Rebecca Shelley emerged from The Huntsman Hotel entrance dressed in a sweater and jeans, straining to carry a large canvas bag.
“Can I put this on the back seat?” She asked brightly.
“I should warn you, I don’t eat that many sandwiches.”
Rebecca’s bag rattled metallically as Patrick drove out of Caleybridge onto the High Pegram road. Although this was a stretch he had driven many times through the years it still reminded him sharply of its connection with the two characters Karen had been investigating when he first met her. He chanced to remark upon this and was subjected to further ‘checking’ by Rebecca. What did he know about Anna Parkinson, or Gavin Woodgate? The springboard in the spry little journalist’s mind then sent her leaping into an entirely separate aspect of his memories of Karen; how committed was she to her séances, how close to the memory of her sister? And once again, though he was able to help with the history of Gasser Gates, Patrick was struck by how little of Karen Eversley’s personal life he actually knew.
As Karen had done once before him, Patrick nearly drove past Nowhere Lane. The hedge surrounding its entrance had been allowed to grow, and its signpost was missing. He needed to brake sharply to make the turn, with hardly time to straighten the wheels before he found his way barred by a chain stretched across the track. A sign was suspended from the chain: It said: ‘Private. No admittance.’
“This is new,” he commented. “It wasn’t here last time.”
“Well, rules are made to be broken.” Rebecca extracted a large pair of bolt cutters from her canvas bag. “A girl has to come prepared!”
In the event, Patrick’s strength of arm and several minutes hard labour was needed to chew through the chain, the linkage of which could have anchored a small ship. After they had draped it tidily aside Rebecca commented: “Ever had the feelin’ someone doesn’t want you here?”
For all the chain setter’s interest in deterring access, no effort had been made to trim back Nowhere Lane’s wild hedgerows. In places the overgrowth was so complete it spanned the entire track from one side to the other, forcing repeated groans from Patrick as wilderness scrooped along his car’s expensive paint. On Rebecca’s insistence they did not drive the full length of the lane, but stopped so the car was still concealed to some extent by the untamed hedge, and in a position slightly higher than the line of three still distant ruins, which were now so covered in greenery they appeared like nothing more than large bushes.
Patrick was curious. “You really believe whoever took her is still around? It’s been seven years.”
“I believe in bein’ cautious. Anyway, this’ll do. Which of those is the one where Karen said she saw the old man?”
Patrick indicated the middle ruin. “Thought so! Fab!” exclaimed Rebecca. “Let’s get goin’!”!”
The canvas bag had side compartments, one of which yielded a camera, which Rebecca hung about her neck in true homage to her status as a member of the Press, leaving Patrick struggling to carry the bag itself as they negotiated a final few yards of lane on foot, then crossed the small paddock that separated them from all that remained of Boulter’s Green.
Beneath a threatening sky, they rested. Rebecca almost whispered: “Ain’t it quiet? No birds, nothin’. I thought this was supposed to be spring; y’know, nesting and all that?” She gestured across the river in the direction Boult Wells, Stafford Driscombe’s mighty and inscrutable family home. “Fifteenth Century? Big, ain’t it? How far away – three, four hundred yards?” She drew a deep breath. “So this is where she told you she saw the skinny guy?” They clambered up the slope between the second and third ruins. “But you were off somewhere nearby takin’ a piss, so you didn’t see him. Did you hear them talking?”
“No. No, I didn’t.”
“You must have had your doubts. I mean, did you believe her when she told you?”
“Maybe, I don’t really know. You said it, didn’t you? People don’t just vanish into thin air.”
“So you thought she was havin’ a hallucination.”
“Possibly; probably. Then, I was sure she must have seen something. Now, I’m less certain.”
“You do know this was a little church – for the Driscombe estate?” Rebecca was crouching down, picking with her fingers at the rubble of wood and stone that covered what had once formed a floor.
“Yes, although I’m surprised you do. What are you looking for?” Patrick asked, kneeling beside her.
“I’m full of surprises, Patrick. I’m lookin’ for….ah!” A fist-sized chunk of stone resisted her. “I’m lookin’ for this. Once you find the first… you try over there.” She waved him back a pace, “Find us another one like this.”
