Above all things, Patrick hated inaction. Caleforth, the village where Karen’s friend Bea Ferguson had made a home, harboured few temptations to a young man with time to kill, yet he judged there was little to be achieved by returning to Caleybridge, so he decided to wait out the hour or so before Bea returned from work. A mile beyond Caleforth the road swung away to the south-east, leaving a narrow lane which Patrick knew well from his teenage courting adventures. It climbed steeply to a lofty perch known locally as Monument Hill. Here open grassland was presided over by a tall Victorian tower, testament to the deeds of someone so entirely forgotten there seemed to be no good reason to maintain his monument, which was falling down, stone by stone. Nevertheless, it was somewhere for romantics to park in the disguise of night, and the further discretion of the wooded hill below offered refuge to more adventurous lovers. Afternoon had not yet faded into to dusk, so Patrick had the entire expanse to himself. He parked, restored the car’s ragtop to its raised position, then he huddled in his passenger seat, intent upon sleep.
Sleep would not come. Rest would not come. From this high advantage his eyes were drawn once and again to the wide vista of Beaconshire’s northern lands, flushed by that clear, weak sunlight which comes after rain. Away to his left in benign dominance the purple roofs of Crabbart Moor, to his right grey Caleybridge sprawled across the valley, sparkling with reflections like a bejewelled spider; then, on towards the distant sea, a valley patchwork of green and gold, grass and rain-swept hay. A lonely tractor far off, wandering soundlessly across a freshly-cut field. Cattle congregating in a pasture, waiting to be summoned for milking. Traffic rushed to and fro on the Bulmouth road with increasing urgency, as if the ribbon of tarmac was an open wound it was its purpose to stitch; and winding through the valley was another ribbon – the ragged black scar of the River Boult. Boulter’s Green lay there, somewhere, in a dark defile at the edge of a forest that was, together with all the fields beyond, the southernmost finger of the Driscombe Estate. Seeing that great expanse of land, even at such a distance, Patrick felt the impact of Driscombe wealth and power, as if it held him as it held all it surveyed, in the palm of its hand. Only the moors, old as time, seemed impervious to its grasp.
Where was the space Karen occupied in this vast diorama? Could she be down there somewhere, or had she fled far beyond those misted horizons to a place where she might be free of him – of those who would hurt her? In his head Patrick could not have blamed her had she taken flight, yet in his heart he knew she had not. No, the answer was here – she was here – if he could but see. Eventually, exhausted by speculation, he slept.
Awakened suddenly and rudely, Patrick opened his eyes to meet those of a gaunt and unwholesome looking man outside his window! For a moment the surprise overtook him. He flinched instinctively and his inaction gave the snooper an advantage. By the time he had wrestled with the latch to his door the man was already stalking away. By the time he had clambered out of the car there was a distance between them and the time for anger had passed. Should he shout after the man; demand to know what he was doing? Pursue him? Undecided, in the end he did neither, but glared at the retreating back, wondering if the intrusion was sinister, or no more than the curiosity of someone who was obviously unwell.
It was six-thirty. An angry raincloud hung over the eastern valley.
“Hi-ya!” The girl framed by the doorway was dark and vivacious, with a serious expression, large eyes almost fever-bright and sleek black hair combed straight to her shoulders. “You came by earlier.”
“I did.” Patrick’s mood lightened instantly. Bea Ferguson had that effect on people. “You’re a friend of Karen Eversley’s, aren’t you? How did you know…?”
“Oh, Aggy Blenkinsopp next door told me. Bless her, she misses nothing. Do you want some coffee, something to eat? Whatever happened to your face?”
In the stresses of the last days Patrick had forgotten his bruised cheek, which still showed traces of purple. “It was a door,” He explained.
“That’s what they all say.”
The cottage’s interior suffered that pleasing disorder that surrounded two busy working people. In the midst of it, Robert Ferguson was splayed out in a cloth-covered blue armchair, wearing nothing but a grey t-shirt and a pair of navy blue underpants. His wife’s respectability was preserved rather better by a housecoat.
