On a dark gloomy morning in early November, Penny Brannigan placed her spoon in her empty cereal bowl, finished her cup of coffee, looked up from the newspaper spread out on the table before her and, taking off her reading glasses, gazed about the small kitchen with both pleasure and anxiety. Work on the charming period cottage that was now her home was almost finished, and while she was pleased with the results, the spa was turning out to be a different story.
Not for the first time, she wondered what she had let herself in for. Just a few short months ago her life had been relatively uncomplicated and uneventful. She’d owned a small manicure shop in a picturesque North Wales market town where people went quietly about their business, she belonged to an artists sketching group, and she enjoyed rambling about the beautiful countryside painting watercolours and selling them in local galleries. She was reasonably content with the way her life was turning out and the universe had been unfolding as it should.
But recently, following the death of retired schoolteacher Emma Teasdale, Penny had inherited a cozy cottage that was now undergoing a complete makeover while she and her friend and business partner, Victoria Hopkirk, were converting a derelict stone building beside the River Conwy into an up-market spa. And bearing silent witness to the enduring accuracy of Murphy’s Law, that if something can go wrong it will, the spa renovations had gone wildly wrong when workmen discovered skeletal remains in the ductwork. Remains both human and animal that so far, despite the best forensic efforts of the North Wales Police Service, remained unidentified, although it had been determined that the bones were those of a female with an estimated age of twenty-five to forty and that the animal skeleton was that of a cat.
There had been the kinds of setbacks and complications that come with any major building project and some, like human remains in the ductwork, that no one could have anticipated. But beyond the inconvenience of the decades-old bones, their discovery raised troubling questions that had awakened her in the middle of the night more than once.
Who had this woman been in life? What had she looked like? How had she died? What had gone so terribly, tragically wrong that someone, for some reason, had removed grille work, stuffed the remains of a woman and a cat bundled in a tatty old duvet into the ductwork, and replaced the grille, leaving the remains to decompose in their dark, secret place for decades?
While the police had been dusting off old missing persons records and reviewing computer databases, Penny had gone through back issues of the local newspaper to see if she could turn up anything. She scanned microfiche copies going back years, searching for a story of a local woman gone missing. Although she had found nothing, she knew that the answer was out there somewhere. It always is. Someone knows, she thought. Someone always knows. The police had told her that the DNA results were expected soon and she hoped that encoded within them would be the information to reveal the identity of this poor woman. If not, she wondered if the police would go to the trouble and expense of having a forensic sculptor create a facial reconstruction based on the woman’s skull to attempt to reveal what she might have looked like at the time of her death.
Enough of this, she told herself firmly, bringing her thoughts back to the morning about to unfold. Victoria will be wondering where I’ve got to. Best get on. She pushed her chair back, gathered up the newspaper for the recycling, and set her cup and bowl in the sink. As she opened the back door to get a sense of the weather, as she did every morning, a draught of damp, frosty air rushed past her. Her eyes swept over the walled garden, taking in the pile of brittle, withered leaves that had been blown into the corners, and then turned upward, toward a sky the colour of a bruised plum. It’ll be tipping down rain, and a cold rain at that, before the morning’s over, she thought. Swirls of mist wreathed the trees and shrouded the ancient hills that overlooked the town, cloaking them in mysterious foreboding. She closed and locked the door and, crossing her arms over her chest, headed upstairs in search of a warm sweater to wear under her raincoat. She’d need both.
A trim, smart-looking woman in her early fifties, Penny had arrived in the town of Llanelen many years earlier as a recent university arts graduate looking for a place to stay for a night or two. Days turned into weeks and still she stayed, reluctant to leave but not knowing quite what was binding her to the town. Temporary accommodation became permanent as she began to acquire the necessary things of daily living, small and few at first, then larger and more of them, those items that add comfort, familiarity, and civility to one’s life, like books and art supplies and clothes for a new season. And one day, she realized that while she had been making friends, starting and growing her manicure business, drawing and painting, twenty years had slipped away. She rarely thought of her native Canada and the few family members she had left behind. Her life was here now.
As she was looping a scarf around her neck, her mobile rang. She checked the number, then smiled.
Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Davies of the North Wales Police. Another recent addition to her life and, without question, the most welcome complication of all.
She listened for a moment.
“So there’s no match. That’s disappointing.” The DNA results were in on the skeletal remains found in the spa ductwork, he’d told her, but unfortunately they did not match anything on file.
“We have to find out who she was and how she came to be there,” Penny told him. “You will keep looking, won’t you?”
Davies reassured her, and after they said their goodbyes, Penny hung up and looked at her watch.
There’s so much still to be done, she told herself as she opened the front door, reaching in her pocket for her gloves. And what with Christmas still to sort out and the spa to get up and running, there’s no time to dwell on anything else, even an unidentified body.
And today, being Thursday, she’d have to make sure everything in the shop was ready for her most demanding client.
She checked to make sure she had her house key, pulled the door behind her, and set off for her salon.
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth J. Duncan