Patrick did as he was bidden, though completely at a loss. Clearing the detritus of years exposed remains of what once had been a flagstone floor. To his amazement he also discovered a small, quite an ordinary piece of stone which, when he tried to sweep it aside, wouldn’t move. Thereafter he found more and more. A whole area roughly three feet square was comprised of apparently loose rubble which wasn’t.
“It’s like a flagstone trap door,” Rebecca told him. They’ve scattered some extra stuff on top to disguise it. Somewhere there has to be a means to lift the thing.”
“It has an inscription on it, hasn’t it? Are we sure we aren’t disturbing someone’s eternal rest?” Patrick asked. “Anyway, a…oh, my, look at this!”.
A corroded iron ring was fitted edgeways into a gap at the margin of the stone in such a way as to be barely visible, almost certain to be overlooked unless the person searching was dedicated to its discovery. “Fab!” Rebecca declared. “Now all we’ve got to do is get it out!”
Patrick, dumbfounded, made no comment. How could he have missed this? Why had he never even thought of it?
Rebecca delved in her bag and came up with a bolster, a chisel and a hammer. After a few blows they managed to expose enough of the stone’s edge for Patrick to force the chisel beneath it.
Together, they began using the bolster to prise up the camouflaged lid. “It’s friggin’ heavy, if you don’t mind the language! Don’t let go, for god’s sake!”
Choking upon wafts of stale air that emanated from the cavity beneath, they managed, at last, to slide the ancient stone aside. “If he was an old gaffer he must have had someone underneath, helpin’ him.” Rebecca opined. “There you go! A nice black hole!”
Patrick stared in open amazement at his companion.
“It smells like he’s still down there. How the hell did you know this existed?”
“I didn’t, but you gave me a problem, and it was the obvious solution. She must have walked away from him, had her back to him. Maybe he was hidden from her by all this briar and stuff?”
“Then why didn’t I think of it? What is it, an old mineshaft?”
“From under a church? Dunno. Let’s have a look.” From her ubiquitous bag Rebecca extracted her final treasure, a torch. “See? Steps! Luxury! Want to check out what’s inside?” Rebecca paused, instantly serious. “Or maybe you don’t.” She said. “It stinks. Stay here if you want. I can tell you what I find.”
The same thought had crossed both their minds. This could be a natural conclusion, the end of a long road and the place, very probably, where Karen Eversley’s life had ended, left to die in subterranean darkness.
“No” Patrick steeled himself, “Let’s get it done.”
Leaving Rebecca’s bag behind them and armed only with hammer, chisel and torch, the pair descended step by tremulous step into cold darkness, where the torch discovered, not a single, deep pit as Patrick expected, but the beginnings of a narrow passage.
“It seems to be leading towards the river.”
Although he had dressed prudently in a sweater and driving jacket against the uncertain weather of spring, Patrick had not prepared for this. An extraordinary chill, not altogether to do with the inadequacy of his clothing, was already wrapping itself about him,. The pitch-black of the rabbit hole pressed in upon him. This was a warning, an unspoken threat, and as they advanced – as the daylight from the hatchway dwindled behind them – so his apprehension grew. It was a passage of some sort, certainly. Compacted clay walls, supported by ancient, hardened timber props seemed to confirm the entrance to some long-forgotten mine, and Patrick said as much. “But you know what it is, don’t you?”
“I’ve an idea. I spent an hour or two in Caleybridge library last night.” Rebecca replied; “Boult Wells, it’s an old house – mediaeval, you know? It’s seen some troubled times; the Reformation, Bloody Mary? Catholics persecuting Protestants, or the other way round. One army replacing another, sieges, sometimes. Most of these old places, they had guilty secrets like priest holes, hidden passages: in a few cases, escape tunnels. If the King or Parliament was after them the tunnel could get them out of trouble. Somewhere in the house there’d be a concealed entrance, and another in a building at the other end – a chapel, maybe, like this one. It likely dates back to the Civil War; there have been rumours about its existence for years, nothing definite, mind, just stories. Most tunnels collapsed centuries ago, but apparently this one didn’t.”
