There was a rising bubble of panic in Karen’s chest. Not fear – it could not be fear of the tall stalker who had followed her from the park – she knew herself, didn’t she? She was tougher, much tougher than that! Excitement then? She was almost running through the twos and threes of shoppers on the street, casting about her for something, anything she might use to her advantage. The next turning led into the street where she had her office; she did not want him to follow her there. But what could she do? He was close, too close!
Then, across the street, she spotted the familiar bobbing gait and beetling eyebrows of Bob Stawkley, Patrick’s superior at the Planning Department. Karen didn’t know him well, but she could at least be justified in engaging him in conversation. She launched herself through the traffic without a thought of injury, gaining safety on the further side amid squealing brakes and outraged car horns.
Bob Stawkley’s bushy eyebrows were raised in horror. “Good God, woman, you’ll get yourself killed like that! Whatever is the matter?”
“Oh, nothing; clumsy me! I just wanted to talk to you, that’s all. Have you got a moment?”
“It must be pretty serious if it’s worth risking your life for. I suppose I have, then, haven’t I?”
“Bob. Do you know a lad called Gavin Woodgate?” It was a bizarre, haphazard way to begin a conversation. It didn’t fool the old department chief for a moment.
“Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“No, of course…” Karen saw her attempted nonchalance was failing. Honesty prevailed. “Well, yes. I’m being followed. A tall man with long hair and a leather coat. Can you see him?” She didn’t want to look for herself, to risk engaging with those fierce eyes a second time.
Stawkley’s luxuriant eyebrows lowered as he cast a glance up and down the road. “No. There’s no-one fitting that description. Miss Eversley – Karen – are you all right? You look badly shaken.”
She felt able to turn now, disbelieving: for the large man to have vanished so rapidly seemed impossible. There were no side alleys or even shop doors immediately available, yet he was nowhere to be seen.
She inhaled deeply. “Oh yes. Thank you. I’m so sorry, Bob.”
“Your office is just up here, isn’t it?” Stawkley was solicitous. “Do you mind if I accompany you?”
“There’s no need…”
“Nonsense. I think there is. If nothing else I can ensure you get across the road in one piece.”
He insisted, taking Karen’s arm in his. She did not resist: after all, they were not exactly strangers. Bob Stawkley was her sister Suzanne’s contact, one of many to whom Karen owed her business’s survival in the early days. Stawkley saw her safely back to her office. She offered coffee, he declined.
“I really must be on my way. You’ll be fine now, Karen, there are no tall men out there. Incidentally, no, I have no recollection of anybody called Gavin Woodgate.”
So she thanked Bob and let him go. As soon as he had loped from view she locked the doors, made coffee anyway, then sank into her chair to celebrate her escape. Purton’s plain brown envelope was lying as she had left it on her desk. It was a moment which could be delayed no longer.
Two files slid out when she tipped the envelope. The first, a wedge of papers, prefaced by a photograph of a pallid, clean-shaven youth with Brylcreemed brown hair and ill-concealed acne, was made up of letters in scrawly handwriting, a few old family snaps and copies of various examination certificates. There was also a tidily composed precis of the information she had learned in person over their memorable lunch. Gavin Woodgate was last seen by his friend, Mark Potts who drove past him as he was walking on the High Pegram road at around three on a Sunday afternoon. The weather was fine. Did Gavin have other friends? Apparently not. Gavin’s hobbies were stamp collecting and train spotting. Maybe that explained a lot of things… a quiet boy, a loner most at home in his own company. Not the socializing type.
The second file was slim: a photograph of Anna Parkinson depicted a grim-looking girl no older than her teens with straight, lifeless hair and defiant eyes. The image had been lifted from a police record, Karen was sure – everything about her picture trumpeted disillusionment and rebellion. There was not much more: Anna had no known connections except for a Caleybridge landlady who was owed rent. She was last seen on 21st January on the High Pegram Road, at two o’clock in the morning.
