From a distance Radley Court might have seemed the same, but there would be no truth in it. Green sandstone walls, high Georgian windows, tall chimneys jabbing accusingly towards the sky; all there, all unchanged. To Patrick Hallcroft, turning from a road he knew into a drive he knew – into that long, long drive – the great sweep of lawn looked as it had always looked. The ancient chestnut, its stately canopy a respite from the summer sun, and rhododendrons, almost trees themselves now, standing like lofty sentinels at the gates, a vibrant tunnel of pinks and reds, violets and blues.
Only as he drew closer did he see those once neatly manicured lawns reduced to turf, weeds nudging through the gravel forecourt, so many window panes cracked or broken. When he braked to a halt before the house no Petra ran to him – no ecstatic barks of greeting, no kisses from a pink, excited tongue. Not a bird to sing, not a rustle of wind among the trees; only silence.
The big front doors yielded before his touch. Within, dampness and neglect assailed his senses, drawn curtains veiled his sight. Across the great hall his footsteps were borne upon echoes, for the carpet that once clothed it was long gone: only bare stones remained, with evidence of a roof’s neglect in every pool of water and a music of steady drips which kept them fed.
Patrick knew where his father would be. The tall oak door of his study stood ajar, creaking as he pushed it wide. A threshold to a room always daunting, rich with memories: how many sins of his childhood had received the censure they deserved in here? The hesitant knock, the nervous step, his father’s frown? No more. Now only daylight was forbidden -ragged drapes, velvet, once blue, garbed its windows such that he could barely make out those tiers of books that lined the panelled walls, or the desk; the polished desk that had once stood before a chair more noble than a throne.
Beneath its wide stone mantel, a small fire crackled gamely.
“You came then.” Sure enough, his father was there, crouched before the guttering flames, stabbing and poking them into life. His once rich Canadian drawl had dried with age to autumn leaves. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
“Well, I had to think about it.” Patrick admitted. “Whether it was wise, I mean. But you sent for me.”
“And you decided it was time.” Jackson Hallcroft raised himself awkwardly to his feet, bearing the pain of afflicted limbs. He was tall still, but gaunt. His even features had hollowed around his bones as though some parasitic worm had plundered all his inner substance leaving only a wafer of flesh. The tweed jacket and cords might have been the same ones he was wearing last time Patrick saw him, and that was a long time ago. “I think so, too. I remain in rude health, as you see.” Then, as his son reached for the light switch: “I wouldn’t touch that.”
“You haven’t had the electrics done, have you? The place will go up in flames one day, Dad.”
“Yeah, and me with it, I suppose.” Jackson’s face cracked a cynical smile. “Like dry tinder. Then all this will be yours. A pile of ash. It’s good to see you, Son – it’s been a while. Did you have a pleasant journey?”
“Fine, my journey was fine. I’ve been busy, Dad, and this house…” Patrick shuddered. “It doesn’t hold so many good memories, does it?”
“It did once.” His father said.
“Yes, I suppose it did.” Patrick looked about him, absorbing the heavy, dusty air and faded fabrics. He might try to remember – there were, after all, some better times. “Is this some kind of trap, do you think?”
“Sit down, Patsy: over here by the fire if you can bear it. The cold eats deep into these ancient bones.”
“When you’ve answered my question.”
Jackson Hallcroft sighed. “Had a letter the other day.” He said. “Some guy called Price came by a week or so back and asked if I could show him around. Well, I had nothing better to do.” He shrugged. “Then, next thing I know, a letter. Seems like there’s this company; Wellfield Kaufmann, want to turn the old pile into a ‘Country House Hotel’. Doesn’t that sound grand? They’d pay a couple of million for the place.”
“Have you written back yet?”
“Nope. Thought I’d talk it over with you first. It’s part of your inheritance, after all.”
“You’ll do the right thing. If you ever do think of moving, it would be good to have you closer, I suppose.”
“You were raised here.”
“I lived here while I was growing up. You were too busy to notice that, much.”
The old man winced. “No-one ever warned me that old age would be such a trial. You have no idea how many cases I have tried to answer, Patsy. I find myself guilty every goddamned time.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“About the trap thing?” Jackson settled back into his leather wing chair, so Patrick had to join him by the hearth to see his face. Although his skin was thin as paper, his grey eyes still retained their glint of steel. They reflected the embers as he stared into the grate, answering his son with a question of his own. “You might have placed yourself in a vulnerable position – by writing that damned book, I mean. But that aside, isn’t it time to settle all this?”
