Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirteen. Radley Court

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The Day Room in Caleybridge Hospital was a twilight affair of clinical leather and faded colours, which Karen, still shaken after her most recent encounter with the malevolent dark man, would scarcely notice.  She had allowed herself to be driven here by Paul Wheeler, whose girlfriend Gabrielle, Patrick’s sister, had explained the events of the morning.  Now, when the ward door opened and Patrick entered the room she had to restrain an urge to rush into his arms and beg forgiveness for all her negative thoughts.  He limped towards her gamely, the very image of walking wounded; his head bandaged and his left cheek yellowed by a developing bruise.

“Why the limp.  Have they amputated?”  She asked him kindly, feeling so glad to see him she wanted to laugh her delight.

“Oh, twisted it slightly, apparently.  It’s nothing – not important.  I’m sorry I couldn’t make our lunch date – they wouldn’t let me out, and the ‘phones in here are hopeless.  Do you hate me?”

“Only a little.  I thought you’d ditched me. Gabby told me someone else was hurt; is she…”

“Jacqui; she’s a colleague.  It’s quite serious, I’m afraid.  Fractured skull – they had to operate straight away to relieve pressure on her brain.  I’ve just been up to try to see her, but she hasn’t regained consciousness yet.  Whoever they were, they were aiming for me, not her.  I’m the one who normally enters the Conference Room first.”

“I’m so sorry!”

“Why?  It isn’t your fault.  Paul and Gabby came in to see me – nearest relatives, and stuff – so I asked them to tell you what happened.   And now you’ve come, so that’s one better!”

“They brought me – actually, they rescued me.  They’re waiting downstairs in the lobby.  Gabby seems to think we need a conference:  are you up to it?”

“Up to it?  Foolish woman, of course I’m up to it.  What do you mean, ‘rescued you’?”

As they walked – in Patrick’s case quite gingerly – to join Gabby and Paul, Karen related her adventure of the previous hour.  Patrick was grave.  “You were lucky, the way things turned out.  If those two had been ten minutes later…”

“I would have had to deal with him myself!”  Karen told him brightly.  “He’s only a sad old perv, you know!”

“Yeah,”  Patrick acknowledged.  “I’ve met him, remember?  Old pervs seem to be quite large and lively these days. Paul and I were talking about things this afternoon.  You have to think of something to discuss in visiting hours, or the silence can become deafening.”

They had negotiated an elevator and reached the end of a corridor which opened out into the hospital lobby where, true to their word, Paul and Gabrielle were waiting.

“Talking about what, Pat?”  Karen asked.  “Explain?”

“You haven’t told her yet!”  Gabrielle accused.

“I was about to.  Karen, it’s time you met our parents.  We want you to come and stay with us for a few days.”

Even the thought filled Karen with alarm.  “No, Pat!  Your parents don’t know me!  I’ve got nothing..”

Pat grinned.  “Nothing to wear?  Yes, Karen, you’re coming.   Gabby’s already cleared it with the olds and they agree.  Come as you are.  You look a damned sight better than I do at the moment, anyway.”

“That isn’t the point!  Don’t I have a say in this?  What if I choose not to turn my back on my entire case load…”

“Look, love, whoever’s after you, they mean business.  It’s dangerous for you here!  You must see that – especially after today’s attacks.”

“Attacks?  Are you connecting my stalker with what happened to you?  Why?”

“He won’t tell you,” Paul cut in,  “But you need to know.  He was warned to stay away from you.”

“Thanks a bunch, Paul!” Patrick said heavily.  “I wasn’t going to tell her that.” He explained to Karen,  “Someone left a note on my car the night you dropped me off at the office car park?”

“The night of the storm – the night Mr. Nasty attacked me.  You think the note was his?”

Patrick grinned, a lopsided grin that refused to spread to his bruised cheek.  “Is that what we’re calling him now?  He was around, I suppose,”  He glanced significantly at Paul.  “But we think there’s more than one person involved in this.”

Karen was distraught:  “Oh, Pat, if I accept your invitation he – or they – might come after me. I can’t put your family in danger!”

Patrick shook his head.  “You’ll be out of town and there’s no reason anyone should find out where you’ve gone.  You’ll have us around you, and we’ll have space to get this sorted out.  I mentioned Mum was a solicitor, didn’t I?  Well, she wants to get her teeth into this, and she’s longing to meet you. Accept it, love, it’s a fait accompli, really it is.  We leave here, we get my car, we drive.”

To say Karen harbored doubts would be complete understatement.  Apart from her natural tendency to rebel when anybody tried to organize her life, she was genuinely more afraid, at that point, of encountering Pat’s mother and father than of anything the sinister leather-clad man might do to her.  Now, though, she had Pat’s safety to consider as well as her own. It would be nice, at least, to find a place where she could sleep peacefully, and Pat was clearly disinclined to accept no for an answer. “Are you supposed to drive, after what you’ve been through?”  She asked, lamely.  “No concussion, no after-effects?”

“I’m fine.”

“They wanted him to stay in overnight,” Gabrielle confided.  “He’s colossally stubborn.”

“I’m fine!  This place is full of mods and rockers – seems like it was a fine weekend for a punch-up in Harterport. ”

“I’ll have to go back to the apartment, get a few things.”

“I don’t believe that would be wise.”

“Seriously?  Pat…”

“Karen, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.  We should get you out of town, and it needs to be now.  Gabby’ll stump up with anything you lack.  Her resources are endless.”

“Absolutely!”  Gabrielle agreed.  “Bulgy wardrobes-full of stuff!”

 

#

The right turn from the Halminster Road led into a lane lined by tall trees; parkland beeches, oak and plane interspersed with the occasional heraldic spear of larch, all garbed in their bright, optimistic green of burgeoning summer and stirred regally by a light westerly breeze.  There was still a month before maturity would add the first blues to the palette; a month more of darker glory before September winds breathed among those aldermanic boughs, inducing them to creak in conversation among themselves, hold a council and decide upon the onset of winter.

For now, though, the evening sun was warm and the air in Karen’s face was a blessing.  Patrick’s hand, playing dangerously with her leg, kept her from too obvious a display of nerves if only because he needed constant reminders to pay attention to his driving.  Without these distractions she would have resembled a jelly, for this was the encounter she dreaded:  she was visiting the Hallcrofts at home.

The Hallcroft-Smythes.  She couldn’t erase the hyphen from her mind.  Or the ‘y’.

Each time she glanced across at Patrick her head filled afresh with those nagging doubts: somehow he had slipped into her not-so-well-ordered life with quiet ease; and comfortable as she might allow herself to be, dreaming along in such style, she had to prove to herself that she could face Pat’s perceived danger alone, that for all there was something very  compelling in the way he was taking charge of her, she could not become his cipher.  Whatever the risk, she must be ready to face it, and if necessary, face it alone.

“I’m stronger than I look, Pat.”  She shouted above the wind.

“Yes, Karen, you are.  What brought that on?”

“I need to prove it, I think.  How’s that head?”

“Still attached.  Am I going to pass out while I’m driving, do you mean?  No.  Do you want to drive?”

“Drive your pride and joy – your other woman?  Heavens no!  I do kind of like you in a bandage.  You look very buccaneering.”

“I lack both eye-patch and parrot, I’m afraid.”

And then she saw it: Radley Court.  Only a glimpse at first, of grey-green stone among trees: “Oh, Patrick.  That isn’t it!  Please tell me that isn’t it?”

The Daimler’s nose swung between banks of flossy rhododendron bushes and through a pair of high wrought iron gates.  Acres of manicured lawn spread itself before her; amid which sprawled a two-storey Georgian pile, its high windows frowning down upon her beneath their pediments as if intrusion from riff-raff such as herself was unforgiveable.  Wheels crunched on pea beach gravel luxurious as a carpet; a carpet for cars, she thought, beginning to wish she had worn jewellery.  The engine echoed back to her from those walls, the porticoed entrance doors loomed like some dark temptation of the Bunyan mind.

“I can’t go in there!”

“Why not?”

“I’m in jeans!  I should have worn something more suitable.  What on earth are they going to think of me?”

“’They’ will think you look perfect in jeans!”  Patrick squeezed her hand.  “Come on, darling, Mum and Dad aren’t that terrifying, honestly!”

As if something within the soul of the old house had heard Karen’s cries, the sombre mood was shattered by a fusillade of excited yelping.  A large Golden Labrador dog came bursting from the front doors like a badly-aimed torpedo and flew across the driveway towards them.

“Oh hell!”  Patrick exclaimed.  “I hope you like dogs!”

She just had time to say “You know I do” before this dog launched herself at the car and, in a feat she had clearly practiced often, landed with fuss and noise upon the tonneau cover.  Thereafter speech was almost impossible, because a very long tongue was enthusiastically washing Karen’s face.

“She answers to Petra – sometimes.”  Patrick said, by way of introduction.

Scarcely had Patrick driven the car into a parking position before Paul and Gabrielle, in Paul’s car, crunched onto the forecourt behind them.   A tall, greying man in a frayed maroon pullover and ancient cord trousers appeared atop the flight of steps that led up to those grand front doors, his face broken by a broad smile.

“That’s Dad.  He’s been gardening.”

Karen cast an eye over the wide expanse of manicured lawn, the elegantly planted flowerbeds.  “He’s been busy.”

“Oh, we have gardeners.  Dad just likes to mess around.”

Karen suppressed  another inner groan.  She was beginning to feel quite light-headed.

Petra had changed allegiances with a single bound and now sat at Gabrielle’s side as if she had always been there.  “Karen, darling!  You look awfully pale.  Are you ailing, or has Patrick’s driving finally cracked your nerve?”

The tall man descended the steps in slow, steady strides.  “Hello.  You must be Karen.  I’ve heard a lot about you, lately, young lady.”

“Dad, Karen.  Karen, my Dad.”  Patrick said over his shoulder as he ferreted for his briefcase in the back of his car.  “It’s alright, Karen, you can ignore him if you like.”

Mild blue lagoons of eyes met Karen’s embarrassed look and drew her deep.  Perhaps her impression of this man, drawn so far from Patrick’s affectionately disparaging description, had led her to expect a super-salesman;  a smooth talker who had risen in his chosen industry by his gift of the gab – a success pedlar; a showman.  The real Jackson Hallcroft was as far from that.  Behind the hypnosis of those eyes was several fathoms of intellect, a warm sea of wisdom that flowed gently to its shore – never intrusive, never loud, yet utterly absorbing.  She saw in the father all she adored in the son, and her legs went from under her.  She fumbled.  “Hello Mr. Hallcroft;” She blurted hopelessly; “I hope you  don’t mind my staying here..I mean, because Patrick’s very special to me, and I…that is, thank you for taking me in.”

What made her say that?  All too aware of Gabrielle’s stifled giggle, she rushed to cover herself:  “Patrick didn’t tell me you were American.”

Patrick was behind  her.  “He isn’t.  He’s Canadian.  Didn’t I say?  I should have.”

But Jackson Hallcroft merely smiled:  “You’re welcome, Karen.  I sincerely hope you’re going to take this young man off our hands.  I was beginning to despair.”

“We all were!”  Gabrielle chipped in.  “Come on inside, you two.  Paul wants to challenge Patsy on the Scalextric.”

