1941 Britain: Children are vanishing from the village. Is it the powers of an ancient stone circle at work, or a modern predator?
In mid-1941, children evacuated to the remote Shropshire village of Noddweir to escape the Blitz begin to vanish. It was not uncommon for city children faced with rural rigors to run away. But when retired American professor Edwin Carpenter, pursuing his study of standing stones, visits the village and discovers bloody clothing in the forest, it is clear there is a more sinister explanation.
The village constable is away on military duty so the investigation falls to his daughter Grace. Some villagers see the hand of German infiltrators bent on terror. The superstitious, mindful of the prehistoric stone circle gazing down on Noddweir, are convinced malevolent supernatural powers are at work. And Edwin, determined to help Grace find whatever predator is in play, runs into widespread resentment over America's refusal to enter the war.
This atmospheric mystery will appeal to readers of Rennie Airth, Maureen Jennings, and both Ann Cleeves and Ann Granger.
|Publisher:||Poisoned Pen Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are the coauthors of eleven books in the John, the Lord Chamberlain series, set in 6th century Byzantium, as well as The Guardian Stones , the first title published under the pseudonym Eric Reed.
Read an Excerpt
The Guardian Stones
By Eric Reed
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Eric Reed
All rights reserved.
Thursday, June 12, 1941
"Don't look behind you, said Death, but we're being followed." The stout, elderly woman sounded breathless as she labored up the forest slope, her walking stick repeatedly searching for purchase in the thick ferns.
"What do you mean, Miss Miller?" Edwin Carpenter, twenty years her junior and considerably thinner, was more winded. He stopped and the thick lenses of his eyeglasses steamed up instantly in the humid air. He polished them slowly with his handkerchief, giving himself a moment to rest.
"It's just a local saying, Professor Carpenter, but in fact, we are being followed." Emily waved her stick toward a gap in the trees where a flash of red moved below. "That's Grace Baxter's jacket." She thrust her stick back into the ferns and resumed climbing.
"Oh." Edwin gasped. He wanted to tell her to call him Edwin rather than professor but he couldn't find the breath. It was all he could do to force himself to follow. He feared falling as he waded through knee-high ferns, stumbling over hidden rocks and roots. He never realized how dark a forest could be even in daytime, and it was fast approaching dusk. A big brown mongrel trotted along behind his mistress, tongue lolling and tail wagging, delighted with the game.
Unfortunately it wasn't a game. Nearly every adult in Noddweir had spread out through the forest covering the mountains around the village seeking the missing girl. Shouts back and forth in the distance, the sound almost swallowed by surrounding trees, marked their progress.
Edwin started to regret he'd volunteered to help. Maybe he should have stayed back at the house and unpacked, after all. As the younger and more able-bodied searchers vanished into the trees, Edwin found himself left behind with Emily Miller, the village shopkeeper.
He barely avoided being left behind by her until, through the trees ahead, he finally glimpsed the crown of what locals called Guardians Hill. He had seen the hill earlier as he approached the village along the dirt road leading into the valley. A wooded knob, bald on top, rose above Noddweir, solitary as if abandoned when its fellow mountains retreated across the Welsh border. He grabbed at branches to keep upright and struggled the last few yards to where the trees ended.
Edwin had come to southwest Shropshire to study the circle of standing stones at this very place. He never expected his first visit to be under such circumstances.
Entering a clearing of limestone outcroppings and gorse, he was surprised to see a man and a young woman in a red jacket waiting at the summit. There was obviously more than one path up the hill and Edwin's guide, he thought ruefully, took him the long way around.
The man accompanying Grace Baxter was in his mid-twenties, bulky but soft. He stared suspiciously at Edwin, who was naturally a stranger to him, having arrived in the village only hours before.
"We know each other," Grace told the man. "We met, briefly, before I had to rush off. Professor Carpenter's my new lodger." She looked Edwin up and down, narrowing her eyes. "You really should have stayed at the house and rested."
Edwin offered a wan smile.
"Just as I told you. A perfect view of the village from here, Professor," Emily panted. "In the daytime, at least."
"That's as may be," said the young man, "but we've no time to chat. Right now we have a missing child to find."
