Day would have to pale the room before Karen could study Patrick’s sleeping head on the pillow, letting her fingers lightly trace the livid bruise on his cheek. Then the tears would rise as she faced the sheer immensity of her feelings for him, and her sorrow for the loss she was certain must come.
Since the fox’s cry she had not slept, but lain awake in commune with her demons, wondering how next to proceed. Her heart had made a number for the days before the hammer fell. Three.
Pitifully few but she could count them. She felt she knew him now, this enemy – how he thought, how he acted. Today would be his day of finding out; where she had she moved and with whose help? So he would be processing information, just as she, in the course of her profession, would expect to do. Perhaps he had not troubled to discover where Patrick lived: today he would learn. If indeed he did not work alone, there would be those awaiting his reports with whom he must talk today.
Tomorrow? Karen quietly slipped from the bed, parting those dramatic curtains to peek out at the red rising of a beneficent sun. All the grounds of Radley Court were spread before her, still wearing their monochrome cape of night. She braved the chill air of the opened window, relishing the liberation of nakedness – for Gabby’s nightdress had been discarded long before – without fear of a town’s thousand windows and prying eyes. Not so tomorrow, for tomorrow he would be out there, somewhere, watching, planning. Tomorrow she would feel his eyes upon her. That was how it had to be.
He had plans to make – support to be organized, because this time he must be sure he would not fail – when and where, and with what to strike; how to get away. That was her third day. Beyond it there was nothing.
At breakfast, Karen wanted to compliment Gabrielle’s taste in clothes, but Patrick’s sister was not at the table.
“She’ll be out riding with Mum. They exercise the horses early on mornings like this. Paul and Dad will have gone to work, by now; which just leaves us. I think we should give Petra the chance to help you walk off all that food.”
Karen seemed to have discovered a morning appetite previously unknown to her. So far she had dispatched a bowl of cereal, an egg, fried bread and two rashers of bacon.
“Oh, Pat! (suddenly mortified) Am I being a pig?”
“Worry not. I always had a soft spot for pigs.”
Petra was an enthusiastic companion who chased every stick as if it were the last stick on the planet, and ran perpetually.
“Like a rhinoceros on purple hearts?” Patrick offered, citing a stimulant drug popular in Caleybridge that year.
Beyond the lawns, Radley Court’s grounds consisted of well-tended woodland, of deciduous oaks, beeches and stately elms that soon concealed the lovers from the blank, glazed stare of the house. They walked arm in arm without the embarrassment of discovery while the creatures of the wood preserved them from silence; a disaffected red squirrel raging from a sweet chestnut bough, a stonechat chipping out its lonely proclamation to the mate it had yet to meet, redpoll and blackcap competing for the best of the treetop villas and crows far above them wheeling and squabbling.
Rhododendron bushes veiled the way ahead, so the sudden appearance of a lake surprised Karen. The tree cover opened out to a vista of blue sky and there it was, nestling amid a gauze of willows that drooped tragic fronds into the shallows.
“It’s more of a big pond, really,” Pat said modestly. “And before you think about stripping off for a swim, it’s bloody cold in there at this time of day!”
To Karen it was a lake – a serene, romantic mirror to the morning sky into which Petra, to whom it was no surprise, dove like a porpoise. She had no fear of the cold, although she would not swim for long without regaining the shore and shaking herself vigorously. By this means Karen discovered the temperature of the water for herself without needing to swim in it. There was an old bench beside the lake which had already been found by the sun. They sat there together.
“I could get used to this,” Karen said, meaning it. A couple of moorhens emerged from the foliage in front of them and swam away, more irritated than alarmed. “You live in a very special place.”
Pat nodded. “I can imagine how it must seem. I wouldn’t deny its beauty, although I see it a little bit differently, I suppose.”
“How so? This is a piece of paradise, isn’t it?”
