Book - A Baby's Bones


We're delighted to be part of Titan Books' blog tour for the first book in an absorbing new crime series by Rebecca Alexander.  Enjoy reading this extract from A Baby's Bones...

Thursday 28th March

The Poplars residential home was a large Victorian property with a modern extension, but along one side it had an original orangery, with cast-iron supports and window frames. As Sage slipped her muddy boots off a care assistant told her that Maeve Rowland, former owner of Bramble Cottage, spent her days there overlooking the gardens. Sage passed a pot-bellied woodburning stove, and saw an old woman dozing in a padded wicker rocking chair. Her body was hunched forward, and to one side. She opened her eyes at the clunk of the care assistant’s shoes on the tiled floor.

‘Nathan? That better be the bloody chocolate biscuits.’ Her voice was loud, and made Sage think of crazed china, full of tiny cracks.

‘Yeah, yeah, just the best ones for you. That’s why you’re getting so fat.’ The care assistant put a plate at her elbow, along with a cup of tea. ‘Don’t forget to share – you’ve got a visitor. Dr Sage Westfield, this is Mrs Rowland.’

What Sage could see of the old woman was sparrow-thin, the skin creped and blotched with age. When Maeve Rowland looked up, her eyes were faded blue, almost lost in nests of wrinkles. One eyelid drooped, the corner of her mouth sagged.

‘Dr what?’

‘Dr Sage Westfield. She’s an archaeologist.’ Sage smiled at Nathan as he pulled a chair over for her.

The old woman gazed out of the window for a long moment. ‘You’re the one digging up the garden at Brambles.’

‘How did you know that?’ Sage asked.

‘Everyone knows; all of Banstock is talking about it.’ She dabbed the slack corner of her mouth with one hand.

‘The new owners wanted to build an extension. They had to do a survey first because it’s a listed building, and I was called in when they found Tudor pottery. The house is very interesting.’

‘Draughty old rat trap, you mean.’ Maeve wavered a clenched hand. ‘I’d still be there if it wasn’t for this bloody stroke.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Sage watched the woman’s shaking hand reach for a biscuit.

‘Don’t be. I’m eighty-six. It’s time. I just thought I’d die there, become one of the ghosts.’ The sun came out, casting the shadow of the windows onto the tiled floor, bleaching the throw over her legs. Maeve squinted and Sage got up to adjust one of the blinds.

‘Thanks.’ Maeve waved a hand towards the plate. ‘Do you want a biscuit?’

Sage refused, and the old woman seemed relieved. ‘Once I could eat what I bloody well liked, now I have a care plan written by a dietician. So, what have you found?’

‘A well in the garden. We think it’s about the same age as the cottage but it’s been filled in.’

‘We thought there was something like that out there; it used to leave a ring in the grass in dry weather,’ Maeve said. ‘Why would someone fill a well in?’

‘Usually because it’s falling down, but we think this was filled in for another reason,’ Sage said. ‘It’s full of rubbish and soil from a midden. We’ve found broken pottery, glass, ash, that kind of thing from the Tudor era.’

The old woman stared at her. ‘Is that all?’

Sage hesitated. ‘And some bones. Mostly domesticated animal bones but some human.’

‘Isabeau.’ Maeve breathed the word, her gaze intent on Sage.

‘Isabeau?’

‘A young woman who went missing back in the time of Queen Elizabeth the First.’ She waved a hand. ‘My husband and I did some research on the period when we first moved into the cottage.’

‘Well, we can’t identify the adult bones, beyond saying that they are mature. And, we found a child’s bones.’

‘Isabeau’s baby.’ Maeve sat back, nodding.

Sage fumbled in her bag for a notebook.

‘Can you tell me more?’

‘Just a local legend. She was a French servant who supposedly got pregnant by the Devil, who then came and stole her child. But I don’t believe in the Devil; no doubt the poor girl got into the family way and was hidden with her baby, to save embarrassment.’ Maeve looked at Sage sideways. ‘There’s a headstone, in the woods behind the common. She was supposed to have been pregnant when she died.’

Sage nodded. ‘The previous landlord of the Harbour Bell – Dennis Lacey – mentioned a stone. But why would there be a gravestone in the woods if she was put down the well?’

