Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.

Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal.  The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…

By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic:  on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.

“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper.  Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”

And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.

“I am she!”  Sophie volunteered brightly.  “Prattle on!”

So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon.  Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael.  He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.

“All rather grisly, Joe.  I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it?  Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”

Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway.  But she didn’t.  She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.

“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe?  I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people.  There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff.  Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch.   Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”

Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black.  He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.

Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track.  After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.

The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable.  “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”

He chuckled:  “It’s my surprise.  Time for adventure.  Come on!”

After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot.  Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common.  Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness.  “Where are we going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, absolutely!  For a walk with a bag that clanks.”  Sophie’s voice shook a little.  “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”

She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”

“It’s Okay,” She whispered:  “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his.  “You’re sort of scary.”  She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

“Mmmm, sort of.  I enjoy being scared by you.”

Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship.  It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.

“Down to business!”  He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily.  “Not far!”

The lights of the village were clear.  House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.

Sophie restrained him.  “No, we don’t.  Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”

“Why, Sophie!  We’re going housebreaking!”

“Oh!”  Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders.  “Excellent!  Why didn’t you say?”

The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.

“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered:  “I rather liked kissing you.”

“I liked it too.”

“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”

“I doubt it.  Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!”  Joe begged.  Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.

“What’s that?”  Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance.  He pulled it wide open.

“You first.”  He joked.

“Certainly not!  You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”

“I told you to wear jeans.”

It was an easy climb.  Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink.  Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

What had Joe expected?  The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs.  The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink.  It was a frozen moment:  there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village?  A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s:  Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.

Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself.  “My Goodness!”  She exclaimed under her breath:  “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”

There was certainly no sign of disturbance:  everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought.  He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door.  Sophie gestured meaningfully.

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them.  Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor.  Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died.  All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living.  A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all.  What was he looking for?

“What are we looking for?”  Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!  So good to have a plan!””

They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house.  Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack.  There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed.   Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.

The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it?   More the scrape of a wild hare than a room:  a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow.  There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor.  Cider bottles were everywhere:  some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.

Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat.  He felt for her.  It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this.  “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed?  He’s better off in jail!”

Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches.  There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp.  As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.

“Photographs?”  Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table.  She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years.  There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.

“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented.  “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”

A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps.  As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor.  It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.

“Oh, how tiny!”  She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping.  “I believe it must have been sealed with something:  I might break it.”

“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.

They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed.  They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward.  No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.

Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave.  “I’m sorry,” he said,  “it’s been a wasted evening.”

“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.”  Sophie gave his hand a squeeze.  “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”

“Something.  I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here.  Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was.  This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”

They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.

“Oh god!  Someone’s coming in!”  Sophie hissed.  “What now, Raffles?”

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

He grabbed her hand.  Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen.  Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.

“Who’s there?”  A man’s voice demanded.  “Who’s that?”

Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.

In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin.  Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide   His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.

“This way!”  He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.

“Don’t look back!”  He warned.  “Don’t let him see your face!”

Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp.  It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.

Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass.  Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.

“Through there?”  Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”

From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car.  Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road.  He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.

Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village.  So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village.  He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.

“That was close.”

Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey.  She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray.  Now she accorded him a cool look.

“Well, it was interesting.”  She said dryly.  “See the state I’ve got myself into?  I’m an absolute scarecrow!”

“A very beautiful one.  I’m really sorry.  Shall I take you home?”

“No.”  She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon.  I’m all scratched!”  She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.

“How am I going to explain this away?  How?  Look!”

She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap.  He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch.  Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf.  He was of a mood to explore further.

She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good!  You really are!  But it is awfully late.”  She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat.  “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are?  I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”

“True.  But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you.  My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see.  If I weren’t careful, I should become prey.  That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”

“No, I guess not.”  Together, they stared out into the night.  Finally, he said:  “I don’t think I like being a chameleon:  disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t.  It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time.  Anyway, who are ‘they’?”

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”

“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you.  Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother.  She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”

Joseph asked, in a dead voice:  “So you heard about my life in London?”

“Some.  I don’t know how much there is to tell.”

