“Oh, do come in dear! I’ve just made some tea.”
There was about Pamela Woodgate a demeanour which didn’t quite gel with the image of middle-aged respectability she was putting out. The tight, greying hair was just a little too neat, maybe, or the lips around her wide mouth too tight and thin. “There’s been this other thing, you see?” Mrs Woodgate said.
“Sorry. What other thing?”
“Oh my dear we were burgled – last night!” Karen remarked how calm the woman seemed. The hand that poured tea was as steady as a brain surgeon’s. “They took everything – absolutely everything! One lump, or two?”
“One, thank you. I’m so, so sorry! Am I in the way? I could always come back another time?”
“Oh, no, no, no. It’s all dealt with. But it does mean I have very little to offer you.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“They took it all. Photographs, school books, his gramophone records, everything. It’s almost as if they were robbing Gavin, not us. Oh, some of my husband’s papers have been taken as well, of course, and our family photographs are all gone. It really is most odd!”
Karen agreed. It was odd. “They took all Gavin’s stamp albums?”
Pamela looked at her blankly for a moment. “Yes, all of them.”
“Could you show me his room?”
“Certainly. I must warn you, though, it’s completely bare.”
Bare it was, yet it was the anonymity of Gavin’s room that puzzled Karen. Pamela had guided her up deeply carpeted stairs and along a plush, warm corridor to the bedroom, but across the threshold of the plain blue door everything changed. The room she was shown was completely out of character with the rest of Pamela Woodgate’s world. This room could have been anybody’s – any member of the Gideon Society, any passing traveller who had stayed for a night. Plain camel-coloured curtains at the beige-painted window, a brown carpet, a bed with a tartan blanket and two neatly-plumped white pillows – the only furniture a chest of drawers, a mirror, and a bedside table.
“I tidied up a little. The burglars left a mess.” Pamela explained as if there were nothing extraordinary about the scene.
“Doesn’t he have – I don’t know – any posters for the wall, records, drawings? A book or two?”
Gavin’s mother treated Karen to a patronising smile. “No, nothing like that. You see, Gavin is a very studious boy. His workbooks, everything like that, was all taken.”
“Mrs Woodgate, how would you describe your relationship with your son?” Karen asked.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I entirely understand you.”
“Are you close?” There wasn’t so much as an alarm clock in the room. Why would thieves want an alarm clock? And if the walls had been stripped, where were the light areas the posters had occupied, the signs of pulled drawing pins, or sellotape ripped away?
“Well of course we are. He is our boy, isn’t he?”
“Do you mind if I just check around, quickly?” Karen said. “Sometimes the most experienced thieves miss out on something.”
“No, dear, I don’t mind.” Mrs Woodgate murmured in a tone which implied she was confident there was nothing to find. “I’ll wait for you downstairs, if you like. Come down when you’re satisfied, hmm? We’ll have a chat over tea.” She floated almost noiselessly away, elegantly slippered feet padding along her luxuriant passage carpet.
Karen didn’t bother taking the bedding apart; that was too obvious. She did check under the mattress, though, and behind the bedhead. She rolled the carpet edges back, probed for loose floorboards or spaces behind the skirting – anywhere that might provide a hiding place. The chest of drawers contained a few clothes: the only sign that this room had ever been occupied; three T-shirts, a pair of grey shorts, a couple of ties and a rather larger stack of underpants. She had to get to the exterior of the bottom drawer before she found the small plastic wallet that was stapled to its back. She tore it loose quickly, feeling almost guilty as she slipped it beneath her jumper. And that was all.
The ‘chat’ with the worried mother yielded nothing of worth. Karen departed with a promise she would ‘do her best’ to find Gavin, leaving his blandly smiling parent nursing her professed ‘agony’ of anxiety for her son. At her door Pamela watched Karen until she had driven all the way out of High Pegram, discouraging her, rightly or wrongly, from doing any neighbourhood enquiries that day.
Next, she would need to talk to Mark Potts, the man who had been last to see Gavin. She was sure she would learn nothing new – though maybe pinning down a precise time for the sighting would be important. Meanwhile she had an appointment to keep, one which had occupied her mind ever since the evening it was made; and no matter how she tried to explain it to herself, the very thought of meeting Patrick brought a flush to her cheek and an extra beat to her heart.
