Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Nine. Home Affairs

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One foggy winter evening early in the year 1970, a few weeks before Patrick Hallcroft and Jacqui Greenway were due to marry, the smoky intimacy of a private room at ‘Ricco’s’, a gentlemen’s club in London’s Mayfair hosted an informal gathering of three men: Sir Robert Burford, a senior member of the Conservative Party Executive, Marmaduke, Earl of Peverel, an active member of the House of Lords, and Peter Lederhulme, a political elder of many decades’ experience, one of a select few who might, in more recent times, be considered a ‘grandee’. These honorable gentlemen, so seemingly relaxed in the dark red leather of their wing chairs, could speak with quiet confidence upon matters of substance, knowing their words would be absorbed in subdued light and the stalwart oak paneling of the room, their only witness an eland’s head adorning the wall above their heads and so dead as to be unlikely to repeat their words.   The subject that had brought these party elders out into the rigours of a dark February night was the impending General Election.  They were only three:  but between them they exercised most, if not all, the authority to confer status in the corridors of power.  Those whose names were mooted unofficially here would become Ministers of State if their party prevailed.  They would form the new Government.

One by one, they discussed the bearers of those names and their suitability for inclusion in a new Conservative Cabinet.  Beginning with minor roles they examined the credentials of each, agreed or disagreed as to their potential, and made decisions – a lengthy, hard-fought and painstaking business; so they were well into the brandy and cigars before they lit upon the vexed question of the Offices of State.

“Home Secretary?”  Burford said, adding his exhalation to the haze.  “Settled, I presume?”

Lederhulme nodded.  “I had rather hoped Reggy would be among us tonight, but he declined.  Wisely, I suppose.  Any thoughts, Peverel?”

The Earl shook his head.  “No, no, there is only one candidate, I think.  Home Affairs, now…”

Lederhulme raised an eyebrow.  “Driscombe, surely?”

Marmaduke looked doubtful.  “Aren’t there others in the frame?  I’m sure the Associations are more keen on Honeyday.  I think I would prefer her myself, if you want the truth.”

“Doubtful, doubtful, doubtful.”  Burford murmured from behind smoke.  “Given the TUC position, I would prefer to see a stronger pair of hands.“

“Do I detect a whiff of misogyny?”  Marmaduke raised a mildly critical eyebrow.  “Not like you, Robert.  I was inclined to think of you as bearing the standard for equality, and all that.  What’s changed?”

“Nothing, dear chap; nothing at all; Home Affairs needs a low profile approach in the current climate.  A female Secretary of State is inevitably going to draw attention, and Honeyday is a progressive.  The trades unions will shake her like dogs with a rag.  I see Stafford Driscombe as an ideal choice – he has that quality of pragmatic stubbornness about him.”

“Pragmatic stubbornness!”  Chuckled Lederhulme.  “Now there’s a quality to conjure with!  But if you mean he digs his toes in, I’d agree with that.  And he’s a time server, isn’t he?  All the experience is there, especially with the unions.”

“They certainly dislike him,” Marmaduke said.

“Exactly!  All the more reason to pick him, say I.  Unadventurous, and stubborn.  And – and I never met a man so oblivious to questioning.  His PM on Land Registry reform last April was one of the worst argued pieces I ever heard, but he stuck to it rigorously.”  Robert sipped at his glass.  “No, the ideal Home Affairs choice, Stafford.  I back him, anyway.  You do Peter, I take it?”

The Earl of Peverel shook a doubtful head.  “I can’t agree with you, I fear.  He’s a ghastly chap.”

“Oh dear!”  Lederhulme’s smile remained fixed, although the humour had left it.  “That doesn’t disqualify him as a Minister of State, does it?  Rather chimes in his favour, I suggest.  Don’t spare us, Peverel – what dissuades you?”

“A number of things.  His arguments border on the obtuse, his speeches on the stultifying, but on both those issues I take your point:  he is immovable, in fact I doubt he ever realizes he is being pushed.  No, it’s in the more personal aspects I have concerns.  The man’s a bounder:  he docks it wherever safe harbour is offered, and we have had to cover up for him on a few occasions.  Do any of you remember Lucy Bedington-Carey?”

Burford nodded.  “I believe so.  Lady Calpepper as was, lives with some artist chappy in France now – man twice her age.”

“Yes.”  Nodded the Earl.  “Well, Driscombe put down his marker there first, and he did not stop to seek permission.  Her family threatened the most frightful row.  I remember it distinctly – I had the task of organizing the corrective surgery.  Just one misjudgment of many.  Then there’s that rather droll wife of his…”

“Jacintha?  Bit of a stunner, isn’t she?”  Burford commented.  “Always an asset, an attractive wife.”

“Attractive?  Showy, yes.  A deuced too many relatives in the E1 area, including, I’m told, a sister who works the Whitechapel Road.”

“Oh, my dear fellow!”  Lederhulme protested.  “Can’t we keep a sense of moderation, here?  The man’s been Member for North Beaconshire for nearly twenty years, for goodness sake.  The Driscombe Estates?  His feet are hardly clay, are they?”

Marmaduke, Earl Peverel smiled.  “On the contrary, I have Stafford as steeped in alluvium, and it isn’t just his feet.  Well, well, perhaps I overstate.  But the man is not a Driscombe in his father’s mould, and since dear old St. John died he’s become dangerously extravagant.  I worry we may lay ourselves open to unwanted scandal if we pick this particular name from the hat.  I remember Profumo too well.”

Robert Burford drew on his cigar.  “Well, I must say I don’t agree.  I believe he’s the man for the job.  Peter?”

“For me, too.”  Lederhulme nodded; “Although I take on board all you say, Peverel.  I assume we go to a majority vote on this one?”

“You do.”  The Earl said.  “Burford, m’dear, let’s be sure this chap’s underwear drawer is examined minutely, yes?”

“Of course.”  Burford agreed.  “I’ll think of someone appropriate to deal with it.”

“Toby Caverley-Masterson”  Lederhulme said.  “Everybody’s choice of attack-dog.  Put him on it.”

“I’m deeply uneasy about this choice;” said the Earl.  “Stafford Driscombe is the Daily Mirror’s dream Minister.  We’re in danger of handing the press a gift they simply cannot refuse.”

#

Patrick and Jacqui returned to Radley as newly-weds on the morning of the twentieth of March.  Jet-lagged, they slept late on the twenty-first, so Patrick had only recently dressed when a red Porsche sports car erupted onto the forecourt.  He witnessed its arrival from the breakfast room window and opened the front doors in time to see a whip of a woman in a short leather jacket and tight black jeans ease herself from the driving seat.  She glanced over her shoulder and saw him advancing.  She nodded at the house.

“Nice gaff.”  She said.  Then:  “Remember me, do you, Patrick?”

There was something quite familiar about the woman.  “Sorry, but I can’t recall,”  Patrick replied cautiously;  “You are…?”

“Me?  Rebecca Shelley?  Beaconshire Herald, then.  I’ve bettered meself since, though.”

“Ah, I remember.  You didn’t run my story.”

“Nah, true.  Sorry.  We have to talk.  Can we go inside?  I could murder a cuppa.”

“I’m not sure…”

“Believe me, we do need to talk.  I suppose you’ve heard about the election?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then.  Oh, bless you, I’m not canvassin’ for anyone!  I’m still a journalist, Patrick.  I work for the Daily Standard now – great big national, y’know? So, can we…?”

They sat at the breakfast room table.  Inga served them tea.

“Fabulous!  Darjeeling, yeah?”  Rebecca sipped generously.  “You just got married, didn’t you?  Congrats, Patrick.  Do you keep your good lady on the premises?”

“If you mean do we live here together, then yes.  I take it you got the story of our wedding from the local ‘paper?”

“I did so.  Dear old ‘Herald’!  Mr Penger sends ‘is regards, by the way.  You left an impression on him, you did.”  This comment found only stony ground.  Patrick doubted if the ancient ‘advertising manager of the Beaconshire County Herald remembered him at all.  Rebecca swiftly resumed her narrative.  “Right, not to waste your time, I’ll come straight to the point, yeah?  Stafford Driscombe.  You ever met him?”

“No, I’m afraid not.  I know very little about him.”

“Well, you see.  I do.”  ‘Becca nodded her head vigorously.  “I know a lot about him.  Let me test you – guess who might become Secretary of State for Home Affairs – if Heath gets in?”

“From the drift of this conversation would I be right in suggesting Stafford Driscombe?”

“Great, you catch up fast!  Now, for this next bit you have to trust me, Patrick, because I’ve been workin’ on something for a while and I’ve got six months start on you.  Then I want some answers from you, and then the story really starts!

“When a member of the aristocracy’s son – well, anyone, come to that – is being considered for a ministerial post a lot of checkin’ goes on.”

“Checking?”

“Yep.  Special Branch, MI5, the works.  Our ‘powers that be’ have to know the new boy is kosher, yes?  The Profumo affair put the fear of Jesus into them and these days, believe me, they’re thorough.  Squeaky clean, no cobwebs.  No naughty ladies in mews cottages in Knightsbridge, no close male friends without visible support, that sort of thing.”

“So they’re delving into Stafford’s cupboards?”

“Did I say you caught up fast?  Absolutely.  Why am I interested?  Because…let’s just say because.”

“Because maybe things aren’t quite right?”

‘Becca’s eyes flicked onto Patrick’s face like the shutters of twin cameras.  “I might be puttin’ it a little bit differently, but let me ask you again.  What do you know about the Driscombes?”

“Stafford and – what’s her name – Jacintha, I believe.  They are very private people – their estate is locked up like Fort Knox.  To get to meet them you have to make an appointment through their London Offices.  They never agree to meet anyone at home.”

“Exactly.  Now, those kinds of limits might work for, say, business appointments, but you don’t put restrictions like that on MI5.  It isn’t done.”

“In Stafford’s case it was done?”

“So we’ve heard.  Nothin’ official, of course; we don’t get this sort of stuff through conventional channels; ‘reliable sources’ are what we call them.”

‘Becca pulled a notebook from the small brown handbag she carried and flicked it open.  “February fifteenth, Driscombe gets the ‘call’; a casual chat with Heath, soundin’ him out about the job.  As far as we know, Heath got an unequivocal ‘yes’.  February eighteenth, Special Branch arrives at the Driscombe Estate to do a preliminary investigation.  Access is refused.  Well, Special Branch don’t like bein’ refused, so an amicable meetin’ quickly turns ugly.  They have to go back to Heath’s people and through ‘channels’ to gain admission to the Estate.   Heath wouldn’t have known about this – it’s all a little bit off the record, you see, because he hasn’t been elected yet.  Had he heard, he might have scotched the whole ministerial appointment thing right then, but he didn’t hear, so he didn’t scotch.”

“And you did – hear about it,”  Patrick said.

“We hear everythin’, Patrick.  It actually takes a week – in other words until February twenty-fifth, for Special Branch to gain access to that place.  All unofficial, you see – they can’t arrest anyone – but accordin’ to my source it required a lot of legal paper to get past Driscombe’s security.  As my source put it, ‘like opening a baked bean tin’.

“What was Stafford’s explanation?”

“None given, as far as we know.  Apparently his office claimed the Estate was run by his father’s holding company, not him.”

“Not his concern.  Don’t you believe that?”

“Oh, we do!  Just one little niggle; his father died three years ago.  They really meant to say the Estate was run by his father’s side of the company.  But it still leaves the question ‘why’ and makes me wonder what the Driscombe’s needed to tidy up.”

“But they have tidied it up.”

“There haven’t been any adverse comments, so I could hazard a guess the place is as clean as a Mother Superior’s conscience.”

Patrick sighed, and sat back to sip at his tea.  “I don’t see how I can help your story; or even that you’ve got a story,” he said, “unless there’s something else you haven’t told me.”

‘Becca leaned towards him, elbows on the table.  “Two words, Patrick.  A name.  Karen Eversley.”

Her two words struck Patrick as heavily as a physical blow.  He asked, drily:  “What has this to do with Karen?”

Rebecca Shelley’s voice softened:  “Still hurts, then?”

“It’s in the past.  It’s a closed book.”

“Which you re-open every day?  Never found her body.  You must wonder?”

“Look, I don’t see where this is going, but..”

“I said to trust me, didn’t I?  I told you I’ve been working on this for six months now, and I’ve got a lot of what I want, but I need to hear your story.  Not to rehash a dead news item, but maybe begin a new one.  I’m like you, Patrick.  I want to know what happened to her.”

At some time in the course of ‘Becca’s explanation, Jacqui had entered the breakfast room unnoticed.  Now she moved into ‘Becca’s view, putting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders.  “Darling, do you want to do this?”

“Hi.”  ‘Becca said.  “You must be the new bride.  Congratulations!”

“I’m Patrick’s wife, yes.”

“Jacqueline.”

“Yes.”

“Stay with us, Jacqueline.  Help Patrick.  Tell me the story.”

A number of negative options must have flashed through Jacqui’s thoughts at that time.  She could urge Patrick to say nothing, ask this waspish little woman to leave, even call Jackson to join them.  She did none of those things because she could see that by just the utterance of Karen’s name, her cause was lost.  That extra person was already back in the room, and there was nothing she could do.

“I really didn’t know her that well.  My husband will be able to fill in any details I shared.”  Jacqui said quietly.  “I’ll be in the snug if you need me.”  And she left the room.

Patrick watched her go before he asked:  “Are you saying there’s a connection?”

“Between Karen’s disappearance and the Driscombes?  I’m not sayin’ anythin’ yet.  Tell me the story.”

The re-telling of Karen’s tale was against Patrick’s instincts, yet he agreed and took Rebecca Shelley through the sequence of events that led to her disappearance.  As he did so, memories refreshed themselves in the telling, and Kare’s image stood before him renewed, so he almost felt she could be somewhere in the house again, that he had only to open the right door or call her name, and she would come.  Albeit admitted only to himself, guilt washed over him, so he felt tired and world-weary, disappointed that the tide of fortune might play with him as easily as it liked.

‘Becca was a good listener.  She only spoke when she felt there was a detail omitted or a reasoning process unexplained, and when he concluded, at the point of his last visit to Boulter’s Green, she waited silently, as if expecting more.  But they had reached Patrick’s sunder point.  He had nothing left to tell.

“Okay,” she said at last;  “You lost track of Karen after she left this clairvoyant woman’s house, and the last evidence you had of her was her car, parked in a ruined boathouse.”

“I swear it was her car.  There was an old red Pathfinder in there, too, and four bikes, but when I went back later they’d gone.”

“Strange, isn’t it?  But you didn’t see her, in person, after you left her here that mornin’?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“See, Patrick, people don’t just vanish into thin air, do they?  It just doesn’t happen.  So she either came back to the car and drove it away, after or maybe because you saw it, or someone who abducted her did the same.  Are you all right with that?”

Patrick sighed.  “I suppose so, but twice?  From Nowhere Lane and then from the boathouse?  I’ve gone back over this time after time.  Either way, it gets us no further.”

“You seem a decisive sort of bloke, Patrick.   Did you keep on lookin’ for her?”

“Of course I did, up to a point at which my family was being threatened.  The barn here was burned down with my father’s car collection inside.  You wrote that story up, didn’t you? And I just ran out of places to look.  Her letter, together with the removal of her furniture from the apartment, meant the police wouldn’t help.  Her parents seemed convinced she had moved away.  I couldn’t find the firm who made the removal, so there was no way of discovering where or why her things were taken.”

“Her parents are less certain now.  They’ve heard nothin’.  No more letters, though she promised she would be in touch.  They’re a bit grief-stricken, thinkin’ they’ve lost their second daughter.  Oh, and the removal firm came from London.  They took a bit of findin’, but they have the record.  Karen paid for the removal, or at least the payment was debited to her account, after the proceeds of the sale were deducted.  Her stuff was auctioned, all of it.”

Patrick arched an eyebrow.  “You have been busy!”

“Told you, I’ve had six months on this.”  Rebecca slipped her notebook back into her handbag. “I’d like to have a look at this Boulter’s place, maybe tomorrow, and I’d like you to come with me.  Would you do that?”

“I’ve been back there.  There’s nothing to find.”

“And it seems hopeless, don’t it?  On the map, though, it looks awful close to Boult Wells, and I’m a new pair of eyes, you see?”

“If you think…”

“I don’t think. I check.  I follow up everythin’, every tiny little thing, Patrick.  Are you in or not?”

“I’ll come.  Tomorrow.  And we’ll use my Range Rover if we’re going to drive that lane.  It’ll murder your car.”

“Well done!”  The young reporter grinned.  “Eleven thirty, then.  I’ll bring sandwiches.  Pick me up at the Huntsman, yeah?”

“The Huntsman!”

“I’m staying there.  It used to be your regular, didn’t it?  I’m makin’ the acquaintance of the locals.”

After Rebecca Shelly had left, Patrick discovered Jacqui in the snug as she had promised, pondering over a ‘Country Life’ magazine.  She glanced up when he entered, then returned to her reading.

“Come on, Jacks; you know you hate that magazine!”  Taking it gently from her hands, he ignored her mild protest, sitting beside her and putting his arm around her shoulders.  “I’ve been asked to go back to Boulter’s Green.”  He told her.

Jacqui sighed, dropping her head onto his arm.  “We’ll never be free of her, will we?  I mean, really free.”

“I won’t go if you don’t want me to.”

“No, you go.  Who knows, maybe this woman will provide some answers at last.  Maybe that’ll give you peace, I don’t know.”

“I have peace;” Patrick told her.  “I have you.”

They settled back into the cushions, shutting their minds to the lie.