‘I have no idea. I always knew there was something wrong at the cottage, though.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Little things. The smell of lavender water in the front bedroom. And sunlight soap, horrible stuff, in the utility room – the old back kitchen, where some poor little Victorian dogsbody did the washing. I think it’s the atmosphere.’

‘Atmosphere?’

Maeve ran her tongue slowly over her lips to remove the crumbs. ‘My husband used to wake up at night saying he could hear a sort of moaning, as if from an animal; he was a light sleeper. He went outside with a torch once, thinking a cat had been run over, but he could only hear it indoors.’

‘Did you ever hear it?’ Sage asked.

Maeve’s hand shook, and she dropped the remainder of a biscuit onto her blanket. ‘Yes. The last time was the day I had the stroke. I felt dizzy and fell to the floor. I just couldn’t stand up. Then it started, like a noise in my own head.’ A tear streaked down the weak side of her face. ‘Six hours of lying there, listening to it. The moaning was— for a while, I wondered if it was me moaning, if I was going mad.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. My neighbour knew something was wrong when I didn’t put the bin out. She got the police and ambulance. The moaning stopped once someone else was in the house, or at least, I couldn’t hear it anymore.’ She brushed stray crumbs off her lap. ‘I never went back. Good riddance to the place. I got a good price and it pays for all this.’

Sage glanced down at her notebook. ‘Can you tell me anything more about Isabeau?’

Maeve shrugged. ‘Some legends say she was a witch, that the Devil appeared at one of her coven’s black masses in the ruined abbey. She ran to the church, but the Devil caught up with her at the gate. There was a clap of thunder, and he ripped her baby right out of her belly.’ She munched on the last biscuit, spraying crumbs.

Sage looked across the garden, her mind struggling with the horrible image. The orangery looked over a landscaped garden, lush with grass and shrubs, and someone had hung a bird feeder from a tree. The stove pushed out a lot of heat, and Sage took her jacket off.

‘That’s a horrible thought.’ She smiled at Maeve. ‘I’m pregnant myself.’

‘I can see that. Well, people leave unexpectedly and myths build up. Maybe she died in childbirth, but the Devil makes for a much better story.’

‘You’re right. But sometimes there’s an element of truth,’ Sage said. ‘Like you mentioned Isabeau was French. As I said before, we’re not even sure whether the adult is female, though it is looking that way.’

Maeve nodded. ‘It would be nice to find out what really happened to Isabeau, if she existed. Maybe she was the one making all that moaning.’ She laughed self-consciously, embarrassed. The last time my husband Ian heard it, eighteen years ago, he had a heart attack. They said he’d been over-exerting himself, but he was strong as an ox, sixty-eight years old, and a country auctioneer. He was used to moving heavy furniture around.’

‘That must have been very hard.’ Sage folded her hands in her lap.

‘It was, but I’ll see him soon enough. Anyway, for all we know it could have just been wind through the weather vane or coming down the chimney.’ Maeve rubbed her slack hand with the good one and uttered a harsh chuckle. ‘I was volunteering up at the big house then, Banstock Manor. I created a walled orchard. All the espaliered apples and pears up there are mine.’ Her voice was touched with pride. ‘The owners were looking into the history of the Banstock family, and they found a link to the cottage in the deeds. That’s when they told me about the memorial stone in the woods.’

‘I’d love to go and see it.’

‘Not much to see, now. It’s just a tumbledown old marker, leaning over, a bit like me. Take the footpath across the common towards Marten’s Farm. There’s a big track; the locals walk their dogs down there. Take the other path, down to the stream. It’s just on the other side.’

‘Thank you,’ Sage said. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’ She closed her notebook. ‘Are there any papers about the history of the cottage? And it would be helpful to look at the deeds.’

Maeve struggled to push herself up the chair. ‘The new owners, they have them all.’

Sage held out her hand to Maeve, who clasped it. Her skin felt like warm paper, her fingers curved with age.

Maeve leaned forward. ‘You come back and tell me what you find. You promise.’

‘I will. I really will.’ Sage smiled as she gathered up her coat and bag.

‘And you be careful, girl. There’s something odd about that house.’



Thanks to Rebecca Alexander and Titan Books for allowing us to share this extract.

A Baby's Bones was published on May 1st by Titan Books