Patrick knew he was intruding. “Look, I won’t keep you. I’ve lost track of Karen, that’s all, and I wondered if you’d heard from her in the last day or so.”
“Nonsense! I was just about to do dinner, so you’re welcome to stay if you want. Have some coffee, at least. Bopper, put your jeans on, sweetness. This guy doesn’t want to see the family jewels, does he?”
Bopper raised an eyebrow. “You never know,” He said, with as much innuendo as he could muster. Then raising himself resignedly to his feet, which was a long way, he added: “Stick around. The show has just begun…”
“I’ll make coffee. Milk? One sugar? Two? None?” Bea was already in the small kitchen behind the living room, leaving an open door she could call through. There was an exposed stairway to the right and Bopper pounded up the bare treads on his way, presumably, to a bedroom. Footsteps on the ceiling ensued. “You sound as if you’re worried,” Bea said.
“I am worried,” Patrick admitted. “She seems to have disappeared.”
“That’s our Karen!”
“How do you mean?”
“Hard one to pin down. She does the free agent bit really well. You can’t say you haven’t noticed – if you’ve known her for a while, that is.” Bea re-emerged from the door at the back with two cups in her hand. “Here. This one’s for Bops. I had mine earlier. You’re Pat Hallcroft, aren’t you?”
“She told you about me?” Pat took the cup, thanking her.
“Well, not so much. But word gets around, you know, Patrick? You can’t take a girl like Karen on a date in this town without attracting attention.” Bea motioned him to sit down. “So, she’s gone out of town and you want to know where she’s gone, yeah? Let’s trade. Are you two friends now, or more than friends?”
“She didn’t say?”
“Nope. I haven’t heard from her in more than a week.”
“Then I guess you can’t help me. I thought you were close.”
“Oh, I can help you! And yes, we’re close alright – two peas, Patrick. Thing is – before I say anything to compromise my friend Karen – are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Two peas – in a pod, dimwit! With Karen; you know? Do you, like – er – have knowledge of each other, sort of thing?”
“Why do you need to know that? I just want to know how to find her, that’s all…”
“Because, Patrick, because. A girl such as I likes to be first with the hot news, you see? And because I wanted to see how well you can lie; which is not very well. So you sealed the deal – fab!”
“Well, the hot news is she’s dropped out of sight and I can’t find her. As to the other thing…” Patrick allowed himself to smile. “A gentleman doesn’t tell.”
“You don’t have to. It’s written all over your face.”
“Alright, alright! We may have shared a pod.”
And you like her a lot – I hope – and she’s disappeared and you’re worried. Right?”
“Isn’t this where we started?”
“No, no it isn’t. Karen has a new boyfriend and they’re third base or above. That’s good quality crack for a girl like me. Karen’s ditched her police hero and all the history for Patrick Hallcroft – wow! Headlines!”
“Don’t let her get you twisted up,” Bopper advised, descending the stairs in a pair of worn navy jeans. “Is that my coffee?” He pinned Patrick with a knowing look. “If it wasn’t all over town before it will be now.”
“It is, my darling; and you’re right, it will be. The wires will hum. Now, how can I help you? Where would she go? If she’s staying with any of her friends I will find that out by tomorrow. Give me your number and I’ll call you tomorrow evening. Does that help?”
Relieved, Patrick laughed and said that it did. This brought a rare smile to Bea’s face which lit up her cheeks like the shine of fresh rain.
“She won’t be far away. For a start there’s a Spiritualist meeting at the Gaiety next Thursday. She won’t miss that even if she’s hunted by wolves.”
“So the Spiritualist thing is for real, is it?” Patrick murmured. “I only just learned about that from her mother,”
“Karen didn’t tell you, did she? She’s sort of ashamed of it, I think. You know about the sister, of course – Suzanne, yeah? So she’s desperate to get in touch; you know, voices from beyond the grave and stuff. She wanted me to go with her once but I said no. Not my thing. I don’t have any dead sisters. See, now, I really am a help to you, aren’t I? You go to the meeting. She’ll be there, sure betcha!”
