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The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.