If she were to judge, Karen thought as she watched the slumbering head beside her on the pillows, this would have to have been at once the worst decision of her life, and the most enjoyable. There could be no denying the ecstasy of the previous night, or her feelings, no, her desires for Patrick. The chaotic drive from her parents’ house to her apartment, the laughter; the moments of ineptitude, the intense passion of their love-making would become treasured memories. But neither could she deny her abandonment of the promise she had made to herself: that she would not become involved with the owner of that sleeping head. It was a relationship with no future, for however earnest he seemed, he was a son of wealthy parents. Not only did he move in a different world, he was younger than her – and that was important, wasn’t it?
Bemused to find herself even thinking of their minor age difference, she slipped from the bed with as much stealth as she could muster, deserting her sleeping companion for the less distracting atmosphere of her kitchen, where the percolator awaited her.
She had dated, of course she had. The years from sixteen were sprinkled with importunate boys, and men (not all of them so young), who saw her as their prize. And a few, a very few, she had accepted. Yet before Tim there had been no real intimacy. Making love with Tim had always been a frantic, clawing search for a little crock of gold they sometimes found, mostly didn’t. Painful, clumsy, unaware of his own strength he would hurt her a dozen ways and she would bite her lip at the wounds, continuing that quest. So what else could she expect? Not to discover that elusive treasure time after time, or to cling to someone so possessively that she could see no future anywhere other than within that moment…
Chiding herself for making comparisons, she took her coffee into her living room where, sitting at her table, she could look out over the buildings of the town, still demurely dressed in their negligee of morning mist. Ant processions of traffic were threading down from the hills or stringing beside the river like bright beads, vehicle metal caught in the long sun’s reflection. It was as if she saw it all for the first time.
“You were still here this morning.” She murmured half to herself, lacking the courage to voice her thoughts aloud. “That’s promising.”
“Oh, now this is serious!” His voice was right behind her. How had she had not heard him enter? He kissed her shoulder. “Good morning! Did you expect otherwise?”
Her little dragon of cynicism raised its bitter head, and spat: “We met, like a week ago, rich boy? I don’t know what to expect – what I have any right to expect.”
“You resent me?” His big hands clasped her arms, enwrapped her limbs and made her feel more certain than she should, perhaps. “Let me ask you a question then. Are you really over Tim? Am I a rebound or something more? See, I don’t know what to expect, either.”
“Touché, then, I suppose. I’m sorry.” She let herself sink back into his chest, took comfort in an enclosing arm that held her safely there. “Tim and I broke up a few days ago. It was a soft landing really – time, you know?” She caught herself, adding quickly, “It had to be done. It wasn’t because of you.”
“But you feel guilty.”
They lapsed into silence, watching the town rouse itself to face another Monday. Karen, knowing she should have been happy felt sad and teary, aware her eyes were filling as her mind was already full – of Tim – a scrapbook of memories, all the moments she thought had been forgotten. Yet her hand was grasping Pat’s, and the warmth of his grip was a feeling of home. How, how she wished! She was willing, so eager to be persuaded that this could all be real!
“If it isn’t Tim, then…you doubt me; you doubt us. This ‘rich boy’ thing. Why?”
“Pat, last night was wonderful, but this morning… There are the practical things. You need someone who can move easily in your world, someone who can fit into the parties, the social circle, the…”
“Are we on the same planet, here?”
“I think that’s exactly what I mean. Are we? Do you see the image I keep returning to, in my mind? If we were to become an item…”
“You’re entertaining that possibility, then?”
“Are you? If we were, sooner or later my family would have to meet yours. My dad would have to meet your dad – my dad who only lives for his football and who has never drunk tea from anything but a mug all his life, and mum, rabid socialist that she is…”
“You’re thinking you and I – we might become an item?”
“Pat! Have you been listening? Can’t you see how impossible this all is?”
“I get you’re ashamed of your family. You shouldn’t be.”
