Continuum – Episode Three War Games

The story so far:

Living in a world where tastes and actions, even thoughts, are tightly controlled, Alanee lives in constant fear of being punished for her non-compliance; so it is no surprise when High Councillors from the City arrive at her village to censure her.  An aerotran, a flying machine used by the Council, has arrived to take her away.

Meanwhile, in the City, child supremo Hasuga is about to embark upon a game of war, one which will have tragic consequences if the Lady Ellar cannot prevent it…

The elevator doors slide open, admitting Hasuga and Lady Ellar to the games theatre at the heart of the City’s Inner Sanctum.  This is an oval, echoing space, an amphitheater some two hundred feet long, with raised terraces around its sides for spectators.  A few interested individuals are already gathering, for word that Hasuga is about to play one of his epic games spreads fast, and to be invited to participate would mean preferment at court.  Forethought has reminded many to bring cushions, because the seating is hard, and rugs because the theatre is cold.  Around grey stone walls hang flags representing all the nations of the land, and below them the brightly coloured pennants of their principalities, stirring gently in the circulating air.  Some fifty feet overhead a vaulted ceiling supported by stone arches is criss-crossed with stout wooden beams, from which hang the ropes that will support any scenery Hasuga demands.

Mother stands alone in the arena, calling orders to a court servant precariously straddling one of those beams.  He is ‘spotting’ a series of ropes, lowering them until their ends dangle no more than six inches above the floor. They will support tall, painted screens or ‘flats’ representing (with uncanny accuracy, considering Hasuga has never been there) the mountain backcloth to Braillec City’s high fortress.   Before them will hang cut-outs of townhouses and streets, and before those, tiers of light synthetic bricks to simulate the City’s defensive wall.  All this will be achieved in the few hours since Hasuga first announced his ‘game’; such is the dexterity his demands can induce.

It is the force of this will that draws Ellar into the whirlpool of his enthusiasm, impeding her powers of logical thought, although, if the slaughter of thousands in the real city of Braillec is to be averted, she must find some way to stop this game.  Mother, who has seen her enter with Hasuga, comes to greet her beloved child, but he gives her little attention.  He runs gleefully to supervise the erection of his scenery, leaving the two women together.

On first appearances Mother is a warm, ample woman with apple cheeks and eyes that over-brim with the love of her calling; ‘Mother’ to Hasuga.  Her heart is completely his: it allows no space for doubt, though she and Ellar have identical immunity implants to help them handle the immensity of Hasuga’s mind.  Ellar knows her opposition to this game will not be shared.  Ellar also knows there is another side to Mother; passionate, jealous, and obsessive.

“Greetings Ellar-mer.  Is it not all quite splendid?”

“Absolutely magnificent!   You will play, of course?”

“Oh yes!  My sweet boy wants me to be a general! He is quite determined.  I am to lead the Proteian attack force.  Such valiant warriors!”

“See now, your parents come from Braillec, do they not?”

Mother does not answer, only smiles.

“Do they live there still?”  Ellar’s head is so ruled by the intrusion of Hasuga’s mental control she may barely ask the question.  Is this in itself a blasphemy?  It is a line she has trodden so many times she no longer knows.  Again, Mother gives no answer, but Ellar does not miss that tiny twitching at the corner of her eye.  Mother is aware that this childish play within the Sanctum walls will be played out for real five thousand miles west of here, in the homeland that was once hers.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will die.  Her parents may well number among the dead.

“Hasuga, Sire.”  Ellar calls out.  “Who is to be the general of your army?”

“Mummy, of course!”  Hasuga calls back.  “I am her commander, Ellar-mer.”

“And me?  What would you like me to be?”

“Oh, you must defend the city!”

“So am I a general too?”

The painted screens are raised. Palace servants, drabs wearing the special burgundy and gold insignia on their epaulettes rush about, erecting walls, producing wooden weapons, swords and shields, while Hasuga supervises the building of a siege engine.  Within a frenetic hour a very passable facsimile of the real City of Braillec stands across the width of the arena.  By now the terraces are packed with expectant courtiers but Hasuga will not pick his armies yet:  no, first he must strut around his creation, seeking anything inconsistent with his dream.  He picks here, points there: this gate should have a window, these stones a whiter hue.  Then, when he is satisfied, only those servants or drabs needed to clear the ‘dead’ are permitted to remain.  He stands upon a wooden balustrade to select his armies.

“Mummy, this one is your lieutenant.  Use him well.”

“Ellar-mer, take these.”

Ellar watches Mother adjust to her role as general with a certain grim amusement.  Accustomed as the woman must be to Hasuga’s ‘games’ (and they are many), wars produce her least convincing performances.  Her ample bosom ill befits a tight breastplate, and her elaborately coiffured hair looks ridiculous in a helmet.  Those chubby fingers clasped about a wooden sword, competing with each other for space upon the hilt, grip it as though she is about to slice a loaf of bread.  She paces, obviously intending to look purposeful, but more resembles a matron indulging in a seaside paddle.  Nevertheless, her mind is utterly overtaken, so that in her head she is the epitome of a great soldier.

Ellar’s side is intended to lose:  all the fittest and youngest courtiers, eager to prove their prowess are assigned to Mother; they are given more weapons and are greater in number.  Those picked to defend the city feel piqued, sensing they are least in their young Sire’s favor.  At the end of the process Ellar is left with no more than a dozen dejected and aging troops, cynical retainers for the most part, whilst Mother has better than twenty.

Hasuga’s devouring mind surges over Ellar’s thoughts, feeding in his battle plan, showing her the details of her army’s defeat.  They will brook no delay – the game has begun.

