Morton Farrier was impressed. He had known that, when he was given an address on the exclusive Granville Road in St Margaret at Cliffe, he would find himself envious but the house outside of which he had just parked was nothing short of stunning. It was centred among a row of disparate and elite properties, the homes and second homes of the rich and fortunate. The village, perched high on the white cliffs of Kent between Deal and Dover, overlooked the invisible marine boundary of the English Channel and the North Sea and had, since Victorian times, attracted wealth and prosperity. Whatever the occupation of the house’s owner, he had to be earning a decent salary.
Morton stepped from his red and white Mini and took a good look at the house. Protected by black iron gates and a cherry-laurel hedge, the pristine white-walled and oak-window-framed property was dominated by a sumptuous three-storey panel of glass, set in a concave semi-circle.
Given the apparent luxury of the place, Morton was surprised to be able simply to pull open the gates and head up the drive unhindered by video entry systems or guard dogs. Pressing the doorbell, he waited as it chimed noisily inside. A few moments later, the blurred shadow of a figure moved towards the frosted glass. The door opened, revealing a tall, slender man with an affable, pleasant face. Wearing an expensive-looking shirt and dark trousers, the man smiled and offered his hand to Morton. His hair was stone-grey, thinned at the centre and deep lines were etched on his forehead and around the corners of his eyes; Morton guessed him to be in his mid-seventies.
‘Mr Mercer?’ Morton asked, shaking the proffered hand vigorously.
‘Ray,' he said warmly. 'You must be Morton Farrier? You look familiar from the newspapers a few months ago. Come on in.'
‘Thank you,’ he answered, preferring not to discuss a previous case which had made the national headlines after it had led to the downfall of a prominent aristocratic family, the sacking of an upcoming police chief and the imprisonment of a murderer. The upshot of that high profile case was that Morton was afforded the luxury of cherry-picking from prospective genealogical assignments. The intriguing email which had arrived in his inbox three days ago from Ray Mercer had piqued his interest sufficiently to warrant a meeting.
Morton followed Ray through an opulent hallway. Fractured light filtered in through the large, floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the marble flooring. The vast hallway fed an open staircase and a network of oak doors, some offering Morton revealing glimpses of the luxurious rooms within. Ray pulled open one of the doors, which led into a sizeable, rectangular room with one wall being made entirely of glass, offering a breathtaking view of the English Channel.
‘Wow!’ Morton said, heading towards the window. ‘Fantastic view.’ In the hazy distance the rugged cliffs of the Nord-Pas de Calais rose over the Channel, busy with giant white passenger ships coming and going between Dover and Calais.
Ray, arms folded contemplatively, joined Morton and stared out to the distant sea. ‘Not bad, is it? I came back here to retire a few years ago. I’ll never get bored with it—always something different or new to appreciate. When I was designing the house, I spent an age fussing over artwork for the walls. Then I realised that if I just had a decent window, Mother Nature would paint me a new picture every day and there would be no need for anything else.’
‘It certainly is lovely,’ Morton said, taking in the whole room. The three remaining walls were lined with bookshelves. Besides that, the room was minimalistic in its furnishing: a selection of silver-framed photographs stood on a desk in the centre of the room with two leather chairs neatly placed either side of the desk. A grand piano completed the room’s furniture.
Ray turned to Morton. ‘You can see why they called it Hellfire Corner around here during the last war, with France being so close.’
‘Didn’t the Nazishave guns stationed in northern France which could reach here?’
‘That’s right. I was born in a small cottage just down the road from here in 1935. My earliest memories are of war: searchlights over the Channel, guns banging, planes dog-fighting overhead, bombs landing nearby, Jerry pilots being frogmarched by the Home Guard past our house.’
‘Must have been scary for a young boy.’
‘Well, it was all boys’ adventure stuff at first. Then Hitler put the V1 rocket launchers just across the water and suddenly we were under the flight path of the dreaded doodlebugs. That was how my father died: a doodlebug was shot down by a well-meaning American fighter plane and it detonated right next door to our house. He was killed outright.’
‘How awful for you,’ Morton said.