Emily planted her stick in the ground and leaned on it. "Issy Chapman's always causing trouble, she is. What makes you think she's come to grief, Constable?"
Edwin thought she put undo emphasis on the word "constable."
"There's a war on, you know," huffed the young man. He, too, had caught the sarcasm.
Emily flapped her free hand at him. "Oh, do tell! I may be old but I'm not deaf, Tom Green. I hears them devil's flies coming over during the night well enough, likely before anyone else, half the time. And not only am I not deaf, I'm not blind either. She's been up to no good, you'll see. Not to mention a great strapping girl like Issy can look after herself. What's the war got to do with a girl gone missing anyway?"
"Things happen during wars, Miss Miller," Green replied. "Unpredictable things. Bad things. Things that would be unthinkable during peacetime."
Edwin saw Green glance surreptitiously at Grace as he concluded his speech. He guessed the boy had never experienced anything more unthinkable than a hazing at a private school.
Grace ignored him. She was concerned for Emily. "You're pale. You know you shouldn't over-exert yourself. I wish you'd take more care."
"Nonsense, Grace! I can walk the legs off anybody you care to name. And since the constable insists, I shall carry on searching for that idiot girl. Come, Patch."
She hobbled off toward the opposite side of the clearing and her brown mongrel followed.
Edwin wondered if he should follow as well. He preferred to catch his breath. He couldn't say how many villagers Emily could walk the legs off, but she could certainly walk off his. "Miss Miller seemed to think it would be helpful to look around from up here. Take advantage of the height."
"Can't imagine why," said Green. "The whole place has already been searched. And it's too dark to see much down there. Blackout conditions have to be observed. She must be at least eighty. Dotty, you know."
"And liable to fall in the dark," Grace told him. "You'd better follow her, Constable Green." Her tone struck Edwin as unduly sharp.
Green's frown clearly indicated he would rather leave Emily to her own devices. Nevertheless, he left as asked, limping slightly. Green soon vanished through an opening in a welter of blackberry bushes that were fast becoming a featureless wall of darkness.
"Was he bothering you?" Edwin asked.
Grace studied him. "Ah, you heard us just before you arrived up here, then? You have sharp ears."
"Not at all. I simply ... well ..."
"Don't worry about Tom Green. He's our Special Constable. He was assigned here after our regular constable joined up. Still getting his feet under him."
"I see." Looking around, Edwin took in the ancient standing stones." So these are the famous Guardian Stones."
A rough circle of large lichen-covered stones stood in front of them, most half-hidden by encroaching blackberries and gorse. Foxgloves, a few in bloom, filled the center of the circle. A sapling leaned over one of the larger stones.
Another couple of decades and the Guardians would be completely overrun and hidden, unless someone took the trouble to clear away the brush.
"You'll be able to see them better in the light," Grace replied. "We need to be getting on. I wonder where the girl can be. I don't —"
She was interrupted by a burst of barking and a hoarse shout. "Quick! By the crater! We found her!"
"Crater?" Edwin managed to gasp as they scrambled down the path taken by Emily and Green moments before. "In this valley? Surely you're too far off the beaten track to attract the Luftwaffe?"
"It's the only bomb that's ever been dropped round here. The pilot likely got off course. We hear them going over occasionally on the way to Wales."
They came to the crater where searchers had begun to gather. Grace stood on the lip, staring downwards. The sides of the hole were still raw earth. Below, just visible in the fading light, a crumpled figure lay on its back, half in a pool of muddy water. Patch pranced back and forth, barking and flailing the air with his tail.
"But that's a boy!" Grace said. "Surely not two of them ...?"
Green slid down into the crater to bend over the prone figure.
The boy leapt up with a shout and flung a handful of mud into the constable's face. "Fooled yer there, copper!"
"Mike Finch, you little bugger!" Green lunged clumsily toward the lad who scrambled out of his reach and up the opposite side of the depression.
"It's one of the evacuee children," Grace said. "Always causing trouble."
"Just like Issy Chapman," Emily Miller added.CHAPTER 2
Constable Green returned to the hilltop and called off the search for the night. There was little chance of finding Isobel in the dark, he said, and moving lights might attract unwanted attention from the air.
