THE COTTAGE IN THE WOODS • by Sarah Hilary

At the police station, the first thing we did was call in a cluster of experts. That’s by-the-book.

The psychologist said, “Test case. Extraordinary. Unheard of.”

“Appalling,” was the dentist’s verdict. “The most horrendous neglect.”

The doctor sided with the dentist.

My boss, DI Turnball, put me in charge. “WPC Kelly’s got wet wipes, and she’s not afraid to use them.” He winked at me, but he was a shade away from puke-green.

Turnball’s a desk jockey, not what you’d call a real copper. He hates getting his hands dirty: “That’s why I have you, WPC Kelly.” He’d like to say, “Mess is women’s work,” but he’s scared of the tribunal.

This case? Was his worst nightmare.

“Come on, kids,” I pleaded. “Give the walls a break. Spongebob’s on the telly and I’ve a couple of bananas going begging.”

The two kids, a boy and a girl, were shrieking themselves sick. Racing from one side of the interview room to the other, diving under and over the table as they went. Tumbling and scrabbling, pulling faces and hair, snapping teeth at any ankle daft enough to come within range.

“Social dysfunction,” said the psychologist. “The lack of parental input, the isolation from behaviour-forming norms — ”

“Rotted right down to the gums.” The dentist shook her head. “Worst decay I’ve ever seen.”

“They gave DI Turnball a nasty nip,” I said, watching the kids’ antics through the glass window in the door. “Little buggers.”

“This is what happens when society breaks down.” The psychologist made complacent notes, scritch-scratch in his pad. “They’re exhibiting feral patterns of behaviour.”

“They’re peeing on the floor.” I shouted down the corridor: “We’re going to need a bucket and mop in here!”

“You say they bit a colleague?” The dentist looked dubious.

“To the bone.”

“It’s the sugar,” the doctor said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Not a question of how much sugar’s in their blood, more how much blood is in the sugar. I shouldn’t be surprised if the incontinence is linked to diabetes.”

“They ate a house.” I consulted my notes. “Roof tiles, chimney pots, the lot.”

“It was a cottage,” the psychologist corrected. “I feel it’s important we make that distinction. House implies permanency, structure. This was little more than a shack in the woods.”

“They ate roof tiles?” The dentist boggled.

“Made of gingerbread, with icing scallops.” I demonstrated the wavy lines with my pen. “Barley sugar for joists, liquorice lintels. No wonder they’re a bit giddy.”

In the room, the kids were slithering about in the mess they’d made, whooping, walloping the walls with their fists.

“There was something else in the blood.” The doctor sounded uneasy. “Protein. Rather a lot of it. And the calcium levels were off the chart.”

That would be the bones, I thought.

I wasn’t about to say it in front of the experts, especially not the psychologist, pompous sod, but they’d found half a skeleton in the cottage fireplace.

Female. Elderly. The kids had cooked and eaten her, as far as forensics could tell. Well, what kind of woman kept children locked up in her house like that? Old witch. I felt sorrier for the kiddies. Besides which, they’d bitten my boss on his arse. I smiled at them through the glass window. “Soon as they come down from the sugar high, we’ll see what they’ve got to say.”

“A terrible business,” the dentist said, shaking her head all over again.

“Grim,” I agreed.


Sarah Hilary is an award-winning short story author. Her fiction is published in Smokelong Quarterly, the Fish Anthology, and by the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA). In 2010 she was shortlisted and Highly Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin contest. In 2011, she received an Honourable Mention in the Tom-Gallon Trust Award. Her debut novel attracted the attention of literary agent Jane Gregory, who signed Sarah as a client in 2010. Sarah blogs at sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com.


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