 

© 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 Twenty-Eight              Alliance        

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Harald Maassen, Jacqui reflected when their evening together had concluded, was something of a masterpiece.  Yet pencils or paints would never suffice to capture the vitality that transformed those strong, Teutonic features into smouldering life.  There was essence in the man, some engine buried deep that propelled an indefatigable quest for life and purpose; an engine, she had to feel, that was wasted in Patrick’s harsh commercial world.

Sitting on the sidelines, translating as fast as she could when he groped for an English word in his stuttering grasp of the language, she saw how Patrick shared her admiration, and how ably Maassen reciprocated.  Ideas flew between them with shuttlecock urgency, their mutual plans growing with every exchange.

When at last, with the hour well past midnight, their new German friend confessed his tiredness, so the business of the day had finally to close, Jacqui felt the curtain drop.  Maassen was a past distraction now, for the true issue of her day had yet to be resolved.   Patrick suggested they take coffee in his room.  With not a little trepidation she agreed.

An elevator bore them upwards in silence.  At the end of an exciting, pensive day there were no more veiled inferences left.  As she crossed the threshold to his room, small talk:  “Was it a productive day, do you think?”

“It was outstanding!  If Harald isn’t running our European operation by the end of the year we will have failed somewhere.  What did you think of him? Did he surprise you?  He surprised me!”

“I liked him.  But then…”    Jacqui felt obliged to equivocate.

“Ah!  The dreadful ‘but then’!”

“You were a revelation.  I never saw the salesman in you, Pat.  I’m a little awestruck.”

“Well then, it’s mutual – you are a very capable translator.  Did you never think of doing it for a living?”

“I suppose I lacked courage.  I’m an under-achiever, hadn’t you noticed?”

Patrick’s room overlooked Hyde Park. They sat in tub chairs by his window, gazing over regiments of stately trees at the distant shimmer of Knightsbridge.

For some minutes neither spoke. It would be wrong to deny the weight of expectation that hung like a rain-cloud above their heads.  Eventually Patrick suggested room service.

“Champagne?  To celebrate, you know?”

Jacqui gestured her refusal;  “Not for me.”

“I thought it…”

“I’ve had enough to drink.  Whatever is said tonight, my love; whatever might happen, I don’t want to wake tomorrow morning with the excuse that I was light-headed.”

“Am I?  Your love – am I?”

Jacqui stared at him; “How can you ask?  You know – my god you must know my feelings?  I’ve been plastering them over every billboard I could find.  What’s the matter with you – can’t you read?    I’ve loved you, in my quiet little way, for years.  So I thought, maybe…”

“I have a feeling I won’t like what you say next.”

“There’s a problem, still.  We might as well both admit it, mightn’t we?  I’m not a fool, I know why you brought me to London and I know why I’m in this room.  But there’s someone else here too, Pat.”

“That’s not true.”

“No?  I’ve seen it in your eyes. You still think about her.  That’s not unnatural, of course you do, and I wouldn’t mind that, but I’m not Karen.  I could never be Karen!  Can I tell you what scares me?  You might not even remember.  It was that first Monday after you and Karen had gone out together – to some concert or another.  You came into the office with a look in your eyes; a fever I’d never seen before in you.  It’s never left you, that fever.  It’s still there now.  I can see it every time you look at me.  You’re looking at me and seeing her, and that’s nothing I can compete with.  She’s as much with you in this room as I am.”

Patrick was thoughtful, his eyes drawn to Jacqui’s sorrow and his fingers searching for a note from the rim of his glass.  The true object of his search was honesty. “So, believing that, why are you here?”

“Oh, I don’t know!  Wishing, dreaming, hope, perhaps?”  Jacqui made to get to her feet.  “What am I doing; what am I saying?   Look, this is all wrong – a silly, tragic mistake.  I’m going to go to bed, and sleep off all the wine.  In the morning everything will be back to normal and we can both pretend this never happened, okay?”

“Please, don’t go?”  He reached out a hand, staying her gently.

“Pat, I think I have to.  It was a really wonderful day, but it’s over.”

“Give me a minute, yeah?”  As she made to rise from the table, he came to her, slipping an arm about her shoulders.  His fingers stroked the softness of her cheek and he let them linger there, caressing yet assuring and strong.  His power was all around her, a pulsating force that all her dreams had told her she would never be able to deny.  Her dreams spoke truth. “All those years – I just want one more minute?”   She might have resisted – for an undecided moment she was disposed to try, but the moment passed.  Sighing, she leant into his cradling arm.

“You’re right, in a way, because you can’t just stop loving somebody, but she isn’t standing between us.  She’s gone.  What you’re seeing is my guilt, because I let it happen, whatever killed Karen.  Oh yes, she’s dead.  I know that now, and her ghost doesn’t haunt me.  But every day I accuse myself for my stupidity; because there must have been something I left undone – that haunts me.

“We worked together all day today, and  I enjoyed it.  But it isn’t about that.  It’s about seeing you this morning on the platform at Caleybridge, a vision of something lovely I have, no matter what you say, dreamed about.  It’s about hearing your voice say hello; about seeing your car on the drive as you come to visit, about your smile.  It’s about being first to see that smile tomorrow morning, and every morning.  I want you, Jacqui – not just as a friend anymore.  If you would agree, I’d like us to try for something greater.”.”

A warm tear touched his fingers  “We’re not speaking of love, here, are we?”

“No?  We’re speaking of something stifled for so, so long, that needs to be made real.”

Standing so close, finding she was able to rest in the cradle of his arms, she felt safe.  She felt sure.  But she could not admit to that.

He took her cheeks between his hands and made to kiss her, but she twisted her head aside.  “No, Pat.”

“You can keep saying no to me, but I’ll keep coming back.  This is about you, not a ghost from the past.  We are really much more than just friends.  I can’t blame you for doubting me, but I’m certain you’ll accept the truth in the end.”

“Look, Pat…”

“I love you, Jacqui.”

She turned her face from him, so he should not see the tears on her cheeks.  “You always know the right bloody thing to say, don’t you?”

“I mean it.  It might have taken me years to find it out, but I really do.”  He kissed her neck, gently.  “Give us a chance, darling?  Give us both one chance?”

There, in the enclosed heat of a hotel room on a hot August night, a contract was made.  The enclosed heat of suppressed passion was unleashed in an act of love that, for all its inexpert desperation, would seem generous enough at the time, and in a time when so much of life was oppressive it would not fail the test of two people, each in their different ways seeking redemption.  Only the wisest of us would detect the moving finger as it traced its message across those darkened walls, and only the most perceptive, creeping between the closed leaves of Jacqui’s mind, would witness her final thought before she dropped into  exhausted sleep, and be a little shocked, perhaps, to discover it was of Harald Maassen.

#

In October of 1969, amid the season of swirling mists and wet leaves falling, the book of Gwendoline Hallcroft’s life finally closed.  Her difficulty walking and climbing stairs meant she had taken to sleeping in the old games room on the ground floor at Radley.  Jackson had equipped it for her and he employed a full-time nurse, a shining star of a woman who rejoiced in the name of Henrietta, which led Patrick, a little unfairly, to call her ‘Hen’.  Hen, petite, with mousey hair and a perpetual smile, clucked about the house, making it her duty to give hourly reports to anyone who would listen about the wellbeing, or otherwise, of her patient.

“She’s bright as a button this morning, Mister Hallcroft.  Took her breakfast really well.  I think her appetite’s coming back!”

Or:  “Not so good today, I’m afraid.  She’s been a tiny bit sick, but never mind.  Better tomorrow!”

Everyone knew the prognosis was not a long one.  The cancer that had been nibbling at Gwendoline for months or maybe even years had developed a taste for her flesh, and begun devouring her voraciously by the day and the hour.  Having established that her disease was incurable she resolutely refused treatment, preferring to close the book of her life with as much dignity as possible.  Nevertheless, her ending was a sudden, cruel affair.  Maybe she was aware she stood at the gates, and being persuaded her time had come she took advantage of Hen’s inattention, forcing herself from her bed to walk out into the frost of an early weekday morning.  She was found huddled at the door of Chuffy, her favourite horse’s loose box.  What the disease had yet to conclude the brittle autumn air accomplished.  She was stiff and cold when Jackson discovered her.  She was just fifty-six years old.

Gwendoline was laid to rest one raining afternoon in her family’s plot in the churchyard at Heighton Sibley, with the black umbrella’d mushrooms of her people clustered around her coffin, a box so light only four bearers were needed to take her to her last bed.  As they walked from the grave – Gabrielle nestled against her father’s arm, behind them Patrick and Jacqui, whose place in the family had strengthened since Karen’s loss, held hands together.  A sombre Paul tailed that sad little procession back to the limousines, wrapped in his thoughts.

Gwendoline’s death opened a dark chasm under Jackson.  There were whole days when he did not appear at the factory, or surface from his study.  So Patrick became managing director of Hallcroft Carpets in all but name, and Jackson would happily have yielded the position to him officially if he had asked.  If the Hallcroft family’s personal tide was ebbing the same could not be said for the business, which, on the strength of Patrick’s vision, was growing to almost double its former size.

How did Jacqui feature in all these changes?  On the face of things she might have seemed an unlikely mistress of Radley Court, yet that was, eventually, to become her role.  After their first stumbling night together on that epic London adventure, she appeared to feel justified in committing herself to a relationship with Patrick.  Meetings once confined to one or two a month now took place three or four times in a week, the further development of which was only constrained by the fact of Gwendoline’s illness.  In the weeks following her funeral, those constraints were removed.  Jacqui, already valuable to Patrick as a translator, extended her role, helping within the business wherever she could, staying by Patrick’s side when he needed her, there in the background when he apparently did not.

On the first week of November the family dispersed, inasmuch as Gabrielle, who had  remained in the family home to tidy up her mother’s affairs and comfort her father as much as she could, rejoined Paul, who had already returned to his Manchester firm.  Amanda, who agreed to board with the school where she had managed to remain for her last four years, also departed.  The dwindled Hallcroft clan made a promise to meet again at Christmas, but before she left Gabrielle had a short conversation with Patrick.  She gave him a reassurance she knew he needed.  “I’ve discussed it with Sprog.”  Gabrielle said.  “Go and do your stuff, Patsy.”

Patrick and Jacqui were given to walking by the lake where, long ago, he had walked with Karen.  It was on such a walk on a damp Sunday afternoon that Patrick suddenly grasped Jacqui’s arm and pulled her to him in a kiss.  His evident passion alarmed her a little, so she stepped back, gently resisting.

“Pat, not here, darling.”

He grinned at her conspiratorially.  “Why not?”

“Because it’s cold, and it’s very, very wet…”

“Ah, I see.  Not the appropriate atmosphere for settling an important question.”

Jacqui felt her heart taking standing jumps at her throat.  She swallowed hard.  “Then again, it might be.  It rather depends upon the question.”

“A two-part question.”

“Oh PAT!  Get on with it!”

“Alright then. Will you marry me?”

There, by the lake, they agreed they would marry in the spring.  Much later, as they walked back to the house, arm linked in arm, Jacqui asked:  “What was the second part?”

“Second part?”

“You said it was a two-part question.”

“Oh yes, I did, didn’t I?  This is a bit more difficult, Jacks.  Suppose I asked you not to wait until after we’re married?”

Jacqui chuckled.  “I wasn’t aware that we had!”

“No, that isn’t quite what I meant.  Would you move in with me, here now, or tomorrow, or soon, at any rate?  You could have a room of your own, of course, and we’d get somebody permanent to look after the house, as well as the two Mrs Bs.  I mean, you’d have whatever you wanted, and you would save Father and me from rattling around in our own echoes.”  Patrick finished humbly. “I realize it’s an awful lot to ask, and we’ll buy our own place if you tell me that’s your choice.  Just think about it, if you will?”

“I’ll think about it.”  Jacqui agreed.  “Would it have to be a permanent arrangement?”

“No.  Apart from you and I, nothing is permanent.  For a few months maybe until things get settled, a few years if you want to, forever if you get to like the place enough.”

“And I can get to ride the horses?”

“You ride!  After all this time I didn’t know!  Yes, that would be great!  I thought I was going to have to sell them, though Gabby made me promise to keep Chuffy if I could.”

“But I’d have to sleep on my own?”

Patrick put his arm around her and hugged.  “Would you want to?”

“No, Patsy, I wouldn’t.”

So that was how Jacqueline Greenway, who was to be Jaqueline Hallcroft-Smythe on the fifth of March the following year, became the mistress of Radley Court.  The process was gradual at first:  she spent hours inducing Jackson from his self-imposed isolation, gaining his trust. She advertised and found a young Swedish girl in need of work.  Inga was tireless and hopeless at the same time, spreading a thin film of unattended dust and a gravel of broken crockery behind her wherever she sought to improve, but she was willing to work all hours, managing to placate the formidable Mrs Beatty and mildly torment the capable Mrs Buxham in the process.  In short, Inga slotted into the chaotic dysfunction of Hallcroft family life, and brightened Jackson’s firmament with her outrageously brief mini-skirts.

The stables also had to be reduced.  Of the horses only Chuffy and Shiner remained; two backs upon which Jacqui could ride if she wished, though she set about coaxing Patrick onto Shiner.  A nephew of Mrs Buxham’s who liked to be known as Shane was paid cash for two hours of stable work each day, and exercising the animals when others could not.

Throughout all these changes Jacqui kept working in Caleybridge.  At Christmas, when the family gathered once more, Gabrielle remarked that she never seemed to stop.

“You’re taking on too much, sweetie.  This place drinks up your time.  Mumsy had to give up work to do it, and Daddy was more help than he is now.”

“He practically lives in that study of his,”  Patrick admitted.  “Not that he was ever particularly present, but he still had more time than I seem to have.  Jacqui’s going to have to learn to drive the new mower, come spring.”

“That does it!”  Gabrielle exclaimed.  “DO something, Patrick!”

Patrick nodded.  As soon as an opportunity arose, he confronted Jacqui:  “I wondered if you were so attached to County Hall you could never leave it;” He said, “although I think that would make you unique.  So I also wondered if I could ask you to work with me – in the Company, I mean?  Dad agrees – you’d be a great help in liaising with Maassen and building up the European operation.”

Jacqui agreed.

Thus, out of the sad weeds that wept for Gwendoline’s passing a new Hallcroft order was created.  Patrick and Jacqui ran Radley Court as well as Hallcrofts, aided by Inga and the two redoubtable Mrs. Bs.  Inga’s value proved to be twofold, for she not only kept house for her younger employers, but also revived Jackson’s spirits by flirting with him mercilessly.  At first Patrick was suspicious of her motives, but it quickly became clear she had no other purpose than to draw the grieving widower out of his malaise and return him to life.  She had great success.  As February clenched her cold fist around Radley Court, Jackson returned to the Company he had built.   We cannot say if he approved of the many changes his son had wrought, for although there were innovations he might have considered controversial, much of his entrepreneurial flair had left him, and for a while, at least, ambitious son and weary father worked quietly together.

It was to be a troubled year, 1970.  A year that witnessed the expansion of the distant war in Vietnam also heralded the end of the liberal youth culture that had created The Beatles.  A country tired of socialist government came riding in upon a reactionary wave which bore up many a political whale that had slumbered in the deep while hippiedom and the generation of free love cavorted above their heads.  And one such very mediocre humpback was none other than Stafford Driscombe…

 

© 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 Twenty-Seven Altered Fortunes

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Those who knew Jacintha Driscombe would have been surprised if they learned of her hatred for London.  Although she never openly expressed it, she endured the round of Kensington and Knightsbridge parties that formed so much of Stafford’s political life with gritted teeth and icy propriety, conceding to her husband’s wilder excesses only because they instilled sufficient guilt in him to ensure his loyalty to her.  When he returned from an evening of raucous indulgence she would be waiting to tell him how much damage he had done to his image, and how fortunate he was that the gossip columnists had given his particular soiree a miss.

Stafford would affect unconcern, dismissing her as a scold, and never really accepting his wife’s reminders that sobriety was a precondition for someone intent upon high office.   His conscience would be pricked, however, and he would remind himself to be more cautious next time he found himself tempted by an ample bosom.  He was always prey to temptation, was Stafford, and he was far too socially obtuse to recognize the true cause of his wife’s discomfiture.   Once, after all, she had loved London – why didn’t she now?  Jacintha would never tell him: she would never confess to the threatening train of events that haunted her dreams, if one day his behaviour should awaken the instincts of a newshound eager to expose the darker corners of her very ordinary past.  This town was full of relatives and past show-business associates all of whom would be ready to tear her, and therefore his prospects, apart.

The night of July fourteenth, nineteen sixty-four was particularly vital.  The party of itself not excessively so, only in its choice of guests, one of whom was  President of the Board of Trade, a man considered to be an invincible force in Stafford’s political party, and almost certainly destined to become its leader.  In stature Edward Heath was not particularly prepossessing, but the shake of his hand, especially if accompanied by a short exchange of views, was an ambition within Stafford’s compass, and Jacintha was coolly focused upon seeing it achieved.

Heath was not particularly susceptible to the charms of the female sex; Jacintha knew this, but for once her own frail history played to her advantage, because Heath also suffered from inglorious antecedents, being, exceptionally for a high ranking Conservative, the son of a builder and a maid.  She would never refer to this commonality in conversation, of course, but it engendered a certain ease of communication which gave her the chance to corner the great man and engage him for some time.

