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Hello and welcome along to my stop on the blog tour for “Winter Downs” by Jan Edwards.  I am thrilled to be able to share chapter one of this book, which is the first in the “Bunch Courtney Investigates” series.

Description:

Winter Downs Jan Edwards front cover

In January of 1940 a small rural community on the Sussex Downs, already preparing for invasion from across the Channel, finds itself deep in the grip of a snowy landscape, with an ice-cold killer on the loose.

Bunch Courtney stumbles upon the body of Jonathan Frampton in a woodland clearing. Is this a case of suicide, or is it murder? Bunch is determined to discover the truth but can she persuade the dour Chief Inspector Wright to take her seriously?

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of “Winter Downs” via:

Amazon


Book Extract:
Chapter One

The first gunshot flushed a clamour of rooks into a yellowish sky to circle their tribal elms. Rose Courtney glanced at Daphne and wondered if she even noticed them. Since George’s funeral it was so difficult to know whether her younger sibling was wool gathering or had sunk so deep into mourning she simply failed to acknowledge her surroundings.  Understandable, Rose thought, but it’s still frustrating. She had intended this hack across the Downs to lift the spirits. It would be Rose and Daphne – or Bunch and Dodo as their family knew them – riding out just like old times. Except that it was anything but the old times, and even Bunch was beginning to concede that, on this occasion, horse riding might not provide the answer. She tucked rogue strands of dark hair beneath her hat, secured her plaid scarf, and thought how tempting it would be to return home. The sky had grown heavier in the half hour they had been out and fresh snow was beginning to fall in earnest.  The second blast was louder and deeper than the first, scattering rooks and pigeons in a fresh flurry, setting Dodo’s horse into a fidget. Bunch waited without comment for her sister to bring the animal under control.  ‘Pigeons.’ Dodo looked upwards, allowing snowflakes to flutter across her cheeks. ‘Georgie loved them. Cook bakes them with pears and a little port.’ It was the first time Bunch had heard Dodo mention her husband without prompting, and without tears, since the funeral. That’s a good sign, surely? ‘They don’t have a lot of meat on them,’ she said aloud. ‘Hardly worth the cartridge.’ She slapped her Fell pony’s neck, muttering, ‘Easy Perry, steady lad,’ though her mount had barely twitched so much as an ear. Her sister’s mare sidled nervously again so that its hooves slithered on the snow covered slope. ‘Everything all right, Dodo?’

