Several glasses of wine passed Karen’s lips before she quitted the twilight of Harper’s Restaurant that Monday lunchtime. They were the price to be paid for courage to face the brighter world of the street. This was the cynical Karen, the less talented sister, the wench from a peasant family who had let herself taste euphoria for a brief while, only to have it slip through her fingers. The last few weeks had been unreal, a fantasy. What else should she have expected?
Out on the street it did not seem that anyone shared her grief. The passers-by did just what passers-by do: they passed by.
Karen wandered for a while, wanting to return to Albert Park where the old bandstand could offer refuge from threatened rain. There she might spend time refreshing her memories of Suzanne, reminding herself again of her sister’s warnings about the immutable divisions of class and the duplicitousness of men, and there she might have gone, had not memories of her stalker deterred her. Believing he would be out there, somewhere, she felt the lack of Patrick’s protection, so she mingled with the shoppers in the town, oblivious to the rain, meandering from shop window to shop window until her shoulders became wet and her hair began to drip. Since sooner or later she would have to do her mooching indoors, Debenham’s Department Store seemed a likely refuge; which was where she met Gina – Gina, from the old days of Tim’s rugby club travels, someone who had once been a friend.
On an afternoon when the last thing Karen wanted was to meet anybody, Gina would have been lower on her wish list than many.
She emerged from the main doors as Karen was entering. They almost collided.
“Hello, Karen! Long time no see, darlin’, how are you? Feeling chirpy, yeah?”
“Bright as a button!” Karen lied, trying to match Gina’s ever-ebullient mood and signally failing. Then: “Why, especially – the chirpy thing, I mean?”
“Well, the engagement?” Karen’s hand had been concealed by her bag: now she revealed her fingers, causing Gina to blurt out: “You’re not wearin’ it, then? The ring?”
“What ring?” Karen asked, mystified.
Gina’s face betrayed her mental anguish as the low gears of her understanding meshed. “Nothin’ – no, nothin’,” She mumbled. “Stupid old Gina, puttin’ her foot in it again.”
“Gina, explain – what ring?”
“Oh, Lord, babe, I just assumed you’d accept him, that’s all! When Mike told me Tim was goin’ to propose on Saturday I thought ‘about time’ – I didn’t dream…”
“No,” said Karen. There was a leaden pause.
Karen had to rush, she said, apologizing; she was getting wet. Adding the obligatory ‘meet up sometime’ promise, she bolted for the shelter of the store.
Only in late afternoon did she pull herself together sufficiently to visit Gasser Gates’ other alleged ‘friend’.
Perry Roberts lived in a terrace house, one among an identical row of red brick dwellings on the sort of road that repeated itself again and again in Caleybridge. Karen had the kind of luck the goddess owed her by this time because no sooner had the Roberts’s doorbell been answered, by Perry’s mother, than a blue Ariel motorbike rolled up beside the kerb.
“There you are then!” Mrs Roberts said cheerfully. “Perfect timing. He’s just back from work.” And as Perry was removing his helmet she called over: “Perry. This nice young lady’s come to see you, dear!”
If Karen had hoped to question Perry before he learned of her conversation with Mark Potts that morning, it was a false hope: her one advantage, however, was Perry’s mother. Mrs Roberts remained doggedly beside her son throughout their interview.
“It’s that Potts boy, he’s always in some sort of trouble, that one. Now, dear; sugar? Milk?”
Karen accepted tea. She addressed Perry, “Saturday night, four weeks ago. You were returning from the Mecca Bowl in Baronchester. Who was driving, Perry?”
Perry said: “What are you talking about?” But his eyes said something else.
“I know you got to the bowl, I called the manager. You’re regulars – he remembers you. He said there were four of you in your group and you’d had a few drinks – a good time. You all left together, quite late. You, Mark, and Gasser in the car – and one other. There was someone else in the car, too, wasn’t there? ”
“There wasn’t no-one else there…I don’t know what you’re trying to say, Miss, but there wasn’t nothing. Nothing!”
“You tell the lady!” Mrs Roberts snapped. “Perry, tell the truth, will you?”
