Authors: Joan Dahr Lambert
WADING INTO MURDER
(or Babes in the Baths)
THE LAURA MORLAND
JOAN DAHR LAMBERT©
The dark-clothed figure scurried through the gloom of the underground caverns. This was an ancient place, filled with the spirits of long-dead people. She could feel them all around her. Shivering, she clutched the bundle she carried closer against her chest and peered nervously into the shadows.
The key - the special key she had been given. Pulling it out with shaking fingers, she unlocked the rusted door. It creaked noisily and she jumped, almost dropping her burden. She glanced at it, her face softening with pity.
Now, down the stairs to the rocks on her left. That was where she must leave it. Someone would come quickly, she had been told. That was good. It was cold here, and damp.
Carefully, she settled the bundle into a shallow space between two protruding rocks. She frowned, reluctant now to leave. Would it be safe?
She must not linger. That too had been emphasized. On impulse, she lowered her body in prayer. Then she rose and hurried back the way she had come.
Laura strode triumphantly into the town of Bath, which marked the end of the Cotswold Way. She was exhausted and covered in mud, but euphoric. Finally, she had finished the long-distance walk that was interrupted last summer when she’d found a body and narrowly escaped being killed by a triple murderer. This time, there hadn’t been a criminal or a body anywhere along the way, other than one long-dead sheep, and the walking had been glorious.
Her landlady at the pristine, antique-filled Bed and Breakfast where Laura had booked a room was less enthusiastic. She took one look at her guest’s filthy boots and spattered pants, marched her to the back yard and sprayed her off with the hose. Then, grudgingly, she allowed Laura into her room.
Laura surveyed it with delighted approval. Luxury didn’t come her way often and when it did, she appreciated it with every fiber of her being. A fat duvet and billowy pillows decorated the wide bed, and the bathroom was positively glamorous. It had a modern shower, a huge old tub, and thick towels warmed by a heated rack. Laura filled the tub with steaming water, sank into it, and felt her soreness ease away. Toweling herself off, she sank down again, this time into the feather-soft bed.
The next morning, she awoke re-invigorated and ready for the sightseeing she had promised herself after the walk. She hurried down to breakfast, a feast of porridge, toast, eggs and bacon and a full teapot. There was also a newspaper with glaring headlines about an international gang of criminals who stole babies from immigrant neighborhoods in the U.K. Probably destined for the sex trade, Laura thought angrily, to satisfy the perverted tastes of men who could afford to indulge them.
She pushed the paper away. She had recently amassed an entire file cabinet of articles about the brutal treatment of women and children across the world for the course she would teach in Oxford after her vacation. Until then, she couldn’t bear to be reminded of horrors like the millions of girls enslaved in brothels. Forcing their plight from her mind, she poured another cup of tea and nibbled contentedly on a piece of well-buttered toast. Life didn’t get much better than this.
First on her sight-seeing list was the Roman Baths, an ancient bathing complex built by the Romans in 43AD. The doors weren’t open when she arrived, so she read brochures. The Baths had been built around natural hot springs that released a quarter of a million gallons of warm water a day, they told her.
A cleaning woman appeared, carrying a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other. Unlocking the entrance door, she scurried through. She seemed to be in a great hurry, since she either forgot or didn’t bother to lock the door behind her. Laura edged furtively toward the entrance. Should she go in? Ten minutes alone in the Baths before the tourist hordes arrived would be wonderful.
Unable to resist the temptation, Laura slid through the door and walked rapidly down the stairs into the cavernous underground chambers. No one seemed to notice her, so she relaxed and allowed her imagination free rein. Romans appeared like white-clad shadows all around her; she followed them dreamily through arched doorways into vast spaces filled with statues of Gods and Goddesses, and secretive chambers with moss covered ceilings so low she had to stoop. Waterfalls gurgled through rock-lined trenches that bore the water off to still more pools, some deeply incised into the rocks, others shallow enough so that children could play safely. Laura could almost hear their excited cries as they splashed into the water and the eager chatter of the mothers dunking the babies gently up and down…
One of the babies needed a wash badly, Laura thought, wrinkling her nose, and came abruptly back to the present. How odd! She really could smell a baby. Had odors been introduced to enrich the experience?
Impossible, she decided. No one would use the scent of a dirty diaper, which was what she smelled. It was a very distinctive odor. Still, she hadn’t been exposed to a messy diaper for quite a few years. Maybe the scent came from a dead animal, or even spoiled food.
