usual black-humoured banter, his team remained silent and slowly moved aside so he could see what lay on the sand and what, he realised belatedly, they had been shielding from the gawkers who had already gathered on the slipway behind him.

The body was that of a woman.

She was young and she’d once been pretty. Her long, brown hair was fanned out around her head and curled against her bare shoulders. Although her hair was matted and tangled with seaweed, he could tell she had not been in the water for very long. Her skin was pale and bruised, but he could still see the freckles dusting her shoulders. She’d not begun to bloat. She wasn’t a ‘floater’; she’d not been dead long enough for that. The stormy weather and the strong tide had conspired to deposit her here in double quick time, pretty much as it did everything else. He doubted she’d even been in the water longer than a couple of hours.

He sighed and crouched beside her, careful not to overbalance and accidentally touch her. There was more seaweed stuck to her skin, little shreds of green sea lettuce and maiden’s hair, but he resisted the temptation to brush it away. Her eyes were closed and her lashes were long and dark against her fair skin.

“Poor kid,” said his Detective Sergeant, from some way above him.

She wasn’t a ‘kid’ though. She was a young woman, barely in her twenties, not much younger than him. A woman who would now never grow old, never marry, never have children –

“A young girl, her life just beginning – it’s a tragedy,” the Detective Sergeant interrupted his thoughts yet again. The man had the platitudes down pat. They all did. The victim wasn’t a person; they were a crime statistic and a puzzle to be solved. Considering the victim to be anything more didn’t help anybody.

The Detective Inspector returned his attention to the deceased. She was wearing a simple white slip, which turned transparent wherever it touched against her body. It could have been a petticoat or a party dress; he wasn’t familiar enough with women’s fashion to be able to tell the difference.

“Can’t we cover her up?” The words were out before he realised he’d spoken them.

The Detective Sergeant was now staring at him as though he’d gone mad. “Cover her up?” he echoed. “Forensics haven’t seen her yet.”

Every other bugger has, he thought, but said out loud, “There’s not much more we can do.”

And then, as he was about to move away, he saw it. A thin trickle of clear liquid was bubbling from the corner of her mouth.

What the hell

He leaned over her body and the inside of his wrist accidentally brushed against her wet skin – skin that was still warm.

“Oh God … I think she’s still alive … ”

The woman’s eyes flicked open.


Chapter Two


Eight years later -Buckley


Katrina Davenport drove through an apparently endless avenue of trees, the mass of branches tangling and entwining overhead to create a dark and sinister tunnel. Even though it was the middle of winter, and barely a leaf remained, the silvery gleam of the sun hardly broke through the unremitting gloom.

She took one hand from the steering wheel and flicked the satnav. It had been suspiciously quiet for the last fifteen minutes. The village of Buckley was supposed to be located in the centre of the forest. Like Rome, all roads led to it and through it. Supposedly she couldn’t miss it. So where the hell was it?

“I’m turning around and heading back,” she told her silent passenger, but there was nowhere to turn around, even if she’d wanted to. The road was narrow and curving, with a ditch and a barbed wire fence on either side. Beyond that, were nothing but row upon row of trees, fading into dark, shifting shadows. Kat forced her grip on the steering wheel to relax. “You think I’ve made the worst mistake ever, don’t you?”

The cat in his carrier regarded her balefully, but then he hadn’t wanted to come in the first place. His name was Mister Snuggles and he belonged to her soon-to-be ex-husband. It had been an impulse to bring him, but she could hardly abandon the poor thing in an empty house. Although she did wonder on Jake’s reaction when he came home and discovered she’d not only left him but taken his beloved cat too. Which raised the question, who would he miss most?

She rather suspected it would be the cat.

The car bounced over a speed bump, forcing her attention back to the road in time for the satnav to cheerfully announce she’d reached her destination.

“We’re here,” she told Mister Snuggles, with some satisfaction. “How do you like our new home?”

But Mister Snuggles only glared at her with his huge orange eyes.

Kat doubted Buckley had changed since the Tudors. There was only one street, meandering between a jumble of thatched cottages all glittering and sparkling with the last of the morning frost. There was a church in the centre and a manor in the distance, and the pavements overflowed with tourists and shoppers. Yet in what seemed like seconds, she’d driven straight through the village and out the other side, where the trees grew so thickly the car’s headlights automatically switched back on.

How had she managed to miss her aunt’s cottage so completely?

Kat gave the satnav another slap but this time it remained silent. Bloody thing. There was nothing for it. She would have to find somewhere to turn and then –

And then she saw it.

Almost entirely covered by scarlet creeper, Raven’s Cottage gave the appearance it had not so much been built, but had grown organically. The surrounding trees almost enclosed it completely, their twisted branches hanging low over the roof, clawing into the thatch and scraping the windows, almost as though they wanted to claim the cottage back. It was not remotely welcoming, and a complete contrast to the others she’d passed, any of which would have looked right at home on a Christmas card. But this one … Kat sighed. She was in no position to be picky. It was here or an ignominious return to her husband, who probably hadn’t even noticed she’d left.