‘The old girl’s a bit fresh from the box but I won’t let her get her head.’ Dodo backed her horse a few paces to prove control. ‘See? All tickety-boo.’ A seedling smile touched her face as she adjusted immaculate gloves and cuffs. Trust Dodo, Bunch thought. Middle of a windblown Sussex hillside and she still thinks it’s a fashion parade. Her own passions had been fixated on horses since she could first reach a stirrup which, their mother maintained, was why her eldest daughter had descended into old maid-dom at the ripe age of thirty-two. Bunch had always considered her habit of speaking her mind had far more to do with it. ‘You’re looking chilled, old thing. Want to go back?’  ‘No, I’m happy to carry on.’ Dodo resettled her tweed fedora over silk headscarf and waved toward the trees. ‘Let’s cut through Hascombe Wood. We’ll be out of the wind.’ ‘Absolutely. After you.’ Bunch allowed Dodo to take the lead and used the moment to stand in her stirrups to ease damaged joints. A few months on from the accident in France she still ached. She maintained that riding out every day would see it heal itself, and that Dodo would be fine if she would only follow suit. As this was Dodo’s first real show of animation since George’s death, Bunch was reluctant to squash that tiny spark by heading home. ‘Heel, Roger. Come here, damn you!’ She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled up her yellow Labrador. Roger snapped at the patch of snow as he ran, mouth wide in a canine grin, and in no special hurry to obey despite her cussing. He was getting on in years but allowing him to become victim to the pet culls of the previous year had been unthinkable for her boy.  A southerly gust, straight off the Channel, sliced across Bunch’s forehead. She pulled her hat down and scarf up to lessen the expanse of skin open to the elements. ‘Best keep moving,’ she mumbled, ‘before we freeze to death.’ They followed the wood’s perimeter to the bridle path that cut through its centre. Hascombe Wood now covered around fifteen acres, a mere scrap of the ancient forest that had once carpeted both the Sussex Weald and the Downs in a single swathe of green.  The rooks had circled back to their roost and were calling to each other in more conversational tones, and somewhere in a nearby field the estate’s David Brown tractor was being pushed to its limits; they were the only sounds to be heard as the women entered the wood.  They rode in near silence until they reached the first large clearing where several woodland giants had been felled and stacked to one side of the glade. Bunch pulled off her tweed hat and ruffled her wool-itched scalp. With her ears uncovered, the pitter-patter of gritty snow in the trees, the odd creak of branches, and the steady clumping of hooves on centuries of leaf litter were clearly audible. She breathed in the scents of sheer cold mixed with the rich tang of the old leaves stirred up beneath hoof. A peaceful moment until the dog cut across the stillness with a frantic barking.  ‘Roger, do shut up,’ Bunch shouted. ‘Be quiet!’ The Labrador ceased his yammering but continued with something closer to a howl. His tail and hackles were up as he harried a stand of sweet chestnut that sprouted at drunken angles to each other. Bunch slid from the saddle and walked to the trees but stopped just short of them as she glimpsed a motionless figure seated between the trunks.  ‘Hey, you there.’ Bunch edged forward. There had been many displaced people passing through in recent months, people who might take refuge in the wood, but it took a strange sort of person who did not to react to Roger’s noise. ‘Hello? Are you all right? Are you … oh, good heavens.’ She caught hold of Roger’s collar and tugged him into a sit as she realised what she was seeing. ‘Dear God,’ she muttered. A man was slumped in the bowl of a split tree. His hands hung loosely along thighs, legs stretched out before him. His head lolled forward obscuring what was left of its features. The rear of his skull had been blown away and smears of dark pinkish brain matter had spattered across the bark immediately behind, dotted with shards of bone. Bunch flexed her fingers against the blood rush tingling through them and released one deep breath before taking another, and edged forward for a closer look. Though she could not see his face she knew this was not the corpse of someone unknown. This body had a name, and she would have known him anywhere. Calm, she told herself, be calm. Bunch recognised the Westley Richards near the dead man’s feet and it left little doubt as to what had caused the massive damage to his skull. She clapped a hand across her mouth to stop her stomach adding more colour to the scene. She had seen a few corpses during her brief stint driving BEF staff cars in France. Many of the corpses had been far more mutilated than this one. Beside, they had been different. They had lacked identity but this corpse had a face and a name that Bunch had known all of her life. This body had not been slaughtered by a mindless steel capsule packed with explosives, dropped from far above. This corpse had come to be through a deliberate and very personal act of violence. This was Jonathan Frampton. She wiped at her eyes and shuddered out another draconic steaming into the cold air. Pull yourself together. Never waver. That’s the Courtney way.  ‘Oh Jonny,’ she whispered, ‘what in hell has been going on here?’ Bracing herself for the routine she had last practised with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, Bunch crouched to feel beneath his collar for the carotid artery though she knew finding a pulse would be highly unlikely. His flesh was cold in the refrigerating winter wind and unyielding to her touch, but not yet fully stiffened in rigor. The red splattering all around was dulling to brown, telling her that the blood had ceased flowing several hours ago. Long before those shots we’d heard just moments ago.  ‘Bunch?’ Dodo was dismounting and looping the reins of both horses over a fallen tree. ‘What’s going on?’ Bunch held her left hand, palm out, toward her sister as she pulled the excited dog away from the corpse with the other. ‘Stay there, Dodo. Please. Just stay there.’ ‘What is it? Oh dear, is he dead?’ ‘Yes, he is.’ ‘Is it … is it someone we know?’ Dodo craned her neck to see around Bunch, taking another step forward.  ‘You don’t need to see, truly. It’s Jonny. Jonathan Frampton.’ ‘No, it can’t be. Jonny’s away up north for another month or more. He told me so himself.’ ‘It is him. Absolutely. No question.’  Dodo stared at the body, her features asserting the quiet control they had both been raised to practise. The trembling in her hands that she held close to her face was evidence to the contrary.  Best get her as far away from this as quickly as possible. Bunch slipped her hand beneath her sister’s elbow and guided her back to the horses. ‘There may be evidence here so we shouldn’t trample around too much. Look Dodo, why don’t you ride on home and telephone for PC Botting? I’ll wait here. Somebody should.’ ‘Are you certain?’ ‘I am. Absolutely. Take Roger with you. He’ll only be a bloody nuisance here.’ She gave Dodo a boost into the saddle and watched her ride out of sight, with only a few words but a few dozen misgivings.  Perry nodded vigorously, snickering after his stable mate. Bunch worried that he would chill standing in the flow of the wind, and led him around to the far side of the log stack where there was some respite. She adjusted his quarter sheet to cover as much of his rump as possible and went to sit on the end of the log pile where she could watch over the body.  