Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

The story so far:

Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years  before.  The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.

Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress.  He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist.  However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed.  Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…

Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour.  Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house.  There was no denying the conflict churning in his head:  Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment.  Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village.  Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!

So why was he not more afraid?

Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant.  But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real:  Hallbury was his home.  And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary.  He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged.   He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging:  he would not make that mistake again.

The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor.  Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.

“Mr Palliser, isn’t it?  Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”

Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded.  His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in?   No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.

“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?”  Joe suggested:  “Could he have gone there?”

“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak.  The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort.  He would call us, very probably.”

Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own.  This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking.  Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real.  Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve.  He pressed home his advantage.  Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real?  Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?

He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.

The matron considered this.  “Would you wait here for a moment?”

She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office.  At length she returned.  Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.

“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock.  I called him to say you were on your way:  I didn’t explain why.”

Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning.  Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit?  In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?

A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade.  Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements.  A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.

But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here.  It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this.  White caps charging forth upon  the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall.  Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers:  these were things he loved.  Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.

How could he ever have forgotten her?  How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily?  However could he turn away again?  As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.

Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks.  There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.

Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose.  The letter box drew up a flappy lip:

“Who’s that?”  A voice empty of any form of artifice.

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

“Hello Joe!”  The wind thrashed, the rain lashed.  The door remained closed.

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile:  “Hello Joe.  It’s windy!”

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

“Shut that bloody door!”  Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.

“Come on.”  Said the large young man.  He ambled backwards into an entrance hall.  “I’m Terry.”  He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly.  “How do you do, Joe?”

“How do you do, Terry?”

As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet.  “I’ll get him.”  He said over his shoulder.

The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs.  Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling.  The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors.  It was a house, but it was not a home.

Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.

“Can I help you?”  his voice was a high tenor.  “I’m Morris Winter.”

Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here:  the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer.  Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.

“Joseph Palliser.  I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”

“Yeah, she did.”  Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”

“No,  I’m Michael Palliser’s brother?  You remember Michael?  He comes to stay here from time to time.”

Winter’s expression brightened.  “Mikey!  Ah yes, Mikey!  Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea.  Terry – make this nice man some tea.”  He grinned a gappy grin:  “He’s a good kid, Terry.  He likes to make tea.”

Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter.  He nodded happily.  “Good tea!”

“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.”  Joe said hurriedly.  “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”

“Well, fire away, then.  Yes, fire away!  Sure you won’t have some tea?”

“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael.  He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”

Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial.  “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them.  I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us.  We know which ones, see?  And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”

Terry nodded a happy affirmative.  “Mikey’s rich.”

“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day?  Does he ever stay out overnight?”

“Oh no, no more than a few hours!”  Winter shook his head.  “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’.  He always is.  I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

“Last time he was down here?  Might of, yes, I think he did.”

“And came back at about eight?”

“Yeah.”  Winter reflected.  “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did.  Does that from time to time, Mikey.  Had to give him a pill, that night.”

“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”

A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face.  “No.  Did I say that?  No.”

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed.  He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission.  Joseph picked up on the gesture:  “Can you help, Terry?”

Terry said to Mr Winter:  “You were with me.”

Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply:  “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time.  It wasn’t your week.”

“You and me played draughts.”  Terry reminded him.

“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,”  Winter corrected.  “This was last week.  You weren’t down here last week.”

Terry’s brow creased in concern.  “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here.  He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board.  We only play when…”

“Terry!”  Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge:  “You weren’t here, mate.”

Terry was not to be repressed:  “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”

Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile:  “He gets confused.”  He said.

Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion.  Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly:  “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”

“No, not that I can think.  Not that it could happen.”  Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”

In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet.  This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter:  Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work:  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Thank you for your help.”  Said Joe, turning to leave.  “If you think of anything…”

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out:  “Mikey went out.  Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late!  Very, very late!  We played….”

Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry!  No cake!”

Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry.  His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured.  The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.

Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation:  “See here, Mr Palliser:  outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job.  It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time.  He’s usually OK, yeah?  He’s fine.  Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two.  He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong:  somebody had a go at him, or something.  See?”

Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.

“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”

At the door, Winter took him by the arm.  “You won’t say nothing?”  Joe shook his head.

“The Shilling Café,”  Winter said.  “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade.  He goes there.”

Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury.  A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.

The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window:  ‘Meal for a Shilling!’   The facia celebrated its cheapness:  within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty.  Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.

“Well now!  Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear.  But seeing as its you…”

Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions;  “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”

“Oh, Mikey!  He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests.  Yes, I know him, don’t I?”

“Has he been in here recently?”

“Mikey?  Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here.  He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”

“Really?”  Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next?  “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”

“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially.  He likes lasagne.”  She shook her head.  “Then he didn’t come.  Set your clock by him, normally.”

“I don’t suppose he’s been in since?  In the last couple of days, for instance?”

“Well no.  But he wouldn’t be, dear.  It’s not his week.  Are you looking for him then?”

“I’m his brother.  We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.”  Joe explained.  “Did he ever have company?”

“His Brother?  Well, I’ll never be!  Mind, I can see the likeness there.  Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since.  Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him.  Not long ago, either.”

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

“Well-dressed, dear, like I said.  A nice suit:  not John Colliers, if you see what I mean?  Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think.  Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”

“What sort of nice looking?”  Joe persisted:  “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”

“Well, sort of average, I think.  Here’s your roll, dear.”

Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon.  As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha?  These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”

Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street.  He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died.  Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there?  Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly?  How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable?  Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…

 

© 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 Molitwenik on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seven    Ship of Ghosts

The story so far:

After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident  which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother).  He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.

Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end.  If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,.  She warns Joe to beware of Charker…

By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid.  The rain had stopped.  Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle.  Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box.  A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.

‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds.    Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane.  The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome.  The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.

“Michael,” The nurse called.  “Look who’s come to see you!”

He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher.  It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife.  His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body.  Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.

Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure:  he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him.  Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune.  He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.

“Welcome, stranger!  Come and sit before me.”

It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought.  And why should he?  Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious.  It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.

“Do you bring news from the east?”  Michael enquired anxiously:  “Come, tell me at once.  Are our armies lost?”

“Michael, I didn’t come from the east.  Well, not today, anyway.”

