Section One – Sunday Night
* * *
Police Reference: 125730/09
In York District County Court Page 1
Statement of Caroline Mary Walters
Occupation: Secondary School English Teacher
I am Caroline Mary Walters. The facts in this statement come from my personal knowledge.
* * *
Okay, so the British go a bit insane when there’s no rain for a couple of weeks. But, Caroline thought, God—or whoever arranged the weather these days—was taking the mickey by ending the dry spell with a storm that threatened to swallow York.
Not just that. Caroline peered at the storm through the front windscreen. It only covered the city. In the rearview mirror, the lingering, aquamarine twilight of a beautiful day faded. Ahead, a massive pyrotechnic display lit up the night. Vast sheets of lightning backlit the squat tower of the Minster against the churning sky.
She hesitated for a moment and nearly turned around, returning to the friend’s house where she had spent the evening. With the kids off to visit their dad and his new wife, she had stayed out late for once. The lonely week ahead loomed like the storm.
No! She would go home, but she switched on the radio for some company. Soothing music drifted from her speakers.
Trees blocked her view of the city as the road dipped off the railway bridge. A few drops sprinkled her windscreen. The smell of rain on a dry road filtered through the air-conditioning. Seconds later, her view blurred even with the wipers on full speed. She slowed to let her wipers catch up. No doubt the weather forecasters would have some perfectly natural explanation involving Urban Heat Sinks or some other science-y phrase, but the way those clouds were roiling in a tight vortex over York was uncanny.
Thunder shook the whole car. Lightning blinded her. Reassuringly, no smell of smoke filled the cab.
Her vision cleared. The headlights photographed a tableau: a motorcyclist, t-boned by a car pulling out of the Nether Poppleton junction.
She stomped on the brake pedal as he fell clear of the bike. Tortured metal screamed over the drumbeat of the rain as she skidded across the road. The wheels of her car lost contact with the tarmac. She hydroplaned, raindrops glistening in the light from her headlights, dancing like sparks around the car. The windscreen wipers slashed through glowing rain.
“Shiii…!” No time to swear; her word came out as one long shriek.
On the radio, a boy crooned his eternal love for a girl.
Every nerve in Caroline’s body strained to stop her car before it hit the motorcyclist. Imagination supplied the judder of its frame, the crunch of delicate human bones under her heavy wheels. Starkly highlighted, she saw the car in front of her race around the corner, out of sight.
At the last second, she yanked her left hand down. Her wheels mounted the nearside pavement. The back wheels slid along the road, driving the car towards the hedge. Mud and sopping grass on the verge beyond the path captured the front wheels.
Then a miracle happened. The rear wheels stopped before hitting the downed motorcyclist.
The love song ended. “And now the national news at midnight on BBC Radio 2.”
With a shaking hand, Caroline switched on her hazard lights, thankful that at this time of night there would be no other cars behind her.
Snatching her mobile from the hands-free unit, she punched in the emergency number. When she opened the door, the acrid smell of burnt rubber hit her nose. Her feet landed in a puddle. The summer-parched ground had failed to drain away the onslaught of rain.
A bathtub emptied on her head as she ran to the man lying in the road. Even though they pointed away from him, her headlights provided light. A burnt-out streetlight on the opposite verge bowed over the motorcycle crumpled at its base. Beyond the fence, the car park for the garden centre was empty of help.
Rain plastered her short hair to her scalp. It drained down the back of her neck as she knelt at the man’s side, sheltering his upturned face from the flood. The knees of her slacks soaked immediately. She was reassured to see that his muscled legs lay in a puddle of water, not blood.
“What emergency service do you require?” a calm voice asked.
“Ambulance,” Caroline said. “A motorcyclist in a hit-and-run on the A59 at the Poppleton junction—you know, just before the roundabout onto the York Ring Road. What do I do?” Her voice rose in panic.
“Can you judge if the man is still breathing?”
“He’s moaning,” Caroline said.
“Is he conscious?” the calm voice said.
Caroline bent over the man. “His visor is shattered. Should I try and remove the helmet?”
“On no account,” the calm voice said. “He must remain still. His spine or neck might sustain more damage. Talk to him. Ask his name. His job. See if you can get him chatting.”