“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”

She nodded;  “Of course!”  Then:  “Because you’re interesting, Joe!  Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them!  Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it.  “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.  Thank you.”

He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”

She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully.  “I don’t know; should I?”

Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors.  Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away.  “I’ll call you.”  She said, “Promise!”  And she was gone.  Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.

© 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.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Three: Differences

Constable Ray Flynn looked uneasy.

“Grab a stool”  Patrick coaxed him.  “How do we open this conversation?  Are you sure you don’t want coffee, tea, something to eat?  ”

“No, no.”  Flynn patted his stomach, gave a false smile.  “Too fat already, see?  Wife’s trying to make me cut down.  Good thing, really.”

“You’ve got a family?”

“Aye.  Two, both girls.  Six and nine.  Chips and more chips, that’s all they wants.”  Flynn seemed about ready to run.   “Nice kitchen, this.  You’ll get some good meals out of here, I ‘spect.”

“Please sit down, Ray.  How can I…”

“Friend of Tim’s.  Tim Birchinall.  We used to be partners before he moved to the Met.  Used to play rugby together.  Karen’d recognise me, all right.  Yes.”

“Yes.”  Patrick understood.  “He asked you to come and see me, you didn’t want to.”

“That’s right.  That about covers it.  Yes.”  Flynn manoeuvred his ample quarters onto a kitchen stool.  “Rachel Priest, ever hear of her?”

“No, I can’t say I …”

“Gemma Bartlett?”

“No.  Where’s this going?”

“There’s others, I’m sure.  I don’t know their names, but there’s others – down the years, you know?  Nobody never hears of ‘em because they made ‘em vanish.  Not just disappear – vanish.  All trace – gone!  They’re good at it, mind.  Birth certificates, education records, everything wiped clean.  Nobody remembers them, because it’s like they was never there – never born, see?  Now there’s Karen.  Tim’s right cut up about it, I can tell you.”

Patrick was incredulous:  “’They’ – Who are ‘they’, Mr Flynn?”

“Don’t rightly know – never did.  Someone who can wipe away the evidence from the inside, that’s for sure.  Someone with very high connections.  Very high.  Tim and I, we used to talk about it in the car, never come up with nothin’.”

“But you’re police!  You know this much, surely there must have been questions asked?   These people must have had friends and relations, who would report them missing.  You’d have to investigate.”

“Not Beaconshire.  Not our force, no.”

“Who then?”  Demanded Patrick, showing his bewilderment.  “I don’t understand!”

“Well, first off, these people, they’re careful who they select.  Prostitutes, runaways, people with as few loose ends around them as possible.  You know it, don’t you?  There’s folks around won’t cause much of a ripple in the pond; as won’t be missed, like.   Second off, these people, they got fingers in our pie too.  The force, I mean.  They likes us to be family men, they encourages that, ‘cause we’re less likely to stir that pond, see?  Our missus and our kids, we put them first – don’t want their lives made unpleasant.  Don’t want their lives to be hell.”

“You’re saying these people threaten your families?  That’s outrageous!”

“Sorry to say it, young ‘un, but it’s true.  Tim wanted to get away, ‘cause of it.  He wanted to marry Karen, but not while he was workin’ in Beaconshire.   That’s why he moved to the Met.  Now, seems like they’ve got her, so there was no point, really.  I shouldn’t be here.  You never knows if you’re bein’ followed, or not.  I’d better…”

“No, wait, look – of course there’s a point.  We’ve got to rescue Karen, Ray!  Tim, you, me – we’ve got to get her back.”

“Me?  No, count me out.  I said to Tim what I’m sayin’ to you, I’ve a family to look out for.    Anyways, no-one can’t do nothin’ for Karen, I’m sorry to say.  She’s gone.

“Constable Flynn, I won’t accept Karen’s gone…”

“I see that.  I see you’s very fond of ‘er and that makes it hard.  It’s true, though; I knows it, Tim knows it, and it’s breakin’ his heart, bless ‘im.  You won’t never see Karen again, but you can help by keeping her name alive, Mr Hallcroft.  Don’t let her be forgotten, because that’s what they rely on.  No-one takes no action, see?  But there are differences this time, an’ Tim’s goin’ to follow ‘em up, best he can, from he’s end.”  Flynn got back to his feet.  “And I didn’t tell you that.  Forget I came here.”