Your mother’s anchored to a queen’s pudding in the kitchen.”  Jackson said informatively.  “Gabby, maybe you and Karen here might attempt a rescue?”

“Oh super, yes!”  Gabrielle took her cue, “ You simply must be introduced, sweetie.”  She squeezed Karen’s arm and added, in a much lower voice:  “And you can tell me about your wedding plans.”

Mortified, Karen shielded a scarlet blush behind her hands.  “Whatever have I said? ”

“Nothing!  You’ve been through a lot, you’re exhausted.  The rest is something Daddy does, darling.  It’s a gift – he does it to everyone, so don’t worry!  Anyway,” Gabby grinned; “it was rather sweet!  I should warn you, though; I think Patsy heard.”

Within the double main doors,  Radley Court’s baronial hall asserted its cool authority, a long central chamber richly carpeted in green which ran from the front to the rear of the house.  Oak panelled walls lined either side, drawing Karen’s eyes to a wide staircase which dominated the further end.  Lit by tall stained glass windows, this ascended to a mezzanine at first floor level.  Above, if she could crane her neck so far without falling over, a severe, ornately plastered ceiling presided.

For all its initial impression of austerity and patronage – so oppressive it brought a whimper to Karen’s throat – Radley Court had a character which made it very much a home.  Petra’s toys:  a rubber ring, a squiggly thing of interlaced rubber, a bright yellow plastic bone and other miscellaneous pieces of flotsam were scattered about an expensive green carpet, which also hosted a black loop of Scalextric track at which Paul already knelt in an attitude of prayer.

He waved informally.  “Excuse my rudeness, I was just getting the hang of this thing before Patsy got himself bludgeoned!  No!  No, Petra!”

Anxious to join in, Petra had neatly plucked Paul’s slot car from a speedy corner and brought it helpfully, tail wagging, to Karen.  Paul grinned apologetically.  “Come on, Pat, I’ll take advantage of your condition and thrash you this time.  Sorry Karen – going to borrow him for a minute.  Oh, and please Miss, can I have my car back?”

In the brief time Karen knew him, she would learn to like Paul Wheeler immensely.  He was perhaps a year or so older than Gabrielle and taller too with a head that seemed so large and heavy it gave him a stoop.  When he was seated he would often support that head, as though his neck was not up to the task unaided.  She would remember the firm clasp of his handshake, the earnest intensity in those searching grey eyes and the curious femininity of his long, curled eyelashes.  He spoke with a regional drawl that lilted pleasingly.  It was easy to see how Gabrielle might love him, and it was very evident that she did.

“This is going to end in tears.”  Gabrielle commented, as Pat grabbed a hand control and stiffly joined Paul in sitting on the floor.  “Come and meet Mum.”

At the right-hand corner of the hall, shaded by the stairs, was an imposing oak door.  “Kitchen.”  Gabrielle said informatively, grabbing the brass handle and swinging the door back.

The room thus revealed was, of course, roughly the size of Karen’s entire apartment.  She had expected no less.  Neither was she surprised by the large centre table, the long reaches of beech worktop or the imposing Aga range in a cavernous fireplace at the further end.  She was confronted by walls painted raging red, and mildly taken aback at the chaos: scattered plates, scattered food, spilt flour, errant pools of liquid, a faint but unmistakable burnt smell, the hapless waving of an open Aga door.  The one absent ingredient was Gabrielle’s mother, who, in Karen’s opinion, had justifiably abandoned ship.  Not so.

“Oh f***!  Bloody f***ing f*** and bugger!  Gabs, is that you?”  The voice, in a falsetto of panic, came from behind the table.

“Yes, Mumsy.”

“Thank christ!  Come and help me, would you?”  The figure of a woman, disarranged in every way, rose into view.  Wild-eyes took in Karen, and said profoundly:  “Oh, bollocks.  Is this…?”

“Mother dear, this is Karen.”  Gabrielle gave Karen’s arm a quick squeeze, then rushed to her mother’s aid.  “Oh, Mumsy, I told you not to attempt it!”

In a moment of some poignancy, mother and daughter stood side by side, staring down.  Mother smiled bravely.  “I could slide something underneath, don’t you think?”

She came to greet Karen, wiping hands rich in ingredients.  “Hello, Karen.  How nice to meet you!  You must forgive my language, but as you see, I’m cooking.”

Gwendoline Hallcroft, Karen would quickly learn, was the sort of woman who threw herself body and soul into every undertaking.   Brown hair, just on the edge of auburn, flecked with flour and possibly several specks of egg yolk, fell in disorder to her shoulders.  Framing a facethat was probably beautiful, with awestruck eyes set beneath thin, arching eyebrows so fine they seemed almost white.  A refined nose twitched with her smile; the big, all-consuming smile of a mouth that was wide and sensual.  Her pinafore, which in better days had advertised Paignton Zoo, disguised a combination of green sweater and jeans.  She was large, inelegant in stature, a big boned woman; but she exuded honesty and Karen took to her at once.

“Christ, what must you think of me?  I cuss like a bloody sailor, I’m afraid.  Do make yourself at home, Karen dear, while I prepare dinner.  Gabs, take Karen to see the horses.”

“Well, there.  You’ve experienced all of us now, Karen.”  Gabrielle said as she led the way out of the back door of the kitchen on their way to the stables.  “Except Sprog, of course.”

“Sprog?”

“Yes.  Didn’t Patsy tell you?  Sprog – our little sister Amanda – is pajama-partying with a school friend.”  Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in mock distaste.  “She won’t be missed.”

“Shouldn’t I help out in the kitchen?  Your mum seemed a little…”

Gabrielle laughed.  “Overwhelmed?  Yes, she is, totally.  It’s alright, though.  Mrs. Beatty will be in soon.”

“Mrs. Beatty?”

“Of course.  You didn’t think we looked after this ghastly heap all by ourselves, did you?  We have the two ‘B’s.  Mrs. Beatty and Mrs. Buxham keep us in order – and sane.  Mrs. Beatty does the cooking.  She’ll clear all that up and have a meal ready within the hour.  Marvellous woman – I don’t know how she does it!  Oh lord, do you realise I only met you three hours ago?  I feel as though I’ve known you all my life!  I do hope we’ll be friends, Karen, I really do!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

Heaven’s Gate – a natural arch in Tianmen mountain

e MORFES

View of the natural arch and the stairway leading to it. By Huangdan2060Own work, Public Domain, Link

Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park lies 8 kilometers south of the city of Zhangjiajie in China. The mountain is best reached by cable car. Tourists can walk on kilometers of paths built onto the cliff face at the top of the mountain, including sections with glass floors. An 11 km  road with 99 bends also reaches the top of the mountain and takes visitors to Tianmen cave, a natural hole in the mountain of a height of 131.5 m

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Letterboxes and Bank Robbers

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I’ll tell you why I hate the hijab, or niqab, or burka.

I hate it because it reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan, of the balaclavas worn by the IRA, of any movement or organisation that decides to conceal itself from outsiders – in short, anyone with something to hide.

Alright, I know the burka is worn by women, which makes it worse because here the secrecy is reversed; to depersonalise the woman, to rob her of any visible character or personality; to subjugate and demean, in other words.  Neither are the gender boundaries so strictly observed they cannot be adjusted for the convenience of terrorists, who are happy to use them as a disguise.

Let’s be perfectly clear on this.  The burka, or a version of it, first appeared in the old country of Persia around the end of the tenth century, and slowly spread throughout Islam under the auspices of a strict religious sect, but it has no foundation anywhere in the Quran.  The holy book only requires that dress should be modest, and reveal no more of the body than is necessary.  Therefore by implication are we to conclude that Moslems feel the only necessary part of the female body is the eye?  This aligns with the same primitive thinking that believes in GM, and insists the word of three women is needed to have the same value as that of one man.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had the temerity to suggest that women so dressed looked ‘ridiculous’, likening the garb to a letterbox, or that worn by a bank robber.  He was not suggesting the burka should be banned, but commenting upon recent legislation in Denmark, where it is now outlawed.   The squeals of outrage have reverberated around Westminster and the gutter press ever since.

For the record, the Burka is prohibited by law, completely or partially, in an increasing number of countries in Africa, and many now in Europe too.  France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Holland have all prohibited the garment to varying degrees.  Frau Murkel has suggested a ban in Germany.  Again, in UK it is not banned.  I believe it should be.

Although I regard myself as a fairly liberated free thinker for one of my ripened years, I worry about Islam.  This transcends race, and for that matter all the millions of broader-minded Moslems who manage to reconcile the belligerent teachings of their holy book with the realities of modern life.  But there is a hardened thread of fundamentalism at the religion’s heart which has no interest in integration and sees the ‘infidel’ as an enemy.  Its adherents are implacable and intolerant.  They do not believe in our freedoms, and they would hurt us if they could.

So I appeal to moderate Moslems who want to mingle with and enjoy western society to try and understand how – and I hate this word – intimidating the burka seems to those who do not share your faith.  I would rarely advocate restriction upon any freedom, least of all dress, but this form of dress symbolises restriction of freedom for women.   I know my opinion is widely shared.

The burka has no place on the streets of Britain.

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twelve. Under Sentence.

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Several glasses of wine passed Karen’s lips before she quitted the twilight of Harper’s Restaurant that Monday lunchtime.  They were the price to be paid for courage to face the brighter world of the street.   This was the cynical Karen, the less talented sister, the wench from a peasant family who had let herself taste euphoria for a brief while, only to have it slip through her fingers.  The last few weeks had been unreal, a fantasy.  What else should she have expected?

Out on the street it did not seem that anyone shared her grief.  The passers-by did just what passers-by do:  they passed by.

Karen wandered for a while, wanting to return to Albert Park where the old bandstand could offer refuge from threatened rain.  There she might spend time refreshing her memories of Suzanne, reminding herself again of her sister’s warnings about the immutable divisions of class and the duplicitousness of men, and there she might have gone, had not memories of her stalker deterred her.  Believing he would be out there, somewhere, she felt the lack of Patrick’s protection, so she mingled with the shoppers in the town, oblivious to the rain, meandering from shop window to shop window until her shoulders became wet and her hair began to drip.  Since sooner or later she would have to do her mooching indoors, Debenham’s Department Store seemed a likely refuge; which was where she met Gina – Gina, from the old days of Tim’s rugby club travels, someone who had once been a friend.

On an afternoon when the last thing Karen wanted was to meet anybody, Gina would have been lower on her wish list than many.

She emerged from the main doors as Karen was entering.  They almost collided.

“Hello, Karen!  Long time no see, darlin’, how are you?  Feeling chirpy, yeah?”

“Bright as a button!”  Karen lied, trying to match Gina’s ever-ebullient mood and signally failing.  Then:  “Why, especially – the chirpy thing, I mean?”

“Well, the engagement?”  Karen’s hand had been concealed by her bag: now she revealed her fingers, causing Gina to blurt out:  “You’re not wearin’ it, then?  The ring?”

“What ring?”  Karen asked, mystified.

Gina’s face betrayed her mental anguish as the low gears of her understanding meshed.  “Nothin’ – no, nothin’,”  She mumbled.  “Stupid old Gina, puttin’ her foot in it again.”

“Gina, explain – what ring?”