She pulled up outside Raven’s Cottage, stepping out of the car and into the road – as something grabbed her around the waist and yanked her back. Another car swerved past at speed, horns blaring, missing her by millimetres, and certainly close enough for her to lip-read the driver’s cursing.

What the hell?

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” enquired a furious male voice, and for one all-too-brief moment she thought he might be Jake. But when she looked up into the face of her rescuer, she saw a chin peppered with dark blond stubble and a pair of wintery grey eyes – just as a second car shot past. “Shall we continue this conversation out of the road?” her rescuer growled. Slamming the car door on an indignant Mister Snuggles, he shoved Kat in the direction of the pavement.

Any protest she had been about to make died on her lips as a third car shot past at speed, and she was forced to take the last two paces at a jump. “Doesn’t anyone obey the speed limit?”

“To be fair, it doesn’t kick in for another couple of hundred yards.”

“That’s no excuse!”

“You’re right,” he said, “but it hasn’t stopped them in the past and no doubt it won’t stop them in the future.”

Surprised at the bitterness in his voice, she took another look up. He was tall, hence her neck-craning, and aged somewhere this side of thirty. His hair was a dark golden blond, although mostly hidden by the black woollen hat he wore pulled low over his forehead, and his eyes were a definite flinty grey.

“Thank you for saving my life,” she said.

“Twice.”

“Twice,” she conceded. “I suppose I ought to move my car. I don’t suppose it’s safe parked there either.”

“That would be the point of the double yellow lines.”

She winced at the sarcasm he hadn’t bothered to hide. “I was so pleased to finally find my aunt’s cottage, I hadn’t noticed them.”

That was no excuse either and she was fully expecting him to tell her so, but instead,

You’re Katrina Davenport?”

Why was he frowning? “Yes … ”

“The new owner?” He flipped his thumb in the direction of the cottage. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you. I’m Detective Inspector Buckley – ”

“Like the village?”

Those grey eyes turned frosty once more. “Yes, like the village.” He paused, presumably expecting a smartarse comment. When she remained tactfully silent he added, “There have been reports of disturbances at the property.”

“I would have been here sooner but there was all the legal stuff to sort out, first with the business and then … ” Kat trailed off. And then my marriage broke up, was too much information to share with a stranger. She went with prevarication instead. “What kind of disturbances?”

“What do you know of the cottage’s history?”

Kat hadn’t bothered to look over the deeds, or even read the inspection report she’d received from her solicitor. She was so determined Raven’s Cottage was going to be her happy ever after, she hadn’t taken much notice of superfluous detail at all – which, as it was turning out, was practically everything.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Or Magik Meg?”

“Who?”

He shook his head in disbelief. “How can you not have heard of Magik Meg? There have been books written about her, documentaries – there was even talk of a movie at one time but – ”

She was beginning to see where he was going with this. “If you’re going to tell me she haunts my cottage – ”

“Her cottage.”

My cottage – I can tell you right now, I don’t believe in any of that rubbish.”

He wasn’t quite sure how to reply to this, she could see it in his expression. He obviously wanted to defend ‘his’ witch, but equally determined not to appear irrational in front of someone he didn’t know.

“It’s not something I personally believe,” he admitted, “but the front desk receives a call almost every night from someone reporting odd lights and noises. We’ll all be relieved when someone moves in. You are moving in?” He glanced back at her car, presumably confused by the lack of boxes, the absence of which Kat had no intention of explaining to him.

“What kind of lights?”

“Silver balls of light, moving from window to window; the description was quite detailed.”

“And over-imaginative. My solicitor must have left the security lights on.”

His expression remained impassive. She found herself wondering what he looked like when he smiled, something he didn’t appear to do very often. The lines around his eyes were mostly beneath them, not fanning out from the corners, and his mouth was a thin straight line. There again, Jake had done nothing but smile and laugh and refuse to take anything seriously. And look where that had got her: a haunted cottage in tourist central.

“The power has been turned off since your aunt died,” he told her. “We’ve already been in contact with the supplier. People have also mentioned smoke coming from the chimney and wailing sounds, as though someone is crying – but I can’t see any obvious sign of a break-in. If anyone was able to gain entry, perhaps they had a key?”

“There are only two sets of keys and I have both of them.”

“I could check the place over for you?”

Did she look stupid? “For that you’ll need ID.”

He reached inside his jacket and produced a black leather wallet with an ID card inside. The card seemed genuine enough but she still phoned the local police station to confirm his identity. By now her fingers were so frozen she could hardly key in the number.

“Is everything OK?” he asked politely, after she’d terminated the call.

