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So it was that in a blizzard’s teeth on a night in March 1970, Patrick Hallcroft’s long search for Karen Eversley came to an end.  Although the woman who sat opposite him in the transport that would enforce his return to normal life had no memory of him, and he had not the vision to be sure she was Karen, her identity would be established in due course, just as in due course she would remember him.

#

“She’s here, isn’t she?”  Patrick said, watching Jackson, his father, as the old man stirred the embers in the grate.

Jackson nodded.  “Stayed last night, in the guest room.  She heard you drive in.  She said she’d wait in the snug, in case you didn’t want to talk to her.”

“Has she said anything – about the book, I mean?”

Jackson  shrugged his shoulders.  “Nope.  I guess this is all about the book, but I can still read people, and she’s hurting in a lot of ways.  Who knows?  You have to see her, don’t you?”  And he turned back to stoking the fire.

#

Karen Eversley’s road to recovery had been long, a year or more before her memories of a time when she had a name and loves of her own would come back to her.  Why was Patrick not beside her on that difficult road?   Why did he return instead to his Beaconshire home and the closet of his former life, leaving her to the mercies of those who had, in effect, been her jailers?

No sooner had the helicopter borne Edgar away from the frozen moor than the sharp-faced commander of their rescue ordered their return to York.  The woman who called herself ‘Poppy’, who Patrick believed to be Karen, was impervious to his questions, maintaining a withdrawn silence on that journey.

In York, they were admitted to what seemed to be a military establishment on the outskirts of the City, where an ambulance awaited the woman.  Patrick was ready to protest at this point, because the woman seemed disinterested in his attempts to talk to her, instead allowing herself to be separated from their group.  He had no idea of his rescuers’ identity, or whose interests they served.  As he moved forward, voicing his objections, a hand restrained him, resting on his shoulder.

“It’s all right, Patrick.  I think you’ll find we’re the good guys.”

He turned, startled just by the familiarity of the voice:  “Tim Birchinall!”

Tim grinned at him.  “None other!  Well done, mate.  You found her.”

Patrick still harboured a shadow of doubt, “I don’t know, did we?   Is that her?  Anyway, how the hell…”

“…Did I find out about all this?”  Tim finished his sentence for him.  “You called Bea Ferguson, didn’t you – before you came up here?”

“From The Hunters, yes.  And she told you.”

“Of course.  She’s a blabbermouth, that girl. I’m glad she did.  I’m Special Branch myself, these days – that’s who these guys are, by the way – so I asked to come along.  She’s in good hands; the very best.  Certain people will be falling over themselves to keep her onside.”

“If it’s Karen.”

Tim raised an eyebrow.  “Of course it’s Karen!  She looks as if she’s had a very hard time, so, you mustn’t expect too much from her.  She’s been systematically brainwashed for years, poor sweet.  I doubt if she’s seen anything beyond the walls of her prison for a long, long time.  Look, leave these newshounds behind and come and have a pint, you look as if you could use one.  You can tell me all you can about your part in this, and I’ll do my best to explain everything from my side.”

The ambulance drove away, and Special Branch’s debriefing process began, which required an escorted journey by train to London for Rebecca, Tarquin and Patrick.  He had not seen Karen since.

And now a generation and more had passed, and the time had come for counting.  Each of Patrick’s steps across the great hall of his decaying family home seemed hollow, as if the mocking permanence of the stones stirred an echo of a ruined chapel in a flooded field – a memory so vivid still, after thirty years, that he had to stop himself looking down, lest he see an alternative fate inscribed beneath his feet.  How often had he crossed this hall in better days, as a child, as a young man full of dreams and hope? When carpet muffled his tread, when the wooden panels of its walls were abloom with polish?  They were dead now, those panels; dry and cracked like the walls, like the stones, like his dreams, like his hopes.