She would have been cold. It was probably snowing then, or at least there would have been lying snow. Karen imagined Anna wearing thin, cheaply alluring clothing, abandoned to fend for herself on a country road in the early hours, watching as her client for the evening’s car retreated into the distance. Maybe she explored this middle-aged (Karen assumed he was middle-aged, though she didn’t know why) pervert’s favouritism to its limits, and maybe his actions were tweaking his conscience now; or was he simply covering himself for the time when her body surfaced in a ditch somewhere?
Thin as this minor tapestry of information seemed, it was riddled with obvious flaws. Gavin: train-spotter and philatelist; a boy who worked in a large County department yet who, if this picture was to be believed, had only one friend. Anna, beloved in the eyes of someone high in the County establishment, should be a call girl of some sophistication, surely, to attract such elevated prey? She should not be what her picture so clearly depicted – a streetwalker, a common pro from the sad little rank that hung around the bridge on Railway Street each night. No, she was looking at two photographs, both of which were lies. Who was she really looking for? Who were the real people behind those two bland images?
Then there was that thin thread of coincidence surrounding three non-descript and forgotten ruins in some barely accessible field. Why were two people whose disappearances were months apart, last seen on that same country road, and why did Purton and his colleague infer that their disappearance had something – some connection – with those ruins? Might there be some link to the Turnbull letter?
Karen remained in her office, clinging, despite herself, to the false security of a locked door. Yes, she had work, but nothing that could not be deferred until the immediate recollection of that darkly evil man had faded for a few more hours. Come evening though, she must stake out a man accused of an affair with his secretary. Life had to go on.
By mid-afternoon she had run out of excuses; she must eat. She would go home, snatch a quick sandwich before the stakeout. Nevertheless, she was still fluttering inside as she scanned the street, but of the lank-haired, black-coated man there was no sign. Encouraged, she ventured out. Two hundred steps to the alley where her car was parked – she had counted them many times. In a hurry, it was one hundred and eighty-two. Karen hurried.
County Hall’s switchboard put the call through. The instant Patrick heard Karen’s voice he knew she was in trouble.
“I’ll come right over.”
“What are juniors for? I’ll be there in ten minutes. Karen…”
“Don’t be afraid, OK?”
Karen was waiting for his buzz on the street door: “Has anyone followed you?”
The road was empty. “Not as far as I know,” Patrick said.
He saw her pale, anxious face as she leant over the balustrade at the top of the stairs;. She had obviously been crying. As soon as he got to her he took her in his arms and for a moment he thought she would resist, but no; she clasped him to her as if she might drown and he felt so grateful she had called him – that he was the one she had turned to when she needed help.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” He gently stroked the hair from her eyes.
“Come inside.” She said.
She shut the door behind them, locking it with unsteady fingers. “I wish I had a bolt on this.” She said. “I should have a bolt; it would be safer.”
“Karen, has someone tried to get in here?” Taking her hand, he asked; “What’s the matter, darling?” using the word inadvertently; allowing it to slip out in the onrush of his feelings for her. It did not go unnoticed. She squeezed his hand. “I’m not normally like this. I’m sorry. Thank you for coming so promptly, I must have sounded awful on the ‘phone.”
“I was happy to hear your voice – awful or not.”
“Someone followed me, a man – this morning, in the park. I thought I’d lost him; but when I came home and pulled up outside, he was there again; the same man. He was, standing at the end of the road, just staring at me!” Karen’s eyes began widening with panic. “Pat, he knows where I live!”
“Well, he isn’t there now. The road’s deserted.” Patrick assured her. “Describe him to me?”
Karen gave him the man’s description. She was talking fast, as a frightened person will, and Patrick was worried about her. “Listen, I’m here now. Whoever he was, he’s gone.”
She nodded dumbly.
“Are you alright? Do you want me to stay around for a while?”
“You must have left work early or something. You’ll get into trouble.” She was biting her lip furiously. “No! No, I don’t want you to go!” She hit herself on the forehead with the butt of her hand. “Oh, God, what do I want? Look, you’d better get back to work….”