He was sitting at the window bay table in ‘The Hunters’ – the one she had picked the last time they met there. He stood up to greet her. “God, Karen, you’re beautiful.”
He spoke with such open admiration Karen almost believed him. “Thank you, Pat. Plainly deluded, but thank you.”
“No really. You’ve got a glow about you, I don’t know how you do it!”
Karen had a feeling the ‘glow’ was about to give her away by trickling down her face. She had left her car at home and walked. This was a warm evening for a cool blonde.
“What happened to your hand?”
“I fell.” Well, that had to be at least partly true, didn’t it? “It’s nothing.”
He was watching her eyes. “Let me see.”
“I told you, it’s nothing. A scratch.”
“All right, let me see your scratch.”
“What, unwrap the bandage and everything? No, Pat!” She didn’t want to re-open their conversation about the dark man and she didn’t want to spend their time together being ‘protected’. So instead she told him about her adventure with the traffic police.
“My god, I bet you were pleased!”
“I was ecstatic. I got soaked to the skin. And when I fell I broke my camera. I don’t even know if I can rescue the film.”
“I’ll get some drinks in, then I’ll regale you with my epic tale about a greengrocer who wants planning permission to open a Hobbits theme park.”
The evening drifted from then, or maybe Karen drifted – she didn’t know. Whenever she was with Pat, a relaxed, cosseted, cloud-borne feeling allowed the time to slip past. For a long while – at least three vodkas – the conversation was so airy and inconsequential she did not drop any names. As soon as she did, the whole timbre of the evening changed.
“I know Gavin Woodgate.”
Karen’s eyebrows reached for her hairline. “You do? Oh, Pat! I had to go on believing somebody, somewhere knew him, but I never imagined it could be you!”
“Why not?” Pat asked, quite reasonably.
“Well, he’s such a shy, retiring kid isn’t he? I can’t find any friends or connections for him anywhere.”
Pat made a face. “Shy, retiring? Oh sure.”
“Both those! Stamp collector, train-spotter; a bit of an anorak, and very intelligent, too.” Karen paused, reading Pat’s expression. “And you’re going to tell me he’s not, aren’t you?”
“Karen, you’ve been looking for the wrong bloke. Ask about Gasser Gates, that’s what our Gav calls himself now; you’ll find all sorts of people who know him. Stamp collecting? Perish the thought! Not unless he found a way of screwing some money from it; and friends? No, not Gasser; there’s a couple of lads tolerate him, though, I think. He’s seen around with them sometimes – in fact, about the only normal thing Gasser does is go bowling in Baronchester with them once a week – most weeks. I ran across them up there one Saturday night. So he’s gone missing, has he? I can’t say I’m surprised. Probably someone’s finally murdered him.”
“Pat; Pat, stop! Nobody’s that bad! All right, so tell me about him, will you? How did he get to be called Gasser, and how do you know we’re talking about the same lad?”
“I don’t want to spend our time together talking about someone like Gasser. It’ll ruin the evening!”
“You’ll ruin the evening now if you don’t! Come on, Pat, give!”
Frowning, Pat seemed suddenly absorbed by Karen’s fingers. He stared at them. “You’ve got really long fingers, haven’t you?”
“Pat! Come on, spill!”
“Alright, all right, here goes: How did he come to be called Gasser? Well, he did it. He deliberately altered his name to get rid of Gavin Woodgate. Why? Because Gavin Woodgate growing up was an unpleasant little pervert with a yen for dating under-aged girls.”
“And when I say underaged I’m talking nine, ten, eleven years old. And ‘dating’ is a euphemism.”
“I told you it would ruin the evening, didn’t I?”
“But why isn’t he in jail?”
“Partly because at the time he was a juvenile, but mostly because his father is a member of the committee that runs the County police force. Because Daddy has tendrils of influence everywhere, including the courts. There was a bad case. The police had to become involved, but his dad had enough pull to get him off an interview with the magistrates.”
Karen shook her head. She was trying to make those errant pieces come together, and they didn’t want to, not yet. “So how does that explain his bedroom? It’s like a monk’s cell in there. And his mother – she may be a real ice-maiden, but I think she wants him found.”