#

The girl Karen had fallen into his arms once, long ago.  The woman Karen had no need of his or anyone’s support.  Those mercies offered by her former jailers were extremely merciful.  The principals of Driscombe Holdings ensured she was given the best medical care and comfortably settled financially – with the provision, of course, that she must talk to no-one about her experience.  She was anointed into that select few who, as a price for their abuse by the Driscombe family (mostly in the person of Stafford, it must be said), were ‘set up’ very comfortably in apartments scattered about London.  You might question Karen’s morality in accepting this arrangement, and then use her frail mental health as an excuse to make allowances, but on both counts you would be mistaken: the woman Karen had a very definite agenda, for which there was no better position than in striking distance of Stafford Driscombe.

At the door of the snug Patrick paused, drew a breath before he gave its handle an experimental turn.  Who would he find, beyond this last partition?

Yes, he might have contested the wall of silence the Driscombe’s put up to separate him from Karen, were he not married, and his first duty to his wife Jacqueline.  She had loved him for a long time, including a short but tempestuous interlude during which she had played second best, unselfishly, to Karen; and now, faced with the buffers of real life, she felt insecure.  For Patrick, the moral argument was uncontestable.  Karen was safe, he had done enough.  Jacqui was his wife; he had no desire to hurt her, and so he played his part in their life together with all the willingness he could muster.  He’d written, of course, to Tim Birchinall because he had no more idea where Karen was now than when she had been incarcerated in the vaults of Boult Wells, and Tim had replied, regretting he was prohibited from divulging her whereabouts, but assuring him she was well.

She was seated on the ancient leather sofa with a book in her hands when he entered the room, and when she saw him she got to her feet, coming to greet him, taking his hands softly in hers when they kissed cheeks.  “How good it is to see you!  Your father wasn’t sure you’d come.”

He found himself looking into a face he had not seen plainly since its owner was twenty–six years old.  Yes, the eyes were still that startling blue, the nose that touch too large for perfection, but there the affinity ended.  There were scars – why had he assumed otherwise?  There were lines – hard lines, not just the etching of years.  He disguised his reaction with a cautious smile. “You asked.  How could I refuse?”

“I saw you arrive,” she said, “I didn’t come to greet you – nervous, I suppose; isn’t that silly?  How long has it been?”

“Too long,” he said, “Thirty years.”

Seeing her, he was reminded; not of the sweet girl he once wrapped in his arms, all those years ago; not the girl of his memories, but rather the shade of a creature who emerged from misty dark on a gale-scoured heath, leading his sworn enemy by the hand.  This Karen was not, and could never again become the woman he had loved, or the dream he had sought to restore.  He might have felt bitterly sorry for the years of pain and humiliation that had made of Karen someone apart, damaged, remodelled. He might have felt pity, but he could not feel love.

“Tim was an angel.  He helped me an awful lot through those first years.  He’s a Chief Inspector now, I’m told.”

“You’re ‘told’ – have you lost touch with him?”

“I have.  He wanted too much of me, Patrick.  He always did, I believe.”

So she had finished with Tim Birchinall; discarded him, he allowed himself to think.  He had drifted apart from Tim himself after his divorce from Jacqueline.

“You’re no longer married?”  She was surprised, genuinely so.  “How sad!”

“We separated nearly twenty years ago.  After – what happened – we could never get back on track, somehow.  We just found ourselves following different streams. She lives near Frankfurt now, with the man who was our agent over there, in the old days.  We’re still friends, I suppose.”

Sighing, Karen turned her head away, letting her gaze stray through the dusty glass of the window to the parkland beyond.

“It’s always the woman who uses that phrase, ‘we’re still friends’.  The men put up with it, why, I don’t know;  perhaps in some vague hope that things can return to the way they were.  They never do, of course.  Such a cruel irony.  You, who strove so hard in the cause of love and honour, should be the one who pays the highest price.  Do you ever think about me?”

The directness of her question surprised him; her head was still turned so he could not see the face that asked it.  “A little,” he said.  “Should I ask the same of you?”

“I suppose so.  Yes, I would say I do.”

“The Karen I knew then was the person I should have spent my life with,”

“That was brutal!” She adjusted herself a little in her cushions, making it easier to avoid his eye. “Honest, but brutal.”

”It was a brutal question.”

“I had to change, you see?  I had to.  The woman you remember wouldn’t have survived.”  Karen lapsed into silence.