“Oh, Lord, babe,  I just assumed you’d accept him, that’s all!  When Mike told me Tim was goin’ to propose on Saturday I thought ‘about time’ – I didn’t dream…”

“No,”  said Karen.  There was a leaden pause.

Karen had to rush, she said, apologizing; she was getting wet.  Adding the obligatory ‘meet up sometime’ promise, she bolted for the shelter of the store.

Only in late afternoon did she pull herself together sufficiently to visit Gasser Gates’ other alleged ‘friend’.

Perry Roberts lived in a terrace house, one among an identical row of red brick dwellings on the sort of road that repeated itself again and again in Caleybridge.  Karen had the kind of luck the goddess owed her by this time because no sooner had the Roberts’s doorbell been answered, by Perry’s mother, than a blue Ariel motorbike rolled up beside the kerb.

 

“There you are then!”  Mrs Roberts said cheerfully.  “Perfect timing.  He’s just back from work.”  And as Perry was removing his helmet she called over:  “Perry.  This nice young lady’s come to see you, dear!”

If Karen had hoped to question Perry before he learned of her conversation with Mark Potts that morning, it was a false hope:  her one advantage, however, was Perry’s mother.  Mrs Roberts remained doggedly beside her son throughout their interview.

“It’s that Potts boy, he’s always in some sort of trouble, that one.  Now, dear; sugar?  Milk?”

Karen accepted tea. She addressed Perry, “Saturday night, four weeks ago.  You were returning from the Mecca Bowl in Baronchester.  Who was driving, Perry?”

Perry said:  “What are you talking about?”  But his eyes said something else.

“I know you got to the bowl, I called the manager.  You’re regulars – he remembers you.  He said there were four of you in your group and you’d had a few drinks – a good time.  You all left together, quite late.    You, Mark, and Gasser in the car – and one other.  There was someone else in the car, too, wasn’t there? ”

“There wasn’t no-one else there…I don’t know what you’re trying to say, Miss, but there wasn’t nothing.  Nothing!”

“You tell the lady!”  Mrs Roberts snapped.  “Perry, tell the truth, will you?”

“MUM!”

“He’s been moody for a month now,” Mrs. Roberts told Karen. “I thought something was wrong.”

Karen repeated her question, “Well, Perry – Who was driving?”

Perry sat for a moment saying nothing, his mouth opening and closing as though he wanted to speak, but couldn’t.  At last, he said:  “Mark; he was driving.  It’s his car, he always does.”

“So?”  Karen took a sip of Mrs Roberts’s tea.  “Mark drove you all home and he was drunk.  Did you crash?”

“No!  But we might have done if Gasser had his way.  What you don’t see, Miss, is what Gasser’s like.  He’s mad, is Gasser!” Perry had obviously taken a decision to tell all.  “Look, Gasser can’t hold his beer, right?  Now I don’t want to explain too much about that except to say it’s takin’ a long time to get home because we’re stopping every ten minutes for Gasser to…you know.  Anyway, he’s still drinking bottled beer in the car and Mark’s getting tired of stopping so he tells Gasser the next time he needs to stop he has to use a bottle.  Well, Gasser gets mad.  He’s sitting behind Mark and he wraps his legs around Mark’s neck – while he’s driving, see?  We nearly do crash, this time.  We has to stop, anyway.  Skidded, and all.”

“All right, so you’d stopped – then what?”

“Mark loses his rag.  He grabs Gasser and throws him out of the car.  He’s hitting him.  He punches him until he falls down, then he starts puttin’ his boot in.  We dragged him off, otherwise he’d have killed him, yeah?.   Yeah, that was it.”

Perry lapsed into miserable silence, wringing his hands together between his knees and staring at the carpet.  Mrs Roberts’s eyes were wide and staring.  “Oh my good gawd you did.  You killed him!”

“No, Mum!  No we didn’t!   Honestly we didn’t!  Alright, Mark duffed him up, but he had it coming.  We just left him there, that’s all.  We drove off and left him there.”

Karen set her lips.  “He was alive when you left him?”

“Yes.  He was moaning, and that, but he wasn’t dead! He was sittin’ up, for fuck’s sake.”

“Language, Perry!”

“Bloody hell!”  Perry muttered.

“Where did this happen?”  Karen asked.

“It was on the Pegram road.  Another few minutes, we’d have been home.”

“Which is where Mark Potts claims he saw Gasser on the Sunday afternoon.”

“Yeah, well.  We agreed to tell the police that.  Like he saw him after and he was alright, y’know, give ‘em the idea he was pissed and slept it off in the hedge or sommat.  We didn’t want them accusing us of GBH, or nothing.  Wasn’t Mark’s fault.”

“What, you beat him up and it wasn’t your fault?”

“Not me! I never touched him.  But it was due.  He’s always actin’ above hisself, and he ’s a right prick.  Nobody likes him.”

“You do.”  Karen reminded him.  “You go bowling with him, regularly.”

“Only when he wants.  When he wants we has to go with him.”

“Why, Perry?”

“I ain’t sayin’ no more.”

“Does he have some kind of hold on you?  Does he force his friendship on you?”

Perry did his best to look offended.  “No!  No, it isn’t nothin’ like that.  I ain’t sayin’nothin’ more.”

“And this all happened on the Pegram road?”

“Yeah.  We was takin’ Gasser home, wasn’t we?  We was goin’ to drop him off at his house.”

“No, you weren’t.  Gasser hasn’t lived there for two years.  Why were you on the Pegram road?”

“We thought he lived there.  He always says he does.  I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ more.”  Perry Roberts stared fixedly at his hands.

“The fourth person in the car.  Where did you drop him off?”

“I told you there weren’t no fourth person.  I ‘m sayin’ nothin’ more.”

Thanking Perry’s mother for the tea, Karen left her to complete the interrogation.  She had all she needed, or at least all she could achieve.

Driving home, Karen tried afresh to justify the character of Gavin Woodgate, or, as she had now come to know him, Gasser Gates, in her mind.  What demonic touch had formed someone so socially unacceptable, so morally corrupt that he could only achieve a kind of friendship through blackmail or threats?  What was he – and what, given opportunity, was he capable of becoming?

Her apartment would be empty, and though she had tidied it that morning her bed would still be the bed where Pat had slept beside her.  The prospect of the intimate space she had so loved when she first moved in there, not a year since, now seemed cavernous and full of remorseful echoes.

Her head rebuked her for her naivety, but no matter how he had deceived her, her heart wailed at her loss of Patrick, and in the privacy of her car she was free, at last, to let the tears flow.

#

Every Monday morning in Beaconshire County Planning Department there was a meeting of the Planning Committee.  It was part of Patrick’s work to prepare the agenda.

Jacqui Greenway was already in his office when he arrived.  “My god, Patrick, what have you been doing with yourself?”

He was evasive.  “I’m a bit tired, I guess.”

“A bit?  Whatever it was, it didn’t involve much sleeping, did it?”

“No, I don’t suppose it did.”  He acknowledged, smiling weakly.

Jacqui’s voice dropped.  “Small post this morning.”  Did he detect a slight change in her inflexion?  “I’ll get some coffees together and see you down there.”

‘Down there’ referred to the Conference Room.  Patrick gave her a brief grin which she would understand as ‘thank you’, because they shared this close non-verbal communication that had evolved over the years they had worked together.  The slight buck of her hips as she walked away was a kind of cheeky ‘you owe me one’.  He understood that, too.

Mail was rarely interesting.  A number of submissions from petitioners wanting permission to develop land or to build upon it;  the occasional confidential memo from the ‘legals’ in the Clerks Department, and once in a while a letter of pleading from a desperate applicant whose scheme had been rejected.

Patrick sloughed through the pitifully turgid sheaves of paper, looking for anything which could refer to that day’s meeting agenda and trying not to think of Karen.  Beyond the partition wall the sounds of Jacqui making those coffees, outside his opened window the song of birds:  across the room on his table a pile of white, pristine agendas on the left, a pile of minutes from the last meeting on the right.  Clinking of cups, a blackbird telling its tale of forgotten winter; Karen’s white nakedness, her cascade of fair hair on the pillow, the voluble hiss of the old office kettle, the shouting of outraged sparrows, the deep wisdom of Karen’s blue, blue eyes…

Jacqui assembling cups on a tray, the click of her heels to the tea room door.  Jacqui, who was undeniably attractive in a serious sort of way.  One last letter.  The carking of wheeling rooks, Karen’s bright smile and still a taste in his mouth of her salt tears.  Jacqui’s heels clipping briskly away down the corridor.

Dear Sirs,

We are writing with regard to your Planning Committee’s decision concerning our proposed opening of a Turf Accountant’s business on…

Jacqui rattling the tray as she opened the big double doors of the Conference Room.  Karen’s warm flesh supple and wanting in his arms…

Jacqui’s scream.

Jacqui’s scream?

Patrick froze for a moment; a powerful, gripping moment that wrenched him from his reverie.  A power that shattered the yoke of shock from his shoulders and sent him racing into the corridor, sprinting down its length past a procession of office doors with a succession of heads emerging: questions, alarmed expressions.  All in headlong rush: no idea, no plan.  The Conference Room doors were open wide.  A brief glimpse beyond of Jacqui on the floor, her body twitching, her blood spreading around her head in a black pool.  A heavy door, thrust with great force to slam against his skull…  then nothing.

#

Out of greyness.  “Mr Hallcroft’s conscious, I think…”

Bob Stawkley.  It was Bob.

“All right, sir.  Get him talking if you can,  Don’t let him move.  I’ll be with you in a minute.”

“Bob?”  Mouth felt like a sawmill floor.

“”Hello, Patrick.  Don’t try to talk, son.  Just keep still.”

“Yeah.”  Stawkley’s crouching figure seemed to fade.  Karen was asking him something:  “That’s not a euphemism, is it?”

“Conference Room.”  He said.  “Maps.  Water?”

Bob Stawkley over him, grey-faced.  “Yes, Patrick.  Conference Room.”  Then, louder, to someone else:  “He’s wandering; will you hurry, please?”

“I’m doing my best, sir.  Keep him talking.  I’ll be right there.”

Another voice.  “You got that one?”

“Yes, we’re alright here.  Can you take care of the lad?”

A new face bending over him.  “Hello, son.  Now whatever happened to you?”

“Bob?  Bob?”

“Still here, Patrick.”

“How’s Jacqui?”

Stawkley’s voice was laden with the sadness of his answer.  “I don’t know, Patrick.  I don’t know.”

“Tell…tell Karen…”

Grey again.  Nothing.

#

Her mind empty of all but regret, Karen parked her car in her home street.  Time hung heavily, the evening stretched, empty, before her.  So later she might ‘phone one of her friends, maybe suggest drinks with Bea, or try to winkle out some entertainment from the listlessness of Monday in her tiny town.

Maybe.

She switched off the engine, spent time with her radio hearing out a classic song that suited her mood:  ‘When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes’…

He was in her car, her nemesis:  before she had time to think, or to react, or even cry out,  the door was flung wide, and his tall, solid form had plunged into the seat beside her!  The sight of his pale sun-deprived flesh in its frame of unkempt hair shocked through her in a lurid stab of voltage.  His rank odour of decay brought a gorge rising to her throat.

Gasping to regain the breath that had left her body, Karen instinctively reached for the handle to her own door.  A big hand snatched her arm as something metallic jabbed into her ribs.