‘Yes. My mother had taken me out for a walk along the beach down in St Margaret’s Bay that morning. The irony was that she had guessed what the American plane was about to do and pointed it out to me so that I could watch. The image of my mother’s face, as the blood drained from it and horror consumed her eyes, will stay with me forever. I knew, too, of course—I wasn’t silly. She sent me off to spend a few days with my granny in Winchelsea. She was my dad’s mum. Though she later had a short-lived marriage to the village doctor, he was illegitimate, hence me being a Mercer, like granny. Anyway, days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months; before I knew it I hadn’t seen my mother in several years. I later learned that she was incarcerated at the East Kent County Asylum in Chartham. It was in the days when mental health was something to keep hidden, to be ashamed of, so my grandmother thought it best not to tell me what had happened to her until after her death.’
Morton watched quietly as Ray brushed his eyes with his right index finger. ‘That must have been pretty tough on you,’ Morton said, carefully watching the old man.
Something seemed to click in Ray, catapulting him back to reality. He shrugged slightly. ‘Just one of those things, happened to lots of families out there. Still, the silver lining, for want of a better phrase, was that I became very close to my grandmother. I doted on her, and she on me.’
‘And it was her twin sister who disappeared?’ Morton asked. ‘The person you want me to try and find for you?’
‘Yes, that’s right, Mary Mercer.’ Turning from the window, Ray walked over to his desk, picked up a framed photograph and handed it to Morton. ‘That’s her on the right, with my granny, Edith.’
Morton held the cold silver frame and took in the picture. Seeing the real people behind the names and dates always brought his genealogical cases to life for him. The time-faded, sepia photo was of two girls, identical in height, around the age of fifteen. However, the similarity between the sisters ended there. Mary, dark hair parted in the centre with matching decorative bows to each side, rested her head on her sister and the pair jointly held some kind of a book. In Morton’s experience, it was usually a Bible. Both girls had plain, white dresses with simple buttons running down the middle. Edith had sharp, angular features and fiery eyes, giving her the look of someone with a formidable temperament. Mary, meanwhile, had a much softer, prettier face with warm eyes.
Ray shifted slightly. ‘That was the last picture of the two of them together. I did a bit of digging—it was taken at Pearson’s Photography Studio in Hastings in 1910. Look like chalk and cheese, don’t they?’
Morton nodded. ‘I wouldn’t ever have guessed them to be twins.’
‘Well, I’ve got the proof over there,’ Ray said with a smile, nodding his head towards the desk. ‘Come and sit down.’
The pair moved to the leather chairs. Morton opened his briefcase and took out a notepad and pen. Although he always took his laptop with him on such visits, he still preferred scribing notes the old-fashioned way then typing them up at home, fleshing out the detail with further research as he went.
‘Here,’ Ray said, handing Morton an A3 manila envelope.
Morton withdrew a large, carefully organised pile of papers and set them down in his lap. On the top of the pile was a General Register Office copy of Mary Mercer’s birth certificate. ‘Nineteenth of April, 1893, 4.16pm, Winchelsea, Sussex. Mary Kate. Girl. Daughter of Thomas Mercer and Katherine Mercer, formally Wraight. Father’s occupation—waggoner. Mark of Katherine Mercer, informant.’ Two pieces of information struck Morton as being of interest: first of all, that Katherine, like many countryside folk in the nineteenth-century, was illiterate and signed her name with a cross; secondly, that the precise time of birth had been noted on the certificate, which usually indicted multiple births so as to prove the order of delivery. Morton lifted the certificate and took a cursory glance at the next: Mary’s twin sister, Edith Jane Mercer, born nine minutes later. The rest of the certificate was identical.
‘So,’ Ray said. ‘There’s the proof that Mary was actually born onto this planet. You’ll see in that pile of documents that I found her living at home with her sisters, mum and dad in 1901, then I found her ten years later on the 1911 census, then she vanishes. Mary’s whole life whittled down to three official documents.’
Morton scribbled some notes on his pad. ‘No marriage or death certificates?’
Ray shook his head vehemently. ‘No. I’ve tried every combination you can think of. I actually started searching for her years ago, back in the days when you had to go to the Family Records Centre in Islington. I checked every quarter of every year—not a dicky bird. I tried emigration and passenger records but that came back with nothing either. I’ve tried every conceivable angle but she remains completely elusive.’
‘I don’t wish to be insensitive here, Ray, but have you considered the possibility that something untoward happened to her? Something which left no genealogical trace for me to follow?’ Morton said, carefully choosing his words.