Sirens sounded in the distance. Relieved that help was so close, Caroline leaned closer, peering through the shattered plastic into the face of the motorcyclist.
Crystal-blue eyes opened, leaving Caroline breathless, as if she were drowning in a clear lake.
“What’s your name?” she asked, feeling her voice shake. “What’s your job?” Then, “What did you say?”
“Smith,” the man repeated. “Don…al.” His words blurred. He tried to shake his head. His eyes focused on her. “Finally! Brown eyes, so beautiful. But here?” His voice became querulous.
He lifted his right hand, reaching out to her face. Caroline caught his arm with her free hand, pushing it down.
“No! No! You must stay still. Moving might hurt your back more.” She forced away her panic. “Can I restrain him?” she demanded into the telephone.
Even with the pounding rain slicking it down, her hair was standing on end. The sharp tang of ozone drowned out the smell of the rain. She curled over the man.
A massive boom. Deafened and half-blinded, she smelled hot metal, like welding fumes. She blinked her eyes clear as rain hissed on the bent-over lamp-post. Flames fought their way to life but were snuffed by the deluge.
“Are you there?” a voice shouted down the phone. “What happened?”
Headlights rounded the corner, accompanied by flashing blue lights.
“Here are the police.” She nearly sobbed her relief, then glanced down at the man she was protecting; his vivid blue eyes were clouded with pain.
A man in uniform burst out of the car and took Caroline’s place, crouched at the cyclist’s side. He spread a foil emergency blanket over the prone man.
“I asked his name,” Caroline said, moving away. “I think he said Donald Smith.”
A last roll of thunder echoed in the distance. The rain eased, and the lightning left the remaining streetlights to do their job alone.
The policeman nodded his thanks, still kneeling beside the motorcyclist.
As Caroline moved away, the voice of the man on the ground rose in an incoherent babble. Should she leave, now that the professionals had arrived? There was nothing left for her to do here. Would they think her a ghoul if she took a minute or so to recover? The chilling rain was finally catching her attention. Her teeth chattered. She was soaked to the skin.
A second officer climbed out of the driver’s seat of the police car. She strode to Caroline’s side, unfolding another of the foil blankets used for exposure victims.
“Here—this should keep the rain off and warm you up a bit,” she said, giving Caroline an encouraging smile. “Come away. We can help him now.”
Caroline clutched the foil around her freezing shoulders as more sirens screamed along the ring road. A paramedic on a motorcycle tore around the roundabout and flung out onto the A59 towards Harrogate. The bike halted, and the rider grabbed his kit to assist the policeman.
Caroline let the policewoman lead her away from the scene. The driver’s door of her car hung open; water puddled on the seat.
“And in other news,” the radio said, “the Dark Age tomb discovered during the renovations of the York flood defences has been safely transferred to the York County Museum. A spokesman for the museum said earlier that the tomb would be on display until Thursday, prior to the scheduled raising of the sarcophagus lid, live on television next Monday, the twenty-first of June.”
The policewoman leaned into the car, switching off the radio. “Can you tell me your name?”
With action no longer needed, her legs threatened to give out. They quivered like jelly, so she leaned on the car bonnet. Her shoulders and neck ached from her death grip on the steering wheel. The policewoman folded Caroline into the passenger seat of her car.
An ambulance and more police cars converged on the spot. Their blue lights strobed the scene, making the police and paramedics lurch like zombies.
Caroline’s hand was still clamped around her mobile. The policewoman eased her fingers open and set the phone in the hands-free unit. She crouched in front of Caroline, keeping eye contact. Although it was lighter now, the rain still pattered on her raincoat and hat.
“Do you think you can tell me what happened?”
“I took my kids to the airport. Leeds-Bradford. They’re spending the week at a theme park in France with their dad and his new wife. I stopped for Sunday dinner at a friend’s house. I didn’t notice the time. I was just on my way home. The motorcycle passed me—you know, just before the railway bridge.” With a rustle of foil, Caroline waved a hand down the road. “I saw the car pulling out. Why didn’t they notice him? He wore fluorescents, had the proper lights, everything. Maybe that huge lightning flash blinded them; I know it did me. Anyway, the man went flying from his bike. I knew I wouldn’t stop in time.”