“I imagine everyone would want to know where he is. You went to the Woodgate house and they showed you his bedroom? Karen, he hasn’t lived there for two years or more. And that is not his mother, it’s his stepmother. Gasser was Gerald Woodgate’s first wife’s son.”
“But she told me…” Karen stopped herself. Exactly what had Pamela Woodgate told her?
“If she told you Gavin was living there or even stayed there, she was lying. After the last assault case his family threw him out and everybody hoped he would just move away, but he didn’t. He stayed around, invented the Gasser nickname for himself and hid behind that. He’s Gasser Gates. As far as his father is concerned, he no longer exists. I’m surprised they even knew he was missing.”
“They do, though.” Karen mused. “And they seem very keen to find him. Why?”
“My guess is because he’s a loose cannon. Keeping track of a habitual sex offender without involving the police must be a major headache, and I can’t imagine Gerald Woodgate would want to have any more scandals besmirching the family name. But then, you see, he wouldn’t dirty his hands with it himself. He has fixers to do that for him.”
“You make him sound more like a gangster than a member of a police watch committee!”
“In this County? You mean the similarities haven’t struck you before? Don’t you think your little confrontation with the traffic officer might have something to do with all this?”
Karen nodded. “Yes, it has occurred to me.”
“One thing perplexes me,” Pat said. “You’ve been flashing a picture of our Gavin at everybody, and they still didn’t recognize him? Can I have a look?”
Karen took the photograph from her bag. Pat stared into it, meeting the soulless eyes of the sallow face that stared back. “Why?” He murmured.
“Why what?” Karen scowled.
“Never mind – nothing. Now you’re looking for the right name I’m sure you’ll get all you want.”
“Pat, you haven’t told me how you know Gavin Woodgate by his proper name?”
“No, I haven’t, have I? Any more than you’ve told me how you injured your hand.”
“Are you kinky about cuts, or something? Stop going on about my hand!”
“I will when you tell me the truth. Or at least when you show me the damage. It would be quickest just to tell me what really happened.”
“You are way too perceptive, my boy. Very well…” Karen related the events that occurred on her night-time walk in the previous night’s rain. And Pat listened gravely, without a word. When she had finished, he said: “You must have been very frightened.”
“I was. Right, your turn. How do you know Gavin Woodgate?”
“I know what this is going to do to us.” Pat stared into his drink. “For two years I was at school with the little bastard. At Rainham.”
“Oh my god!”
“Have I shocked you?”
“Yes, profoundly. You went to Rainham??!”
Rainham Academy was a public school, all of eighty miles away and expensive, avowed by many to be a viable alternative to |Eton or Rugby. The impact of that information upon Karen was undeniable – it confirmed all her doubts about a relationship with Pat. He was watching her, and his voice acknowledged the changes he saw. “You have a thing about class and money, don’t you? Karen, I can’t do anything about my background. That’s the accident of birth, isn’t it?”
“It reminds me of my place,” She said, sadly. “You and I, Patrick? Your friends and my friends – your parents and mine? I mean, come on!”
“Will you forgive me if I don’t accept you have a ‘place’? And if I’m a member of the privileged classes, I’m a total failure at it. I’m an under-achiever.” He added, “If that helps? “I didn’t go to Uni. I should have, my parents tell me, but I didn’t.”
No, he went to County Planning instead. At least, Karen thought, that explained how someone Patrick’s age had risen so quickly to a senior position at the Council. With an educational background like his, they probably kidnapped him.
“Cartography fascinates me,” Pat was explaining, “and I’ve enough education to do what I want to do.”
She couldn’t avoid the cliché in her thoughts; Pat’s friends would use it even if he did not – by dating her he was slumming – slumming with a downtown girl. Rainham! At least, she told herself, she had found out in time – she could consign this relationship to the ‘failed’ folder in her heart without too much pain. Pat had been right in one respect: the evening was ruined.
“I have to go.” She said.
Pat looked genuinely surprised. “But I thought we could have dinner…”
“No. No, I told you. I can’t be late back tonight. I’ve got a busy weekend ahead of me.”
“So it’s true; the long-term relationship thing. You can’t…I mean, you don’t want to extricate yourself.”
