The back door of Radley Court opened onto a cobblestone courtyard that was partly surrounded by the main house on two-and-a-half sides. Opposite Karen and Gabrielle as they emerged from the kitchen stood a shortened two-storey wing, its smaller four-paned sash windows conveying none of the hauteur of their counterparts on the front of the house, but twice the mystery. To the right of this stub of building and divided from it by a path, a fenced paddock was tenanted by a single, depressed-looking Shetland pony.
“Her name’s Bella,” Gabrielle explained. “She has problems, poor sweet.”
She led the way beside the kitchen wing, past a tack room to the final single storey portion of the wing, which consisted of loose boxes. Here, against a muted background of culinary industry emanating from the kitchen, she allowed her enthusiasm to bubble over. She was certainly passionate about her horses – all four of them, though she unashamedly favoured a bay with a white blaze.
“This is the absolutely best horse in the world!” She planted a kiss on the horse’s nose. “He’s called Chuffy and he’s utterly fab, aren’t you, darling?”
Chuffy reciprocated by tossing his head and showing off outrageously.
“Then this is Shiner,” Shiner, a strawberry roan, surveyed his two visitors stoically for a moment, before sidling forward to be greeted. “You’re Mummy’s horse, yes, sweetie? You don’t do anything unless there’s a treat at the end, do you? ‘What’s in it for me’, that’s Shiner’s philosophy.”
The last box was occupied by Percy, the Suffolk, huge and amiable.
“Mums bought him on a whim because nobody wanted him, and now we know why. He has his breakfast delivered on a lorry!”
Karen, who had never ridden, learned more about horses in an hour that evening than she could possibly want to have learned, while her friendship with Gabby deepened to the most personal and conspiratorial level.
“Patsy gets awfully serious sometimes. I expect you’ve noticed? Oh, and have you caught him doing that thing with his tackle? He seems to get dreadfully muddled up down there, bless him! Gosh, I shouldn’t have asked that, should I?”
Within a space of a few precious hours Karen had discovered new friends, each of whom had some special quality she found endearing. Gabby’s enthusiasm, Paul’s gentle, ambling sincerity, Jackson Hallcroft’s mesmeric charm, and Gwendoline, who disguised an incisive intelligence with the overt appearance of a hopelessly disorganized human being. Patrick acquainted Karen with the truth.
“Didn’t I say? Before she married Dad she was a solicitor. She could have had quite a career, apparently. Don’t play chess with our mother, she’ll wipe the floor with you. Oh, and she loves horses as much as Gabs, unfortunately.”
Dinner was augmented by lively conversation and a friendly interrogative process to which Karen submitted willingly enough, because it was right that the Hallcrofts should know all they wanted about her and she found herself actually wanting to tell them.
With night came rain, which stimulated a bustle of activities; Patrick braving the elements to cover his car before joining Gabrielle in her routine around the stables, Paul assisting Jackson in stowing away garden tools.
Karen joined Pat’s mother in the kitchen to ‘clear away’, a feeble contrivance which lost credibility the moment they switched on the lights because the working surfaces, cupboards and shelves were pristine and the washing up, left in the hands of Mrs Beatty, already done. That good lady was in the process of finishing her day as they entered, donning her coat from a hook by the outside door.
“I’ve left the breakfast stuff in the fridge, tonight, Mrs Hallcroft. Mrs B will sort that out in the morning. Good night to you. And to you, young lady.” She gave Karen a smile that was uncomfortably close to a smirk.
Karen was taken aback and perhaps did not disguise it. When she came to herself she realized Gwendoline was watching her. “There’s another Mrs B?” She asked, by way of a diversionary tactic.
“Mrs Buxham, she does mornings. You have to be on your mettle, though. She has a way of making your bed while you’re still in it. Do you like espresso coffee, Karen? I’m afraid I can’t get the machine to work. Would you care to try?”
An espresso coffee maker glowered defiantly from one of the kitchen’s less cluttered corners. Karen admired it.
“I have this aversion,” Gwendoline explained while Karen tinkered, “to kitchen machinery. It utterly defeats me, I’m afraid. You mustn’t mind Mrs Beatty. She can be very – how shall I say – direct?”
Karen weighed her words carefully. “Thoughts once harboured are better expressed.” She said. “Where’s the coffee?”