”What differences?”  Patrick pressed.

Differences? Well, there’s this long-haired bloke Karen was frightened of.  He’s been described to us before, Tim and me, ‘cause he harasses women a bit.  I rather doubt it, but if he took her hisself, that could mean they’re getting careless – her bein’ a local girl, and all.   She has friends, parents.  It won’t be so easy to hush her disappearance up like they’ve done the others.  They’ll do it in the end, though, I’m afraid.”  Flynn made his desire to leave plain.  “Now, that’s all I got to say.  Tim wanted you to know what’s what, see?  Thank you for your time.”

Patrick felt incapable of adding more, so at Flynn’s request (“I parked my car round the side, see?”) he shepherded the nervous constable out into the rear courtyard and watched his hesitant progress as he checked around every corner before finally risking exposure in the open.  Bilbo the Shetland looked on with half-detached scorn as he edged past his paddock and contributed one of his loudest whinnies to exacerbate Flynn’s fraying nerves.

Determined he should not remain alone in the house, Patrick drove into Caleybridge, bought flowers, then went straight to the hospital to visit Jacqui.  He discovered her in the ward dayroom and her face lit up when she saw him because she was bored with her metal ‘scaffolding’ and hoped he would lighten her mood.   His body language did not bode well.

“No news, or…oh, Pat, not bad news?  What’s happened, my love?”  She would let the ‘love’ word slip from time to time in their conversation, but it was never more than an expression of friendship, or at least, Patrick never took it as such.   He tried to respond with his account of all that had passed since his last visit, but his words reflected the despondency he felt.   When he came to relate the substance of the interview with Ray Flynn his voice threatened to break and he had to turn away to control an onset of emotion that was not sudden, but had been building ever since the frightened copper’s words had laid the truth before him:  ‘Karen’s gone’.

Jacqui took his hands in hers.  “He thinks she’s been murdered, doesn’t he?”

“I’d say he’s certain of it.  There’ve been quite a few disappearances; the two individuals Karen was searching for, two others he could name and more still, apparently.   None ever found, ever.“

“He could be wrong, Pat.  You mustn’t lose hope!”

Although Jacqui could protest that Flynn’s was only one man’s opinion she knew she could do nothing to lessen the shock, so she held her peace, keeping secret the dread she felt in her own heart.  Instead, she joined in his valiant hour as he attempted to talk of trivial things, while she knew he was wanting to be active, to find some challenge to surmount, and when their conversation began to show the edge of his confusion she insisted that he leave.

“You go, Pat!  Get out there and find her, please.”

Patrick smiled ruefully.  “Go where?  I feel like I’m running around in circles.  I listened, didn’t I?  I trusted!   My father told me to leave it to the police, and all the police did was warn me off!  I waited – I’ve wasted three days, trusting advice, putting my faith in them, and now I learn they’ve done nothing.  Nothing!”

Jacqui reached up to pat his cheek:   “Then don’t waste any more time complaining?   Try the local press.  The police may not like it but they can’t stop you.  You might find out something about these other disappearances from the County Herald archives.  Then there’s this spiritualist woman, you need to see her.  There are still some avenues to explore, aren’t there? Now I’m getting a headache, Pat.  Get going!”

The Beaconshire County Herald offices occupied a narrow frontage on Caleybridge’s High Street, one of a row of shops in the Victorian style with brown-scumbled doors and narrow stairs worn down by labour.  The stairs confronted Patrick as he entered from the street, with only one alternative, a scraped and faded panel door to his right over which a sign ‘Advertising and Enquiries’ had been fastened, fallen, then drunkenly re-nailed.

