by Cordelia Harrison
Celia Mulligan was found dead; floating face down in the murky waters of the river Bourton. Her dress originally a sparse white muslin, was stained green with numerous strains of algae and pond life. CeeCee’s golden curls spiralled through the stream like twirling ribbons; her small face was frozen in fear. Obvious from the beginning that she hadn’t simply drowned. The little girl’s neck was bruised copiously; someone had evidently wrung it with all their might.
Celia was the youngest daughter of Horace Mulligan the elected councillor of the Bourton district. Horace was a popular figure and well known to the local community. The murder of his child caused an outcry the like of which none had ever seen. Everyone was up in arms. CeeCee and her two older sisters were the pets of the neighbourhood. Besides what kind of demon throttles a little girl?
There were candlelight vigils held outside the town hall every night for a week. Emotional protests were staged in nearby districts. People were openly howling for the killer’s blood. An online petition demanding the death penalty be legalised received thousands of signatures. The authorities clearly pressurised by the hysterical fury worked frenziedly to solve the case. But when an arrest was made; it was not anyone we could have imagined.
Word got around ludicrously fast. Conrad Hobbs was in my year at secondary school. His mother was receptionist at the local police station and personally witnessed the suspect being taken into custody. Georgia Hobbs blurted out the whole story to her family as soon as she got home. Conrad bursting with the news told all of his friends in class before registration. His friends informed the people they sat next to in lessons, one of the teachers heard a name, passed it on to her colleagues…and the details spread through the school like wildfire.
I raced home as soon as the final bell rang. Mum was scrubbing painting utensils in the sink as I dramatically slammed the back door.
“They’ve arrested Crazy Jules!” Like me my mother was tall and dark haired. She had sparrow eyes and deft fingers. Mum shot me a frown.
“Tom! How many times have I told you not to say that? It’s a terrible nickname. Julian has learning disabilities. He’s not crazy.” I threw my rucksack on the ground still shouting breathlessly.
“But can you believe it? Jules?! Everyone is saying he killed Celia!” My mother finished washing the last of the paint brushes and wiped her hands on a stained tea-towel hanging off the kitchen cupboard. She was dryly unmoved by my words.
“Of course, he didn’t.’ Mum scoffed. ‘Absolute rubbish. Where did you hear that from?” I blurted out the whole story. On the day CeeCee Mulligan was murdered Crazy Jules had been seen by multiple people. Stumbling into town with a white face, notably distraught and soaked to the skin. His t-shirt was ripped – to the point where he had obviously been in a serious altercation. There were finger marks on his wrists.
The night before last the police had gone to the house Jules shared with his old mother. The unhappy man had been arrested on suspicion of murder and now he was locked up in city jail. Mum had started taking me seriously by then and as soon as I finished she was clearly upset.
“How could they possibly think he was capable of it? He’s completely harmless! Poor Jules. And poor Mary! I must ring her…” Mum disappeared into the living room for the phone; more troubled than I had given her credit for. She was still wearing her apron; evidence that she was profoundly distracted. A dab of paint stained her elbow like a ripe bruise.
Truth be told I was also privately sceptical. Julian Ronan was a simple man who had lived in Bourton all his life. His mother Mary was a widowed Irish lady who volunteered at the art gallery Mum sold paintings to. Through the years the two of them had come to know each other quite well. Jules was a very familiar sight to the townsfolk as he liked ambling around by himself for most of the day.
I thought of Jules and I recollected his slow smile; how it would emerge gradually like the sun issuing from beneath a storm cloud. When our black cat had kittens a few years ago Jules had come over to see them. I remembered the way the simple man carefully held one of the tiny creatures; cupping the mewing feline protectively in his massive palms. How he stroked the kitten tenderly on the head with a single gentle finger. I thought of Jules’ voice how it was high and sweet as a finely tuned flute.
The idea of him cruelly throttling a child to death just didn’t compute. I doubt Julian even had it in him to squash an insect…He was a truly gentle soul not able to commit any kind of violence. I felt tremendously guilty that I hadn’t spoken up in his defence at school. Listened without comment to all the filthy names people, some of them my friends, were calling him.
In the days that followed Mary was a regular visitor at our house. I could hear her talking distraught while Mum bustled around making plans for some kind of appeal. I deliberately hid in my room so I wouldn’t have to see the old woman’s misery. I tried playing my drum kit as a distraction but once I started practising my mother came roaring upstairs.
“Don’t you have any shame? Stop making that bloody racket!” I got pulled down to apologise and that made the whole situation worse.
Mary was anxiously pacing the living room, so distracted she didn’t even seem to notice my presence. Awkwardly I stood in the doorway as Tinky, our plump black cat, wound silkily around my ankles. Mum hissed and I quickly muttered how sorry I was. Mary wasn’t listening.
“The worse thing is he won’t talk to the police!” The old creature wrung her hands. She was a tiny woman barely over five feet with a wrinkled face like a gnome. Her husband had died of lung cancer a few years back. “Or me for that matter. I’m at my wits end. What can I do? It should be obvious my boy could never hurt anyone but all the evidence against him says otherwise. I’ve spoken to the lawyers you recommended but they think we should just cut a deal. You know – make him confess to something he didn’t do. Julian will be locked away in a sanatarium for years and you know he has no reason to be there!”
“Of course not,” Mum patted the old woman’s hand soothingly and jerked her head at me motioning that I should leave the room. At some point there must have been a promise that the two of us would go to visit Jules at the weekend. Consequently, I found myself being driven to the police station early on Saturday morning.
“I’m supposed to be at band practice Mum.” I muttered as we pulled into the rugged district car park with a jolt. I played the drums in the junior orchestra at school.
