Council offices of Karen Eversley’s generation were not known for their extravagance, and Frank Purton’s little suite was no exception: a drab treatment of brown paint and Buckingham cream walls from the County Hall’s barn-like foyer, all the way up to the second storey and a plain door with a base metal label – ‘F.R. Purton, Deputy Clerk’. His outer office sported a desk, several filing cabinets, a typewriter and his secretary, a woman whose reputation as a dragon was currency wherever council employees met. Short, severe and humourless, she certainly dressed for the part; in a beige cardigan over brown blouse and skirt, she almost exactly matched the walls. She looked surprised as two women entered. “Who shall I say…?”
“Karen Eversley and Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe. He’s expecting us.”
“Just a moment.” The woman glared briefly at Karen, then hurried through the inner office door, closing it behind her.
Gwendoline met Karen’s eyes, challenging her. “Are you sure you want this?” Karen nodded.
There were subdued murmurs from beyond the door before the secretary returned. “Go in, please.” She said.
Purton’s domain was marginally less Spartan. A desk larger and better polished, a side table supporting a vase of flowers that screamed for water, and yes – Karen could not avoid her triumphal grin – that famous Purton Rotadex. The man himself rose from a leather armchair behind the desk. It was easy to read the displeasure in his eyes, but he managed a ghost of a smile. “I wasn’t expecting a deputation, Miss Eversley.” He said. “Will you introduce me?”
“Yes of course. This is Gwendoline Hallcroft-Smythe. ”
“How do you do, Mr Purton?” Gwendoline’s clipped greeting scythed across the room, finding its target with steely precision. The Deputy Clerk almost winced at the impact.
He offered chairs. If he was cringing inwardly, he did not show it. “Kindly enlighten me? Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe, what exactly is your role in this meeting?”
Karen responded. “Mrs Hallcroft–Smythe is my legal representative, Frank.”
“Legal representative? Why do you need…?”
Gwendoline cut him off, “Perhaps because of the peremptory nature of your summons? I am here to ensure Miss Eversley’s interests are protected.”
Purton ignored Gwendoline, directly addressing Karen: “I merely intended to monitor your progress in our little investigation, Miss Eversley. I thought I emphasized our need for confidentiality? I’ve had reports that some of your questioning has been, for want of a better word, aggressive. I need your word that this will not continue.”
“As Miss Eversley’s legal representative, I can assure you there’s no need for concern over issues of confidentiality.” Gwendoline’s tone offered little comfort.
Karen said: “I must be free to question people. What do you expect, Frank? Should I go to Boulters Green and wait for your goon to find me?” Her words surprised Purton, and shocked Gwendoline. They dropped into a stony silence.
Purton’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly a couple of times before he could frame a reply. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Miss Eversley.”
Again, silence. Footsteps in a bare corridor somewhere, clipping past, fading. The slam of a distant door and its tiny echo.
Gwendoline found her thread, “ Can we proceed? Miss Eversley has the file you requested and it incriminates no named individuals at this stage. In Miss Eversley’s view, the report so far is inconclusive. She wonders why her holiday arrangements should have been disrupted for this meeting.”
Karen pulled a file of papers Pat had helped her to prepare the night before from her bag, passing them over Purton’s desk. “You’ll find I’ve made a lot of progress,” she told him, “although several issues are raised by the disappearances – more than expected.”
Purton took the file and flicked through it absently. “The summary forms the first two pages of the report,” she added. “The invoice for my time and costs is at the back.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Invoice?”
“Final Invoice. I no longer wish to pursue your inquiry. I wanted to be thorough in reporting my activities so far to whomever you elect to be my successor. Thank you for your business.”
Karen rose to leave.
“You can’t just walk out on this!” Purton snarled. “The Council has certain rights…”
Gwendoline raised an eyebrow: “So my client has a contract with the Council? I understood this was your personal inquiry? Disappearances of the kind you asked Miss Eversley to investigate are a police matter – not one for the Council.”
Purton inclined his head. “Nevertheless…”
“In which case, my client could have no binding agreement, either with you or with the Council.” Gwendoline insisted.
“I disagree! Your ‘client’ undertook by verbal agreement to complete an investigation, not leave it half-way!”