The depression that Ellar feels concerning her side’s certain fate helps her to curb Hasuga’s implanted strategies for just a little while.  As he leaves the theatre floor to ascend to his ‘throne’ (a chair from his suite has been brought for him to use while he oversees his game) she summons up what fragments of mental strength her immunity chip provides.  As soon as she can trust her voice she calls up to him:

“Sire Hasuga, we face overwhelming odds but we will fight our hardest and best for our great city.  So I am remembered, may I pick my general’s name?”

Already deep in his part, Hasuga turns with raised wooden sword.  “It shall be so.  Choose, great general!”

“Thank you Sire, I shall.  History shall know me as General Ollamar!”  Later Ellar may profoundly regret this move, but for now her own mind can do no more.  Disguising inner mental collapse as best she can she raises her sword to seek the acclaim of her troops, who respond rather less enthusiastically than she would like.  They are anticipating a bruising experience, for even wooden swords can inflict a wound or two.

“Very well.  You are the valiant General Ollamar, and you shall not sell your life cheaply.”  Hasuga perches himself on his chair, eyes eager, leaning forward for the best view of the fray.  “Mummy, the city is tired and starving.  Begin your attack!”

Mother harangues her small army, doing her best to fulfil the images fed to her by Hasuga’s mind.  But all is not well.  Her speech does not reach its second sentence (“My brave soldiers, I lead you forth this day to certain victory and great slaughter…”) before her voice gutters and her whole body seems to freeze.  She stands with her gaze fixed upon the floor.  Yet there are no mutterings from within the ranks.  Everyone shares Hasuga’s expectation of victory.

“Not very good, Mummy!”  Her darling boy is unimpressed.

From the other side of her ‘city wall’  Ellar feels Mother’s pain as wave after wave of incitement emanates from Hasuga.  She is expected to lead the assault, but it seems she will not or cannot go on.   She raises quivering fingers to her temples as the demands from her darling ‘little boy’ scream in her head.  Her army waits expectantly.  All eyes are focussed upon her.  She staggers for a moment, kept erect by nothing but Hasuga’s insistence, then she crumples to the floor.

“Mummy!”  Instantly, the spell is broken,  Hasuga is on his feet and running to his beloved parent’s side.  “Mummy, whatever is wrong?”  He is distraught: his game, the others who surround him quite forgotten.  Only his Mother’s distress concerns him.  He weeps for her, wails piteously with her head supported on his arm, showering kisses on her pale cheeks.

Ellar, completely released from her role in the game, moves quickly.  She summons a doctor, motions for space to be created around Mother’s inert form.

“Oh, Ellar-mer, is Mummy dead?  Is my Mummy dead?”  Hasuga is inconsolable.  “What have I done?  What have I done?”

Ellar frowns.  “No, I do not think that Mummy has died.  But war games are dangerous, Sire Hasuga.  People do die, you see?”

“Yes, yes I see.  But I never thought they would be dangerous to my Mummy!”

The Doctor arrives and Mother’s consciousness is regained.  Hasuga, restrained by Ellar’s gently persistent hands, is not witness to those few moments when, still mentally asleep, Mother is likewise free of his dominance and able to murmur:  “Make him stop….make him stop!”

Caring servants lift her onto a litter.  As she is borne from the hall with her distraught child dancing anxiously beside her, Mother catches Ellar’s eye.  The look she gives her is not pleasant.

In the dull hollow Hasuga’s departure has left in her brain Ellar would like to lie down herself, but there is work to be done.  She instructs the court servants to remove all evidence of their young master’s game; walls, scenery flats, wooden weapons, everything.  She knows she did not misread the glare that Mother gave her, just as she knows that by morning she may not have the power to order anything at all.  She has committed one of the more grievous crimes considered blasphemy, and she has done it very publicly.  If she is to survive, she must rely upon Mother’s understanding and her silence.  Mother must in effect play along, for if she ever lets on to Hasuga that Ellar deliberately chose Ollamar as her general’s name, she is lost.  Ollamar, you see, is Mother’s family name.  Within the game, Mother knew she was to be asked to act out with her wooden sword the slaying of her own father, an action that would be faithfully reproduced five thousand miles away by a real general with a real sword.   The sheer psychological torture might be hard to forgive, no matter how worthy the cause.

#

Alanee has never ridden in an aerotran before.  When Kalna, her husband, was flown to matches in other provinces she remained at home, so the fastest she has ever traveled is in a land transporter.  This is much, much faster.  After the initial thrust, during which she is sure a part of her insides are left behind, and despite her qualms – her terror even – at the great black hole where her future should be, Alanee’s curiosity and sense of awe begin to get the better of her.  Settling back into the comfortable hide of her seat she gazes from the window to watch her village vanish from sight, see houses and people diminish to toy-like proportions, and the Hakaan rush beneath her as though she were looking down upon a map.

The pilot has been watching this concerned figure in his passenger mirror.  He has had less attractive payloads.  “First time in one of these?”

He is rewarded.  Her pale, worried face lights up in a smile. “Yes.  You must be very skilled to drive so fast.  I’m Alanee. What’s your name?”

“Dag.  They call me Dag.”

“Do you know where I am to be taken, Dag-meh?”  Alanee studies her aspect of Dag’s reflection.  A pair of dark eyes, a smooth, coppery skin; the rest concealed by a shiny gold dome of a helmet.

“I do.  I’m not allowed to tell you, though, I’m afraid.”

“I am to be punished, you know.”