“Damn!  So they have us!    I’ll have to break it to the men.”  Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent:  “Sit with me.  You honour my tent.”  Then, with startling clarity:  “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”

Joe’s face must have shown his relief.  Michael gave a slow chuckle.  “Well, you expect it, don’t you?  Coming in here, I mean?  Got to give my public what they want to see.  Jesus, Joey,  how many years has it been?  I barely recognised you.”

Joseph returned his brother’s smile.  “Too many,” he said; “too many.   How do they treat you here?  Are you well?”

“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t?  Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here.  Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found.  They teach you that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place?  Pleasant – airy?  It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day.  You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room.  But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….”  Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially.  His breath had a slight menthol smell.  “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls.  You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.”  He sat back.  “But you don’t protest.  You don’t raise your voice.  If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication.  Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything.  Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment:  a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like.  You met the matron on your way in, I expect?  Frau Forster?  I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day.  I was medicated for a week.

Michael’s face split in a thin smile.  “But things aren’t so bad now.  I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know.  I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want.  And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good.  So, you – where have you been all this time?  What have you been doing with yourself?”

Joseph knew the question was coming, of course.  He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.

When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely.  “Children of demons.”

The remark took Joseph aback:  “What?”

“Demon-spawn:  they feed on us, Joey.  They’re everywhere.”

It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell.  Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile.  “True.”  He said.  He was beginning to wonder why he had come.

Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future.  Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss.  There was no further mention of predatory demons.

Something interested Joseph.  “You haven’t asked about Ian.”  He said.

Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look.  “No.”

“Why not?  He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”

Michael cut him short.  “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget.  Memories are bad for you, Joey.”  It was as though he had slammed a door.  There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.

“Oh, I have some hot local news!”  Joseph tried to restore some lost ground:  “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church?  She’s been murdered, Mikey!  What do you think of that?”

Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.

“Ah.”  Michael said.  His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally.  It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement.  “That I do know.”

“Really?”  Joseph said, very carefully:  “Who told you?”

Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself.  “There are things I know.  You must accept that.”  He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion.  With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.

“How do you….”

Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture:  “There are things I know.”

“I see.”  Joseph chose his words.  “So do you know why she had to die?  Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”

“Who have you spoken to about this?  It’s vitally important!”

“Oh, most of the village, I suppose.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  Why, Mikey?  I barely knew the woman.  And why is it vital?  And how the hell do you ‘know’?”

“I just do.”  Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before?  Or was his face changing?  His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling.  He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.

“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you.  Let’s change the subject, yes?”

“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me.  I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now.  You left the pack, didn’t you?  You should have stayed.  In the pack you learn.  It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite.  Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe!  I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years.  They try, Joey!  They don’t know the pack is inside me.  They can’t know!”

A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder.  “Mr Palliser?  I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”

Joseph nodded.  “I’m going now, Mikey.  I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”

There was no other description to fit it:  Michael bared his teeth.  “Talk to Ned Barker.”  He growled.  “Talk to him, Joey.  Do it before it’s too late!”

The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room.  She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.

“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry.  He gets excited like this sometimes.  It soon passes.”

“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients.  I’ll see if Doctor  Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”

Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles.  “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser.  I have much to do, you see?”

“Thank you for sparing me the time.  What is wrong with Michael?”

Bernowski shrugged.  “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it:  as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say.  Often we work for years and years and never find a cause.  I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder.  It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”

“He told me he’s allowed out.  Is that true?”

“Not strictly.  We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days.  They are always supervised.”

“In Marsden on Sea?”

“Yes.  This I believe.”

“And was he there last week?”

“He was due a visit, I think.  You must ask the Matron that.  She will tell you.”

Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile.  Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week.  He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.

“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see.  But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”

“I’m impressed.  The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”

Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance.  “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital.  Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”

By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder.  He had questions to ask.

“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there?  It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”

Julia looked puzzled.  “I thought you knew that, dear.”

“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “

His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably.  “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation.  Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you.  We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit.  Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”

“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”

“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….”  Julia left the sentence open.  “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago.  You must have forgotten.  Now, what would you like for your tea?”

Nothing simple:  the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still.  Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain.  Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him:  his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant:  assiduous in his career, yes:  frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime?  No.

That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep.  Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him.  She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all.  Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.

The next morning the police came again.  This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:

“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser.  Can we have a word?”

While the young constable dithered by the French windows,  DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.

“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”

Joseph suppressed an inner tremor:  “What do you mean?”

“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…”  He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket:  “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late.  The train usually is late.”

“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”

“Didn’t I already say that too?”

“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did.  Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square.  Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston?  Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus.  That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”

“True.  But I didn’t.  I missed it.  My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains.  When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say?  And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”

The detective sergeant nodded.  “I see.  So you’re saying….”

“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston.  I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”

“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”

Joseph gritted his teeth.  “Can you tell me the problem here?”

The detective shifted in his chair.  “The problem:  all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem.  No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus.  There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however:  but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.”  He leaned forward.  “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died:  now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”

 

© 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:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Six The Vale

“Ciggy?”  Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick.  “Oh, you don’t, do you?  Do you mind if I do?  I’m absolutely gasping.”

Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft.  When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course).  Patrick Hallcroft?  He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking!  But now?

Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore?  He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary.  His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked.  Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return.  Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.

“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?”  He asked.

“Everyone has, darling.  At least you got demoted to an inside page.”

“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’?  It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”

Bea shrugged.  “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect?  That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that.  I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering.  The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something.  ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue?  It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”

“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”

“At least you tried.  Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch.  Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick.  So the least you can do…”

“Would a timeline help?”

“Timelines are always good.”

“Right; Saturday morning.  I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”

“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute.  Why didn’t you follow those three cars?  Karen would have.”

“Oh yes.  And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!”  Patrick rejoined.  “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”

“But you didn’t.  You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”

“No ‘thought’ about it!  At least give me a hearing!”

“Where next?”

“I didn’t want to go to the police.  All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway.  I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.”  Patrick thought for a second.  “No, wait.  That isn’t what I wanted.  I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”

“Why?  Does he have his doubts?  More to the point, do you?  My god, Patrick!”

“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start.  And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know?  I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him.  I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course.  It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself.  Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north.  It wasn’t much of a delay though.  We were there by one-thirty.”

“No car?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.  I guessed.  By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone.  It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick.  Bad karma!”

