Upon being told she was gravely ill Patrick had departed on his visit to Jacqui’s hospital bedside. His sister Gabrielle was visiting a friend in Baronchester and their mother had been summoned to meet Amanda’s headmistress. By ten-fifteen that morning the forecourt of Radley Court was deserted; and with the departure of Mrs Buxham’s sturdy frame (“There’s some coffee in the pot if you want it”) on her ancient black bicycle with its creaking pedals, Karen was left alone.
The sensation of solitude was undeniable. Much as Karen liked this great house, it was a little too great for comfort when she was the only one in residence. There were bedrooms where no-one slept, guest rooms with touches of Moorish, Romantic French or Oriental Art, a music room, and a games room where a full-sized snooker table languished under a dusty cover. There were bathrooms embellished with formidable brass pipe-work, four of them, and thunderous lavatories with intimidating chain-pulls that defied discretion.
Knowing this was the third of three days she had allotted to herself as her last before her leather-coated antagonist caught up with her, she was restless, tormented by waking nightmares. She played with Petra for a while, then took the dog outside to extend their game upon the lawn, until rain drove them back indoors. From the tick of the grandfather clock in the hall to the solid clunk of the big mahogany doors there was a heaviness that bore down upon her, making every minute a little longer than the one before. It was not easy, waiting upon events, accepting fate. Her mind was engaged in a struggle with the very thought of acceptance – the positive fibres in her nature rebelled against it, and the demands that she retaliate rang shrilly in her head. No, she might not be able to fight the monster directly, but if she could find his paymaster, the force that drove him, might she yet survive?
Not survive, Karen, no.
This was no longer about survival, this was combat: this was about victor and vanquished. She wanted the initiative, and an idea implanted in her mind by a chance exchange of words with Gwendoline the previous day offered a course of action.
‘They don’t come any higher up than that’.
It was last ditch, maybe. It was desperate, certainly.
There was a small blue book beside the telephone in the hall. Karen dialled for ‘taxi’.
“Where?” The girl at the end of the line sounded supremely disinterested.
“Yeah, I know that. Where to?”
“Oh. Caleybridge. Seymour Street.” She would retrieve her car from the car park behind her apartment, and drive from there.
“About twenty minutes. Alright?” The line died.
Twenty minutes. Karen stood beside the telephone, irresolute. Suddenly the old house with its echoing pipework and lofty Georgian disposition seemed warm and welcoming, a womb she did not want to exchange for the cold draught of reality. Yet she had renewed purpose now. Climbing the stairs to her room (with Petra, she assumed in hope of some reward, following her), she decided she would write Patrick a letter rather different to her brief note of the night before. He needed to know her plan – after all, it might be hours, days, forever before she returned.
There was time – she would make time – to gaze out from a rain-flecked window across those immaculate lawns to the woods and remember the lake they concealed; the tiny moment engendered there that she would always hold dear. Petra, at her side, was watching too. The dog’s hackles stiffened slightly and a rumble issued from her throat. Karen patted her consolingly, hugged her neck and told her how sad she was to leave before turning to her dressing table, there to withdraw another sheet of notepaper. Her ears almost subconsciously registered the pad of Petra’s paws as the dog trotted from the room. The pen she had used last night still rested on the glazed top of the dressing table. She took it in her hand, then rested her head on her chin as she thought what she might say – how to tell him not to worry for her, how she loved him, and would soon return…
Outside on the landing, Petra growled; the long low menace of a dog who knows something humans do not. Somewhere, though not too loudly, a door was closed.
And Karen heard.
With cold needles pricking her spine, she put the pen down, crossing to her door quietly, listening. Was there – might there be – movement somewhere in the belly of the house? It was something and nothing, yet she was certain a door had closed. Petra, however, had already reached her verdict. She launched herself down the stairs in a frenzy of snarls and barks.