Dag eyes her reflection curiously:  “You don’t say?  Whatever for?”

Alanee settles back in the cushioned seat, drops her head.  “That’s just it.” She stares at her lap.  “I wish I understood why.  I don’t.”

“Alanee-mer,” Dag’s voice is deep and kind. “you are in a PTA, a Personal Transport Aerotran of the High Council.  My normal passengers are Proctors and Councillors.   If you were going somewhere to be punished you’d be in an ox-cart, not up here in this.  I can’t tell you where you are going, but wherever it is, it can’t be for punishment.  So if I were you, I’d start enjoying myself.”

Dag delights in delivering this explanation, observing how Alanee’s face transforms from wan to radiant in its short space.  When she smiles this way she really is a very lovely woman!  Then he reflects that he might occasionally chauffeur one other class of passenger, a courtesan.  The thought of that is more sobering.

“There are drinks in the cabinet.  Help yourself – not too much, mind; I don’t want to have to carry you out when we get there.”  In his imagination, though, he would.  He snaps his concentration back just in time to stop the aerotran from doing an unscheduled turn.  Surreptitiously he adjusts the mirror so he may see a little more:  how Alanee’s body moves as she relaxes a little and those smooth limbs stretch in unaccustomed luxury, her bare toes clasping at the thick carpet.  Dressed in simple, provincial clothes of course, not with the sophistication he is used to, but the soft, pliant warmth of her cannot be concealed; full breasts, almost fluid skin.  He allows himself to dream and nearly loses control of the aerotran again.

Beyond the windows day has turned to night.  Far, far below humanity is reduced to twinkling stars, stars that line up into streets, ring large buildings, parks or a lake.  How long have they been airborne, an hour, two hours?

Alanee is entranced, and Dag finds her entrancement entrancing.  “I never lose the magic.”  He says at last.

“Such a way to see a world!  I cannot imagine how anyone could dislike flying.  Oh my!  What’s that?”

Alarmed, Alanee grips the seat arms, sits rigidly upright.  A sudden upsurge of sound above the lulling hum of the motors, a palpable kick that sends her stomach to visit her hips.

“It’s nothing.  We’re climbing.”

“Habbach!  Weren’t we high enough already?”

“No.  We have to go over mountains.”  Dag grins.  She likes the little creases that form at the corners of his eyes when he does that, and she has noticed long since how he has turned the mirror so he may see more of her.  “No, I can’t tell you which mountains.  Wait and see – you’ll like them!”

The climbing continues.  “We’re going to bump about a little.  Don’t worry, we’re passing through some heavy cloud.  Incidentally, the rest-place is behind you if you want it: through that door.  But hang onto something, or you might get thrown around.”

Alanee is thankful, for the nervous hours have been troubling her, and she has felt shy about admitting her need to this very masculine stranger.  To the rear of her seat there is a space, upon one side of which is the access door, the other a further door.  The rest-place proves as sumptuous as everything else about her transport, if a little bit turbulent.  She is reluctant to leave it without sampling each of its soaps and lotions, and by the time she returns the aerotran’s ride has leveled off.

Dag notices her return.  “See – mountains!”

What she now sees draws the breath from her body.  The aerotran is flying  high, she cannot imagine how high, above the cloud-base, bathing in the silver of a bright moon.  Rising from a mist so substantial she might believe she could walk upon it are mighty granite knives, reaching up and around the aerotran on all sides, their white-edged blades a ghostly blue in the moonlight.  In all her life she has never seen such things: she has rarely traveled far from her village, certainly never further than the Hakaan, so the Southern Hills are the limit of her experience and they, beautiful though they are, cannot rival the solemn majesty of these great sentinels.

The aerotran flies alongside the higher slopes, giving Alanee a close view of snow-laden ridges and glistening ice-falls as it follows a pass between the highest peaks.

“Look ahead!”  Dag instructs her.  “This is the Kess-ta Fe, tallest in the range.  It was climbed for the first time last year.”

The line of their flight affects to take them around a corner formed by the steep slope of a minor peak.  Kess-ta Fe waits for them just beyond this turn, rising high above their heads.  And whereas every other mountain slope is picked out in tracers of white snow, this great massif is sheer, its face black and brooding.

“Kess-ta Fe: in the old language, Demon-Home.  It’s a touch less than six miles high.  Impressive, huh?”  They are passing alongside the mountain now.  “Imagine yourself climbing that, Alanee-mer!”

“Imagine wanting to.”  Alanee rejoins.  Though the atmosphere within the aerotran is rigidly controlled, she feels light-headed and she sinks back into her seat.  What is happening to her?  Where is she being taken?  Far, far from her home, this much she knows.  By the sun when the aerotran first set off, she believes she has been flying north; for how long; two, two and a half hours?  Aerotrans, she always believed, fly at prodigious speeds: it certainly seems that this one does; the foot-games her man attended were never more than an hour or so away.  What awaits her?  How is it that she has been plucked from her life in this way:  if not as punishment for wrong-doing, then for what?

“Better wake up now, Alanee-mer!”   Dag’s voice surprises her out of fog.  She does not remember sleeping.  “We’re about to dock!”

© 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.

Continuum -Episode Two Aerotrans

The Story so Far:

In his eyrie high above the City, the young Hasuga begins a snowy morning by building a snowman, while his mother bakes some honey cakes, while in the watchtower that is even higher than Hasuga’s home Soothsayer Cassix watches a threatening sky with grave concern.  His colleague and friend Ellar discovers him there and gives him the news that Hasuga, already tired of his outdoor pursuits, wishes everyone to join him in a game of war.

