Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-One (1)         The Message of The Stones

To my long-suffering readers, an apology.  When I decided to make a serial of ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I had already written, I foresaw problems with dividing it into episodes of acceptable size.   I thought I had done quite well, until I finally came to a point where I couldn’t conveniently break into the story.  This is it.

So this week two posts that together make one satisfactory episode.  At least if they’re broken down I’ve spared you a reading marathon – or so I hope!The story so far:  we left Joe after his date with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, in which the pair broke into murdered Violet Parkin’s house, seeking clues to her mysterious involvement with a local witches’ coven.  The only item they found was a small package.  Meanwhile, in Abbot’s Friscombe…

Jennifer Althorpe studied the house for some minutes before opening its green wooden gate.  Grimly functional, this house, a squat dwelling roofed with grey slate, a belching chimney despite so hot a summer’s day, and walls of hard, red engineering brick part-blackened by smoke – smoke which lingered over the whole neighbourhood in a choking blanket – listless windows returned her gaze.

Although there was so much to repulse the house did nothing to repel Jennifer, yet equally it could not invite, for there was no greeting to be found in those bland walls, no welcome on the frayed coconut of the mat which kept damp station on a concrete step.  Jennifer walked the path, the concrete path.  She squelched into the sodden mat, she pressed the weathered bell.  And she waited.

A woman’s moon face, blotched skin, tiny suspicious eyes, peered out.  “Yes?”

“Mrs Harkus?”  Jennifer asked.

“Might be.  What of it?”

Bella at the local café had been extremely helpful; almost worth the mediocre coffee and the limpid toast Jennifer had endured.

“Ask Mary Harkus.  She’ll tell you all about young Joe Palliser.”  Bella had advised her.

Jennifer asked.

“Come in.”  Said Mary Harkus, inclining her blunt head.

The wall of heat would remain in Jennifer’s memory for some time.  Before the troubles, Mummy and Daddy had been posted briefly to Aden.  One school holiday she had flown out to visit them, and would never forget the sudden blast of desert air as she stepped from the plane in that furnace of a place.  Mary Harkus’s living room was as close as she could ever come to revisiting the experience.  The fire in the grate was every bit as fierce as an Arabian sun, and the warmth it generated brought an instant bloom of perspiration to Jennifer’s delicate brow.

“Havin’ a bath.”  Mary said, as though that would suffice as an explanation.

“Do you grow orchids, or something?”  Jennifer asked ingenuously.

“Why no, bless you!”  Mary Harkus laughed:  her voice had a flinty edge, as though she would rather curse than bless.  She seemed impervious to the heat.  “’Tis these houses, dear.  They only got immersion heaters, see, and the ‘lectric costs a fortune?  So us do use the  back-boiler, see?  Anthracite’s cheaper.  The fire heats the water, see.”

“And everyone knows when you’re having a bath.”    Mary Harkus’s little eyes squinted enquiringly, so Jennifer directed her gaze pointedly to the chimney breast.  “Smoke signals?”

“Ah.”

“Is there a photograph of Rodney?”

She had in fact already seen one.  Selwyn Penny had been very helpful, though his newspaperman’s sensibilities had needed to be observed.  Jennifer already knew the story of Rodney’s fatal accident as the newspapers had related it: she was about to explore the local angle and Mary Harkus was about to give it to her.

This would be forgivable:  after all, she was a journalist in search of a story.  Mary Harkus was her best lead to an incident which, though it was deeply embedded in the past, shed light upon the man her quarry, Joe Palliser, was today.  This would be forgivable:  the ploy with which Jennifer Althorpe concluded the interview was not.

When she had eked out every detail of Rodney’s fatal accident from Mary Harkus’s account and though every fibre of her being just wanted to quit that duchess’s kitchen of a house, she remained seated somewhat damply on Mary’s couch, saying nothing as she affected to check through her notes.

“I’m surprised.”  She said at last (timing was vital).

Mary, whose patience was being tried (she had none) raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Well…..I’ve covered lots of cases like this; read about a lot more.  And frankly, Mary (I can call you that, can’t I?) although the really guilty ones may escape the law, they rarely escape entirely, if you see what I mean?”

“I don’t.”  Said Mary Harkus.