“Try to leave and I will kill you.”  The voice was colder than the words it spoke.

She did not struggle, although the nerves were there, rising from her stomach in a butterfly host – rather, she stamped them down.  It was happening.  This was something that had been inevitable since her first encounter with this creature.  What had been her sister’s wisdom;  ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’?  Well, she would face him.  She would not show fear.

Suppressing that inward shudder, Karen forced herself to match his stare.  No hate burned in those eyes this time, no expression at all, yet they left no room for doubt.  She felt the cold blade of fate on her neck.  The executioner was measuring his stroke.  This creature was the axe, a keenly honed blade of utter intensity ready to carry out a sentence.  He would not be distracted, he could not be contained.  She measured her words.  “What do you want from me?”

It might have been a laugh or the sound of a stone across a steel blade;  “My dear, you know that, don’t you?  You’ve been expecting me.  You are mine, Karen.  I’ve come for you.”

She responded evenly.  “Flattered as I am, I must politely decline.  I don’t belong to anyone.”

“Well there we must disagree,”  He exhibited a calmness that seemed unnatural, as though not blood but shards of ice were coursing through his veins.  “Everyone belongs to someone, and you belong to me.  That is a fact, Karen, but it is a conversation for another time.  I require that you drive us away from here.  Now.”

Her retort, “I’m not driving anywhere with you!”  earned her a second jab in her ribs from what she assumed must be a gun, although her captor kept the object itself covered:  she was just beginning to weigh up the odds of it being a bluff when all responsibility was lifted, very dramatically, from her shoulders.   A red car that had turned into the road from its higher end and seemingly destined to exit at the bottom suddenly swerved in front of Karen’s car, braking violently and almost making contact.  No sooner had it stopped than both occupants leapt from it and the driver, whose confident stride clearly defied argument, rapped on the window beside the dark man.

“OUT!”

Almost simultaneously the car’s passenger, a tall brunette in blue striped sweater and jeans, pulled Karen’s door open.  “Come on, sweetie, you come this way.”

Was it a gun?  Would her assailant use it now, even if it were?   The dark man answered that question for her.  “My dear, it seems our little jaunt must be postponed.  See you soon, very soon.”

He opened his door, coolly, drawing himself up to face the driver from the other car, who did not back off.  Karen slipped quickly from her seat.  “Careful, he may have a gun.”

Her new companion warned:  “Careful Paul!”

The one who was Paul grinned evilly, pushing his face forward so it was inches from the dark man.  “What, in front of two witnesses?  Guns on the street?  Not your style, is it, you creepy bastard?  Just leave quietly, now.  Right now.”

Without a word, the shadow that hung over Karen’s life stepped past Paul and walked away up the road.  At the top he turned and looked back, head cocked to one side like a bird watching a worm, hair hanging about his face.  Then he rounded the corner and was gone.

The girl breathed a sigh of relief.  “Well, that’s over.  Super!  Oh, god, I hope you are Karen, are you?  We haven’t broken up a perfectly harmless domestic, or anything?”

Karen managed a shaky smile.  “No, I’m Karen.”

“Absolutely!  We knew the moment we saw you!  Say what you like about Patsy, his descriptions ace it every time.   Now, the frightfully macho one over there is Paul, my boyfriend, and I’m Gabrielle Hallcroft-Smythe, though I hope you’ll call me Gabby, everyone else seems to.  Hop in, sweetie, my ghastly brother is desperate to see you – although what you see in him is quite beyond me.”

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Eleven. Expectations

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If she were to judge, Karen thought as she watched the slumbering head beside her on the pillows, this would have to have been at once the worst decision of her life, and the most enjoyable.    There could be no denying the ecstasy of the previous night, or her feelings, no, her desires for Patrick.   The chaotic drive from her parents’ house to her apartment, the laughter; the moments of ineptitude, the intense passion of their love-making would become treasured memories.  But neither could she deny her abandonment of the promise she had made to herself: that she would not become involved with the owner of that sleeping head.  It was a relationship with no future, for however earnest he seemed, he was a son of wealthy parents.  Not only did he move in a different world, he was younger than her – and that was important, wasn’t it?

Bemused to find herself even thinking of their minor age difference, she slipped from the bed with as much stealth as she could muster, deserting her sleeping companion for the less distracting atmosphere of her kitchen, where the percolator awaited her.

She had dated, of course she had.  The years from sixteen were sprinkled with importunate boys, and men (not all of them so young), who saw her as their prize.  And a few, a very few, she had accepted.   Yet before Tim there had been no real intimacy.  Making love with Tim had always been a frantic, clawing search for a little crock of gold they sometimes found, mostly didn’t.  Painful, clumsy, unaware of his own strength he would hurt her a dozen ways and she would bite her lip at the wounds, continuing that quest.  So what else could she expect?  Not to discover that elusive treasure time after time, or to cling to someone so possessively that she could see no future anywhere other than within that moment…

Chiding herself for making comparisons, she took her coffee into her living room where, sitting at her table, she could look out over the buildings of the town, still demurely dressed in their negligee of morning mist. Ant processions of traffic were threading down from the hills or stringing beside the river like bright beads, vehicle metal caught in the long sun’s reflection.  It was as if she saw it all for the first time.

“You were still here this morning.”  She murmured half to herself, lacking the courage to voice her thoughts aloud.  “That’s promising.”

“Oh, now this is serious!”  His voice was right behind her.  How had she had not heard him enter?  He kissed her shoulder.  “Good morning!  Did you expect otherwise?”

Her little dragon of cynicism raised its bitter head, and spat: “We met, like a week ago, rich boy?  I don’t know what to expect – what I have any right to expect.”

“You resent me?”  His big hands clasped her arms, enwrapped her limbs and made her feel more certain than she should, perhaps.  “Let me ask you a question then.  Are you really over Tim?   Am I a rebound or something more?  See, I don’t know what to expect, either.”

“Touché, then, I suppose.  I’m sorry.”  She let herself sink back into his chest, took comfort in an enclosing arm that held her safely there.  “Tim and I broke up a few days ago.  It was a soft landing really – time, you know?”  She caught herself, adding quickly, “It had to be done.  It wasn’t because of you.”

“But you feel guilty.”

They lapsed into silence, watching the town rouse itself to face another Monday.  Karen, knowing she should have been happy felt sad and teary, aware her eyes were filling as her mind was already full – of Tim – a scrapbook of memories, all the moments she thought had been forgotten.  Yet her hand was grasping Pat’s, and the warmth of his grip was a feeling of home.  How, how she wished!  She was willing, so eager to be persuaded that this could all be real!

“If it isn’t Tim, then…you doubt me; you doubt us.  This ‘rich boy’ thing.  Why?”

“Pat, last night was wonderful, but this morning…  There are the practical things.  You need someone who can move easily in your world, someone who can fit into the parties, the social circle, the…”

“Are we on the same planet, here?”

“I think that’s exactly what I mean.  Are we?  Do you see the image I keep returning to, in my mind?  If we were to become an item…”

“You’re entertaining that possibility, then?”

“Are you? If we were, sooner or later my family would have to meet yours.  My dad would have to meet your dad – my dad who only lives for his football and who has never drunk tea from anything but a mug all his life, and mum, rabid socialist that she is…”

“You’re thinking you and I – we might become an item?”

“Pat!  Have you been listening?  Can’t you see how impossible this all is?”

“I get you’re ashamed of your family.  You shouldn’t be.”

“Not ashamed, no, just…”

“Karen, my family makes carpets.  Carpets, yes?  For all my older sister puts on airs (and if you think she’s bad, wait until you meet my younger sister), as a family we’re not aristocracy or anything.  We aren’t the Driscombes, we’re just people.  Now if you’ve decided you don’t like me, or if you’re regretting your decision over Tim, I have to accept that; but if – and this is what I understand, love – if you are just fighting yourself over some stupid belief in our inequality…”

“Thank you, I’m not stupid! But I have to go to work.  You have to go to work.”  She told him.

“Work can wait.”   He guided her gently to the couch and sat beside her.  “Great guy that he is, my Dad’s not the brains of the family.  My mother is, or was, a practising solicitor and a university lecturer:  she has three Doctorates.  She plays the piano so well she was contemplating a future on the concert circuit when Dad met her.  My mother can do everything except cook.”

Karen made a face.  “You’re not making me feel any more secure.”

“There’s no point in trying to hide things you’ll find out anyway.  I am what I am, and maybe we’re different in some ways.  Thing is, the differences don’t matter.”

“Pat, I…”

“No, wait:  listen, please – when you love someone it isn’t for the challenge they offer you, it’s about the small things.  It’s about how you feel when they are next to you (just like this), how their eyes crease at the corners when they smile, the way their cheeks redden when they’re angry, that little wisp of hair that always escapes.  You love them for those and a thousand other tweaks and habits.  See?  I said all that without mentioning class or money once.”

Karen’s heart was pounding despite herself.  “You’re using the ‘L’ word.”

“I am, aren’t I?”

“We’ve only known each other for a…”

“Long enough.  I think I knew the moment I met you…Karen, last night wasn’t just sex, it was transcendent; it was warm and loving and – I don’t know, it was just right, I suppose – absolutely bloody right!  You must see that, too?”

She bit her lip.  “You’re very, very good at this.”

“Oh, no; that phrase again!  Don’t do that!  Was it right, or wasn’t it?”

Her head was too full.  Her thoughts were crammed with unanswerable questions.   “Work,” she said.  “We have to go to work.”

“I know.  I’ll be in Harper’s Restaurant at half-past twelve.  Will you come?”

“Let me think, Pat.  Let me think.”

“I want to be with you, okay?  I want to always, always be with you.”

And that was so beautiful that for a moment she let herself believe.  “I’ll come.”  She said.

Karen did not leave for work, not immediately. After Pat had departed to walk back to his car she spent some time just tidying her apartment, giving her hands something to do while her mind relived the last twenty-four hours in all their different colors, setting her heart leaping again, He had said that he loved her, and if she answered herself honestly, did she not feel  the same?   It was all happening too fast.

The small package Karen smuggled from Gavin Woodgate’s bedroom was secreted in her bag, where it had remained throughout her weekend.  She had forgotten about it.  She delayed leaving for her office long enough to unwrap and reveal its contents – a wad of well-fingered, faded pieces of paper; old letters mostly, with a couple of photographs between the folds of one.  They had a lot in common, those pictures.  They were both in monochrome depicting the same girl, posed in such a way as to avoid any doubt of her nakedness or its purpose, and in each picture the man she was with was also naked. The faces of the men were turned towards the camera, and although Karen did not recognize either of them, she recognized the girl.

This was the same girl who had reached through the window of her car on Lower Bridge Street a few nights since – a girl named Kathy.  From the evidence it appeared Kathy was helping to exploit the sexual proclivities of these two males in every possible sense.  Whoever they were, these men, their success and happiness would not have improved if their exposure reached the wrong eyes.

The content of the letters was all too predictable.  Each lavished endearments on Kathy, the skinny prostitute in the photographs, the pathetic burblings of men in obese middle age who had persuaded themselves she was the girl of their dreams:

‘My darling, you don’t know how much I love you’.

‘Last night was fantastic.  I can’t wait until I see you again’.