“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone!  The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something.  A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy.  Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”

“Your old man didn’t believe you?  No, wait – brains, Bea!  He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”

“Our little snake!  Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught.  I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself.  ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too.  All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”

His hand was resting on the table.  Bea squeezed it consolingly.  “No, mate, she isn’t right.  Go on, fill in the rest.”

“My mother lived up to her promise.  She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant?  She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”

“Isn’t he supposed to be ill?  It was on the local news.  He had a heart attack or something.”

“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather.  You’re right, though.  His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson.   That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you.  Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”

“And..”

“And I saw him.”  Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes.  “I wanted you to keep some faith in me.  I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”

Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand.  “Pat!  Avoiding the question, yeah?  What happened with Wilson?”

“He’s a strange guy.  Enigmatic, I think that’s the word.  Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home;  corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing.  I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew.  Much more than my mother told him.  He already knew.”

“Well, what did he say?  Can he do anything?”

“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”

#

The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth.   Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed.  The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.

All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner.  Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident.  The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.

“Hallcroft, isn’t it?  Come in, young man.”

There were further surprises to come.  Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe.  A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.

“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.”  And Wilson added, pointedly,  “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.”  Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke.   “Now, why did you want to see me?  Your mother was most insistent.”

Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design?  He had to clear his throat before he responded.   “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  I believe you met her.”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her.  A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate.  Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson.  I am sure you remember.”

Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances.  “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”

“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”

Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder.  “Impudent whelp, aren’t you?  Why are you here, boy?”

“To find Karen,”  Patrick retorted.  “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return.  They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”

Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody;  “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft.  If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature.  It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”

“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton.  Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder?  Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson.  I will find out who.”

“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken.  Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour.  She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone.  She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions.  She sent a letter to that effect to her parents.  I take it you have read that?  After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”

Carmody’s eruption happened.  “I won’t stand for any more of this!  See here, Hallcroft:  the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation.  Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning.  My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority.  The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one.  Is that understood?  Is that final enough for you?”

“Public nuisance?”

“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens.  Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one.  If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground.  For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman.  I‘m sick of the sight of him!”

#

“Unbelievable!”  Bea shook a troubled head.  “And that was it?”

“Not quite.”  As he – what would you say – showed me out?  Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’.  A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”

“It’s not good, yeah?”  Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears.  “Poor Karen.”

“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?”  Patrick said, tight-lipped,  “Very professional.  They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off.   And then, finally, last night…”  He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face.  For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down.  But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.

“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess.  A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home.  I saw the red glow against the sky.  Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road!    From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.”  Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face!  Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower!  All gone.   I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before.  I never want to see its like again.”

“You think?”

“Of course I think!  I was warned, wasn’t I?  Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory?   There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage.  One police car turned up – one!  A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids!  I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”

Patrick drew himself up.  “Anyway, nobody slept last night.  It was sunrise before they got the fire out.  It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer.  It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire.  Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.

“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”

Bea interrupted him,  “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”

“I can’t answer that…”

“You do!  You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere!  And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it!  He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim.  This will happen again, Patrick!  Again!”

“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea.  I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing.  But there’s a family – my family – to consider.  You, too.  I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”

“I don’t care.  She’s my friend,  she was always my friend.”

“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know?  Right from wrong, good from bad, all that?  This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose.  I’ve never seen him that way.  In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,.  He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back.  This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it.  He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is.  He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”

“So you’re giving up.”

“In my heart, no.  Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now.  I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.”   Patrick sighed.  “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was.  I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t.   Not without causing more harm.”

Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now.  “You are, you’re giving up!  Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably.  It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”

“I know,”  Patrick acknowledged miserably.  “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger.  Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”

“You can trust me, Patrick.  You can trust me.”’

#

There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends.  It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by.  Not without regret, however, and not without damage.

Patrick?  He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins.  All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.

Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows.  It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career.  She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears:  it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.

Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers.  Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months.  He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end.  His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.

Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too.  Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life.  For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him.  But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.

It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did.   Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Four. A Guttering Candle.

“I don’t know who you are!”  Daphne Scott-Halperton sounded defensive.  Whilst she could sense nothing threatening about the mop-haired young man looking up at her from the auditorium, he had stayed behind after the rest of her devotees had left, which was to say the least unusual.  “If you want to guidance from someone on the other side you’ve missed your opportunity.  I can’t work without the atmosphere of an audience, you see.  So that’s that, I’m afraid.  Next month?”   Daphne regarded her monthly appearances at the Gaiety very much as a sideline and their duration as strictly limited.  She was on overtime.

“Please, Miss Scott-Halperton, I don’t want a reading, just information.”

No deputations from the Choir Eternal, Patrick wanted to say: no guiding spirit of Emeline Pankhurst or voice of Elizabeth Fry, suddenly anxious to communicate from beyond the grave.  He had already endured two hours of those, unable to offer any satisfactory explanation why the almost inarticulate spirit of Boudica should be so well informed concerning Great Uncle Harry, who, despite being dead, was still enjoying his pigeons.

Miss Scott-Halperton was eyed him suspiciously.  “Information about what?”

“Someone who comes here every month – I suppose you might consider her one of your ‘regulars’?”  This evoked no response from the stage, so Patrick continued; “I thought she might have turned up tonight, it was sort of a last hope.  She’s vanished:  been abducted, we think.”

He gave his best description of Karen, to which Daphne, who was a large and quite forbidding force, appeared to listen politely, “She never misses your sessions, I’m told.  Tonight, though – I waited for her outside and she didn’t come.  I wondered…”

“Yes, yes,” Daphne interrupted him.  “I know who you mean.”  Her mind went back to her previous performance, just as it had when she opened the front door of her cottage a few days since to find Karen standing in her porch, her clothes dripping from the rain.  “One moment, young man.  I’ll be down.”

There were steps at the end of the apron stage.  Daphne descended with the careful progress incumbent upon one of her dimensions and possibly, Patrick thought unkindly, her capacity for gin. “She obtained my address from the library. I must warn you that is a loophole I have since closed.  I give private consultations but I am very careful to reserve my personal details to whomsoever I choose.”

“She went to your home?”

“Indeed she did, young man.  Some days ago.  She was a troubled soul, beset by many demons, you understand; one of which had broken free of the underworld to pursue her, poor child.  Such people carry the Devil’s mark, I’m afraid.  One wishes the best for them, yet acknowledges there is little that can be done.”