Grace guided Edwin back down and through the forest by shaded torchlight. They emerged on a cart track at the edge of a field. The forest closed up behind them like magic, forming a seamless black barrier. Grace turned and headed toward the village, or so Edwin trusted. He could make out nothing in the darkness. Only after they had walked along the rutted path for five minutes did barns and houses begin to appear, dark shapes cut out of a starry sky. In the distance he heard Constable Green stridently arguing with someone about whether or not a light had been showing round their window.
"He's certainly keen, is Tom," Grace remarked as she let Edwin into her cottage. "Take the torch and shut the curtains, please. I'll light the lamp."
Edwin remembered that electricity had not yet reached this remote part of Shropshire. The warm light of an oil lamp sprang up, throwing shadows of well-worn furniture across whitewashed walls. The plain, polished pieces reminded him of his grandmother's neat parlor, where he had often spent evenings reading or playing with lead soldiers.
Now flesh and blood soldiers were fighting.
Grace carried the lamp into the kitchen and poked the wood fire in the stove into life.
"Isn't lamp oil hard to get these days?" Edwin asked.
"Depends who you know." Grace brought a covered pan out of the tiny scullery. "Now, here's a nice bit of rabbit stew. We'll heat it up and have it with bread and what passes for butter these days. You must be famished, rushing off into the forest practically before you unpacked."
Did he detect a note of approval in her voice, or was it just his imagination? An attractive woman, Grace was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a broad rosy-cheeked face and wide hips. In a decade or so she would look like the typical farmer's wife, but for the moment she was aglow with youth. Whatever they were to become, at a certain age a person's overwhelming impression was simply one of youth. Or so Edwin had decided observing students during his years of teaching.
"I needed to stretch my legs anyway after that cart ride," he said. "I didn't expect a horse and cart."
"What? To get to Noddweir? Nobody has a car, even if you could find petrol." She brought a tablecloth and cutlery from an antique sideboard.
"Sorry there's no steaks! I hear Americans eat them every meal and twice on Sundays. You stir and I'll cut the bread."
Edwin shook his head as he stirred. "Never been big on steaks." He was still amazed at how people got along with wartime shortages. In London he'd been told that in some places you were lucky if you could get an egg a week! What if they dropped it on the way home? How would he eat his? Fried, perhaps. Scrambled was no good. Eggs shrank in a mysterious fashion when cooked that way. Boiled might be a possibility.
No, he decided while spooning stew into the bowls waiting on the table, I'll give it to Grace and maybe she can bake a cake with it.
Grace returned with a jug of cider. "Made in the village, this is. It packs quite a wallop, as you would doubtless say."
As they ate, Grace plied him with questions about his work. Did his studies of weird stones take him all over the country?
How difficult was it to travel these days? How long had he been retired? Did he like tripe?
Edwin fielded the questions but paused over the final query. "Tripe?"
"Sometimes it's possible to get some. Can't stand it myself, but Duncan — the fellow who runs the local pub — is quite fond of it. Of course he is Scottish."
"That explains it, then," Edwin replied. "No more cider, thank you." The cider — what he would have called hard cider — did indeed pack a wallop, particularly for a man used to nothing more than a sociable glass of wine.
"It's difficult to travel what with one thing and another," he told her, "so I thought I would try the more rural areas, and here I am."
"You can hardly get more rural than Noddweir."
"I understand the name is a corruption of the Welsh, noddwer. It means protector. Or so Mr. Wilson told me."
"Is it? Well, I guess the vicar would know but I can't imagine Noddweir being able to protect anything. How do you know the vicar?"
"We'd corresponded about the Guardians before the war. I expect to see a fair bit of him now. He has a very good library he thinks might be useful. I've found rural ministers are prime sources for information. When I'm unable to dig up something I want to know about a place, I look up a local minister and write to him."
Grace collected the crockery and took it away, returning with bowls of stewed apples. "I'm glad the vicar mentioned I had room for a lodger."
"He told me he regretted I could not stay at his house but he has a family of girls billeted on him. Not too much bother, he said, but noisy and always hungry. Not a good place to pursue studies."
"You'll have plenty of peace and quiet here," she reassured him as an elderly woman appeared in the kitchen doorway.