Entering the Great Hall, Ellar brushes white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe, clothing she must wear as one who attends the Inner Sanctum.  Hasuga is waiting for her.  It amazes her how tall he has grown.  His shoulders are wider, there is determination in his face, yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice, his words still those of the little boy he has left behind.  And in his haunted eyes the same frailty that is window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.

“Ellar!  Ellar-mer, we are going to play a war game!  Hurry up!”  Hasuga skips ahead of her to the elevators.  “We are going to attack a fortress!  Come on!”

The elevator rushes them skywards.  Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip, the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control.  She is becoming enthused – yes!  A fortress!  That would be so much fun!  A battle at the walls, siege engines, storming the gates!  Kill them all!

No!

Hasuga’s games have consequences: such are his psychokinetic powers the game he plays here, in the safety of the city, will be reflected in reality somewhere else.

“Which fortress shall it be, Hasuga?”  Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.

“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!”  Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask.  “The Proteians are going to attack them!”

Ellar thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three, four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, medieval walls.   And Hasuga is taking possession of her mind so swiftly she will be powerless to stop it happening.

#

Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes.  Soon after the Makar’s departure, she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to The Terminal at the hub of their community.  As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden, and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.

“Fine work, Malfis.  Always the craftsman!”

Alanee struggles:  “What is it?”

Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain.  “Of course, you not having a man…”

“I may not have a man but I do have a memory.  There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man.  It’s a lump of mud!”

And Merra replies:  “Now remember my husband….”

Alanee giggles,  “That’s so unfair!  Where are the men?  Did they start work early today?”

“Arms training!”  Merra makes a face.  “It’s long spears this time, apparently.   Habbach knows where we are going to keep that!”

The Terminal is busy.  There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work.  She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young.  Paaitas the village Domo is watching her progress with interest.  It was he who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities.  Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity.  She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.

“They are wonderful, Alanee!”  Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village.  “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”

From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.

“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.”  Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers).  “She seems distracted today.”

“I should not tell you this, perhaps.”  Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder:  “She has had her proc request turned down again.  The word came this morning.  She was in tears earlier. I think she despairs of ever having a child.”

“How so?   In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles.  If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.”  Alanee shakes her head.  “It seems so cruel!”

Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.

And so the morning passes.

At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together.  The five children of the village pass them by.  After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.

“Good day, Widow Kalna!”  They greet Alanee with respect.  She tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.

“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?”  Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.

In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.

“It is a man!”  Shellan crows her delight.  “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”

In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door.  There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan.  Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.

These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard.  Her father’s walk; the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it, his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure.  Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair; and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.

Although every childhood has its joys they were not such happy days, in those growing years.  And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment: yes, that may well have engendered her rebellious spark.  So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back.  She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love, not then.  Love came later, love grew.

Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once.  Her thoughts drift to a memory of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too.  Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening:  ‘Foot-player fatally injured.  Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.

One chance, one man, and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another.  Three years ago.  Three lonely years.

Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the aerotran at first.  Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colors of black and gold striping its sides.  Even then it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo.  The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun.  Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.

On the street all talk is of the visit from the aerotran, which is now perched on the landing pad atop The Terminal like a watchful hawk.  The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.

Who can this be?  Why is Domo Paaitas here?

“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!”  Shellan shouts above the whistle of the aerotran’s engines.  It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside.  Has the Makar reported her?

Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal.  Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office.  Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.

“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?”  Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile.  She knows something, Alanee thinks!  What is going on?

At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door.  This rewards her with a pause, while male voices from within confer in subdued tones.  If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now.  Carla, her face serious, opens the door.

“Come in Alanee-mer.  These people wish to speak to you.”

There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognizes; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the aerotran.  But what could they possibly want with her?

Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder – must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes.  She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scribing talents.  His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste.  To his right a thin figure with a raptor’s nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man whose eyes are young: they glint like wet steel.  Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose.  She is overawed.

“Alanee-mer, come, sit down,”  Paaitas mumbles, by way of introduction.  He waves at a chair.  “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.”  He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.

A Proctor and a High Councillor?  To see her?

“You have snow in the north, Sires.” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How was your journey?”

The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged:  they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head.  “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.”  His tone is rich but stops just short of familiarity.  “You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”

She nods, dumbly.  Her knees are shaking.

“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty.  Will you do that?”

“Of course, sir.”

The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife.  “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”

His words fall like blows from a hammer.  Now Alanee’s heart really sinks!  Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements, most of whom are never heard from again.

“No, sir – Sire.  I did order it, though, when the Makar reminded me.”

“Will you use it?”

“Yes Sire.”  She answers without thinking – a reflex.

“You were warned of the necessity to be truthful, Alanee-mer.”  Remis clips his words.  “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month.  I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein.  You have the largest mand stock in the whole region. I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”

So that is it!  The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right.  Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip.  “What should I do, Sire?”

“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.”  The Proctor replies.  “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer?  Are you not tempted by today’s honey?”

“No Sire.  I don’t understand.  I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.”  Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself, her eyes are filling.

Cassix cuts in.  “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”

So they found that out, too, did they?  Oh, Habbach!  “I was forgetful.”

Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.

“You had to remember?”  Cassix asks.  “Nothing…inspired you to go?”

Alanee is mystified.  “No sir – I mean Sire!”

For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says:  “Very well, Alanee-mer that will be all.  Thank you for your honesty.”

She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears.  What should she be feeling – relief?  The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a thunder flash.

“Go to your home, Alanee-mer.  Namma will take your responsibilities.  You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs.  Leave by the cargo door.  Speak to no-one.”  His voice is lowered, severe.