Suppressing the cold kernel of dread growing in her stomach, Karen decided she would rather hazard her fortunes with her ferocious companion than on her own, so she, too, ran towards the main stairway. Petra was already out of sight, but not of earshot. In fearsome noise the dog was joined in battle with someone, a man who swore and cursed in his turn. Was it the tall man? She had no way of being sure, because she could not see either protagonist, but it was clear the human side of the confrontation was not being bested. Honour demanded she should go to the rescue of the beleaguered dog; terror advised strongly she should run, and terror won the argument. She had a short space, a head start, and she used it. She half-fell, half skimmed the stairs, arriving in the hall on her backside, where, immediately tracing the source of conflict to the kitchen, she padded softly but swiftly for the front doors.
Late morning sun found its way through the rain to beam like a spotlight on Karen as she slipped outside, trying to be quiet, trying to buy herself time. Behind her, poor Petra’s barks were turning to yelps of pain; before her, oceans of space offering no hope of concealment. She might try for the woods, but the woods were a long way away, and she could not count on that much of a start.
It was guesswork, really. Left or right? Leaping the steps, she turned left, around the corner of the house where, within a hundred yards stood an old barn, casket for another of her special memories.
The sliding doors were wide and they were heavy. She thanked providence that they were kept closed by nothing but their weight: by means of feet against one and back against the other she was able to move them aside enough to gain entrance. Could she force them wider still?
At first all she thought of was concealment; somewhere to hide. But now, as the doors obliged and rolled back, another hope dawned. Sister Suzanne, who was into all things mechanical, had once shown her how to hot-wire a car.
“It’s simple. Twist these wires together and you by-pass the ignition. Now pull the starter. See?”
That had been on their Dad’s old Morris Eight. This was a Jaguar, a sleek white XK120, all Doris Day and stockings, but it was still a car, and in those days, all cars could be hot-wired, if you knew how.
In mid-stride, Karen snatched a screwdriver from one of the workbenches on the right-hand side of the barn. She leapt straight into the parked Jaguar’s driving seat, thrusting the blade of the tool up behind the dash around the ignition switch, exposing a mass of wires. Which ones? Indoors she imagined her pursuer, now free of Petra, racing from room to room. It would not take him long to realize she had left the house. Which one? She plunged her fingers into the loom, pulling it apart to find wires of the colours she wanted.
Hard to get them separated; needing pliers. In panic, Karen glanced up at the workbench and saw there were pliers in a rack on the wall behind it. She was about to leap from the car to get them when she heard the crunch of gravel.
With renewed vigour, Karen wrenched at the wiring. Two ends, or three? Twist. Twist hard! A snap and crackle of blue! Yes? Yes!! The sound of heavy steps much louder now – racing, deliberate feet, ever nearer.
A tired battery protesting at its effort. Again. Touch them again!
This time better – the engine answering with a cough then a roar as her foot hit the gas pedal. Now the look up she dared not make but she had to see, to confront him, the tall man, and as certain as destiny he was there, running from the house towards the shade of the stable! Karen slammed in a gear evoking a hideous complaint of tortured steel and wrenched the Jaguar’s heavy steering wheel around.
No time to think of consequences, no time to think at all. Just drive!
She screamed at the air in front of her; screamed a war cry – “Die, you bastard!” Then she aimed the car’s elegant nose straight between the flapping leather wings of that infernal coat and kicked the pedal to the floor.
The man in the leather coat did not stop or even pause as the car came at him. He met the front of it with a bound into the air as agile as a deer and his foot crashed down on that gleaming white bonnet. His timing was good, but it might have been better. He almost made it. If a second step had been possible he would have been on top of Karen, pinning her down; but his balance, born of sheer impetus, deserted him. A second step was not possible. That heavily-shod foot slipped, slithered. His great spider arms waved at balance and failed, instead pitching him sideways onto the workbench amid an eruption of tools. It was his turn to give voice. The cry of an animal enraged, a predator outwitted, a wild thing in pain.