“Yes, ya Mush?”  A man of stunted proportions and uncertain age emerged from a back room to examine Patrick suspiciously over a high counter.  Beneath a flat, peaked cap he probably slept in, this man’s eyes squinted through slits in a leathered skin etched by years of Woodbine cigarettes, the latest of which, adhering to his lower lip, swealed behind a teetering finger of expended tobacco.  “Penger’s the name, Mush.  How can I be of help to yer?”

Patrick felt that this man’s hospitality would not extend beyond one request, so he weighed his priorities.   “Well, Mr Penger, I wondered if I could talk to a reporter?  I have a story he might want to cover…”  His sentence wilted before a hostile stare.

“Not advertisin’, then?”

“No.  I mean, I suppose I could…no.  No not advertising.”

“Make yer mind up, then, ya Mush – eh?   Eh?”  The man’s features compressed and withdrew as if powerful suction had been applied from some spot behind his nose, then exploded in a gale of putrid breath, defeated fag ash and cackling laughter.  He slapped the counter-top emphatically.  “Nah.”

“Your sign does say ‘Advertising and Enquiries’.”

“It does, ya Mush.  Yes.   It’s young Vicky you’ll be wantin’.”

“Well?”

“It’s ‘alf-past-four.  She’s gone ‘ome.”

Patrick bit his tongue.  Bewildered as he was by such lack of industry, he would need this man’s assistance, so he decided instead to follow Jacqui’s suggestion and ask to go through the newspaper’s archives.

“Yer can try.  Week, year?”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

Mr Penger’s eyebrows disappeared behind the peak of his cap.  “Well, now, Mush.”  He turned and waved a craggy hand at the shelves that lined the far wall of his ‘office’.  They were filled with very large, red leather-bound volumes.  “See they?   A year each; eighty years, fifty-two newspapers each year, twenty-eight to thirty pages each newspaper – all in there.  Unless you know where yer goin’,  you’ll be proppin’ my counter up until yer drawin’ yer pension.  I can’t have that, can I?  I haven’t the facilities, see?”

Patrick faced defeat.  “I must trace these things.  What can I do?”

“Well, young Vicky’ll be in tomorrer morning, I’ll tell ‘er expect yer; ‘Bout half-past-ten?  Yer don’t look as if yer get up too early.  An’ the library, they keeps all our back-numbers up ter ten years, I think it is, so yer could try there.  Not tonight, though.  They close early tonight.”  Penger leaned across the counter to the full extent of his restricted growth, tapping his nose confidentially with a forefinger as he murmured in a voice loaded with innuendo:  “Trainin’!”

With his day drawn unwillingly to a close, Patrick might have returned home, but instead he pointed his car once again toward Nowhere Lane and Boulter’s Green.  There, alone in the peace and warmth of late afternoon sun, he might persuade himself he could feel closer to her: to Karen, whom he loved if anything more in absence than in the few days they were together.  Amid the waving fronds of vetch and wild barley he had space to pause and contemplate.    He could revisit past conversations, trying as he did to remember any small, neglected clues that might lead him somewhere – anywhere. What had Flynn, that most uncertain of policemen, said?  There was someone behind this with very high connections – very high.  Who?  It would have to be a senior member of the establishment, would it not?  Who, in Caleybridge’s little world, was equipped to fill such a role?

Then there was the curious behaviour of the Woodgate family; had they deliberately tried to draw Karen to this place, and if so, why?  Gasser should have been the last person his influential father wanted to have around, so why search for him, unless…unless Gasser and the Parkinson girl were a threat to him.  Could he have been the one who evicted Anna Parkinson from his car, out here in the chill of a February night – and had his son known?  Gerald Woodgate, member of the Watch Committee responsible for overseeing the local police force: he was ‘high up’, was he not?  He was in a position to exert influence on the conduct of officers, perhaps even to squash an investigation.

The more Patrick thought about it the more convinced he was that all of these people – from Gerald Woodgate at the top of the pile to Mark Potts at its base, had coordinated their efforts to herd Karen towards these deserted ruins.  Maybe their agendas had been different, but their objective was one and the same.   Maybe that entailed delivering her into the clutches of the dark man, maybe not; but such had been the effect.  Had the other missing persons Ray Flynn had named been similarly treated?  No, they had made special efforts to secure Karen because Flynn was right:  she was different, a local girl with relatives and friends.  Tracks had to be covered, alibis arranged – and it all led here; to a couple of stone piles that masqueraded as Boulter’s Green.  Why?  There was nothing here!  And why had Karen been their target when there must have been easier prey?