‘Do you mean what if her death was covered up somehow? Like someone killed her? Or suicide?’ Ray asked, before addressing the question. ‘She was at my mother’s funeral in 1962, although I didn’t know it at the time.’
‘What do you mean?’ Morton asked, his interest piquing substantially.
‘Well, I’ll come to that. Let me start at the beginning, so you know everything.’ Ray took in a deep breath and looked to the ceiling, as if trying to extract long-buried memories. ‘I clearly remember the first time that Granny told me about her sister’s disappearance. I must have been about ten years old at the time and I was rummaging through Granny’s bedside drawer looking for something or other when I found a locket. The drawer was full of jewellery but something about this locket made me pick it out and look at it more closely. It was silver with a small stone set in the centre. Inside, was the photo of someone I didn’t recognise. Granny came in and lost her temper with me, snatched it away and sent me to my room. I remember being jolly upset by it all—I’d never seen her so angry before. A while later she came and found me, sat on my bed and I can still see her now, tears flooding down her face as she apologised for her outburst and told me that the picture in the locket was of her sister, Mary, whom she hadn’t seen for a very long time. Then she told me the same snippet that she would repeat over the course of her life until the day she died: Mary was at work as usual as a live-in, domestic servant and she left to go home for her half day’s leave. The people she worked for said she did her normal day’s work then left for home; but she never arrived. According to Granny, the whole village came out in force to look for her. The search began to peter out after a few days then it was stopped altogether when a letter was discovered that said she had run away. Apparently, the letter was postmarked in Scotland. The search was called off and Granny was left heartbroken. I mean, imagine your twin sister just vanishing like that. I don’t think she ever believed that letter to have been genuine.’
‘You mean it was forged?’ Morton asked.
‘No, it was definitely in her handwriting. I just don’t think Granny could believe her twin would write it.’
‘I don’t suppose you still have the letter?’
Ray shook his head. ‘No, sadly not. I don’t know where it went, but Granny didn’t have it.’
Morton wrote the word ‘Scotland’ then underlined it. ‘Is there any significance in running away to Scotland? I’m thinking Gretna Green, eloping with someone?’
‘Not that I was ever told, no. You’ll find among that stack a newspaper report in the Sussex Express about the search for Mary. There’s no mention of a companion. Anyway, that was the last time Mary was heard of until 1962—fifty-one years later. Granny was buried in St Thomas’s Church, Winchelsea with her parents. Most of the day was a blur for me and by the end of it I was entirely drained. All the mourners had gone and I just needed to be by myself, so I returned to her grave. There I was, reading all the condolence cards attached to the flowers, when I saw a simple single white rose, around which was wound an identical silver locket to the one Granny had, only this one contained a photo of Granny.’
Morton was hurriedly writing everything down. ‘Was there anything else with it, a note maybe?’
‘Yes, a small card which read ‘I hope you are at peace’.’
Morton nodded, not wishing to express his curiosity over the turn of phrase used. I hope you are at peace. It could be interpreted in several different ways.
‘She came back,’ Ray said quietly, before turning to his desk and pulling open a drawer. He held up two silver lockets and handed them to Morton. ‘And here they are.’
Morton took the pendants from Ray. Just as he said, they were identical, made of sterling silver with a precious stone set in the centre. Morton unclasped the first and saw a tiny photograph of Ray’s grandmother, Edith. Inside the other locket was a photograph which was unmistakably Mary Mercer. ‘May I take a photograph of them, please?’
‘By all means, go ahead.’
Morton set the lockets down side by side and took a digital photo of them.
‘I had the handwriting on the card analysed and compared with what I knew was her writing in an old book of hers I found. The graphologist I employed was pretty certain it was the same person: it was Mary Mercer, alive and well in Winchelsea in 1962. His report and copies of the two pieces of handwriting are in the pile for you.’
Morton looked down at his scribbled notes. The Mercer Case just got more interesting. ‘I’ll find her,’ Morton said, almost to himself, as he took a cursory glance through the rest of the paperwork. Ray had even included a typed list of all the negative searches he had made; he had certainly been meticulous in his research.