“And yet?”  He said.

“And yet…”

Starlings in a murmuration performing their last dance of evening, wheeling and twisting against a western sky dulled to the copper of sunset,.   The beech, elm and chestnut trees waited in black shadow to receive them.  There was the path that led to the lake, and in her haze of recollection Karen imagined she saw Petra sprinting madly along it, shouting her approval to the wind.  “The last time I was here it was Spring; I’d forgotten how beautiful it was.  You must have found it difficult to leave behind.  You live in Bakersby now, I’m told.”

“Bakersby and London.  I have an apartment in Islington.  I bought a couple of factories near Bakersby, and I had to be close to the hub so I moved there.  This place holds too many memories.”

“Islington!  My apartment’s in Chalk Farm.  Why, we’re practically neighbours!”

“You haven’t asked me about Amanda.”

“Sprog.”  Karen’s lips gave the nickname a laconic twist.   “I don’t have to, do I?  In fact, I could probably tell you how Amanda Setterwick QC is faring.  I never encountered anyone so thoroughly efficient and so elusive at the same time.  What was the phrase that was fashionable then?  ‘Flit like a butterfly…?”

“Sting like a bee’.  That describes my sister to a ‘T’.   I can put you in touch, if….”

Karen waved a deprecating hand.  “Oh, no, no, no.  My people are dealing with Amanda.”  She turned reluctantly from the gathering shades of the park, blinking a little to distinguish Patrick’s face again, in the twilight of the room.  “Why now, Patrick?  Why rake everything up like this?”

“Ah, the book.  Do you need to ask why?  Payment is due, Karen, something has to be done.  Maybe you didn’t see those bodies, but I did.  I tried, very hard to get the police to investigate, and they wouldn’t.  What will your people do, try to stop publication?”

“No.”  Karen gave a quick headshake. “I hope you have been fair to Edgar with your book, but we’ll ride out what comes.”

“How is Edgar?”

Edgar.  What did happen to him, after the helicopter had swallowed him up that cold night?  In the same silence that cloaked Karen’s existence, Patrick did all he could to find out, only to be rebuffed at every turn.  The newspaper story was quashed because Rebecca never gained an interview with Edgar, and a lack of tangible proof was pounced upon by the ‘Daily Record’s’ owner.  Edgar’s whereabouts were a closely guarded secret, because Tamsyn Honeyday had achieved her objective when she alerted Special Branch’s investigative team to his existence – she did not need to hang Edgar over Stafford Driscombe’s head to guarantee his withdrawal from their contest for a ministerial position; the very fact that Edgar’s existence was known by those who dangled the sword of Damocles (in this case those few high-ranking members of Special Branch who she had entrusted with the exercise on the moor) was enough.  As far as Stafford’s fortunes were concerned, worse was to come.

“Edgar has what they term a ‘personality disorder’.  He’s much better now – proper medication and so on – but he’s seventy-five, so one doesn’t expect too much.”

“You married him.  Wasn’t that taking Stockholm Syndrome a little far?”

“The Company asked me to do it.  They wanted the matter of the title settled, and Edgar needed my motivation.”

“And a wife can’t be compelled to give evidence against her husband.”

“I don’t remember you being this cynical, Patrick. I suppose love takes many forms.  I comprehend Edgar:  I see what he is really about.  And I know the illness is not his fault, that he tries, so very hard now, to atone for what he is.  It’s hard to understand, I know, but no sooner were we apart than I began to miss him.  I love Edgar, and believe it or not, I know he genuinely loves me.”  She gave a wistful smile.  “Now do you wish you’d talked to me before you wrote your book?”

“Do you ever stay with him?  I mean….”

Karen smiled bleakly.  “Sometimes.  Clifton Drew, where he has a suite, is quite marvellous, and the staff there understand him almost as well as I.  I visit him once or twice every week.  It is not a normal marriage, it can never be that, but it is a marriage, of sorts.  I know you’ll find that hard to accept.”

“I do.  I find it hard to reconcile with the truth we both know.”