With all these questions in his mind, Patrick climbed the slope between those two ruined buildings to the upper meadow, where he could gaze across a swathe of open turf towards the river and the serene presence of the Great House at Boult Wells.  Here was the place Karen swore she had encountered her wizened little man, her ‘Joshua’.  If he was to believe she had actually seen this Joshua, then somehow he had managed to disappear, although there was no clue as to how that could happen.  Yet something more was troubling Patrick about this scene; something in his head he felt he should recollect, but couldn’t.

Eventually, as the shadows lengthened, he surrendered and turned for home, where his welcome was tempered by his father’s questioning.  Jackson was in severe mode, insisting his son should inform him when he intended to cease obstructing the police and return to his work.

“I think I understand how you feel, boy, but moping around like a sad spaniel is no solution.  Getting back to routine will help you get past this.  Nothing else will.”

Patrick, who had no intention of dividing his time, made some sharp response and a family row ensued which cast shock waves over the rest of the evening, only subsiding when Jackson had retired to bed.  Still incensed, Patrick almost rounded on Gwendoline when, contrary to custom, his mother put her head around the door of his bedroom.   “Patsy, darling, don’t be too hard on your father.  He’s trying his best.”  Then, after a second of thought, she added, “Love, you see – real love – isn’t easy for him.  He doesn’t do emotion very well.”

“May I?”  Gwendoline entered his room hesitantly.  She was averse to intruding upon her children’s privacy, even Amanda’s.  She perched on the edge of her son’s bed.  “I was told something today I thought you might like to know; by a sister sufferer, in fact.  Her youngest is almost as impossible as Amanda – but that’s by the bye.  In the course of my preparation with Karen for our interview with that cypher from the Clerk’s Office; Purton, I think his name was, Karen mentioned someone called Norman Wilson, a deferential chap, she said, who was party to her original briefing for the Woodgate investigation – you know, the one she was trying to get out of?  Well, I hadn’t heard of him at the time but it turns out he, Wilson, is Sir Clive Webster’s deputy.”

Patrick frowned.   “Sir Clive Webster – should I know him?”

“Well, I believe you should, actually.  Clive is Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire, the Queen’s representative for the County.  He’s responsible for arrangements around royal visits and crown patronage; a symbolic role, largely, but pivotal, in its way.  How shall I put it?  There are not many parties of worth that omit him from their list of invitations.   Here’s the thing, though; Clive’s had one foot in and one on a bar of soap for years, poor chap – heart trouble?   Now – this was odd – when Karen and I visited Purton, Clive’s car was in the County Hall car park.  Odd, because Wilson does most of his work these days.  I don’t know about you, but I’d say that makes him a player; what do you think?”

Patrick agreed.  A bit part, perhaps, but implicated nonetheless.  “One hell of a team.”  That was the thought that guided him into sleep.

She came clattering down the bare wooden stairs notebook in hand, a tottering little bundle of mini-skirt and heels.  “You’re Mr Hallcroft,”  Her smile was toothsome,  “Rebecca Shelley.”  She extended a bunch of fingers like the tines of a table fork.  “Pleased to meet you!”

Patrick said he wanted to talk to her about the Karen Eversley disappearance and she said “Ah,” then she thought for a moment before she said:  “Come up to my office.”

He followed her bobbing and barely disguised rear as she led him back up the stairs, and into a beige room that owed little to either formality or comfort.  The chaos of shelving around its walls extended to piles of documents and journals on the floor.  There was a desk which Rebecca ignored, and an old married couple of chairs with pummelled leather seats.

“Take a pew.”  She invited him.  “Excuse the mess.”