‘You have taught me so much about love…’

There were also less poetic offerings, some specific biological references which she skirted over.  There were mentions of appointments:  ‘meet you at…’ or ‘don’t come to the office, I’ll see you on…’

The letters seemed determined to mock her.  They spoke graphically of the insincerity of men and the cavernous void of their promises.  The ‘L’ word – what, after all, was it really worth, other than a means to encourage compliance?  Karen bit her lip.  It was time she went to work.  She scooped up the letters and their illustrations, put them back in her coat pocket and headed for her car.  The morning traffic was already clearing, so she had little time to gather her thoughts.

Once behind her desk, she was able to assess the evidence more objectively.  The letters were clearly not addressed to a prostitute who charged by the hour.  Since Kathy was unlikely to offer herself to middle-aged men for anything but hard cash that had to mean she was assisting Gasser Gates in a blackmail racket; a good one, too, for a spotty teenager and a basic streetwalker.  But the evidence was stale, and if Gasser had not slept at home for two years, it had probably outlived its usefulness. Kathy was back on the streets, so had he turned his back on this probably lucrative source of income, or had he moved on to use a different girl – Anna Parkinson, for instance?

#

“Hello Ray.  I’m glad I caught you.  Can you talk?”

“Tim?  Tim Birchinall?”  The voice on the other end of the telephone line crackled.  “Yes, I’m off duty, chap.  Nice to ‘ear from you, mind.  You, still with the Met?”

Tim laughed.  “Even I don’t move that fast.  Yes, still with ‘em.  A lot less complicated.”

“That I can believe, I can.”  Constable Ray Flynn assented.  “So, you’re not on duty either then?”

“Not until tonight.  I was down at the weekend, Ray.”

“You old bugger!  Why didn’t you give me a call?  We could have downed a few pints, chap.  Difficult to find a good drinkin’ companion these days.”

“Listen, Ray.  Karen finished with me on Saturday…”

“Wha’?  Oh, that’s a pity, that is!  Nice girl, I always thought.  Still, ‘tis her loss.  It’s really over then, is it?”

“Afraid so. I guess I had it coming.  I think I just have to get used to it, but it’s hard, you know?”

“Yes, it will be, chap.  Yes, it will.”

“Ray, there aren’t any changes in your neck of the woods, are there?  It’s still going on?  Only Karen said something about Turnbull.”

The line was silent for a few seconds, then Flynn said:  “Oh lord, did she?  Yes, it’s still goin’ on, Tim.  Fact is, old lover, there’s been a few problems lately, since you been gone.  Between you an’ me, I’m not sure ever’thing’s quite under control, if you take my meaning.  Like sunspots, isn’ it?”

“Sunspots?”

“Y’know, solar flares, an’ that.  Periods of extra activity.  Won’t never stop, I reckon.  ‘Least in our lifetime.”

“And the Green.  She mentioned the Green.”

“Well, I can’t do nothin’, you know I can’t.”

“Career isn’t everything, Ray.”

“When you’re wed with two kiddies it is.  I see what you’re workin’ up to and you got no right to ask.  As to career, I could say the same to you.  You aren’t got my responsibilities, have you?  Anyway, I’m sure it isn’t…”

“So am I.”  Tim cut in hastily.  “Or at least, I hope it’s nothing.  I tried to get her to come to London, Ray.  She wouldn’t come.  But she was my girl, and I’m not going to stop having feelings for her.  If you hear anything – anything – could you just let me know?”

“I can do that of course.  Of course, chap.”

#

“Are you Mark Potts?”

The youth’s gawky, under-confident stance made him easy to pick out.  Besides, the bar of the King’s Arms was less than crowded.  It was Monday lunchtime, early, before the bar-meals rush, if there was one at a place like the King’s Arms.  As Karen walked in he saw her in the mirror at the back of the bar and shifted around on his stool, stood up awkwardly.

“You’re Karen, then.”

“Good guess, Mark.  How did you know?”

“Well, you sort of stand out, don’t you?  Especially in a place like this.  Drink?”

“No, no.  Can I buy you one?  After all, you’ve put yourself out for me.”  Karen nodded to the barman, who had suddenly become attentive.  “Same again for Mark, please?”

“What’s this about?  What was it you said on the ‘phone, mutual friend?  Who?”  He had a very snubbed round nose which, planted as it was above a wide, slack mouth made him look something like a rather amiable pig.

“Gasser.”

“Oh.”  Mark Pott’s optimistic expression crumbled like old sandstone.  “I’ve got nothing to say where Gasser’s concerned.”  He turned away.  “So if that’s all…”

“Friend of yours, though, isn’t he?”

“I’ve got nothing to say.”

“I mean, you must be worried, about his disappearance?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”

“Have you ever seen him with this girl?”  Karen waved Anna Parkinson’s picture in front of him.

“No, can’t say I have.”

“Not a very nice guy, Gasser, by all accounts,”  Karen said.  “Lots of people must be quite glad he’s disappeared.”

“So?  Look, Karen, if this is about the last time I saw him, I told the police all I know.  I’ve nothing else to say.  Terry…”  He called across to the barman:  “Don’t worry about that drink, mate.  This lady can save her money.”

“You go ahead, Terry.”  Karen insisted.  “Mark, I’m not the police.  I’m being employed to search for Gasser and I just need a few pieces for the jigsaw, that’s all.”

“I’ve nothing to say.”

“You know, I’ve been in this job for a while now, and I’ve learned the ones with nothing to say are the ones with something to hide.  So I have to ask myself; what could you be hiding?”

“Nothing!  I’m not hiding anything – why would I want to hide something?  You’re talking rubbish, you are.  Leave me alone!”

“You were the last person to see Gasser, is that right, before he dropped off the map?”

“Yeah, that’s what they tell me.  So?”

“You passed him in your car while he was out walking on the Pegram road; on the Sunday afternoon?”

“Yeah, so?”

“I don’t believe you,”  Karen said, watching Mark Potts’ eyes.  They gave her the confirmation she needed.

“Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?  Why not?”  He muttered.

“Because the place you said you saw him was miles from anywhere.  An ambitious distance for an after-lunch stroll, Mark, and Gasser Gates isn’t much of a one for walking, is he?”

“You don’t know.  He might be”

“Any more than he’s a fanatical train-spotter or philatelist, or any of the other junk he makes up about his life.  Believe me, I do know.  So now, why would you lie about seeing him on that Sunday?”

“I didn’t lie!”

“You see, ever since I started investigating this case I’ve been dogged by the feeling someone is paying to protect themselves.”

“Yeah?  Really?”

“Yes.  But I don’t think anyone is paying you.  I might be wrong…”  Her pause was intentional.  She was watching for reactions, an alteration in expression, the twitching that had begun in the middle finger of his right hand.  “No, if you’re lying it’s to protect yourself,  because the last time you actually saw Gasser was that Saturday night, wasn’t it?”

“What?  What makes you think that?”

“Because you go bowling with Gasser on Saturdays and the manager of the bowl remembers you and Gasser were there, and Gasser was drunk.  Something went wrong, didn’t it Mark, on your way home?  I’m not here to accuse you, I just want to make sense of the stories about Gasser and find out why he’s vanished, that’s all.  Was he trying to blackmail you?”

“Look, Miss whatever you’re here to do, I’ve nothing to say.  I told the police all I know, and I’m sorry Gasser’s dropped out of sight, because I’m sure a few people’ll be wanting to talk to him.  But suppose that’s why he disappeared, eh?  Gasser’s that type of bloke, Miss.  Now, I’ll thank you for the drink and respectfully ask you to leave me alone.”

 

Karen had to rush, but she managed to reach Harpers Restaurant as she had agreed with Pat, at half-past twelve.  Harpers, an expensive centre of culinary excellence for a town like Caleybridge, was one of those eateries that relied for its existence upon assignations and trysts, a passing trade of business-people and hot lovers wooed by its discreetly exclusive atmosphere rather than the food.  Pat had not arrived, so Karen took a window table behind opaque etched glass, ordered wine and waited.

Misty shadows passed on the pavement outside.  The noise from the wheeling herd of traffic was muted but incessant.  Twelve-thirty became twelve-forty-five, then one o’clock.

And still Karen waited.

At what precise time did doubt become certainty; when did the cruel truth dawn?  One-fifteen, or one-thirty?  Pat was not coming.  And though she tried to rationalize it; to answer her heart’s questions with simple, straightforward reasons, only one could convince her.  For all the pretty speeches, the skilful deceptions, the beautiful, beautiful lies, last night was all the consummation he had wished.  Pat had fulfilled his needs, he had used her, and now his interest in her was spent.  Before it had really started, it was over.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

Defying Gravity

I really, really like this poem from L.T. Garvin – I hope you will, too…

L.T. Garvin

They flocked to her in droves

“Cinderella,” they called.

Their ardor, canned heat.

“Give us a glance

from your golden drapes.

Come, be our Poppy Girl.

Let’s worship the comet sky.

Look there, the stars shine

on the tips of your glass slippers.”

Ah, so many Cinderella

men of sparks and air

chanting coy promises

catching stardust on their fingers.

And again, they came

through the fruit orchards

of hobgoblins,

“Rapunzerella, let down your

golden hair.”

Cinderella, that confused enchanted girl

twirled her golden strands

shined her glass slippers

then spun the wheel of fate and fantasy

for coy boys

into the brittle, golden hours

days running long into the night.

Jagged stars, see how they shine?

Men of airy promises

poured through the atmosphere

like toxic rain.

Castle walls soon become crypts

of truth.

Mazes of the millennium close.

Plath whispers from

the silvery, sorrowful distance

and Cinderella heeds…

View original post 13 more words

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Ten. Boulter’s Green

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If, by inviting herself to Sunday lunch Karen had expected understanding from a supportive family she could not have been more mistaken.  Her mother was scathing, probably the more so because she had been trying to keep her Dad waiting for his dinner until she arrived – which caused Dad to be pretty scathing, too.

“Tim called yesterday.”  Her mother said.

“Yesterday!  Why?  What did he say?”

“He seems to think you and he are finished.  He reckons he wasn’t the first man to be in your flat yesterday morning.”

“Well, he was right about that, at least.”

“What, you slept with another man knowing Tim’d be round first thing in the day?”

Karen could have made the same virtuous denial she had given Tim, with, she thought, about the same chance of being believed.  What demon possessed her?  “You know what they say, Mother, don’t you?  Famine or feast!”

“Karen; I’m disgusted with you!  Who is he, this new fella?”

“He isn’t a ‘new fella’.  I’m just finished with Tim, that’s all.”

“A what-d’y’call-it; a one-night stand, then, was it?  All these months with nothing, hardly any dates, no evenings out, now all at once you’ve got two in twenty-four hours.  That’s not how we brought you up, young lady!”

“Bloody hell!  Can’t you always rely on your family to think the best of you?  No, he wasn’t a ‘one-night stand’.  No, we didn’t sleep together, and I am too old to be called a ‘young lady’.  I seem to recall you were the one who told me to sort it out with Tim, not so long ago!”

“Not to stick him on the rack right next to his successor, I didn’t – hardly sensitive, Karen, is it?  He sounded very, very upset.”