‘Will you?’ Ray said. He shook his head and exhaled. An almost imperceptible moistening of the old man’s eyes told Morton that finding his great aunt had become more than a hobby to him, more than a curious incident on a family tree; it had grown into something personal. ‘My dear granny meant so much to me, being more of a mother than my own in the end and the thought of how upset she would get talking about Mary will haunt me until the day she’s found. I know it sounds daft, but I just want to visit Granny’s grave and finally tell her what happened to her twin sister.’
‘I totally understand; I’d feel the same way,’ Morton told him with a reassuring smile. ‘Now, all these documents are great—thank you—but what I really need from you is anything that you know about Mary which doesn’t come from certificates, censuses and photos. What did your granny tell you about Mary?’ Anything at all: places she visited on holiday, relatives abroad, previous absconding, boyfriends, jobs…?’ Morton probed, knowing that the tiniest snippet of information could lead to a breakthrough.
Ray paused and stared out of the window. After several seconds had passed, he turned back towards Morton. ‘There’s really very little that I can think of. I know she worked at a large country mansion in Winchelsea as a housemaid, but that she wasn’t very good at the job. Like all siblings, they fell out and made up. I don’t know of any relatives abroad or other people she was close to. I doubt very much the family ever went on holiday—it just wasn’t done in those days. Granny would just repeat the same stories over and over until the day she died. She felt that she’d let Mary down. Even in the delirious throes of death, she was apologising to Mary for having let her go.’
Morton looked up from his notepad, curious by Ray’s turn of phrase. ‘Were those her exact words?’
‘Well, along those lines. Obviously I don’t remember precisely.’
Morton nodded. ‘What about Mary’s belongings? Do you know what happened to them after she disappeared?’
Ray shook his head sadly. ‘Sorry, I’m really not much help, am I? By the time I came along in 1935 she’d been gone for twenty-four years. Her parents were dead, so I assume everything was disposed of. I didn’t find anything of Mary’s other than a few books among Granny’s effects after she died. Sorry.’
‘It’s fine. Could I see the books, please?’ Morton asked.
‘They’re all together here—there’s only four of them,’ Ray said, reaching for a small stack of books in a nearby shelf. He handed them to Morton. ‘You can borrow them if you like. I’ve read them all cover-to-cover, just in case there was any kind of a secret message or hidden note. Alas not.’
‘Thank you,’ Morton replied, taking a quick look at the cover of the top book, entitled Four Sisters. ‘What about other family members? Did Mary and Edith have any other siblings?’
‘There was an older sister, Caroline. She married a soldier, called William Ransom; they lived in Bristol and had one child, a daughter called Rebecca.’ Ray walked sombrely back over to the window, something Morton could see he did with regularity. ‘Their side of the family have never been any help, though. Granny didn’t really keep in touch with them—I get the feeling there was a falling out or something a long way back. Not much hope of finding what happened to her, is there?’ he muttered.
‘Well, I’m willing to take the case on and give it a go,’ Morton said.
Ray turned, standing in a puddle of white sunlight. He smiled. ‘Don’t take too long about it. Not to put too fine a point on it but I’ve got stage four cancer of the pancreas.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ Morton said, realising just how much finding his lost aunt meant to Ray and how little time he had in which to find her: ‘I’ll do what I can for you.’
‘Thank you. Is there anything else you need from me?’
‘This is all a good start,’ Morton said, holding up the stack of papers. ‘I’ll get back to you if I need anything else.’ Morton reinserted the paperwork back into the manila folder, then packed away his briefcase. He stood, ventured towards the window and shook Ray’s hand.
‘Thank you, Morton,’ Ray said quietly. ‘I finally feel there’s a glimmer of hope at finding her.’ He briefly turned to the photograph of Mary and Edith. A snapshot of history when their family was intact.
Morton said goodbye and left the house. As he walked down the driveway towards his Mini, he began to lay the pieces of the puzzle out in his mind. Unlike the bog-standard genealogical cases that he used to undertake, whereby he would research the ancestral lines of a particular surname, this type of case intrigued and excited him. The fragmented Mercer Casejigsaw in his mind needed to be reassembled. Quickly. He didn’t know much about pancreatic cancer but he did know that stage four meant that Ray probably didn’t have long to live.
As Morton drove the forty-three miles back home, he began to consider his first steps in the case. The bottom line for him was that someone, somewhere had once known what had happened to Mary Mercer. His job was to find that person.