“Not ashamed, no, just…”
“Karen, my family makes carpets. Carpets, yes? For all my older sister puts on airs (and if you think she’s bad, wait until you meet my younger sister), as a family we’re not aristocracy or anything. We aren’t the Driscombes, we’re just people. Now if you’ve decided you don’t like me, or if you’re regretting your decision over Tim, I have to accept that; but if – and this is what I understand, love – if you are just fighting yourself over some stupid belief in our inequality…”
“Thank you, I’m not stupid! But I have to go to work. You have to go to work.” She told him.
“Work can wait.” He guided her gently to the couch and sat beside her. “Great guy that he is, my Dad’s not the brains of the family. My mother is, or was, a practising solicitor and a university lecturer: she has three Doctorates. She plays the piano so well she was contemplating a future on the concert circuit when Dad met her. My mother can do everything except cook.”
Karen made a face. “You’re not making me feel any more secure.”
“There’s no point in trying to hide things you’ll find out anyway. I am what I am, and maybe we’re different in some ways. Thing is, the differences don’t matter.”
“No, wait: listen, please – when you love someone it isn’t for the challenge they offer you, it’s about the small things. It’s about how you feel when they are next to you (just like this), how their eyes crease at the corners when they smile, the way their cheeks redden when they’re angry, that little wisp of hair that always escapes. You love them for those and a thousand other tweaks and habits. See? I said all that without mentioning class or money once.”
Karen’s heart was pounding despite herself. “You’re using the ‘L’ word.”
“I am, aren’t I?”
“We’ve only known each other for a…”
“Long enough. I think I knew the moment I met you…Karen, last night wasn’t just sex, it was transcendent; it was warm and loving and – I don’t know, it was just right, I suppose – absolutely bloody right! You must see that, too?”
She bit her lip. “You’re very, very good at this.”
“Oh, no; that phrase again! Don’t do that! Was it right, or wasn’t it?”
Her head was too full. Her thoughts were crammed with unanswerable questions. “Work,” she said. “We have to go to work.”
“I know. I’ll be in Harper’s Restaurant at half-past twelve. Will you come?”
“Let me think, Pat. Let me think.”
“I want to be with you, okay? I want to always, always be with you.”
And that was so beautiful that for a moment she let herself believe. “I’ll come.” She said.
Karen did not leave for work, not immediately. After Pat had departed to walk back to his car she spent some time just tidying her apartment, giving her hands something to do while her mind relived the last twenty-four hours in all their different colors, setting her heart leaping again, He had said that he loved her, and if she answered herself honestly, did she not feel the same? It was all happening too fast.
The small package Karen smuggled from Gavin Woodgate’s bedroom was secreted in her bag, where it had remained throughout her weekend. She had forgotten about it. She delayed leaving for her office long enough to unwrap and reveal its contents – a wad of well-fingered, faded pieces of paper; old letters mostly, with a couple of photographs between the folds of one. They had a lot in common, those pictures. They were both in monochrome depicting the same girl, posed in such a way as to avoid any doubt of her nakedness or its purpose, and in each picture the man she was with was also naked. The faces of the men were turned towards the camera, and although Karen did not recognize either of them, she recognized the girl.
This was the same girl who had reached through the window of her car on Lower Bridge Street a few nights since – a girl named Kathy. From the evidence it appeared Kathy was helping to exploit the sexual proclivities of these two males in every possible sense. Whoever they were, these men, their success and happiness would not have improved if their exposure reached the wrong eyes.
The content of the letters was all too predictable. Each lavished endearments on Kathy, the skinny prostitute in the photographs, the pathetic burblings of men in obese middle age who had persuaded themselves she was the girl of their dreams:
‘My darling, you don’t know how much I love you’.
‘Last night was fantastic. I can’t wait until I see you again’.
‘You have taught me so much about love…’
There were also less poetic offerings, some specific biological references which she skirted over. There were mentions of appointments: ‘meet you at…’ or ‘don’t come to the office, I’ll see you on…’
The letters seemed determined to mock her. They spoke graphically of the insincerity of men and the cavernous void of their promises. The ‘L’ word – what, after all, was it really worth, other than a means to encourage compliance? Karen bit her lip. It was time she went to work. She scooped up the letters and their illustrations, put them back in her coat pocket and headed for her car. The morning traffic was already clearing, so she had little time to gather her thoughts.