“Then we must agree to disagree, Mr Purton. My client feels your manner towards her is threatening, and in breach of your mutual ‘understanding’. I’m sure my client would be prepared to test the nature of your agreement, if there is one, in court if necessary?”
“There was a witness to our agreement, Madam!”
“Who would be willing to see his, and your, ‘confidential’ inquiry exposed to open examination? I’m sure the person of influence who is so interested in the disappearance of Miss Parkinson would be pleased to be called in evidence?”
Karen was already at the door. “I’ll look forward to receiving your cheque.” She told Purton.
“Young lady, if you want to do business in this town, you…”
Gwendoline cut him off. “Is this going to be in the nature of a threat, Mr Purton?”
“Oh for god’s sake!” Purton muttered. “Just get out!”
The fiery secretary’s eyes followed them across Purton’s outer office,
“Thanks!” Karen breathed.
Gwendoline was troubled. “You realize what you’ve done, Karen? If that man’s involved in your stalker’s activities, you just called him out.”
Karen nodded. “I had to lay a few cards on the table. I wanted to see his reaction. What did you think?”
“Unfortunately I think he is.”
“So do I.”
“I also think,” Gwendoline added, “That you should keep your cards closer to your chest.”
In the car park, Gwendoline’s Citroen was causing consternation. Karen had learned in her short exposure to Gwendoline’s driving that she did not park. She merely stopped.
“These spaces are reserved for councillors.” A red-cheeked attendant expostulated. “Have you no idea of the disruption you’ve caused? I was about to have you towed away!”
Gwendoline glanced meaningfully up and down acres of empty parking spaces. “Please convey my apologies to a councillor,” She said, “Next time you see one.” As she climbed into her driving seat she nodded towards the far end of the car park and murmured in an aside to Karen, “Notice the blue Jaguar? I wonder what he’s doing here?”
“Who is ‘he’?” Karen asked.
“Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire. Oh, I expect he has plenty of occasions to visit the council, but it’s nevertheless unexpected – he’s in rather poor health at the moment. His heart, I was told.”
“Would you describe him as a ‘high up’?”
“Oh, yes. The Queen’s representative for the County? They don’t come any higher.”
The evening promised rain. As Gwendoline returned with Karen the few miles to Radley Court some first gusts of wind were rattling the treetops. The mood in the car was solemn.
“I’d better not stretch your hospitality any further;” Karen said. “I’ll ask Pat to drive me back to Caleybridge – tonight if that’s okay?”
Gwendolie frowned. “For heaven’s sake why? You’re better protected here, aren’t you?”
“I am quite good at protecting myself. You have your family to consider. I’d hate to be responsible for causing you harm.”
“You’re right, but you’re staying,” Gwendoline said, in a voice that brooked no argument.
“You’re very generous,” Karen said, “considering how little time we’ve known each other.”
“I trust my judgment, Karen dear. And I am not blind to your predicament. By the way,” Gwendoline added: “We do have some shared history. I knew your sister, Suzanne. Distantly, but I knew her.”
Karen had no idea why that information should disturb her, but somehow it did. After all, Gwendoline had once been a member of Suzanne’s profession, so it was perfectly natural they should meet socially at some time or another, even though their careers were many years apart.
“You’re not in the least alike,” Gwendoline told her frankly.
“Then that must be a reason to mistrust me, surely?”
“Au contraire; that is why I do trust you.” Patrick’s mother smiled. “Striking girl! Such hair! Oh, I finished practising myself many years ago, as you know, but one retains one’s associations, one’s contacts, as it were. And one’s friends – yes, I have many friends in the old way. We meet, we have dinners, social evenings – that sort of thing. Suzanne Eversley. Challenging!”
“I’ve always been led to believe she was very good at her work,” Karen said. “Did you not think so?”
“My lord, do you really want me to answer that? You do, don’t you? Well, how can I respond? She was extremely direct, she had what I can best describe as an adversarial attitude. She could be sparked off by the most trivial things. Can I be totally frank and say that I didn’t like her, much? She was very angry, your sister, and it was anger that consumed her, in the end. Had she not ridden that motorcycle so fast. I dare say she would have discovered the key to her anger – it was obvious to me. But, of course…” Gwendoline spread her hands fatalistically.