The trees towered around her; they felt not unlike a cathedral with the building’s whispered sibilance echoed by the surrounding woodland. Keeping vigil, she thought and shivered, not entirely through the chill. She missed Roger’s comforting presence. Dodo will need it more though, silly old sausage. She scrabbled through her inside pocket for the hip-flask and raised it toward the corpse. ‘God speed,’ she called, and took a small mouthful, swilling it around her gums and swallowing, feeling the warmth welling into her throat. She rattled the container and pulled a face. It was half empty and there was a good hour to wait before anyone came to help. It’s a long time cold. Bunch took another quick swig and swapped the flask for a cigarette case, taking her time in tapping the white cylinder on the silvered lid, glancing around the clearing, her gaze skating over the body. She struck a match, cupping her long hands to protect the flame, and once sure the tobacco glowed red leaned her head back to send the first lungful of smoke upwards into the falling snow. It was a ritual calming, a gathering of wits that came from habit. Even alone she would not willingly permit emotion to surface. The horse muttered at the waft of sulphurous match and tobacco smoke, which made her smile. ‘Yes, Perry, I know. All the bloody vices. You’re starting to sound like Mother.’ She flicked the spent matchstick in his general direction and drew again on the tailor-made cigarette, expelling blue-grey mist at the trees. There are matters that need to be addressed and I shall address them like a Courtney – once I’ve gathered a few wits about me.  Bunch waited and smoked and gazed across the space between her and the lifeless body of her old friend. She had a clear view of Jonny’s legs and torso but his face was obscured, and she was glad of that. She did not relish staring at what remained of it for however long it took Stan Botting to arrive.  Her attention began to wander over the surrounding terrain. Tracks in the snow were masked by dark slices of leaf mould, and she amused herself by guessing the cause of each line and heap. Her own boot prints were clearly discernible and Roger was the likely culprit for most of the rest. Other dips and furrows, however, had been made indistinct by fresh snow so that none could be read with any certainty. They could have been made by deer or sheep – or by Jonny. She lit another cigarette and as she scuffed the cold match beneath her boot a metallic glint caught her attention. Bunch bent to retrieve a spent .22 cartridge and held it up at eye level. Its strong cordite odour cut through the tobacco smoke. This was a fresh firing, no question in her mind. The Westley Richards lying at Jonny’s feet certainly posed another query.  There’s every chance the .22 has been ejected from some poacher’s rifle. The Jenner brothers are in these woods several times a week, she thought. Yet, it was in the surface snow. It can’t have been here much longer than poor Jonny has. She slipped the cartridge into her pocket and wandered across to stare at Jonny’s remains. He might be wearing his boots and a good wool suit but where’s his coat and scarf? And gloves? Jonny is – was – a chilly morsel despite all those years in drafty farm houses and freezing school dorms. ‘What were you doing out here, dressed this way?’ she said aloud.  Bunch rubbed at her arms, chilled now by more than the iced wind. ‘I do not believe you would kill yourself. I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it.’ Crouching down she stared long into his bloodied face. What were you thinking, my darling boy? This is not who you are. You were in the choir. You talked about taking the cloth. You’d never kill yourself. So what is this about? ‘Oh, damn it all to hell. It makes no sense.’ She wheeled back to her log seat, scrubbing out the cigarette against the bark before lighting another within a minute. She knew what this looked like, what other people would see, yet she could not, would not, believe that Jonathan Frampton would take his own life. The image of his placing the Westley’s barrel beneath his chin and pulling the trigger denied all he had ever believed in. What or who had brought her old friend to this secluded spot, surely it was not to kill himself. Of that she was utterly convinced.  ~~~ Noises coming from beyond the trees drew Bunch to her feet and she took out the flask for one final nip. As she returned the empty container to her pocket her fingers brushed against the brass cartridge. She drew it out and turned it end over end just a few inches from her eyes, mesmerised by its brilliance. ‘Whatever else happens, Jonny,’ she murmured, ‘I shall get to the truth.’ ‘Miss Rose.’ PC Stan Botting scrunched along the woodland path with a steady tread that spoke of many nights on the beat. He was a tall man of even proportions, his most defining features being a neatly trimmed moustache and serious brown eyes, which took in the scene with a professional calm. ‘This is a sorry thing, Miss Courtney.’ He saluted Bunch gravely. ‘Not what you might expect.’ ‘It certainly is not.’ She watched him pick his way over to the corpse and go through the same pointless ritual of confirming death. ‘Where is my sister?’ ‘Miss Daphne – beg pardon – Mrs Tinsley stayed at Perringham House, I imagine.’ He picked up the shotgun, out of the deepening snow, and trudged back to her. ‘A sorry day, indeed. He’s dead of course. No question. And from the state of him it’s the worst kind of passing.’ ‘What could possibly be worse than being killed?’ ‘Suicide, Miss. From what I can see here it’s the most logical explanation. He took his own life. Sad thing for a young man to do.’  It was all Bunch could do not to shout at him. Botting was not a stupid man and this stating of the seemingly obvious was beneath him. ‘Jonny would never do that,’ she muttered. ‘There’s folks do it every week of the year. Always a tragedy,’ Botting continued. ‘We’ll need the Coroner to confirm it, of course, but there’s little doubt in my mind.’ ‘Is the Coroner coming now?’ ‘Eventually. But you don’t need to stand around waitin’ for him, Miss. No need for you to catch your death. You pop along home now.’ He gestured at the path. ‘Someone’s coming now, so you cut along and I’ll be down the house for your statement later.’ ‘No, I’ll wait,’ she said.  ‘If you’re sure now?’ ‘I’m certain.’ She had barely sat back on her tree trunk before Major Barty Tinsley stumbled into view, puffing steam far harder than Botting had with the exertion of the climb.  ‘Rose, good to see you. Or it would be if it wasn’t in such sad circumstances.’ Dodo’s father-in-law swept off his Europeanstyled fur hat and used it to beat snow from his coat before cramming it back on his balding head. Barty was a big boned man, shorter then Botting by half a head, yet muscular enough to fill any doorway. He went to examine the scene at closer quarters and rose within moments, shaking his head emphatically. ‘Very sad. Suicide quite obviously. Is there a note?’ ‘I’ve looked,’ Bunch replied, ‘but nothing, so far as I can see.’ ‘That would be unusual. In my experience people are usually compelled to leave some final words. Perhaps it was blown away. Or he left it at the farm.’ Tinsley looked around the clearing with obvious disgust. ‘It hardly matters. The circumstances are clear enough.’ ‘I am not so sure about that,’ said Bunch. ‘Besides, it’s not for you or me to say. It’s up to the Coroner. What brings you here, in any case, Barty?’ ‘I was at lunch with Lewis when Botting called. I thought I should offer to assist.’ I bet you did, she thought. Never miss a chance to play at Army with your bloody LDV. ‘Where is Doctor Lewis?’ She looked past him. ‘He must be here to pronounce death before the Coroner arrives, one would think.’