Despite an ancestral line founded among the Stuart kings and a mountain of family wealth (the Driscombes owned the mining rights to several mountains, most of which were full of gold), Stafford Driscombe was a very moderate politician.  It had taken Jacintha’s perspicuity, together with an unfortunate experience while shopping one Saturday in Caleybridge, to set him upon a crusade which allowed his horizons to broaden.  There was no doubt the abolition of National Service and liberal enlightenment that would soon transform a generation into what has become known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, had created an unhealthy youth culture prone to violent displays – a general revolt against the Conservatives’ precious status quo.  Upon Jacintha’s suggestion, and with not a little cajoling which, like most of her invocations, started in the bedroom, Stafford had stepped forward as the standard bearer of those who wished to discipline the rebel ‘Mods and Rockers’ and, to use Stafford’s own words;  “Bring law and order back to the streets of Britain.”

As catch-phrases go, it was hardly ‘catchy’.  As problems went, the new-found freedoms of youth would take on many other more challenging aspects, but it afforded Stafford an opportunity to exercise his true skills, those of covert plotting and devious dealing.  In his long occupation of his parliamentary seat he had cultivated a number of friendships in the more conspiratorial depths of Home Office, and it was these, as much as any other modicum of success, that began to attract notice from The Party, notice sufficient to allow Jacintha to touch Edward Heath gently on his arm and utter words that would become fateful in their time:

“Ted, I wonder if I could introduce you to my husband?”

#

It was not sight that first informed Patrick in his awakening but touch – the soft brush of a kiss upon his forehead; so that when he raised his eyelids for a confused look at the returning world the view in the mist was of Jacqui Greenway looking embarrassed and ecstatic at the same time.  She withdrew quickly, her eyes shining and a laugh that was half a sob caught in her throat.

“You’re awake!”  She said, pointlessly.

He murmured something he would never remember.  Then he went back to sleep.

Recovery was to take months.  There were internal injuries as well as bones to heal, all of which involved intense discomfort and chronic pain.  Only a first fortnight of this time was spent in a hospital bed, the remainder at his home, Radley Court.  Gwendoline, his mother, was watchful, his sister Gabrielle attentive, Jackson, his father, for the most part absent, working as hard as ever.  Spring of the year following Karen Eversley’s disappearance was spent in long hours on the lawns with Petra, now fully healed and back to her usual obstreperous self, bouncing at Patrick in her enthusiasm, impervious to his disability and in danger of adding to it.

Now and then Jacqui’s car would venture up the driveway to Radley Court.  Patrick found himself anticipating her visits more and more eagerly because her companionship was always pleasurable and her controlled sympathy for his reduced state a balm his family somehow failed to administer.  When Jacqui visited Gwendoline would watch from a distance, reading the young woman’s heart with the same acuity she once demonstrated to Karen.  The difference was in Patrick’s reaction, which she could interpret equally well.  Nevertheless, Jacqui and her son spent hours together, sitting side by side on the grass on warm days, in the snug when it was cold or if it rained.  And the conversation was empty, while the meanings crammed within it left no room for more.

As Spring turned to Summer Patrick’s and Jacqui’s friendship deepened; but there was another – and Jacqui always understood this – who held onto his heart.

“Everybody tells me she’s dead; that she’s in a ditch somewhere, cold and returning to the earth.  I can’t see that.  I can’t accept it.  I may never find her again, yet I know she’s alive.  I can’t explain why; I just know.”

Such is the illusion that grips many who mourn the lost, that no matter how unimpeachable the evidence they will still hold fast to a belief that in some way their loved one has survived.  Nevertheless, Patrick seemed content with wishing.  Somehow he contrived to close the book on his relationship with Karen, in a way that mystified Gabrielle, who of all his family was the most persistent and the most loyal.  She had barely time to strike a friendship with Karen, yet it was she who kept searching, quietly asking questions, seeking answers.  Patrick?  Gabrielle excused her brother for doubting; maybe he just couldn’t accept that Karen’s love for him had been as deep as she herself believed.  Maybe he had succumbed to the police-inspired argument: Karen had simply left him and moved on.

There existed another reason for Patrick’s demeanour, however; one he never divulged.   Mrs Buxham, Radley Court’s ‘Morning Lady’ was so seriously overworked she could sometimes be guilty of shoddy cleaning practices; a crime for which she was never blamed because everyone except Jackson recognized the enormity of keeping a small mansion in order.  Mrs Buxham was becoming elderly: Mrs Buxham needed help.   So Patrick was less put out of temper than he should have been when, returning from hospital and still deeply ill, he was visited in his bedroom by the considerable personage of Mrs Buxham, in apologetic mode.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Patrick.  I was cleaning the room Miss Karen stayed in t’other day.  This were in the bedside drawer.  I must have missed it last time.”

She thrust a small envelope into Patrick’s hand, then retreated hastily before Patrick worked out the implication she had only entered the room twice to clean it in the last ten months.  The envelope was addressed simply:  ‘Pat’.  The slip of notepaper from within it said:

My Darling Pat,

Our time together is almost over. 

Be happy, only spare a moment now and then to remember me with fondness? 

You taught me love.  You taught me so much.

Your devoted Karen.

#

In July Paul and Gabrielle announced they would be married, and the house rattled and banged and rushed and bustled with renewed vitality.  That was the month Jacqui remembered for the first time she saw a smile reach as far as Patrick’s eyes.

“I want you in the business.”  Jackson Hallcroft told Patrick.  “You know I’ve always wanted that.  I need your help, son.  And you need mine.”

“What makes you think I could do it?”

“You’re a Hallcroft, aren’t you?  You’ve a head on those shoulders.  The market’s changing and our industry could use a few clear heads right now.”

Patrick’s view of the proposition was fatalistic.  He might as well do that as anything else, and idleness had become irksome.  Whether boredom or the prospect of a new set of company wheels enticed him, the following Monday Patrick limped through the doors of his father’s mill.  It was the first time in a lot of years he had been further than Jackson’s office to stand among those great machines which produced carpets branded with his family’s name; the immensity, the noise and the smell of dyes entered his blood and he was smitten.

Jackson Hallcroft was no easy taskmaster.  He insisted Patrick learned every aspect of the trade:  In the years which followed he was grounded by learning the milling process, acquiring the expertise needed to mind the machines, teaching himself how they worked and their capabilities.  Inch by inch he improved, seeing how his father was blinded by his own success and adding his voice to those on the factory floor who predicted the need for change.  If the history of Hallcroft Carpets were ever to be finally written, it would be said that Jackson built the business, but his son took on the new markets and won.

So time passed: the months grew into years, and the years since Karen’s disappearance multiplied.  Although she held a place she had requested in Patrick’s heart, he no longer expected to meet her around every corner, or read her name in a newspaper, or hear her voice in a crowded room.  You should not doubt his faith:  in a few days in a forgotten time, he had found love, only to have it taken from him.  Had he the means or the knowledge to find Karen he would have done so, but she was gone – vanished.  The Old Father worked a healing magic, a spell he needed if he was to live his life, and Karen became a memory consigned to an archive of that life.

It was on a day in early August of 1969.  Gabrielle and Paul now lived in a town in the North, where Paul had a job that promised a partnership later on.  Amanda (Sprog) was compensating for her erratic schooling by exhibiting the first signs of brilliance and a determination to pursue her mother’s profession with all of her mother’s skill.  At fifteen she had grown tall and statuesquely beautiful, while her rampant snobbery had dwindled to a sediment within her speech, so that it was no longer the things she said that were offensive, merely the way she said them.  Gwendoline’s hair had turned to grey.  She had become dangerously thin, inducing Patrick to conclude his mother had some illness, though she would not speak of it.  She still rode, if a little painfully.

Patrick at 29 years old, now a director in his father’s company, telephoned his friend Jacqui to suggest a meeting in Caleybridge at their usual restaurant.  At the end of the call, Jacqui replaced her receiver thoughtfully.  She and Patrick had dated sporadically through the years, although he never called them ‘dates’. They never ended with more than a familiar peck of a kiss, followed by a lonely taxi-ride home.  The pair had no relationship, as such: or fealty to each other.  Each was free to date elsewhere, and did; though with little enthusiasm or success; Patrick, whose heart was stuck in the past, would try to find another Karen when, of course, there was no other to be found, while Jacqui’s quest was more aimless but still, after all, as futile.  There was no alternative Patrick, either.

This day, though, she thought she detected some difference in his voice, which filled her with dread because she knew, deep inside herself, that her infatuation with him must find an end somewhere.  Her hope, the one romantic aspiration which sustained her, was that time would eradicate the scar Karen had left; that in some time to come he would stop re-living the two short weeks when he fell in love, and return to her world.  This had not happened, and she persuaded herself it would not happen.  The platonic years had taken their toll, so now there was a small embittered corner in her heart that almost hated him.

He was already seated at the bar when she walked in.  She had made no effort; sweater and jeans, hair only summarily tamed.  When he turned to see her and smiled his usual welcome some of the palpitations in her chest were eased.  She smiled back.

“I ordered for you.”

“Did you now?”  She said.  “You know I hate that.  I take it we’re eating here, then?”

“I thought…”

“No, that’s okay. I suppose.  I like it here.  What have I got coming; crab, or something?.”

“Oh, look, I’m sorry, Jacks.  I ordered tartare, but I can change it if you want?”

“No!”  Jacqui raised a defensive hand:  “Tartare’s fine, just fine.  I wish you’d leave me the freedom to choose, that’s all.”

There was a corner table they were accustomed to booking, and although the restaurant’s popularity was increasing now, Patrick’s status as a customer normally assured them of their place.

For a while they small-talked: Patrick had been out of town; how was Bea?  Was Bopper settling into his new promotion?  Had she sorted out the lighting she wanted for her apartment yet?  The main course came and went, but the evening had begun on a low note, and Jacqui’s impatience began to show.  “What’s this about, Pats?”

“How d’you mean?”

“Not our usual night is what I mean.  You, nervous as a cornered rabbit, that’s what I mean.  What’s going on?”

Patrick sipped his wine, nodding slowly.  “I didn’t realize I was so transparent.”

“After all these years I shouldn’t know you?  Come on, give!”

“I’m going to talk politics for a minute.”

“Must you?”

“You asked.  It’s like this, Jacks.  You know there’s an election coming up, don’t you?  Everyone thinks Labour is going to win.”

“You don’t?”

“Wilson’s not handling Ireland well, and there’s a lot of disquiet about the strength of the unions which I think will turn the country towards a Tory government.  I’ve been watching the changes very carefully, and I’m fairly convinced.  Not a landslide win, maybe, but almost certainly a new administration, and it’s going to be run by Heath.”

“I guess I agree, although I wish it wasn’t Heath.  The man has no charisma.  He reminds me too much of Douglas-Home.”

“Really?  A blue-blood against a wannabe?  Still, be that as it may, if Heath wins he’ll have us in the Common Market within the year.  I happen to think that’s his big appeal.  It’s a foregone conclusion, and ‘Hallcrofts’ have to be placed to take advantage of it.”

“So?”

“So I’m meeting a small trading mission of European buyers in London next week.  They’re on a busy schedule, and I’ll only have an hour or two with them, but I hope to open the doors to a German marketplace that’s made for us.”

“Surely it’ll be two years before the trade links are available.  And that’s if Heath does win.”

“The avenues are open now, they just aren’t free of tariffs and bureaucratic obstacles; if I’m prepared to finance some initial losses, I’ll have a very big foot in the door when those issues are removed.”

“I see that.  Pats, darling?”

“Hmm?”

“What has this to do with me?”

“I don’t speak fluent German.  You do.  Your French isn’t bad, either – better than mine.  I need an interpreter, and I was hoping…”

Jacqui groaned.  “Sorry.  Count me out.  I’m flattered you should ask, but how do I get away from work?  Pat, I can’t just take time off, not these days.  There’s too much going on.”

“Two days, that’s all I ask.  Two days in London.  I’d love it if you could come, give your moral support and all that.  I wouldn’t ask, but I just know it would work for us both.

Jacqui thought she saw what was in his mind, but it needed to remain unsaid.  Surely not?  After all these wasted years?  That trepidation she had felt when he first telephoned her for this meeting returned threefold.

“Is it what you really want?”

“I think so, yes.”  He grinned.  “I’ve taken long enough about it, haven’t I?”

Her heart answered.  “All right, if you’re sure, Pats.  I’ll work it out somehow.  I’ll come.”

So it was that Patrick and Jacqui met on Platform Two of Caleybridge’s railway station at 6:00 am one weekday morning, the seventh day after their discussion.  As always, Patrick was there first, and when he heard the click of Jacqui’s heels on the stone behind him his mind flew back to a corridor and a Conference Room in a place consigned to memory.  He turned to greet her with the recollection burning in his mind, but then his jaw dropped open and his heart leapt at the sight of the woman he saw walking towards him.  Jacqui had made an effort.

#

“Tarq?”  ‘Becca Shelley’s snappy terrier-voice travelled well.  Tarquin Leathers, three desks away, heard her above the newsroom din.

“Yes, sweet Rebecca?”

“You remember this one from your ‘Record’ days?”  ‘Becca waved a news clipping above her head.  “Six years ago.  Caleybridge.”

“Where?  Oh, home sweet home, darling!  Hang on a minute; I think so.  It was my by-line, wasn’t it?”

“None other, Babe.   ‘Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’.  You could write some crap in those days, yeah?”

“Newshound that I now am, I haven’t lost the gift.  Stale copy, is that what you’re saying?”

“Maybe, maybe not.”    Rebecca’s rapid rise from the dungeon of the Beaconshire County Herald to a national ‘daily’ had not been achieved by freely sharing her secrets. “I think I might take this home, run me head around it a few times.”

“What have you got simmering in that evil little mind of yours?  If I remember rightly the story was still-born.  It’s provincial dead news.”

‘Becca rose half to her feet, so she could see across the newsroom partitions to Tarquin’s desk.  She tapped the side of her nose.  “Just a feelin’, Tarq.”

“Ah, really, just a ‘feelin’?  Bollocks, my dear!  Just a tip-off.  You want to spin anything my way?”

“Nah.  It’s probably nothing, anyhow.  And whatever nothin’ is, it’s all mine.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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

 

 

 

 

Thank You

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Dear Earthly People

(Do you know I’m never confident of the correct form of address.  John, a mate of mine, likes ‘Earthlings’, but I think that is impolite, somehow)

Thank you very much for your good wishes on my birthday.  They are misplaced, since this is not my birthday, but you’ve been doing it for two thousand years and I feel that even though I was only with you for thirty of them you deserve some sort of credit.

Just a couple of things…

Please do not send any more requests.  In case you don’t really understand this, I am dead.  I can’t answer them.  You may think I do, but really?

Not me, so much, this one, it’s Dad.  Dad is getting seriously upset.

(By ‘Dad’ of course I mean HF, not the Greek guy; he left the scene when mother started chasing him for maintenance.)

Anyway, here’s the thing: it was alright when you started buying each other presents, if a little difficult to understand because I’m the one supposed to be having the birthday, and nobody sends me anything, you know?  You used to, but it seems to have gone out of fashion.

So, presents – okay; just lately, a little too much.  I mean, Black Friday, what’s that??    Remember how uptight we both used to get about merchants and usurers turning our place into a den of thieves?  That’s sort of what you’re doing.  A bit disrespectful, is all I’m saying.  Even that doesn’t get Dad going, you know how patient He is:  what absolutely sets Him boiling is plastic.   PLASTIC!

Everything seems to be made of the stuff.  If it isn’t made from it, it is wrapped in it, or boxed in it.  Dad worked hard to create some perfectly adequate water for you to drink, and you even bottle that in PLASTIC!  It’s a problem all year, but never so much as now and never so much as on my ‘birthday’.

He says I have to remind you recycling doesn’t begin and end with eBay.  All those toys and gifts given in my name end up as microbeads, and they choke up all His other children.  He says to warn you He has other kids to consider, and if you keep messing up His creations the way you are He will give someone else a turn.

So, there you go.  Mags and I send you our best for another year.  Not to worry about all the broken promises, we didn’t believe them anyhow.

Yours ever,

J.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Six The Vale

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“Ciggy?”  Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick.  “Oh, you don’t, do you?  Do you mind if I do?  I’m absolutely gasping.”

Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft.  When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course).  Patrick Hallcroft?  He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking!  But now?

Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore?  He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary.  His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked.  Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return.  Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.

“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?”  He asked.

“Everyone has, darling.  At least you got demoted to an inside page.”

“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’?  It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”

Bea shrugged.  “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect?  That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that.  I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering.  The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something.  ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue?  It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”

“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”

“At least you tried.  Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch.  Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick.  So the least you can do…”

“Would a timeline help?”

“Timelines are always good.”

“Right; Saturday morning.  I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”

“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute.  Why didn’t you follow those three cars?  Karen would have.”

“Oh yes.  And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!”  Patrick rejoined.  “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”

“But you didn’t.  You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”

“No ‘thought’ about it!  At least give me a hearing!”

“Where next?”

“I didn’t want to go to the police.  All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway.  I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.”  Patrick thought for a second.  “No, wait.  That isn’t what I wanted.  I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”

“Why?  Does he have his doubts?  More to the point, do you?  My god, Patrick!”

“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start.  And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know?  I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him.  I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course.  It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself.  Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north.  It wasn’t much of a delay though.  We were there by one-thirty.”

“No car?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.  I guessed.  By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone.  It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick.  Bad karma!”

“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone!  The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something.  A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy.  Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”

“Your old man didn’t believe you?  No, wait – brains, Bea!  He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”

“Our little snake!  Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught.  I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself.  ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too.  All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”

His hand was resting on the table.  Bea squeezed it consolingly.  “No, mate, she isn’t right.  Go on, fill in the rest.”

“My mother lived up to her promise.  She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant?  She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”

“Isn’t he supposed to be ill?  It was on the local news.  He had a heart attack or something.”

