The man’s big hand clamped to Karen’s mouth reduced her cries to muffled gasping as she fought for breath. In seconds his arm about her waist had lifted her bodily from behind, carrying her into the shadows beneath the bridge.
Once hidden from the street above, he spun her around. Her mouth was freed and she tried to scream but her breath had gone. She kicked out, made a lunge which he countered, throwing her back until she was pinned against the cold stone of the arch.
His maniacal eyes were inches from her own, his lank hair whipping across her face, his wide mouth bared in a snarl. A hand tore at her clothes, touching her, and she had a scream in her head but no sound would come. One heavy knee thrust her legs apart with a power beyond any resistance she could offer, forcing her open to him. His weight was pressed against her, his hardness seeking, his intentions all too clear.
Then came the blow.
It shuddered through her, the harsh resonance of flexing bone. At first she thought it was her own head that had cracked and split open. But then her assailant began to fall backward, and still held by him she was being dragged away from the wall. The man’s mask of wanton fury had been replaced by glazed surprise and pain. Another body, determined and strong, interposed itself between them, breaking his grip and slamming him against the guardrail at the margin of the river. The steel met the dark man’s lower spine and before he had a chance to rebound his legs were swept from beneath him, pitching him backwards into the racing current. As he hit the water, he gave tongue to a canine howl.
“Jesus!” Patrick said. “The company you keep!”
Karen struggled for breath. Her eyes cleared, slowly, took in a lump of rock lying on the path, the bludgeon with which Patrick had administered that telling blow.
“Are you hurt?” Pat’s concern was readable even in gathering darkness.
Karen’s knees were in severe danger of giving way, and she was not sure whether she had suffered damage or not, but she did her best to smile bravely. “Only my dignity.” She assured him, rearranging what she could of her clothes with shaking hands. “Do you think he can swim?” There was no sound from the river.
“Right now I don’t really give a s**t.” Pat replied crudely. “I expect he can, but the flow under here is a bit quick, so he’ll be a way downriver before he can get out. All I want to do is get you safe. Can you walk okay?” He slipped his jacket from his own shoulders to hers. “Maybe we shouldn’t hang about too long, just in case your amorous friend comes back for another try.”
Outrage is a strong emotion, one that grabs you somewhere deep and hangs on, not for an hour or two, but a year or two, or a lifetime. Karen would not forget that first moment of real terror in her life, in spite of all that would happen later – never forget that face in hers, those hard, vice-like hands. Pat, who read her so well, held her close to him, knowing how strong she would want to be, yet how she needed his support.
A whispered “Thank you,” was all she could do to repay him.
He gently took her hand; then, with his supporting arm around her waist guided her from the gloom beneath the bridge into the last grey light of evening.
“He would have done it to me, you know, if you hadn’t been there? He would have – I couldn’t stop him.”
“I tried to stop him, Pat!”
“Don’t talk, my love. I understand.”
When Patrick brought coffee to Karen’s bedroom the next morning, she had just woken, her eyes still laden with sleep and her arms, their developing bruises exposed, outside the bed covers. She managed a smile, had he slept well? He told her yes, her sofa was every bit as comfortable as he could wish, neglecting to mention how long he had lain awake, waiting for morning and listening for the tall, lank-haired nightmare of last evening to return. It never did.
“You followed me.” Karen accused him mildly. “Last night, from the pub. Do I have to worry about you?”
He knew that was only half-way to a joke. “Am I a dangerous obsessive, you mean? Perhaps, where you’re concerned. Mostly, though, I was worried for you. I didn’t want to think of you walking home alone.”
“You were right. You saved me, didn’t you?”
“You needed help. Any dangerous obsessive would have done the same, seeing another dangerous obsessive trying to muscle in on his obsession, I mean.”
“Don’t become too obsessed, Pat,” Karen said seriously.
“Too late.” He confessed. “I can be serious too, Karen. You need protection.”
“We’ll have to report it – what happened, I mean.”
“I already have. I used your ‘phone. I hope you don’t mind.”
“What did they say? Will they start dragging the river, or something?” The smile vaporized. “Oh, Pat! What if we’ve killed him?”