‘He hoped to be along with the stretcher party but there was an emergency call. He thought the needs of the living were more urgent.’ ‘Of course. Anyway, the Coroner will be here soon.’ ‘Unlikely before the morning,’ said Tinsley. ‘I heard that snow has set in deeper along the coast road and if we have another fall tonight then he will be delayed further still. I am here as his proxy, in my official capacity as a magistrate, of course.’ Tinsley raised his chin, challenging Bunch to disagree. ‘Daphne told Botting it looked like suicide,’ he added. ‘She would appear to have been correct.’ He nodded agreement with his own judgement. ‘Jonathan was involved in some rather delicate war work, from what I gather. Pressure was too much for him, perhaps?’ He glanced at Bunch and clamped his lips together in a white line. ‘Saul Frampton told me the boy failed his RAF medical. Some chaps are just not up to the mark.’ There was an implication that Jonathan had somehow deliberately evaded service and it stung. Bunch had always recognised Jonny as a gentle man and it angered her that men like Tinsley mistook that for weakness. ‘I don’t think he did it. Jonny wasn’t the sort. I can’t quite see what’s what as yet but something very wrong occurred up here.’ ‘Wrong? Of course there is something wrong. A young man takes his own life? There’s nothing right in tha—’ He shook his head. ‘Not the time or place.’ ‘I concur, Barty. The Coroner will make a decision at the inquest, of course. I don’t know what procedure is but shouldn’t we make sure he views the scene intact?’ ‘There were two military incidents out at sea and the Coroner has a mortuary filled to the gunwales as a result. He can’t get along before tomorrow, and if we are in for a heavy snow tonight we cannot leave the body where it is. It simply is not practical, especially when the circumstances are so clear. You get along home before the snow gets any worse, Rose. Leave all this to us. No need to bother your head about it in the least bit.’ Bunch breathed harshly through her nose, fighting her impulse to be unspeakably rude. How dare he? The pompous arrogant old dinosaur. The shock of finding her old friend dead in such a ghastly fashion was painful enough. She had been closer to Jonny than almost anyone she knew; she had known him in every sense possible. They had grown from childhood friends into fumbling lovers, exploring the secrets of each other’s bodies in mutual wonder. To her lasting regret the affair had foundered though they had remained the best of friends. Being so comprehensively patronised by Barty Tinsley regarding somebody he barely knew, and who was so close to herself, was positively breath taking. She glanced at Botting, who looked away. Plainly he was not going to argue with the magistrate on her behalf. ‘I think we should wait for Doctor Lewis to give us the benefit of his experience. We two can agree to differ another time.’ She felt pleased at keeping so remarkably collected. Mother would be proud. Tinsley regarded her coldly. ‘What happened here is a terrible shame and totally obvious to everyone – except you, it seems. I realise you mean well, Rose, but you mustn’t get yourself involved. It’s not the right sort of thing for a young lady.’ ‘Jonathan was Georgie’s best pal. They were at Harrow together, and Balliol. It can only help Dodo if we can say Jonny didn’t do such an awful thing, surely?’ She smiled, dropping her chin to come as close as possible to looking up at someone shorter than herself. She was not a flatterer or a flirt by nature but it seemed to work on Tinsley well enough. ‘If speaking with Lewis will put your mind at rest then by all means,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen this sort of thing on the Bench, you know.’ He shook his head. ‘One has to feel sorry for the boy. He found himself unable to carry on with the responsibilities he had been given and shot himself. Some people are simply not cut out for times like these.’ ‘Times like what, exactly?’ said Bunch. ‘War, obviously.’ ‘Jonathan knew as much about war as any of us. Probably more. He was joining some new special Whitehall department,’ she said. ‘Look at him. Look at the shotgun,’ Tinsley said. ‘Stop digging around in things that don’t concern you, Rose Courtney. Or must I speak to your father about it? What young Frampton was working on is not for discussion. Careless tongues, my dear. There’s quite enough for you to worry about without making more.’