“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather.  You’re right, though.  His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson.   That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you.  Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”

“And..”

“And I saw him.”  Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes.  “I wanted you to keep some faith in me.  I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”

Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand.  “Pat!  Avoiding the question, yeah?  What happened with Wilson?”

“He’s a strange guy.  Enigmatic, I think that’s the word.  Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home;  corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing.  I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew.  Much more than my mother told him.  He already knew.”

“Well, what did he say?  Can he do anything?”

“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”

#

The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth.   Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed.  The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.

All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner.  Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident.  The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.

“Hallcroft, isn’t it?  Come in, young man.”

There were further surprises to come.  Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe.  A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.

“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.”  And Wilson added, pointedly,  “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.”  Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke.   “Now, why did you want to see me?  Your mother was most insistent.”

Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design?  He had to clear his throat before he responded.   “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  I believe you met her.”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her.  A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate.  Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson.  I am sure you remember.”

Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances.  “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”

“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”

Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder.  “Impudent whelp, aren’t you?  Why are you here, boy?”

“To find Karen,”  Patrick retorted.  “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return.  They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”

Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody;  “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft.  If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature.  It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”

“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton.  Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder?  Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson.  I will find out who.”

“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken.  Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour.  She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone.  She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions.  She sent a letter to that effect to her parents.  I take it you have read that?  After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”

Carmody’s eruption happened.  “I won’t stand for any more of this!  See here, Hallcroft:  the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation.  Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning.  My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority.  The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one.  Is that understood?  Is that final enough for you?”

“Public nuisance?”

“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens.  Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one.  If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground.  For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman.  I‘m sick of the sight of him!”

#

“Unbelievable!”  Bea shook a troubled head.  “And that was it?”

“Not quite.”  As he – what would you say – showed me out?  Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’.  A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”

“It’s not good, yeah?”  Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears.  “Poor Karen.”

“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?”  Patrick said, tight-lipped,  “Very professional.  They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off.   And then, finally, last night…”  He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face.  For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down.  But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.

“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess.  A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home.  I saw the red glow against the sky.  Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road!    From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.”  Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face!  Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower!  All gone.   I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before.  I never want to see its like again.”

“You think?”

“Of course I think!  I was warned, wasn’t I?  Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory?   There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage.  One police car turned up – one!  A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids!  I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”

Patrick drew himself up.  “Anyway, nobody slept last night.  It was sunrise before they got the fire out.  It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer.  It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire.  Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.

“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”

Bea interrupted him,  “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”

“I can’t answer that…”

“You do!  You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere!  And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it!  He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim.  This will happen again, Patrick!  Again!”

“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea.  I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing.  But there’s a family – my family – to consider.  You, too.  I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”

“I don’t care.  She’s my friend,  she was always my friend.”

“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know?  Right from wrong, good from bad, all that?  This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose.  I’ve never seen him that way.  In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,.  He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back.  This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it.  He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is.  He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”

“So you’re giving up.”

“In my heart, no.  Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now.  I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.”   Patrick sighed.  “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was.  I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t.   Not without causing more harm.”

Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now.  “You are, you’re giving up!  Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably.  It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”

“I know,”  Patrick acknowledged miserably.  “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger.  Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”

“You can trust me, Patrick.  You can trust me.”’

#

There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends.  It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by.  Not without regret, however, and not without damage.

Patrick?  He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins.  All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.

Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows.  It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career.  She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears:  it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.

Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers.  Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months.  He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end.  His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.

Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too.  Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life.  For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him.  But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.

It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did.   Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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 Twenty-Five. Estuary

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It is often said that a beloved dog gives heart to a home.  If that be true, the absence of Petra, the Woodcrofts’ canine dynamo had left a void in the lives of everyone at Radley Court.   Her ‘hospitalisation’ after her fight with the dark man had given brief respite to Mrs Buxham, the Woodcrofts’ ‘morning lady’ whose ancient bicycle rarely escaped Petra’s clumsy enthusiasm.

On her morning ride from the village Mrs Buxham customarily collected milk and newspapers from the delivery box at Radley Court’s gates, which made the final portion of her journey along the length of the driveway a precarious proposition.  Petra was forever anxious to reinforce her bond of love with Mrs Buxham, usually while she struggled with her heavily laden bike at the difficult final corner around the end of the stable block on her way to the kitchen.

No-one had warned Mrs Buxham of the exuberant Labrador’s return – perhaps they had failed to take account of the extra energy and joy a week of incarceration in a recovery cage might generate – the greater dimensions of Saturday’s newspapers, the extra order of milk; or the protective ‘collar’ around Petra’s neck that concealed her head within a trumpet of white plastic.  With all these factors conjoined, Petra’s surprise greeting achieved undreamed-of objectives for the dog;  reducing  Mr Buxham to an untidy heap, bringing her face down to a level at which every inch could be licked,  and generating a considerable pool of delicious white liquid that had to be consumed by drinking.

Patrick, snatching breakfast in the kitchen, heard Mrs Buxham’s startled porcine squeal, followed by a clatter of toppling ironmongery.  Given the usual severity of Mrs. ‘B’s Methodist nature, he might have expected her to be apoplectic when he rushed to her aid.  Instead, he found her convulsed in fits of laughter, pinned against the stable wall by Petra’s sixty-six pounds of boundless enthusiasm.  The dimensions of that canine neckwear, together with the wearer’s utter inability to manage it, would plague the family for some days; but the incident involving Mrs Buxham stayed with Patrick always, as demonstration of a dog’s ability to win over the fiercest adversaries, just by the application of a moist tongue.

Amanda was rarely talkative in the mornings, one of her principle objections to her education being, as she saw it, the outrageous obsession with ‘rising before eleven’.  No-one with pretensions to a position in Society, in Amanda’s estimation, should be asked to leave their bed before luncheon.

“Early rising is the province of common people, Patrick.”  She confided as she huddled in the passenger seat of Patrick’s sports car.  “A person of any consequence cannot hope to be at their best at such unearthly hours.”

“I imagine your teachers will have risen around seven,” Patrick reminded her,   “By your definition, that makes them…”

“Common people.  Unfortunately yes.”

“Is this an opinion you’ve made known to them?”

“Of course.  To be taught with integrity one must offer honesty in return.  Now kindly just drive me, Patrick.  It is really too early for conversation.”  As a signal the lines of communication were now closed, Amanda shut her eyes and tucked her little chin deeply into the collar of her jacket.

Patrick allowed himself a quiet smile.  From the shortest of conversations with his eight-years-old sister it was easy to deduce the reason for her frequent changes of school.  The score so far was five, of which this was the second in the current year; and by the look of Elverton Staithes Academy, he thought as he drew up outside its rather severe frontage, it would not be the last.

Once he had seen Amanda safely onto the school premises, Patrick drove his car down the gentle hill that formed the main street of Elverton.  Cottages and a few local shops lined the pavements to either side of the road.  He paused at a newsagent for a copy of the Beaconshire County Herald, then drove the rest of the way along the village street to the riverside and the staithes from which the school had taken its name.

The staithes, or traditional landing places for boats, were the reason for Elverton’s existence, although they were separated from the village by a flat plain of what had once been a wetland, now tamed into pasture.  At this point the River Hart had widened into an estuary, and Patrick’s view of the opposite shore from Quays Lane was still veiled by early mist, promising a warm day.  One or two precarious-looking wooden jetties projected from the river bank, although their usefulness was long past.  There were boats, certainly, moored in the river, but far from the Elverton shore, which had been reclaimed by tidal mud.  Dredging had stopped in the nineteen-twenties, so water barely reached the staithes now, even on a spring tide.  In its place was a brew rich with small creatures, a paradise for waders and coastal marauders to feed upon, and emitting a wind-borne odour made powerful by the scents of salt and reed.

Quays Lane, a neglected thoroughfare, tracked the River Hart on the final part of its journey to the sea, carving a way through that wasteland that always attends the margins of a big expanse of sluggish water.  To the left were ruins of forgotten buildings, rotting wood and blackened concrete, a testament to ill-informed dreamers who believed a café would flourish here, or there a boatyard thrive upon the working trade from the river.  To the right the fallen ships lay, beached and waiting, for their broken owners to return.  They never would of course, long dead, most of them.  Those decaying hulls, carvel, clinker-built or rusting steel, were their legacy to a river that taught them nothing was ever fair in life, that all their years of thankless labour earned them only pain and an early grave.

He would be grateful enough, Patrick, when his drive through that neglected foreshore gave way to harbour walls and the lofty profiles of nobler beasts of the sea; the trawlers of a fishing fleet that little knew its days were numbered, the coastal cargo vessels, the working boats of the estuary and (although only visiting of course), two Royal Navy destroyers, moored up at the head of the dredged channel.

Harterport was all it said:  a working port, and a busy one, too.  Yet it had another and usually gentler side.  As he joined the main thoroughfare at the end of Quays Lane Patrick would find it; a beach that began to the west side of the harbour: a beach of golden sand that ran and ran, straight and true towards a distant headland a mile and some furlongs away.  As if the world was anxious to prove it could still deign to smile if happiness was what you wanted, here the sky seemed bluer, the air more clear.  The sea that had grown from a river was azure blue, the Esplanade wide and regal.  A funfair was striking up bravely with morning music as the first most dedicated bathers began their migration towards the beach.

The seafront lacked that Victorian faux-nautical experience of a pier, making do instead with a pavilion built in the Art Deco style, its white profile honed into voluptuous curves and peppered with acres of creative glass.  Patrick parked on the Esplanade nearby and made for a coffee bar he knew on the first floor, that overlooked both Esplanade and beach.  Here, at a time of day before the first rush of holidaymakers, he could command a table with a clear view (for the mist had not spread beyond the freshwater channel), of a crystal horizon.  He still had a couple of hours to kill, so he ordered a bacon sandwich, collected a cup of black coffee and spread his newspaper out before him, thumbing through its pages more in hope than expectation.  There were several articles bearing Rebecca Shelley’s by-line, but none concerned the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  Obviously Cedric the editor had guillotined her story – or maybe the waspish little Miss Shelley had never written it?

Patrick had not quite time or distance enough between himself and events to think dispassionately, nevertheless there were questions in need of dispassionate answers.  What had really happened to Karen?  He had been first to point out the possible collusion between a member of the County Clerks’ Office and Gasser’s ‘friends’ in attempts to lure her towards those ruins.  If anything his chance discovery of Potts keeping company with the nameless ancient who had been watching him on Monument Hill reinforced this view. What was the connection that kept those two together?  Karen had believed there was a fourth person in the car the night Gasser and Potts came to blows.  Roberts, Gasser and Potts – did the cadaverous old man fill that last seat, and if so, what part had he played?   From all Karen had told him, under examination Perry Roberts had proved a weak link.  Perry was now ‘on holiday’.  Everybody was entitled to a holiday were they not?  But then again, what if Perry was being kept out of reach?

Around Patrick’s inner world of thought, the coffee bar was becoming busy, intruding upon his peace with the rattle of cups, the clatter of chairs, the melodies of conversation.  Someone had turned on a musak tape.  Below the crittall windows the beach was becoming crowded, briefly-clad figures pitching their windbreaks and dancing coyly in the shallows.  Comfortable to have his thoughts disturbed so, Patrick ordered a second coffee and settled himself to enjoy the scene.

Then came the roar.

It was quiet at first, distant at first, but all the world heard it and all the world paused.  On the beach the dancing stopped, in the coffee bar the clatter and conversation was suddenly hushed, as though some dark cloud had overwhelmed it – as, in a way, it had.  In moments the roar had reached crescendo, drowning the Esplanade with its despotic sound.  Fascinated, Patrick watched as the Esplanade below his window became host to a swarm, an infestation of motorcycles great and small, Velocettes and Vincents, Nortons and Matchlesses, Ariels and Triumphs.

Their riders, clad in black leather but bare-headed, for the most part, were by no means all in the first bloom of youth.     Young or old, they milled around the full width of the Esplanade, dispelling normal weekend traffic as they hectored a stream of would-be bathers from the sands and whistled the girls who scurried past them, seeking refuge in their cars or hotels.    At first Patrick feared for his Daimler, parked within his vision close by, but he need not have feared.  These riders, for all they were ‘Rockers’ for a day were motorcycle men.  They respected, even admired a powerful machine, four wheels or two.  A few of them might pause to inspect it, now and then, but no-one seemed moved to do it harm.

“Bloody young thugs, the lot of ‘em!”  A little line of spectators was gathering at the windows of the coffee bar,  bystanders of a sort: scared but protected, as they imagined, by the glass.  “Worst thing they ever did, scrapping National Service.”

“Aye, that’d knock ‘em into shape!”

Remarks of this ilk brought murmurs of agreement from men, many of them still with World War memories fresh in their heads, from women over-brimming with horrified moral rectitude.  Patrick, distancing himself from their conversation, felt estranged.  The balance beam was so thin, and itself a separate expression of outrage.

“Oh, hey!   Look; look!   Here they come!  Here they bloody come!”

A man in florid shirt and florid flesh gestured floridly.  All followed the direction of his outstretched finger to a point much further up the Esplanade where, no larger than flies at this distance, a similar host of motor scooters and their riders could be seen to be gathering.

“Now we’re for it!”

With a little more thought the colourful man might have been puzzled.   Yes, British coastal towns were passing through a phase wherein youth particularly was identifying its new-found freedom in tribalism and yes, gatherings of motorcyclists, defining themselves as either ‘Mods’ or ‘Rockers’ would terrorize the streets, riding in gangs, but at this hour if they had coalesced at all they would be more intent upon vandalism.  They were rarely as organised as this, or so obviously intent upon confrontation.  Alcohol, the detonator, would not be available for hours yet:  the pubs and bars were closed.

Certain something unnatural was going on, Patrick felt, as he studied the throng of bikers for some clue to their unrest. Nothing seemed untoward at first, but then he saw how a vanguard of four motorcycles had been lined up at the leading edge of the bunch of riders like racers on a grid.  Although these four machines were rider-less, a cultured eye could quickly find their owners.  Unlike most of the others, these men moved randomly, away from their bikes, their heads obscured by open-face helmets and their features concealed behind scarves.  They were mingling with the other riders, speaking conspiratorially, all their body language and gestures urging action.  And action came soon enough.

As if by a given signal, the four agitators remounted their bikes and kicked them into life.  Then, in a surge forward that would not have disgraced a cavalry charge, the mass of bikers set off along the Esplanade.  Many of the customers in the coffee bar took this opportunity to disperse but some, Patrick included, remained at the windows, mesmerised as the scooter riders further up the road, though less ordered, were quick to respond.  The two gangs met, their bikes strewn across the road, and then, as if by consent, they parked their machines.  There would be no expensive jousting, the battle would take place on foot.

Battle it was; an exchange of threats lasting less than a minute before forces were engaged and mayhem began in earnest, a tangle of flailing arms and fists that mushroomed into a mob and spilled over the seawall onto the beach.  Lives were rarely endangered in such exchanges, despite the presence of flick-knives, knuckle dusters and other medieval weaponry.  Property would be damaged, windows broken, innocents intimidated, and the reputation of Harterport reduced to one in a list of resorts where visitors might risk experiencing violence.  Those were the costs.

Throughout, the helmeted and masked figures were clearly visible, urging their fellow bikers into the thick of the fighting.  One even took an advantage point atop a high part of the sea wall so as to conduct the melee more emphatically, waving his arms like a manic evangelist.

The affray would be over as quickly as it began.  The whine and whoop of police sirens announced not a victory, not a defeat or even a truce, just the need to disperse.  As they grew close, Patrick noticed how the four activists melted back into the hubbub, ready, as Patrick guessed, to make their escape.

It was time to move.  Since his mother’s suggestion that he should go for a swim was impractical now, Patrick returned to his car, intending to retrace his route along Quays Lane to Elverton and park up somewhere along the way for an hour, maybe to find a riverside walk, while he waited for Amanda to finish school.

The first part of his drive, back to the end of the Esplanade, was fraught with escaping motorcycles, which flew past his car with scant regard for safety in their efforts to evade the police.  This traffic vanished, however, once he had turned off into Quayside Lane, because most of the bikes followed the main road; out of town, as he supposed, towards the bridge that would take them over the Hart and across Harter Moor to the estuary of the River Boult and Bulmouth, where they might look forward to a similar entertainment for the afternoon.  Four-and-a-half miles further along Quayside Lane, some hundred yards beyond a dilapidated boathouse, he found a parking layby beside a footpath that led down to the river.    Here he was able to walk for a peaceful, uninterrupted couple of miles beside the estuary, watching the seabirds and alone with his thoughts until it was time to collect Amanda.

What happened next could only have been down to chance.  Sitting in his car to while away some final minutes Patrick’s eye was drawn to a motorcycle approaching from the direction of Harterport.  Imagining this bike and rider to have been involved with the ‘Mods and Rockers’ confrontation he watched it closely as it approached, only to see it turn off the road and through one of double doors into the broken-down boathouse, but not before he had seen that its rider wore an open-face helmet and a dark scarf across his mouth and nose.  All attention now, Patrick sat up smartly.  Someone had opened the door from inside the building to admit the bike: that same someone was now pulling open the companion door.  The sound of car doors slamming was distinctly audible, followed immediately by the appearance of the doorman, who jumped aside as a line of three large black cars emerged, and rushed to close the doors behind them.  The cars waited for him as he strove to secure the lock, then he climbed into the rear seat of one.  All three drove away.