“Third from the right, bottom shelf. One might hesitate, sometimes, for fear of causing offence, don’t you think?”
“I think I’m not easily offended.” The filter in the machine looked as if it had been there since it left the factory, so Karen scraped it into a bin. “Have you any more of these, Mrs Hallcroft?”
“Gwendoline, please – or Gwen. Do you know I’ve no idea? Try the shelf above the plate rack. Although when the subject is one’s own son, I suppose it might be necessary.”
Karen tracked down the filters in a lower cupboard. “It should work!” She said brightly.
“What do you think? I ask, because I find this a peculiar reversal. Isn’t it usually the father who seeks assurances from his daughter’s suitor? And here I am…should it be making that gurgling noise?”
“It’s heating the water.”
“Ah! That’s obviously where I have been going wrong. We’re very fond of him, you know.”
“Of course you are. And so am I.” Karen replied, adding: “In spite of myself. Cups?”
“Oh, yes – I’ll get some. That looks awfully interesting. Is it working?”
“Absolutely!” Karen exclaimed, borrowing Gabby’s favourite word. “We simply have to intercept the outcome…”
The cups arrived just in time, and in the slightly panic-driven process of producing the miraculous beverage, the main thread of conversation was lost. It would not remain buried, however. As they sat at the table, tasting their success, Gwendoline said: “In spite of yourself?”
“I think I anticipated this conversation.”
“And I wasn’t sure how I would answer the charge.”
“He is very young, you see.”
“Yes.” Karen acknowledged. “I’m the older woman – not by much, but still enough to be frowned upon, especially where our differences in fortune are concerned.”
“Do you know, this coffee is quite delicious? Well done, Karen! He is very gullible at times. He can be easily led.”
“I’m not the one who is leading, in that sense.”
“You’ve slept with him, of course.”
“There is no better way to lead a man, is there, Karen? Men think with their balls, dear. Don’t tell me you are unaware of that. In your bed they’ll promise you anything…”
“Please stop?” Karen begged. “You’re beginning to make me sound like a fortune-seeking harlot and I’m not. Believe me I’m not! You’re laying out all the reasons I’ve given myself for ending our relationship, not my scheme for tying him down. The truth I face is that I’m very fond of Pat. I wanted to walk away, I really did – still do, perhaps. But…”
“It’s happening very fast, Karen!”
“I know; I know. And I keep trying to hold back, but everything just seems to conspire to keep us together. I don’t mind about money – if you cut him off and we had to live in a garret it would be alright. It would be heaven. Oh, god, what am I saying? I thought it was uniquely your husband’s gift to inspire fits of verbal irresponsibility, but you’ve got it too…”
“Have I?” Gwendoline laughed. “I wonder though if we always find the truth. How shall I phrase it – have you ‘found something special’ with Patrick?”
With all her self-erected barriers tumbling before her, Karen suddenly found she needed to admit it. “Yes,” she murmured. “I believe I have.”
“And this has nothing to do with his protecting you, or shared danger, or good old-fashioned lust?”
“It may. But it’s real, nonetheless.”
“Well then, we’ve finished our coffee, haven’t we? Perhaps we should go and find out what your boyfriend is doing, and sort out some night things for you.”
Karen could barely hide her incredulity: “Is that it?”
Gwendoline studied her fingers. “A long time ago, when I was a junior in chambers, a large, very attractive man with a legal issue caught my attention. We were married within a month of meeting one another. That was twenty-six years and three children ago, and we’re still together. Love? Yes, I love him. But love is always a frantic, emotionally turbulent thing to begin – it’s what is left when the embers start to cool that matters: whether friendship is there, after all the fury. You have to wait at least ten years to find that out.
“So, what can I do as a mother? If what you have is a week or two of passion, I will see it flare out. If you are ‘meant’ to be together, I don’t want to be the one to stand in your way, either of you. All I ask is if you have to break his heart, be gentle, will you?”
Neither parent was present when their children accompanied two bottles of wine to a small room at one corner of the house that they referred to as the den.
“Mother retires early with her books and Dad goes to his study in the evenings,” Patrick explained. “He’s working. He’s always working.”
Either by neglect or intent, the den had no electric light. Its rich, sand-coloured walls danced with candle shadows, choreographed by standing candelabra as old as the house itself. In winter the room would be induced to warmth by the flickering of a small wood fire, but tonight the hearth only promised, its fire-basket of logs waiting to be lit. Patrick lounged upon an old overstuffed couch against the window wall with Karen at his side. Paul and Gabrielle sat on a similar couch across the room, leaving space between them on the seat which was quickly claimed by Petra.