Now the outcome was certain. The sheer power of the Jaguar’s racing engine surged beneath Karen’s foot, the wheels scraped into the grit like hooves of wild horses. Sliding, yes: meteorically fast, certainly. The big man’s crumpled form lay twisted by the door to the barn, a diminishing image in the mirror, prompting her to wonder, not for the first time, if she had been instrumental in killing him.
Jacqui’s eyes moved towards Patrick’s approaching form lazily, as though she was too tired to swivel her pupils even that small distance.
“Patrick?” Jacqui’s lips formed the word as if she was having trouble syncing it. “That you?”
“Hi Jacqui.” Seeing her, her head braced against movement by a steel halo frame and wrapped in a wimple of bandages, Patrick might have felt he was talking to a stranger. Jacqui was a dark, almost black haired girl and he had not realized before just how much hair defined a face. Without its frame, hidden beneath dressings or shaven, her normally strong features seemed puffed, almost childlike. Her mouth, usually wide and expressive, was drawn in, her full lips thin and black.
“They say somebody broke my head.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not a thing. It was at work, was it?”
“I wish I could answer that. I don’t know. Don’t worry about it now, just try and rest.”
Jacqui’s hand left her side, waving vaguely in Patrick’s direction. He drew a chair up beside her bed, taking the hand in his.
“Hurts to talk.”
“I know.” Patrick smiled, feeling he needed to express his sympathy yet unknowing if she saw. “If you don’t mind, I’ll sit here for a while.”
He felt a reassuring twitch in her hand as though she was trying to squeeze, then her eyes closed, apparently in sleep. Given entirely to the severe comfort of the hospital chair, he forced himself to relax so successfully he, too, drifted into dozing. Tiredness was a luxury the last two weeks had not allowed him to indulge, and now, in the space he was obliged to give to his sick friend, it washed over him in a gentle flood. Jacqui’s heartbeat was relayed from the machinery behind her bed by steady, hypnotic beeps, the warm air was filled with a gentle hum of something electrical, somewhere, and his head was fogged by sadness.
“You’re still here.” Jacqui’s eyes were open and turned towards him. He must have slept. Her hand was gripping his. “I’m glad.” She said.
“I’m here as long as you want me.”
And Jacqui’s faint smile seemed to suggest his words meant something obscure to her, as though they raised an image to her wounded mind. Then she drifted once more into sleep.
A little later a nurse entered the room, briskly. She gave a quick nod to Patrick, fussed with the monitor settings above Jacqui’s bed, consulted her chart, then turned to leave as quickly as she had come. “She’s much better this morning, isn’t she?” She said brightly.
Patrick stared at her. The nurse’s smile clouded. “More colour in her cheeks? The doctor’s really pleased with her.”
“Can I see the doctor?” Patrick asked.
The drive home became a race. Mark Seldon, Jacqui’s neurologist, had been quite specific: yes, Miss Greenway was off the critical list; no, no-one had called from his hospital to suggest otherwise. A cruel hoax was Seldon’s suggestion; a deliberate ploy was Patrick’s suspicion.
The sight of his father’s green Aston Martin parked before the house confirmed his worst fears. Jackson had come home, something he rarely did during the workday. When he drew his own car to a halt before the front doors, his younger sister came rushing to greet him.
“Patrick! I do not suppose you can account for the whereabouts of your woman?”
“Do you mean Karen? Isn’t she in her room?”
“Her room? I should think not!”
“Well, I’m sure she’s somewhere.” Patrick lighted upon the safest reply without thinking. His mind was elsewhere. “Petra’s taken her for a walk?”
This morsel of conversation had taken them into the hallway. Jackson emerged from his study. “Go and help your mother with Petra, young lady. Patsy, can I have a word?”
Jackson took Patrick’s shoulder with the sort of fatherly insistence that could not be ignored, urging him into his study. He said: “Patrick, something’s happened.”
Patrick’s face had already turned to parchment. “I was afraid of that,” he said. “Where is she, Dad, is she alright?”
“Well, son, right now we’re making up a story about that and we don’t rightly know. I’m hoping maybe you can help. Your mother says not, but you might be ahead of us on this: was young Karen thinking of leaving us? Has she said anything we don’t know about?”
