The Secret of Hillnesss Point 5
School was just what you might have expected. A dull red brick building of the early twentieth century with small windows and an asphalt playground splattered with the timeless chalk marks of hopping and skipping games. Playing fields stretched out behind it and the whole site sat on the western edge of Firchester beyond the only local housing estate. A bus service which ran twice a day carried children to and fro from Hillness and other nearby communities. The pupils were for the most part drawn from local farms, the town of Firchester which had a population of 9000 and of course villages like Hillness Point. St Brendas was one of three Firchester schools serving the community and was considered the most progressive which was why Belinda had chosen it.
On the first day the girls went through the rigmarole of obtaining their issue of basic equipment, meeting their form tutor Mr Jolly (who was anything but), learning about the requirements for P.E. kit and uniform, which they really should have already had, and enduring a tour of the school conducted by a very bored head girl called Shelley. Belinda for her part had shooed away the girls requests to have uniform and kit bought in advance as she was not one to conform until the last minute and in truth didn’t believe in school uniform anyway. The girls were used to this kind of thing. Their Mother was an independent spirit and whilst she bowed to the system when the law was on its side she never assisted it in its objectives unless they coincided with hers.
Nigel was a year above Elizabeth & Natalie due to his September birthday and they didn’t spot him on day one until the bus going home.
“How was it?” Nigel asked, plonking himself down on a early seat. His white school shirt was open at the neck, necktie discarded and the collar and cuffs of his blazer were turned up to produce a louche effect.
“Boring,” said Natalie.
“Really great,” said Elizabeth.
Nigel laughed. “Well good to see you agree on that then.”
“Want to check out Magwins later?” he looked from one to the other.
“Absolutely,” said Natalie
“Um..” said Elizabeth.
“Great, I’ll see you kids at 5 on the green?” With that he swung out of his seat and sauntered off to join a group of sniggering boys at the back of the bus.
“Who does he think he is?” fumed Natalie.
“Boys like to be cool in front of their friends Nat you know that”
“I’ll see you kids” Natalie mimicked in a falsetto voice, making a face like a rat.
Despite Natalie’s irritation at Nigel’s manner on the bus home she was ready to go at just before 5pm. Belinda had made tea and gone to write in her bedroom telling them not to be back too late as it was a school night. They walked up towards the green and as they rounded the corner Nigel was already waiting by the Post Office.
“Hi,” he waved.
“Hi,” they both replied.
“ The kids are here,” smiled Natalie too sweetly.
Nigel looked mystified.
“Anyway,” said Elizabeth hurriedly, “whats the plan?”
“I think we should try and get a look round the back, if she has a big animal in there she must have somewhere to keep it. And it must be soundproof or someone would have heard it by now,” said Nigel.
“OK and how do we do that?” Natalie queried.
“Easy.” Nigel pulled something from his pocket. “These are my Dad’s.” He looked proudly at the assorted silver and brass keys all hanging from a dull grey ring.
“What are they?” asked Elizabeth.
“Master keys,” replied Nigel, “they’ll open nearly any padlock known to man.
“Why would your Dad have those?” Natalie wanted to know.
“I don’t really know. They were in his trunk which he left upstairs at Aunt Stephanie’s. I went through it and found them.” Nigel looked at the keys. “Maybe he needed them for his work.”
“I thought he worked with underprivileged children in Africa?” said Elizabeth.
“He does I.. I think” said Nigel hesitantly.
“You think?” Natalie sounded incredulous. “you must know what your Dad does for a living surely?”
“Well what does your Dad do?” Nigel was getting hot under the collar now.
“Mum says our Dad was very charming and would make a good Lawyer but not a good Father,” Elizabeth reeled off.
“Look anyway it doesn’t matter, I didn’t mean to pry. What shall we do try and get round the back of the shop?” Natalie wanted to move on.
“It’s just closed so Magwin will be doing the till I expect,” said Nigel, “let’s go.”
They walked across the green and peeked in the shop but couldn’t see anything going on. They made their way along a side cut that ran down to the left of the shop and round to the back and stopped by a large wooden gate in the fence that bounded the rear of the premises. there was a heavy brass padlock and chain that ran through a hook and hasp mounted with big screws.
“Do you think one of your keys will fit,” said Elizabeth nervously looking left and right.
