Mr Smelly (2)
One day, a singular event happened which galvanized the attention of the town. A young woman who lived on the estate, Layla Spruce, went missing after leaving home as usual to go to work. The first anyone knew was when her manager telephoned her parents at 10 am to ask if she was alright, because she hadn't turned up and hadn't called in. They'd tried to contact her on her phone, but without success, and there hadn't been any response to the messages left. Her distraught parents immediately called the police, who came and took a statement. They said she had left home at six-fifty that morning, as usual, for the walk along to the bus stop by the heath, where she would catch the 7:10 bus into the city. She'd been in good spirits that particular morning and had been looking forward to meeting some friends for a party at the weekend. Everything was normal, in other words. Nothing was there to suggest otherwise.
The investigation began. Other people who'd been up and about at the time - the dog-walkers, runners, commuters - confirmed that they'd seen her, walking along the main estate road that led up past the old house towards the heath. One driver even came forwards and said he'd seen a lone woman who fitted her description waiting at the stop by the heath at 7:05, as he drove home from his night shift. He said he could be precise about the time because the radio news bulletin he'd been listening to to keep him awake was just finishing. However, the bus driver for the bus she was there to catch confirmed that when he got to the stop at 7:12, there hadn't been anyone waiting - so, being a little behind schedule, he hadn't stopped and had carried on past. He added that he often drove that route at that time of the morning, and had expected the young woman to be waiting there. Upon being shown a photo, he was able to confirm that yes, that was the woman he normally stopped for.
The day passed, yet still no sign or sound. The police visited a few more houses along the route to ask questions, eventually finishing up at Dryden. Hannah Willis across the way, watching from behind her curtains, saw the old man answer the door and let the two officers in. They were in there for nearly forty minutes before the old man was seen to let them out again.
Search parties were organised, which combed every square foot of the cordoned-off heath. Police divers worked the mere, which was fully dredged. But no sign of Layla Spruce was found. Her friends and colleagues were interviewed about her movements, general demeanour, whether she had any worries or fears, whether she'd expressed any concerns about anyone. Whether she'd thought she was being followed or stalked. Nothing again. Everyone said she'd been fine and normal. Her last interaction on her phone had been a WhatsApp message to a friend at 6:58 that morning to say she was on her way to work and would see her later. And that was it. Data records showed that the phone was last traced to the bus stop. Then all transmissions had ceased, and the phone - like its owner - had vanished.
The police stayed in the community and asked further questions. Again, they visited Dryden - staying for an hour this time, as was noted by several neighbours. It was also noted that the old man still made his regular trips to the supermarket, but no longer went near the heath in the mornings.
Enquiries were extended. A female police officer of similar age and build to the missing woman, and wearing similar clothes to the ones she had on, walked the route from the woman's house to the bus stop at the same time for two mornings running, to see if it could jog the memory of anyone usually passing at that time. Aside from the other witnesses, two more motorists came forwards. One reported seeing her at the bus stop, though he couldn't be certain of the time. Seven-ish, he thought. Another stated that she'd driven along that stretch at twenty past seven - she remembered because she'd been in a hurry to get to an appointment at seven-thirty - and could swear that there was no one standing at the bus stop. Finally, a pedestrian claimed to have seen a woman fitting the description at about that time - but two miles away, on the other side of the heath, and heading towards a petrol station there. The petrol station CCTV was checked, but nothing had registered and the testimony was discounted.
The heath was searched again. Then the search was extended outwards and downwards towards the town centre, plus some smaller areas of woodland further down towards the coast. The coastline, too, was searched.
As is usually the case with such disappearances, the community suddenly changed and became animated. Paranoia inevitably showed its face. Women began to worry about going out alone, at any time of day. Some folk took to installing CCTV cameras of their own. There were calls for the bus stop to be moved to a less remote area, closer to the houses.
And along with these things, inevitable suspicions began to arise. Once the searches of the heath had been exhausted, the cordons were removed - and, as many more people now noticed, the old man in Dryden resumed his morning walks there. Why not? It was common ground, and he was free to roam it as he chose. But a few people, especially among those (like the Willises) living closest to him, and who could view Dryden from their own windows, began to wonder if there was something more involved in this. Maybe he knew something after all - more than he was letting on to the police. And hadn't they visited him three times now, staying longer each time? Why was it that he hadn't seen anything, since he was always in the area at that time? Or had he seen something? Worse still... was he involved in some way? Was he the person who knew the answers? Everyone else questioned had an alibi for the day. What was his?
Once that small seed had been sown, it soon began to sprout and grow - however haphazardly. He must know something, surely. Why had the police focused on him so much? What weren't they divulging?
And still, as the days stretched out into weeks, nothing more was seen or heard of Layla Spruce.
One night, Barry Willis was having trouble sleeping. So as not to disturb his wife, he slipped out of bed and went downstairs to their back garden, where he sat on his daughter's swing in his vest and boxers, smoking a cigarette and staring up at the orange sky-glow above the town. After thinking a few night-time thoughts - replacing the soffits out front, laying a patio, installing a burglar alarm, wondering what had happened to Layla Spruce - he took his final drag of the cigarette, flicked the butt over the hedge and turned to head back indoors. It was then, he claimed, that he heard the sound of breaking glass somewhere out in the road, followed by a couple of pairs of footsteps sprinting away. He went through the side gate to the front to see if he could see anything, but the road lay empty in the lamp-light. He looked briefly at his car parked on the driveway, saw nothing amiss, then went back indoors to bed.
He managed to go straight back to sleep - only to be summarily wakened again (with his wife this time) by the wailing of sirens outside, and blue lights strobing across the bedroom ceiling. They both ran to the window to look out, and were stunned by what they saw. Fire engines, police cars, an ambulance. And Dryden - that dark, dismal, ugly old house - aflame from doorstep to roof and beyond, like a gigantic bonfire: a crown of fierce orange flames burning up through the night.
The remains of the house smouldered there next morning, like a burned-out skull with black, vacant eye-socket windows and a gaping mouth. The roof was entirely gone, as was any semblance the house once had of a place where someone had lived. A gang of contractors in hard hats and Hi-Viz vests had turned up to erect wire fencing around the property, and a police forensics van was parked outside.
Barry Willis gave a statement to the police about what he'd heard on the night of the fire, and the theory of arson was investigated. It was established by forensics that the fire had certainly started in a downstairs room - but the damage was too great to enable them to determine a cause. It could as easily have been an electrical problem, since the wiring in the house (as evidenced by a light fitting found near the back door) was very old, and most likely unsafe. The final report, therefore, said the cause was 'inconclusive'. The single occupant of the house - a Henry Taylor, retired civil servant - had perished in his bed, and had been identified by DNA evidence taken from his bones, which were all that remained of him. It mentioned that he lived alone in the property, which had been in the family for generations, and that he was the end of the line, with no surviving kin. A will had been discovered, lodged with a local solicitor, leaving the entire property to the local council to do with whatever it wished for the benefit of the local community. Just days before the fire, however, a codicil had been added to say that whatever the council decided to do with the property, it should be dedicated to the memory of one Layla Spruce - seemingly late of the town, and much missed by its denizens.
In due course, the remains of the house were demolished and a modern structure was built in its place, duly opened by the town mayor as The Layla Spruce Community Centre.
A memorial to a life cut short and a future that would forever be an unknown, bestowed by a man who had lived his life - though equally unknown and forever shrouded in mystery.
A place where people could come together.
Perhaps get to know one another.
The disappearance of Layla Spruce remained a mystery. Following her disappearance, she was never seen or heard of again.
Some of her friends and neighbours continue the search to this day, and continue to hold out hope for her safe return.