Patrick was so preoccupied with finding his camera in the glove compartment he barely realised until the last seconds that the cars were coming his way.  He was low down, leaning across to the glove box as he realised, and therefore just straightening up as the second car passed.  Staring through its passenger window he met the coal-black eyes of a long-haired man with sharp features and a wide, sadistic mouth.  There was a cut on the man’s left cheek, with blood running from it.  It was an exchange of glances that lasted no more than two seconds, and Patrick had never plainly seen that face before, but instinctively he knew to whom it belonged.  In darkness he had been just that close to it once, beneath a bridge beside another river.  It was the face of Karen’s nightmare stalker – the dark man.

“How was school?”  Patrick asked as Amanda took her place beside him.

“Actually quite satisfactory.  We had a productive discussion concerning  conventions of dress.”

“Do you feel like a bit of an adventure?”

“Rather!”  Amanda’s green eyes shone.

It was not much of an adventure, really.  Patrick had to make sure the old boathouse was deserted, because he did not intend to expose his sister to danger.  And then, to avoid drawing attention from occasional traffic using Quays Lane he led Amanda around to the back of the building, where he bade her keep watch.  The only window was too fogged by grime to see through, and its glass wired for security, but in such poor repair it could not withstand a determined blow from a rotting fencepost that lay nearby.

Patrick had no need to climb inside, all that was required was time to allow his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.   Inside the boathouse he could pick out plainly all four of the motorcycles which he was fairly sure had led the unrest in Harterport.  There were also two cars: one was a decaying blue Riley Pathfinder, caked with dust.  The other car was Karen’s.

 

© 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 Twenty-Four. A Guttering Candle.

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“I don’t know who you are!”  Daphne Scott-Halperton sounded defensive.  Whilst she could sense nothing threatening about the mop-haired young man looking up at her from the auditorium, he had stayed behind after the rest of her devotees had left, which was to say the least unusual.  “If you want to guidance from someone on the other side you’ve missed your opportunity.  I can’t work without the atmosphere of an audience, you see.  So that’s that, I’m afraid.  Next month?”   Daphne regarded her monthly appearances at the Gaiety very much as a sideline and their duration as strictly limited.  She was on overtime.

“Please, Miss Scott-Halperton, I don’t want a reading, just information.”

No deputations from the Choir Eternal, Patrick wanted to say: no guiding spirit of Emeline Pankhurst or voice of Elizabeth Fry, suddenly anxious to communicate from beyond the grave.  He had already endured two hours of those, unable to offer any satisfactory explanation why the almost inarticulate spirit of Boudica should be so well informed concerning Great Uncle Harry, who, despite being dead, was still enjoying his pigeons.

Miss Scott-Halperton was eyed him suspiciously.  “Information about what?”

“Someone who comes here every month – I suppose you might consider her one of your ‘regulars’?”  This evoked no response from the stage, so Patrick continued; “I thought she might have turned up tonight, it was sort of a last hope.  She’s vanished:  been abducted, we think.”

He gave his best description of Karen, to which Daphne, who was a large and quite forbidding force, appeared to listen politely, “She never misses your sessions, I’m told.  Tonight, though – I waited for her outside and she didn’t come.  I wondered…”

“Yes, yes,” Daphne interrupted him.  “I know who you mean.”  Her mind went back to her previous performance, just as it had when she opened the front door of her cottage a few days since to find Karen standing in her porch, her clothes dripping from the rain.  “One moment, young man.  I’ll be down.”

There were steps at the end of the apron stage.  Daphne descended with the careful progress incumbent upon one of her dimensions and possibly, Patrick thought unkindly, her capacity for gin. “She obtained my address from the library. I must warn you that is a loophole I have since closed.  I give private consultations but I am very careful to reserve my personal details to whomsoever I choose.”

“She went to your home?”

“Indeed she did, young man.  Some days ago.  She was a troubled soul, beset by many demons, you understand; one of which had broken free of the underworld to pursue her, poor child.  Such people carry the Devil’s mark, I’m afraid.  One wishes the best for them, yet acknowledges there is little that can be done.”

Patrick tried to clear his brain.  Miss Scott-Halperton seemed to inhabit a separate universe he was not equipped to understand, but somehow he had to build a bridge between them.  Dipsomaniac or not, eccentric or not, the medium must now be considered the last person to see Karen.  She was free then, might she still be free?”

“You want me to help you to find her?  I may not be able to do that, young man.”

“I’ll take the crumbs from anyone’s table.  Right now, I’ve nowhere to turn.”

Daphne alighted majestically three seats away from Patrick, then contrived to look learned by placing her fingertips together and nodding sagely.  “I see your pain and I shall try.”

“So she probably came to you the day she disappeared.  Do you know where she intended to go after she left you?”

“Into battle, I imagine.  She was intent upon outfacing her tormentor.  A sad mistake.  I advised her against anything so impetuous, They are not of this world, you see.”

“I hoped she might have given you some clue.”

“I witnessed the demon that beset her, young man.  At my last session its malevolence took possession of the gallery just above where you are sitting, a loathsome sight.  It was looking down upon her, filling this hall with the evil of its intention!”

“Some idea where she went?”

“Why, to the field of battle, I imagine.”

“Which would be where?  Geographically, I mean?”

“Or influentially.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Scott-Halperton, you’ve got me with that one.”

“Demons, child, are drawn to people of greatness.  Megalomania, lascivious vice and greed are their oxygen, you see.  You will find no demons in a poor man’s cabin, but in the stately corridors of men of power, they are legion. There do they hold their dominion!”

“Are we talking about any specific men of power here?”  Patrick felt he was riding a chariot behind an increasingly unpredictable horse.  “I mean, names?”

“I can tell you no more.  They are there to be found.  Seek them amidst the fire – beware the inferno, young man!”  Daphne’s head was sinking slowly into her ample chest, and her eyes were closing.  Patrick, who had passed the previous two hours watching her use a similar device to introduce the visitation of a spirit guide waited, half-expecting something similar with some concrete information within it, but after a few minutes the psychically gifted matron began to snore.

It was a disappointingly anti-climactic end to the interview.  Patrick retreated quietly.

“Golly, how utterly, utterly bizarre!”  Gabrielle enthused when he had finished his narrative.  “I do wish I’d been there!”

Her brother shook his head.  “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  It was a long evening, and knowing my sister as I do, she would have been giggling the whole time.”  He leant with arms upon his chair back, gazing moodily through the window of the snug, as if his eyes might find answers in the moonless darkness,  “What I don’t get – I mean, seriously don’t get – is what Karen got out of stuff like that.  It isn’t her, Gabs, not any part of her.  At least, not the Karen I knew.  Oh, god, I said it, didn’t I?  The past tense – I ‘knew’.  Am I giving up, in spite of myself?”

“No, Sweetie, not you; you’re a terrier.  You’ll dig up the whole garden if you can’t find a bone. Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, are you so sure of your image of Karen?  The girl I met was very insecure and vulnerable, not the tough female detective type at all.  I think she hated what she was, I do!  I also think she was haunted by the ghost of her sister, and in desperate need of your protection and love.”  Gabrielle gave a nervous little laugh, “Gosh, sorry!  That just slipped out!”

That night, sleepless, Patrick lamented the waste of days – the fruitless telephoning of newspapers with no interest in running the story, and even his doorstepping of a local organisation dedicated to tracing ‘the lost ones’.  Their answers were kind and, for the most part, patient, but no better than the verdict previously delivered by DC Ames: ‘She’s an adult, she’s expressed her choice clearly, there’s no evidence of any harm having come to her’.  There were endless hours frittered away in Caleybridge Library. ploughing column inch by column inch through back numbers of the County Herald, searching vainly for copy on either Emma Bartlett or Rachel Priest, those past disappearances cited by Constable Flynn.

And now, to cap it all, an evening spent at a spiritualist gathering led by a half-inebriated medium.  Were these the despairing measures of one with nowhere left to turn?  Yes, it had been wasted time, because in his heart he knew the last straws of hope were sinking.  So why did his thoughts keep re-running the old woman’s final sentences concerning ‘men of power’ – ‘they are there to be found’ – did those words allude to some clue he had missed?

In the morning he caught up with his mother before she embarked on her newly extended school run with his little sister Amanda.   “The other night you mentioned that Lord Lieutenant bod – Sir Clive something?  Do you know where he lives?”

“Sir Clive Webster; yes dear.  I also have his ‘phone number somewhere.  Would it be a good idea to call him first?”

“I would, but at some point in the conversation I would have to tell him my reason for wanting to see him, and I’m not sure I could answer that.”

“So beard the lion, you thought.”

“And see what develops.  I don’t suppose you could…?”

“Oh, Patsy, you’re such a wimp sometimes!  What makes you think I could give an answer that was any better than yours?”

“Because you know him, and because you have a way of…”

“I tell you what.  I will offer you a trade.  If I agree to try and bring the two of you together on some pretext, will you take our darling youngest to school tomorrow and bring her back?  How’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

“It is.  I have succeeded in placing the dear little bugger in her third school this year, which is twenty-five miles away.  And apparently I have landed upon the one bloody school in the County, in Elverton,  that gives lessons on Saturday mornings – from nine until twelve, to be precise. It isn’t worth taking her, coming back, then going to fetch her, so – you catch my drift?”

Patrick sighed.  “Okay, I agree.  A morning kicking my heels in glorious Elverton.  But are we sure we want her back?”

“No promises, Patsy, I’ll try my best.  In the meantime, try not to be horrible to your wonderful little sister, darling.  That’s my prerogative.  Just a suggestion, while she passes her hours of learning you could poodle down the road to Harterport?  Take your swimmies.  It isn’t far.”

The one attribute Patrick’s Daimler lacked was stealth.  Its distinctive exhaust note drew attention, whether or not attention was wished.  Turning into the car park of the King’s Arms, even on a Friday lunchtime when it was fairly busy, it turned the heads of two people for whom Patrick would rather have retained an element of surprise.  Mark Potts was one, standing beside a very new-looking Sunbeam Alpine.  The other, a much older, quite wasted figure, was equally familiar to Patrick, but seeing him in Mark’s company surprised him nonetheless.

Patrick parked up, then accosted the pair.   “Nice car, Mark.  Have you had a pay rise?”

Potts seemed less than glad to see him.  “What are you doin’ here, Hallcroft?”

“Beer’s good.  Why not?”  Patrick nodded to Potts’s companion.  “’Good morning.  Last time we met, you didn’t stop to introduce yourself.”  He turned back to Potts, “Did you know your mate here spends his nights spying on the parked cars up on Monument Hill?”

“We haven’t got nothin’ to say to each other, have we?”  Potts was unfazed.  “If you don’t mind, Hallcroft, we were in the middle of a conversation.”

“Really?  It wasn’t anything remotely to do with Karen Eversley’s departure, I suppose?”

Potts leered.  “Moved away, has she?  Nosey bitch.  Couldn’t stand you once she found out you was a pervert, eh?  Good riddance, I say.”

“No, Mark.  Disappeared – like Gasser, who suddenly isn’t around anymore…”

“Or that sexy little prossy girlfriend of ‘is?  No surprise there, either.  Stuck his nose where it didn’t concern him, maybe, Maybe a bit like you, Hallcroft – stickin’ your nose in.  You want to be careful, you do…”  intending to add detail to his threat, Potts was brought up short by a heavy nudge from the older man, who had so far made no contribution to the exchange.

“Aren’t we missing some drinking time?”  He said, in a dry, cracked voice.

Patrick ignored the interruption.  “What happened to Gasser, Mark? Where did you really leave him that night?”

Potts dropped his voice, attempting to sound dangerous.  “Everythin’ happened just like I told it to your bitch girlfriend, see?  Nothin’ no different.  You want to watch it, chap, or …”

“Careful, Mark!”  Patrick cut in.  “Saying things like that, you’re worrying your silent friend, here.  Was this the other bloke in your old car; you know, the night you beat Gasser up?”

“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!  You’re getting’ it all wrong, Hallcroft.  I ain’t sayin’ no more.  Oh, yeah, an’ if you were thinking of harassing Perry don’t bother.  He’s on holiday.  Three weeks!  Go and have a drink, peaceful-like, and stop provokin’ folks.”

Patrick shook his head.  “No thanks, I’m fussy who I drink with.  Anyway, you should be flattered; I only came to find you.  I was hoping you had something more for me, like maybe you knew a bit about Karen’s disappearance.”

“Well you was wrong, then, wasn’t you?”

“I dunno. Maybe if I’d found you without the present company…Never mind, in a way I think you’ve given me more than I expected.  I’ll think about that.” He turned on his heel and began walking back to his car, leaving Mark Potts to glare at his back.  When he reached the Daimler there were choices because it was often his custom to vault over the door and straight into the driving seat, but today, lacking the required level of exuberance, he opted for a proper use of the door.  It was, in a sense, his undoing.

As he gripped the door handle an iron hand clamped over his so fiercely he could not move it.  The face of the cadaverous man, the almost silent man who had witnessed his encounter with Potts was suddenly just inches from his own, growling fiercely:  “You’ve been told, boy.  You won’t be told again, so listen.  She’s gone, understand?  You won’t see her again, so give this up before you and your family get hurt.   Stop now, you got me?”

Shocked into silence for a few seconds, Patrick could only nod, dumbly.  It was enough. Before he could make a more suitable response the man was striding away purposefully and rapidly, a repeat of their last encounter when he had woken to see that face outside his car window.  His eyes followed the tough little man’s retreating back, his ears heard Mark Potts’ derisive laughter.

With utter deliberation Patrick climbed into his car, turned the key, pressed the starter.  Then he selected first gear, decked the accelerator and almost jumped the clutch.  The distance across the car park amounted to nothing, three seconds or less.  He fixed his eyes on Mark Potts, watched the smirk on his face turn to horror, heard a scream from a bystander, saw the alarm on the small man’s face as he turned to see the danger, almost too late.  He dived out of the car’s path just as Patrick swung the wheel and turned the Daimler’s high, blunt bonnet aside.  As he drove out of the Public House car park he glanced in his mirror, gratified to see a row of shocked faces watching his departure, and his snarling aggressor being helped to his feet by Potts.  Neither of them was smiling.

Patrick needed several minutes to calm himself in the lea of that encounter, and several hours of self-examination when he recognised how close he had come to intentionally harming the man.  He had never seen himself as violent, or even lacking in temper; but the past few days had aroused emotions new to him, not all of which he welcomed.

An air of tension pervaded Caleybridge Hospital.   It had primed itself for a warm late spring weekend, with the spate of injuries that was likely to bring.  It was busy, too, forcing Patrick to thread his way through the visiting hoards on his way to Jacqui’s ward.

“You’re lucky to catch me!  I’m only waiting for a free seat in an ambulance.”  Jacqui informed him with a grin.  “They’re throwing me out this afternoon.  No rigging, see?”

Her ‘halo’ brace had been removed together with most of the heavy bandages, so only a few light dressings remained.  “You’ve no idea the relief!  I actually felt like I was carrying a water jar on my head, or something, Now, I can move freely, look!”  She waggled her head in demonstration,  “Ouch!  Well maybe not that much!”

“Would you like me to run you home?”

“Oh, you are a love!  Would you mind?”

Jacqui’s apartment was across town.  As he drove, Patrick was constantly forced to avoid small fleets of motor scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas, that were buzzing up and down the main roads, bare-headed riders flaunting their machines for the benefit of small groups of motorcyclists, who languished in side alleys or beside kerbs, watching and waiting.

“It’s going to be a hot weekend,” Jacqui commented.  “There’ll be trouble, I’m thinking.”

Her apartment occupied the ground floor of a detached house set well back from the road within a high walled garden accessed by a black painted wooden door.  The house itself, a lofty Victorian structure in red brick had a faintly disdainful air, its tiers of bay windows like an upturned nose sniffing at matters it would prefer to avoid.   To approach the front door meant negotiating a short flight of stone steps.  As he ascended these, Patrick’s attention was drawn to a pathway that led, he assumed, to the back of the house.  Set into it was a padlocked wooden hatch.  He remarked upon it.

“What is that for, Jacqui?”

“Oh, nothing.  Nothing interesting, at least.”

“No, tell me?”

“Most of these old houses had basements.  For storage, usually – somewhere cold, before fridges, you know?”

“Like wine?”

“Yes, absolutely like wine.  Most people have them filled in these days, and most people have the hatches filled in at the same time.  Not my dear Daddy.”

“Then there’s still a basement down there?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Pat.  If there is, I’ve never found any other way in, and I don’t relish opening that great heavy thing.  So I remain blissfully ignorant – although I swear I can smell the damp sometimes.  It’s probably flooded.”

“Shall I explore?”

“No!  I mean, no thank you; I’d rather you didn’t.”

At her door, Jacqui tempted Patrick with tea and he accepted, wanting to be sure she had food to last her until she could shop for herself.  And although she insisted she could manage:  “I’ve some stuff in the chest freezer, I’ll be alright;” he made an errand to a corner shop for basic supplies.

Her apartment seemed ascetic and soulless.   Perhaps Patrick had envisioned it would be so.  Her furniture was wooden, plain and relentlessly practical, her carpets well-trodden, the walls bare.  It was also something of a time capsule, exactly as she had rushed from it on her workday morning more than a week ago.

“Sorry about the bathroom.  My bedroom’s through there – don’t look, I can’t remember if I made the bed or not,”   For verification, she opened the closed door just sufficiently to peep through.  “Not.”

In retrospect, Patrick thought as he drove back across the town, it was a home that existed as Jacqui herself lived; in limbo.  He had known for some months of her indecision – whether she should stay in Caleybridge or follow her nearest kin the other side of the world.  Her apartment reflected that: she might share the house now, letting the upstairs to tenants, but she had no enduring interest in it – no motive to remodel or change any of the furnishings, even the colours, her parents had left behind.