“How she gets hold of all this information? ‘Tis a mystery no-one can understand.” Bopper said sagely, settling back in his chair. “Now, chap; are you staying for supper, or what?”
Having found two new friends, Patrick finally left the Ferguson’s as night closed in and a three-quarter moon was rising amid a pool of silver. He drove the short miles to Caleybridge with a heart that felt a little lighter than before, because Bea’s optimism felt like real progress.
“I’ve known Karen for so, so long, Patrick. She’s confident on the outside, but she’s very lonely on the inside. Between you and me, though, she fancies you like mad, so you shouldn’t worry. She’ll come back to you, and when she does, she deserves to be loved. Don’t hurt her, okay?”
More than once on the drive to town Patrick glanced in his mirrors, thinking that one of the array of headlights on the road behind was following him. In Caleybridge he deliberately diverted, using a long route through the town’s eastern suburbs before he struck north on the Halminster road towards his home. For a while there was only darkness behind him, convincing him he had imagined it, but then those familiar headlights reappeared. He swung into the minor road which led to Radley Court, watching for the lights to follow, but they did not. Their source drove by, as though their driver had satisfied himself of Patrick’s destination. He could not say for sure within the limits of his mirrors but he thought he saw them slowing to a halt a little further on.
The avenue of tall trees, burdened by the weight of their foliage frowned over him, severe against the moon, and reminding Patrick of their ghostly secrets. He had lived here all his life, never growing to conquer his fear of their dark company, and walked here too, had to do so in the days before his car, on nights as black or blacker than this, shivering against the trees’ chill shadows and feeling their soft, silent whispers seeping through him. Even in the car he was not immune, although the discomfort would last no more than a mile, maybe, before he turned into Radley Court’s front drive and the rhododendrons stretched out before his headlamps in a florid welcome.
The next morning Patrick had two tasks to occupy his mind, both entailing a hospital visit so he started early, huddled in his driving jacket with the Daimler’s top down to let in a morning breeze sharp enough to draw tears. It would take a frustrating wait until eleven o’clock for his nine o’clock appointment to come to fruition, and an amiable but clearly ill-briefed doctor to reassure him that discarding the dressing on his head when it became rain-soaked had done him no harm. He was dismissed after application of a small sticking plaster.
He discovered Jacqui, still pinned by her halo brace, out of bed and seated in the ward day-lounge. She greeted him bravely. “I’ll be rid of the scaffolding soon.” She said. “I’m doing rather well, apparently. A coat of paint and I’ll be good as new. Do you think I suit the turbaned look?”
“You’re an exotic work of art nearing completion, that’s how I think of you.”
“Really? A little too Dali-esque, that’s how I think of me. I feel as if I’ve still got the builders in. After these bandages come off I’ll never wear a hat again – not even to a wedding. So tell me; how’s the love life, Romeo? Have you got her back?”
“No. But it’s only a day, isn’t it? I’m working on it, and thanks to you I caught up with Bea.”
“Has she heard anything?”
Not yet – she’s phoning around. Let’s get back to you. Do you remember what happened to you now?”
“Nope. Doctor Crippen thinks I probably never will. ” She said. “The police came just after your last visit, I couldn’t tell them anything.”
“My consultant. I’ve got one, you know. Trouble is, though, he’s a little bit creepy. I think he’s more used to examining dead bodies – at least, that’s how it feels when he examines me. But I feel ever so much better, so I suppose he must be good.”
“Crippen’s not his real name, then.”
“I couldn’t possibly divulge. As far as I know he doesn’t have any travel plans. Oh, Pat, you really like her, don’t you?”
“Can we concentrate on you?”
“Of course,” Jacqui said. “I love talking about me!” But had there been a radio telegraph behind her eyes she could not have read the message on Patrick’s face more clearly. He was hurting. She would have hugged him, she told herself, if there had not been all this metal in the way. And hugging him? That was her secret dream.
It was well past midday when Patrick returned to Radley Court and found the message in Gabrielle’s handwriting beside the hall telephone. He rang the number she had scrawled. A woman’s voice answered.
“Oh, hello dear, is that Patrick?”