Patrick tried to clear his brain.  Miss Scott-Halperton seemed to inhabit a separate universe he was not equipped to understand, but somehow he had to build a bridge between them.  Dipsomaniac or not, eccentric or not, the medium must now be considered the last person to see Karen.  She was free then, might she still be free?”

“You want me to help you to find her?  I may not be able to do that, young man.”

“I’ll take the crumbs from anyone’s table.  Right now, I’ve nowhere to turn.”

Daphne alighted majestically three seats away from Patrick, then contrived to look learned by placing her fingertips together and nodding sagely.  “I see your pain and I shall try.”

“So she probably came to you the day she disappeared.  Do you know where she intended to go after she left you?”

“Into battle, I imagine.  She was intent upon outfacing her tormentor.  A sad mistake.  I advised her against anything so impetuous, They are not of this world, you see.”

“I hoped she might have given you some clue.”

“I witnessed the demon that beset her, young man.  At my last session its malevolence took possession of the gallery just above where you are sitting, a loathsome sight.  It was looking down upon her, filling this hall with the evil of its intention!”

“Some idea where she went?”

“Why, to the field of battle, I imagine.”

“Which would be where?  Geographically, I mean?”

“Or influentially.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Scott-Halperton, you’ve got me with that one.”

“Demons, child, are drawn to people of greatness.  Megalomania, lascivious vice and greed are their oxygen, you see.  You will find no demons in a poor man’s cabin, but in the stately corridors of men of power, they are legion. There do they hold their dominion!”

“Are we talking about any specific men of power here?”  Patrick felt he was riding a chariot behind an increasingly unpredictable horse.  “I mean, names?”

“I can tell you no more.  They are there to be found.  Seek them amidst the fire – beware the inferno, young man!”  Daphne’s head was sinking slowly into her ample chest, and her eyes were closing.  Patrick, who had passed the previous two hours watching her use a similar device to introduce the visitation of a spirit guide waited, half-expecting something similar with some concrete information within it, but after a few minutes the psychically gifted matron began to snore.

It was a disappointingly anti-climactic end to the interview.  Patrick retreated quietly.

“Golly, how utterly, utterly bizarre!”  Gabrielle enthused when he had finished his narrative.  “I do wish I’d been there!”

Her brother shook his head.  “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  It was a long evening, and knowing my sister as I do, she would have been giggling the whole time.”  He leant with arms upon his chair back, gazing moodily through the window of the snug, as if his eyes might find answers in the moonless darkness,  “What I don’t get – I mean, seriously don’t get – is what Karen got out of stuff like that.  It isn’t her, Gabs, not any part of her.  At least, not the Karen I knew.  Oh, god, I said it, didn’t I?  The past tense – I ‘knew’.  Am I giving up, in spite of myself?”

“No, Sweetie, not you; you’re a terrier.  You’ll dig up the whole garden if you can’t find a bone. Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, are you so sure of your image of Karen?  The girl I met was very insecure and vulnerable, not the tough female detective type at all.  I think she hated what she was, I do!  I also think she was haunted by the ghost of her sister, and in desperate need of your protection and love.”  Gabrielle gave a nervous little laugh, “Gosh, sorry!  That just slipped out!”

That night, sleepless, Patrick lamented the waste of days – the fruitless telephoning of newspapers with no interest in running the story, and even his doorstepping of a local organisation dedicated to tracing ‘the lost ones’.  Their answers were kind and, for the most part, patient, but no better than the verdict previously delivered by DC Ames: ‘She’s an adult, she’s expressed her choice clearly, there’s no evidence of any harm having come to her’.  There were endless hours frittered away in Caleybridge Library. ploughing column inch by column inch through back numbers of the County Herald, searching vainly for copy on either Emma Bartlett or Rachel Priest, those past disappearances cited by Constable Flynn.

And now, to cap it all, an evening spent at a spiritualist gathering led by a half-inebriated medium.  Were these the despairing measures of one with nowhere left to turn?  Yes, it had been wasted time, because in his heart he knew the last straws of hope were sinking.  So why did his thoughts keep re-running the old woman’s final sentences concerning ‘men of power’ – ‘they are there to be found’ – did those words allude to some clue he had missed?

In the morning he caught up with his mother before she embarked on her newly extended school run with his little sister Amanda.   “The other night you mentioned that Lord Lieutenant bod – Sir Clive something?  Do you know where he lives?”

“Sir Clive Webster; yes dear.  I also have his ‘phone number somewhere.  Would it be a good idea to call him first?”

“I would, but at some point in the conversation I would have to tell him my reason for wanting to see him, and I’m not sure I could answer that.”

“So beard the lion, you thought.”

“And see what develops.  I don’t suppose you could…?”

“Oh, Patsy, you’re such a wimp sometimes!  What makes you think I could give an answer that was any better than yours?”

“Because you know him, and because you have a way of…”

“I tell you what.  I will offer you a trade.  If I agree to try and bring the two of you together on some pretext, will you take our darling youngest to school tomorrow and bring her back?  How’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

“It is.  I have succeeded in placing the dear little bugger in her third school this year, which is twenty-five miles away.  And apparently I have landed upon the one bloody school in the County, in Elverton,  that gives lessons on Saturday mornings – from nine until twelve, to be precise. It isn’t worth taking her, coming back, then going to fetch her, so – you catch my drift?”

Patrick sighed.  “Okay, I agree.  A morning kicking my heels in glorious Elverton.  But are we sure we want her back?”

“No promises, Patsy, I’ll try my best.  In the meantime, try not to be horrible to your wonderful little sister, darling.  That’s my prerogative.  Just a suggestion, while she passes her hours of learning you could poodle down the road to Harterport?  Take your swimmies.  It isn’t far.”

The one attribute Patrick’s Daimler lacked was stealth.  Its distinctive exhaust note drew attention, whether or not attention was wished.  Turning into the car park of the King’s Arms, even on a Friday lunchtime when it was fairly busy, it turned the heads of two people for whom Patrick would rather have retained an element of surprise.  Mark Potts was one, standing beside a very new-looking Sunbeam Alpine.  The other, a much older, quite wasted figure, was equally familiar to Patrick, but seeing him in Mark’s company surprised him nonetheless.

Patrick parked up, then accosted the pair.   “Nice car, Mark.  Have you had a pay rise?”