Patrick did his best to offer her the same reassurance he had spent a sleepless night practising on himself. “You mustn’t worry! To be honest, the police didn’t seem too concerned. They’ll take a look down there, but the guy I spoke to made the point that apart from where it runs under the bridge, the river’s never more than waist deep. He said they’d send someone round to see us ‘in due course’, whatever that means.”
Karen reached out for him – a hand stroking his – a gesture that sent little waves of sensitivity chasing around his body; because he was surrounded by the warm scent of her bedroom and he had spent too many hours imagining.
“You did the right thing,” Karen said.
”I have to keep you safe.” He stumbled over his words. Her eyes were two deep lakes of mystery looking into his, her lips were parted in invitation. Her uninjured hand caressed his arm as softly as ripples on a foreshore. He wanted her. He wanted to say how much he wanted her, but the timing was wrong and the words wouldn’t come.
“I was stupid last night, taking the river walk when I should have stayed on the street. If I’m careful, I’ll be fine. Oh, Pat, I’m so lucky to know you!” She raised herself from her bed and the covers fell away. The little blue nightshirt that hung so loosely about her breasts invited him to take it from her. Her breath in the inches of space between their mouths was hot and needing.
Karen’s eyes filled with alarm. “Oh my god, what time is it?”
“About ten, I think. Don’t panic – no work today; it’s Saturday. Le weekend!”
She scrabbled for the edge of the bed. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You were in shock. You needed sleep. Whatever is the matter?”
“Pat, get out! Go away! Go home, or wherever it is you go on a Saturday. Go and play your game of polo, or something.”
And, as he hesitated: “I have to dress, Pat. Now, please?”
“Ah!” He caught on. “My presence might be difficult to explain, mightn’t it? Okay, I’m leaving. Can I just write him a note?”
He was tidying Karen’s sofa and still trying to collect himself as she rushed past him on her way to the bathroom, gathering her dressing gown about her as she ran. He wrote his home telephone number to remind her, on the corner of a magazine that was lying on her table and left. She did not say goodbye.
Not five minutes later, Karen’s buzzer sounded.
“Tim! Hello!” She was still in her dressing gown. Framed in her apartment doorway, Tim Birchinall looked bigger than ever.
“Hello sweetheart. Am I too early?”
“Early? God no. I overslept.” Had he put on weight? Auburn hair, cut to police regulation, eyes of solemn brown she once told him were appropriate for a policeman, those same strong features that could start a girl dreaming without effort. He had called her ‘sweetheart’ – that word would have meant so much to her once.
Her expected kiss of greeting must have been lacking because his eyes darkened momentarily.
“I’m still not…you know…” Why did she feel the need to excuse herself?
“Conscious? Listen, I’ll come back…”
“No! I mean, no, that’s silly. I’ll just…look, you just wait here; read or something. I’ll throw some clothes on.”
Tim grinned impishly: “Can I help?”
“Not this early in the morning, Tim dear, no.” She chided him, suppressing an inner jolt. It was his first expression of anything like a sexual interest in her for a very long time. “Make us a coffee and cool down. I’ll be quick, I promise.”
She called from her bedroom as she dressed – jeans, a sweater against the colder morning that would hide her arms. How was his journey? Was his car behaving? What had he been doing with himself?
“Training, and more training. I’ve joined the rugby team, though I doubt if I’ll get a chance to play. The competition for places is really stiff.”
Tim had a question of his own. Did she still insist upon a career as an investigator? As she emerged, fully dressed, from her bedroom, he had coffee waiting and she was just beginning to tell the story of her two missing persons, stressing their apparent connection to Boulter’s Green. Had he ever heard of the place? Her words fell into a still pool of silence. She only became aware Tim was staring at her when she met that stare, looking up at him for his answer. His expression was almost one of anger. “Tim?”
He collected himself.
“There’s a tiny tale to tell about that place.” He said slowly.
“Anything is welcome?”
“About four years ago we pulled in a heroin user who had a real atmosphere about him, if you know what I mean. He was wandering about town in the early hours and we thought he was a vagrant, new to the area. Turned out he was more disorientated than anything because he gave his address as Boulter’s Green. We checked it out on the map. There’s nothing there.”