She knows now.

Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch.  There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears:  “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”

The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her.  His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile.  “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons.  Go now.”

Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council is waiting to takes her arm.  The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors.  Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.

As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.

“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”

The village Domo nods.  “Every month, Sire, according to law.  We have a very good inspectorate.”

“And they found nothing wrong?”

“Nothing.  Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood.  The censors described the usual features.  She is an exemplary worker, extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting.  I just don’t understand.”

The walk; how she will always remember this walk!  The silent street, everyone at their work, the guard at her shoulder, the desire to run – run anywhere, get away!  She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes…but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.

It is late afternoon.  Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her.  Then she has waited.  No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions.  Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return.  She stands at her kitchen door  (that favourite place)  for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.

“Your view is exquisite.”  The voice surprises her.  She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered.    He says gently.  “You must be sorry to leave it.”

“I am to be taken away, then?”  Alanee is no longer afraid of him.  Acceptance has come.

“Yes.”

“Where?”  She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.

“That I cannot say.”

All at once she feels like crying again.

“We are waiting for an aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon.  We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here.  We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”

As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second aerotran’s coming.  Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this.  The aircraft which stoops earthwards to the street shares the  livery of the High Council.  It is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.

“Time to go.” Cassix says.  “I will escort you.”

He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life.  At her street door she pauses, resisting him, overcome by the enormity of the moment.  The aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum.  To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast.  A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know.  Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost.  Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.

“Come,” Cassix prompts;  “This is best done quickly.”

Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward.  “I should lock my door.”

“No.”

© 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.

 

I Don’t Normally Give Book Reviews, but…

If I try to buy a Kindle book from Amazon.com (because I was linked to it there, or simply because I discovered it and liked the look of it) I am politely but firmly advised to make my purchase on the Amazon.UK platform.  Now I understand the probable necessity for this approach – it may have to do with taxation, or other legal restrictions – but it also occasionally means I cannot buy a book at all, because it is not listed in UK.  Most importantly, to me, I cannot give my feedback anywhere but the UK platform.  My review will not appear to buyers in US.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Cusp of Night’, the first of three books in the ‘Hodes Hill’ series by Mae Clair.  It inspired me to give a five-star review, which subsequently appeared on the UK site, but not in the United States.  Now this is a great book and essentially a very American book, so I would say its international appeal is an added testimony to its accomplishment:  opinions influence sales from wherever they may come.

‘Cusp of Night’ does not need my approbation; it has already deservedly attracted 39 excellent reviews from its homeland, but for the sake of transparency Mae Clair’s readers should also be aware of a further five five-star reviews of her book from my side of the pond.   Here, in case you are in danger of missing the book, is my review:

The Most Exciting Action Finish I have Read in Years  

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Maya Sinclair, after a motor accident that so nearly took her life, elects to move to Hodes Hill; nor may it be just a quirk of fortune that she decides to rent the old brownstone house at the corner of Chicory and River Road, close to the alley where Charlotte Hode’s young life was so tragically ended, a century ago.  The house has ‘history’ her neighbour tells her; a truth the house itself is swift to confirm when the clock hits 2.22am.- The Cusp of Night.

Mae Clair’s book is the story of a town unwilling to forget – her heroine comes to live here at the time of the annual Fiend Festival when townsfolk commemorate Charlotte Hode’s death by dressing up as the fiend that butchered her.  But it turns out the butchering is not entirely consigned to history, for in the course of the celebrations a very fiend-like attack takes the life of at least one reveller.

Before she has time to unpack in her new home, Maya becomes involved in the complex affairs of the Hode family and the tragic story of Lucy Strick, the beautiful Blue Lady.

Mae Clair weaves a skilful and extremely readable tale of mediums and mayhem in a very frightened town.  She attacks the familiar totems of money and power with relish and leaves me wanting…well, I guess you’ll know the feeling, when a book is so absorbing you can’t bear reaching the last page, because you want it to continue just a little longer?   Like that.

Which is why I am about to begin reading the second ‘Hodes Hill’ book…

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

© 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:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs Harkus?”  Jennifer asked.

“Might be.  What of it?”

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

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

Jennifer asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”

“Is there a photograph of Rodney?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t.”  Said Mary Harkus.

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

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

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

Sophie rang on the Wednesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lunch?”

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

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

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

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

“This is a sad place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you think he might have been here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Three: Differences

Constable Ray Flynn looked uneasy.

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

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

“You’ve got a family?”

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

“Please sit down, Ray.  How can I…”

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

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

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

“No, I can’t say I …”

“Gemma Bartlett?”

“No.  Where’s this going?”

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

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

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

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

“Not Beaconshire.  Not our force, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”What differences?”  Patrick pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not advertisin’, then?”

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

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

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

“Yer can try.  Week, year?”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick confessed he had not.

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

“You will run it?”

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

“Who’s Cedric?”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t hold your breath.”

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

‘YOU WERE WARNED’.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Sixteen. Muffled Drums

Council offices of Karen Eversley’s generation were not known for their extravagance, and Frank Purton’s little suite was no exception: a drab treatment of brown paint and Buckingham cream walls from the County Hall’s barn-like foyer, all the way up to the second storey and a plain door with a base metal label – ‘F.R. Purton, Deputy Clerk’.  His outer office sported a desk, several filing cabinets, a typewriter and his secretary, a woman whose reputation as a dragon was currency wherever council employees met.  Short, severe and humourless, she certainly dressed for the part; in a beige cardigan over brown blouse and skirt, she almost exactly matched the walls.  She looked surprised as two women entered.  “Who shall I say…?”