Once behind her desk, she was able to assess the evidence more objectively. The letters were clearly not addressed to a prostitute who charged by the hour. Since Kathy was unlikely to offer herself to middle-aged men for anything but hard cash that had to mean she was assisting Gasser Gates in a blackmail racket; a good one, too, for a spotty teenager and a basic streetwalker. But the evidence was stale, and if Gasser had not slept at home for two years, it had probably outlived its usefulness. Kathy was back on the streets, so had he turned his back on this probably lucrative source of income, or had he moved on to use a different girl – Anna Parkinson, for instance?
“Hello Ray. I’m glad I caught you. Can you talk?”
“Tim? Tim Birchinall?” The voice on the other end of the telephone line crackled. “Yes, I’m off duty, chap. Nice to ‘ear from you, mind. You, still with the Met?”
Tim laughed. “Even I don’t move that fast. Yes, still with ‘em. A lot less complicated.”
“That I can believe, I can.” Constable Ray Flynn assented. “So, you’re not on duty either then?”
“Not until tonight. I was down at the weekend, Ray.”
“You old bugger! Why didn’t you give me a call? We could have downed a few pints, chap. Difficult to find a good drinkin’ companion these days.”
“Listen, Ray. Karen finished with me on Saturday…”
“Wha’? Oh, that’s a pity, that is! Nice girl, I always thought. Still, ‘tis her loss. It’s really over then, is it?”
“Afraid so. I guess I had it coming. I think I just have to get used to it, but it’s hard, you know?”
“Yes, it will be, chap. Yes, it will.”
“Ray, there aren’t any changes in your neck of the woods, are there? It’s still going on? Only Karen said something about Turnbull.”
The line was silent for a few seconds, then Flynn said: “Oh lord, did she? Yes, it’s still goin’ on, Tim. Fact is, old lover, there’s been a few problems lately, since you been gone. Between you an’ me, I’m not sure ever’thing’s quite under control, if you take my meaning. Like sunspots, isn’ it?”
“Y’know, solar flares, an’ that. Periods of extra activity. Won’t never stop, I reckon. ‘Least in our lifetime.”
“And the Green. She mentioned the Green.”
“Well, I can’t do nothin’, you know I can’t.”
“Career isn’t everything, Ray.”
“When you’re wed with two kiddies it is. I see what you’re workin’ up to and you got no right to ask. As to career, I could say the same to you. You aren’t got my responsibilities, have you? Anyway, I’m sure it isn’t…”
“So am I.” Tim cut in hastily. “Or at least, I hope it’s nothing. I tried to get her to come to London, Ray. She wouldn’t come. But she was my girl, and I’m not going to stop having feelings for her. If you hear anything – anything – could you just let me know?”
“I can do that of course. Of course, chap.”
“Are you Mark Potts?”
The youth’s gawky, under-confident stance made him easy to pick out. Besides, the bar of the King’s Arms was less than crowded. It was Monday lunchtime, early, before the bar-meals rush, if there was one at a place like the King’s Arms. As Karen walked in he saw her in the mirror at the back of the bar and shifted around on his stool, stood up awkwardly.
“You’re Karen, then.”
“Good guess, Mark. How did you know?”
“Well, you sort of stand out, don’t you? Especially in a place like this. Drink?”
“No, no. Can I buy you one? After all, you’ve put yourself out for me.” Karen nodded to the barman, who had suddenly become attentive. “Same again for Mark, please?”
“What’s this about? What was it you said on the ‘phone, mutual friend? Who?” He had a very snubbed round nose which, planted as it was above a wide, slack mouth made him look something like a rather amiable pig.
“Oh.” Mark Pott’s optimistic expression crumbled like old sandstone. “I’ve got nothing to say where Gasser’s concerned.” He turned away. “So if that’s all…”
“Friend of yours, though, isn’t he?”
