The boy and the girl, ignoring the fading daylight and their curfew, sat on the top of a broken fence taking it in turns to flick pebbles at the panes of glass still intact inside their window frames. The house where the glass resided bore a “condemned” notice on the large metal security slab blocking the front door, generously provided by the local council. Not that it prevented the adventurous, the drunk or the indifferent from gaining entry. There is more than one way to skin a cat after all, and the same applies to the act of breaking-and-entering.
The house had stood empty for as long as the children were alive. The cracked archway above the main entrance had the year “1836” carved into the masonry, the year before Victoria’s coronation, and the Gothic revival façade of the overall brickwork was seen as quite exotic to the local children. Other than the year and address - number fifty-one, Aleister Lane - nothing else was really known about it, other than they had been warned repeatedly not to play anywhere near it.
This day, however, the two friends were more concerned with point scoring than the distant history of a forgotten home they were forbidden from entering. Disobeying their parent’s wishes added spice to the game.
Jamie, the older and dourer looking of the duo, had just hurled his latest shot – which ricocheted off of the roof slates and clattered into a neighbouring back garden – when Tilda, his younger and more precocious friend, raised herself from her sitting position and stood vigilant on top of their perch.
“What’s up with you?” said Jamie, half-heartedly lobbing another stone.
“You didn’t hear that?” said Tilda, scanning the streets with nervous energy. Jamie scoffed.
“You’re always hearing things. This is getting really bloody old now. I don’t know why I hang out with you.” Tilda wouldn’t be persuaded.
“No, honest. This is real this time… there it is again! You must have heard that!” Jamie did. Scrunching his forehead, he leapt off of the fence, landing underneath Tilda’s position. They waited.
Tilda nearly lost her balance when the noise appeared again, this time much closer. And much louder. Jamie tensed up, his hands balled up into fists, his body prepared to either run or stand its ground.
Tilda dismounted the fence in a single feline bound, landing in front of Jaime. She had no intention of fleeing, approaching the house instead. The windows were sealed air-tight behind sheets of chipboard and use of the front door was out of the question. Whatever she heard had to be trapped inside the boarded-up property.
They must have heard another sound, for Jamie called out to her in an angry whisper when he saw his companion move.
“I need to know what it is,” Tilda said calmly.
“The hell you do!” Jaime spat through gritted teeth. Now would have been the operative time to move and stop her from investigating, but he had already taken a step back in fright. He felt certain that the coiled wire in his stomach would make him vomit. Tilda, unaware of Jaime’s intense desire to escape, carried on walking. She had almost reached the stoop of the front door. Jamie fidgeted on the spot, tears starting to pool beneath his eyes.
He opened his mouth to call out. It happened again.
That sound. It was so deafening this time that neither of the children could be sure where it came from. Tilda fainted. Jaime, having cowered into a ball in the dirt, lurched forward when he saw his friend plummet to the gravel, his hands still bracing either side of his head.
The girl lay on her side, splayed out in the manner of a sleeping dog. She could barely raise her arms, and when she tried to speak, she could only manage a low, faint groan.
“You’re hurt Tilda, don’t move,” ordered Jaime as he crouched over her, “stay still and-and I’ll go get help.”
The footprints left behind suggest that he ran (from genuine concern or cowardice cannot be speculated). What is definitively understood is that the rubble-strewn yard of number fifty-one was the last time that either Tilda Reeves or Jaime Fincher would ever be seen again.
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to assume that, when either child failed to return home as the hours passed into the early hours of the next morning, that their respective parents took to the streets to find them. Mrs. Reeves, being a single mother, gladly accepted the assistance of Mrs. Fincher to search for Tilda, whilst Mr. Fincher carried on the search for his son alone.
Doors were rapped, alleyways were combed, gangs of teenagers were accosted and just about every sympathetic volunteer that could be found joined the search. A week had elapsed by this stage. The original one mile radius was extended to five, though surely two small children (the eldest had only just turned eleven) could not have just skipped town, although – as one volunteer surreptitiously quipped to another – you could “never really put it past kids these days”. The police had even checked for records of any contactless payments made on all public transport links at the time of the vanishing on the slight chance that, perhaps, one of the children had had access to a parent’s debit/credit card. It need not be said that these lines of enquiry turned up empty.
The search ended when a “person of interest” was brought in for questioning by the local constabulary. At the time, a name could not be revealed, only that it was a man in his late forties to early fifties, but hindsight can finally identify the man as Henry Richmond, a vagrant who was known to the police and had been in trouble with the law on several occasions, mostly for public drunkenness. But what was most pertinent was that Mr. Richmond had been booked twice for trespassing. The first time had been for camping on private land owned by Cross River Primary Academy. The second arrest had been for squatting inside a derelict residence, again privately owned, that he frequented in order to consume his drink in private. The address of this property was, of course, fifty one Aleister Lane.
