Despite the warmth of the day and the cloudless blue sky overhead, that blood-curdling scream chilled me to the bone.
I was strolling through shaded woodlands and country meadows full of the most gorgeous wild flowers – poppies, bugle, daisies, scabei, dog roses, ladies' slipper – enjoying the gentle scents and the buzzing of honey bees, the busy, colourful butterflies and iridescent dragonflies, when the peace of the morning was split by a shrill, terrifying scream. Had it been night time I would have suspected a ghost, even though I don't believe in them. Not really. Not in day time, anyway. Ghosts only emerge after dark. Don't they?
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and my fingertips tingled as adrenaline coursed through my body. Fight or flight? I crouched involuntarily, as though to keep at bay the evil depicted by that unnerving scream. But I was curious. I'm Jane – Jane Parker – known to all and sundry as Nosey Parker, so obviously I was determined to do what I could for that tortured victim. Or at least, to find him or her.
At a light lope, I turned in what I thought was the direction of the scream. Leaving the woodland path I found myself alongside a high brick wall, stretching for miles, enclosing a country estate. As I inched towards large, wrought iron gates, I heard the scream again. Slightly lower pitched this time, it lasted a moment or two longer but was just as chilling. I wondered whether it ended in a sob. My heart began to thump against my chest.
A child being tortured or kidnapped? An adult in pain?
As I glanced up at the forbidding gates to ascertain whether I could access the grounds that way, I was assailed by horrible, high-pitched yapping. Just my luck! A couple of Yorkshire terriers informing the whole world of my presence. You might have thought a place this size would have German Shepherds patrolling, but no, all they needed were these noisy mutts.
Yes, you may look cute with your tails wagging fit to bust, but I know what you'd do, given half a chance. You'd be nipping at my heels and sinking your sharp little teeth into my calf the minute you were out of that gate. Dream on, dogs! I'm not coming in that way.
Anyway, the gates were far too high to scale, and had electronic wizardry together with a very unwelcoming 'keep out' notice. I stood for a moment gazing through the gates, up the curving drive towards the house. Well, mansion really. One of those large, modern, red brick affairs pretending to be a manor in extensive grounds, its façade pretentiously embroidered by white stone columns, matching the white stone lions on pillars which guarded the gates.
I stood for only a moment, while the terriers wound themselves into a frenzy of anticipation, then I slunk away, creeping along the wall, hoping to put the dogs off the scent and to find another entry somewhere further round.
Eventually, by the time I'd put half a mile between me and the gates and the dogs had lost interest, the yapping gradually died away. But I could still hear the screeches, as piercing and disturbing and as mind-numbing as ever.
A little farther, and I came upon exactly what I'd been seeking. An old door set in the wall. I turned the handle and pushed, but either it was locked or it hadn't been opened for years. Probably the latter, by the state of the ivy encrusting it.
There was no help for it. I put my shoulder against the door and shoved. It gave a millimetre, but I was encouraged. I crashed into it with my shoulder again and again, until it suddenly realised I meant business, and gave way, hanging drunkenly on its hinges. My arm was hanging drunkenly too, but what the heck! I was in. Now all I had to do was locate the source of that terrible searing cry, and ring the police. Not necessarily in the order, since I admit to an unmistakeable yellow streak.
I pushed my way through waist-high nettles, cursing my sleeveless top and open sandals but gritting my teeth against the stings. I thrust aside brambles which tore at clothes and my exposed skin and staggered through thorny undergrowth which felt as thick and unforgiving as Sleeping Beauty's enchanted forest.
At last I emerged onto the edge of the manicured lawn and flower beds, facing the patio to the rear of the mansion house. And there I saw them.
Two colourful peacocks proudly strutting their stuff and loudly announcing their beauty as only peacocks can.