Lucy rinsed her hands under the tap and rubbed them dry on the worn old towel. Charlie had been asleep for an hour or more, so she had a little more time to herself. She picked up her trug and went out into the warm spring morning, tramping across the garden towards her precious vegetable beds. The cold weather had passed and spring was here proper. A warm sun shone across the fields, making the grass shine and the new leaves on the trees glitter. She picked a fine selection of vegetables. A nice thick vegetable soup for dinner tonight. Her husband had said it was possible he might not be home that night, and he definitely wouldn't have time to visit the butcher, so Lucy decided to make a juicy vegetable broth and some warm fresh bread.
She re-entered the kitchen and put the trug by the sink, drawing cool fresh water to wash the vegetables. She crooked an ear, but there was not a murmur from the parlour. Charlie slept on.
An hour later, all the vegetables were prepared, the bread was proving in the larder and Lucy decided it was time to make sure Charlie woke for his feed. She walked into the parlour.
'Little man?' she cooed. 'Lunch time!'
'Charlie?' she said louder walking over to the basket. 'Mummy's here!'
She pulled back the covers to discover Charlie was missing.
Ten minutes later, Lucy was still sitting where she had fallen onto the settle. She stared into space. She shook herself gently.
'Don't be daft' she admonished herself. 'Babies don't disappear.'
She searched the parlour thoroughly and then went upstairs. Charlie's little colourful nursery was empty and silent, but she searched it anyway. Then she went to their room. She turned the room upside down, beginning to fever in her search. She even looked under the bed, as if Charlie could magically spirit himself upstairs and under a bed.
She walked out of the house, calling loudly for her baby.
Silence greeted her. The animals were peaceful in their fields and there was not a soul for miles.
Charlie had gone.
Someone had taken Charlie.
Someone would pay.
Lucy walked stiffly into Smyth. It was a long hike from her little house, but she had determinedly walked without stopping. She entered the Town Square and decided to rest her feet in the pretty gardens. On one side was a large hotel, Jenkins Hotel, and across the way was a picturesque little road with a signpost that declared 'Church'. As she rubbed her sore feet, sitting on the warm grass amidst all the flowers, she decided to pay a visit to the church. After all, she reasoned, the church is the centre of a community.
Aware she was unknown in Smyth, she put her head down and took five minutes to gather her thoughts before struggling to her feet and setting off down the pretty little road that led to the church.
The pastor was dusting the plain altar as Lucy walked slowly into the church. He heard the light tiptap of her boots on the stone floor and turned to see who needed the Lord.
He saw a young blonde girl, skirts muddy and face smudged. Streaks of long-dried tears lay on her cheeks under her blue eyes and her hands were shaking. She looked more than her years, and staggered slightly as she walked towards him.
The pastor rushed over and gave the girl his arm. She leant on it, as though twenty times her age, and the pastor gently led her into the vestry.
As he brewed a cup of tea on his little stove he began to speak, in a gentle, rhythmic way, not demanding any answers.
'My name is Pastor Michael. Named for the saint, don't you know? Saint Michael was a fine chap, led the army of the Lord against Lucifer. I always feel my namesake had a much more productive religious life than I am managing.' He stirred the tea in the pot, still chattering. 'I have been here for three years now. Apart from births, deaths and marriages, this is one very self-sufficient community, faith-wise.'
He noticed she stiffened when he mentioned birth, death and marriages.
'So, my dear girl,' as he passed her a steaming mug of tea. 'What is your name?'
Lucy took the cup and the hot fumes seemed to revive her.
'My name is Lucy. Can you help me?'
The pastor settled himself on the bench next to her. He took the mug from her hand and gently took her cold hands in his. His eyes searched her face.
'Anything I can do, Lucy. The Lord and I are completely at your service.'
Lucy finally looked him in the face. Pastor Michael was a sturdy young priest with a homely square face, reliable looking. His thick hair curled on his collar and he had warm friendly eyes. His soft brown eyes seemed to look into Lucy's heart and she felt the warmth of his hands creep into her heart. She sensed intuitively that here was a man she could trust.
'My baby is gone.' She said simply. Pastor Michael looked horrified. At his gentle urging she told him the whole story.
'Where is your husband?' he asked
'Travelling today, Pastor. He said he might be away tonight. I don't know where he travels with his work.'
Pastor Michael felt a sinking sensation. This sounded like the Dennis family. Two babies in one town in the space of only a couple of months? Just disappearing off the face of the earth without a trace?
As if he conjured her up, there was a small tap at the door and Maisie Dennis put her head around.
'Pastor? Are you there?' she called. Seeing Michael was busy she stammered 'sorry, Pastor. I'll wait out here. I was just here about the flowers for Sunday.' With that she gently withdrew and quietly shut the door.
Pastor Michael opened the door and motioned quietly to Maisie.
'Maisie, come in here, child,' he said in a low voice. 'We need you. This is Lucy. Her baby has disappeared - just like Stephen.'
Maisie walked slowly into the vestry watching the young girl cautiously.
'Lucy, this is Maisie Dennis,' Michael introduced the girls. 'Her sister's baby disappeared too. You two should talk.'
'Your baby is gone too?' Maisie asked disbelievingly. 'My sister's baby vanished about six weeks ago.'
Lucy looked up at the new arrival. Maisie was tall and dark, as dark as Lucy herself was blonde. She had a friendly face and looked bright, although a cloud had passed across her complexion when Michael told her the news.
'Maisie?' asked Pastor Michael, sensing a helping hand. 'Can you take Lucy to get something to eat? Poor girl must be starved, and I must finish cleaning the church.'
Maisie agreed and she led the little blonde girl out of the quiet cool church into the warm spring day.
'So, we'll find the hotel and have something to eat,' she said, tucking Lucy's arm into the crook of her own and setting a strolling pace down the little road. 'And you can tell me all about it.'