“Karen Eversley and Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe.  He’s expecting us.”

“Just a moment.”  The woman glared briefly at Karen, then hurried through the inner office door, closing it behind her.

Gwendoline met Karen’s eyes, challenging her.  “Are you sure you want this?”  Karen nodded.

There were subdued murmurs from beyond the door before the secretary returned.  “Go in, please.”  She said.

Purton’s domain was marginally less Spartan.  A desk larger and better polished, a side table supporting a vase of flowers that screamed for water, and yes – Karen could not avoid her triumphal grin – that famous Purton Rotadex.  The man himself rose from a leather armchair behind the desk.  It was easy to read the displeasure in his eyes, but he managed a ghost of a smile.  “I wasn’t expecting a deputation, Miss Eversley.”  He said.  “Will you introduce me?”

“Yes of course.  This is Gwendoline Hallcroft-Smythe. ”

“How do you do, Mr Purton?”  Gwendoline’s clipped greeting scythed across the room, finding its target with steely precision.  The Deputy Clerk almost winced at the impact.

He offered chairs.  If he was cringing inwardly, he did not show it.  “Kindly enlighten me?    Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe, what exactly is your role in this meeting?”

Karen responded.  “Mrs Hallcroft–Smythe is my legal representative, Frank.”

“Legal representative?  Why do you need…?”

Gwendoline cut him off, “Perhaps because of the peremptory nature of your summons? I am here to ensure Miss Eversley’s interests are protected.”

Purton ignored Gwendoline, directly addressing Karen:  “I merely intended to monitor your progress in our little investigation, Miss Eversley.  I thought I emphasized our need for confidentiality?  I’ve had reports that some of your questioning has been, for want of a better word, aggressive.  I need your word that this will not continue.”

“As Miss Eversley’s legal representative, I can assure you there’s no need for concern over issues of confidentiality.”  Gwendoline’s tone offered little comfort.

Karen said:  “I must be free to question people.  What do you expect, Frank?  Should I go to Boulters Green and wait for your goon to find me?”  Her words surprised Purton, and shocked Gwendoline.  They dropped into a stony silence.

Purton’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly a couple of times before he could frame a reply.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Miss Eversley.”

Again, silence.  Footsteps in a bare corridor somewhere, clipping past, fading.  The slam of a distant door and its tiny echo.

Gwendoline found her thread, “   Can we proceed?  Miss Eversley has the file you requested and it incriminates no named individuals at this stage.  In Miss Eversley’s view, the report so far is inconclusive.  She wonders why her holiday arrangements should have been disrupted for this meeting.”

Karen pulled a file of papers Pat had helped her to prepare the night before from her bag, passing them over Purton’s desk.  “You’ll find I’ve made a lot of progress,” she told him, “although several issues are raised by the disappearances – more than expected.”

Purton took the file and flicked through it absently.  “The summary forms the first two pages of the report,”  she added.  “The invoice for my time and costs is at the back.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “Invoice?”

“Final Invoice.  I no longer wish to pursue your inquiry.  I wanted to be thorough in reporting my activities so far to whomever you elect to be my successor.  Thank you for your business.”

Karen rose to leave.

“You can’t just walk out on this!”  Purton snarled.  “The Council has certain rights…”

Gwendoline raised an eyebrow:  “So my client has a contract with the Council?  I understood this was your personal inquiry?  Disappearances of the kind you asked Miss Eversley to investigate are a police matter – not one for the Council.”

Purton inclined his head. “Nevertheless…”

“In which case, my client could have no binding agreement, either with you or with the Council.”  Gwendoline insisted.

“I disagree!  Your ‘client’ undertook by verbal agreement to complete an investigation, not leave it half-way!”

“Then we must agree to disagree, Mr Purton.  My client feels your manner towards her is threatening, and in breach of your mutual ‘understanding’.  I’m sure my client would be prepared to test the nature of your agreement, if there is one, in court if necessary?”

“There was a witness to our agreement, Madam!”

“Who would be willing to see his, and your, ‘confidential’ inquiry exposed to open examination?  I’m sure the person of influence who is so interested in the disappearance of Miss Parkinson would be pleased to be called in evidence?”

Karen was already at the door.  “I’ll look forward to receiving your cheque.”  She told Purton.

“Young lady, if you want to do business in this town, you…”

Gwendoline cut him off.  “Is this going to be in the nature of a threat, Mr Purton?”

“Oh for god’s sake!”  Purton muttered.  “Just get out!”

The fiery secretary’s eyes followed them across Purton’s outer office,

“Thanks!”  Karen breathed.

Gwendoline was troubled.  “You realize what you’ve done, Karen?  If that man’s involved in your stalker’s activities, you just called him out.”

Karen nodded.  “I had to lay a few cards on the table.  I wanted to see his reaction.  What did you think?”

“Unfortunately I think he is.”

“So do I.”

“I also think,” Gwendoline added, “That you should keep your cards closer to your chest.”

In the car park, Gwendoline’s Citroen was causing consternation.  Karen had learned in her short exposure to Gwendoline’s driving that she did not park.  She merely stopped.

“These spaces are reserved for councillors.”  A red-cheeked attendant expostulated.  “Have you no idea of the disruption you’ve caused?  I was about to have you towed away!”

Gwendoline glanced meaningfully up and down acres of empty parking spaces.  “Please convey my apologies to a councillor,”  She said,  “Next time you see one.”  As she climbed into her driving seat she nodded towards the far end of the car park and murmured in an aside to Karen, “Notice the blue Jaguar?  I wonder what he’s doing here?”