“He’s been moody for a month now,” Mrs. Roberts told Karen. “I thought something was wrong.”
Karen repeated her question, “Well, Perry – Who was driving?”
Perry sat for a moment saying nothing, his mouth opening and closing as though he wanted to speak, but couldn’t. At last, he said: “Mark; he was driving. It’s his car, he always does.”
“So?” Karen took a sip of Mrs Roberts’s tea. “Mark drove you all home and he was drunk. Did you crash?”
“No! But we might have done if Gasser had his way. What you don’t see, Miss, is what Gasser’s like. He’s mad, is Gasser!” Perry had obviously taken a decision to tell all. “Look, Gasser can’t hold his beer, right? Now I don’t want to explain too much about that except to say it’s takin’ a long time to get home because we’re stopping every ten minutes for Gasser to…you know. Anyway, he’s still drinking bottled beer in the car and Mark’s getting tired of stopping so he tells Gasser the next time he needs to stop he has to use a bottle. Well, Gasser gets mad. He’s sitting behind Mark and he wraps his legs around Mark’s neck – while he’s driving, see? We nearly do crash, this time. We has to stop, anyway. Skidded, and all.”
“All right, so you’d stopped – then what?”
“Mark loses his rag. He grabs Gasser and throws him out of the car. He’s hitting him. He punches him until he falls down, then he starts puttin’ his boot in. We dragged him off, otherwise he’d have killed him, yeah?. Yeah, that was it.”
Perry lapsed into miserable silence, wringing his hands together between his knees and staring at the carpet. Mrs Roberts’s eyes were wide and staring. “Oh my good gawd you did. You killed him!”
“No, Mum! No we didn’t! Honestly we didn’t! Alright, Mark duffed him up, but he had it coming. We just left him there, that’s all. We drove off and left him there.”
Karen set her lips. “He was alive when you left him?”
“Yes. He was moaning, and that, but he wasn’t dead! He was sittin’ up, for fuck’s sake.”
“Bloody hell!” Perry muttered.
“Where did this happen?” Karen asked.
“It was on the Pegram road. Another few minutes, we’d have been home.”
“Which is where Mark Potts claims he saw Gasser on the Sunday afternoon.”
“Yeah, well. We agreed to tell the police that. Like he saw him after and he was alright, y’know, give ‘em the idea he was pissed and slept it off in the hedge or sommat. We didn’t want them accusing us of GBH, or nothing. Wasn’t Mark’s fault.”
“What, you beat him up and it wasn’t your fault?”
“Not me! I never touched him. But it was due. He’s always actin’ above hisself, and he ’s a right prick. Nobody likes him.”
“You do.” Karen reminded him. “You go bowling with him, regularly.”
“Only when he wants. When he wants we has to go with him.”
“I ain’t sayin’ no more.”
“Does he have some kind of hold on you? Does he force his friendship on you?”
Perry did his best to look offended. “No! No, it isn’t nothin’ like that. I ain’t sayin’nothin’ more.”
“And this all happened on the Pegram road?”
“Yeah. We was takin’ Gasser home, wasn’t we? We was goin’ to drop him off at his house.”
“No, you weren’t. Gasser hasn’t lived there for two years. Why were you on the Pegram road?”
“We thought he lived there. He always says he does. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ more.” Perry Roberts stared fixedly at his hands.
“The fourth person in the car. Where did you drop him off?”
“I told you there weren’t no fourth person. I ‘m sayin’ nothin’ more.”
Thanking Perry’s mother for the tea, Karen left her to complete the interrogation. She had all she needed, or at least all she could achieve.
Driving home, Karen tried afresh to justify the character of Gavin Woodgate, or, as she had now come to know him, Gasser Gates, in her mind. What demonic touch had formed someone so socially unacceptable, so morally corrupt that he could only achieve a kind of friendship through blackmail or threats? What was he – and what, given opportunity, was he capable of becoming?
Her apartment would be empty, and though she had tidied it that morning her bed would still be the bed where Pat had slept beside her. The prospect of the intimate space she had so loved when she first moved in there, not a year since, now seemed cavernous and full of remorseful echoes.