But this line of enquiry sadly turned up nothing. The police, updating the parents of the case, explained that Mr. Richmond had been released having satisfied their questioning, but that he had been given a caution for “wasting police time”. The chief inspector explained as much to the understandably anxious parents:
“The man’s witness statement owes more to the DTs than reality I’m afraid. He claims that, on the evening that Jamie and Tilda disappeared, he spotted the two of them playing on top of the wooden fence, the one that runs across the front of the house. Apparently, he was in the middle of another drinking session (God knows what he was drinking - he smelt worse than a chemical toilet at Glastonbury!) and was hoping to consume his fix in private inside the house.”
“As it turns out, the house has a cellar, and the window can be pried open with enough force to allow someone to crawl though, and this is where he was hoping to gain access.”
The parents naturally raised the possibility of the suspect somehow being involved with the children’s disappearance.
“That was our first line of questioning but, sadly, it doesn’t seem likely. There were no signs of forced entry into the property, save for the cellar window. That part of Mr. Richmond’s testimony holds true; the cellar window was tampered with, but it seems the job was never completed. The culprit stopped short – perhaps they were interrupted or simply gave up - ruling out the possibility that anyone entered the house that day. It’s what he went on to claim next that discredits him as a witness, I’m afraid.”
“He says that the children were playing a game when their attention was caught by something. Well, that’s the thing Mr. Fincher, he says he couldn’t see what it was as he was busy trying to pry open the cellar window. Granted, from that vantage point, you can only see the fence where the children were playing, and the front of the building is obscured by the edge of the house. It’s this cobblers about a strange, loud noise that I can’t get my head around.”
“He’s convinced that he could hear the sound of something laughing.”
“You heard me right Mr. Fincher, laughing. Like some lunatic giggling to himself in the corner of a padded room. He says the little girl fell down in shock, the cackling was so loud, and that’s why the imprint of her body was found in the dirt. He says that this… eh… “laughing” was so sinister that he abandoned the window and ran for it. Even if I was inclined to take this seriously, it doesn’t account for how someone could have gotten inside the house, which we already established was never entered, nor the drag marks that we found.”
It was this particular detail, as evidenced by the mountains of vlogs and online articles produced by armchair detectives, that continues to divide opinion. Deep etchings made in the soil close to the footprints and the impression of the girl were noted by investigators but dismissed as inconclusive, as it could not be ascertained what made them, whether they lead to or from the house, and if they had been made at the time of the children’s disappearance.
The online sleuthing community fixated on this clue with (it needs to be said) salacious interest. Some were adamant that the children must have been attacked and forced into the house, the dragging of their heels therefore creating the markings, and that there must have been another way inside and that the police had failed to conduct a proper search of the premises. Others discount the markings entirely, claiming that the children ran away, citing everything from tedium to broken homes as motives. The more insensitive crackpots insist on foul play at the hands of the parents, with most of their ire repugnantly directed at the lonely figure of Mrs. Reeves. On that particular accusation, exactly why being a single parent constituted a disruptive home environment was, curiously, never really explained.
It has been previously mentioned that there were no further sightings of either child. That is to say, none that have been confirmed…
At this point, it had been two years to the day that Tilda and Jaime vanished. The mainstream news outlets had mostly lost interest, as is often the case when there are no more significant developments in an ongoing investigation. As for the general public, conspiracy theories and online memes milked the last few drops of vicarious entertainment before fizzling out indefinitely.
Needless to say, Mrs. Reeves and the Finchers had wandered in the limbo of unanswered questions and unresolved fates all this time. The two families had not been in regular contact for much of the intervening years. Mrs. Reeves had all but retreated from public life, and her home always looked deserted from the outside. The blinds were constantly drawn. There were never visitors parked in the driveway. Rarely would she ever be seen leaving her front door and, should she ever venture outside, her head was always hidden behind the fur-lined hood of her coat, bowed down away from prying eyes.
Imagine the sudden public furore when the same lowly figure was seen printed on the pages of several national papers. One of the more provocative headlines that I recall blared out something to the effect of “SINGLE MOTHER BITES BACK AT HEARTLESS PRANKSTERS: MOTHER OF MISSING CHILD “DEVASTATED AND APPALLED”.
Mrs. Reeves had, for some time, been conducting inquiries of her own into her daughter’s disappearance. Part of this research involved revisiting the scene of the crime, having been granted permission by the private owner of the house (who wished to remain incognito) and, with cooperation from local authorities, arranged to search the inside. The local constabulary sent a number of community support officers to assist, though this seems to have been done for the purposes of avoiding negative PR rather than a genuine belief that the search would uncover anything.
