I shouldn't be doing this with two other stories on the go but I couldn't resist.
John Thornton sensed something was amiss as soon as he descended the steps from his home and crossed the mill yard. At first he couldn’t put his finger on what was unnerving him, but something was. He paused for a moment and looked around him. Nothing looked out of place and he would know. He was the Master of Marlborough Mill and knew it like the back of his hand.
At this hour of the morning the yard was dark and deserted; sometimes the moon bathed the towering buildings in an incandescent light, but today its welcome light was obscured behind dark scurrying clouds. The wind was lively this morning, rattling the doors of the mill and warehouses and cutting through the wool of his suit coat. It was an old one he used for work and he doubted it would see him through another winter, for it was thin and thread bare. He lost count of how many times his mother had darned and patched it, but soon it would be beyond repair. He blew into his hands as he walked, attempting to warm them just a little. The dawn had yet to break, so the temperature would stay below freezing for some time yet.
The sound of his shoes on the cobbles echoed round the empty yard, like the beat of a lone drum. He was halfway to the steps leading to the mill office, when a noise to his left caused him to pause and glance into the dark shadows along the mill walls. What had made the noise he wondered? A rat probably, scurrying amongst the wooden crates, that were stacked around the yard. The hair at the nap of his neck stood on end, and a shiver, which had nothing to do with the cold, washed over him. He turned sharply, unable to shake the feeling he was being watched. All around him were dark shadows, but none were moving; he stood listening, but he heard no further sound. It must be my imagination he thought puzzled, for it had been a long time since he had been scared of the dark.
He turned, intending to continue towards the mill office, when he saw it. The door to the building which held the raw cotton was slightly ajar. How could that be? The overseer would have made sure it was locked last evening, when the shift was finished, and it would be another hour before the man was back at the mill. He walked over to investigate and pulled the door open further.
Peering into the darkness, he called out.
“Is anybody there?”
The sound of footsteps moving inside was unmistakable now.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” he called, moving in to the dark interior of the building.
He continued slowly forward, hoping his eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. Bale upon bale of raw cotton, was piled all around making hiding easy. He cautiously moved around them, looking for the intruder. Why was anybody in here? There was nothing one man alone could steal. If they were in here, they were probably hiding, but, he wondered, why. Also it didn’t explain the door being open. Only he and the overseer had a key.
A voice rang out, making him start. He turned in a circle, trying to see where it was coming from. But it was just an echo in the darkness.
“I win Thornton, I told you I would.”
Suddenly he realised the man was by the door. He moved towards it, but he wasn’t quick enough. The man’s laughter rang in the air and he heard the door slam shut, followed by the lock being turned.
Why would anybody lock him in his own warehouse? It made no sense, in an hour the overseer would be here and he would be let out. He realised he should know the voice, but for the moment at least he couldn’t place it. He moved to sit on a cotton bale. There was nothing else he could do other than sit and wait for Williams to arrive and let him out.
He heard it first, that strange pop; so small and insignificant a sound and yet it struck terror in his heart, for he was certain he knew what it meant. A second later his fears were confirmed, as flames licked over a stake of bales in the corner. Fire, it was every mill owner’s nightmare. The raw cotton once alight would burn fast and furious. He moved toward it, removing his coat so he could use it to beat at the creeping flames. He had barely started when the tell-tale sounds of several other cotton bales igniting made him stop. This was what the man had wanted, to trap him in the building. The bales must have been smouldering for some time.