“Well, custom and habit may play their part, but no, it isn’t that. My dad doesn’t have a major shareholding in African mining, or his own oil concessions. He has to work for every penny he gets, and this place – well – it isn’t the cheapest prize. I rarely spent time with my father as I grew up. As soon as I was old enough I was packed off to boarding school, and when the holidays came he was always working. He still is. Nothing’s changed. Oh, he has all this charm and charisma; certainly. He charms people, and he loves to do it: that’s the secret of his success. But when It comes to Gabby and me, or even Sprog, we don’t get a look in, I’m afraid. You know what they say of us, we ‘nouveau riche’? That we are always looking over our shoulders. It’s true. We are.”
“I haven’t met Sprog,” Karen said.
“Consider yourself fortunate.”
They sat in silence for a while, and she contemplated Pat’s words until the haunting of last night’s conversation and its unanswered questions filled her. The chill that visited her raised goosebumps on her arms. This was day one.
“Let’s go back.” She said.
Patrick saw the shadows of fear painted on her face. He took her arm, drawing her to him, and over brushed them with a kiss. “Stop thinking about him, love, alright?”
“I could eat you!” She murmured.
“See? Pig. I knew it. I feel a nickname coming on…”
“Oh no, don’t you dare! This is so unjust! I’m a fat sow, condemned to live with my ugliness…”
“Karen, darling, you’re beautiful – and you know it, so no sympathy-milking; it does not become you. Now, where was I?”
Their play, hidden in the protection of the trees, might have reached a more fervent level were it not for Petra who, seeing them engaged in such a fun wrestling game, joined in with her usual gusto. Petra had been swimming. Petra was very, very wet.
Their ardour dampened considerably by Petra’s attentions, the pair walked or ran the three hundred yards of open lawn between themselves and Radley Court. Out of respect for the hall carpet they harried their four-legged companion around the east side of the house, intending to use the back door and kitchen for a ceremonial paw-drying.
“What’s in the barn?” Karen asked, referring to an ancient brick building so positioned at the north-east corner of Radley Court as to be hidden by trees from the main driveway. The same gravel which surfaced the forecourt led up to its doors.
“I’ll show you.” Patrick said. “We’d better see to old sog-dog first, though. It’s a no-Petra zone.”
Passing the loose boxes Karen was made to giggle and curl a little because Patrick was kissing her neck and his hands were getting extremely expressive. In danger of being pinned against the tack room wall she wrenched herself free and burst, laughing, through the kitchen door with Petra and Pat in pursuit, to meet the slightly disapproving stare of Mrs Buxham., who was cleaning ‘her floor’ at the time. They towelled Petra, a ritual she relished, before leaving her in Mrs B’s reluctant care.
“It was the original stable block,” Patrick explained, as he led the way back to the barn. “Dad gutted it a long time ago – before I was born, I think. And he got into a lot of trouble because it’s a protected building, or something.”
“I still think it looks like a barn,” Karen said.
Patrick persuaded a pair of wide doors sufficiently apart to provide entry. In the darker space within the stable building Karen had to blink to accustom her eyes in the subdued light, then blink again to believe what she saw.
“This is where the mower lives,” Patrick told her.
It was not the mower, a ponderous machine with gleaming brass controls squatting at the end of the building, that drew a gasp of wonder from Karen, nor was it the orderly rank of machinery occupying space to its right; a big lathe, a bench saw, an industrial drill and two other large fixed tools the purposes for which she did not understand. Neither did the amazing array of spanners on the walls, or a rack above her head supporting block and tackle catch her eye.
No, it was the three cars parked with their rear bumpers to the wall on the opposite side. The first, and nearest was a gleaming white sports car. Beside it, and looming imperiously above it, were the statuesque carriage lines of a fine old luxury saloon, complete with great brass lamps and a ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ mascot at its prow.
“Dad’s pride and joy,” Patrick said, sounding reverential. “He thinks they’ll be worth a lot of money one day. The one at the back..” he waved a hand at some skeletal remains Karen would not have recognized as a car… “That’s a Vauxhall Tourer, or at least what’s left of one. He’s restoring it.”
“Did he restore these?”
“I think so. He restored the Jaguar XK120 – the white one – anyway. I think he did the Silver Ghost, I’m not sure. When Gabs and I were younger he used to take us to Harterport in that. It was slow but we loved it! You’re really high up in there.”