Her head rebuked her for her naivety, but no matter how he had deceived her, her heart wailed at her loss of Patrick, and in the privacy of her car she was free, at last, to let the tears flow.
Every Monday morning in Beaconshire County Planning Department there was a meeting of the Planning Committee. It was part of Patrick’s work to prepare the agenda.
Jacqui Greenway was already in his office when he arrived. “My god, Patrick, what have you been doing with yourself?”
He was evasive. “I’m a bit tired, I guess.”
“A bit? Whatever it was, it didn’t involve much sleeping, did it?”
“No, I don’t suppose it did.” He acknowledged, smiling weakly.
Jacqui’s voice dropped. “Small post this morning.” Did he detect a slight change in her inflexion? “I’ll get some coffees together and see you down there.”
‘Down there’ referred to the Conference Room. Patrick gave her a brief grin which she would understand as ‘thank you’, because they shared this close non-verbal communication that had evolved over the years they had worked together. The slight buck of her hips as she walked away was a kind of cheeky ‘you owe me one’. He understood that, too.
Mail was rarely interesting. A number of submissions from petitioners wanting permission to develop land or to build upon it; the occasional confidential memo from the ‘legals’ in the Clerks Department, and once in a while a letter of pleading from a desperate applicant whose scheme had been rejected.
Patrick sloughed through the pitifully turgid sheaves of paper, looking for anything which could refer to that day’s meeting agenda and trying not to think of Karen. Beyond the partition wall the sounds of Jacqui making those coffees, outside his opened window the song of birds: across the room on his table a pile of white, pristine agendas on the left, a pile of minutes from the last meeting on the right. Clinking of cups, a blackbird telling its tale of forgotten winter; Karen’s white nakedness, her cascade of fair hair on the pillow, the voluble hiss of the old office kettle, the shouting of outraged sparrows, the deep wisdom of Karen’s blue, blue eyes…
Jacqui assembling cups on a tray, the click of her heels to the tea room door. Jacqui, who was undeniably attractive in a serious sort of way. One last letter. The carking of wheeling rooks, Karen’s bright smile and still a taste in his mouth of her salt tears. Jacqui’s heels clipping briskly away down the corridor.
We are writing with regard to your Planning Committee’s decision concerning our proposed opening of a Turf Accountant’s business on…
Jacqui rattling the tray as she opened the big double doors of the Conference Room. Karen’s warm flesh supple and wanting in his arms…
Patrick froze for a moment; a powerful, gripping moment that wrenched him from his reverie. A power that shattered the yoke of shock from his shoulders and sent him racing into the corridor, sprinting down its length past a procession of office doors with a succession of heads emerging: questions, alarmed expressions. All in headlong rush: no idea, no plan. The Conference Room doors were open wide. A brief glimpse beyond of Jacqui on the floor, her body twitching, her blood spreading around her head in a black pool. A heavy door, thrust with great force to slam against his skull… then nothing.
Out of greyness. “Mr Hallcroft’s conscious, I think…”
Bob Stawkley. It was Bob.
“All right, sir. Get him talking if you can, Don’t let him move. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“Bob?” Mouth felt like a sawmill floor.
“”Hello, Patrick. Don’t try to talk, son. Just keep still.”
“Yeah.” Stawkley’s crouching figure seemed to fade. Karen was asking him something: “That’s not a euphemism, is it?”
“Conference Room.” He said. “Maps. Water?”
Bob Stawkley over him, grey-faced. “Yes, Patrick. Conference Room.” Then, louder, to someone else: “He’s wandering; will you hurry, please?”
“I’m doing my best, sir. Keep him talking. I’ll be right there.”
Another voice. “You got that one?”
“Yes, we’re alright here. Can you take care of the lad?”
A new face bending over him. “Hello, son. Now whatever happened to you?”
“Still here, Patrick.”
Stawkley’s voice was laden with the sadness of his answer. “I don’t know, Patrick. I don’t know.”
Grey again. Nothing.