“Well, I mean, I often think the police turn a blind eye because no-one ever gets arrested, or anything, but usually the guilty party ends up in a ditch somewhere.  Someone – shall we say an interested party – someone makes up for the inadequacy of the law, don’t they, and that doesn’t seem to have happened here.  No loyal relation or close friend to redress the natural balance, I suppose.  Joseph Palliser’s still walking about out there, isn’t he?  I mean, please don’t think I wish the man any harm, or anything, but really – has no-one even tried?  I’m just curious.”

Jennifer did not receive an answer:  she did not want one.  She left gladly, secure in the knowledge that a seed had been sown.  As she gulped in the fresh outdoor air she was sure Mary Harkus’s abiding sense of outrage would be compelling her to lift up her telephone.  Douglas Lynd had been right – Ian Palliser’s brothers were his Achilles’ heel.  Tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon, Joe Palliser would provide her with fresh copy, one way or another.  All she had to do was wait.

For the next few days Joe would be forced to put thoughts of Sophie to one side. Mr Carnaby had accepted his instructions for the purchase of the Lamb house, and his bank had to be seen so he could make arrangements for payment.  The Wolsey needed to be returned to the clutches of oily Mr Maybury for some corrective surgery, condemning him to a day of bus and rail travel once more, and then there was the day he used to journey to Branchester, the cathedral city where St. Andrew’s parish registers stored, to research Violet Parkin’s family line.  Throughout all this he kept Violet Parkin’s strange little packet unopened in a drawer in his room, promising himself he would return to it later.

Sophie rang on the Wednesday morning.

“It’s super today: I’m going to take Tumbler for a ride, would you like to come?”

Joe did his best to sound enthusiastic.  “I’m not exactly an expert.  Anyway, I don’t have a horse.”

“Transport provided!”  Sophie chimed.  “See you in an hour!”

Joe had come down to breakfast to find a local newspaper open on the kitchen table, trumpeting the headline:  “Hallbury Publican’s Suspicious Death.”

“Ned Barker.”  Owen said without looking up from his seed catalogue.  “It appears that the police are involved in that one, now.”

Julia had a plate of bacon and tomato warming for him under the grill:  “It’s all too awful! What on earth is going on, Joe?”

Joe scanned the article, which described how Ned had been found by his wife Dorothy the morning after the desecration of St. Andrews’ churchyard.  Ned was thought to have died of a heart attack during the night, but, as was the law in the case of any unexplained sudden death, an autopsy had been performed.

Selwyn Penny’s article was unspecific.  It merely quoted the police as saying they were treating the death as ‘suspicious’ and were ‘pursuing their enquiries’.  They refused to reveal whether they were looking for any third party in connection with the death, or to consider a link to the murder of Mrs Violet Parkin the previous week.  Inspector Porcott of the Two Counties Constabulary pointed out that Mr John Parkin had already been charged with the first murder, and was being held in custody while he awaited trail at the quarter sessions.

“I wish I knew.”  Joe said in reply to Julia’s question.

Julia was right to ask.  He looked up at the two elderly people who had given him shelter and he saw the intense concern, the fear, almost, in their faces.  Without really considering, he had assumed they did not know Michael had absconded, just as they knew nothing about Michael’s involvement with the village witches.  Perhaps they did.  Or perhaps their disquiet was that of many middle-class people whose homes, but not whose hearts, are in country communities, when they discover the rural idyll is not what it seems.  For all of his wisdom concerning the construct of small village society, Owen might well be at the limit of his depth.  And Julia, though she gave the impression of someone who skated across the surface of life, would know inside herself that the ice had become perilously thin.  He was in so many ways their child, their product:  yet the village he inhabited, for all it was the same geographical place, was very different to theirs.  He had brought his village to their door, invited it inside.  They simply had no idea how to deal with that.

The hour had struck eleven by the time Sophie arrived, clopping down Church Lane on Tumbler, the big roan Joe had placated in the Parkin farm’s barn on their earlier meeting.  If he had expected Sophie’s strapping horsewoman image with jodhpurs and riding helmet he was to be disappointed.  Today’s Sophie had at last ‘dressed down’, although the combination of red halter top and designer jeans with trainers was scarcely less alluring than her denim mini-skirt.  She was leading a rather compact bay mare with a submissive look and placid eye, which she introduced as “Moppy.”