“’We?’ Who’s ‘we’?”
“Ray Flynn and I. We worked together, remember?”
“You were partners. What happened?”
“I’m not sure I can recollect. The narco kept insisting he lived at this Boulter’s Green place and he didn’t want to go back. Anyway, he was really thin; undernourished, you know? And high as a kite. So we took him in. The story, and it may be nothing at all, concerns what happened to him. We followed the usual procedure; banged him up downstairs for the night to straighten out, and left the Station Officer to sort out Social. Trouble was, he disappeared!”
“What? Who disappeared; the Station Officer?”
“Well, I suppose you could say both. When we went back to the Station at the end of shift to tie up paperwork, his cell was empty. I asked, but there was a different officer, someone we didn’t know, on duty. The Station Officer who admitted him had gone home sick. The officer on duty claimed he had no knowledge of a detention. It was all a bit weird.”
“Didn’t your report prove…”
“There was no trace of it. It had been ‘lost’, apparently. He hadn’t been booked in, either.”
Tim took Karen’s hand. “No, darling, none. Quite a lot of things get ‘lost’ around the Beaconshire force and a wise little constable learns to accept it and refrain from questioning. Certain wise little PIs might adopt the same policy.”
“I want to know who he was, this H addict.” Karen insisted. “I want a name. Would Ray Flynn remember?”
“Ray?” Tim laughed. “He’d forgotten it by the next day. No, you won’t find out. It’s a long time ago. Seriously, love, I should leave the Boulter’s Green thing alone. Be very careful.”
“Is that a warning?”
“I know you. If I tried to warn you off, it would just make you more determined. But I do advise caution; I really do. Now, can we find something else to talk about?”
Karen sighed. “Okay – what?”
“Us. Let’s talk about us. I should have walked in on you,” He said earnestly, “Just now – I should have taken you to bed. I could have done, couldn’t I”
“I wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it wouldn’t have been like you – what’s the matter, Tim?”
“Then I wouldn’t have found out, you see?”
“No, I don’t see. What are you talking about?”
“If I was a more passionate bloke… I miss you, very much. I still want you.” His voice was unsteady. “But I decided to respect your privacy and make us some drinks instead. I went to the kitchen for cups. The cups were dirty …”
“Yeah? I’m sorry – I must have forgotten to wash them up last night.”
“Two cups, both warm…”
Karen’s heart skipped a beat. “Ah.”
“Somebody drinks black coffee, you drink white. Somebody prepared a breakfast tray…”
“I often make my breakfast on a tray..”
“And somebody wrote their ‘phone number, here,” Tim picked up a magazine from her table. “This is not your writing, Karen, is it?”
“It could be a client’s. I forget.” She walked past him to the window where her view of the town would distract her from his stare. “Bea was here last night. She stayed late, so she slept over.” Why was she lying when she had no need to lie?
“Where was Bopper?”
“I don’t know! She ‘phoned him – to say she wouldn’t be home.”
“Or,” Tim said. “Someone else was here before me today, before you were dressed; someone you didn’t want me to know about. You had breakfast from a tray together, where – in your bedroom? They left not long before I arrived and they were in a hurry, which is why they dashed their number down on a magazine cover. Alright, it could be just a girlfriend, but I’m quite good at this police stuff, and I’d stake my money on that being a man’s handwriting. You see how it looks? I just want an answer, darling. I’m entitled to that, aren’t I?”
Below Karen’s window the town was already wide awake; roads and streets of houses, no one of which would be free of lies. She said carefully, “Okay, yes. Someone was here, but we didn’t…that is, he…he slept there, on the sofa.”
“Karen, what’s happening? What’s wrong between us?”
Karen was tired, and her defences were down. “If you’re so good at ‘police stuff’ you should be aware of the need to check your facts. Nothing happened here. I’ve nothing to be guilty of; but yes, there is something that needs to be said.” She took a breath. “This doesn’t feel right. We don’t feel right anymore. That’s not because of anyone else, it’s simply between us.”
“Is it something I’ve done?”