To cut to the quick, the party came away empty handed. The house was bare, having been emptied long ago of all furniture. The Victorian wainscoting and grand mahogany doors were thoroughly coated in the dust of centuries. The cellar was even more disappointing. Whatever its purpose had been when the building was in its prime had been lost to antiquity. Its current condition was one of damp and rot, the naked brickwork revolting to the touch, and the dim light from outside that filtered in through the thin window only made the cloistered hovel more oppressive. Aside from a small gathering of pebbles that lay in a corner, there was nothing to be gleaned and a mournful, worn out Mrs. Reeves was escorted home whilst the security slab was repositioned in the doorway, once again sealing off the decrepit hallways inside.
That should have been the end of it; a heartbroken mother desperately searching for an answer to the question of her child’s absence, only to come up short and end up back in the endless fog of despair, perhaps even more jaded than before. Except that the day wasn’t quite finished yet.
Later that night, as Mrs. Reeves retired early to bed, drained from the failure of the day, she thought that she heard the voice of a woman, laughing maniacally. This could have been the whisperings of a nightmare – Mrs. Reeves had fallen into a deep slumber by this point – but the sharpness and inhuman pitch of the laugh caused her to sit up in bed. The bedroom was in darkness, but the faint orange glow of a streetlamp bleeding in from behind the curtains was enough to convince Mrs. Reeve that there was no one there. Just to be certain, she paused for a moment.
As she was about to settle down again, something struck the side of her head. The pain was acute enough to cause Mrs. Reeves to involuntarily cry out in pain and, raising her hand to her temple, she could feel the tell-tale wetness of blood from a freshly opened wound. This shock was followed by another guttural laugh, like the croaked bellows of a heavy smoker, erupting from the matted blackness at the foot of the bed. The silhouette of a hunched figure, possibly with its head covered by a shawl, flitted towards the door of the bedroom. Mrs. Reeves, riding on the crest of panic and anger, threw herself towards the light switch.
The bedroom proved to be empty, with the door still locked from the inside. The culprit had somehow managed to slip in and out of a locked room without any sign of force or tampering with the lock. They did, however, leave behind a set of muddy footprints that had dried into the carpet, possibly from a woman’s shoe. Lying nearby was the projectile that the assailant had thrown at Mrs. Reeves; a small, round pebble. Instinctively, she pulled aside the curtains and, scanning the street below, spotted a long trail of similar footprints leading away from her front door and down the length of the pavement. She knew immediately where they must lead but, instead of calling the police, she firmly decided to confront the intruder herself.
That is why, at nearly one o’ clock in the morning, Mrs. Reeves marched with purpose towards the house on Aleister Lane. It was later revealed that, aside from her torch, she had also thought to pack a bottle of lighter fluid and a butane candle lighter. Whether she would have gone through with burning to the ground the one constant reminder of her misery can only be conjectured. What she claims to have seen at the property no doubt changed her mind.
Upon arriving at her destination, Mrs. Reeves was a little startled to discover that the security seal had been removed and that the front door appeared to be open. Mrs. Reeves, acting under the assumption that this was all a hoax, stormed in with purpose, only to find the door shut instantly behind her. A quick struggle with the handle confirmed that it wouldn’t budge. It cannot be imagined as to what state Mrs. Reeves would have found herself in. Whether or not fear gripped her heart, she boldly searched the vacated rooms of the house, directing her spotlight over every wall and corner, even having the presence of mind to illuminate the inside of the chimney for any hidden prankster.
Satisfied that there was no one there, she made for the front hall to try the door once again, when an all-too familiar sniggering echoed from somewhere deep beneath the floor. It should come as no surprise that Mrs. Reeves made her way to the cellar to investigate. She had already descended the concrete steps a mere fourteen hours ago and yet, taking them one cautious step at a time in the darkness, they felt alien again.
Reaching the final step, the awful stench of dampness must have almost compelled her to turn back, but the madness of her current existence and the desire not to let another cruel, morally-bankrupt individual accuse her (in the most egregious way possible) of murdering her own child surely overrode any notions of retreating.
“Come on out and face me coward,” she reported yelling out. She then proceeded to shine her torch across the cellar floor. The light created stars in her vision as it bounced back off of something metallic and she twisted her head away from the glare. Blinking rapidly to regain her sight, she checked again.
Two immense steel vats of the type used to contain milk several centuries ago now occupied the middle of the room that had been empty earlier that morning. The iron will that was keeping Mrs. Reeves sane under such remorseless insanity assisted her in approaching the metal vats. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that they were missing their lids.
She raised her light up to take a look inside.
Her breath coiled in her throat when she saw, curled up into foetal positions, submerged in water with their eyes closed, their mouths wide open and impenetrably black, the bodies of a young girl and boy. The last of Mrs. Reeves’s courage abandoned her when the stark, gaunt face of an elderly woman with dead, black eyes and wearing a ragged bonnet emerged in the reflection of the water, howling mirthlessly with chipped, ochre-yellow teeth.