“She’s a complete darling.  She really won’t give you any trouble.”

Moppy greeted Joe with a bemused expression befitting any adult animal facing life with a name like ‘Moppy’, and exhibited exemplary forbearance while he set her stirrups as long as he dared, then took three attempts to mount her.  He had ridden before; a long, long time before, with Sarah Halsey for company.  Sarah, of course, was as accomplished at horse-riding as she was at everything else.

“I’m most dreadfully sorry I didn’t call you sooner, Joe,”  Sophie apologised.  “I’ve been away:  to Daddy’s in London, you know?”

Joe smiled.  “No need to apologise.”  He met her eyes, which said that she was fibbing – that she had been waiting with a vague notion he might call her first.

“I missed you.”  She allowed herself to say, as they set off.  Then quickly added:  “A bit.”

After a brief pause for negotiation, Moppy agreed to a walk on the Common; probably, Joe suspected, because her big friend Tumbler was being directed to go there, and she had no inclination to be left by herself with the obvious incompetent who slouched upon her back.

Sophie was bright and genial; “How is the Witch-Finder General today?” the sun grew stronger and it promised to be a perfect morning.

Abbey Walker was tending her front garden.  She straightened to greet them courteously as they clattered past, but with a reserve in her voice that told Joe she was part of Janice Regan’s gossip circle; so small a thing, yet enough to darken his particular skies a little.  The net was closing.   He had not heard from Tom Peterkin for all of that week, even though he had sought his old friend in his usual haunts, nor had he caught sight of Emma.   Yes, he had wondered if Tom knew the true state of Emma’s tormented mind; believed that he very probably would have guessed, and the awkwardness of this shared but unspoken knowledge was evidence of guilt in itself.  Neither had the nerve to contact the other, and as the interval grew so the hurdle became higher.

Sophie caught Joe’s absent expression.  “Did you open that little envelope from Mrs Parkin’s picture album?”

He confessed:  “No, I haven’t thought about it.  Something I must do.”

“A mystery!”  Sophie enthused.  “Do make sure I’m there when you do.  I’m simply dying to know what it is!”

“So if I told you I have it in my pocket…”

“Excellent!   Then I shall have an opportunity to exercise my sleuthing skills, Joe.  The perfect prelude to lunch.”

“Lunch?”

They followed that narrow lane which bisected the upper part of Wednesday Common, passing on their way a little copse of trees where Joe had hidden the car on what Sophie had begun to refer to as their ‘burglary night’ and walking on briskly for the first half mile until they reached ‘The Point’; a junction marked by a telephone box where roads from Abbots Friscombe, Little Hallbury, and Fettsham met.  The greater part of the common land lay before them, to the west of the Abbots Friscombe to Fettsham road.  For the most part this was laid down to bracken, interspersed with small clumps of blackthorn and mature broom.  From ‘The Point’ one very specific bridle path skirted the lower common like a perimeter track.  Too narrow for motor traffic, it owed its existence to horse riders who frequented it, or to adventurous youngsters, like Michael, Ian and Joe.

This trail would circumnavigate the wild land for two miles or more before it returned to the Abbots Friscombe road.  Much of it was pleasant, level ground ideal for a casual ride, until it reached its furthest point from the road where it began undulating sharply, the ditches often boggy even in the height of summer.  On the high, open areas exposed grey slabs of rock offered basking space for lizards, slow-worms and sometimes grass snakes: tales of adders abounded, although Joe had never seen one.

Here, about a mile from ‘The Point’ Joe motioned his intention to Sophie then left the trail to strike out across the turf, guiding a suspicious Moppy towards a stand of  trees and scrub some hundred yards distant.  He dismounted, tethering Moppy’s rein to a branch of hawthorn.  Exposed in open ground, these stunted thorns were ageless, undefined by time, and like everything associated with childhood, of course, they had diminished in Joe’s perception; yet walking among them, stooping to avoid their stoical resistance, they were a-brim with memories.  There, to his right, the grassy hollow where he had lain with Sarah; then, deeper into the wood, the little pool of turgid water surrounded by a clearing where he and his brothers had made their ‘den’ – their secret place, protected by solemn vows of silence.