Rebecca (call me Becky) had heard of Karen Eversley, yes.  Did she know of her disappearance?  Funny, that, the wires were being tweaked; somebody was missing, she had not heard who.  As Patrick expanded upon his story, she wrote on her notepad busily, her eyes widened and her mouth set into a lipless line.  When he had finished, she appeared to pore over her notes for several seconds, then:   “Have you given anyone else this story?”

Patrick felt moved to be honest.  “Tarquin Leathers.”

“Tarq?  Oh gawd!  The ‘Record’.  You weren’t in last Sunday’s, so it’ll be in the next edition, if they decide to use it.  Prepare yourself for a surprise, Patrick.  You have read his stuff, I take it?”

Patrick confessed he had not.

“Well, good luck!  Anyway, we come out on Saturday, so it’s our exclusive, in a sense.”  Rebecca got to her feet.  “Thank you for your story, Patrick.”

“You will run it?”

She sighed.  “I’ve got a lot of checking to do, before we go to press tomorrow evening.  I’ll have to run it past Cedric.”

“Who’s Cedric?”

“Our editor.  Listen, I can’t promise, okay?  See, this is a local ‘paper, Patrick, and we walk a fine line between the news on one hand and our advertisers on the other.  When it comes right down to it, the advertisers carry us.  The circulation wouldn’t feed a church mouse.  You’ve dropped a lot of names, here, mate  – a lot of squashed toes.  Police corruption?  An accusation like that has to be founded on bedrock, because they’ve got the smartest lawyers in the game, no joking!”

“What about the attack in the Planning Department?  On myself and Jacqueline Greenway – who’s still in hospital, by the way.  There must be records of that, surely?  No-one was interviewed, and there were enough witnesses!”

Rebecca shrugged apologetically.  “I know, Patrick, I know.”

“You’re not going to run it, are you?”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Furious, Patrick hit the street with his letter to ‘Cedric’ the editor of the Beaconshire County Herald already half-composed inside his head.   The Daimler Dart was parked beside the pavement a little further up the street.  A neatly folded piece of paper protruded from under the driver’s side windscreen wiper.  Still seething, he snatched at the paper, ready to cast it into the gutter when he caught part of the wording written upon it out of the corner of his eye, which induced him to pause.  It read, in large black type:

‘YOU WERE WARNED’.

 

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Respects

The polished walnut coffin ploughed its wavering progress through the rain, a galleon borne up like ocean by six solemn shoulders in long black coats.  Before it were the doors of the crematorium, a softly lit beacon in the grey morning, from within which harbour’s safe embrace a rich contralto voice intoned the ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’.  As the congregation’s heads bowed in prayer, Forbes Frobisher Dalwinney was brought to receive their last devotions on his way to eternal rest.

“You can’t do it!”

Deprived suddenly of one of its bearers, the shining wooden ship lurched perilously, recovered, then crabbed sideways before its remaining five stalwarts regained control.  Oblivious to the aghast cries and protests of those who came to see F.F. Dalwinney honourably reduced to cinders, a young pall-bearer had deserted his post to run ahead of the coffin and stand resolutely, arms outstretched, in its path.

“He never wanted a cremation!  He hated fire.  The thought of being burned terrified him.  He wanted to be buried – he said that to me.  He did!”

The contralto’s voice fluttered and ceased.  At his lecturn, Father MacGonigal closed his book of prayer.

#

“It’s most irregular!” Said the Superintendent of Mortuaries as he surveyed an array of mourners gathered in his office.  “Young man, why couldn’t you have spoken to someone about this before?”

The renegade pall-bearer shrugged:  “I didn’t know before.  My invitation was to Mr. Dalwinney’s funeral, and I was picked up from my house this morning.  I was honoured to be asked to carry him, but it was only when the cortege brought us here that I realised you were going to torch him.”

“I think we would be better avoiding words like ‘torched’.”  An older voice interjected.  Its owner, a disarranged figure of wispy white-haired and haggard appearance, placed a bony hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Toby here was Forbes’ youngest nephew.  They’ve been very close these last few years.  If anybody knew the old man’s final wishes, I am sure it would be Toby.”

