Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7 – a sneak peek

They peered in at the doorway of the newly-built house. Ahead of them, the space that would eventually become a narrow hallway was dark.

‘Even if this house was finished,’ Ellie said, ‘I don’t think I’d want to live here. You can tell it will still be gloomy. It’s so small and dark.’

‘I was just thinking the s…’ Dottie’s words faltered. She pointed to the top right corner of the door frame.

A minuscule green wiggly body was meandering along the unvarnished wood. Four inches away was another. And another…there were more on the walls and the floor just inside. With her eyes adjusting to the darkness, Dottie began to make out more and more caterpillars in various shades of white, brown, cream and green. Ellie took a step back.

With a shudder, Dottie said, ‘It might just be a coincidence, but somehow, I think this is the right place. Shall we move these dustbins?’

They gripped the top bin and with a great deal of wrenching and clanging, managed to pull it free, lift it out of the doorway and set it down on the path behind them. The bottom bin was easily removed.

‘My gloves are ruined,’ Ellie groaned, holding out her palms to show Dottie.

‘Mine too. But I’m glad I’ve got them on. I don’t think I want to touch anything in this place with my bare hands.’ She sniffed experimentally. ‘Oh pooh, they smell awful! Now I’m doubly glad I have them on!’

‘Shall we go in?’ Ellie looked and sounded highly reluctant.

Dottie nodded. Together they stepped over the threshold, careful to watch where they put their feet. There was a strong musty smell in the place. At first Dottie assumed it came from the bins. But the deeper they went into the house, the stronger the smell seemed to become. She began to feel a deep sense of foreboding.

They were faced with three interior doors, all closed, one on either side and one straight ahead. On their far right was the rise of the staircase, its treads dusty and bare, the banister unpainted.

Dottie gripped the handle of the door on her left, and with a raise of her eyebrows and exchanging a worried look with Ellie, she turned the handle and opened the door inwards. They were greeted by cooler air from the dark room fanning their faces. There was a sense of yawning space in front of them, but they didn’t move until their eyes once more became accustomed to the lack of light.

The bare room in front had a stone floor that echoed with their tentative steps. The room ran the full length of the house and was presumably intended as a living room. At either end there was a gap where a large window would be, the gaps currently covered by roughly nailed wooden boards. The room’s only furniture was a couple of wooden crates in the centre, surrounded by cigarette butts and a yellowed newspaper. At the far end of the room, on the right, was another closed wooden door.

‘That’ll probably lead to the kitchen,’ Ellie said. Dottie agreed. They crossed the room and turned the handle. The door opened as expected into what would eventually become a small kitchen. A stone sink was already in place, but nothing else. There were four doors in the tiny room, which Dottie felt would make the fitting out of the kitchen with cupboards and a table and so on very problematic. There was the door they’d just opened, of course, and one on the immediate right which presumably opened on the hall where they’d just come into the house. There was a door opposite on the back wall of the house that logically would be most likely to lead outside, and then there was a fourth door between this one and the one to the hall.

‘This is ridiculous,’ Ellie said. ‘A door on every wall, and the room too small for a kitchen in the middle. Where are you supposed to prepare food or eat a meal? Obviously designed by a man.’

Dottie was murmuring agreement even as she crossed the tiny space to open the fourth door. The space ahead was even darker than the kitchen and she could see nothing. But her senses were assaulted by the stench: hot, damp and musty, cloyingly sweet yet repulsive, sticking to the back of her nose and throat and making her gag. Her brain was sending out a warning signal but she had already taken a step forward, her shoe sliding on something sticky.

She placed her handkerchief over her mouth and nose, waiting once again for her stomach to settle and for her eyes to be capable of distinguishing something.

Ellie, right behind her, gave a yelp and leapt back.

Now Dottie could see the dark form of the body on the floor. She saw the heel of a woman’s old-fashioned button-up boots. Then the hem of a coat made from some old black cloth. To Dottie’s left lay an object that she now realised was a black hat, not very clean, and with some strange pattern upon one side of the brim.

‘Dottie, sorry but I’ve got to go outside, I’m going to be sick!’ And Ellie was gone. Dottie was still nodding absently as she heard the poor girl retching in the front garden.

But all Dottie’s thoughts were concentrated on that odd pattern on the brim of the hat. Surely it was a trick of the light, but the pattern seemed to be…crawling…moving… It was as if the little dots and dashes on the cloth were alive somehow, coming together then moving apart…

Suddenly her mind made sense of what she was looking at—and now she saw them everywhere, in their hundreds—on her sleeve, on the floor, on her shoes, on the walls, the door, the door frame, creeping, creeping along the woman’s coat, walking across her face, her eyes unblinking beneath the tiny feet and sticky pads.

Maggots. Caterpillars. Beetles. Flies. Worms. Earwigs. Hurrying. Scurrying. Buzzing. Creeping. Scuttling and scratching. Tiny bodies scrambling over one another and everything in their path. Thousands upon thousands of them. Everywhere.