“No. No, of course not! Dad, he’s got her, hasn’t he? Where’s Karen?”
“I don’t know who ‘he’ might be, though it looks for sure like someone’s been here.. Your mother came home with Amanda because her school doesn’t want her there anymore. She found Petra in the kitchen. The dog’s in a bad way, son. She’s been scared so much she won’t let anyone near her, and I think she may have some bones broken. Someone did that to her, roughed her up real bad. Now I’m catching up a little here, but as I understand it Karen was being troubled by someone. Your mother tells me some guy was stalking her. Is that who you’re talking about?”
“Yes, Dad. Mum thought if Karen quit her Boulter’s Green investigation this man would back off; that the two things were related. I wasn’t – I’m not – so sure.” Patrick explained how he had been tricked into leaving Karen alone in the house.
“Well, the guy’s been here, or someone has,” Jackson said crisply. “Without a doubt of it. It took some brutality to beat a dog like that; and the XK’s been stolen, too. Set off at some speed, if the driveway’s anything to go by.”
“And Karen’s gone?”
“Karen’s gone, son. Leastways, we can’t find her.”
Jackson had been waiting on his son’s return, he said, before calling the police. Now he was sure Karen had not made contact with anyone in the family he made the call. Meanwhile, a vet had been summoned to Petra, who, having established that her wounds were not fatal, was making arrangements to take her back to his surgery for treatment.
The police detective sergeant took more than an hour to arrive; an hour in which Jackson and Patrick explored every inch of Radley Court’s grounds, in case they should discover some further clue to Karen’s absence. Of course, they found nothing.
“Car like that, it’s bound to be a target for a thief, Mr Hallcroft.” The detective commented. “The doors were left open, were they?”
“It’s a convertible. There was no key in it. We don’t especially make it known we keep vintage cars in there. And if it was just auto theft, what about Miss Eversley? Why is she missing?”
“Ah, yes, the woman. You say your son showed her this car the other day, sir. I hesitate to put two and two together for you, but isn’t it possible that she is implicated in some way?”
“That’s a huge assumption!”
“Is it?” The detective may have been young, but he was not to be intimidated by Jackson. “If I may ask, how long have you known this young lady? You see, Miss Eversley is known to us, sir. We have had occasion to interview her a few times. I would say my assumption was entirely reasonable. Not that we won’t pursue all lines of enquiry, of course.”
“Do.” Jackson Hallcroft advised him heavily. “Apart from the car, nothing was taken. Someone deliberately put the dog out of action. You should be treating this as an abduction, not common theft. I’m not a fool, boy – don’t take me for one.”
By the time the policeman was ready to leave, Patrick was preparing to do the same. He had ‘phoned Karen’s number at her apartment and then at her office, without getting any reply. Knowing Karen was in some kind of danger was reason enough for him to set off on a pursuit of his own. The detective confronted him as he climbed into his car. “Take my advice, lad. Keep out of this. Stay well away, you understand?”
Patrick stared. “Did I hear that correctly? Did you just threaten me?”
“Not a threat, lad, a warning. I’d take heed of it too if I were you. This is a police matter.”
The Jaguar looked dishevelled and somewhat apologetic, parked where Patrick discovered it outside Karen’s apartment, A festoon of displaced wires behind the dash provided ample evidence the car had been hot-wired, and the thief could be no-one else, but the absence of Karen’s own car encouraged him. She had swapped to her own vehicle. If Mr Nasty had caught her he would hardly have brought her here. No, she had eluded him, although a big boot print defacing the Jaguar’s gleaming white paint showed exactly how close her escape had been.
It was the condition of his father’s beloved toy, with its dented bonnet, that answered all of Patrick’s remaining questions. He called his father from a telephone box at the corner of the street to tell him he had found the car and agreed unwillingly to wait until Gwendoline and Jackson could take over.
“Then I’m going to try to find Karen,” Patrick said.
© 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