Here, still, was the little circle of stones where Ian had burned his fingers on stolen matches as they attempted to build camp fires, the tree where Michael’s initials, distinguishable yet, were carved by his first penknife in the bark.  Saddened by the changing of the times Joe wondered how he and his brothers could each have grown so differently.  He did not know why, specifically, he had wanted to revisit the clearing in this little wood, just that he did.  Lost in reminiscence, he failed to notice that Sophie had joined him.  Her hand touched his shoulder.

“This is a sad place?”

He managed a weak grin, “Is that how it seems to you?”

“No.  To me it’s just a poky little child hideaway, I suppose.  It wasn’t my hideaway, though.  I rather gather it was yours, Joe.  I can sense the melancholy in you.  Unhappy memories?”

“Not really.  Maybe.”  Bearing the weight of years, Joe turned away.  Only then did he pick up an odour – just the faintest, barely present trace of wood smoke, or more probably fresh ash, in the breathless air; sufficient inducement to stoop and place a hand on one of the rough hearth stones.  Was it – could it be?  Was there a latent warmth that had persisted through the summer night?  There were ash traces surrounding it that were fresh and a whitish grey, and now he looked he could see how the stones had been rebuilt.  Someone had been there; and recently, too; maybe this morning, certainly last night.   That was why some subconscious urge had drawn him this way!  “Michael!” He breathed the name.  Now he was sure – like a homing pigeon given his freedom Michael had come back to Hallbury. But why?   If not to return to the scene of a crime, then why?

Sophie was looking at him quizzically.  “Who is Michael?”

“My younger brother.  I told you about him, remember?”

Sophie asked if he meant the one who was ill, and he was in a ‘home’ wasn’t he?  And Joe had to explain how Michael came to be missing, and even as he told her he could see her concentration straying.  He did not blame her.  That was the reaction of most people when he mentioned he had a brother who was mentally ill.

“So you think he might have been here?”

“Someone lit a fire: last night, I should think.”

“Gosh.”  Sophie responded – then:  “Could just be a tramp, I suppose?”

They remounted to make a contemplative journey back to the bridle path where, beneath the shade of a row of stately elms Sophie dismounted again to open a gate. They urged their horses across a ditch into open farmland.

“We use Williamson land for hunting.  Barry Williamson was made Master of Foxhounds this year.  He doesn’t mind our riding across his fields, as long as we’re careful.  I often come this way.  Do you know Barry at all?”

Joe had to confess that he didn’t.  Barry Williamson was chalked down as yet another acquaintance they didn’t share.

With Wednesday Common behind them, a dune-like landscape of ripening green or fallow brown fields swelled and flowed uninterrupted for several miles – westward to the River Staun, and northward with the valley as far as their eyes could see.  Interspersed among this arable patchwork were occasional rectangular islands of poppy-flecked meadow, and odd reefs of dark trees which conjoined to southward as forest, at the foot of the Calbeck Hills.  In the heat of a high summer sun this fertile valley would bleach in its final weeks to haymaking, its brave tall grasses burning to a gentle gold.  Away from the canopy of trees Joe felt his flesh toast beneath that same unremitting glare.  There was the merest trace of breeze, no more, to ruffle the hare-bells, nothing to disperse a shimmering heat haze.  Before Joe, for they rode in file, Sophie’s long back moved with supple ease, while his own thighs were already stiffening and beginning to hurt.  Under the thin cotton of his t-shirt he felt the tickle of sweat.

 

© 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.

 

 

A Place that was Ours. Chapter Sixteen – The Lion’s Den

I had just passed my driving test, a few days after Angie had taken hers.  Astutely, I thought, her parents bought her first car, which Malcolm swore was no more or less than a present, but I knew they believed our intended marriage was precipitate and could understand why they wanted her to have some measure of independence.  It was wise, and it was convenient because it gave me more freedom to make my own choice of transport and greater means to pay for it.  The sports car I chose was, of course, the worst option I could have taken, but remember I was only just emerging from my teens and suddenly in command of more money than I ever dreamed I’d earn.   If I was to be a rising football star I had an image to maintain!

Among my friends, John Hargreave alone would be a willing companion for my early adventures behind the wheel.  I was grateful for his patience and in awe of his courage, because in frequent moments when I had not the least idea what I was doing he remained calm, confident and perfectly prepared to let me do it.  We made a number of journeys together and always managed to emerge unscathed at the end of them.   I put a lot of that down to John’s reassuring presence (the rest I attributed to a smiling God).