“The key to her anger? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you? Good lord, no, I suppose she might never have confided in you. Well, let me put it thus: did she ever mention a junior at chambers, a girl by the name of Marsha Ellis?”
“Not that I recall…”
“Do you remember your sister in any kind of romantic association with a man?”
“Well no.” Karen’s widening eyes were windows to the explosion inside her head. Suzanne? “Are you saying…”
“I am. It’s entirely understandable she shouldn’t tell you. We’re not supposed to admit these things, of course, but she was desperately in love with Marsha. The trouble was, Marsha lacked the same – what shall we say – enthusiasm? It was a rather one-sided affair that went on – and off – almost from the first week she joined Chambers. I still meet with Marsha sometimes. Very talented girl.”
Gwendoline juggled the little Citroen through the gates to Radley Court, observing; “Your sister was your complete opposite in every way. I’m sorry to say it, because of course you loved her, but had I to choose, I would pick you every time. There was a self-destructive element in Suzanne.” She sighed apologetically. “So now perhaps you can better forgive me for my little interrogation in the kitchen the other night. I was about to judge you by association with your sister. Very wrong of me. I’m sorry.” Then, as an afterthought, “Or censure me for being bloody rude about your sibling. We Hallcrofts instinctively speak our minds.” She braked to a sliding halt on the gravel before the house. “There, dear, that’s all! You can get away from me now!”
Karen shook her head. “Challenging Frank was a mistake. I was stupid.”
“It wasn’t the best way to get to the truth, but it worked. Let’s go in and make some tea, I’m parched.”
“How did you get on?” Patrick wanted to know; and when Karen told him. “You see? No-one messes with my mother.”
“You?” she rejoined. “How is Jacqui?”
“Better. Better, I think. She’s still wandering in and out of consciousness, but the consultant seems hopeful. She’s been fitted with one of those halo things, you know? While the bones set? It’s all about brain damage, now. We have to pray she’s got away with it.”
“Karen’s going to stay with us for a few more days,” Gwendoline told him, “until the end of the week, at least. If there was a connection between her investigation and the stalker everything should settle down now, but just in case the two are not related, we have time to reflect on what to do next.”
Karen tried to express her joy at the thought of spending a few more days at Radley Court if nobody objected, and Pat said he certainly didn’t object and Gabby bubbled with pleasure at the idea. Karen’s affected happiness did not fool Patrick, however. As soon as they were alone, he confronted her.
“You’re all being so nice to me…”
“We like you. No, more than that – we love you. But that isn’t what’s making you unhappy. What’s wrong, Karen?”
She shook her head, powerless to explain her conviction that the time she had remaining to her was dwindling; how she was sure, now the second of her predicted three days was drawing to its close, that her fate was sealed. Instead, she came to him and buried her face in his shoulder, comforted by his return of her embrace and sheltered by his arms.
“So you’re still afraid.” He said.
Karen changed into a pair of Gabrielle’s old jeans before helping her and Gwendoline in the stables, then, after an amiable evening meal she retired to her room early,
What she really needed was time to reflect.
Before she had come to Radley Court her vision had been clouded by her resentment of middle-class wealth and the rigid structure of the British caste system. Whether she had formed that view from the depths of her own experience, or from the counselling of Suzanne, her fiery, brilliant sister who Pat’s mother had criticized as ‘self-destructive and angry’ she was no longer sure, but she had immediately suspected Patrick’s motives and rejected him because of that view, and she had been wrong. In the Hallcrofts she had not only discovered a new circle of supportive friends, but also a new family. Gabrielle was the sister Suzanne could never have been, Gwendoline as a mother figure the exact counter-point to her own. As for Amanda, she had yet to form an opinion. Jackson? Well, Jackson had been absent at dinner: much later she heard his car growling up the drive and caught the brief flash of its headlights across her window. She calculated he must have spent at least fourteen hours at work that day, something Pat had affirmed was his regular habit.
“That’s why I declined to join his firm when he asked me. He’d have me doing the same thing. I tried it for a week and it nearly did for me. I was a wreck!”