Such upheaval as would be necessary for Jacqui to migrate to a distant foreign land was alien to her careful nature; she had only a few close friends, but many acquaintances.  Her life in Caleybridge was a fabric not easily torn apart, yet that did not seem to be the true root of her vacillation.  Something bound her to this small, backwoods borough that was not entirely rational, the nature of which Patrick had no notion.

In the town the gangs of motor scootering youths who called themselves ‘Mods’ were gathering, no longer cruising around but parked in huddles, as many as twenty chrome-rich bikes in one place, their riders quaffing beer while they engaged in mawkish displays of machismo.  Around them the streets were almost silent; pedestrians and other motorists alike intimidated by the waxing sense of threat.   It was hot for so late an hour.  The air was heavy.  Conflict seemed destined to follow.

 

© 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 Twenty-Three: Differences

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Constable Ray Flynn looked uneasy.

“Grab a stool”  Patrick coaxed him.  “How do we open this conversation?  Are you sure you don’t want coffee, tea, something to eat?  ”

“No, no.”  Flynn patted his stomach, gave a false smile.  “Too fat already, see?  Wife’s trying to make me cut down.  Good thing, really.”

“You’ve got a family?”

“Aye.  Two, both girls.  Six and nine.  Chips and more chips, that’s all they wants.”  Flynn seemed about ready to run.   “Nice kitchen, this.  You’ll get some good meals out of here, I ‘spect.”

“Please sit down, Ray.  How can I…”

“Friend of Tim’s.  Tim Birchinall.  We used to be partners before he moved to the Met.  Used to play rugby together.  Karen’d recognise me, all right.  Yes.”

“Yes.”  Patrick understood.  “He asked you to come and see me, you didn’t want to.”

“That’s right.  That about covers it.  Yes.”  Flynn manoeuvred his ample quarters onto a kitchen stool.  “Rachel Priest, ever hear of her?”

“No, I can’t say I …”

“Gemma Bartlett?”

“No.  Where’s this going?”

“There’s others, I’m sure.  I don’t know their names, but there’s others – down the years, you know?  Nobody never hears of ‘em because they made ‘em vanish.  Not just disappear – vanish.  All trace – gone!  They’re good at it, mind.  Birth certificates, education records, everything wiped clean.  Nobody remembers them, because it’s like they was never there – never born, see?  Now there’s Karen.  Tim’s right cut up about it, I can tell you.”

Patrick was incredulous:  “’They’ – Who are ‘they’, Mr Flynn?”

“Don’t rightly know – never did.  Someone who can wipe away the evidence from the inside, that’s for sure.  Someone with very high connections.  Very high.  Tim and I, we used to talk about it in the car, never come up with nothin’.”

“But you’re police!  You know this much, surely there must have been questions asked?   These people must have had friends and relations, who would report them missing.  You’d have to investigate.”

“Not Beaconshire.  Not our force, no.”

“Who then?”  Demanded Patrick, showing his bewilderment.  “I don’t understand!”

“Well, first off, these people, they’re careful who they select.  Prostitutes, runaways, people with as few loose ends around them as possible.  You know it, don’t you?  There’s folks around won’t cause much of a ripple in the pond; as won’t be missed, like.   Second off, these people, they got fingers in our pie too.  The force, I mean.  They likes us to be family men, they encourages that, ‘cause we’re less likely to stir that pond, see?  Our missus and our kids, we put them first – don’t want their lives made unpleasant.  Don’t want their lives to be hell.”

“You’re saying these people threaten your families?  That’s outrageous!”

“Sorry to say it, young ‘un, but it’s true.  Tim wanted to get away, ‘cause of it.  He wanted to marry Karen, but not while he was workin’ in Beaconshire.   That’s why he moved to the Met.  Now, seems like they’ve got her, so there was no point, really.  I shouldn’t be here.  You never knows if you’re bein’ followed, or not.  I’d better…”

“No, wait, look – of course there’s a point.  We’ve got to rescue Karen, Ray!  Tim, you, me – we’ve got to get her back.”

“Me?  No, count me out.  I said to Tim what I’m sayin’ to you, I’ve a family to look out for.    Anyways, no-one can’t do nothin’ for Karen, I’m sorry to say.  She’s gone.

“Constable Flynn, I won’t accept Karen’s gone…”

“I see that.  I see you’s very fond of ‘er and that makes it hard.  It’s true, though; I knows it, Tim knows it, and it’s breakin’ his heart, bless ‘im.  You won’t never see Karen again, but you can help by keeping her name alive, Mr Hallcroft.  Don’t let her be forgotten, because that’s what they rely on.  No-one takes no action, see?  But there are differences this time, an’ Tim’s goin’ to follow ‘em up, best he can, from he’s end.”  Flynn got back to his feet.  “And I didn’t tell you that.  Forget I came here.”

”What differences?”  Patrick pressed.

Differences? Well, there’s this long-haired bloke Karen was frightened of.  He’s been described to us before, Tim and me, ‘cause he harasses women a bit.  I rather doubt it, but if he took her hisself, that could mean they’re getting careless – her bein’ a local girl, and all.   She has friends, parents.  It won’t be so easy to hush her disappearance up like they’ve done the others.  They’ll do it in the end, though, I’m afraid.”  Flynn made his desire to leave plain.  “Now, that’s all I got to say.  Tim wanted you to know what’s what, see?  Thank you for your time.”

Patrick felt incapable of adding more, so at Flynn’s request (“I parked my car round the side, see?”) he shepherded the nervous constable out into the rear courtyard and watched his hesitant progress as he checked around every corner before finally risking exposure in the open.  Bilbo the Shetland looked on with half-detached scorn as he edged past his paddock and contributed one of his loudest whinnies to exacerbate Flynn’s fraying nerves.

Determined he should not remain alone in the house, Patrick drove into Caleybridge, bought flowers, then went straight to the hospital to visit Jacqui.  He discovered her in the ward dayroom and her face lit up when she saw him because she was bored with her metal ‘scaffolding’ and hoped he would lighten her mood.   His body language did not bode well.

“No news, or…oh, Pat, not bad news?  What’s happened, my love?”  She would let the ‘love’ word slip from time to time in their conversation, but it was never more than an expression of friendship, or at least, Patrick never took it as such.   He tried to respond with his account of all that had passed since his last visit, but his words reflected the despondency he felt.   When he came to relate the substance of the interview with Ray Flynn his voice threatened to break and he had to turn away to control an onset of emotion that was not sudden, but had been building ever since the frightened copper’s words had laid the truth before him:  ‘Karen’s gone’.

Jacqui took his hands in hers.  “He thinks she’s been murdered, doesn’t he?”

“I’d say he’s certain of it.  There’ve been quite a few disappearances; the two individuals Karen was searching for, two others he could name and more still, apparently.   None ever found, ever.“

“He could be wrong, Pat.  You mustn’t lose hope!”

Although Jacqui could protest that Flynn’s was only one man’s opinion she knew she could do nothing to lessen the shock, so she held her peace, keeping secret the dread she felt in her own heart.  Instead, she joined in his valiant hour as he attempted to talk of trivial things, while she knew he was wanting to be active, to find some challenge to surmount, and when their conversation began to show the edge of his confusion she insisted that he leave.

“You go, Pat!  Get out there and find her, please.”

Patrick smiled ruefully.  “Go where?  I feel like I’m running around in circles.  I listened, didn’t I?  I trusted!   My father told me to leave it to the police, and all the police did was warn me off!  I waited – I’ve wasted three days, trusting advice, putting my faith in them, and now I learn they’ve done nothing.  Nothing!”

Jacqui reached up to pat his cheek:   “Then don’t waste any more time complaining?   Try the local press.  The police may not like it but they can’t stop you.  You might find out something about these other disappearances from the County Herald archives.  Then there’s this spiritualist woman, you need to see her.  There are still some avenues to explore, aren’t there? Now I’m getting a headache, Pat.  Get going!”

The Beaconshire County Herald offices occupied a narrow frontage on Caleybridge’s High Street, one of a row of shops in the Victorian style with brown-scumbled doors and narrow stairs worn down by labour.  The stairs confronted Patrick as he entered from the street, with only one alternative, a scraped and faded panel door to his right over which a sign ‘Advertising and Enquiries’ had been fastened, fallen, then drunkenly re-nailed.

“Yes, ya Mush?”  A man of stunted proportions and uncertain age emerged from a back room to examine Patrick suspiciously over a high counter.  Beneath a flat, peaked cap he probably slept in, this man’s eyes squinted through slits in a leathered skin etched by years of Woodbine cigarettes, the latest of which, adhering to his lower lip, swealed behind a teetering finger of expended tobacco.  “Penger’s the name, Mush.  How can I be of help to yer?”

Patrick felt that this man’s hospitality would not extend beyond one request, so he weighed his priorities.   “Well, Mr Penger, I wondered if I could talk to a reporter?  I have a story he might want to cover…”  His sentence wilted before a hostile stare.

“Not advertisin’, then?”

“No.  I mean, I suppose I could…no.  No not advertising.”

“Make yer mind up, then, ya Mush – eh?   Eh?”  The man’s features compressed and withdrew as if powerful suction had been applied from some spot behind his nose, then exploded in a gale of putrid breath, defeated fag ash and cackling laughter.  He slapped the counter-top emphatically.  “Nah.”

“Your sign does say ‘Advertising and Enquiries’.”

“It does, ya Mush.  Yes.   It’s young Vicky you’ll be wantin’.”

“Well?”

“It’s ‘alf-past-four.  She’s gone ‘ome.”

Patrick bit his tongue.  Bewildered as he was by such lack of industry, he would need this man’s assistance, so he decided instead to follow Jacqui’s suggestion and ask to go through the newspaper’s archives.

“Yer can try.  Week, year?”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

Mr Penger’s eyebrows disappeared behind the peak of his cap.  “Well, now, Mush.”  He turned and waved a craggy hand at the shelves that lined the far wall of his ‘office’.  They were filled with very large, red leather-bound volumes.  “See they?   A year each; eighty years, fifty-two newspapers each year, twenty-eight to thirty pages each newspaper – all in there.  Unless you know where yer goin’,  you’ll be proppin’ my counter up until yer drawin’ yer pension.  I can’t have that, can I?  I haven’t the facilities, see?”

Patrick faced defeat.  “I must trace these things.  What can I do?”

“Well, young Vicky’ll be in tomorrer morning, I’ll tell ‘er expect yer; ‘Bout half-past-ten?  Yer don’t look as if yer get up too early.  An’ the library, they keeps all our back-numbers up ter ten years, I think it is, so yer could try there.  Not tonight, though.  They close early tonight.”  Penger leaned across the counter to the full extent of his restricted growth, tapping his nose confidentially with a forefinger as he murmured in a voice loaded with innuendo:  “Trainin’!”

With his day drawn unwillingly to a close, Patrick might have returned home, but instead he pointed his car once again toward Nowhere Lane and Boulter’s Green.  There, alone in the peace and warmth of late afternoon sun, he might persuade himself he could feel closer to her: to Karen, whom he loved if anything more in absence than in the few days they were together.  Amid the waving fronds of vetch and wild barley he had space to pause and contemplate.    He could revisit past conversations, trying as he did to remember any small, neglected clues that might lead him somewhere – anywhere. What had Flynn, that most uncertain of policemen, said?  There was someone behind this with very high connections – very high.  Who?  It would have to be a senior member of the establishment, would it not?  Who, in Caleybridge’s little world, was equipped to fill such a role?

Then there was the curious behaviour of the Woodgate family; had they deliberately tried to draw Karen to this place, and if so, why?  Gasser should have been the last person his influential father wanted to have around, so why search for him, unless…unless Gasser and the Parkinson girl were a threat to him.  Could he have been the one who evicted Anna Parkinson from his car, out here in the chill of a February night – and had his son known?  Gerald Woodgate, member of the Watch Committee responsible for overseeing the local police force: he was ‘high up’, was he not?  He was in a position to exert influence on the conduct of officers, perhaps even to squash an investigation.

The more Patrick thought about it the more convinced he was that all of these people – from Gerald Woodgate at the top of the pile to Mark Potts at its base, had coordinated their efforts to herd Karen towards these deserted ruins.  Maybe their agendas had been different, but their objective was one and the same.   Maybe that entailed delivering her into the clutches of the dark man, maybe not; but such had been the effect.  Had the other missing persons Ray Flynn had named been similarly treated?  No, they had made special efforts to secure Karen because Flynn was right:  she was different, a local girl with relatives and friends.  Tracks had to be covered, alibis arranged – and it all led here; to a couple of stone piles that masqueraded as Boulter’s Green.  Why?  There was nothing here!  And why had Karen been their target when there must have been easier prey?

With all these questions in his mind, Patrick climbed the slope between those two ruined buildings to the upper meadow, where he could gaze across a swathe of open turf towards the river and the serene presence of the Great House at Boult Wells.  Here was the place Karen swore she had encountered her wizened little man, her ‘Joshua’.  If he was to believe she had actually seen this Joshua, then somehow he had managed to disappear, although there was no clue as to how that could happen.  Yet something more was troubling Patrick about this scene; something in his head he felt he should recollect, but couldn’t.

Eventually, as the shadows lengthened, he surrendered and turned for home, where his welcome was tempered by his father’s questioning.  Jackson was in severe mode, insisting his son should inform him when he intended to cease obstructing the police and return to his work.

“I think I understand how you feel, boy, but moping around like a sad spaniel is no solution.  Getting back to routine will help you get past this.  Nothing else will.”

Patrick, who had no intention of dividing his time, made some sharp response and a family row ensued which cast shock waves over the rest of the evening, only subsiding when Jackson had retired to bed.  Still incensed, Patrick almost rounded on Gwendoline when, contrary to custom, his mother put her head around the door of his bedroom.   “Patsy, darling, don’t be too hard on your father.  He’s trying his best.”  Then, after a second of thought, she added, “Love, you see – real love – isn’t easy for him.  He doesn’t do emotion very well.”

“May I?”  Gwendoline entered his room hesitantly.  She was averse to intruding upon her children’s privacy, even Amanda’s.  She perched on the edge of her son’s bed.  “I was told something today I thought you might like to know; by a sister sufferer, in fact.  Her youngest is almost as impossible as Amanda – but that’s by the bye.  In the course of my preparation with Karen for our interview with that cypher from the Clerk’s Office; Purton, I think his name was, Karen mentioned someone called Norman Wilson, a deferential chap, she said, who was party to her original briefing for the Woodgate investigation – you know, the one she was trying to get out of?  Well, I hadn’t heard of him at the time but it turns out he, Wilson, is Sir Clive Webster’s deputy.”

Patrick frowned.   “Sir Clive Webster – should I know him?”

“Well, I believe you should, actually.  Clive is Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire, the Queen’s representative for the County.  He’s responsible for arrangements around royal visits and crown patronage; a symbolic role, largely, but pivotal, in its way.  How shall I put it?  There are not many parties of worth that omit him from their list of invitations.   Here’s the thing, though; Clive’s had one foot in and one on a bar of soap for years, poor chap – heart trouble?   Now – this was odd – when Karen and I visited Purton, Clive’s car was in the County Hall car park.  Odd, because Wilson does most of his work these days.  I don’t know about you, but I’d say that makes him a player; what do you think?”

Patrick agreed.  A bit part, perhaps, but implicated nonetheless.  “One hell of a team.”  That was the thought that guided him into sleep.

She came clattering down the bare wooden stairs notebook in hand, a tottering little bundle of mini-skirt and heels.  “You’re Mr Hallcroft,”  Her smile was toothsome,  “Rebecca Shelley.”  She extended a bunch of fingers like the tines of a table fork.  “Pleased to meet you!”

Patrick said he wanted to talk to her about the Karen Eversley disappearance and she said “Ah,” then she thought for a moment before she said:  “Come up to my office.”

He followed her bobbing and barely disguised rear as she led him back up the stairs, and into a beige room that owed little to either formality or comfort.  The chaos of shelving around its walls extended to piles of documents and journals on the floor.  There was a desk which Rebecca ignored, and an old married couple of chairs with pummelled leather seats.

“Take a pew.”  She invited him.  “Excuse the mess.”

Rebecca (call me Becky) had heard of Karen Eversley, yes.  Did she know of her disappearance?  Funny, that, the wires were being tweaked; somebody was missing, she had not heard who.  As Patrick expanded upon his story, she wrote on her notepad busily, her eyes widened and her mouth set into a lipless line.  When he had finished, she appeared to pore over her notes for several seconds, then:   “Have you given anyone else this story?”

Patrick felt moved to be honest.  “Tarquin Leathers.”

“Tarq?  Oh gawd!  The ‘Record’.  You weren’t in last Sunday’s, so it’ll be in the next edition, if they decide to use it.  Prepare yourself for a surprise, Patrick.  You have read his stuff, I take it?”

Patrick confessed he had not.

“Well, good luck!  Anyway, we come out on Saturday, so it’s our exclusive, in a sense.”  Rebecca got to her feet.  “Thank you for your story, Patrick.”

“You will run it?”

She sighed.  “I’ve got a lot of checking to do, before we go to press tomorrow evening.  I’ll have to run it past Cedric.”

“Who’s Cedric?”

“Our editor.  Listen, I can’t promise, okay?  See, this is a local ‘paper, Patrick, and we walk a fine line between the news on one hand and our advertisers on the other.  When it comes right down to it, the advertisers carry us.  The circulation wouldn’t feed a church mouse.  You’ve dropped a lot of names, here, mate  – a lot of squashed toes.  Police corruption?  An accusation like that has to be founded on bedrock, because they’ve got the smartest lawyers in the game, no joking!”