It was the second afternoon following our discussion about Martin Berry and his vespertine activities.  I had relayed John’s suggestion for the best means of persuading Berry to Michael Norris then waited in my half-emptied apartment for news that it had borne fruit.  The plan was to wrap up the video sequence the following Tuesday, after which I could join Angie in Carlton.   Meanwhile, with summer in full spate, the open road beckoned.

John suggested the route to Leverton.  “My dad says it’s a good driver’s road, whatever that means.”

Leverton was a village with a past; a row of crooked medieval houses with great gaping windows to make the best of the daylight, because before the miners came their occupants worked long days weaving and making lace.   Then, when mining prospered in the valley and pitheads sprang out of the land like sycamore shoots, workers came from every corner of Britain and Ireland. The population decupled, new miners’ settlements of blackened brick gathered in smoking solidarity about their respective pits, and new communities needing succour turned Leverton into a small town with shops, markets and a company bank.  Then, of course, the bubble burst:  the coal seams were exhausted, pits closed, and those workers young enough to find employment elsewhere moved away.   In their wake only a few streets of miners’ houses might remain, clustered around a small green meadow or a tiny park that was once a mine.

Leverton withdrew into its shell.  The traders departed, the bank closed, shops were shuttered for a final time.  Those stalwarts who remained did so on a knife-edge of solvency, dealing as they had always dealt with the true denizens of the valley – the farmers, the craftsmen, the elderly, and entrepreneurs glad to find cheap premises to launch their new ventures.   Start-up businesses regularly failed in Leverton – came, found credit, left small hillocks of debt behind.

Meanwhile, many of those mushroom patches of miners’ housing fell empty and many were bulldozed, leaving the roads that had connected them laid out in a meaningless map like Nasca, awaiting a visit from the stars.

Yet it would be wrong to paint a picture purely of industrial desolation.   The redemption of most land where coal is found is its scenic beauty, and if Leverton was served by two roads from Casterley where one would have been perfectly sufficient and the other absolutely meaningless it did not matter, because each road ran south-west, bordering some of the finest country in the lower valley.

The expression John’s father had used, identifying the more northerly of the two as ‘a good driver’s road’ was, I quickly learned, a petrol-head’s code for ‘lots of bends’.  I negotiated them with ease, through several miles of intermittent tree cover then, emerging into an open stretch, missed one completely and screeched to a halt in a run-off area which I had to believe was constructed specially for fools such as I.

“Lucky there was nothing coming the other way,” I said cheerfully.

“True.”  John agreed.  His pallor had drained, but he seemed otherwise unmoved.  He nodded towards the rising land on our left:  “We could have picked a smarter place to stop, though.”

A modern, architect-designed house in white stucco stood on the hill some two hundred yards from the road.  Its remotely controlled access gate and black tarmac driveway beyond sliced savagely up through finely turfed gardens towards an expressionless frontage of dark glass.  The view across the valley from those windows must have been perfect.  “Who’s the millionaire?”  I asked, unable to strain every drop of cynicism from my voice.

John frowned.  “You mean you don’t know?”  He said, trying to do the same with his incredulity.

“No.  I don’t.”

“That, my old mate, is Chateau Crabtree.  That’s his pad – had it built, hell I canna remember – three year ago?  Although, of course, you weren’t meant to be going anywhere near him then, were you?”

“Mackenzie Crabtree lives there?”

“Did I not just say that?  I seem to remember…ah, we’ve been spotted!”

A golf buggy, filled with two men of generous proportions, had appeared from beside the house and was heading down the driveway towards us.  The big gates were drawing ominously open.  My attention, though, had been distracted by two sunbathers stretched out on the grass before those big wide windows, a young man in shorts and a woman or girl of similar age wearing a green bikini.  The man could well have been Dave Crabtree; but the girl…she was auburn-haired and slim, and familiar, as I thought.  She had propped herself up on her elbows to see the source of the disturbance.

“Better go!”   John said.

“Why?  We’re doing nothing!  We aren’t trespassing, are we?”

“I don’t think that’ll make a lot of difference to those guys. Please, Chas?”