They wormed their way forwards, gingerly, heads brushing the wet, icy cold of the roof. For fifty yards or perhaps more there was little evidence of the river they knew must soon be above them, but then the sounds of water dripping somewhere ahead, amplified by the sculpture of the passage, spelt out a reminder of where they were. After some yards more the fierce lance of their torch, their sole defence against the unthinkable terror of complete darkness, began to pick out a steady seeping and weeping from the roof. Progress thereafter was a cold gauntlet. Runnels trickled down their necks, soaking them.
“Is this safe?” Rebecca was seeking reassurance.
“I very much doubt it. It could bury us alive, and I should imagine it floods; in fact, I don’t know quite why it isn’t flooded now. Look on the bright side – too damp for spiders!”
Pressing forward, their torchlight offered some comfort, as it picked out a change in the construction of the passage from mud to brick; brick that nevertheless drizzled water onto what was becoming a flagstone floor. Here, clearly, the river was above their heads. Patrick picked out several places where steady dripping from the roof had formed little stalactites. “This has been here a long time. These bricks are really ancient.”
“A pic needed!” Rebecca announced. “Turn the torch off, Patrick. I don’t want it to mess up the flash.”
Somewhat unwillingly, Patrick complied, plunging them both into darkness while Rebecca leant her camera over his shoulder and lit everything in a flare of brilliant light. She groaned. “Oh, mercy!”
“What is it?” Patrick asked.
“I saw somethin’ in the flash. Get the torch back on, mate, will you?”
The torch beam thrust ahead of them, highlighting a further alteration in the nature of the passage which, having now passed under the river, began to rise, quite sharply. But it was not this change of level that had drawn Rebecca’s eye, nor the manner in which the burrow’s construction had spread to greater width and height, but a glimpse of something neither of these intrepid explorers had wished to see. “Jesus!”
Their horrified stares were met by dark and emptied sockets that once held eyes of their own. A fleshless skull lay on the floor of the passage where it had toppled from the rest of its remains, which had been pegged, by ropes and wooden stakes, to the left-hand wall. Beside it, similarly restrained, were two half-fleshed friends in death; themselves smaller and larger testaments to the offices of decay.
“A male and two females.” Rebecca murmured in hushed respect. “They’ll have been dead for a while.”
Patrick let a low moan escape him. Seeing danger, Rebecca grabbed his arm, pulled him around so his back was turned on the tragic scene. “Patrick, man, you don’t know! There’s nothin’ there to recognize now. They could be anyone – anyone!.”
“Karen,” He said, swallowing back a gorge rising in his throat. “One of them’s Karen.”
“Okay, all right. We’ve got to accept she might be. You don’t have to look. You don’t need to, Patrick. I can slide past you, yeah? I’ll do the lookin’, yeah? Did she have anythin’ on her that was yours? A ring or somethin’?”
“No. No, I don’t think so. Nothing.”
“Then, like I said, it could be anyone. One thing is for sure, though. They didn’t get here by themselves.”
“The thin guy? The old man? All these years I’ve been blaming that long-haired stalker of hers and it wasn’t him at all!”
“You’re jumping to conclusions; you don’t know…”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I can see it all now. That one, the tall one, that’s Gasser. Gasser, Mark, Perry and him; he was the fourth one in Mark Potts’ car. It was him! And he was waiting for Karen here that afternoon, and he was ready to drag her down into this – this hellhole, and he would have killed her then if I hadn’t been with her! Why didn’t I see? Why didn’t I see?”
“Patrick!” Rebecca clamped both hands to Patrick’s cheeks, forcing him to be still. “You’re making enough noise to bring this place down around our ears, mate – try to keep calm, right? Listen to me, yeah? The passage goes on, it doesn’t stop here. I want to see the rest. Are you with me? Are you with me, Patrick?”
There was space now to brush past the three sad figures with a minimum of disturbance, and Patrick felt deep pity for their tragic end. They were left here, forgotten by the world. When he collected himself he had to admit Rebecca was right; they were beyond recognition. If, as he still believed, one of them should be discovered to be Karen, he made the promise to himself, silently, that he would not leave her here – she would be properly buried. Her death would be remembered.
“Where does this water go?” Rebecca wondered, trying to bring her shocked companion back to rational thought. “This must drain off somehow. Any ideas?”