“What about the attack in the Planning Department?  On myself and Jacqueline Greenway – who’s still in hospital, by the way.  There must be records of that, surely?  No-one was interviewed, and there were enough witnesses!”

Rebecca shrugged apologetically.  “I know, Patrick, I know.”

“You’re not going to run it, are you?”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Furious, Patrick hit the street with his letter to ‘Cedric’ the editor of the Beaconshire County Herald already half-composed inside his head.   The Daimler Dart was parked beside the pavement a little further up the street.  A neatly folded piece of paper protruded from under the driver’s side windscreen wiper.  Still seething, he snatched at the paper, ready to cast it into the gutter when he caught part of the wording written upon it out of the corner of his eye, which induced him to pause.  It read, in large black type:

‘YOU WERE WARNED’.

 

© 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 Twenty-Two. Three Buses

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Stafford Dricombe often referred to the third floor of the Great House at Boult Wells as his father’s control tower, and certainly its windows commanded the best view the house could afford of the Driscombe estate.  From his position at its big west window he could see across the treetops of Berkley Wood all of five miles to Marney’s Folly, a bland and totally pointless tower a previous Driscombe had erected upon what was then deemed to be the highest point of the estate.  That was two hundred years ago, of course, when follies were the fashion and when the estate was no larger than seven miles across.  Now Driscombe lands covered a much larger spread, mainly in the form of tenant farms.  Their tentacles were long, towards Caleybridge in the South, Bulmouth in the North, Baronchester in the East.

Marney’s Hill was no longer the highest, nor could all the Driscombe property be seen from the top of his folly, for Africa was far from view, Asia even further.  Nor, were all the engines of Driscombe prosperity so visible: diamonds lurked deep beneath the bedrock of a far-off mine, and the oil that filled their pipelines never saw light of day.  Driscombe fortunes were entwined in property, immersed in politics, and bathed by financial markets.  They were only counted by those whose business it was to count – bankers in city offices in the major markets of the world.  Stafford knew nothing of accounting, cared nothing for the business of the Estate.  It was something he had been born into and never saw fit to question.

Today promised to be vexing.  He sighed heavily, looking down on those sunbathed lawns which fronted the House, then a little beyond to the walled area of the pool.  The sun was scarcely affected by breeze in that arena of mosaic stone and blue water. It would be hot.  Jacinta, Stafford’s wife, with two of her friends were stretched out on sunbeds beside the pool.  They were topless, all three, and although distance lent a certain modesty, it was easy to see from this high advantage how the years of over-indulgence had worked upon Jacinta’s figure.  The Honorable Lucy, at just seventeen the newest addition to Jacinta’s privileged circle, was, by comparison, a very model of temptation, and Stafford was tempted.  She had fruits just ripening, delicious to touch; a firm young body her brief yellow bikini pants did little to conceal.  Stafford would want her; Jacinta would know: a little game they played.  Supplying new flavours for him to taste was one of the subtle ways Jacinta kept the fires of her marriage burning; for she knew her own talents well.

“I can’t see clearly, Stafford, as you know,”  Lord St. John Driscombe had approached with his usual stealth.  “Yet I am aware that what is going on down there offends common decency.  I won’t have young women disporting themselves in such a flagrant manner.  Put a stop to it!”

Stafford glanced down at his father’s shrunken form, smiling mildly.  The old man, swathed in a blue silk dressing gown, leant heavily upon a walking cane, a stance made the more unsteady by a tremulous arm.  His tautly bald head was ploughed by the furrows of a frown.

“It is the fashion, father,”  He soothed.  “In private circumstances; I think this is private enough, don’t you?”

“I do not.  Exhibitionism!  Deplorable manners!  Unconscionable!”  Lord St. John snatched a ‘kerchief from his dressing gown pocket to catch the dew that was gathering at the tip of his rather prominent nose.  “Another consequence of your injudicious marriage.  That woman of yours flashes her blasted titties everywhere.  She does not merely dress like a tart, she manages to undress in similar style!”

“Please, Father!”  Stafford murmured,  “You speak of the woman I love.”

“I’m speaking of a blasted docker’s daughter!  A theatrical, for god’s sake!”

“You’ve dispensed with your chair this morning, Father.  Oughtn’t you be seated?”

“Don’t need it!  Never do.  I choose, y’see.  I choose.”

“Yes, Father.”  Stafford spied his father’s wheelchair parked in a corner of the room.  “Shall I fetch it for you?”

“If you must.”

The son brought the father his wheelchair promptly, aware how the ancient man could collapse without warning when the vitriol that bore him up was spent.  This suite of rooms at the top floor of the Great House was St. John Dricombe’s world, an air-conditioned palace he rarely left, even though a special lift stood ready to ferry him down to the outside world.  It was a luxuriously appointed prison, appropriate to his power and wealth, but it was a prison nonetheless.  No sooner was the chair positioned behind him than the old man sank into it with the grateful hiss of a punctured tire.

“I might take a constitutional downstairs later on.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Take a turn on the lawn.”

“Yes Father.”

“Well, I want those hussies out of the way when I do.”  The old man’s tone altered.  “He’s done it again, hasn’t he?”

Satisfied Lord St. John was comfortable, Stafford turned back to the window, not wanting to face the gimlet glare of those beady grey eyes.  “Yes,” He said gravely, his eyes focused now on Marney’s Folly.  “I’m afraid he has.”

“Can we contain it?”

“Of course.  We must, mustn’t we?  There’s a little more fuss, this time – third in a row, that sort of thing.  The press loves stuff like that.  I imagine it will find a space in the nationals, but it will all die down.”

“Stafford?”

“Yes, Father.”

“This has to stop.  This has to be the last, d’ye understand?”

Stafford’s sigh had the weight of the world upon it.  “Yes, I do understand.  If you could just…”

“We’ve been through all that.  You know what I think.”

“Yes, I do.”

“That’ll be all, then.  Get the kitchen to send up my breakfast, will you?”

The son departed, leaving the father to the gaoler of his years.  Free of the yoke of family, Stafford wasted no time.  In his rooms, he donned a pair of swim trunks inappropriate to his girth and age, threw a bathrobe and a towel over his shoulders, and padded out across the lawns towards the pool.

From his west window, Lord St. John Driscombe watched.  His eyes may have been too dim to see detail, his ears too muffled by years to hear, but he knew.  Maybe he remembered the days of his own youth, when he, in his turn, had been just as ready as Stafford to trade upon his position and wealth.  He could not blame his son, but he could foresee danger.  Confined within the high stockade of his family’s prosperity, Stafford suffered from none of the insecurities his father had experienced in his own time, which left him vulnerable to the moral gauntlets society might force him to run, and could cripple even one as rich as he.

Soft memories came back, little wisps of reminiscence that seemed to taunt him more and more with the years, and regrets came in shades of fragrant rose from that enchanted land of the past.

Lord St. John Driscombe gazed out over his verdant lands as he drifted towards sleep.

“Ah, dear Antoine!”  He murmured.

#

For  Patrick Hallcroft, there was no rest.  He had spent the quiet hours awake when the world was sleeping, staring into the shadows.  Where was Karen now?

In his pain he would have rejoiced, almost, if he had known she was safely asleep somewhere, even if that meant he would never see her again.  Another’s bed, perhaps?  No, he could not, would not ever, believe her to be so fickle.  Yet the other thoughts – the alternatives – were too terrible; he could not allow them to intrude in the sacred space of hope he kept alive in his heart, because in his heart he knew the critical hours were already past.   Three days:  it had been three days.   No-one had seen or heard of Karen for three days.

Patrick rose and breakfasted early with no credible plans.  What should he do?  A little after eight the telephone’s brayed and he raced to answer it, praying for news.

“Tarquin Leathers.”

“Who?”

“Let’s try this another way.  To whom do I have the honour?”

“I’m Patrick Hallcroft.”

“Great!  Right man!  Tarquin Leathers, darling –Sunday Record.  You might have read my stuff?”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“What price a by-line, eh?  Never mind, Patrick.  I’m on my way to see you, about your jilted lover story?”

The Press!   Patrick stirred his brain into action; “Yes, it’s more of a missing person story, really..”

“Nah.  Nobody reads them.  Listen, I’m coming from London, I’ll be a couple more hours.  You’ll be at home, won’t you, Patrick?”

“I will!”

With his head still trying to catch up, Patrick replaced the receiver, hearing Gabrielle descend the stairs behind him.  “Who was that?”

“The Sunday Record.  They’re coming to see me.”

“Ugh!  Ghastly rag!  But still, Patsy; national ‘paper, no publicity’s bad publicity, and all that?  I’m off, so I’ll miss them, I’m afraid.  Oh, and Mummy’s out too.  She’s trying to prise Sprog into another school.  This one’s nearly as far as Harterport – I ask you!  But still, you’ll have Mrs. B. for company, won’t you?”

Radley Court had lapsed into its comfortable morning silence when, much later, Patrick’s hearing picked up the crunch of wheels as a heavy car swung around in front of the house.  He caught a glimpse of a black Jaguar as it passed his window, so he was downstairs in time to greet the car’s occupant.

“Mr. Hallcroft?  Detective Sergeant Ames.  I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes?”  Patrick registered his surprise.  “Were you expecting someone else?”

Ames was comfortably aware of the task his superior officer had presented to him in a three-in-the-morning telephone call.  Someone had tipped off a hawk from the national press that a routine missing persons enquiry was being stonewalled.  His Chief Inspector had been quite specific.

“I’m putting you in charge of this one, Charlie. I want one of your best snow-jobs, please.  We don’t want to see it grow more than a couple of column inches.”

Professionally, Ames was up for promotion in June, so being slam-dunked into a case like this one, which could expose him to criticism from his superiors, represented a minefield; on the other hand, handled well, the result could be one of those unwritten portions of his CV which would make the appointing officers nudge each other confidentially and smile.  He was confident; the Hallcroft-Smythe boy seemed a decent, outspoken sort of chap – he fell into the easily placated, reasonable bracket of middle-class complainants who could be nudged off the circuit with a chrome bumper smile and a few well-placed cautions. These were the issues in Ames’s thoughts as he was shown into the refectory at Radley Court.  It was nine-thirty a.m.

“Thank you for seeing me so early, Mr Hallcroft.  This is about the alleged disappearance of  Miss Karen Eversley.”

Patrick sat the gruff-faced man at the table, offered him coffee, which was refused, then took a chair facing him.  Ames thumbed through a thin file he had managed to scoop together on a dawn raid at Caleybridge Police Station, wondering.  Apparently the boy’s mother had been a brief – maybe that was his only leverage.  Well, okay, maybe. Whose was the tip-off?  Did he have other connections?

“Your girlfriend’s mother is satisfied her daughter’s absence is nothing more than a decision to move away.  She has a letter that seems to bear that out, and she is confident it is genuine.”

“I don’t think it is.”

“I’ve just been to visit the lady.  She’s quite emphatic.  I’ve read the letter.  You’ve seen it, I imagine?”

“Yes.”

“Photocopied it?”

“I returned the original.  I have a copy here, somewhere. Karen borrowed one of my father’s cars to get away – she hot-wired it…”

“Very resourceful.  It doesn’t mean she was running away from anyone; merely that she wanted to get back to town and a taxi wasn’t immediately available.  Oh yes, someone called for a taxi, we’ve checked.”

“The car was damaged in a way that suggested it was being attacked.    She took nothing – absolutely nothing – with her.  Not so much as a toothbrush.  Believe me, she ran.”

Ames sighed.  Sitting back on the chair, he gave every appearance of considering his next words.  “So, Patrick:  on the one hand we have this letter, which Miss Eversley’s mother asserts  is genuine and states categorically that she left of her own free will; on the other, your insistence that she was attacked.  But then, you told us her car was at this place…what’s it called…Boulter’s Green.  It wasn’t, was it?”

“Yes, it was.  It has gone now:  Anyone who got hold of Karen would have access to the car keys, presumably.”

“Or she simply drove away again?”  Ames drummed the fingers of his left hand on the table.  It was a bad habit.  His wife frequently expressed her irritation when he did it and his colleagues liked to mimic him for it.  If Patrick had noticed it though, he gave no sign.  He waited patiently for the sergeant’s next remark.

“Must be useful to you, having a brief as a family member – she’d be able to advise you.”  Charlie Ames leaned forward, “If I were her I’d be advising you to be careful, Mr Hallcroft.  The police are very accommodating, and as far as I can see we have followed all the correct procedures.  There’s no justification for the allegations you seem to be making.”

“A uniformed officer put Karen – Miss Eversley –at risk by his actions.  I have been assaulted and no-one has even asked me for a statement. Now, you’re refusing to take this matter seriously.  Listen;”  Patrick was rising to his task  “Karen Eversley’s disappearance isn’t the first to be associated with Boulter’s Green; two other young people have vanished recently.  She was investigating those disappearances when she was taken.  Something’s wrong here, you must see that!”

“I do not see anything of the kind.  That’s a very serious accusation.  If you’re alleging that an abduction of some sort has taken place with the complicity of the local force…”

“I’m not saying who is directly implicated, I’m simply telling you something is wrong.  Three disappearances!  Somebody should be taking an interest, at least, surely?”

“These other two disappearances; were they reported?  There’s no evidence of it here.  And is this place some kind of catalyst?  I only have your word for that.  What real evidence I have suggests Miss Eversley left of her accord.  I have nothing, apart from some damage to a car which you attribute to an attempted assault, to say otherwise.”

“Her possessions?  Where are they?  Her apartment’s been stripped!  Her friends?  No-one has heard from her.”

“Circumstantial at best.”  Ames laid the file on the table, his palms on the file.  “There’s nothing here, Mr Hallcroft; nothing.  As far as I can see the local boys have done more than enough to check and re-check your story.  You might have had a robbery, that I concede, but as to Miss Eversley’s involvement…”

“So you’re determined to do nothing.”

“I, Mr Hallcroft?  I’m an experienced copper, looking at a very sad young man whose girlfriend has moved away without telling him.  I feel sorry for you, I really do.  But I am also looking at a complainant without any case to bring, a complainant who copied a personal letter without the recipient’s permission, someone whose behaviour has been generally disruptive and who is seeking the ear of the national press…”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You will be contacted very shortly by a journalist.  I want you to be aware of your position, Mr Hallcroft!  Discuss it with your mother, if you will.  You are making unsubstantiated allegations against the police, and the police don’t take kindly to being pilloried by the press when they have no case to answer.  I’m advising you to think before you say anything, and I’m warning you that you face action if you persist in this – criminal prosecution, damages…have a think about that, will you?”  Ames rose to leave.  “Thank you.  I’ll find my own way out.”

A beneficent sun had reached the summit of its climb before more gravel was compressed, this time by a small but exciting automobile with several Italian references.  The figure that emerged from it did not look Italian at all.

Tarquin Leathers was a large man with a great deal of good living encompassed by his red waistcoat.  The thicket of unnaturally black hair that coated his head was forced into a quick decision when he raised his hat in greeting as to whether it should remain with its host or follow the chapeau.

“Mr Hallcroft!   What a journey!  My dear, the traffic! How are you?  Can we talk?”

“Mr Leathers.”  Patrick said.  “I’ve been told not to talk to you,” There had been sufficient time for him to ruminate upon D.S. Ames’s visit, “but I will, anyway.  Come in – can I get you coffee, or something?”

In the breakfast room once again, Patrick reiterated his story, bringing in D.S. Ames’s comments at the end.  “I’ve been threatened by the police twice now.”

“It’s good!  It’s very good!  It means they’ve something to hide!  I like the story of your centre-temps with the man-ogre by the river, darling.  Describe him for me again, will you?  Long, unkempt hair, aquiline nose, gorgeous toothy snarl?  Must be careful – mustn’t go too Transylvanian, must we?  Think now – did he have any deformities?”

Patrick, his story fully told and copiously noted, watched the newspaper man leave in his little car, understanding that Bridget Eversley would be his next port of call.

“That’s if you can get anything out of her.”  He warned.

“Oh, my darling man, you have no idea!  As soon as she knows I’m press, she’ll sing like a tweety-bird!”

Reflecting that he had not eaten, Patrick headed to the kitchen, where he made himself a sandwich and repeated his morning’s interviews in his mind, trying to elicit any new knowledge they had to offer him.  He knew already, did he not, that the police were intent upon obstructing any but the sketchiest inquiries into Karen’s absence?  Yet it had taken Tarquin Leathers to point out the significance of D.S. Ames’s arrival on the scene.

“A detective sergeant from ‘Division’, my dear chap.  A ‘fixer’, I shouldn’t wonder.  You should be ecstatic!.  Your stirrings have caused ripples in the big pond!”

For himself, Patrick was more inclined to believe that after an hour of waiting, two buses had appeared at once.  His days of persistence were yielding a minor hailstorm of results – something over which he could exert very little control.  However, something had disturbed that bigger pond, and Leathers had been less than forthcoming concerning his sources.  Enthusiastic about the publicity, Patrick had been too scared of pressing for that information.  Nevertheless, somebody had touched a wire.  Who was it?  Tim Birchinall?

“Anybody home?”

The voice from the hall had a slight country lilt.

“I’m looking for Mr. Patrick Hallcroft.”  The intruder said.  “Have I found him?”

Emerging from the kitchen, Patrick frowned.  “Did anyone invite you in?  Who are you, please?  What do you want?”

The man did not reply at first.  He was stocky, square in build, with a slightly florid complexion not enhanced by his choice of dark colours; black shirt open at the neck, chestnut sports coat and lovat cord slacks concertinaed over brown brogues.  He looked, if anything, more awkward than his style statement.