Reading the concern on my friend’s face, I reluctantly slipped the car back into gear and drove away; but my eyes kept returning to the girl’s distant figure until we had rounded another bend and she, the lawn she was stretched upon, and the house behind her, had all vanished from sight.  “It couldn’t be, could it?”

“Yeah, that was Dave, alright.  He doesn’t speak to us these days, mind.  Ah, but you weren’t looking at Dave, were you?  You were checkin’ out the woman, you dirty beast!”

“You know who I’m thinking of.”

“You’re thinking of Sue?  Still obsessed, huh?  Nah, nothing like her!  Sue had really dark hair, didn’t she?”

“Hair colour can change.”  I reminded him.

“What can I tell you, man?  It was not her.  I’d know, believe me!  Anyways, it’s time to forget about her.  You’re engaged to Angie.  Angie’s a cool lass.”

“That doesn’t stop me wondering what happened to her.”  I glanced across at John.  Although the threat of the golf-cart of goons had passed, he still seemed ill-at-ease, as if he, too, had history with Mack Crabtree, and today he had unintentionally brushed too close to the great man’s world.   But then, had I questioned myself further, I might have found an entirely different justification for John’s anxiety; one which centred much more on my skills as a driver.

Michael Norris’s message on my answering machine said ‘call me’.  I obliged.

“Chas, I’ve arranged it.  We’ve got the ground for an hour on Tuesday evening – six o’clock.   Not the best light, but it will do.  I’ll get some kit sorted out.”

“An hour?  Will that be enough?”

“It’ll have to be.  Mr Berry was less than cooperative.  What is he doing down there?  The place was buzzing like a beehive!”

“If I knew…”

“Well, we got what we want, even if I had to suffer being frog-marched off the premises by two out-of-work nightclub bouncers!  See you Tuesday!”

With the date for the shoot fixed and all our obvious problems sorted out, I would join Angie in Carlton.   The apartment in Carlton had no telephone as yet so I could not warn her, but I missed her company.  I was in the act of leaving, I had taken my jacket down from its hook in the lobby when a cannonade of banging exploded on the outside of the door.  The wood flexed visibly, rested for a second, then splintered as the same force was applied a second time.  The shouting began.

“Police!  Open up!  Police!”  The door latch snapped, flew off, hitting the wall behind my head.  A black, flack-jacketed and helmeted figure burst in, screaming.  “Lie down!  Face down, now!  Put your hands behind you!  Do it!  Do it now!” Forced to the floor, my arms were pinned behind me and handcuffed as the feet of others rushed by.   In the narrow confines of the lobby there were collisions; my left arm was trampled and I was kicked several times before hands grabbed me and wrestled me to my feet.  I had just time to see the apartment being ransacked before I was manhandled out through the front door.  My little street was filled with vehicles and flashing blue lights.   My computer was being loaded into the back of a police van as I was thrust into the rear seat of a white car.  A very large police officer forced himself in beside me.

The whole gratuitously violent episode took place in a matter of two, maybe three minutes before I was being driven away, leaving the door of the apartment into which Angie and I had devoted so much time and care sagging, broken and open.

My arm was forced into an unnatural angle by the handcuffs.

“Can you release my arms please?”

“Shut it!”

“Am I being arrested?”   There was no answer.  “What am I being charged with?”

“Shut it!”

The journey was mercifully short; Casterley Police Station disturbingly familiar.  My burly back seat companion pulled me from the car using my bruised arm.

“Get these off me, you stupid frigger!”  I shouted at him.

There was a forced march into an interrogation room, the door slamming back in my face.  Someone behind me muttered:  “Get the ‘cuffs off.”

Hands grasped my wrists so the handcuffs could be removed.  I no longer had much sensation in my hands, but my arm was on fire.  My memory of that moment is still confused after all the years that separate me from it, but I retain an image of red mist intensifying into fury.  It is a vapour that has never entirely dispersed.  Although I am disinclined to grudge, my resentment and anger about my encounter with police brutality have never left me.

“Sit him down.”  I was unceremoniously parked on a hard chair before a hard table.

I found a voice from somewhere, directed it at the male shape sitting opposite me.  “I want my solicitor.  Now.”

“If you choose to call a solicitor…”

“No ‘if’.  I demand a solicitor!  Nel Kershaw.  She’s on your list.”