“Who is ‘he’?”  Karen asked.

“Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire.   Oh, I expect he has plenty of occasions to visit the council, but it’s nevertheless unexpected – he’s in rather poor health at the moment.  His heart, I was told.”

“Would you describe him as a ‘high up’?”

“Oh, yes.  The Queen’s representative for the County?  They don’t come any higher.”

#

The evening promised rain.  As Gwendoline returned with Karen the few miles to Radley Court some first gusts of wind were rattling the treetops. The mood in the car was solemn.

“I’d better not stretch your hospitality any further;”  Karen said.  “I’ll ask Pat to drive me back to Caleybridge – tonight if that’s okay?”

Gwendolie frowned.  “For heaven’s sake why?  You’re better protected here, aren’t you?”

“I am quite good at protecting myself.  You have your family to consider.  I’d hate to be responsible for causing you harm.”

“You’re right, but you’re staying,”  Gwendoline said, in a voice that brooked no argument.

“You’re very generous,”  Karen said,  “considering how little time we’ve known each other.”

“I trust my judgment, Karen dear.  And I am not blind to your predicament.  By the way,”  Gwendoline added:  “We do have some shared history.  I knew your sister, Suzanne.  Distantly, but I knew her.”

Karen had no idea why that information should disturb her, but somehow it did.  After all, Gwendoline had once been a member of Suzanne’s profession, so it was perfectly natural they should meet socially at some time or another, even though their careers were many years apart.

“You’re not in the least alike,”  Gwendoline told her frankly.

“Then that must be a reason to mistrust me, surely?”

“Au contraire; that is why I do trust you.”  Patrick’s mother smiled.  “Striking girl!  Such hair!  Oh, I finished practising myself many years ago, as you know, but one retains one’s associations, one’s contacts, as it were.  And one’s friends – yes, I have many friends in the old way.  We meet, we have dinners, social evenings – that sort of thing.  Suzanne Eversley.  Challenging!”

“I’ve always been led to believe she was very good at her work,”  Karen said.  “Did you not think so?”

“My lord, do you really want me to answer that?  You do, don’t you?  Well, how can I respond?  She was extremely direct, she had what I can best describe as an adversarial attitude.  She could be sparked off by the most trivial things.  Can I be totally frank and say that I didn’t like her, much?  She was very angry, your sister, and it was anger that consumed her, in the end.  Had she not ridden that motorcycle so fast.  I dare say she would have discovered the key to her anger – it was obvious to me.  But, of course…”  Gwendoline spread her hands fatalistically.

“The key to her anger?  I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you?  Good lord, no, I suppose she might never have confided in you.  Well, let me put it thus: did she ever mention a junior at chambers, a girl by the name of Marsha Ellis?”

“Not that I recall…”

“Do you remember your sister in any kind of romantic association with a man?”

“Well no.”  Karen’s widening eyes were windows to the explosion inside her head.  Suzanne?  “Are you saying…”

“I am.  It’s entirely understandable she shouldn’t tell you.  We’re not supposed to admit these things, of course, but she was desperately in love with Marsha.  The trouble was, Marsha lacked the same – what shall we say – enthusiasm?  It was a rather one-sided affair that went on – and off – almost from the first week she joined Chambers.  I still meet with Marsha sometimes.  Very talented girl.”

Gwendoline juggled the little Citroen through the gates to Radley Court, observing; “Your sister was your complete opposite in every way.  I’m sorry to say it, because of course you loved her, but had I to choose, I would pick you every time.  There was a self-destructive element in Suzanne.”  She sighed apologetically.  “So now perhaps you can better forgive me for my little interrogation in the kitchen the other night.  I was about to judge you by association with your sister.  Very wrong of me.  I’m sorry.”  Then, as an afterthought, “Or censure me for being bloody rude about your sibling.  We Hallcrofts instinctively speak our minds.”  She braked to a sliding halt on the gravel before the house.  “There, dear, that’s all!  You can get away from me now!”

Karen shook her head.  “Challenging Frank was a mistake.  I was stupid.”

“It wasn’t the best way to get to the truth, but it worked.  Let’s go in and make some tea, I’m parched.”

“How did you get on?”  Patrick wanted to know; and when Karen told him.  “You see?  No-one messes with my mother.”

“You?”  she rejoined.  “How is Jacqui?”

“Better.  Better, I think.  She’s still wandering in and out of consciousness, but the consultant seems hopeful.  She’s been fitted with one of those halo things, you know?  While the bones set?  It’s all about brain damage, now.  We have to pray she’s got away with it.”

 

“Karen’s going to stay with us for a few more days,” Gwendoline told him, “until the end of the week, at least.   If there was a connection between her investigation and the stalker everything should settle down now, but just in case the two are not related, we have time to reflect on what to do next.”

Karen tried to express her joy at the thought of spending a few more days at Radley Court if nobody objected, and Pat said he certainly didn’t object and Gabby bubbled with pleasure at the idea. Karen’s affected happiness did not fool Patrick, however.  As soon as they were alone, he confronted her.

“You’re all being so nice to me…”

“We like you.  No, more than that – we love you.  But that isn’t what’s making you unhappy.  What’s wrong, Karen?”

She shook her head, powerless to explain her conviction that the time she had remaining to her was dwindling; how she was sure, now the second of her predicted three days was drawing to its close, that her fate was sealed.  Instead, she came to him and buried her face in his shoulder, comforted by his return of her embrace and sheltered by his arms.