“It doesn’t have to be anything anyone has done. You went away, which didn’t help. Now and again you just reappear, and it feels like I’m greeting a stranger. Nobody else has been in my bed, Tim. That’s in spite of the fact that we’ve met five times since you went to London last year – how many times have we slept together since then?”
“I don’t count, Karen…”
“Nor do I, but this is easy. Start with ‘one’; and it wasn’t exactly great, was it?”
“Okay. Okay mea culpa. With the new job and everything, I just haven’t – well, it hasn’t felt…”
“Right?” With a sigh, she turned to him, placing her hand on his chest. It was a chest she liked to touch when she wanted to actually feel his heartbeat, sense the gentle rise and fall of his breathing. “Exactly! Tim, darling, I’m not greedy, but what about my needs? I have to rest content with being the little woman, accepting whatever you’re prepared to give?”
He grasped her shoulders, his eyes betraying his desperation: “We could rectify that right now, if that’s what you want.”
Karen had to restrain a laugh, a bitter laugh which would have been cruel. “You have no idea how unattractive that offer sounds to me, especially this morning. Have you listened to a word I’ve been saying?” She paused for breath, trying to keep her thoughts level. “We live in different worlds now. We used to be together all the time, now we’re never together, and when we are we’ve nothing to share. Just accept it, my love. Go back to London; live your new life, yes?”
There were words of contrition she could have said, even then. They were churning inside her: a part of her longed to retract everything and fall into Tim’s arms because it would be so easy, it would feel so…so comforting. No. She had taken the step she had dreaded. She had crossed the line. There would be no reparation and there would be no tears – not, at least, until after; when he had gone.
“Let me get you out of this godforsaken backwater. Come with me – come to London! We’d be together all the time there. We could start again!”
Karen made no answer. She turned her head away to stare miserably through the window. The glass was speckled with first splashes of rain.
Tim sighed. “I guess that’s a ‘no’ then.” He said at last. “Look, this’ll change, I know it will. I’m staying at the County Hotel. If…”
“The County! That’s a big splash!” Karen tried to smile.
“Well, I had a special night planned. I’ve booked dinner, so if you change your mind – about anything – call me? Will you?”
Her heart couldn’t sink any lower; she had no more she could say. She just nodded, trying to avoid the tears she knew were filling his eyes too. One quick squeeze of his hand: no turning back. Tim Birchinall walked out of her apartment, and out of her life.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear – Karen knew this because she was awake. She had been awake for most of that night, striving with her conscience, fighting off visions of strange, angry men who wanted to hurt her for reasons she could not understand, though she spent all of the dark hours trying. Like a tiger caged she prowled her apartment, waiting for the buzzer to sound, or the thud of a heavy shoulder on her door.
She lasted until nine-thirty, through mouthfuls of toast, cups of coffee and magazine reading, before picking up the telephone. A woman’s voice answered. Wealth and privilege oozed through every vowel.
“Hello. Did you want to speak to Patrick?” A mental image of hundred-brushed flaxen hair was inescapable. “Are you perfectly certain you have the correct number? Patrick Hallcroft-Smythe? Oh, my god, has he got a girlfriend at last? We simply must meet – I’m Gabrielle, his sister? He should have mentioned me but I don’t expect he did. Do hold on to that receiver thingy and I’ll see if I can find him. Super to speak to you, Karen!” Gabrielle’s retreating voice was still audible. “Patrick’s found himself a girlfriend! Oh, my God!”
Karen waited. She held on for what seemed to be minutes, waiting for that rustle telephone receivers make as they nestle into your ear. “Hello – Karen?”
“I threw you out yesterday. I was rude. We didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“Absolutely no need. I trust everything went well? Listen, can I apologize for my sister? She’s quite impossible, I’m afraid.”
“I didn’t think so.” Karen paused, summoning her courage. “Pat, I hope you won’t judge me for being forward, or anything, but would you mind coming with me this afternoon? I’d like to have a look at this Boulter’s Green place and I’d value your thoughts.”
“It’s a fine day. Why not? I’ll pick you up at – what – two?”
“We’ll take my car. Make that two-thirty. And from my parents’ house – where you picked me up the night we went to the Stones concert? I believe I might invite myself to family lunch!”
© 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