“Show me? Are we allowed to touch?”
“Each other or the car?” Patrick gave Karen a suggestive look. “There’s no-one here to stop us.”
Her hand was cool. He took it in his to guide her past the white Jaguar, witnessing her nervous fingers as they stroked its sensuous curves. He opened the big door of the Rolls Royce for her then supported her on the step.
“I feel like a queen.” She announced, settling back into the seat. She laughed. “I thought these seats would be soft, Patrick. They’re really hard!” Then she caught his eye, saw the purpose in it. “Dare we?” She asked.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of feasible alternatives,” Patrick replied. He repeated her phrase: “Am I allowed to touch?”
“Are you serious? In the back seat of a Rolls Royce? Sir, you are about to fulfil one of my most treasured fantasies!”
At midday, Jackson returned for lunch, so the whole Hallcroft family were gathered. Karen and Patrick had returned to their bedrooms to change by that time, but they still met an array of very knowing glances as they entered the breakfast room together, forcing the blood to Karen’s cheeks and evoking a rich, low chuckle from Gabrielle. They even achieved Gewndoline’s wry smile, in spite of those misgivings Karen was certain she inwardly retained.
The surprise of that party, if surprise was the word, was ‘Sprog’, Pat’s younger sister. Amanda Hallcroft-Smythe (she insisted upon the full title) bore her nickname with equanimity, though she showed tolerance for little else. Gabby introduced her.
“Amanda, this is Karen, Patrick’s friend. Karen, this is our youngest. She is eight years old. Don’t let her put you off childbirth, will you?”
Amanda advanced upon Karen. She was small and dark with wide green eyes, and relatively stocky, her mother’s build, although she affected elegance to the best of her ability. She extended a limpid hand. “Eight-and-a-half, actually. How do you do, Miss Eversley? I have heard so much about you. Do you ride at all?”
Karen looked down at the stubby fingers, wondering for a moment if she was expected to kiss them. “How do you do, Amanda? I’m afraid not. I take it you share your family’s love of horses?”
“Not horses, Miss Eversley. Riding. You see, one cannot love a horse.”
Pat snorted: “Therein lies a tale! First names, Sproggy, please? Can you stop trying to act like a duchess, at least for lunchtime?”
Amanda glared at her brother, then gave Karen a brilliant smile. “As you see, my brother is capable of extreme vulgarity. I am sure the two of you will get on very well with each other.” And she stalked back to her chair.
Over lunch, while his little sister at the far end of the table was relating the details of her night’s sleepover with a fashionable friend to anyone who cared to listen, Pat confided in Karen. For one of tender years, Amanda had a very firm opinion of her place in the world. It was a world peopled only by desirable acquaintances and littered with the trappings of comfort. Her conversations were achingly rich in references to ‘Oinks’ and ‘Trogs’ whom she perceived as a constant threat, and to the consumer comforts she either already enjoyed or would acquire in the future. Her mother dismissed Sprog’s pretentiousness as a ‘passing phase’ which, in Patrick’s mind, was only an excuse to avoid dealing with the problem. True, Gwendoline was a little put out to discover her youngest daughter’s professed ‘desperate love’ for riding was superficial (which meant Bella the Shetland that had been bought specially for her led a very leisurely existence) but rather more vexed when Amanda proclaimed that she saw herself seated upon nothing less than a Palomino or a stallion of eighteen hands, and took the amiable advances of little Bella as a personal insult. There ensued a regime of particularly nasty teasing of the animal and when eventually she was persuaded to mount Bella, the creature had developed a negative attitude which she expressed by depositing Amanda in the mud.
Bella became, therefore, a particular blemish upon Amanda’s clear vision: the pony wasted little respect on the child and did her best to bite her whenever she ventured near enough, which was rarely. Bella was not Amanda’s only source of disquiet, though, for she equally did her best to avoid Mrs Buxham and Mrs Beatty, neither of whom had time for her opinionated eight-years-old ways and pronounced her a very rude little girl. Privately between themselves, they used more definitive terms.