My eyes were adjusting to the light, the features of my aggressor were slowly clarifying.  I had to steady my eyes to make sure he could see the anger in them.  I had to leave him in no doubt how deeply I despised him.  He was a stranger to me and he was smiling, feeding on my helplessness.  He enjoyed this!

“Charles Haggerty.  You’ve been in here before, haven’t you, son?”

“I’m not your son, thank god.  What are you charging me with?”

“Where were you this afternoon, Charles?  Let’s say about three o’clock, to start with.”

“Let’s not say anything until you’ve charged me, and I have a solicitor present.”

“You were seen loitering outside a private house, one High Cheviot Lodge.  Your vehicle’s number was observed, so don’t waste our time by denying it.”

“I won’t.  I parked there.  It’s a nice view.”

“Don’t get cheeky with me, son.  You were there for three hours…”

“I was what?”

“You were also seen spying on the property from the land to either side of it, as upon a separate occasion you were also seen on the owner’s land to the rear of the property…”

“Oh?  And no doubt you were told I threw bricks at the property’s windows?  This is another of the fabulous fantasies of Mackenzie Crabtree, isn’t it?  I was in my car at the viewpoint for no more than a couple of minutes.  I had a companion in the car…”

“The name of your companion?”

“So you can break up his home as well?  My witness, reptile, not yours.  Incidentally,”  I nodded towards the recording machine mounted on the wall to my left,  “Shouldn’t that be switched on?”

“If you were being interviewed, it would be.”

“So what is this, if it is not an interview?”

“Let’s just say it’s off the record.  You were seen sniffing around Mr Crabtree’s property, in spite of an order forbidding you to go within…”

“No you don’t!  That order elapsed years ago.  It didn’t even apply to this area.  What else have you got up your sleeve?  Did your lads happen to discover some handy little sachets of class A drugs while they were wrecking my flat?”

The detective looked as if he wished the idea had occurred to him.  “Could they have?”

“I want my solicitor.  I’m saying nothing more until she arrives.”

The detective sat back in his chair. “You like harassing decent, clean-living people, don’t you, Charles?  Like I said, you’ve been here before.”  I made no response.  He continued staring at me, drumming his fingers on the table.  “All right, we can wait.”

He rose from his chair, went to the door where my plank of a back seat companion was standing guard.   “Bang him up.”

And so I was obliged to renew my acquaintance with Casterley Police Station’s ‘Custody suite’ which, this being a night before a weekend, was doing a far brisker, noisier trade than the last time I stayed.  The standard of accommodation had worsened considerably:  I concluded they had either just liberated a previous tenant from my cell, or had selected an especially unsanitary one purely for my benefit.  I settled down to wait in a background stench of urine, and reflect.

Initially, upon being clapped in irons, I had thought of the back street attack and my father’s rescue, now some weeks ago.  We had left one of my assailants badly injured and I had spent several sleepless nights wondering about him, expecting repercussions which never came.  But no, this was Mack Mackenzie again; angry Mack fabricating lies about me, and I had to wonder what I had done to deserve such enduring hatred? As much as I missed her, still thought of her, even longed for her sometimes, his daughter Sue and I had parted company a long time ago.  Surely he had nothing to fear from me?  Suddenly, from that accidental construction in my mind, when I might have used any word other than ‘fear’, the truth came to me:  Mack Crabtree feared me.  It was fear that had turned him against me.  Why?  What could I possibly have that might make him afraid?  I fell to wondering then if it was some extension of his guilt for cuckolding my father, and if he was afraid the indiscretions of his younger years might become known to me.  Perhaps he worried I might thwart his political ambitions by using them against him.

Two hours passed.  I came to the conclusion Nel must have been detained – at some social event probably, though I was beginning to feel slighted.  Then the cell door burst open to reveal the officer who had accompanied me in the police car.   “You can go.”

“What?”  I frowned at him.  “What do you mean?”

“You can go.  Collect your kit at the desk.”

“Are you not going to charge me with anything?  After keeping me here all this time?”

“Nope, no charges.  Hurry up and get out.  We’re busy.”

“Just like that?  What about the damage to my apartment, what about my possessions?  You’ve taken my computer, haven’t you?”

“Get your compensation forms at the desk.”  He snapped.  “Now leave, understand?  Or I’ll lock the door and keep you here until we’re quieter.”