“Pat.” Karen decided to broach the subject that troubled her most. “You believe you were attacked because you ignored that note…”
Pat blinked at her, owlish in the subdued light. “Yeah, this note.” He sat up, foraging in his pocket and producing the piece of paper he had found on his car windscreen. “It’s a bit smudged but you can read what it says.” He passed it to Karen. “I kept it specially.”
“Mr Nasty put this on your windscreen sometime in the afternoon of the stakeout?”
“Maybe. It was wet when I found it, Look.”
“So it would have been Mr Nasty who was responsible for what happened to you this morning.”
“It seems logical. I can’t think of anyone else who would hate Jacqui or me that much. But I don’t think he did it himself.”
“It could have been him.”
“Possibly; I didn’t see anyone. Here’s the thing, though. Whoever attacked us had detailed inside knowledge: no-one outside the offices would be familiar with our routine – we don’t exactly publicise it.”
“So who would know? Who could know?”
“Someone studying us pretty closely – spy, rather than spymaster. Get the facts, report them to someone, get paid, maybe…”
Karen winced. “I’m beginning to feel completely paranoid! When I think of it, the man knew I would be walking home, the night of the storm – which route I would take, what time I would be at the bridge…it would have to be that policeman told him that. The police couldn’t be behind it all, surely? I know they don’t like me, but…”
“No. In on it, yes, instigating it, no. Who first set you off on the Boulter’s Green goose chase?”
“Frank Purton, I suppose. Oh and Wilson, who said Gasser was last seen near there.”
“We were talking about this, this afternoon in visiting hours, and remember that was before your last contretemps with your hide-bound friend. It’s even more certain now, to me, at least.”
Paul said: “Karen, I asked my olds about Boulter’s Green and it has quite a reputation among local psychics. There have been, reputedly – nothing certain, never is with these things – ‘events’ associated with the place; visions of a ‘dark angel’, things that disappeared, and so on? You seem to have stumbled on Ghost Metropolis. Oh, and incidentally, the ruins aren’t cottages, they never were.”
“No? So the address on the Turnbull letter…”
“A complete fabrication. Originally, the meadow the ruins stand in was ‘Boulter’s Field’. In mediaeval times it was part of the Driscombe estate, and there was one building upon it, their family chapel…”
Paul nodded. “A small one, yes. Matthias Boulter A mining prospector, bought the meadow from the Driscombes. He must have given them a good price because they redefined their estate borders at the river and built a new chapel, which still stands at the North end of the house. Boulter never mined the land – lead prices dipped, maybe, or it proved to be a false hope. Anyway, the second ruin is the remains of an office or a shed for tools. Now, am I good, or what?”
“Brilliant!” Karen enthused “The fact it was a chapel could explain those graves. But we still haven’t made a connection with my stalker.”
“You’re supposed to be the detective.” Patrick reminded her.
“I know, but I never said I was a good detective. Indulge me.”
“Could it be that your Mr Nasty is being employed by these people to hurt you, or wreak revenge for something…?”
“…Or kill me, you mean.”
“Yes, alright. I was trying not to say that.” Patrick grimaced. “Could you have done something to offend some high-up in the town – or could you maybe have information that might do damage if it got out?”
“Not that I know of. But kill me? Bad as they are, the police could never be implicated in something like that.”
“Rub you out, darling,” Gabby contributed. “They do that all the time. I’ve seen it in the movies.”
“Shut up, Gabby!” Patrick growled. “Unlikely as it seems…listen, Karen love, we think this whole Gasser thing is designed to push you in the direction of Boulter’s Green. Not because it’s connected to anyone’s disappearance (Gasser’s probably just lying low somewhere, maybe even being paid to) but because it’s somewhere nice and quiet where their nefarious designs are unlikely to be disturbed.”
“Which, in the case of Mr Nasty…” Karen shuddered. “I can’t think of what he would do to me. Oh, Pat?”
“I know, love. We won’t let anything happen to you, honestly!”
“He’s not a hitman in the Charles Bronson mode, though, is he, my dark angel? He’s no ghost, either. He seems a tiny bit mad.”