The woman arrived so silently she might have alighted there like the bird her fragile figure suggested. Unpinned white hair fell freely over her thin shoulders. "Entertaining your boyfriend, Grace?" She cackled.
"This is Martha Roper, my grandmother." Grace's cheeks flushed, more with irritation than embarrassment Edwin thought. "And no, Mr. Carpenter is not my boyfriend. He's the professor I told you about, who has come to lodge with us. I thought you were sleeping, Grandma. There's stew. I'm making tea and can probably squeeze another cup out the pot if you'd like one?"
Martha took an empty chair. "Got any sugar?"
"No. I told you this morning we were out."
"Don't bother with the tea, then. You always make it weak as maiden's water." Martha stared at Edwin. Her eyes were pale blue, her gaze sharp. "So you're the Yank with an interest in the old ways? I can tell you a fair bit about them. As for Isobel. She's been carried off by the devil because she ate blackberries last October. The devil, no doubt about it."
Edwin looked politely surprised.
Martha smiled. "Oh yes, Professor, I know about such things as anyone who lives round here will tell you. I've showed a few little spells — persuasions, I calls them — to Isobel. She took an interest in the old ways, unlike some in my family. Now mind, I told her never to try any of them. Too dangerous unless you know what you might be trying to persuade. They say that swine Hitler practices magic. Do you think he does?"
"I think it highly unlikely."
The old woman pondered for a moment. "It may be so. You never know, do you?"
"Oh, Grandmother, really. Are you sure you won't have some tea?"
"Didn't you say you got no sugar? No point asking, is there? Still, nice to meet our lodger. We'll talk when you have time, Professor. I can tell you about things you won't find in books. Now I'll leave you two to your privacy." She got up and went into the front room.
"Sugar, indeed!" Grace set the tea cups on the table hard enough to spill a few drops on the tablecloth. "She wanted to have a good look at you, more like. Couldn't wait until morning. She'll be wagging her tongue to anyone who'll listen. Our privacy, indeed!"
She must have seen Edwin's puzzled expression because she added, "Grandma's been failing the past few years. She doesn't always know what's ... appropriate."
"Well, it's hardly a secret why I'm here. And it's not like I'm twenty-five, after all."
"Don't worry about Grandmother. She came to stay with Father and me a couple of years ago and we gave her the other downstairs room for a bedroom. She has trouble with the stairs."
"Your father enlisted?"
"Yes. That left the village without a policeman and that's how Special Constable Tom Green came into our lives. Not that there's much police work to do around Noddweir."
"Because of Issy, you mean? She's likely run off, is all. Her father's too fond of drink and it's well known he mistreats the girl." Grace took a sip of her tea. "Served in the first world war and never been the same since, especially after his wife died having Issy. I saw the girl earlier this week and there were bruises on her arms. I suspect she means to give her dad a good scare. Green will have been to talk to him about it, and Jack Chapman doesn't like the police, as Issy well knows."
Excerpted from The Guardian Stones by Eric Reed. Copyright © 2016 Eric Reed. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3.5 stars Eric Reed's' The Guardian Stones was not what I expected from Poisoned Pen Press, a publisher I associate with standard mystery series centered on a single detective. In The Guardian Stones, the "detectives," if I can call them that, are Edwin Carpenter, an American professor who has inexplicably decided to go to England in the middle of World War II to investigate the titular stones (think Stonehenge on a much smaller scale), and Grace, a resident of the village those stones "guard." A series of disappearances and other crimes has followed the arrival of several children who have been evacuated from Birmingham to the village as part of Operation Pied Piper, which was intended to protect England's urban children from bombing attacks. I found the clashing interactions between the street-tough children and their resentful (though mostly well-intentioned) hosts to be one of the most emotionally engaging aspects of the book. I also enjoyed the way in which Reed teases the reader with a variety of possible solutions to the crime wave, including a supernatural explanation, before the final reveal, which I thought was excellent. What brought The Guardian Stones down from 4 to 3.5 stars was its slow beginning, which might well have discouraged a less determined reader. I'm glad my persistence paid off in the end. I received a free copy of The Guardian Stones through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.