“How do you think I feel?  It was the way it worked out; I didn’t mean it to happen.  And Patrick’s a friend, which is probably as far as its going.  You know him; he was the lad who took me to the Stones concert. I was very lucky he was around, as it turned out.  We both knew I had to break up with Tim.  What are you staring at?”

Bridget Eversley rarely gave looks that could be described as incisive, but she was giving one now.  “Is he?”

“Is he what, Mother?”

“Is he just a friend, nothing more?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“I’m not.  It’s good, mind:  chipping off a few of those flinty edges of yours won’t do any harm at all.  I can see he’s got to you, if you can’t.”

“Then you won’t object if he calls for me at two-thirty, will you?”

“Ah!”  Said Karen’s mother, nodding with ill-concealed smugness.  “That’d be why you’re dressed like that, then?”

“Why, what’s wrong with this?” Karen protested.  Sandals, shorts and a sleeveless top were perfectly rational choices for a hot day, and this day was hot.  Had she, subconsciously (alright, sort of consciously) dressed to impress?  “It’s not your business what I wear, not any more.  We’re comfortably eight years down the road from that argument.”

“He was a nice fella, was Tim.”  Her dad said between gobfuls of food.  “I were bloody starving!”

“Policeman.”  Her mother nodded.  “You can’t go wrong with a policeman.”

“Oh, Christ!”

“Language, Karen!”

Her father asked:  “Does he go to football?”

“Tim?  He plays rugby – you know he does.”

“No, t’other fella.”

#

Nowhere Lane proved almost impossible to navigate – torturously narrow and packed with car-jarring stones.  Karen and Patrick had to endure a mile of clinging weed and red dust before they found a place wide enough to pull over and survey the valley.  In front of them a descent getting narrower and steeper – too steep, they judged, for Karen’s little car.

Shimmering heat gave the forests dominating the opposite hills a spectral aspect; deciduous woodland to the right side, a pine plantation on the left, kept apart by the Driscombe’s Great House of Boult Wells, white walls, a battalion of tall brick chimneys, glinting windows of old glass catching the afternoon sun.  Formal gardens in a patchwork of colour led from the house down to the River Boult, and a boathouse at the water’s edge,

No more than fifty yards from the nearer side of the river there stood a trio of collapsed stone buildings, half-choked by briar and weeds.

“So that’s Boulter’s Green,”  Karen said.

“They might have been houses.  Yes, I guess so.”  Pat agreed.  Then added brightly:  “It looks like we walk it from here!”

The afternoon was fiercely hot.  A merciless sun scorched down upon open fields of turning corn and fallow grass to either side of the lane.  A pair of yellowhammers were doing sentry duty, tagging them along the hedge in twittering agitation; A wood-pigeon cooed.  Bees droned among cornflowers.  The scent of winnowed grass was almost intoxicating.  Karen burst into laughter, without really knowing why.  “Smythe?”  She said, giggling.

“Sorry?”

“Patrick Hallcroft-Smythe?”

“Ah, sister Gabrielle.  She’s not only horse-mad, she’s an impossible snob.  Hallcroft is my father’s name – Hallcroft Carpets – Gwendoline Smith (with an ‘i’) is my mother’s.  Only my ghastly sisters would insist on hyphenating the two names and substituting the ‘y’.  Please forgive?”

“Sisters?”  Karen emphasized the plural.

“There are two.  Gabby’s the eldest one.”

“Actually, she sounds rather nice.”

“She said the same about you.”

“Hallcroft carpets?”

“Yep.  That’s us; the uncrowned royal family of Axminster.  Dad was one of the first to latch onto foam-backed, and he’s very good at riding waves, once he finds one.”

The lane was a sloping trough between hedges high enough to obscure their view for much of the time.  Only as they rounded the last of the successive bends that featured every twenty or thirty yards on this descent could they get a clearer, closer impression of the vista they had seen from the car twenty minutes before.  Here the lane ended, crossed by a wooden gate beyond which there was no track but an uncultivated field; beyond that, amid an acre or more of meadow grass, and shored up amidst dense clumps of bush and bramble, were the three ruins of Boulter’s Green.

The gate looked as though it had not been opened in many years.  Clambering over, they set off briskly, kicking through cornflower and clover, shepherd’s purse and dock, Karen with a skip in her step which made Patrick chuckle.

“I wonder if I asked at the House?”  She said aloud.

“Ask the Driscombes, you mean?”

“Yes.  After all, this is part of their view.  I should imagine they would know quite a lot about it.”

“Perhaps.”  Patrick sounded doubtful.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Oh, I’m sure they do.  The Driscombes are not exactly approachable, though.  If you get a moment go for a drive on the Ullerchurch road where it passes the main gates to the estate.  The place is fortified like a secret army base, or something.  You just don’t get in.”

“I could make an appointment?”

“Yes, through their London offices; Dad had to, once, for a contract.  They did see him – in London, though, not here.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as odd – such obsession with privacy?”

“Why?  If you have the money, and they have, why not buy yourself some peace?  Old Lord Driscombe is a bit of a hermit, by all accounts.  His son Stamford is the socialite.  He needs to be, being a member of Parliament and all.”

Although the river was out of sight, a cool waterborne breeze blessed their cheeks and nature’s choral society was in full swing.  But approaching the ruins they were shadowed by grim walls of grey stone which seemed to drain all heat from the sun.  There was no chirrup of crickets in the grass now, no birdsong, although the undergrowth – dense bramble and thorn – must have been perfect nesting territory.  The closer Karen got the more a coldness gripped her heart, and the more she felt the eyes of the Driscombes glaring down upon her – Pat’s description had made her feel that she was trespassing, unwanted here, venturing so close to that great forest estate.

Each building was roofless with walls part-fallen, over-run by weeds.  Little remained of those to left and right of her, their gable ends caved inwards so their interiors were reduced to piles of rubble; the splintered timbers that once supported their roofs, now white with age, all overlaid and tangled with  Ivy.  Only the centre cottage showed some signs of structure.  A pair of window apertures glowered at her from their empty sockets.  Since she and Patrick had entered the meadow they had been watching.  They watched them still.

Patrick fidgeted uncomfortably behind her.  “Um?”  He said.

“Scary, isn’t it?”  She taunted.  “Can the valiant Pat be feeling a little bit nervous?”

“No, it isn’t that.”  He admitted humbly.  “I think this chill must be getting to me.  I’m bursting for a…look, I’ll just be a minute, okay?”

“Oh, fine!”  Karen protested to his departing back.  “Good timing!”

Her desperate companion made for the cover of the far wall.

Between the centre and eastern-most derelicts lay a stretch of open grass.  This seemed to lead from shade back to sunlight, so Karen wandered on alone until her goosebumps were able to rediscover the sun, letting its warmth fill her as her eyes took in the land beyond.  These dwellings had to have a reason – why would someone want to live here?

“Tha’s a sight, lass.”

Karen suppressed a squeal of surprise.  Turning, she saw the speaker, a withered-looking man, leaning against the wall of the centre ruin.  He was regarding at her with a disapproving expression on his shipwrecked face.

“Too much skin, in my thinking:  ‘tis shameful.  Brazen.  Aye.”

Just how old was he?  She could not tell. His clothes, grey, tattered and stiff with age, hung over his sparse frame as though they might have fitted once and he had wilted within them. Although his flesh was thin and grey and she could not dispute the gnarled hands which protruded like hawthorn roots from his ragged sleeves, there was vibrancy in his hazel eyes which denied decrepitude.  His attention seemed focused on her unclad legs and the brief shorts which clung snugly to her hips.

“Offers temptation to a man, does that.  Sinful.”

She found a voice from somewhere:  “I’m sorry if I offend you…”  She said, trying to imagine what he could possibly have left to be tempted,  “and for disturbing you.  I thought this place was deserted.”

His head moved in a slow nod.  “Deserted, aye.  Has been a while now.  Are you going to get dressed?”

“I’m afraid these are all the clothes I have with me. It’s a little rude of you to stare at me like that.”  She rebuked him mildly.  “Look, if I’m causing offence I can just go.”

“Go as you like, stay as you like.  I’m of no pref’rence.”

Her mind was turning somersaults.  What or who was he?  He was roughly dressed, but he didn’t seem like a tramp.  She could only imagine she had stumbled upon someone like herself – out for a walk, possibly?

“Are you going far?”  She asked.

“Not going nowhere, lass.”

“I don’t understand.  You don’t live here, do you?  Where do you come from?”  Karen refrained from adding ‘when do you come from?’

“Come from.”  He echoed her words, staring at his shoes.

“Yes.  Where do you live?”  There was no reply.  Propped against the wall, he seemed to be lapsing into a doze, as if she were no longer there.  “Can you tell me your name, then?”  She insisted.  “Are you Joshua Turnbull?”  It was a wild stab, but it seemed to fit, if only because she was increasingly convinced the wizened man had been expecting her.

“Turnbull, aye.  We’ve had illness here tha’ knows.”  He said.

“We?”

“We’ve had the sickness wi’ us.  There were no help for them.  They’m gone.”

“Who? Your family? Who do you mean, Joshua?”

“All on ‘em.  They took sick, see?  Then they died.”

“Couldn’t you get help?  Oh, you poor man!”

Karen noticed his attention had moved past her towards the Great House, and following his gaze, she could distinguish several slightly raised areas in the grass.  They might have been no more than natural undulations, but in her head something made the connection with burials, forging a link to a time when it was still possible for a poor family to be purged by disease: when those left alive might have buried their own dead with no-one to pray over them. She counted six; six graves.  Three were pathetically small.

“Your children?”  He nodded.  Karen swallowed a lump in her throat.  She hardly dared utter the next question:  “Is Casper there?”

The man gestured towards the furthest of the graves.  “That one.”  He said, “That one’s Casper.”

Karen edged shakily along the little line of burials to the place where Casper lay.  The grave was unmarked save for its little mound – there was no cross, no name, but here, she was sure, rested the subject of Frank Purton’s letter and the first object of her quest.  Casper Turnbull would require no education.

It seemed unfair that one who had known such suffering should be interred in a nameless grave at a place no-one visited – a place without a Christian parish to defend it.  She could only try to imagine the grief and pain of this sad creature whose family – wife, sons and daughters perhaps – lay in such unforgiving earth.

“This sickness;” She asked.  “What was it?  What took them from you, Joshua?”

There was no answer.

Karen turned around.  The old man had gone.

“No!”  Unwilling to accept what her heart was telling her, she ran to the end of the buildings, hoping she might see Joshua Turnbull walking away across the meadow, but there was no sign of him.

“Pat!”  Pat was behind her, clambering through the gap between the buildings.  “Did you see him?”

“See who?”

“Didn’t he walk past you?  He must have.”  She described her little man in his faded clothes.

“No-one passed me.  I heard you talking to yourself.”

They searched.  They scanned the horizons, they exhausted every possibility, but there was no sign of anyone, nor was there anything that could provide cover.  Unless the old man had a turn of speed to vie with an Olympic sprinter, he could not have reached concealment.

“You were dreaming.”  Was Pat’s verdict.

“I was not!”

“It’s warm, it’s sunny; you’ve been working hard and you’re tired.  You sat down on the grass, you dozed – and you dreamed.”

“I did not.”  Karen met Pat’s discerning gaze.  “Pat, I swear to you, he was standing right there.”

“It’s getting late,”  Pat said.