“A contract in a small town? Not likely to attract Bugsy Seigel, is it? I know you think I disbelieved you at Boulter’s Green when you told me about the skinny old man; I actually suspect he was there to help get you. You were in the right place. If I hadn’t reappeared things might have been very different.”
“He vanished, Pat. I must have dreamed him…”
Pat shook his head somberly. “I’m not so sure. I don’t know how he managed it, but I think he was real all the same. So that’s why you’re here with us, until we sort this out.”
“Sprog will be back tomorrow,” Gabby, now stretched out with her head on her boyfriend’s lap, changed the subject. “My grotty little sister,” she reminded Karen. Paul and Patrick groaned in unison.
Conversation became drowsily relaxed, interspersed with comfortable silences. Midnight passed, the candles guttered, sufficient wine had flowed.
“And now my head really aches.” Patrick complained. “I’ll let Petra out, and then it’s bed for me.”
Karen’s room was a large, comfortable space. Hangings of middle-eastern origin adorned walls of eggshell blue; there was a fireplace that had been lamp-blacked until it shone, a kidney-shaped dressing table draped in chintzy peach with hairbrush and hand-mirror neatly arranged, and a large double bed that grunted amiably when she lay upon it. Floor length dragon-print curtains added drama, concealing a high casement window which, when she raised its sash, admitted a hint of honeysuckle.
With one of Gabby’s thinnest, lightest nightdresses to clothe her, Karen settled on top of the bedcovers, happy to accept the warm breeze from her window and pleasantly ready for sleep. In the corridor beyond her door sounds of the household gradually dwindled into silence. Somewhere out in the darkness a nightingale sang. Listening to its music, and thinking or dreaming of the day’s events she drifted happily, eyelids heavy, towards slumber.
The clatter was loud and startling: the language that immediately followed could only be Patrick’s. Her idyll shattered, Karen leapt from the bed, rushed to the door. Patrick met her there.
“Pat, what on earth?” She hissed in an open whisper. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“No, I’m not alright!” Pat let himself into the room. “And there’s no point in whispering. I should think the whole house is awake now anyway.”
“I kicked a bucket, that’s what happened.” Patrick sat himself down on the edge of her bed, massaging a foot. “Somebody left a bucket in the middle of the landing.”
“Oh, you poor darling. Mrs Buxham?”
“You know about Mrs Buxham? No, not Mrs Buxham; someone much younger, I’m fairly sure; someone with a particularly warped sense of humour.”
Karen caught his drift and, cruelly, began to laugh. “Oh no, I don’t believe you! It was probably just carelessness…”
“Yes, probably. Like the piece of string stretched across the landing tethering it to the bannisters was probably accidental too. I’ll kill her!”
“Never mind.” She discovered his bare leg in the darkness and stroked it affectionately. “It is rather sweet. Were you coming for me?”
“I always pace the bloody ramparts about this time of night! What do you think?”
“I think it would be nice if you stayed. Especially since it seems everyone knows you’re here now. It’ll help them to find you if they need you in the morning.”
“What about you?”
“Me? Oh, I need you tonight.”
“My foot’s sore.”
“When I say I need you…”
“I know – you aren’t thinking specifically of my foot. My head aches as well.”
“Oh, your poor head! But I wasn’t thinking of your head, either.”
“All the same…”
“I promise I’ll be gentle.”
Later, much later, when their genial conversation with the big old bed had reached a hiatus and they had both dropped into exhausted sleep a vixen’s cry, long and agonized, rose from the outer darkness, wavering and weeping as it departed on the wind. Its sound dragged Karen from her dreaming so suddenly she jumped and sat up. And just as suddenly, the air froze about her shoulders as if icy fingers had clutched her heart. Her dark angel was reaching for her; she heard the sound of Suzanne, her sister’s voice lifted in warning, her sister’s tears.
Patrick stirred, coaxed her back to him. “Hey! Don’t be alarmed, you old townie. Haven’t you heard a fox before?”
“It isn’t the fox,” She admitted. “Oh Pat, darling, he’s out there, isn’t he?”
“He? Mr Nasty, your dark angel? No, no. You’re safe from him here – you are, seriously. He can’t harm you.”
“I can feel him. I can feel his hands crawling over me! Wherever I go, whatever I do, he’s going to find me, Pat, I can’t escape him. He’s going to find 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