‘I doubt we’ve got a Jerry spy hiding in the leaf mould. Oh, and I found this.’ She scrabbled in her pocket and held out the cartridge casing. ‘It was fired today. You can still smell it.’ ‘A .22 wouldn’t make so much mess,’ Tinsley said, ‘not even at point blank. That, however, would be more than capable.’ He pointed to the shotgun. ‘The Major is right, Miss Courtney.’ Botting hefted the Westley and frowned at her. ‘It’s not your place to interfere with the process of law. You cut along, Miss. You’ve had a shock.’ Bunch glanced down at Botting’s other hand clamping her elbow and gently urging her toward the horse. She shook his hand free. She was cold and shocked, of course, but perfectly lucid and starting to realise she was getting nowhere. Tinsley was convinced he was right and Botting would agree out of deference to the magistrate, and because he had little choice. She mounted Perry in silence, compliant only because she was outnumbered. She had no intention of letting it drop. Jonathan Frampton had more joie de vivre than anyone she knew. You will not be remembered for blowing out your own brains, Jonny. I swear by all we held dear that I shall prove it.

 


About the Author:

Jan ps 1

Jan Edwards is a Sussex-born writer now living in the West Midlands with her husband and obligatory cats. She was a Master Locksmith for 20 years but also tried her hand at bookselling, microfiche photography, livery stable work, motorcycle sales and market gardening. She is a practising Reiki Master. She won a Winchester Slim Volume prize and her short fiction can be found in crime, horror and fantasy anthologies in UK, US and Europe; including The Mammoth Book of Dracula and The Mammoth Book of Moriarty. Jan edits anthologies for The Alchemy Press and Fox Spirit Press, and has written for Dr Who spinoffs with Reel Time Pictures.

For further information please contact Penkhull Press at: https://thepenkhullpress.wordpress.com/

 

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