Patrick felt the apprehension in his heart. “Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was all settled a lot of years ago.” There were things that had to be said. “Dad, am I walking into a trap?”
Jackson sighed. “Powerful people; lawyers? Truth is, boy, even though your sister’s one of the breed and yes, I’d rather she was here; I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Karen Eversley entered Patrick’s life in the early 1960s on an April morning, when spring snowfall was blowing against the window of his office in the Beaconshire County Planning Department. Her long fingers tapped the glass panel of his door.
“Are you Patrick Hallcroft?” The eyes which so openly explored his were a vivid blue. They belonged in a perfectly oval face with a quite determined chin and a nose just too pronounced to be beautiful. “You are, aren’t you? You must be.”
“I’ll answer that in a minute,.” Patrick said, rising from behind a stack of planning applications, “when I’ve finished ogling. In the meantime, who are you?”
She smiled indulgently, as though the young man’s ham-fisted compliment somehow pleased her. “I’m Karen: Karen Eversley.”
“Well, Miss Eversley, you just lit up my day. What can I do for you?”
“Didn’t Bob Stawkley tell you I was coming?”
Patrick’s jaw chose that moment to drop because the visitor his head of department told him to expect was from an investigating agency and the image that had become firmly planted in his mind was of a middle-aged ex-copper with warts and halitosis. “You’re not…”
“I think I might be.” She nodded. “Eversley Investigations. That’s me.”
Karen Eversley was definitely neither middle-aged nor warty. She was, as he judged, in her mid-twenties and tall, with a thatch of strawberry blonde hair.
“You’re the boss?” He must have sounded as impressed as he felt.
“Oh, don’t make it sound too grand, Mr Hallcroft. I am Eversley Investigations: just me! Bob did tell you I was coming, then.” She proffered a hand, “How do you do?”
Patrick would remember that hand. Its fingers were ringless and a little fragile, its palm felt cool. He had to gather his thoughts because she was gaining a hold on him, even then. “Pat. Please call me Pat. Can I take your coat?”
“Thank you. I don’t believe it, it’s really snowing out there. I’m Karen. Call me that.”
She shrugged her coat – silver grey and three-quarters length – from her shoulders to reveal a pale lemon blouse and snug-fitting, charcoal skirt that finished an inch or so above her knees. He thought they were the most perfect shoulders and knees he had ever seen. He gulped – he hoped not audibly.
“What can I do for you, Karen?”
“You see, we’re on first-name terms already, Pat, aren’t we?” She treated him to another of those smiles. “I’m told you are custodian of the maps, is that right?”
“Custodian? Wow! The district maps?” Patrick was groping blindly for a peg to hang Karen’s coat. His eyes refused to leave her, drawn shamelessly to a small, very attractive beauty spot on her neck “I know where to find them if that’s what you mean. And you are looking for..?”
“Specifically? A village. I think it goes under the name of Boulters Green.” Laughing, she came to his rescue, reaching up to hang her coat safely on the coat-stand, which caused her blouse to stretch briefly across her breasts, and ignited a thousand small fires in Patrick. Their faces came close, so he caught a hint of scent as the soft waft of her breath warmed his cheek. Karen blushed, suddenly and prettily. “I wonder,” she murmured, “If you’ve stopped ogling yet?”
“Oh god, I’m sorry! Yes; yes. Boulter’s Green.” His mental archive was in cinders at that moment. “Sorry. I haven’t got a handle on that one immediately. Any idea of area?”
She smiled. Karen smiled. She kept smiling! His heart went into a sort of gymnastic floor routine inside his chest.
“Actually, none.” She said. “Don’t worry, no-one else has heard of it either. Could it be in the Boult Valley somewhere, do you think?”
He frowned, or tried to. “Sounds logical, but I’m sure I would have heard of it. Let’s pop into the Conference Room.”
Was there mischief in the look she gave him? She was not blind to the effect she was having on this mop-headed young man with his quick, intelligent eyes, and it pleased her. “That’s not a euphemism, is it?”
“No, no!” He defended hastily; “The Conference Room has a big table, that’s all. The large-scale maps take up a lot of space.”
Karen made a face at him. “Pat?”
“I’m harmless, don’t worry.”
“Yes. I mean no, of course not. I’ll just show you to the…the Conference Room, and then I’ll grab a Boult Valley map and we’ll have a look. Would you like coffee?”