A cummerbund-trussed individual with great presence and no hair at all seemed to swell visibly with indignation.  “This is scandalous!”  He puffed.   “Dalwinney’s widow is out there breaking her heart.  Can we not just get on with the funeral?  I’m sure nobody else has any objection?”   He looked over his shoulder at the others with a challengingly raised eyebrow.  This aroused some uncomfortable muttering.

“Well, actually…”

“I don’t know why Mara’d be so upset.  This is the first time she’s seen him in two years.”

“It would be nice to have a proper grave…”

“It’s rather out of our hands, I’m afraid.”  The Superintendent said.  “Father MacGonigal has already told me he’s uncomfortable with the situation.  He won’t proceed.”  He spread his hands in a gesture of hopelessness.  “I fear you will just have to take him back.”

#

“The problem,” Toby said to Michael confidentially, as they shared a pint at the Wheatsheaf,  “was that bloody bus.”

Michael was Toby’s friend.  He made sympathetic noises that intimated his complete understanding.  After a minute of silence, he said:  “What bus?”

“I’ll explain.”  Toby said.  But he didn’t.

There was a further interval before Michael broke the silence.  “So he’s buried, now.  I mean, in a grave, sort of thing?”

“Yes.  Nice.”

“You had some courage, mind.”

“I had to say.  The relatives never went near him, the old man; not for years.  None of them did.”

“No?”

“Nope.  I mean, he was ancient, wasn’t he?  He might have whiffed a bit, but he was quick-witted enough and I liked him.  He used to tell me stories, about his life, and that.  He got up to some stuff, mind.  ‘You’re my favourite nephew’, he used to say.   The others, they were just waiting for him to die.  Circling like vultures, they were.”

“Then he went and left all his money to them, and didn’t leave you a thing!”

Toby grinned.  “Well, there you go.  Money isn’t everything, though, is it?”

In another public house nearby, the Superintendent of  Mortuaries was enjoying a lunchtime glass with his old friend Ryan Pargeter.  Ryan was an inspector in the local constabulary.

“By the way,”  The Superintendent was saying as he lined up a fresh glass;  “we nearly cremated Forbes Dalwinney the other day.”

Ryan glanced up at him enquiringly.  “Nearly?”

“Yes.  It’s an odd story.  The family made a late decision – very late – to have him buried instead.  So he got passed on to St. Margaret’s, I believe.   He’s out of your hair, at least.”

“Being dead, you mean?”  Ryan nodded.  “I take your point, but of course he’d been inactive for years.  I was always doubtful that we’d got everything cleared up, though.   There was a little matter of the Brydon payroll robbery…”

“Good Lord!   Did he organise that one?”

“It wasn’t proven.  We had nothing to go to court with, no cash was ever recovered, and our Forbes had a good strong alibi; one of those typical criminal covers…”

“He was playing cards all night?”

“Exactly.  Meantime, we’ve never traced a penny.  There’s nearly half a million out there somewhere.”

“Surely, he used it to set himself up, didn’t he?  I heard he lived very well.”

“No.  He was set up already.  But you’re probably right – it takes a sizeable income to live the way he did.  Dear old Forbes!  In a peculiar sort of way I’ll miss him!  So they’ve buried him, have they?”

#

Patience was never one of Mara Dalwinney’s strong suits.  A forceful woman, she had little time for social etiquette or common decency, although she did – when leaned upon by Forbes’ sister – delay her actual marriage to Sid the turf accountant until after Forbes’ funeral.  She had two things to do on the morning Inspector Pargeter tailed her:  the first was to get married, the second to open a locker on Temple Meads railway station, using a key she had discovered taped beneath Forbes’ sock drawer.  No sooner had she applied the key to the lock than Ryan Pargeter appeared at her shoulder.  It was not a meeting she would have wished for.

“What the shockin’ ‘ell are you doin’ here?”  She demanded, frozen in the act.

“Following you, Mara.”  Pargeter said affably.  “Shall we see what’s inside?”

“No.  It’s personal business, is this.  I won’t bother now, I’ll look later.”

“Wrong.  Proceeds of a crime are police business.  Let’s open it, shall we?”