Patrick confirmed that it was.
“It’s Karen’s mother, dear. You came to see me yesterday. I wonder if you could pop round sometime soon, if you’re free? There’s something I have to talk to you about. Can you come this afternoon?”
“Of course, Mrs Eversley.” His heart leapt. “Have you heard from her?”
“In a manner of speaking… I’d rather show you, dear. I’ll see you soon, then?”
The Patrick who stood warmed by afternoon sun before Bridget Eversley’s door could not hide the impatience behind his smile. Here was news at last, maybe the breakthrough he was waiting for!
“Come in, dear. I’ll make us some tea.”
Karen’s mother ushered him into the softly furnished cosiness of her front room. She sat him in one of her armchairs, satisfying herself that he was comfortable before she produced the small sheet of paper which she intended him to read.
“Take your time and look at this, Patrick. I’ll leave you alone for a minute while I do that tea, dear.”
The slip of paper was a letter, handwritten, blue biro on blue vellum.
I have to tell you in a letter because I’m forced into a quick decision. Mum, I’ve messed up and I need to move away. I will be gone for a while.
I’m making a fresh start somewhere new. I will bring you up to date as soon as I can.
I’m so sorry to do this to you, but will you tell Patrick for me? I’m such a coward, I can’t bring myself to write to him: he expected so much of me, and I feel like I’ve failed him somehow. Maybe he expected too much. Anyway, I’ll miss him an awful lot, tell him that, will you? I think this is best for both of us.
Love to Dad.
All my love to you both,
Patrick stared at the letter for a time he could not determine. The rattle of teacups passed unnoticed.
“It was a shock to us, too, dear.” Bridget Eversley said quietly.
Patrick shook his head, as if to clear the clamour of conflicting voices that filled it. He read the letter for a fifth time. There was no address upon it.
“By the postmark it was sent the day before yesterday, posted in Baronchester.” Bridget told him. “I suppose she sent it on her way to wherever she is going.”
“It is her handwriting?” Patrick asked.
“I wondered, so I checked. We have plenty of her writing about the house to sample from. I’m sure it’s hers.”
Paul was at work. Patrick discovered him at his desk and persuaded him away for coffee.
“I can’t stay long,” Paul told him, “We’ve got an urgent job we have to finish tonight. Can I see the letter?”
Patrick handed the letter to him as delicately as if it were gelignite. Paul grinned. “We’re not going to fingerprint it, are we? I take it you want me to misuse the photocopier?”
“Please. I’m being careful because she wants it back. But first I want to know what it says to you.”
“Nothing but the patently bleeding obvious. It says she’s gone. As to why…”
“Would you agree there’s something odd?”
Paul frowned. “Odd? Yes. Not like her, I’d have thought. But the letter seems to be written spontaneously and willingly, and it says you’ve been chucked, old son. None too ceremoniously, either. She was a nice girl and it’s a shame, but you need to think about moving on, occupying your mind. When are you back at work now? Do you know?”
“I’m told I should take another few days, so next week, I guess. If there’s nothing odd, explain how that was posted two days ago, the day she disappeared, with a Baronchester postmark. The police say the car was moved from Nowhere Lane sometime in the early hours yesterday, but I know it was parked there well into the night before. What did she do – drive up to Baronchester to post the letter, then return to the lane, then leave again? It doesn’t make sense.”
“ You’re clutching at straws. Maybe she gave the letter to someone else, one of her friends, to post on her behalf; or maybe someone else moved the car. Personally, I think she’s gone, mate. You’re asking me, that’s what I think.”
So Patrick thanked his friend and left, with his photocopies in his hand, to return Karen’s original letter to her mother; and discontented though he was, he could think of no solid response to Paul’s argument.
That evening, which was the second since his girlfriend’s departure, was interrupted at nine-thirty by the clamour of the telephone.
“You’re Patrick, yeah? It’s Bea. Patrick, we’ve seriously got to talk! Can you come?”
“Sure, is the morning okay?”
“No, now. I’m at Karen’s apartment, Patrick. You’ve got to see this!”
© 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