“So you’re still afraid.”  He said.

#

 Karen changed into a pair of Gabrielle’s old jeans before helping her and Gwendoline in the stables, then, after an amiable evening meal she retired to her room early,

What she really needed was time to reflect.

Before she had come to Radley Court her vision had been clouded by her resentment of middle-class wealth and the rigid structure of the British caste system.  Whether she had formed that view from the depths of her own experience, or from the counselling of Suzanne, her fiery, brilliant sister who Pat’s mother had criticized as ‘self-destructive and angry’ she was no longer sure, but she had immediately suspected Patrick’s motives and rejected him because of that view, and she had been wrong.  In the Hallcrofts she had not only discovered a new circle of supportive friends, but also a new family.  Gabrielle was the sister Suzanne could never have been, Gwendoline as a mother figure the exact counter-point to her own.  As for Amanda, she had yet to form an opinion. Jackson?  Well, Jackson had been absent at dinner:  much later she heard his car growling up the drive and caught the brief flash of its headlights across her window.  She calculated he must have spent at least fourteen hours at work that day, something Pat had affirmed was his regular habit.

“That’s why I declined to join his firm when he asked me.  He’d have me doing the same thing.  I tried it for a week and it nearly did for me.  I was a wreck!”

So there, too, were comparisons to be made.  Karen had to concede to herself that every hour her own father spent in watching television, Jackson spent in making money.  Were all fathers so neglectful of their families, she wondered?  Was it fortuitous that they were?

Then there was Patrick.  No, most of all there was Patrick.

These two days which had shattered all her preconceptions about class differences might have convinced her that a future with Pat was more than a vain dream.  If only she was not so certain now of her impending doom – of all the outrageous slings and arrows none had power to hurt her more than knowing she had at last found the man she wanted to be with at the precise moment events were conspiring to take her from him – Karen would have declared herself that night.   Instead, there in the solitude of evening she took a sheet of writing paper from the dressing table and wrote a short note.  She folded it and slipped it into an envelope, addressed to ‘Pat’, which she placed in her bedside cabinet drawer.

For a little while, she rallied.  She told herself these negative feelings were all of her own imagining, that she had armed herself with ju-jitsu training precisely so she possessed the power and weapons to repel an attack by a larger, older opponent.  She was perfectly capable of overcoming Mr Nasty, and only his wild, leather-clad appearance deterred her.  Buoyed up by this thought, she rehearsed routines she had neglected for a few weeks now, working out on the soft carpet of her room until the blood coursed afresh through her veins and she felt revitalized and alive.  But in the wake of those few minutes of breathless elation the memory of his assault upon her and the ease with which he had overcome her defences returned.  He knew as much about those martial arts as she.  When next she faced him, unless Pat was beside her, the outcome would be the same.

At some time, she must have slept, to be wakened in the way every princess would wish, by a gentle kiss on her lips.  “Hi!”  Pat said.  “No buckets tonight!”

Dawn found Karen standing at her window, clutching a dressing gown about her against the morning chill as she gazed out over acres of lawn towards the trees, watching occasional bright lances from a distant road as early risers made their way to work.  Overnight rain had ceased, leaving grass and leaves still moist enough to glimmer with gemstones in a dim candle-glow of first sun.  She had loved these moments, had she not, and if this should be the last, she wanted its images to remain with her as long as she retained the power to remember. Behind her in her room, Pat slept.  She could hear his breathing, even and slow.  The sun was a red line athwart a far-off horizon, and the wind was a ghost, whispering among the trees.  He was out there, her nemesis.  He would be expecting to see her standing here, because she was waiting for him, and he would know.

Over breakfast, Karen only picked at food, and nothing Patrick said or did could lift her despondency.  Jackson had gone to work, Gabrielle left early to visit a friend in Baronchester.  Gwendoline departed after breakfast on her ‘school run’ with Amanda.

“The headmistress wants to see me.  I’ve a distinct feeling she wants to get rid of the little bugger.  We’ve done this before, haven’t we, young lady?”

“So that leaves us,” Patrick said.

They walked Petra, following the path they had taken on their first morning together, repeatedly baptized by trees still heavy from the residue of rain.  Petra seemed ill at ease, reluctant to run or forage as she normally should, but staying close, sniffing anxiously at the air.

“Ready for trouble,”  Patrick commented.  “I wonder what’s got her goat this morning?”

Their seat by the lake was wet, so, although Karen seemed hesitant, they slowly walked back towards the house, unspeaking, because the weight in Karen’s heart had spread to them both.   As they crossed the forecourt, Mrs Buxham loomed large at the front doors.

“Mr Patrick!  There’s a ‘phone call for you!”

While Patrick hurried to answer his call, Karen took Petra around the house to the kitchen door, ready to dry her off and clean her paws.   She was barely through the door when Patrick greeted her, his face pale:   “That was the hospital.  Jacqui’s taken a turn for the worse.  They don’t think she’s going to make it!”

“Oh, Pat!”

“I can’t understand it.  She was fine yesterday.  She was getting better.”

“It can happen.”

“I guess.  Love, she’s got no-one – her parents are god-knows-where and her brother’s in Australia.  She’s alone and…”

“You go.”

“Look, Mrs Buxham’s stays until half-nine and mother’ll be back before long, probably with Sprog.  I have to go to hold Jacqui’s hand – I don’t know what else to do.  Come with me, yes?”

Karen smiled, for she knew that this was how it would be.  “No.  You go,” she told him, fighting an urge to smother him in her arms.   “Gwen won’t be long.  I’ll be fine here.”

 

 

© 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