That very afternoon, the three of us caught the train from Paddington and set off for Pokebottom-on-the-Moor, a village on the outskirts of Minchester. Holmes had received replies from his telegraphical communications, but for the moment, he kept the results to himself.
“We should arrive in time for tea,” said Johnny, gazing out of the window.
“Yes,” murmured Holmes, stuffing his pipe with a concoction of tobacco and heather. “Ravensburg offered to put us up at his place but I thought we might fare better at the village inn.”
“You mean we might pick up on the local gossip?” I said.
“Assuming there is local gossip,” said Johnny.
“Bound to be,” said Holmes, lighting his pipe. “Always is in those tight-knit, inbred, sheep-shagging communities.” He puffed away for a moment, then added, “though as Ravensburg isn’t actually from there, it may be that the locals have taken against him.”
“All the more reason for them to gossip, then,” I said.
We fell into a convivial silence for the next couple of hours—Holmes immersed himself in a copy of Private Detective Weekly while Johnny and I brought our respective diaries up to date.
Shortly after four o’clock, we pulled into Minchester’s Londen Road station and from there boarded a branch line connection to Pokebottom-on-the-Moor. We were the train’s only passengers and on arrival at Pokebottom, it soon became obvious why—the deserted platform and dilapidated station house with its boarded-up windows, didn’t fill me with much hope for the village itself, but being ever the optimist, I decided to keep my opinions for later.
When the train had departed and we were left standing on the platform with only our bags and an eerie silence, I wondered if Holmes had arranged any transport.
In answer to my unasked question, the big-nosed detective hoisted his bag onto his shoulder. “Come along, Watsons. We can walk from here.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Walk? Are you serious, Holmes?”
“It’s only a mile to the village.” He set off towards the exit before pausing to look back at Johnny. “Besides, you could do with the exercise.”
“Cheeky bugger,” muttered Johnny. Picking up his own case, he glanced at me. “Suppose I shall have to carry your bag too?”
“Of course not,” I said. Then, running my tongue seductively along my lower lip, added, “But if you do, I might let you play hide-the-sausage later…” I walked off, gaily swinging my umbrella.
As it turned out, Sherlock’s suggestion wasn’t based on my husband’s need for exercise, but on the need for research. Following him onto a narrow country lane, I could see a junction up ahead of us and a wooden barn in the field directly opposite.
Holmes stopped at a suitable gap in the hedge and pointed to the building. “That, supposedly, is the barn in which Shaggy and his friends disappeared.”
“But you don’t believe that?” I said.
“No, Mary, I do not.”
Johnny caught up with us, panting from his excursions. “And I suppose there are several incredibly obvious reasons why not, are there?” He dropped the bags and folded his arms.
“Not at all, Watson. Simply a matter of checking the facts of Ravensburg’s story. Shortly before our departure, I received replies to the two telegrams I sent.”
“Oh, yes?” said Johnny.
“Yes,” said Holmes. “One was in response to my query about the authenticity of Ravenburg’s claim that a witch matching his description of her did actually exist. According to the historian Lord Crumble of Lancashire, a woman by the name of Sarah Ravensburg was burned at the stake in the village of Pokebottom-on-the-Moor in 1625.”
Oh,” said Johnny. “So he’s telling the truth, then?”
“Partly,” said Holmes. “The other telegram was from Daphne Blake. She assured me that she and Fred are currently staying at Mrs Mason’s Boarding House in New York along with the rest of the gang. It seems they have been engaged to perform a stage version of one of their famous adventures.”
“Bloody hell,” I said. “So Ravensburg lied about them disappearing in the barn?”
Holmes made a face. “He did, but Daphne confirmed that he had asked them to investigate the theft at the museum. “Apparently, she suggested he get in touch with Londen’s prominent consulting detective.” He gave me a smug smile and pushed his way through the hedge, striding towards the barn. Finding a gate further along the lane, Johnny and I followed.
The barn looked old and I guessed it hadn’t been used for some years. The farmhouse, situated a hundred yards away, appeared equally unused.
“How d’you know Ravensburg meant this particular barn?” I said, examining the rusted hinges on one of the broken-down doors.
“Simple,” said Holmes. “I looked on the map. Brierley’s Farm is the only one marked. Unfortunately, agriculture round here isn’t what it used to be—all the farm workers moved away to work in Minchester’s woollen mills about ten years ago. Whoever owned this farm, and the associated buildings, wouldn’t have been able to survive.”
“That’s terribly sad,” I said, gazing up at the cobwebs around the door.
“Sad, yes, but it also provides a suitably spooky location to lure us to in search of a witch.”
“Or a book.”
“What are you two on about?” said Johnny, leaning against the side of the barn. “I’m knackered. Can’t we just find the pub?”
“Certainly,” said Holmes. “According to the map, it should be just around the next bend. Or several bends.” Picking up his bag, he set off at a pace. “Come along, Watsons.”
The late afternoon sky had darkened considerably since our arrival at the station, and I began to feel a little nervous. Looking inside the barn again, I could see why Ravensburg had chosen this spot.
Johnny sighed. “Is it me, or is this whole thing going to turn out to be a pile of—”
“Shit!” I stepped backwards. “There’s something in there…”
Johnny pulled me aside. “Stay there, old thing, I’ll deal with this.” And with that, he marched into the barn brandishing his trusty revolver. “Come out, come out, whoever you are…”
As I watched him cross the dusty floor towards the rear of the building, I saw another movement. “There it is,” I yelped. “In the corner.”
Johnny glanced back at me. “In the corner? Where’s it’s really dark?”
Taking out a box of Swan Vestas, he lit a match and holding it up, walked into the shadows. “I’ve got a gun, mind.”
From nowhere, something black and furry leaped at his throat.
The animal ran past me, clearly more scared of us than we were of it.
“Darn cat,” muttered Johnny, dusting himself down.
“Are you two quite finished?” said Holmes from the doorway.
I coughed. “Johnny’s checking out the local pussy.”
Holmes gave me a sly smile. “Sometimes, Mary, you do a remarkable impersonation of a really bad girl.” He turned and walked off, calling, “Come along—beer’s getting cold.”
As we pursued him across the field and onto the road, I glanced back at the barn. From one of the broken windows on the upper level, a white face stared at me. I blinked and looked again, but it had gone.
I told myself it couldn’t be the face of the witch. That was ridiculous. Apart from the fact she was long dead, I didn’t believe in spooky apparitions.
But that wouldn’t be the last time I saw that pale face with the black staring eyes.