“We’ll soon find out,” said Nigel fishing the bunch from his jacket pocket. He tried the first key. Wiggling it in and slipping it in and out in an effort to make the tumblers slot into place. Nothing doing. The second key didn’t fare much better. The third key though slipped in with a satisfying click and the padlock dropped open almost immediately. Nigel looked stunned.
“I didn’t think it would work,” he whispered.
“I don’t think your Dad works with underprivileged children thats what I think,” said Natalie wryly.
“What now,” whispered Elizabeth, “ Magwin might be right behind this door for all we know.
Nigel gently slid the chain from the hasp and laid it silently on the ground. He pushed at the door carefully and it swung open, creaking as it went.
“Shhhhhh,” hissed Natalie.
“I’m trying to be quiet,” Nigel said over his shoulder, peeking round the door. And then, “There’s no-one here.”
“What can you see?” said Natalie craning to see past him.
“Some old junk, the garden is really scruffy,” Nigel answered. “There is a shed though, a big one,” he added.
Nigel pushed the door wider so they could all see in. The back of the shop looked even older than the front. There were no windows to the rear, they observed with relief, only a steel door that looked impregnable.
“Come on let’s go in,” Nigel whispered.
They tiptoed through the gate and turned right to where the large shed Nigel had spotted sat in the corner. It too was windowless but they noticed that on its roof was a spinning chimney vent like a refrigerated van might have.
The shed door was secured with another heavy padlock, although no chain. Nigel took out his keys and began trying them one by one. He was down to the last one when they heard the tumblers click and the padlock fell open.
“Your Dad is definitely a super-criminal,” said Natalie. Nigel glared at her. He gingerly lifted the padlock out of its hasp and pulled the door open. It swung easily and silently. They stood looking inside the shed allowing their eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. The first thing they saw was a metal crate, perhaps 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. It stood in the far corner of the shed and had a padlocked door in its front face. The floor of the cage was lined with straw and they could see a feeding bowl a drinking bowl and what looked like white sticks scattered randomly around. They stepped cautiously inside to investigate further, and that’s when Elizabeth realised what the white sticks were.
“BONES! They’re bones,” she exclaimed.
“Shhhhh…,” admonished Natalie, someone will hear you. But Elizabeth was right. Distributed around the floor of the cage were large well gnawed bones. The kind of bones a big cat might chew on.
At that moment they heard a noise. A kind of low screech, like chalk on a blackboard but deeper. Nigel quickly pulled the shed door closed behind them and peered through the narrow crack between the door and the wall.
“What can you see?” whispered Natalie.
“It’s Magwin and someone I don’t know, a man. They’re bringing bags of stuff out of the shop and putting them against the wall.
“Oh my God, they’re going to find us,” Elizabeth breathed.
“They’re not looking this way,” said Nigel, “maybe they’ll go back in.”
They waited with bated breath while Violet Magwin directed her helper to load more bags on top of the ones already leaning against the back of the shop. When he had finished the man rubbed his back and spoke. “I reckon that’s the lot Violet,” he spoke in a broad accent, certainly Northern, perhaps even Scottish. He was tall and broad, about forty or so and had thick arms that stretched the rolled up sleeves of his checked shirt. His hair was thinning but had been cut very short in military style. His face was turned away from Nigel but he could see enough to know he was clean shaven.
“Yes, well it’ll have to do,” rasped Violet Magwin.
“Back inside and I’ll settle you up.” They re-entered the shop and closed the door behind them.
All three children breathed a sigh of relief.
“Let’s get out of here before she comes back,” said Elizabeth.
“Don’t you want to know whats in those bags?” said Natalie.
“Are you crazy?” Elizabeth stared at her sister, “she could come back out any second."
They heard the sound of bolts being thrown from inside the shop and voices fading.
“Doesn’t look like it,” said Nigel smiling at Natalie.
They exited the shed and re-set the padlock. In the fast waning light they could see the sacks lined up like soldiers against the wall. Nigel reached in his pocket and produced a penknife.
“You really are a handy boy aren’t you?” joked Natalie.
They tiptoed across to the sacks and reaching out Nigel took the loose ear of one in his hand and carefully cut a horizontal slit about six inches wide.
If they had sat up all night trying to guess what was going to fall out of that sack they would never have got close.