Mystified, Laura followed the smell further into the underground labyrinth. Her footsteps resounded against the hard stone, and her eyes strained to see into the darkness. Apparently, the lights hadn’t been turned on yet. It was colder down here, too, and damp. The odor was stronger than ever. Wrinkling her nose, she turned to go back, but was startled into immobility by a muffled sneeze. It was followed by a faint snort and an aborted wail. Laura frowned. That really did sound like a baby.
Spotting a flight of stairs to a platform, she climbed up, hoping to see better from above. When she leaned over its high parapet, she discovered to her surprise that she was looking down at the hot springs that fed the whole complex. A pool enclosed the soft mass of bubbles at its center. The water was deep milky green, utterly opaque, making it impossible to see what lurked beneath the slowly swirling surface.
A ripple broke the stillness, as if some creature were swimming expertly across the pool. Laura shuddered. It could be a snake, or a rat.
Her eyes moved to the far side of the pool and fastened on a pale lump. Surely that couldn’t be the child she had heard. Or could it?
Pulling out the flashlight she had bought last summer when the lack of that indispensable object had caused her to be caught red-handed by a possible murderer, Laura shone it across the pool. Her eyes widened in dismay. The lump
a baby, almost hidden on a shallow ledge framed by two big rocks. Only its face was visible, sticking up above the blankets wrapped tightly around the rest of its body. How extraordinary!
The newspaper article about babies being stolen by a criminal organization popped into her mind. But why would anyone leave a baby here?
The child wriggled irritably. If it moved too much it would fall off the ledge and roll into the water, Laura thought anxiously, and it would sink like a stone with all that swaddling. But how was she to rescue it? The only way to get to it was to climb down the wall below her and wade across the pool. If it was too deep, she might even have to swim. Signs above had warned that the water was far from sanitary, and even the thought of climbing down that sheer wall made her dizzy.
She looked around for help but no one was visible. Where were the other tourists? Surely the doors must be open by now. And why hadn’t the lights been turned on?
Hope flared when she heard the sound of scurrying feet. Laura made out the figure of the cleaning woman, still carrying her bucket but now wearing a dark scarf over her head. Relieved, she called out for help. To her astonishment, the woman gasped in fright and broke into a run, almost tripping over her voluminous robes in her haste to get away. She hadn’t been dressed like that before, Laura thought, confused, but then she forgot the puzzle as the baby uttered bleating sounds of distress.
Scrambling down from the platform, she sprinted to the large double doors that led to the upper levels of the Baths. Surely she could find someone who would help her up there. A crumpled piece of paper on the stone floor caught her attention. Stuffing it into her pocket, she pulled at the doors.
To her alarm, they were locked. They hadn’t been locked when she’d come in. Frantic now, she pounded. No response came, not even an answering shout. Where
She could hear the baby, though, even from up here. Laura ran back to check on it. The pathetic little bleats had turned into full-throated howls of frustration. More ominously, the child was thrashing about to the best of its limited ability, considering the constricting blankets. Laura gulped. Another inch and it would fall into the pool, and then she might have to dive for it. She’d better get to it quickly.
Clambering onto the parapet, she flung one leg over, then the other and balanced precariously on a narrow ledge at the top of the wall. She looked down for footholds and saw none. Vertigo struck immediately. Laura stared fixedly at the wall until the world stopped whirling. Her eyes focused on a rusty iron ring embedded in the rock. Inch by inch she pulled off her jacket and thrust it through the ring, letting the sleeves dangle. Holding onto them with all her strength, she lowered her swaying body.
The baby was yelling lustily. Laura forced herself to look down again. Only a few more feet. Closing her eyes, she plunged into the murky depths of the pool.
The water was horribly slimy. Probably it hadn’t been cleaned since Roman times, Laura realized, appalled. Centuries of grime and pathogens were slurping all around her, even into her face.
At least it wasn’t over her head. She should be able to wade across instead of swim. That was a blessing. And then it was over her head. Her feet lost their tenuous purchase on the slippery stones and she floundered helplessly, too terrified by the thought of getting the noxious liquid in her mouth to force herself to swim properly. Was she fated to drown in this ghastly place?
A dark shape slid past her. Laura jerked away, paddling wildly. Chin held high, arms flailing, she thrashed ahead.