As they walked back to the car together Karen related her encounter in more detail, and Pat listened intently. She silently wondered what her psychic mentor, Daphne Scott-Halperton, would have made of it.  Perhaps she might ask her.   They paused, turning to look back over the valley at the ruins before the hedges hid them from sight.  The mounds the old man had guided Karen to see, though faint, were thrown into relief by the evening sun.

Are they graves, do you think?”  He asked.

She said,  “Pat, do you believe in ghosts?”

“I believe the mind can play strange tricks.  We should hurry.  It looks like rain.”

Angry purple banks of cloud were threatening in the east.  A nipping breeze whipped down the lane, stirring the hedgerows and bringing prickles of gooseflesh to Karen’s unclothed limbs.  She shuddered involuntarily so Patrick, noticing, put his arm around her and suddenly she found herself close to him; snuggling into his side, her head laid on his shoulder and inclined – very much inclined – to kiss him. She broke away, quickly.  It was there again, the fear of submitting to a rich boy’s dalliance, becoming a part of his game.  She read the sorrow in his eyes.  “Pat, I…”

“It’s alright.”  He cut her off.  “I understand, you know?  Let’s get back to the car, Karen.”

They walked in wordless rhythm, step matching step.  Karen was glad when the shelter of her car was finally reached, and the sound of the engine could break their silence.

“Oh god!”  She didn’t want to admit to weakness. “Now I have to turn this around.”

Patrick asked quietly:  “Do you want me to do it?”

She blazed back at him.  “NO!  Do you think I can’t drive?  Poor little woman, not safe to be let out on her own little woman?”

His tone didn’t alter.  “That wasn’t what I meant.  I wanted to help, that’s all.”

“It absolutely is what you meant!  You can’t help it, Patrick.  You probably don’t even know what you’re saying, but that is exactly what you meant.  What everyone means.”

“If by ‘everyone’ you include…”

“I mean everyone.”  She snapped.  “Now shut up and let me do this!”

Karen shifted from forward to reverse five times in using the gateway to turn.  Pat remained impassive throughout, and true to her instructions, said nothing.  And so it was for the whole of the drive back to Caleybridge, while a battle of emotions raged inside Karen’s head.  Why was she so angry? She had promised herself.   She had promised!

The weekend roads were quiet with the onset of rain and there was nothing to indicate the return of her stalker.  She would drop Pat at her parents’ house to recover his car, then return to her apartment.  She had to come to terms with her fear, she told herself, because nothing would persuade her to give up her independence and run home to her mother.  They were turning into her parents’ home street before Pat broke the icy clamp of silence between them.

“Shall we have dinner at The Hunters?”

“I already ate.”  Karen told him.  It wasn’t true.

“A bar meal, nothing more.”

“Thank you, but no.  I’m just going to go home.  I’m quite tired.”

He nodded sagely.  “You’ve been through a lot these last few days.  I understand.”

Drawing to a halt outside her parents’ house, something raised the fire in her once more.  “What?  What do you understand?  You keep saying you understand, Pat.  If all you can do is understand me, will you bloody well stop now, please?”

“No.  No, I won’t, or I can’t, just stop.  You let me kiss you, see, a while ago, and it was nice.  It was more than nice.”

“It was a mistake. I got carried away when I should have been more sensible.  Things are different now.”

“How?  Tim, you mean?  You’re going to stay with Tim?”

“It isn’t Tim.  I think Tim and I are over, but this is too soon and I can’t…”  Karen cut herself off, because she had to stop talking – had to!  She was gabbling, might say things better left unsaid, give rein to her innermost thoughts, let her body scream for him as it had all through the drive back to town, trying to ignore the muscles beneath that thin shirt and the intensity of his eyes.  She knew it then.  There were no half-measures, no compromises.  Her feelings were already so deep she could not remain close to him, just as a friend.  “Pat, can I say goodbye?  Thank you and goodbye?  You’ve been wonderful and…”

“So you don’t like me, then?”

“…and I am so grateful…”

“You don’t like me!”

“You know that isn’t true.  Pat, please, just go?”  Where were the tears coming from; tears for a fire that would not be put out? Why was she shaking?  “There has to be distance, you see?  I can’t let myself get close to you.  I just can’t, Pat.”

“Stop, Karen.  Stop, darling.”  His right arm was about her shoulder, drawing her to him; she was sharing his heat, betraying herself.  Yet she tried to push him back.  Flapping like a distressed bird, she did try.  His left arm cradled her thighs, lifting her to him.  She felt him kissing away the tears, his fingers travelling through her hair, probing; and then his lips testing hers, insistent, demanding; and there, or somewhere there, she stopped trying.

And she was lost.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

THE BONE CURSE, a Supernatural Medical Thriller, Only #99Cents—International BookBub Promo and U.S. #EbookSale

Carrie Rubin

A quick FYI to let you know the ebook version of The Bone Curse is on sale for $0.99 until July 29th.

Woot woot!

The Bone Curse On Sale for $0.99!

It’s on BookBub for an international deal today (couldn’t quite snag the U.S. BookBub deal yet), and for some U.S. reach, over the next few days promos will run on Robin Reads, Ereader News Today, The Fussy Librarian, and Book Gorilla.

Hopefully, for most readers, this is good news. For the readers who already bought the ebook at full sticker price, I can feel your tomatoes smacking me now. But thank you so much for your early support. I truly do appreciate it. And I guess $3.99 is still far cheaper than a movie ticket, right?

Ouch, that felt more like an apple than a tomato. 🍅🍎🍅

Now that we’re talking books and movies, what’s keeping you entertained this summer? Any books or shows to recommend?

*…

View original post 32 more words

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nine. Outrage

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No escape.

The man’s big hand clamped to Karen’s mouth reduced her cries to muffled gasping as she fought for breath.  In seconds his arm about her waist had lifted her bodily from behind, carrying her into the shadows beneath the bridge.

Once hidden from the street above, he spun her around.  Her mouth was freed and she tried to scream but her breath had gone.  She kicked out, made a lunge which he countered, throwing her back until she was pinned against the cold stone of the arch.

His maniacal eyes were inches from her own,  his lank hair whipping across her face, his wide mouth bared in a snarl.  A hand tore at her clothes, touching her, and she had a scream in her head but no sound would come.  One heavy knee thrust her legs apart with a power beyond any resistance she could offer, forcing her open to him.  His weight was pressed against her, his hardness seeking, his intentions all too clear.

Then came the blow.

It shuddered through her, the harsh resonance of flexing bone.  At first she thought it was her own head that had cracked and split open.  But then her assailant began to fall backward, and still held by him she was being dragged away from the wall. The man’s mask of wanton fury had been replaced by glazed surprise and pain.  Another body, determined and strong, interposed itself between them, breaking his grip and slamming him against the guardrail at the margin of the river.  The steel met the dark man’s lower spine and before he had a chance to rebound his legs were swept from beneath him, pitching him backwards into the racing current.  As he hit the water, he gave tongue to a canine howl.

“Jesus!”  Patrick said.  “The company you keep!”

Karen struggled for breath.  Her eyes cleared, slowly, took in a lump of rock lying on the path, the bludgeon with which Patrick had administered that telling blow.

“Are you hurt?”  Pat’s concern was readable even in gathering darkness.

Karen’s knees were in severe danger of giving way, and she was not sure whether she had suffered damage or not, but she did her best to smile bravely.  “Only my dignity.”  She assured him, rearranging what she could of her clothes with shaking hands.  “Do you think he can swim?”  There was no sound from the river.

“Right now I don’t really give a s**t.”  Pat replied crudely.  “I expect he can, but the flow under here is a bit quick, so he’ll be a way downriver before he can get out.  All I want to do is get you safe.  Can you walk okay?”  He slipped his jacket from his own shoulders to hers.  “Maybe we shouldn’t hang about too long, just in case your amorous friend comes back for another try.”

Outrage is a strong emotion, one that grabs you somewhere deep and hangs on, not for an hour or two, but a year or two, or a lifetime.  Karen would not forget that first moment of real terror in her life, in spite of all that would happen later – never forget that face in hers, those hard, vice-like hands.  Pat, who read her so well, held her close to him, knowing how strong she would want to be, yet how she needed his support.

A whispered “Thank you,” was all she could do to repay him.

He gently took her hand; then, with his supporting arm around her waist guided her from the gloom beneath the bridge into the last grey light of evening.

“He would have done it to me, you know, if you hadn’t been there?  He would have – I couldn’t stop him.”

“I know.”

“I tried to stop him, Pat!”

“Don’t talk, my love.  I understand.”

#

When Patrick brought coffee to Karen’s bedroom the next morning, she had just woken, her eyes still laden with sleep and her arms, their developing bruises exposed, outside the bed covers.  She managed a smile, had he slept well?  He told her yes, her sofa was every bit as comfortable as he could wish, neglecting to mention how long he had lain awake, waiting for morning and listening for the tall, lank-haired nightmare of last evening to return.  It never did.

“You followed me.”  Karen accused him mildly.  “Last night, from the pub.  Do I have to worry about you?”

He knew that was only half-way to a joke.  “Am I a dangerous obsessive, you mean?  Perhaps, where you’re concerned.  Mostly, though, I was worried for you.  I didn’t want to think of you walking home alone.”

“You were right.  You saved me, didn’t you?”

“You needed help.  Any dangerous obsessive would have done the same, seeing another dangerous obsessive trying to muscle in on his obsession, I mean.”

“Don’t become too obsessed, Pat,”  Karen said seriously.

“Too late.”  He confessed.  “I can be serious too, Karen.  You need protection.”

“We’ll have to report it – what happened, I mean.”

“I already have.  I used your ‘phone.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“What did they say?  Will they start dragging the river, or something?”  The smile vaporized.  “Oh, Pat!  What if we’ve killed him?”

Patrick did his best to offer her the same reassurance he had spent a sleepless night practising on himself.  “You mustn’t worry!  To be honest, the police didn’t seem too concerned. They’ll take a look down there, but the guy I spoke to made the point that apart from where it runs under the bridge, the river’s never more than waist deep.  He said they’d send someone round to see us ‘in due course’, whatever that means.”

Karen reached out for him – a hand stroking his – a gesture that sent little waves of sensitivity chasing around his body; because he was surrounded by the warm scent of her bedroom and he had spent too many hours imagining.

“You did the right thing,”  Karen said.

”I have to keep you safe.”  He stumbled over his words.  Her eyes were two deep lakes of mystery looking into his, her lips were parted in invitation.  Her uninjured hand caressed his arm as softly as ripples on a foreshore.  He wanted her.  He wanted to say how much he wanted her, but the timing was wrong and the words wouldn’t come.

“I was stupid last night, taking the river walk when I should have stayed on the street.  If I’m careful, I’ll be fine.  Oh, Pat, I’m so lucky to know you!”  She raised herself from her bed and the covers fell away.  The little blue nightshirt that hung so loosely about her breasts invited him to take it from her.  Her breath in the inches of space between their mouths was hot and needing.

Karen’s eyes filled with alarm.  “Oh my god, what time is it?”

“About ten, I think.  Don’t panic – no work today; it’s Saturday.  Le weekend!”

She scrabbled for the edge of the bed.  “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“You were in shock.  You needed sleep.  Whatever is the matter?”

