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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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