An overhanging rock on the far side hit her shoulder. She clutched it with both hands, and levered her body onto it. Shivering uncontrollably in the cool air, she crawled toward the baby.
Perversely, it had stopped wailing, and its eyes were open. Laura flicked on her flashlight, which had survived the damp crossing thanks to a waterproof case, and stared in mounting astonishment. She had seen this baby before, in the airport while she had waited for her flight from New York to London. There was no mistaking the dark skin, turquoise eyes and pale hair. It had a twin, too, Laura remembered, which had made it even more noticeable.
Her mind recreated the scene. A dark-eyed woman in a head scarf, presumably the baby’s mother, had been feeding another infant of exactly the same size as the first. But like the mother, the second baby had dark hair and eyes. Entertaining both of them with a graceful little dance was a girl with the same unusual coloring as the first baby, probably a sister. Her features had struck Laura forcibly because she looked so much like the green-eyed Afghan girl who had once been featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine.
Curious, Laura had sought the source of the vivid coloring and had spotted the father sitting nearby. He too had greenish eyes, light hair and dark skin, but on him it looked sallow and unattractive. She had found him irritating, she recalled, because he had made no move to help with the increasingly restless babies, nor had he bothered to lower his voice during a long and noisy conversation on his cell phone with a bossy-sounding woman. Something about meetings and dropping off materials.
The pale-haired baby she was trying to rescue screwed up its face and let out a screeching yell, bringing Laura rudely back to the present. The noise racketed around the deserted underground space. Pulling the child into her arms, she rocked it gently and wished she had an extra hand to pinch her nose closed. The poor little creature really did smell.
Its screams subsided and it began to root around near her chest with pursed lips. The small effort seemed too much for it. With a sad little hiccup it closed its eyes and slept again. Laura frowned. For a baby to fall asleep so suddenly was odd, especially when it had a filthy diaper. Most babies just kept on screaming until they were changed. Hers had.
A possible answer surfaced. Could it be drugged? The idea made horrible sense. Anyone who had hidden a stolen child in the Baths would want to keep it quiet.
A worse thought followed. How was she to get the baby out? Swimming across the pool and climbing up a wall with a wriggling infant in her arms would be impossible. There must be another way to get out of this place.
Laura splayed her flashlight around and spotted a rusty metal door she hadn’t been able to see from above. Setting the child down carefully, she yanked and pried at it, but the door wouldn’t budge.
A sharp tapping sound made her whirl. She stared in astonishment. An elderly woman was leaning precariously over the parapet and rapping a huge umbrella briskly against the rocks. A feathered hat was perched rakishly on her gray hair. Beside her stood a tall, narrow shouldered youth whose eyes were raised to the heavens, whether in despair or invocation, Laura couldn’t be sure.
“You seem in rather a dilemma,” the woman said in a conversational tone. The comment echoed hollowly in the cavernous space.
“Ah – yes, I guess I am.” Laura admitted. The baby opened its mouth to scream and she hastily picked it up again.
“Well, you either are or you are not,” the woman answered. “Do not equivocate. Just tell us exactly what the dilemma is and William and I will try to help.”
The youth’s head snapped down, and he looked at the older woman in horror. The idea of dealing with a baby clearly didn’t please him. Laura suppressed a laugh. He would like it even less once he knew that a stinking diaper was involved.
Endeavoring to be succinct, she described the situation. “The door over there is locked,” she said, pointing to it, “and I can’t swim back with the child, or climb the wall. Perhaps you could find help.”
She was quickly disillusioned. “There is no one to find. We are the only ones here,” the gray-haired lady told her placidly. “William and I prefer an atmosphere that is untrammeled by crowds, so we always slip in early.”
Laura’s interest quickened. A woman after her own heart!
“We cannot go out to find help, either, since the doors are still locked,” the woman continued in the same imperturbable tone. “Therefore, we shall have to resolve the problem ourselves.” Tipping her head to one side, she considered the pool, Laura, the child, and William, whom Laura suspected was her grandson.
“Do you know why the doors are locked?” Laura asked. “I thought the Baths opened at nine, and it’s long past that.”
“Bomb scare,” the youth answered nonchalantly.
“A bomb scare?” Laura was appalled. If a bomb went off down here they would be reduced to dust – if they were lucky.
As if to prove her words, the sound of a loud explosion suddenly permeated the cavernous building. Terrified, Laura tightened her grip on the baby and crouched down, waiting for the walls to crumble.