The lights of the police car were focused on the main scene. She watched the paramedics slide a stretcher under her motorcyclist. His helmet must have been cut off. Arcane arrangements of blocks and straps held the man in place. Even a teacher could recognise a neck brace from all her staying in on Saturday nights, with nothing to do but watch hospital dramas.
Caroline hid her eyes. As she rocked forward, the dripping ends of her page-cut brown hair brushed the backs of her hands. The blue lights from the police car and the ambulance glared through the gaps in her fingers.
The policewoman patted Caroline’s elbow to attract her attention. Obediently, Caroline lowered her hands.
“It’s very hard, but we have to know,” the policewoman said. “Can you remember anything about the car that hit the motorcycle?”
“I can feel it as if it actually happened.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I can feel my car run over him. Nothing would stop the car in time. I saw him lying there. It must have been the headlights, but I saw everything like it was day, not just after midnight.” She caught a sobbing breath as the policewoman squeezed her hands sympathetically. “But everything slowed—as if even the air was trying to stop me running over the man. Then I got the wheel round and ran up the verge. I didn’t hit him at all.” Caroline gazed helplessly at the woman crouched in front of her. “It sounds so silly.”
“It’s not silly,” the policewoman said. “The shock is going to colour the way you remember this event. That’s why I need your first impressions. Is there anything you can tell me about the car that pulled out?”
“It was dark-coloured.” Caroline shook her head. “That’s about all I can say.”
“What type of car? An estate? A hatchback? Did it have a boot?”
Caroline grasped at the last question. “Yes, it had a boot.”
“An ordinary car, but dark,” the policewoman said, as if Caroline had remembered something important.
After a few more questions, which elicited no more information, the policewoman was joined by the motorbike paramedic, who appeared at her side to check Caroline over. Another police officer ran his torch over the front of Caroline’s car. He bent to examine the bumper more closely. Then he walked around the car, his strong beam playing over the road.
The ambulance sped away, carrying the injured man.
“Is he …?” Caroline almost asked if he was all right, then swallowed her absurd question.
“He’s being taken to York District,” the paramedic said. “Now, let’s see if you need to join him. Feel any pain?”
“I didn’t crash,” Caroline said.
“No, but you might have strained something.” The paramedic checked her arms and legs, shone a light in her eyes, and asked a few questions. “You’re in slight shock.”
He glanced at the policeman who had examined Caroline’s car.
“She can go,” the officer said. “But, ma’am, you’re going to need new tyres. There’s a bald patch on your tread. From the brief length of the rubber streak on the road, I think we can say your brakes are even more efficient than the manufacturer’s specifications.”
Caroline’s mouth dropped open in horror. The policeman had checked her bumper to make sure she hadn’t hit the motorcyclist.
The paramedic patted her arm reassuringly. “This officer is going to drive you home,” he said. “And give you that cup of tea you’re dying for.”
A high, hysterical giggle burst out of Caroline’s mouth. The paramedic swung a leg over his motorbike. Police skittered about the road like ants.
Caroline hardly noticed when the policewoman fastened the seat belt over her shaking body.
* * *
Patient Name: David Crosnic
Doctor: Dr Brent
Date: Monday 14 June Page 1
There is extensive bruising over his ribs and a curious pattern of bruising
resembling a lightning strike that runs along the path of his nervous system…
* * *
He moaned, drifting, after they stuck a needle in his arm. Roaring echoed around him, as if he were in a small chamber. Then cool air again, as they wheeled him out of the room. A bed on wheels—what an idea! Voices sounded over his head and around him.
From not too far away, someone sang with the slurring words of a habitual drunk. Underneath a sharp, thin scent that he couldn’t identify he smelled vomit, blood, and other bodily messes.
“Who have we here?” The voice sounded close by.
“From his wallet, we have evidence that he’s called David Crosnic.”
Are they talking about me? he thought.
They lifted the pallet he lay on. He tried to open his eyes as he felt the movement. Light stabbed at him. Fingers prodded. Ice-cold metal pressed against his skin.
A woman screamed over the singing drunk. He cracked his eyes open again. Hangings of cheerful animals in clothes hung around the bed. He let his eyes fall shut. This was a nightmare; he needed to wake.