“I didn’t want to wait outdoors,”  He said;  “Too conspic’u’s.  Dunno what I wants, really.  Somethin’ to say.”

“You’d better come through to the kitchen, then.”  Patrick regarded the man warily,  “Should I know your name?”

The question, simple as it was, did nothing to improve the man’s confidence. “Dunno as I should tell you that, neither, but I s’pose…”

“Suppose?”  Patrick was already back in the kitchen.  His visitor followed him in.

“Yes.  I’m not in uniform, see?”

“Oh, you’re a policeman!  I feel so special!  You’re my second policeman of the day!  Coffee, sandwich?  Have a sandwich!  I’ve got beef, or ham?”

At the news that others had gone before the man blenched visibly. “Well, I’m no-one, really.  Just a constable, see. I’m off duty.  I’m a friend of Tim’s.  I’m Ray Flynn.”

 

© 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

 

 

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Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-One. A Common Woman.

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It was near to darkness when Patrick pulled up outside the block that housed Karen’s apartment, where he supposed Bea Ferguson would be waiting for him, although he had not anticipated meeting her in the hallway.   Karen’s friend was huddled in a green hooded coat, rubbing hands covered by woollen gloves.  “It’s really cold, yeah?”

“Why didn’t you wait upstairs?”

“I dunno.  Maybe I wanted to prepare you a little bit first, but then I thought about it and I didn’t know what I was going to say to you anyway.”  Bea turned to the stairs.  “Let’s go up and you can see for yourself.”

“You can get inside the apartment?”

“If she goes away who’s the lucky moo who gets to check up on her stuff for her?  Moi, Patrick, moi.  Oh, and usually send her something she’s forgotten.  She always forgets something.  So I’ve got a key.  This key.”  Bea dangled a Yale key on a string from her fingers.  “I sort of wish I hadn’t.”

Patrick had a deepening sense of foreboding.  “Why, what’s wrong?”

They reached the landing before Karen’s door.   Bea slipped her key in the lock and turned it, then probed behind the jamb for a light switch.  “Like I said, see for yourself.”

He knew at once.  The echo told him.   Beyond that door would be nothing.   Yet still an exclamation of shock and surprise forced its way past his lips; for the apartment was very, very empty; without shades over the bare light bulbs, without furniture, curtains or carpets to cover the floor.  Only the telephone remained, on the floor in the lobby.  The number disc in the centre of its dial had been removed.

“It’s disconnected.  It was still on this morning, because I tried to call her,” Bea told him.  “I had to use the box on the corner tonight to ‘phone you.  What’s going on, Mister Hallcroft – has this got something to do with you?”

“Of course not!”  Patrick was going from room to room, finding nothing.  And not for the first time in the two days since Karen’s disappearance he found himself having to shake his head to clear a confusion of thoughts and ideas.  “I mean, how?  Just how?”

“I’ll tell you how.  All her stuff’s gone!  Some bugger’s just marched in here and cleared the place out.  This isn’t Karen, Patrick.  My mate Karen wouldn’t do this!”

“Here’s something else she wouldn’t do.”  Patrick had known he would have to show Bea his copy of Karen’s letter and the moment seemed to be now.  He withdrew it from his jacket pocket.  “At least I hope not.”

Bea read the letter slowly, turned it over in her hands and then read it again.  “Oh, man, what’s going on?  You poor sod.”  She said, sympathetically.  Then:  “I don’t get it.”

“It seems pretty explicit.”

But Bea did not agree, “No!  I mean, Karen?  No!  For a start, she wouldn’t write on paper like this.  Blue vellum?  Not Karen.  Anything would do for Karen because she hates writing letters.  I don’t think she’s ever bought a writing pad in her life!  And black pen, she uses, never blue.  I get annoyed with her for that, but she once explained to me all legal documents have to be filled in in black.  Yeah, with me?”

“With you,”  Patrick confirmed.

“Another thing.  Karen and her mum, they aren’t too close, if you see what I mean?  If she was going to chuck you, and I know she wasn’t, she wouldn’t ask her mum to do it for her.  She’d at least call you!  Apart from anything else, she wouldn’t trust her mum to do it. See, if her mum liked you, she might not do it at all.”

“In that case,”  Patrick said, already seeing Karen’s relationship with her parents thrown into a different perspective:  “I’m glad I showed it to you.”

“So am I, Patrick, so am I.  Trust me – although this may look like her writing, she didn’t write it.”

“Anyway,”  Patrick reverted to the subject of Karen’s furniture,  “This has to have happened today.  Someone should have seen something.  Have you tried the apartments downstairs?”

Bea said that she hadn’t, so they knocked on doors, but despite the lateness of the hour and the annoyance that caused, they learned nothing.  No, Karen’s neighbours had not seen any sign of removal men because they had been elsewhere; at work, or simply ‘out’.  When all the possibilities had been exhausted, the pair were forced to admit defeat, and return to their respective cars for their journeys home.

Near to tears, Bea rounded on Patrick:   “I’ve ‘phoned round to just everybody.  Nobody’s heard from her!  I hope you haven’t done something to put her in danger, mate…”

“You know I haven’t! She was being followed.  It’s all to do with a case she’s on.  I can’t figure it out yet, but I’m going to find her.  That’s a promise, Bea!”

Nodding, Bea drew a deep breath.  “Her mum must know something about this, though whether we’ll get much out of her is another matter.  Go and see her again.  I can’t, I’ve got to work.”

Patrick could, and the very next morning, he did.

At nine-thirty the terraced street was quiet.  Unwilling children, happy children, cacophonous children had all been subsumed by their schools while relieved parents sat indoors. dosing their fatigue with coffee.  The world of work had gone to work, the world of street life was on hold, as yet unwoken.

The Eversley’s door was as bland as it had always seemed, yet Patrick had a premonition.  As soon as he touched the doorbell it was confirmed.   The curtain of Bridget Eversley’s front room twitched savagely and behind it Bridget herself, scowling.

Patrick did not have to wait for long.  There was an abrupt turn upon a latch, and the front door swung back, framing the stern figure of Bridget.

“What do you want, young man?”

“I’m sorry.  If it’s inconvenient, I can come back.”

“If you’ve something to say, you should get on with it.  Be quick.  I shouldn’t be talking to you at all, y’see?”

“No, I don’t think I see.  Did you know Karen’s apartment has been cleaned out – all her furniture, clothes, everything taken?”

“I expect she sold it.  Needed the money, I shouldn’t wonder.  Do you know I had a visit from the police last night?”

“The police!”

“You’ve been reported!  Going around, harassing people, making a nuisance of yourself…”

“That’s untrue!  I only want to…”

“You want to get over it, young man, that’s what you want to do.  You saw her letter. She doesn’t want to see you no more.   ‘Ccording to the policeman, she was a bit frightened of you.  You wanted to be with her all the time, that sort of thing.  Possessive, that’s what he said.  Now make yourself scarce or I’m going to get on the ‘phone right now.”  And Bridget Eversley slammed the door.

Dumbfounded, Patrick stood on the street for a few minutes, staring up at the windows and curtains that were suddenly closed to him.  Overnight he had pondered upon why Bea, who had apparently only met her once, had been so scathing in her criticism of Bridget.  Now he saw.  Nevertheless, he had to question himself; was it true?  Had he been the real reason Karen had fled?  A darkness that had been lurking in the corners of his mind, a worm that writhed and twisted deep within; they threatened him now.

He drove back through the town half-expecting to see her face among the faces on the pavements; to catch the frightened look in her eyes when she saw she had been discovered, watch her duck quickly into some shop or doorway to avoid him.

“…he expected so much of me…  Maybe he expected too much…”

Patrick returned to Radley Court.

Throughout his life, the old Georgian pile had been his refuge and his home, the burrow into which he could fly when the world was growling and likely to bite.  Not now.  As he drew up beneath those tall windows the Court’s emptiness echoed like the doors in Karen’s apartment.  They seemed to offer little better than a roof and nothing so much as a welcome.

Amanda, his younger sister, emerged onto the threshold, ready to pounce.   Patrick greeted her moodily.  “Ah, the Great Uneducated.  Hasn’t mumsy found you a school yet?”

Amanda rarely approached her brother, seeing him, to his mind, as a disfigured vexation – a break in her perfect circle. Yet for one so young she had an uncanny ability to lift his spirits, because her permanent sense of outraged moral rectitude amused him, even in his darkest hours.

“Gabrielle told me what has happened.  I sympathize, although of course I spent no time in Miss Eversley’s company.  I wouldn’t, you see.  I deceived myself into thinking we could be friends, but she has proved to be a common woman, I’m afraid.  Really, Patrick, you should try to meet some rather better people.  Why are you laughing?”

“’Manda, has no-one apart from me ever told you what you sound like when you say those things?  It’s funny – repulsive, but funny!”

“I don’t see why.  I’m serious.  A decent girl wouldn’t run off like that.  A decent girl would…”

“Yes, yes.  You tell me, my sweet little prig; what would a ‘decent girl’ do?”

“Well, she’d finish with you in a dignified manner.”

“Can I finish with you in a dignified manner?”

“Certainly not, I’m your sister.”

“All right, tell me, then – what’s the proper way to finish with a boyfriend?  The sophisticated way.  How would you do it?”

“I’d choose somewhere decent and refined…”

“God, why?”

“So he would be embarrassed to make a fuss, of course!  And I’d just tell him, firmly, that I had found another.”

“Another what?  Look, are you going to be quiet?”

“I thought you were in need of serious conversation.”

“Whatever made you think that?  Amanda, my little duchess, Karen hasn’t left me, she’s been taken from me.  There’s a difference.”

“So you insist that to be the truth?  You are so misled!  A common woman, Patrick, with common morality!  Do not waste your grief upon her!”

“Amanda?”

“Yes?”

“Go away.  Now!”

Amanda grimaced, then trotted indoors.  Patrick, following her, watched her cross the hall to the stairs in a series of un-ladylike cartwheels.  In her absence, the house returned to an empty, uncomfortable peace.

He mooched from room to room, unable to favour one place over the next, neither wishing for company – although his mother was home – nor content with solitude.  All the while his mind was churning, self-accusing then self-justifying, doubting, then angry at himself for entertaining doubt. The strident advice of Karen’s mother, the harsh criticism of his father still rang in his ears, eroding his determination.  But through all the turmoil, in the end, there was his shining vision of Karen and his memory, still fresh, of their shared moments among the stars.  In the end, there could be no doubt.

Nevertheless, it would be midday before he could gather himself together sufficiently to pick up the telephone.

“Metropolitan Police switchboard.”

The operator was immediately helpful, and the process surprisingly fast and efficient.  No, he hadn’t a warrant number, only a name, Timothy Birchinall.  Could Constable Birchinall call him back, the matter concerned Miss Karen Eversley?  Yes, his message would be passed on.  Of course, it would be Constable Birchinall’s decision whether to respond.

Gabrielle found Patrick alone in the snug when she returned from work that evening.  He was doing nothing but stare at the wall, his hands clutched about his knees and rocking in his chair, back and forth.  With some difficulty, she got him to recount the misfortunes of his day.

“A lot of wasted hours.   Karen’s parents seem to have been warned off, possibly lied to, by the police, so I don’t feel I can go back to either of them.  I’m certain the long-haired man has her and to be honest, Gabs, I don’t know where to turn.”

“Try not to stress!”  She laid a cool hand on her brother’s twitching fingers.  Seeing him in this distracted state was not familiar to her.  He was normally calm and decisive –positive in thought and deed.  “I’m sure there’s some logical explanation.”

Patrick shook his head.  “I’m not.  I left her on her own – I knew I shouldn’t have.  I just didn’t think it through.  He’s got to her, and God knows what he’s done!”

Gabrielle winced.  “You weren’t to know he – they – whoever – was going to try something like this. Stop blaming yourself.  The way it seems to me, she got away from whoever it was, anyway.  I think she went out to those ruins on her own terms.”

“Then where is she now?  ”

“What are the police doing?”

“Nothing!  They refuse to do anything – if anything, they’re trying to keep me quiet – to criminalise me. They’re accusing me of causing a nuisance, or something.  Oh, Gabs, you know what I’m thinking; what if he’s hurt her.  What if he’s…?”

“What can I say, Patsy?  All I can think is if anyone could take care of themselves Karen could.  She seemed to me to be a pretty robust and strong.”

Some time had to elapse before Gabrielle could coax her brother to calm down.  Her own mind was troubled now, almost as much as his.  Try as she might, she could not fit the evidence together in any way that was believable:  the clearance of the apartment was most difficult to explain: if Karen had arranged it, the move must have been planned before – long before – Karen’s visit to her house.  Removal men did not act on a few hours’ notice, but a few weeks, or days at the very least.  And even then, how had she packed all the odds and ends that go with a removal:  the boxes of books, the china, the clothes, the bric-a-brac of living?

Patrick read her mind.  “You don’t know what to believe, do you?”  He said.

“I believe you, darling brother.  How should I not?  Alright, you’re given to exaggeration from time to time, and you might be romancing slightly over this slavering cretin’s mendacious intent, but I don’t believe you’re lying.  It’s just hard to accept, that’s all.”

“What is?”

“Well, that somebody who was staying in my family home has been taken, I guess.  It just doesn’t happen; not in dear old pottering Beaconshire.”

At around eight-thirty the telephone bell clattered in the hall.  Patrick answered it.  The voice a the other end of the line was deep and unfriendly.

“You’re Patrick Hallcroft.  Birchinall here; what do you want?”

“Thank you for calling back, Mr Birchinall, I’m sure I’m not the first voice you would want to hear…”

“Very perspicacious of you.  Shall we get on with this – is there something I can help you with?  I take it you haven’t just called to say hello?”

“Is she with you?”

“She?”

“Karen.  Is she with you in London?  I’m not making a scene or anything, I just want to know, that’s all.”

The line was quiet for a few seconds, then Tim Birchinall said:  “Why would you think she was with me?”

“Because she isn’t with me.  She’s disappeared.  She was being harassed by a big long-haired guy, something to do with an investigation she was on, and I think she was forced to run from him.  Nobody’s seen her or heard from her and I think something’s happened to her.  I just hoped she might have come to you…”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!  This big bloke with the long hair – did you see him?”

“Not in daylight.  I had to fight him off for her once, but it was in the dark.  He wears a long leather coat.  My sister got a better look at him, do you want to speak to her?”

The voice on the line sighed.  “No, that won’t be necessary.  The bad news is, I’m afraid, she isn’t with me.  Patrick, isn’t it?  I’m sorry I was sharp with you, Patrick; you did the right thing by ‘phoning me.   I’ll pull a few strings at this end if I can.  You may get a visit from a police constable shortly, okay?”

“The police aren’t interested.”

“No?  Well, I hope this one will be.”

#

She was seated upon red cushions in a tattered Lloyd Loom conservatory chair that faced a small upright table.  These two items of furniture, with the addition of an ancient leather sofa, were the only adornments to the space she had already come to know as ‘the end room’.  Two strip lights on a low ceiling cast dimly upon the torn ruins of a carpet patterned in a Turkish mode, and upon windowless walls of white emulsion; or emulsion once white.  There were two doors to the room; one, which faced her, was kept padlocked and referred to as ‘the supply cupboard’ the other, behind her to her right, led to a passage.  Her ‘bedroom’ was one of two doors from the left side of that passage; the other was the room of Joshua, the nurse.  Two doors also broke up the wall on the right of the passage.   One, a bathroom, was well appointed and clean, the other, which Joshua was particularly careful to explain, was ‘Edgar’s Room’.

“Never go in there unless he invites you, which he will do through me.  If by any chance he changes that, make sure I know where you are.”

The door was substantial, faced with padded leather.  Karen had wanted to know how much of Edgar’s room was padded on the inside.

“That, lassy, you’ll be finding out soon enough.”

“Is he in there now?”  She had asked.

“He’s sleeping.  That’s what he does, mostly.”

“And when he wakes up?”

“He’ll be hungry.  He’ll eat, then he’ll want you.”

“What if I refuse?”

“Then he’ll get agitated.  I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Joshua told her.  “You’re not going to like what he wants, I’m afraid, but you mustn’t blame him too much.  Edgar’s ill.  He’s a very sick man, is Edgar.  When he’s awake he can’t cope – the tension gradually works on him until he explodes, you see.  It’s anxiety, really, but it manifests as harm.”

“Harm to me?”

“See it this way, girl.  It’s a challenge, alright?  From now on think of living as a challenge.  Every day you survive you live another, and if you’re clever and you can discover how, you might keep Edgar going for days, maybe even weeks.  But you’re the minnow and he’s the shark, you see.  It can’t last forever, can it?

“You’re saying he’s going to kill me, aren’t you Joshua?”

“Try not to think about that – not yet.  You have to write a list of your needs for me.  Be as specific as you can, there’s no need to deprive yourself.  I’ll get you a pen and some paper.  Co-operate, that’s the first step.  Then I’ll help any way I can.”

“Help me get out of here?”

“No, hon, I can’t do that.  No-one ever gets out of here.”

“There have been others, then.”

So there it was.  Her destiny was to die.  And in the ‘room at the end’ there was a confirmation of her fate – the slightest of odours which,  though she could not trace it to any source, was one she knew well enough – it was the smell of death, the distant foulness of decay.  Yes, there had been others.

All Karen could do was sit, wearing the white shift that was required of her, waiting out her time.  There was a pile of well-thumbed paperbacks on the table for her to browse, which she did, idly, unable to concentrate, as the minutes ticked by. Soon enough the sound of the door latch came, and from behind her, Joshua’s voice:

“He’s awake.  He wants to see you now.”

 

© 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