So there, too, were comparisons to be made. Karen had to concede to herself that every hour her own father spent in watching television, Jackson spent in making money. Were all fathers so neglectful of their families, she wondered? Was it fortuitous that they were?
Then there was Patrick. No, most of all there was Patrick.
These two days which had shattered all her preconceptions about class differences might have convinced her that a future with Pat was more than a vain dream. If only she was not so certain now of her impending doom – of all the outrageous slings and arrows none had power to hurt her more than knowing she had at last found the man she wanted to be with at the precise moment events were conspiring to take her from him – Karen would have declared herself that night. Instead, there in the solitude of evening she took a sheet of writing paper from the dressing table and wrote a short note. She folded it and slipped it into an envelope, addressed to ‘Pat’, which she placed in her bedside cabinet drawer.
For a little while, she rallied. She told herself these negative feelings were all of her own imagining, that she had armed herself with ju-jitsu training precisely so she possessed the power and weapons to repel an attack by a larger, older opponent. She was perfectly capable of overcoming Mr Nasty, and only his wild, leather-clad appearance deterred her. Buoyed up by this thought, she rehearsed routines she had neglected for a few weeks now, working out on the soft carpet of her room until the blood coursed afresh through her veins and she felt revitalized and alive. But in the wake of those few minutes of breathless elation the memory of his assault upon her and the ease with which he had overcome her defences returned. He knew as much about those martial arts as she. When next she faced him, unless Pat was beside her, the outcome would be the same.
At some time, she must have slept, to be wakened in the way every princess would wish, by a gentle kiss on her lips. “Hi!” Pat said. “No buckets tonight!”
Dawn found Karen standing at her window, clutching a dressing gown about her against the morning chill as she gazed out over acres of lawn towards the trees, watching occasional bright lances from a distant road as early risers made their way to work. Overnight rain had ceased, leaving grass and leaves still moist enough to glimmer with gemstones in a dim candle-glow of first sun. She had loved these moments, had she not, and if this should be the last, she wanted its images to remain with her as long as she retained the power to remember. Behind her in her room, Pat slept. She could hear his breathing, even and slow. The sun was a red line athwart a far-off horizon, and the wind was a ghost, whispering among the trees. He was out there, her nemesis. He would be expecting to see her standing here, because she was waiting for him, and he would know.
Over breakfast, Karen only picked at food, and nothing Patrick said or did could lift her despondency. Jackson had gone to work, Gabrielle left early to visit a friend in Baronchester. Gwendoline departed after breakfast on her ‘school run’ with Amanda.
“The headmistress wants to see me. I’ve a distinct feeling she wants to get rid of the little bugger. We’ve done this before, haven’t we, young lady?”
“So that leaves us,” Patrick said.
They walked Petra, following the path they had taken on their first morning together, repeatedly baptized by trees still heavy from the residue of rain. Petra seemed ill at ease, reluctant to run or forage as she normally should, but staying close, sniffing anxiously at the air.
“Ready for trouble,” Patrick commented. “I wonder what’s got her goat this morning?”
Their seat by the lake was wet, so, although Karen seemed hesitant, they slowly walked back towards the house, unspeaking, because the weight in Karen’s heart had spread to them both. As they crossed the forecourt, Mrs Buxham loomed large at the front doors.
“Mr Patrick! There’s a ‘phone call for you!”
While Patrick hurried to answer his call, Karen took Petra around the house to the kitchen door, ready to dry her off and clean her paws. She was barely through the door when Patrick greeted her, his face pale: “That was the hospital. Jacqui’s taken a turn for the worse. They don’t think she’s going to make it!”
“I can’t understand it. She was fine yesterday. She was getting better.”
“It can happen.”
“I guess. Love, she’s got no-one – her parents are god-knows-where and her brother’s in Australia. She’s alone and…”
“Look, Mrs Buxham’s stays until half-nine and mother’ll be back before long, probably with Sprog. I have to go to hold Jacqui’s hand – I don’t know what else to do. Come with me, yes?”
Karen smiled, for she knew that this was how it would be. “No. You go,” she told him, fighting an urge to smother him in her arms. “Gwen won’t be long. I’ll be fine here.”
© 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