Potts seemed less than glad to see him.  “What are you doin’ here, Hallcroft?”

“Beer’s good.  Why not?”  Patrick nodded to Potts’s companion.  “’Good morning.  Last time we met, you didn’t stop to introduce yourself.”  He turned back to Potts, “Did you know your mate here spends his nights spying on the parked cars up on Monument Hill?”

“We haven’t got nothin’ to say to each other, have we?”  Potts was unfazed.  “If you don’t mind, Hallcroft, we were in the middle of a conversation.”

“Really?  It wasn’t anything remotely to do with Karen Eversley’s departure, I suppose?”

Potts leered.  “Moved away, has she?  Nosey bitch.  Couldn’t stand you once she found out you was a pervert, eh?  Good riddance, I say.”

“No, Mark.  Disappeared – like Gasser, who suddenly isn’t around anymore…”

“Or that sexy little prossy girlfriend of ‘is?  No surprise there, either.  Stuck his nose where it didn’t concern him, maybe, Maybe a bit like you, Hallcroft – stickin’ your nose in.  You want to be careful, you do…”  intending to add detail to his threat, Potts was brought up short by a heavy nudge from the older man, who had so far made no contribution to the exchange.

“Aren’t we missing some drinking time?”  He said, in a dry, cracked voice.

Patrick ignored the interruption.  “What happened to Gasser, Mark? Where did you really leave him that night?”

Potts dropped his voice, attempting to sound dangerous.  “Everythin’ happened just like I told it to your bitch girlfriend, see?  Nothin’ no different.  You want to watch it, chap, or …”

“Careful, Mark!”  Patrick cut in.  “Saying things like that, you’re worrying your silent friend, here.  Was this the other bloke in your old car; you know, the night you beat Gasser up?”

“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!  You’re getting’ it all wrong, Hallcroft.  I ain’t sayin’ no more.  Oh, yeah, an’ if you were thinking of harassing Perry don’t bother.  He’s on holiday.  Three weeks!  Go and have a drink, peaceful-like, and stop provokin’ folks.”

Patrick shook his head.  “No thanks, I’m fussy who I drink with.  Anyway, you should be flattered; I only came to find you.  I was hoping you had something more for me, like maybe you knew a bit about Karen’s disappearance.”

“Well you was wrong, then, wasn’t you?”

“I dunno. Maybe if I’d found you without the present company…Never mind, in a way I think you’ve given me more than I expected.  I’ll think about that.” He turned on his heel and began walking back to his car, leaving Mark Potts to glare at his back.  When he reached the Daimler there were choices because it was often his custom to vault over the door and straight into the driving seat, but today, lacking the required level of exuberance, he opted for a proper use of the door.  It was, in a sense, his undoing.

As he gripped the door handle an iron hand clamped over his so fiercely he could not move it.  The face of the cadaverous man, the almost silent man who had witnessed his encounter with Potts was suddenly just inches from his own, growling fiercely:  “You’ve been told, boy.  You won’t be told again, so listen.  She’s gone, understand?  You won’t see her again, so give this up before you and your family get hurt.   Stop now, you got me?”

Shocked into silence for a few seconds, Patrick could only nod, dumbly.  It was enough. Before he could make a more suitable response the man was striding away purposefully and rapidly, a repeat of their last encounter when he had woken to see that face outside his car window.  His eyes followed the tough little man’s retreating back, his ears heard Mark Potts’ derisive laughter.

With utter deliberation Patrick climbed into his car, turned the key, pressed the starter.  Then he selected first gear, decked the accelerator and almost jumped the clutch.  The distance across the car park amounted to nothing, three seconds or less.  He fixed his eyes on Mark Potts, watched the smirk on his face turn to horror, heard a scream from a bystander, saw the alarm on the small man’s face as he turned to see the danger, almost too late.  He dived out of the car’s path just as Patrick swung the wheel and turned the Daimler’s high, blunt bonnet aside.  As he drove out of the Public House car park he glanced in his mirror, gratified to see a row of shocked faces watching his departure, and his snarling aggressor being helped to his feet by Potts.  Neither of them was smiling.

Patrick needed several minutes to calm himself in the lea of that encounter, and several hours of self-examination when he recognised how close he had come to intentionally harming the man.  He had never seen himself as violent, or even lacking in temper; but the past few days had aroused emotions new to him, not all of which he welcomed.

An air of tension pervaded Caleybridge Hospital.   It had primed itself for a warm late spring weekend, with the spate of injuries that was likely to bring.  It was busy, too, forcing Patrick to thread his way through the visiting hoards on his way to Jacqui’s ward.

“You’re lucky to catch me!  I’m only waiting for a free seat in an ambulance.”  Jacqui informed him with a grin.  “They’re throwing me out this afternoon.  No rigging, see?”

Her ‘halo’ brace had been removed together with most of the heavy bandages, so only a few light dressings remained.  “You’ve no idea the relief!  I actually felt like I was carrying a water jar on my head, or something, Now, I can move freely, look!”  She waggled her head in demonstration,  “Ouch!  Well maybe not that much!”

“Would you like me to run you home?”

“Oh, you are a love!  Would you mind?”

Jacqui’s apartment was across town.  As he drove, Patrick was constantly forced to avoid small fleets of motor scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas, that were buzzing up and down the main roads, bare-headed riders flaunting their machines for the benefit of small groups of motorcyclists, who languished in side alleys or beside kerbs, watching and waiting.

“It’s going to be a hot weekend,” Jacqui commented.  “There’ll be trouble, I’m thinking.”

Her apartment occupied the ground floor of a detached house set well back from the road within a high walled garden accessed by a black painted wooden door.  The house itself, a lofty Victorian structure in red brick had a faintly disdainful air, its tiers of bay windows like an upturned nose sniffing at matters it would prefer to avoid.   To approach the front door meant negotiating a short flight of stone steps.  As he ascended these, Patrick’s attention was drawn to a pathway that led, he assumed, to the back of the house.  Set into it was a padlocked wooden hatch.  He remarked upon it.

“What is that for, Jacqui?”

“Oh, nothing.  Nothing interesting, at least.”

“No, tell me?”

“Most of these old houses had basements.  For storage, usually – somewhere cold, before fridges, you know?”

“Like wine?”

“Yes, absolutely like wine.  Most people have them filled in these days, and most people have the hatches filled in at the same time.  Not my dear Daddy.”