He shook his head violently, trying to clear his mind. “Can you hear a humming sound? There’s a pump somewhere, I think.”
Rebecca grinned, relieved. “I knew those big ears of yours would be useful for something! You’re right squire, I hear it too. The river was re-routed in the eighteenth century to provide water for lead mining further down, did you know that? They must have flooded this tunnel.”
“But someone pumped it out.”
“Yeah, someone who kept it pumped out. This tunnel is very much in use, Patrick; and very useful it could be, too! We must be nearly there!”
“Nearly where? Boult Wells?”
“Yep, there’s going to be a way through, and we have to find it. Now thinking the way you are, this next bit is going to be the hardest. We have to get past these guys, and it isn’t exactly comfortable space.”
Patrick needed to buy time. “You first.” He said gallantly.
Jacinta Driscombe observed her husband across the occasional table she had set for luncheon. He was uneasy, as might be expected in these uncertain days: too much now rode upon his appointment to Cabinet Office, too much had been invested – not financially; his purse was bottomless, but personally. Stafford was not a man to accept failure, and when placed in a position where success beckoned he was used not so much to reaching for it, as marching forward to stake his claim.
This was different. Until the General Election, and therefore until Heath made his final decision concerning his appointment, Stafford was walking a tightrope. All his insalubrious activities were on hold. The last little witch she had unearthed for him at their constituency Christmas Party in Beaconshire had been left sitting comfortably in a luxurious Richmond apartment where he was forbidden to go near her, availing herself of his generous allowance without fear of his attention. Several more marginal City deals had needed to be expensively foregone or prematurely bedded in a fiscal sense. The money, he could well afford; the missed opportunities gnawed at his bones. The lack of sex; that infuriated him.
Jacinta shared his discomfiture. She disliked the South Kensington apartment, with its oppressive air, its views of the busy streets and a distant river. Although the country bored her, she would have to admit the noise and bustle of London was upsetting too. She could shop in Knightsbridge, she could do the social round, but there was always a nagging awareness of proximity to Shoreditch and her Dockland roots, as if she might suddenly stumble upon her ageing father emerging from a betting shop, or trip over the ankles of a younger sister begging (her euphemism) in the street. Stafford had taken care of these issues so there was really no foundation for them. Her siblings were all gainfully employed, her father almost as comfortably furnished as his Richmond floozy, and the same condition for their continued happiness was placed upon them all, that if they raised their heads above the parapets as much as an inch, their incomes and their privileges would be severed at the neck. All the same, Jacinta knew her sister Rita, and the taste she had for drink. There was always the fear that one night when too much liquor was in her bloodstream, a crucial confidence might be breached…
“I’m obliged to call on Leon this afternoon;” Stafford told her. “You shouldn’t expect me to return before eight.”
“In that case, I’ll get together with Philippa – we need something for Reggie’s inauguration party.”
“Ask Jefferson to prepare supper.”
The door of the room was knocked discreetly.
The large features of a tall male figure peered around the door. “We’re ready for you, Sir.”
Jacinta watched as her husband left the room in the big man’s wake, then leant over the window sill to see into the street below, and a black car that waited, gleaming, by the pavement. Another large man, who might have been a carbon copy or clone of the first, stood by the car. When Stafford emerged from the street door with his companion this man opened the car’s nearside doors to let them in. Jacinta knew these men were hired, not regular members of her husband’s payroll, just as she knew Stafford had no intention of visiting Leon that afternoon. Stafford had secrets: she had always understood that, and it seemed that his impending appointment to high office involved clearing a lot of inconvenient history from his records. The exercise playing itself out before her was no more or less than that. Two large men – were they CID, or Special Branch, or MI5, or were they none of these? She had no way of knowing or inclination to question, although, from time to time, as now, her curiosity could be mildly aroused. So she did wonder where the car was taking her husband, and she wondered too at the identity of a woman who sat between the men in the car’s back seat.
Today something else caught her eye. She looked across to the first floor of the little art pottery boutique on the other side of the street, and in its window, among the elegant vases of the shop’s first-floor display, she saw a man with a camera that was aimed straight at her.
© 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