“There’s nothin’ in here, you know.  Just personal stuff.  There was nothin’ in the old bugger’s estate, either.  Five hundred pound, that were all I got!” With leaden heart Mara eased the locker door open, her vision of a nest-egg fading in front of her eyes.  “Shockin’ ‘ell! What’s this?”

Pargeter took a deep breath.  “Seems you were right.”  He sighed, staring into a chasm of empty locker.  “I had hoped…”

Mara glared at him.   “So had I!”

“There’s a letter.”  Pargeter pointed out a solitary white envelope.  “You’d better let me read it.”

“It’s none of your concern.”

“Nevertheless…”

‘Dear Mara,’  the letter began; and then:  ‘So you thought you’d find a fortune, did you?  Instead you found a locker as cold and empty as your heart.  Never mind, all is not lost!  I have left you one final, tiny joke.  There is another key, and another door to open.  Find the key and you will still need to know where the door is, won’t you?   Well, I texted the address on my mobile ‘phone, you devious old cow.  Happy hunting!”

“Nice turn of phrase!”  Pargeter commented.  “Why, Mara love, you’ve turned quite pale!”

#

For Toby, the sight of Mara Dalwhinney perched on a bar stool in the Wheatsheaf was neither pleasant nor welcome, but he screwed up his courage and sat next to her, ordering himself a beer.  “You’ll be pissed off at me, messing up the funeral and that.”  He said. 

Mara returned his apprehension with a smile that was almost genuine.  “Shockin’ ‘ell no!  Why should I be?”

“All the extra expense, and that?”

“No, lad.  No.”

“What you here for then?”  Asked Toby, genuinely puzzled.

Mara gave her glass of gin a twirl.  “Have you heard the song:   ‘I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key’?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, it’s you who’s got something I need, young Toby.”  She withdrew her deceased husband’s letter from her handbag.  “Have a read of this.”  And she reached deeper and pulled out a single house key, which she placed on the bar.  “Then have a look at this.”

As Toby read the letter she continued:  “When the bus ran him over, I had to go to the hospital to identify him.  They gave me his things, and I haven’t throwed ’em away yet, thank god.  After I read that letter I checked through his coat again. I found this key, tucked into the lining; so I thought to meself, where would he be going with that, before the bus stopped him?  And I thought about you, Toby.  I did.  He was going to give that key to you, wasn’t he?”

“He told me about this.”  Toby muttered.  “He said it was an old joke, and how I was to have everything because you treated him so bad, and that.  He was going to give me both – the address and the key.”

“But he never got to you.  The bus got him first.  So the thing is, young man,”  Mara said;  “have you got his ‘phone?”

“No, I haven’t.”  Toby replied with a weary smile.  “But I know a man who has.”

“Fifty-fifty?”  Mara asked.  Toby knew what she meant.

#

When Inspector Pargeter’s torch beamed into Mara’s mud-streaked face she squawked angrily at him.

“You!  It shockin’ would be!”

“Oh sh**k!”  Toby dropped his shovel on top of Forbes Frobisher Dalwhinney, who made no response. Toby tried to pull the  coffin lid back over him. 

“This isn’t how it looks!” 

“Really?  Opening a grave in the middle of the night?  Doesn’t leave many alternative explanations, does it?”  Pargeter grinned.  “I think there’s a crime in this somewhere, don’t you?”

Mara glared.  “Why?  He were my husband.  Why shouldn’t I dig ‘im up?”

“Why indeed?” Pargeter conceded heavily.  “See, it took a chat with the undertaker to figure this out.  He laughed, you know, Mara?  He thought the old boy was a bit of a card, stipulating in his funeral plan that he wanted his mobile phone to be buried with him.  Good hiding place, eh?  No-one would know where it was – except you found out, young ‘un.  Because when you were bearing the coffin at the crematorium it rang, didn’t it?  And you had your ear right against the wood so you heard it.  The message tone.  How you must have panicked, knowing he was about to be burned!  

“I’m glad to see you’ve found it.  No, there’s no point in trying to hide it now.  In fact, I’d like you to give it to me, please.  It has an address on it I want.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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.