“I’ve got nothing to say.”
“I mean, you must be worried, about his disappearance?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Have you ever seen him with this girl?” Karen waved Anna Parkinson’s picture in front of him.
“No, can’t say I have.”
“Not a very nice guy, Gasser, by all accounts,” Karen said. “Lots of people must be quite glad he’s disappeared.”
“So? Look, Karen, if this is about the last time I saw him, I told the police all I know. I’ve nothing else to say. Terry…” He called across to the barman: “Don’t worry about that drink, mate. This lady can save her money.”
“You go ahead, Terry.” Karen insisted. “Mark, I’m not the police. I’m being employed to search for Gasser and I just need a few pieces for the jigsaw, that’s all.”
“I’ve nothing to say.”
“You know, I’ve been in this job for a while now, and I’ve learned the ones with nothing to say are the ones with something to hide. So I have to ask myself; what could you be hiding?”
“Nothing! I’m not hiding anything – why would I want to hide something? You’re talking rubbish, you are. Leave me alone!”
“You were the last person to see Gasser, is that right, before he dropped off the map?”
“Yeah, that’s what they tell me. So?”
“You passed him in your car while he was out walking on the Pegram road; on the Sunday afternoon?”
“I don’t believe you,” Karen said, watching Mark Potts’ eyes. They gave her the confirmation she needed.
“Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it? Why not?” He muttered.
“Because the place you said you saw him was miles from anywhere. An ambitious distance for an after-lunch stroll, Mark, and Gasser Gates isn’t much of a one for walking, is he?”
“You don’t know. He might be”
“Any more than he’s a fanatical train-spotter or philatelist, or any of the other junk he makes up about his life. Believe me, I do know. So now, why would you lie about seeing him on that Sunday?”
“I didn’t lie!”
“You see, ever since I started investigating this case I’ve been dogged by the feeling someone is paying to protect themselves.”
“Yes. But I don’t think anyone is paying you. I might be wrong…” Her pause was intentional. She was watching for reactions, an alteration in expression, the twitching that had begun in the middle finger of his right hand. “No, if you’re lying it’s to protect yourself, because the last time you actually saw Gasser was that Saturday night, wasn’t it?”
“What? What makes you think that?”
“Because you go bowling with Gasser on Saturdays and the manager of the bowl remembers you and Gasser were there, and Gasser was drunk. Something went wrong, didn’t it Mark, on your way home? I’m not here to accuse you, I just want to make sense of the stories about Gasser and find out why he’s vanished, that’s all. Was he trying to blackmail you?”
“Look, Miss whatever you’re here to do, I’ve nothing to say. I told the police all I know, and I’m sorry Gasser’s dropped out of sight, because I’m sure a few people’ll be wanting to talk to him. But suppose that’s why he disappeared, eh? Gasser’s that type of bloke, Miss. Now, I’ll thank you for the drink and respectfully ask you to leave me alone.”
Karen had to rush, but she managed to reach Harpers Restaurant as she had agreed with Pat, at half-past twelve. Harpers, an expensive centre of culinary excellence for a town like Caleybridge, was one of those eateries that relied for its existence upon assignations and trysts, a passing trade of business-people and hot lovers wooed by its discreetly exclusive atmosphere rather than the food. Pat had not arrived, so Karen took a window table behind opaque etched glass, ordered wine and waited.
Misty shadows passed on the pavement outside. The noise from the wheeling herd of traffic was muted but incessant. Twelve-thirty became twelve-forty-five, then one o’clock.
And still Karen waited.
At what precise time did doubt become certainty; when did the cruel truth dawn? One-fifteen, or one-thirty? Pat was not coming. And though she tried to rationalize it; to answer her heart’s questions with simple, straightforward reasons, only one could convince her. For all the pretty speeches, the skilful deceptions, the beautiful, beautiful lies, last night was all the consummation he had wished. Pat had fulfilled his needs, he had used her, and now his interest in her was spent. Before it had really started, it was over.
© 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