“Then there’s still a basement down there?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Pat.  If there is, I’ve never found any other way in, and I don’t relish opening that great heavy thing.  So I remain blissfully ignorant – although I swear I can smell the damp sometimes.  It’s probably flooded.”

“Shall I explore?”

“No!  I mean, no thank you; I’d rather you didn’t.”

At her door, Jacqui tempted Patrick with tea and he accepted, wanting to be sure she had food to last her until she could shop for herself.  And although she insisted she could manage:  “I’ve some stuff in the chest freezer, I’ll be alright;” he made an errand to a corner shop for basic supplies.

Her apartment seemed ascetic and soulless.   Perhaps Patrick had envisioned it would be so.  Her furniture was wooden, plain and relentlessly practical, her carpets well-trodden, the walls bare.  It was also something of a time capsule, exactly as she had rushed from it on her workday morning more than a week ago.

“Sorry about the bathroom.  My bedroom’s through there – don’t look, I can’t remember if I made the bed or not,”   For verification, she opened the closed door just sufficiently to peep through.  “Not.”

In retrospect, Patrick thought as he drove back across the town, it was a home that existed as Jacqui herself lived; in limbo.  He had known for some months of her indecision – whether she should stay in Caleybridge or follow her nearest kin the other side of the world.  Her apartment reflected that: she might share the house now, letting the upstairs to tenants, but she had no enduring interest in it – no motive to remodel or change any of the furnishings, even the colours, her parents had left behind.

Such upheaval as would be necessary for Jacqui to migrate to a distant foreign land was alien to her careful nature; she had only a few close friends, but many acquaintances.  Her life in Caleybridge was a fabric not easily torn apart, yet that did not seem to be the true root of her vacillation.  Something bound her to this small, backwoods borough that was not entirely rational, the nature of which Patrick had no notion.

In the town the gangs of motor scootering youths who called themselves ‘Mods’ were gathering, no longer cruising around but parked in huddles, as many as twenty chrome-rich bikes in one place, their riders quaffing beer while they engaged in mawkish displays of machismo.  Around them the streets were almost silent; pedestrians and other motorists alike intimidated by the waxing sense of threat.   It was hot for so late an hour.  The air was heavy.  Conflict seemed destined to follow.

 

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nineteen. A worm

The night had been merciful to Patrick.  Ravaged by all the tensions of the day and his imaginings (what danger might Karen be in, or the unthinkable – was it already too late?)  he had wanted to keep going; to keep up his search for her.  Even after he abandoned his vigil in Nowhere Lane his desperation drove him on, standing shaking and soaked to his skin before the night desk at Caleybridge Police Station, where the desk sergeant was made to listen to his account of events before, not unkindly, telling him to go home. Midnight was close before he drew the Daimler to a shuddering halt in the drive of Radley Court and his family were able to step in and advise – no, insist – he rest.

“Bath and bed for you, young man!”  Gwendoline instructed him in a tone she normally reserved for Amanda.

“It makes sense, Patsy dear,” Gabrielle soothed.  “There’s nothing to be achieved now, and you wouldn’t be a lot of use to Karen in this state.  Get some sleep.”

“You’re making a fool of yourself, boy,”  Jackson told him; though his tone was less censorious than before.  As he watched his son labouring up the big stairway there were etch-lines of concern on his normally placid features.

So Patrick acquiesced, and of course sleep came, the moment he laid his head on the pillow.  Sleep; dreamless, deep, and long.  It was near ten the next morning when he woke.

“Let me get this straight.”  The detective constable looked up from his report pad.  “You’re trying to tell me this Miss Eversley has been abducted – is that what you’re saying?”

Patrick nodded emphatically.  He had waited at the police station for nearly an hour to gain an interview with a member of CID.  He wasn’t about to see it wasted.  “How many times do I have to repeat myself?  She was following up an investigation.  The investigation took her to the old ruins at Boulter’s Green.  I followed her there.  She walked from her car to the ruins, and she did not walk back.  I waited for hours but she didn’t return.”

“You’re certain of this, are you?  Did you see anyone – anyone at all – during the time you spent there; any other persons acting suspiciously, any activity of any kind?”

“No, I didn’t.  I stayed until long after dark.”  Patrick paused, “No, wait – that isn’t quite true.  When I was down by the river there was someone, a woman, looking out of one of the windows of the Driscombe place.  Anyone in that house would have a clear view of Boulter’s Green, wouldn’t they?  Couldn’t we ask them?”

The detective frowned.  “I’m afraid we won’t be disturbing Lord Driscombe unless we have a lot more to go on, young man.  He is a Peer of the Realm, I’d advise you not to forget that.  Now, this was yesterday afternoon, after your father reported the theft of a vehicle.  You found that vehicle, didn’t you?”

“Yes; yes I did.”  Patrick felt that his concerns were being somehow turned against him.  “But yesterday morning we told your officer – my Dad told him – Karen had been abducted.  It wasn’t a theft.”

“’Karen’ would be Miss Eversley, yes?   You recovered your father’s car from outside her apartment.  Let me see, what were your words last night?”  The policeman studied the report in front of him.  “Ah, yes.  ‘She was being chased.  He was after her’.  Any idea who was after her?”

“No, I don’t know his name.  But he was large enough and strong enough to frighten her.  I had to defend her from him once; I reported it, and he’s been stalking her ever since, so I know the threat was real.”

“You certainly made a report, Mr Hallcroft.  We investigated that.  We found no evidence of an assault having taken place, or any witnesses who could describe this person.  A tall man with long hair and a leather overcoat – isn’t that your description?  A little theatrical, don’t you think?”

“Don’t believe me, if you choose not to. My sister and her boyfriend had to deal with him, they’ll tell you.  Karen also reported to you she was being followed, after he assaulted her.”

“True, true.  You might say in the few days of your acquaintanceship with Miss Eversley the pair of you drew quite a bit of police attention.”

“That’s so unfair!  I’ve known Karen longer than ‘a few days’.”  Patrick wished he had brought his mother to this interview.  “Look, it’s obvious Karen had no intention of stealing anything: my father’s car was parked on the street.  She’d left it there and swapped to her own car, once she’d got away.”