“He’s quite balanced in his everyday behaviour now.  He even takes his seat in The House, occasionally.  He made a speech last year – it was a bit rambling, bless him, but he got through it.”

“I presume your share of the title is no impediment, should you wish to exert your influence upon Driscombe Holdings.  With all you have on them, you would be hard to refuse.”

“Am I a member of the board, you mean?  Yes.  The existence of a titled board member is a prerequisite for a vehicle the size of Driscombe Holdings, and Edgar has no interest in that direction.  You would not believe how assiduously I have been building my own profile in the Company until now – this year – I’m ready to challenge for the Chair…”

“And as your kudos grows, Stafford Driscombe’s is diminished.  You’re capable of vengeance.  I get it, Lady Driscombe.”

“Do you like that?  Stafford’s wife doesn’t.  Jacinta and I are not exactly friends, either, since I introduced her sister to public life. Yes, I am vengeful.  For all those years, Stafford was my real jailer. I was his means to keep his brother suppressed.    I don’t blame Edgar, Patrick.  It was not his fault, all this.”

“Edgar killed people, Karen.  Edgar is a murderer!   That, I’m afraid, is what the book’s verdict must inevitably be.”

“So the police will come to arrest him in the early morning, break down the door, lead him away in chains – is that what you hope?  This is England, Patrick!  All that will happen is an action against you for libel and defamation. And as the CEO of Driscombe Holdings – a position I am virtually certain to attain at the next AGM – I will be forced to instigate proceedings!  Once our legals get hold of it they’ll come after you for everything you’ve got!”

“Amanda thinks otherwise.”

“Oh, Pat!  Amanda is very good, I agree, but at the hands of our legal team…”

“How many ways can I say this – he’s a murderer, Karen!  The developments in DNA testing mean there are so many new tools we can use to prove it.  There’s just so much you can get away with by disguising evidence. It’s not that easy anymore.”

“Edgar hasn’t been proven to have killed anyone!  He was a patient, my dear, he was – he is – ill.  We’ll commission learned opinion from every corner of the world to assure the court Edgar is harmless; incapable of hurting anyone.”

The sound of a car horn emanated from the forecourt.  Karen broke away, fussed with her handbag and withdrew a card.  “Speaking of DNA, I’ve ordered a taxi for eight o’clock, that’ll be him now.  I have to get the train back to town tonight.”  She handed her card to Patrick.  “This is my private number.  I’m hoping that when you’ve thought about this a little more you can come down from your moral high ground and negotiate.  Withdraw your book and to stay out of court, and all the publicity that implies we’ll pay you, handsomely.  Please consider it, will you?  I don’t want you to be hurt, Pat; given our history together it’s the last thing I would wish.  They wanted me to threaten you, my people, but I couldn’t do that.  Stafford, though, be careful of him, Patrick darling.  He is as vicious as a honey badger, and he never forgets.”

“I’ll be sure to look after myself.”

“I hope you will.  I don’t want to read of your mysterious suicide, Patrick:  I really don’t.  There!  I’ve been thoroughly discouraging, haven’t I?   I must go.”

“So soon.”  He said, as they walked to the door together, “I don’t get the connection, the urgency in returning to London, and DNA?”

“Oh, that!  Stafford’s solicitors have insisted Edgar take a DNA test, to reassure them he really is the eldest son of Lord St. John Driscombe, and therefore his true heir.  It’s a formality, really, but Edgar hates these things.  He’ll want me with him.”

“What if he were to fail it, this test?”

“I won’t even entertain it.  He wouldn’t  inherit anything, and that obviously isn’t going to happen!”

Patrick nodded, “Edgar on the loose without his titles to hide behind.  Imagine!  Have a safe journey!”  He said.

The last he saw of Karen, Lady Driscombe, was a fleeting smile as he closed her taxi door.  It was almost too dark to see her wave, quickly, through the closed window as the car drove away.  He stood in the drive watching until the taillights were lost from view, allowing himself to dwell, briefly, on all that might have been.  Then, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders he danced up the steps to the venerable old front doors of Radley Court, and closed them behind him.

THE END

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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