“If you don’t want me to leave, I’m here. Don’t worry about work!” He put a hand on her arm: “Let’s make some coffee, and we’ll decide what to do next.”
Karen made no reply but gave the same unspeaking nod as before, her chin tucked in and eyes downcast. Patrick followed her to her kitchen, intent upon helping her until he saw how she kept her back to him, and the tension in her shoulders told him she was crying. He withdrew to the main room of her apartment, a warm space just sufficiently furnished – cream carpet, blue fabric couch, an overstuffed armchair – to be comfortable. Her window looked out over a panorama of Caleybridge; its old streets, the river, the offices where he had been working half an hour since: it looked so vital and alive; the greens of the park fizzing with soda freshness in Spring sunshine. It drew him, that window: Karen had set up her table so the vista was beside her when she ate, and Patrick found himself migrating towards it, perching upon one of four bentwood dining chairs like an eager crow, impatient to fly down upon the spoils beneath.
There were sounds of paper towelled nose-blowing from the kitchen before his red-eyed hostess finally appeared, two mugs in her hands.
“This is a nice room!”
“I’m so, so sorry! I’m being stupid!.” She put the mugs on the table, drawing up the opposite chair. “It’s just so…”
“Have you seen this guy before – have you any idea what he might want?” Pat asked her.
“Until today, no. No, never.” She stared into her coffee as if there were answers to be discovered there. “I expect he’s going to turn out to be someone I owe money to, or something. That would be sensible, wouldn’t it?”
Patrick grinned. “I don’t know. How many people do you owe money to?”
“Not too many. Pat, I can’t explain. There was something about him; something not quite…human. His eyes! Oh, God, his eyes!” She raised a hand, shielding her face so he should not see evidence of resurgent tears. “This is such nonsense. I have work to do this evening; I have to go out again.”
“Then you don’t go out alone.” He said.
He held her case for her as she locked her door. She was shaking so much she could barely locate the key so he reached out to steady her hand again, which made her smile for a moment because she saw the humour of her situation. “Karen Eversley, investigator. Isn’t this ridiculous?”
“You’ve been badly scared.”
She coloured briefly, as though she wanted to admit to something more than fear. “You’d better believe it.”
Karen drove them to a small car park which overlooked an office block in the town’s main business area. The entrance to the building was about sixty yards away.
“Now what?” Patrick asked.
“Now we wait.”
“What are we waiting for?”
“Who, rather than what,” She corrected him. “Donald Carrington, who works in there. We’re waiting for him to finish work and come out.”
“His wife tells me he never gets home before ten. She thinks he’s with his secretary. I want to see if she’s right.”
“Gosh, this is a real stakeout! Although, of course, we can’t see inside. I mean, secretary – office – nice big desk, where better?”
“Somewhere with cushions! Anyway, I’ve managed to get pictures of both of them, so if they both leave at ten o’clock… Could you get my camera out for me; it’s in the dashboard compartment. And there are a couple of photographs of our culprits in there, too. You might as well have a look, since you’re here. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”
The camera was evident by its sizeable lens. The photographs took a little more time to discover. “Wait a minute!” Patrick said. “I know him!”
“You don’t, do you?”
“Not really. I’m teasing.”
They sat in silence for a while, studying sporadic activity across the street. Patrick assessed the photographs: a middle-aged, care-worn man; a very ordinary woman looking a little dowdy, a little careless of herself. She might be five years younger than her alleged lover, or five years older.
Karen said, after a while: “Look, Pat, I’m being very selfish with your time. You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“Would you be happier if I didn’t?” He asked her seriously. “I can stay or go; you just say the word.”
She smiled a happy, relaxed smile. “Then I’d really quite like it if you stayed. If you didn’t mind.”
“Mind? Spending the evening with you? Why would I mind?” Patrick hesitated: “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”
“You’re not. In fact, a little closeness would be good for me right now.”
“We could call it our cover,” he suggested, putting his arm around her shoulder. “The courting couple. It would look more convincing – what do you think?”
Compliant, she snuggled into him. “Hmmm. Not too much courting. We’ve got to keep our eyes on that door.”