“Got away?  So she wasn’t abducted, was she?  In fact, there’s no evidence she didn’t simply ‘borrow’ your father’s vehicle to get back to town.   You see, Mr. er..”  The detective constable glanced up at Patrick with pedagogic disdain:  “Mr Woodcroft, Miss Eversley wasn’t exactly short of enemies, was she?  In her line of work, it’s entirely possible a disgruntled client might threaten violence against her, but they wouldn’t be interested in abducting her. If someone broke into your house, as appears to be the case and they were chasing her, she certainly got away; as to where she went after that, well, following your reasoning, somewhere out of reach, don’t you think?”

Patrick firmly refuted the policeman’s explanation.  “No constable, I’m reporting her missing.  I believe she may be in danger.  I’m asking you to follow that up.”

“You’re sure she’s not at home, or her place of business?”

“Certain.  I checked both.  Why?”

The constable studied his pad for a moment or two.  He pursed his lips.  “Well, we might as well get this out of the way.  You see, Mr Hallcroft, I’m having a little bit of trouble with this story of yours.”

Patrick stared.  “Why?”

“Last night you came in here unloading all this and you seemed, if the night-duty officer’s account is anything to go by, a little bit off-balance.  Nevertheless, we did send a car out to this lane you spoke of, and our constable investigated it thoroughly.  He walked the route you described to the ruins and he looked around as well as he could by torchlight.  He saw nothing unusual.”

“No, nor did I; that’s the point!  But her car is parked there…”

“That’s the thing Mr Hallcroft.  It isn’t.”

“What?”

“There was no sign of a car.  Nothing.”

Patrick regarded the detective constable blankly.  “It was there, and it was locked.  I don’t believe you.”

“To be honest, it’s immaterial whether you believe me or not.  We haven’t found the vehicle.  So as far as we’re concerned, if Miss Eversley is missing at all, the most likely explanation is that she has simply gone away for a few days.  She is an adult, and no-one from her family has reported her missing.  We might pursue her for theft and any part she played in the damage to your father’s property, but otherwise the police can’t be involved.  I’m sorry.”

 

Ah, we are only human, are we not?  Patrick’s conviction was total:  Karen already held an unassailable place in his heart.  She was his chosen; the one he would spend a lifetime beside if he could.  And only those who have loved and lost could ever understand his agony of fear for her.  Yet it would be wrong to assume that other counsels could not plant a tiny worm where such pure flowers grew.  Driving through the town after his visit to Caleybridge Police Station the detective’s explanation of the previous day’s events picked at the locks of his devotion.  He was not a fool.  In his imagination, he extrapolated upon their interview.

“Tell me, sir, how long have you known Miss Eversley?”

“A few weeks.”

“Really?  As long as that.  Were you intimate with her?”

“Well, yes.”

“Well yes.  And what do you know about Miss Eversley’s past?”

“She had a sister.”

Slowly, as if writing this down:  “She – had – a – sister.  What was her sister’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did Miss Eversley go to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has she any close friends?”

“I don’t know.”

 I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Now, when it counted, he was discovering how little he did know about the woman who had entered his life.  He had to believe what the policeman had told him.  The car had been removed.  After he left could Karen have returned in the night and driven away from that muddied lane?  If so, where?  Where would Karen, feeling afraid, seek shelter?  And if she had found refuge, why had she not called to tell him she was safe?  There was, of course, an alternative answer he did not want to contemplate; that she had winged her little car up the A38, so by now she could be with Tim Birchinall in London.  Birchinall, his rival!  He baulked at the thought, not really believing she could do that to him so coldly, but knowing she was in fear of her big, aggressive Mr Nasty, and that might be enough to make a renewed relationship with a rugby playing policeman a temptation she couldn’t resist.

Only Karen’s mother was at home when he pressed the doorbell that afternoon.  A matronly figure whose apron was wrapped about her by her personality, she greeted him effusively.

“So you’d be the young man our Karen’s been seeing?  Come in, dearie, come in!  You’ll catch your death out there!”

If Patrick had sought to raise concern in Bridget Eversley, though, he was to be disappointed.  She sympathized with his agony, but not the reasons for his concern.  When he told her how worried he was for her daughter, Bridget thought he was over-reacting.

“A dark man?  No, she hasn’t told me about any dark men, dearie.  You shouldn’t worry about Karen, you know, she’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one; gets it from her sister Suzanne.  She knows how to look after herself.  She’s probably gone off on one of those Spiritualist retreats – she does, from time to time.”

Patrick was puzzled.  “Spiritualist?”

“Oh yes, dearie, she’s very much took up with that.  You didn’t know?  There’s monthly meetings she goes to; some woman at the Gaiety, can’t think of her name.  She took her dad last time.  Kept him quiet for a few days after, I can tell you.  Then again, if business has been a bit slow lately she might have gone to one of her friends, I suppose.  She does that sometimes, too.”

Patrick pressed her; did she know where he might find any of Karen’s friends?

“There’s one, Bea I think her name is, but I can’t say where she lives. I met her once, it was at the County Show.  Nice girl; dark, sort of flashy, but nice.”

When they put their heads together, Patrick and Bridget, they discovered their knowledge of Karen’s life and habits amounted to surprisingly little.  “She’s an independent minx.  If she’s lit off for a while, I shouldn’t be surprised, nor should you.  She’ll be back when she’s missing her Sunday dinner.”

#

The circumstances were not ideal for a first meeting with one of Karen’s parents, Patrick told himself, but at least he had learned something more about their enigmatic daughter,   Spiritualism!   He found the very thought of Karen attending a spiritualist meeting disturbing; it was inconsistent with the image he had built of her: it did not fit.  Nor would her mother’s description of Karen – ‘She’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one’ – comply with his; the woman in his heart was gently loyal, grounded and dependable, the woman in his head was subtly altered now.  He could not avoid thinking about that.

Exhausted by small doubts Patrick was glad enough to break from his search for a brief while, and Jacqui, still abed at the hospital, was at least as glad of his visit.  She smiled delightedly when he walked in.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes!”  She crowed.  “Where did you go yesterday?””

Despite the turban of bandages around Jacqui’s head and the brace that kept her from moving her neck, her facial features had regained their refinement, so her obvious pleasure at seeing Pat made her look radiant.

“Doesn’t anyone else visit you?”  He asked.