“Pat…look, what I have with Tim; it’s safe, you know?”
“It’s alright, Karen. I don’t have any claim on you, do I? Maybe if you change your mind, sometime, I’m here. I’d like to see you again.”
Karen knew in that instant she had to put space between Pat and herself. When he offered to walk her home she was polite, but firm. She wasn’t going to leave a door open. She left him with a quick kiss goodbye and felt his eyes follow her as she walked away.
She descended the narrow, walled road that led down Trellis Hill towards the town neither feeling her feet on the pavement nor the fresh air of evening in her lungs. Her head was full of melancholy, resigned thoughts; tomorrow she would see Tim again and she would fall back into the dire routine of her life. It was the only sensible thing to do: Pat, fresh breeze though he was, cooled a slope too steep for her to climb.
Even supposing his feelings for her were genuine, there was an ocean of difference between them, a stormy, furious sea, kept churning by that awful British institution – class.
So, let Pat believe what was probably the truth, anyway: that she was destined to be a Metropolitan Policeman’s wife, because even slow old Tim would be sure to propose one day, and then she would have little choice, if she did not want to face small town spinsterhood and a future with her pathetic little sideshow of a business.
“Can’t you see further than that?” Suzanne’s ghost demanded. “There are other ways to find your identity than through a man, Sis.”
“Yes, I know!” Karen sighed, smiling at her dead sister’s shade as they walked together. “I’m just depressed, I guess. I’ll find myself sooner or later, won’t I? This class thing. Did you ever beat it?”
“No, not really. I had ability, so I was of use. But I was always aware of my station. Those parties! I was constantly getting buttonholed for my legal opinions or propositioned like a scullery maid. I was working class and I was a woman, and I was never allowed to forget it.”
“Maybe one day things will change.” Karen murmured, attracting the curious attention of a passer-by. She must have appeared to be talking to herself.
“I don’t think so. British society has a fundamental flaw: all the money is at one end of the social spectrum, and all the intelligence is at the other. We make the machine grind on, Sis. It’ll always be that way.”
Karen expelled Suzanne from her mind, as she unfailingly did, when her worst ghostly opinions confirmed her own.
At its lower end, Trellis Hill joined Dolphin Street, which led alongside Albert Park. Karen could have stayed on the street and followed its pavement, with County Hall on her right, to Bridge Street and the little complex of back roads leading to her apartment. On this gentle evening, though, so different to the turmoil of the previous night, the park better suited her mood, so she deliberately challenged her fear of the twilight and memories of the dark, long-haired man, by taking the path known as Riverside Walk towards the bridge where the river passed beneath the High Street, scene of her assault the previous night. Could she find some clue to the man monster’s identity there, carelessly dropped in his anxiety to get her? Besides, she must not permit the park to become so threatening to her she would feel unable to walk there. She was rational, and she was courageous. Fears had to be outfaced.
A few pedestrians shared her path, enjoying some evening sun; a trio of children running home, a couple in their twenties strolling aimlessly by the river as it began to assume the deeper hues of approaching darkness. A mélange of water birds clucked and chirruped towards their night-time nests in the shallows, while soft breeze rattled amid the weeping willows, whispering through the reeds. But they were the only sounds. No tread of malevolent feet, no flapping leather coat. Karen laughed at herself, mocking her own tingling nerves. Why should there be?
Ahead of her, the path plunged into shade beneath High Street Bridge. The old stone arch assured her she need not fear its deeper shadows – and the way home was much shorter if she stayed beside the river as it passed beneath the street. Karen busied herself scanning for some clue left by her adventure the night before, yet she could not deny the faster beat of her heart.
So sudden, the descent into silence, the path bereft of people. So sharp the chill she felt, as her foolishness was laid before her.
Brave, or stupid?
Too late she saw a black shadow pressed back against the stonework of the arch. She tried to turn but slipped. Her ankle, twisting, sent her stumbling to her knees.
Instantly a hand clamped over her mouth so she could not cry out – a leather-clad arm lifted her bodily, pulling her back into the shadows of the bridge. Desperately, she tried to find leverage, to drop forward, but her feet were not even in touch with the ground. He was too tall, too strong, the dark man – she was a toy in his hands.
This time there could be no escape…
© 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