“Pat, get out!   Go away!  Go home, or wherever it is you go on a Saturday.  Go and play your game of polo, or something.”

“Polo!?” 

And, as he hesitated:  “I have to dress, Pat.  Now, please?”

“Ah!”  He caught on.  “My presence might be difficult to explain, mightn’t it?  Okay, I’m leaving.  Can I just write him a note?”

“No!”

He was tidying Karen’s sofa and still trying to collect himself as she rushed past him on her way to the bathroom, gathering her dressing gown about her as she ran.  He wrote his home telephone number to remind her, on the corner of a magazine that was lying on her table and left.  She did not say goodbye.

Not five minutes later, Karen’s buzzer sounded.

“Tim!  Hello!”  She was still in her dressing gown.  Framed in her apartment doorway, Tim Birchinall looked bigger than ever.

“Hello sweetheart.  Am I too early?”

“Early?  God no.  I overslept.”  Had he put on weight?  Auburn hair, cut to police regulation, eyes of solemn brown she once told him were appropriate for a policeman, those same strong features that could start a girl dreaming without effort.  He had called her ‘sweetheart’ – that word would have meant so much to her once.

Her expected kiss of greeting must have been lacking because his eyes darkened momentarily.

“I’m still not…you know…”  Why did she feel the need to excuse herself?

“Conscious?  Listen, I’ll come back…”

“No!  I mean, no, that’s silly.  I’ll just…look, you just wait here; read or something.  I’ll throw some clothes on.”

Tim grinned impishly:  “Can I help?”

“Not this early in the morning, Tim dear, no.”  She chided him, suppressing an inner jolt.  It was his first expression of anything like a sexual interest in her for a very long time.  “Make us a coffee and cool down.  I’ll be quick, I promise.”

She called from her bedroom as she dressed – jeans, a sweater against the colder morning that would hide her arms.  How was his journey?  Was his car behaving?  What had he been doing with himself?

“Training, and more training.  I’ve joined the rugby team, though I doubt if I’ll get a chance to play.  The competition for places is really stiff.”

Tim had a question of his own. Did she still insist upon a career as an investigator?  As she emerged, fully dressed, from her bedroom, he had coffee waiting and she was just beginning to tell the story of her two missing persons, stressing their apparent connection to Boulter’s Green.  Had he ever heard of the place? Her words fell into a still pool of silence.  She only became aware Tim was staring at her when she met that stare, looking up at him for his answer.  His expression was almost one of anger.  “Tim?”

He collected himself.

“There’s a tiny tale to tell about that place.”  He said slowly.

“Anything is welcome?”

“About four years ago we pulled in a heroin user who had a real atmosphere about him, if you know what I mean.  He was wandering about town in the early hours and we thought he was a vagrant, new to the area.  Turned out he was more disorientated than anything because he gave his address as Boulter’s Green.  We checked it out on the map.  There’s nothing there.”

“’We?’  Who’s ‘we’?”

“Ray Flynn and I.  We worked together, remember?”

“You were partners.  What happened?”

“I’m not sure I can recollect.  The narco kept insisting he lived at this Boulter’s Green place and he didn’t want to go back.  Anyway, he was really thin; undernourished, you know?  And high as a kite.  So we took him in.  The story, and it may be nothing at all, concerns what happened to him.  We followed the usual procedure; banged him up downstairs for the night to straighten out, and left the Station Officer to sort out Social.  Trouble was, he disappeared!”

“What?  Who disappeared; the Station Officer?”

“Well, I suppose you could say both.  When we went back to the Station at the end of shift to tie up paperwork, his cell was empty.  I asked, but there was a different officer, someone we didn’t know, on duty.  The Station Officer who admitted him had gone home sick.  The officer on duty claimed he had no knowledge of a detention.  It was all a bit weird.”

“Didn’t your report prove…”

“There was no trace of it.  It had been ‘lost’, apparently.  He hadn’t been booked in, either.”

“Any idea…?”

Tim took Karen’s hand.  “No, darling, none.  Quite a lot of things get ‘lost’ around the Beaconshire force and a wise little constable learns to accept it and refrain from questioning.  Certain wise little PIs might adopt the same policy.”

“I want to know who he was, this H addict.”  Karen insisted.  “I want a name.  Would Ray Flynn remember?”

“Ray?”  Tim laughed. “He’d forgotten it by the next day.  No, you won’t find out.  It’s a long time ago.  Seriously, love, I should leave the Boulter’s Green thing alone.  Be very careful.”

“Is that a warning?”

“I know you.  If I tried to warn you off, it would just make you more determined.  But I do advise caution; I really do.  Now, can we find something else to talk about?”

Karen sighed.  “Okay – what?”

“Us.  Let’s talk about us. I should have walked in on you,”  He said earnestly,  “Just now – I should have taken you to bed.  I could have done, couldn’t I”

“I wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it wouldn’t have been like you – what’s the matter, Tim?”

“Then I wouldn’t have found out, you see?”

“No, I don’t see.  What are you talking about?”

“If I was a more passionate bloke…  I miss you, very much.  I still want you.”  His voice was unsteady.  “But I decided to respect your privacy and make us some drinks instead.  I went to the kitchen for cups.  The cups were dirty …”

“Yeah?  I’m sorry – I must have forgotten to wash them up last night.”

“Two cups, both warm…”

Karen’s heart skipped a beat.  “Ah.”

“Somebody drinks black coffee, you drink white.  Somebody prepared a breakfast tray…”

“I often make my breakfast on a tray..”

“And somebody wrote their ‘phone number, here,” Tim picked up a magazine from her table.  “This is not your writing, Karen, is it?”

“It could be a client’s.  I forget.”  She walked past him to the window where her view of the town would distract her from his stare.  “Bea was here last night.  She stayed late, so she slept over.”  Why was she lying when she had no need to lie?

“Where was Bopper?”

“I don’t know!  She ‘phoned him – to say she wouldn’t be home.”

“Or,”  Tim said.  “Someone else was here before me today, before you were dressed; someone you didn’t want me to know about.  You had breakfast from a tray together, where – in your bedroom?  They left not long before I arrived and they were in a hurry, which is why they dashed their number down on a magazine cover.  Alright, it could be just a girlfriend, but I’m quite good at this police stuff, and I’d stake my money on that being a man’s handwriting.  You see how it looks?  I just want an answer, darling.  I’m entitled to that, aren’t I?”

Below Karen’s window the town was already wide awake; roads and streets of houses, no one of which would be free of lies.  She said carefully, “Okay, yes.  Someone was here, but we didn’t…that is, he…he slept there, on the sofa.”

“Karen, what’s happening?  What’s wrong between us?”

Karen was tired, and her defences were down.  “If you’re so good at ‘police stuff’ you should be aware of the need to check your facts.  Nothing happened here.  I’ve nothing to be guilty of; but yes, there is something that needs to be said.”  She took a breath.  “This doesn’t feel right.  We don’t feel right anymore.  That’s not because of anyone else, it’s simply between us.”

“Is it something I’ve done?”

“It doesn’t have to be anything anyone has done.  You went away, which didn’t help.  Now and again you just reappear, and it feels like I’m greeting a stranger.  Nobody else has been in my bed, Tim.  That’s in spite of the fact that we’ve met five times since you went to London last year – how many times have we slept together since then?”

“I don’t count, Karen…”

“Nor do I, but this is easy.  Start with ‘one’; and it wasn’t exactly great, was it?”

“Okay.  Okay mea culpa.  With the new job and everything, I just haven’t – well, it hasn’t felt…”

“Right?”  With a sigh, she turned to him, placing her hand on his chest.  It was a chest she liked to touch when she wanted to actually feel his heartbeat, sense the gentle rise and fall of his breathing.  “Exactly!  Tim, darling, I’m not greedy, but what about my needs?  I have to rest content with being the little woman, accepting whatever you’re prepared to give?”

He grasped her shoulders, his eyes betraying his desperation:  “We could rectify that right now, if that’s what you want.”

Karen had to restrain a laugh, a bitter laugh which would have been cruel. “You have no idea how unattractive that offer sounds to me, especially this morning.  Have you listened to a word I’ve been saying?”  She paused for breath, trying to keep her thoughts level.  “We live in different worlds now.  We used to be together all the time, now we’re never together, and when we are we’ve nothing to share.  Just accept it, my love.  Go back to London; live your new life, yes?”

There were words of contrition she could have said, even then.  They were churning inside her:  a part of her longed to retract everything and fall into Tim’s arms because it would be so easy, it would feel so…so comforting.  No.  She had taken the step she had dreaded.  She had crossed the line.  There would be no reparation and there would be no tears – not, at least, until after; when he had gone.

“Let me get you out of this godforsaken backwater.  Come with me – come to London!  We’d be together all the time there.  We could start again!”

Karen made no answer.  She turned her head away to stare miserably through the window.  The glass was speckled with first splashes of rain.

Tim sighed.  “I guess that’s a ‘no’ then.”  He said at last.  “Look, this’ll change, I know it will.  I’m staying at the County Hotel.  If…”

“The County!  That’s a big splash!”  Karen tried to smile.

“Well, I had a special night planned.  I’ve booked dinner, so if you change your mind – about anything – call me?  Will you?”

Her heart couldn’t sink any lower; she had no more she could say.  She just nodded, trying to avoid the tears she knew were filling his eyes too.  One quick squeeze of his hand:  no turning back.  Tim Birchinall walked out of her apartment, and out of her life.

#

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear – Karen knew this because she was awake.  She had been awake for most of that night, striving with her conscience, fighting off visions of strange, angry men who wanted to hurt her for reasons she could not understand, though she spent all of the dark hours trying.  Like a tiger caged she prowled her apartment, waiting for the buzzer to sound, or the thud of a heavy shoulder on her door.

She lasted until nine-thirty, through mouthfuls of toast, cups of coffee and magazine reading, before picking up the telephone.  A   woman’s voice answered.  Wealth and privilege oozed through every vowel.

“Hello.  Did you want to speak to Patrick?”  A mental image of hundred-brushed flaxen hair was inescapable.  “Are you perfectly certain you have the correct number?  Patrick Hallcroft-Smythe?  Oh, my god, has he got a girlfriend at last?  We simply must meet – I’m Gabrielle, his sister?  He should have mentioned me but I don’t expect he did.  Do hold on to that receiver thingy and I’ll see if I can find him.  Super to speak to you, Karen!”  Gabrielle’s retreating voice was still audible.  “Patrick’s found himself a girlfriend!  Oh, my God!”

Karen waited.  She held on for what seemed to be minutes, waiting for that rustle telephone receivers make as they nestle into your ear.  “Hello – Karen?”

“I threw you out yesterday.  I was rude.  We didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“Absolutely no need.  I trust everything went well?  Listen, can I apologize for my sister?  She’s quite impossible, I’m afraid.”

“I didn’t think so.”  Karen paused, summoning her courage.  “Pat, I hope you won’t judge me for being forward, or anything, but would you mind coming with me this afternoon?  I’d like to have a look at this Boulter’s Green place and I’d value your thoughts.”

“It’s a fine day.  Why not?  I’ll pick you up at – what – two?”

“We’ll take my car.  Make that two-thirty.  And from my parents’ house – where you picked me up the night we went to the Stones concert?  I believe I might invite myself to family lunch!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content