“Well this is more important. They won’t care if you miss a session.”
A young policeman with chewed fingernails and a wispy blonde moustache led us into the holding cells. Crazy Jules was sitting by himself in the small visitor cubicle; humming softly. He leaped to his feet in excitement as soon as he spied us turning the corner. Jules was around six foot and quite heavy set. He was about forty-five with dark brown hair that was slowly turning grey. Nevertheless, he didn’t appear old. The faint wrinkles crinkling at the side of his eyelids were the only things that betrayed his age.
“Hello Shirley! Hello Thomas!” He shouted happily waving at us with both hands flapping like pigeon wings. I chanced a look at the policeman who was pulling two chairs out for me and Mum. He was smiling at the prisoner; evidently fond of his charge.
“Alright then Julian – don’t forget you need to speak into the mike so your friends can hear you through the glass.”
“Yah!” Jules giggled.
The policeman (who I was starting to like) patted his shoulder in a friendly manner before exiting. Mum talked for both of us through the two microphones; I felt tongue tied. Drumming my heel against the dirty plastic floor I thought aimlessly how the youth orchestra would be getting on without me. As bad as I felt for Jules I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. Nothing could make the nightmarish situation better. Mum dug me in the ribs.
“Come on.” She hissed in my ear. Jules was looking expectantly at me his slow smile unfurling like a bloomed flower. I racked my brains trying to think of something disassociated with the case then gave up, throwing caution to the winds.
“What actually happened that day Julian?”
“Thomas!” Mum scolded. I shrugged at her helplessly. To my surprise the simple man looked thoughtful and then very scared. Terrified even. I could see the whites of his eyes like a dog that had just been whipped.
“I already tell everyone what happened to little CeeCee. But they don’t believe.” I leaned forward.
“We believe you.”
“Yah. Well it was the nasty old lady.” Jules’s bottom lip thrust out like an infant’s and started to tremble. “I always see her in the river and that day she come out.” My mother and I exchanged bemused glances. Mum placed a restraining hand on my lap, but I couldn’t hold in the questions.
“And she hurt Celia?”
“Yah. Pulled her in. I tried to help but couldn’t. It was horrible. I got scared then and ran away. I knew the horrid old woman had her.” The simple man started to sniffle; tears forming in his eyes like shards of coral.
“Everyone keeps saying I did it and there wasn’t no nasty old lady. I don’t know why.”
Mum was sighing and averting her gaze. I suspected Mary had repeated the story to her and neither of them could make head nor tails of it. I didn’t look away. The explanation didn’t make a lot of sense, but I believed him. Jules didn’t lie. He was plain speaking because that was all he knew, and I said so after we left.
“Don’t be silly Tom.” Mum muttered glancing into the rear window as the car backed out of the parking lot. ‘Something happened obviously but Julian doesn’t understand what. And I doubt he ever will. What a terrible shame. All we can do is hope the authorities come to their senses and release him.” I grunted unconvinced.
That night I lay awake dwelling on the story Crazy Jules had told us. He was telling the truth, at least in the way he saw it. I made a promise to myself then. And the next morning I walked across town, down through the nature reserve to the river Bourton.
The area had been roped off for a good few days but the ominous red tape barring the crime scene had finally been torn down. The area was actually quite idyllic in contrast to the horrid event that had taken place there. A great fleet of willow trees hung like woven shawls over the rushing waters. Assortments of flora grew in erstwhile clusters. A collection of crows cawed cheerfully in the nests above. I saw a frog the colour of a newly ripened lime darting through the undercurrent. A dragonfly glittered like an emerald stone as it flew past me mid-air gossamer wings gleaming.
I knelt on the edge of the riverbed trailing an old stick through the water. There was no sign of anything the police had missed. My idea of uncovering some new evidence to exonerate Jules now seemed stupid and childish. Honestly I found it hard to believe little CeeCee Mulligan had died here. Truth be told I liked how calm it was. Not a bad place. A small splash gave me pause. I glanced over carelessly and gave a sudden shout. Two huge grey eyes were regarding me from below the water’s edge.
“Jesus Christ!” I yelped falling backwards and sprawling in the mud as the owner of the two ponderous orbs gradually rose from the river.
A hideous old hag, completely nude, with tangled green hair like pockets of seaweed fully emerged standing up in the water. Horrid webbed hands with long clutching fingers grasped for me. I saw multiple shrivelled breasts like dried prunes and a long slick fin adorning her back.
“Come to me my child!” The old woman crooned in a voice that was oddly gentle despite her loathsome appearance.
“Come to old Peg Powler. I’ll take good care of you.”
She began to sing then and to my bewilderment her voice was sweet like pouring syrup. The hideous crone hummed a lullaby of ancient times. I didn’t understand the words of poison, they were old in a language I could not fathom or understand. All I knew was that my ears were filled with the intoxicating song. To my horror I found myself moving sluggishly beyond my control. It felt as though I was shifting through sinking sand. I was stepping close towards the hideous apparition and I knew then somehow that CeeCee had not been the first.
Throughout the centuries, every decade or so, the hag who haunted the river rose from the deep waters. When the piteous squeaks of the water voles and the cries of the rat no longer satisfied her Peg Powler ventured to the open air. Hoping to lure unwitting children and strangle them with her grasping hands. In my mind’s eye I saw dozens of the innocents who had died throughout the centuries. As if in a dream I witnessed Celia’s demise. Poor Jules who was unlucky enough to be walking past when it took place. The gentle good-hearted man falling and flailing in the water desperately trying to rescue the little girl who cried out to him in anguish.
The hag’s grasping fingers clawed at my throat. I saw nothing but darkness then as she dragged me down, deep into a watery grave.