“I still can’t remember how I got out of that place, but I must have kicked the front door in to do it,” Mrs. Reeves is quoted remarking by some news sources. Regarding the possibility of the incident being an outlandish practical joke, no one has ever claimed responsibility and those that must have been involved (the children in the water, the old woman, etc.) have never come forward. The clean-up alone would have required the assistance of a militia, as the security seal was still attached to the entrance as it always has been, and the footprints that Mrs. Reeves’s tracked that night could not be found.
She moved away from Cross River shortly after this. The Finchers divorced around this time as well. Perhaps the news article regarding Mrs. Reeves’s frightening encounter finally pushed their marriage over the cliff edge that it was already teetering on, but who’s to say.
Incidentally, a short while ago the house at Aleister Lane finally did burn to the ground, the causes of which have yet remained undetermined, but I’ve heard the word “arson” travel along the grapevine. What really matters is that, with renewed interest in the property, the huge question mark regarding its history may have been answered. I am, however, not convinced. The supposed research that has come to light is more likely to be a forgery or – yet again – another hoax.
I was tipped off by a thread on a web forum concerning a newspaper article, allegedly written circa 1896, that has (of course) only just surfaced. There is nothing about the PDF that couldn’t be fabricated quite frankly, but I must admit the sketch of the old woman in the docks succeeds in raising the hairs on the arms and neck, particularly the deep shadows on the face and the cold stare that the sketch artist has captured. For posterity, the main body of the text reads:
SLAYER OF INNOCENTS SENTENCED TO HANG
Cross River crown court took testimony today from defendant Madame Pommel on day two of the most sensational murder trial ever witnessed in Hertfordshire county. The defendant, who’s ragged complexion brought the ire of the jury, took the stand at 10 o’clock this morning and provided testimony over her involvement in the gruesome slaying of many infants, some as old as “newly born babes” according to the prosecution.
Police testimony, provided by Inspector Harmon of the Cross River Constabulary, recounted in grim detail how one Esme Pommel, and her son-in-law Jasper Whitmore, ran a baby farming operation located in the lodgings of the elder woman, in which it is understood the bastards of immoral females were – to the extent of their mother’s knowledge – cared for in service of a fee. At any one time, it is believed that up to eighty such children occupied the cellar of Mdme Pommel’s lodging house, located at fifty one Aleister Lane.
Descriptions of the children’s living conditions caused much outrage amongst Mdme Pommel’s peers in the jury. As is most unfortunately the truth of such places, children were unwashed and underfed, if food was provided at all, with the diseased and infirm denied medical assistance. Death is an inevitable reality for such wards, and the greater majority of the victims that have been excavated from the front yard of the establishment show signs of ill-nourishment and consumption.
Mdme Pommel recounted with undeserved cheeriness and with much raucous laughter that, in order to accommodate room for more of the unwanted, it was necessary to hasten the end of those who “no one would trouble themselves to find”. The expendable were either strangled with cord or - as was found by detectives in the cellar - drowned in vats of water and left there until such time as the corpses could be transported under the cover of darkness. For the more astute reader, they will no doubt balk in terror at the thought of the living children sleeping mere feet away from the bloated bodies of their friends.
Jasper Whitmore, who is to be charged separately, is expected to receive his papers for immediate transportation to Botany Bay. Pommel, receiving no leniency, was sentenced to the rope and now awaits transport to Newgate where sentence is to be carried out. When asked for final words, the demon-eyed nanny threw her head back and cackled in the most appalling manner, showing no concern for her own neck.
“May no child be safe whilst my memory still haunts you,” she shrieked as the court bailiffs escorted her to the police wagon outside.
Credit to the author for capturing the melodrama of the era, but it is a blatant fabrication. It has to be. Granted, I have not authenticated the source. I have no wish to. I have tried to write this account objectively, but I feel that I have now earned the right to express some of my own personal feelings now that I have ostensibly unburdened myself in the hope of finding answers.
I am convinced that whoever created this fictitious news article is also directly responsible for the trauma that Mrs. Reeves fell victim to. And to those responsible, if you are reading this, stop it. Back off. I can’t begin to comprehend what sort of game you are playing, tormenting the parents of missing children, but you will live to regret it. You should be ashamed.
However, if you are genuine and have read the entirety of this article, you may have spotted a young, tom-boyish girl and a skinny boy, tall for his age, matching the police descriptions of Tilda and Jaime, further details of which can be found on the Cross River Constabulary website.
If you are in possession of such knowledge, no matter how seemingly insignificant, please contact me directly at the email address: [email protected]
You may just be the one to bring them home.
About the author
In the words of Rod Serling; I never chose to write, I succumbed to it. I wrote my first story when I was nine for a school assignment and have never stopped. If you love the macabre, then consider my work submitted for your approval.