Jacqui pouted.  “I told you once, but you probably didn’t listen properly.  My mum and dad live in Australia now, and when they went they took my brother Ade with them.  Not that Ade would have been a dutiful relative when it came to things like visiting.  He used to have trouble remembering where the door was, most of the time.  Still, our loss of a drug addict is Australia’s gain.  Aunt Vi came to see me this morning.  She thinks I’m too thin.  Do you think I’m too thin?”

Patrick said he thought she was just perfect, and they chatted on happily for a while; touching upon subjects like hospital food, beds, and matrons.

“The night matron on this ward’s a killer!  I swear she creeps around the beds in the early hours administering lethal doses to anyone who dares demand a bedpan.  They clear out the bodies in the morning.  Anyway, you haven’t told me yet.”

“Told you what?”

“Where you went yesterday.  How’s your little Miss Marlowe?”

So Patrick told her – about the large man who had been stalking Karen, about the connection between two dilapidated buildings on a regional map and a case she had been working on, and about her disappearance.

“My god, Pat, this is horrible!  Poor Karen!  Where can she have gone, I wonder?”

“I’m worried out of my wits.  I wonder if she might have gone back to Tim, you know?  London’s a good distance away, and he’s a copper, after all.”

Jacqui placed a comforting hand on Patrick’s arm.  “Scared you might lose her?  What, gone back to the rugby-playing lump, after having tasted you?  Don’t be silly!  I met – what was his name – Tim, once.  Dull as ditchwater, darling!  No contest!  You think they’re after you, too, don’t you?”

“I was warned off,”  Patrick said.  “Maybe I should have taken notice, and you wouldn’t be in here.”

“Really now?  You think my attacker mistook me for you?  Pat – do you?”

“Maybe: just maybe.”

“Wonderful!”  Jacqui groaned.  “Dear old Jacqui, getting in the line of fire, as usual.”

“Don’t say that.  I had no idea…”

“I know, Pat, I know.  Let me see, if she’s gone to ground somewhere, where could that be?  You’ve tried everything – parents, friends…?”

“That’s the thing.  She seems to have had only one best friend.  Someone called Bea?  I have to trace her.”

“Bea Ferguson?  Oh, I might be able to help you there.  See if you can find me a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll write the address down for you.  She had loads of friends, though, Pat:  loads!”

The rain had ceased before Patrick left the hospital, prompting him to lower the top on his car and driver faster than he should, relishing the fresh wind in his face as if it might blow any trace of mistrust from his heart.  It was no distance to Caleforth, the village where the young Fergusons had made their home.  Theirs was a small red door in a street of little cottages clustered together in terraced solidarity.

“Who are you looking for, dear?”  The next door was white and open.  An elderly head was peeping through it.  “They’re both at work.  They’ll be back about six o’clock, I expect.  Shall I tell them you called?”

#

At first, she had thought the colours flashing through her head would never clear, the pain of the blow would never ease:  which was why, perhaps, she kept her eyes closed against the world.  That was why?  No, fear was why.

Behind closed eyes she was safe:  the tall man would be unsure of her condition, giving her some time to assess.  She had no clue where she was, other than the detail of her immediate surroundings, a bare white room with the bed she lay upon, an upright chair and a stout wooden door.  There were no windows: the only illumination came from a strip light on the stale white ceiling.  All this she had seen before the big man’s hand sent her back into her nightmare.

He had gone, she was fairly certain.  Her screaming seemed to concern him; had he been afraid someone would hear?  She believed she was alone and the door was closed.  If she could be sure, absolutely sure of that, she might chance opening her eyes, but lacked the courage to put it to the test.  Better to feign unconsciousness or sleep.

She had slept, at some time.  She was stretched out upon the bed, and before she was hit she had been sitting up.  Gabrielle’s marl sweater and Lee Cooper jeans had been stripped from her body: In their stead, she seemed to be dressed in some form of shift.  Someone – she could only assume it to have been that tall grey vulture of a man – had undressed her, and this induced a shudder of loathing she could not suppress.

“You’re awake then.”  The voice was dull, toneless.  Not the voice of the grey man.

Reluctantly, because her head was still buzzing, she blinked her eyes open.  He was sitting on the upright chair, watching her.  She remembered.  “You’re Joshua.”  She said.  Her jaw was bruised, her mouth difficult to move.

“You can call me that if you like.  It’s of no consequence.”

She attempted an embittered smile as she recollected the phrase.  “Was it you put me in these clothes?”

“Yes.  It’s how he wants.  Oh, and don’t worry yourself.  I left your underclothes alone – and I’m a nurse, by the way.  I’m qualified.”

“Should that console me?  I seem to remember you pretending embarrassment at the sight of my legs, not long ago.  But here you are, in the end, just another dirty little pervert.”

Joshua grinned.  “Ah’m a good actor, aren’t I, lass?”

Her mouth wouldn’t cooperate because her lips were swollen.  She was drooling, and the drool was blood.  “And who is ‘he’?  The lunatic who hit me – who’s that, Joshua?  Are you his keeper?  He belongs in a zoo, doesn’t he?”

“His name is Edgar.  I’d worry about Edgar, if I were in your place.  He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get you, and he’s not likely to waste his opportunities now he’s succeeded.”

She pulled herself erect, sending a thunderflash of pain rocketing through her neck and head.  When the red mist cleared she could look down at herself.  “A white shift.  Very clinical.”

“He likes white, does Edgar.”

Though every move brought a new flush of pain, she could certainly move.  Nothing was wrenched, or broken.  “What does Edgar want with me?”  It was a foolish question really.  The answer, though, was unexpected.

“He’s in love with you.”

What?

“Alright, he’s obsessed with you, if you like.  Whatever you want to call it, he thinks of it as love.  He believes, for the minute, that he loves you.  A bit like a child loves a toy, you know?  Until he gets tired of it and breaks it.”

“Jesus God!”  Ignoring the warning pain in her head Karen leapt to her feet, made the two strides to the door.  She had the advantage of surprise and she used it, throwing the door open, launching herself through it into she knew not what, only hoping there was some magic path leading back to the light.  But beyond the door was a corridor, a bare, dim space, lit by another fluorescent strip screwed to another low ceiling.  There were steps leading upward not more than a few paces away.  She raced for them, only to find they ended in a hatch that was secured by heavy bolts.  When she swung back again Joshua was standing in the middle of the corridor, smiling benignly.

“There’s no way out, I’m afraid.  No way at all.”

 

© 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