“It’s a nice way to stake someone out.” He said, as a hand somehow found a way to her knee. “We’ve got at least five hours before ten o’clock.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” She murmured, distracted.
“Still, it’s a long time.” He said.
“Well, it would be, if…”
“If that wasn’t my mate Carrington just popping out of his door right now.”
“Damn!” Patrick blinked at his watch in the dim light. “Five-fifteen. That’s just unfair. I was getting on really good terms with this leg. I suppose we could pretend we didn’t see him?”
“Shut up and let me do the pictures.” Karen focused her camera on a departing Mr Carrington. She took several shots, tracking his progress along the pavement until he disappeared, merging with the crowd.
“So now we wait for the naughty secretary?” Patrick asked, persisting with Karen’s knee.
“It turns out she isn’t naughty at all. But yes, we wait. What are you doing with my leg, young man?”
“My interests are purely aesthetic: it is a beautiful leg. I’m simply helping you pass the time. ”
His hand was seeking, experimentally. She stopped him. “No, Pat.”
“It’s always safer on higher ground?”
“Not right now, alright? Please?” Karen turned so their faces were inches apart, so their breath mingled and the warm scents of each other made the moment impossibly intimate. “Behave yourself,” she chided him. “Let me concentrate!”
It had begun to rain quite heavily. Carrington’s secretary did not appear until a half-hour later, raising an umbrella and trotting briskly along wet pavements to the bus station. Karen tracked her in the car, having to park at the roadside as they watched her catch her bus. “Follow that bus?” Patrick suggested. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
“No need. That’s the South Monckton bus. She’s going home. Whatever my boy is doing, he isn’t doing it with her.”
“So what now?” Patrick asked.
“Until next week, probably nothing. It’s always the same night, you see. I’ll put in a progress report to his wife and who knows? She may resolve the question with a domestic discussion before then. She might join up the dots for herself. If not, next Wednesday I follow him. Wall-to-wall excitement, isn’t it?”
“I’m on the edge of my seat.” Patrick felt concerned. “Karen, are you going to be okay tonight? Are you going back to your apartment?”
They were easing their way through late rush-hour traffic, a world full of pan-demonic, dashing people chasing buses, aiming for the station and trains. It was difficult to imagine the loneliness, the vulnerability another couple of hours would bring, as these rain-soaked streets cleared of people and darkness took over. The hour of Karen’s sinister stalker would have to be encountered, and he did not want her to be alone when it came.
Karen gave him a wry grin that failed to achieve its intended bravado. “I’ve been such a wimp! I’m in a tough profession, Pat. I have to take care of myself.”
“I can’t help this,” He admitted. “I worry about you.”
She replied seriously. “I’d rather you didn’t. That’s a responsibility I could manage without.”
“You’d rather I didn’t care about you?”
“I’m going to take you back to your car,” Karen said. “If it’s any consolation, I’ll probably stay at Mum and Dad’s place. I could use a home-cooked meal, anyway.”
She did as she promised. The Daimler stood waiting in the council office car park and Patrick thanked providence that he had left the roof up that morning.
He did not want to leave her. “This is my number at home, so if you have any trouble, call me. See you on Friday after work. The Hunters, yes?”
“Yes.” Karen took the scrap of paper he gave her with a smile that lit her face in a way he had not seen before.
“You deserve a special ‘thank you’,” She leaned across and kissed him tenderly. “Thank you, Pat, for saving me.”
He clasped her hands in his. “What are we, Karen? To each other?”
And she smiled that same smile. “We’re friends.” She said.
“Didn’t that kiss mean we’re a little more than friends?”
“We’re kissing friends.”
He watched as she drove away, positioning himself so she would not see, as he had already seen, the folded slip of wet paper pinned beneath his car’s windscreen wiper. Extracting it carefully, he got into the Dart’s driving seat before he peeled the fold apart. The ink had run, but its hand-written message was concise and readable. It said:
‘STAY AWAY FROM KAREN EVERSLEY’.
© 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