Amanda had reached a natural break in her discourse, which involved taking a breath. She thrust a look loaded with daggers down the table. “I assume you are discussing me?”
“Yes.” Pat said brusquely. “There’s a lot to discuss.”
“In prerogative terms, no doubt.” Amanda pronounced. “Miss Eversley, I hope you will think better of me than my brother’s slanders suggest.”
“I will, I promise.” Karen said, trying to ignore sniggers from Gabby.
“Oh, that is most satisfactory! I think we could be friends, you know?”
“I’m sure we shall be.”
Patrick nudged her. “You sound like Elizabeth Bennet.”
In some curious fashion, Amanda contributed to the conviviality of that meal with her family, who had a unique way of accepting oddness and making it comfortable. The cold platter of salads and meats ebbed upon a tide of conversation until only the plates were left. Amanda was first to break ranks, declaring a need to ‘continue with her studies’; after whom one by one the diners excused themselves and dispersed.
Gwendoline and Karen were in the hall when the telephone rang. Gwendoline picked up the receiver, then, without saying a word, covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “Karen? It’s a male voice; asking for you.”
Patrick had entered the hall. “You haven’t told anyone you’re here, have you?”
Gwendoline said: “I’d say he seems to know.”
Karen glanced back at Patrick. His face was pale. “No. No, no-one.”
“Don’t answer it!” Patrick warned.
“Someone was bound to find out,” Karen replied. “I think I have to.”
Hand shaking, she took the receiver from Gwendoline. “Who is this?”
“Miss Eversley!” The voice on the line was not unfamiliar. “I’ve been looking forward to receiving your progress report.”
“Mr Purton? I’m afraid I don’t have much for you yet.”
“Really now? It’s been a week, hasn’t it? And you’ve been asking lots of questions of a lot of people. I seem to remember impressing upon you the sensitive and confidential nature of the matter. Miss Eversley. I trust you with this work, and when I place my trust in someone, I expect results.”
The formal note – the reversion to her surname – did not escape Karen. “I’m not alone here, Mr Purton, so I can’t discuss your case. When I complete the picture rest assured I shall present it to you.”
“I believe I shall need an interim report!” Purton snapped. “I suggest we meet tomorrow – say my office at three?”
“I’m away at the moment,” Karen said cautiously. “Perhaps next week?”
“Not a considerable distance to travel, Miss Eversley, is it? Eight miles? I’ll expect you.”
The line went dead.
Karen replaced the receiver slowly, her mind full. “He wants to meet at his office tomorrow afternoon.”
“It’s a trap!” Patrick said.
“At the council offices in working hours? He can hardly have a fatal stabbing in mind,” Gwedoline was circumspect. “Nevertheless…do I gather you believe this man to be implicated in your stalker’s affairs, Karen?”
“I didn’t. It’s true the case I’m investigating for him seems tied up with Boulter’s Green, but we can’t prove any direct connection. He wants a report on that tomorrow, and he isn’t happy. There was something else in his voice, though. I’d almost say he was panicking, you know?”
“The thing is, sweetie,” Gabby said. “What do you want to do?”
“I think I want to go and see him,” Karen said. “It sounds almost as though someone’s putting pressure on him, and I’m curious. If he is involved in something more complicated, maybe I’ll find out.”
To her surprise, Patrick agreed. “I’m due a bandage change tomorrow afternoon, and I promised I’d pay Jacqui a visit. So we’ll kill three birds with one stone – or would that be two?”
Gwendoline frowned. “Can we explain how this man knows you are here, Karen?”
“No. I suppose someone saw Pat and me together. With Pat working at County Hall, it would only be a matter of looking up a home address.”
“If that someone was our Mr Nasty,” Patrick reasoned. “It would all link up rather conveniently, wouldn’t it?”
His mother pursed her lips thoughtfully. “It seems rather an odd telephone call; not one I imagine this Purton man would have been comfortable making. Karen, if you’re agreeable, I have a suggestion…”
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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