Her mind empty of all but regret, Karen parked her car in her home street. Time hung heavily, the evening stretched, empty, before her. So later she might ‘phone one of her friends, maybe suggest drinks with Bea, or try to winkle out some entertainment from the listlessness of Monday in her tiny town.
She switched off the engine, spent time with her radio hearing out a classic song that suited her mood: ‘When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes’…
He was in her car, her nemesis: before she had time to think, or to react, or even cry out, the door was flung wide, and his tall, solid form had plunged into the seat beside her! The sight of his pale sun-deprived flesh in its frame of unkempt hair shocked through her in a lurid stab of voltage. His rank odour of decay brought a gorge rising to her throat.
Gasping to regain the breath that had left her body, Karen instinctively reached for the handle to her own door. A big hand snatched her arm as something metallic jabbed into her ribs.
“Try to leave and I will kill you.” The voice was colder than the words it spoke.
She did not struggle, although the nerves were there, rising from her stomach in a butterfly host – rather, she stamped them down. It was happening. This was something that had been inevitable since her first encounter with this creature. What had been her sister’s wisdom; ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’? Well, she would face him. She would not show fear.
Suppressing that inward shudder, Karen forced herself to match his stare. No hate burned in those eyes this time, no expression at all, yet they left no room for doubt. She felt the cold blade of fate on her neck. The executioner was measuring his stroke. This creature was the axe, a keenly honed blade of utter intensity ready to carry out a sentence. He would not be distracted, he could not be contained. She measured her words. “What do you want from me?”
It might have been a laugh or the sound of a stone across a steel blade; “My dear, you know that, don’t you? You’ve been expecting me. You are mine, Karen. I’ve come for you.”
She responded evenly. “Flattered as I am, I must politely decline. I don’t belong to anyone.”
“Well there we must disagree,” He exhibited a calmness that seemed unnatural, as though not blood but shards of ice were coursing through his veins. “Everyone belongs to someone, and you belong to me. That is a fact, Karen, but it is a conversation for another time. I require that you drive us away from here. Now.”
Her retort, “I’m not driving anywhere with you!” earned her a second jab in her ribs from what she assumed must be a gun, although her captor kept the object itself covered: she was just beginning to weigh up the odds of it being a bluff when all responsibility was lifted, very dramatically, from her shoulders. A red car that had turned into the road from its higher end and seemingly destined to exit at the bottom suddenly swerved in front of Karen’s car, braking violently and almost making contact. No sooner had it stopped than both occupants leapt from it and the driver, whose confident stride clearly defied argument, rapped on the window beside the dark man.
Almost simultaneously the car’s passenger, a tall brunette in blue striped sweater and jeans, pulled Karen’s door open. “Come on, sweetie, you come this way.”
Was it a gun? Would her assailant use it now, even if it were? The dark man answered that question for her. “My dear, it seems our little jaunt must be postponed. See you soon, very soon.”
He opened his door, coolly, drawing himself up to face the driver from the other car, who did not back off. Karen slipped quickly from her seat. “Careful, he may have a gun.”
Her new companion warned: “Careful Paul!”
The one who was Paul grinned evilly, pushing his face forward so it was inches from the dark man. “What, in front of two witnesses? Guns on the street? Not your style, is it, you creepy bastard? Just leave quietly, now. Right now.”
Without a word, the shadow that hung over Karen’s life stepped past Paul and walked away up the road. At the top he turned and looked back, head cocked to one side like a bird watching a worm, hair hanging about his face. Then he rounded the corner and was gone.
The girl breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s over. Super! Oh, god, I hope you are Karen, are you? We haven’t broken up a perfectly harmless domestic, or anything?”
Karen managed a shaky smile. “No, I’m Karen.”
“Absolutely! We knew the moment we saw you! Say what you like about Patsy, his descriptions ace it every time. Now, the frightfully macho one over there is Paul, my boyfriend, and I’m Gabrielle Hallcroft-Smythe, though I hope you’ll call me Gabby, everyone else seems to. Hop in, sweetie, my ghastly brother is desperate to see you – although what you see in him is quite beyond me.”
© 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