“Never been known to refuse. Sugarless and joyless, please.”
Leaving Karen comfortably ensconced at the Conference room’s substantial table, Patrick raided his department’s library with a speed and efficiency which surprised even him, then directed a similarly purposeful assault upon the staff kettle. Within fifteen minutes he was able to produce the map she seemed to want, spreading it before her on the polished surface. “The River Boult from Bolborough to its lower reaches just above Bulmouth. Nice and clean and white.” Patrick fussed with placemats, fearing wrath from on high if their coffee mugs should leave a ring on the sacred table. “I don’t think it gets used very often. We call them bed sheets.” He smoothed the acres of stiff paper down. “Sorry!” He reddened. “I mean – I didn’t…”
“I’m sure I’ve no idea what you mean,” Karen said with mock severity. “Is this one mine?”
“What? The coffee? Yes. Best staff mugs. You’ve got the coronation; of George – the Fifth, I think that one is. They all look alike, don’t they?”
“I’m honoured! Can you see it?.” She said, frowning down on the white paper.
“If what you’re looking for exists in this area, it’s on here.” He said. “I take it you couldn’t find anything on the twenty-four-inch maps?”
She shook her head. “I can’t see it on this, either. How can you hide a whole village?”
“Maybe it’s somewhere else?” He suggested.
Sometimes fine details could get overlooked. The map, though superficially as dazzling as virgin snow, was host to better than a thousand words and symbols. Finding something you wanted without a reference was like wandering blindfold through a maze because amidst so much profusion eyesight had little value. But luck was on Patrick’s side. “There!”
“It does exist!” Karen said. “You see?”
“It isn’t a village, though.” Patrick’s finger had pointed to a trio of tiny rectangles, beside each of which was the word ‘ruin’, and over them, in slightly larger italics, ‘Boulters Green’. A dotted line, symbolizing a track or bridleway, which must in bygone days have linked the ruins to a nearby minor road, stopped short about a half-mile from them. “It might have been once, but it isn’t now. I know this road.” His finger traced the minor highway forming a ‘T’ with the bridleway. “It goes to High Pegram – it’ll continue onto the next map. I’ve driven along there a few times, but I can’t remember seeing a turning. What are you doing?”
He heard a click of a shutter before he saw the camera, which seemed to have appeared in Karen’s hand by magic.
“I’m photographing it,” Karen said.
“Aren’t I supposed to?”
“Probably not. But you have, haven’t you? Do you think I should wrest the camera from you and rip out the film?”
He couldn’t quite decide if the look Karen gave him was amused or barbed. “That might be fun.” She said. “What’s this area here?”
There was a large, faintly shaded zone marked out just to the north side of the ruins. An imposing-looking complex of rectangles had been drawn in close to the edge of the area. “That’s the Driscombe estate. There are thousands of acres of it, but that part is mainly wooded, as you can see. The large structure is the great house, I believe; Boult Wells. Viscount Driscombe of Caleybridge’s place, you know? His son’s our Member of Parliament?”
“Really? Our Member of Parliament?”
“If you live at this end of the County, yes.”
“Yours and mine?”
Whether by accident or design, Patrick found himself quite close to Karen Eversley; close enough to catch a hint of that citrus scent again.
“So that’s it. Boulter’s Green isn’t much, is it?” She said.
“Afraid not.” He had to do it. “Are you into The Dave Clark Five or The Beatles?”
She glanced at him, surprised. “Dave Clark’s okay, I suppose. It has to be The Beatles, though, doesn’t it?”
“Right. Right, it does, I guess. The Dave Clark Five are on in Baronchester this Saturday.”
Karen’s brow puckered. “You’ve lost me Pat, what’s this got to do with anything?”
“Well, the thing is, the Five are supporting The Beatles. It’s a gig they signed up for before they hit the big time. Would you like to come? I’ve got tickets.”
“But sir, I hardly know you.”
“True. I might be dangerous.”
“Well, I hope you are, a little. It’s going to be a very boring evening otherwise.”
“You’ll come then?”
“Of course I’ll come! What, I should pass up an opportunity to see The Beatles live?”
So that was how Patrick Hallcroft first met Karen Eversley. He must have realized he was on the edge of something important, though he little understood just how much his future was to be shaped by events set in train that weekend. But first, we must join Karen on a very different evening outing, on the Thursday of that week, to the little Gaiety Theatre on Railway Street in her hometown of Caleybridge. And of that, if you’ll forgive the cliché, more next week.
© 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