“He was riding a motorcycle,” continued the voice, “when a car came out of a side road and sent him flying. Luckily the driver in the following car stopped her vehicle before adding to his injuries. She called for aid.
“He has lacerations to his face and neck. A bruise was forming over his right eye as we transported him in the ambulance. There is extensive bruising over his ribs, where we can assume he hit the road and slid. His helmet protected him, except for the smashed visor. We believe that to be the source of the facial and neck lacerations. He’s breathing on his own but seemed to be in pain, so we…” The voice continued with a technical description that lost him.
Memory. Rain pounding down on him as he lay on a hard surface, not rock. There was more, but it fled.
“We need X-rays to check for chest and pelvic damage. CT scan to check for brain damage,” the doctor ordered. “Intracranial bleeding might still cause loss of coherence.”
Blocks that he hadn’t been aware of were released, and he could move again. Another lift. He lay on the wheeled bed again. Another room.
Machines hummed around him in his waking nightmare. Wheels squealed as someone pushed his bed yet again. Cool air ran over him. He opened his eyes: white walls moved past him in bright light. He shut his eyes again. What was this place?
Another voice, a woman’s this time. “I’ve cleared this cubicle for David Crosnic.”
Was it her? He’d tried to stop them, but if he had he would never have met her. Eyes staring down into his, so worried for him. But here? She shouldn’t be here.
“Brown eyes, brown hair, so beautiful,” he muttered.
“Not me, then,” the female voice said. “An RTA?”
“Knocked off his motorbike,” a man said. “His guardian angel really flew tonight. Soft-tissue damage only, not even a broken rib. Why do people ride these things on the roads?”
“With those scars, he’s a bit like a careworn angel himself,” the woman said. “Look at his hands—what job causes those calluses?”
The male voice continued, sounding disapproving of her comment. “He has a massive bruise running over his body, following his nervous system.”
“Was he hit by lightning? That storm came on so fast.”
“Doctor in A&E had to search for it. Yep, lightning strike. He apparently had social awareness. According to the police, he didn’t swear about the pain until the woman who had stopped to help him walked away.”
He had felt no pain while she sheltered him. He wanted to tell them that, but it came out as a moan.
“Rest now,” the female voice said. Blankets were tucked around him. “You’re right, he’s a lucky man. Not many drivers could have stopped their car in time.”
He tried to wake. There were things he had to do, or people would die. He struggled to free his arms from the constraining blanket, to sit up.
Hands held him down. “I think he needs stronger sedation.”
A needle stung his arm. Screaming, he toppled into the darkness.
I don’t know about you, but I expect nights of great portent to be, well, portentous.
A bit of drizzle; I remember that. The men gathered around the hearthfire running down the centre of the Great Hall. The red glow of the light guarded the room against the encroaching dark outside. The flickering flames set the wall-painted figures of our Thane’s ancestors dancing as if they still lived. We waited, trying to appear unconcerned. We all hoped Thane Eainraig’s wife was not going to produce another girl.
A serving woman halted at the side of the dais. She had just emerged from the private room at the end of the Hall, a sleeping area for the Thane and his family. The smoke drifted past her, floating up to the meat stored on hooks in the rafters before seeping through the thatch and getting lost in the night.
The waiting men shifted in place, watching, as she realised that the Thane wasn’t sitting among his huscarls but instead, as always, at the high table. The Thane took the same place every day, but still she dragged out the drama of the moment.
Back then I enjoyed the drama too, feeling honoured to be seated with the Thane and Tasgall the Smith, my Master in the Great Mysteries.
The woman bowed her head and bobbed nervously, but her voice rang out. “My Thane, you have a son.”
A shout of acclaim burst through the hall, almost lifting the smoke-cured thatch. My heart rose with the call. The huscarls seated around the trestle tables raised ale mugs in a toast to the heir’s birth. Mugs drained, they thumped them on the board in resounding applause.
Eainraig rose to his feet. The bear fur covering his bench slipped to the floor with the sudden movement. “I will view my heir.”
His men stood with him, lifting knives that glinted red in the firelight as if covered in the blood of foes—a silent vow to defend the heir to the death.
Behind the high table, I waited for Master Tasgall. As was his due, he sat at the right hand of Thane Eainraig. He beckoned to me, and I waited for his words.