Disbelieving, I did as he wished.  As I passed him, brushing against his chest, I said – and I have no idea what made me say it – “Tell Mack I know.”

“I’m not here to take your messages.”

“You will though, won’t you?”

#

Matthew Poultney exhales, whistling through his teeth.  “Quite a story.  What did your solicitor make of it?”

“When I ‘phoned my solicitor to apologise for disturbing her evening, she told me the police had never called her!”  I tell him.  “She promised to look into it for me, and she was met by a stone wall of silence.  The police insisted there was no record of forced entry to my apartment, they denied all knowledge of that and even suggested if I had been the subject of a break-in, I should report it!  No search warrant was ever requested, there was no charge sheet and nothing to prove I had ever been at the Police Station.  The whole thing had been done completely unofficially, and they denied any knowledge of property taken from the apartment.”

Poultney laughs: “That’s absurd!  They have to keep logs, records of everything.”

“They didn’t.  When I think about it, I was never booked in.   When I checked out at the desk I was given an envelope with my stuff, but I wasn’t asked to sign for it.”

“What about witnesses?  Neighbours?”

“No-one was going to volunteer,”  I tell him,  “even in a respectable street like ours.   It’s amazing how deaf the nicest people can become when the police are involved.  Originally, when I had asked at the desk for my computer to be returned I was told it was ‘needed for evidence’ and would be ‘available for me to collect, later’.  Later, when Nel asked for it, they denied all knowledge – their answer was basically ‘What computer?’  I haven’t seen it since.”

“Dear lord!  So – they roughed you up a bit, questioned you off the record, then sweated you in a cell for a few hours.  It certainly seems somebody out there didn’t like you.  I think you are saying Mackenzie Crabtree was the instigator of this – that he was – what, trying to warn you off?”

“I know it.”  I say, seriously.

“And all this happened just because you were seen parked outside his house?  Why?  What’s he got to hide?”

“The same thing that drove him into overkill the last time I crossed him.  Matthew, I brought Mack’s daughter into the conversation because I wanted to find out what you knew about her.   You say you dig deep when you do your research for these articles, but your spade seems to have hit a rock or two.”

Poultney nods, frowns.  “Maybe I wasn’t looking at his family issues?  I know we were discussing Mack’s first wife, but that’s in the past as well, and I’m writing a piece about his philanthropic activities.  We don’t exactly award wings, but we’re rather inclined to take things like family history at face value.  This is all about the money.”

“You never spoke a truer word.”  I agree.  “I’m giving you something much more – at least, I think I am.  And if I’m right, Mackenzie Crabtree should never hold public office.   It’s worth an exclusive, at least.  Another Scotch?”

“Just a small one.  I want to keep my head clear.  Alright, you want to do this like a detective story. Why?”

“Because I shouldn’t be directly involved.  I’m off to America in three days, and I’m unlikely to be back until next season, by which time, if he’s unopposed, Mack will be on the government front bench.  So I give you the clues, you work it out.  If you come to the same conclusion I did, you have your story.”

Poultney winces:  “I’m not good at crossword puzzles, Chas, but okay, I’ll play.  Let’s see what we have so far:  your mother’s difficulty with relationships and Crabtree’s sudden rise to fortune, yes?”

“Aye.  Then there’s Mackenzie’s violent reaction to my dating his daughter, and his attempt to incriminate me.”

“…Shortly after which his daughter (Susan, is it) vanishes?”

“Right.  Off to pastures new.  Mack apparently helped me for a while after that.  He greased the wheels to get me into the Casterley Town side. It could just have been a business decision, but on the other hand…”

Poultney nods.  “Almost as though he wanted you to succeed, as long as you kept away from his daughter.  Or,”  He waves a finger,  “or he used you to get to Martin Berry.  Hew would have known Berry’s weakness was football.  What could Berry provide that he needed?”

“Money?”  I suggest.  “Or a football ground – maybe Mack was planning ahead.”

“Why, lad!”  Poultney allows his Yorkshire accent to escape.  “It seems to me you’d have to read this man’s mind!  That’s enough games for now.  Tell me, after the police had roughed you up, what did you do next?”

“I did Norris’s video as I’d agreed.   Then I went to see Mackenzie Crabtree.”

 

 

© 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