“Yes.” She dropped the phone back into her pocket. “Although I’m wondering why the police would waste sending out a detective inspector for something a constable could check out – or even the local community officer?”

For the first time something that could almost be described as a smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Convenience,” he said. “I live next door.”

Raven’s Cottage was on the edge of the village, entirely surrounded by forest. There was no ‘next door’. Except … Her mind replayed her drive through the village. There had been at least three pubs, a row of shops, the church … and a beautiful medieval manor.

“You live at the Manor?”

His smile turned rueful. “An apartment in the attic. A couple of hundred years ago the entire house belonged to my family. Now the main rooms are open to the public and I rent what used to be the servants’ quarters from a trust.”

Kat would liked to have known more but the conversation was turning personal again, and the last thing she wanted was for him to feel entitled to ask questions about her life.

“I would be grateful if you could check my cottage for burglars, witches … whatever … but first I’ll need to retrieve my cat. I’ve left him inside the car for long enough. The poor thing will be going frantic.”

Actually Mister Snuggles had gone to sleep, but as soon as she lifted his carrier out of the car he woke up, hissing his displeasure.

With one hand firmly gripping the carrier (Mister Snuggles wasn’t exactly a lightweight), Kat walked up to the front door without waiting to see if DI Buckley followed.

Mister Snuggles was suspiciously quiet, but it turned out his attention had been caught by a beady-eyed raven sitting on one of the downstairs windowsills, its head tilted to one side as it watched them approach. It had been a hard winter; perhaps the poor bird was hoping for a few crumbs of food? But when Kat placed the carrier on the ground to unlock the door, the raven shot up into the air with a loud caw, caw, caw.

Very Edgar Allen Poe.

Kat stepped over the threshold, instinctively ducking her head to avoid the low beams. DI Buckley, being considerably taller, knocked his head immediately. He cursed quite impressively for an officer of the law.

She flicked a switch and the interior was instantly flooded with light. “I suppose that solves the mystery of your ghostly lights,” she said, somewhat smugly, “and – good grief!”

What had once been the main living quarters of a 16th century cottage was now a coffee shop and bookstore, dominated by a huge stone fireplace big enough to stand in, with what appeared to be a cauldron suspended in the middle. Leaning beside the fireplace, as though they had been left there not a moment before, was a collection of old-fashioned broomsticks. Hanging from a hat-stand beside the door was a well-patched cloak and a pointy hat. And if all that failed to indicate exactly whose house they were in, nailed to the back wall was a large blackboard listing drinks such as spiced pumpkin latté and cinnamon café mocha beneath the words: Pick Your Potion.

“Welcome to the Witch’s Brew.” DI Buckley, damn him, finally had a smile on his face.

“I’m certainly noticing a theme!”

“You’ve not been here before?”

“My great-aunt fell out with my grandfather before I was born. I don’t even know why she left me this house.” Kat picked up one of the broomsticks, turning it over in her hands, slightly relieved to find a faded barcode still stuck to the handle. Not the real thing thankfully, but her aunt had certainly gone to a lot of trouble to make it seem so. If she took this place over, it would be like working in a theme park. Could she face doing that, rather than implementing her own ideas?

“What happened to this witch, this Magik Meg?” she asked. “Did they burn her at the stake?”

“They didn’t burn witches in those days, they hanged them – but this one drowned in the pond outside.”

Kat tried to think of something flippant to say. Instead she felt the room begin to darken and grow cold, that familiar creeping sensation of black, icy water closing over her head –

Breathe

There was the lightest touch against her arm. “Are you OK?”

She forced herself back to the present, ignoring the irregular pounding in her chest, the way her breath was beginning to come in tiny gasps. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“You don’t look fine,” was his blunt reply.

“I nearly drowned a few years back. It left me with a phobia of deep water.” This was more information than she usually gave strangers, but she had no desire for him to think she’d been spooked by his ghost story.

“And now you’ve inherited a pond.”

“So I’ll fill it in.” Personally, if necessary.

All trace of humour was wiped from his expression and his voice turned cold. “Meg’s Pond is a huge tourist attraction. The council will never allow you to fill it in. It’s centuries old, an integral part to village life, it’s – ”

“A huge money-spinner?” And that, when it came down to it, was all that mattered to these people. Of course there was no ghost; she would guess there had never been any witch either. The village needed a sure-fire way to attract the shoppers away from Norchester’s retail parks and had undoubtedly invented the entire legend. “I get it,” she said coolly. “I understand. I’ll stick to the official line. Don’t change a thing, no matter how unsafe or just plain cheesy, and be sure to promote everything witchy.”

“You’ve got it.” His mouth twitched into a reluctant smile. “Welcome to Buckley!”

Oh God … If she failed to reconcile with Jake, she might end up having to live here permanently. She was certainly out of other options.

It was a sobering thought.

Yet after DI Buckley had left, and she’d closed and locked the door behind him, she could have sworn she heard someone sigh.