“Go, boy. Get the box from the forge,” Tasgall said.
The men seated on the benches and stools of the Hall tucked their feet out of my way; they all wanted to see the birth weapon that Tasgall had forged for the heir. I had toiled on the bellows and watched as Tasgall worked his magic, making the base stone into a weapon beyond compare. He had invoked the runes, calling down the favour of the Gods on the weapon. In the right hands, it would lead men to victories beyond counting.
Some of us, I know now, count the dead, not the victories.
In his youth Eainraig had led the field in battle. A blow to his head had left him slightly deaf; he often misjudged the volume of his voice, so I was well within hearing as he spoke.
“You have a good lad there, Tasgall. I heard he is of noble birth, the younger son of a great lord.”
“Aye, Donival deferred his betrothal to Uwain’s daughter in order to master the Craft. When a lad has proved himself a man on the battlefield before fourteen summers are passed, then asks to learn the Mysteries of my Craft, I am proud to pass on my knowledge to him.”
The words brought a wry grimace to my face. Emma—I could never live up to the standards she had set for a husband. I learned Smithcraft rather than try.
The forge stood close to the Hall. Eainraig ordered the yard always kept clear of obstructions, so, although it was dark, I risked running. Underfoot the ground remained firm; the Sol-Monath drizzle had yet to churn it into mud. From the Great Hall a quick sprint, passing the clay bread oven that stood close to the mead hall, took me to my destination. Though I’d been counted a man for nearly three years, I still felt a child’s simple joy in running. The wind whipped my hair into my eyes and the smell from the pigsties to my nose.
I heaved on the door. Inside, the infernal glow from the forge was damped down but still provided enough light for me to locate the birth weapon. Reverently I collected the narrow box, as long as one of my arms, and carried it balanced carefully over both forearms through the night to the hall. The huscarls strained to see the sword, but the presentation box hid it from their curious stares.
“Well, Thane, it’s time to greet your son.” The old Smith flicked his hand at me. “Follow us, Donival.”
Falling into step behind the two great men of the house, I obeyed, walking behind them from the dais to the private room where the Thane usually slept with his wife and two daughters. His lady now lay alone in the chamber—alone except for every other woman who thought herself important among the kinship.
The serving woman knocked on the post by the curtained doorway. Suddenly another infant’s cry joined in the high wailing of the first-born boy. The huscarls jumped to their feet again, their boots rustling the straw covering the floor as they headed towards the dais—a second child!
A Sleeping Beauty from the 6th century is awoken in the 21st when flood-defence repairs in York unearth a stone sarcophagus. A reporter writing about the discovery finds five dead bodies with links to the museum in which the tomb is displayed. A teacher driving home narrowly misses a motorcyclist, knocked off his bike in a hit-and-run. The man who owns the bike is one of the dead, so who is the mystery man taken to hospital? Builders working on the flood defences try to make to make a quick profit by selling four rings associated with the tomb, leading to more death.
The answers to all the questions surrounding these events lie inside the stone tomb, created by an inept sorcerer from centuries before, calling on dark forces he could not control. The man who trained the incompetent Dark Age sorcerer whose spell put the Beauty to sleep travels to a world he does not understand, to sort out the twisted magic. In doing so he finds the woman of his visions, in the wrong century.
This is a Cold Case Review. Using my knowledge of Forensic Science, I included excerpts from the official records of the case to show the increasing frustration and confusion of the police and forensic scientists, who cannot correctly interpret the evidence they are collecting. Starting with witness statements and newspaper articles, the case slowly accumulates, adding departmental notes and forensic reports. In the end, the reader knows that the magical crimes have been punished, but the police have to leave the case of these six suspicious deaths open.
HER BORROWED GRAVE is a reverse timeslip romance, coupled to a police procedural reported on by a journalist, from the point of view of the criminals. Magical Crime meets Forensic Science.
V. J. Knipe lives in North Ayrshire, Scotland. She has published seven fantasy books with two publishers, five of which are still in print. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry and was recently awarded an MSc (Dist) in Forensic Science. She is reading for an MA in Creative Writing and holds a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. In between writing sessions, she fights for a decent education and an ordinary life for her autistic son.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022