It was near to darkness when Patrick pulled up outside the block that housed Karen’s apartment, where he supposed Bea Ferguson would be waiting for him, although he had not anticipated meeting her in the hallway. Karen’s friend was huddled in a green hooded coat, rubbing hands covered by woollen gloves. “It’s really cold, yeah?”
“Why didn’t you wait upstairs?”
“I dunno. Maybe I wanted to prepare you a little bit first, but then I thought about it and I didn’t know what I was going to say to you anyway.” Bea turned to the stairs. “Let’s go up and you can see for yourself.”
“You can get inside the apartment?”
“If she goes away who’s the lucky moo who gets to check up on her stuff for her? Moi, Patrick, moi. Oh, and usually send her something she’s forgotten. She always forgets something. So I’ve got a key. This key.” Bea dangled a Yale key on a string from her fingers. “I sort of wish I hadn’t.”
Patrick had a deepening sense of foreboding. “Why, what’s wrong?”
They reached the landing before Karen’s door. Bea slipped her key in the lock and turned it, then probed behind the jamb for a light switch. “Like I said, see for yourself.”
He knew at once. The echo told him. Beyond that door would be nothing. Yet still an exclamation of shock and surprise forced its way past his lips; for the apartment was very, very empty; without shades over the bare light bulbs, without furniture, curtains or carpets to cover the floor. Only the telephone remained, on the floor in the lobby. The number disc in the centre of its dial had been removed.
“It’s disconnected. It was still on this morning, because I tried to call her,” Bea told him. “I had to use the box on the corner tonight to ‘phone you. What’s going on, Mister Hallcroft – has this got something to do with you?”
“Of course not!” Patrick was going from room to room, finding nothing. And not for the first time in the two days since Karen’s disappearance he found himself having to shake his head to clear a confusion of thoughts and ideas. “I mean, how? Just how?”
“I’ll tell you how. All her stuff’s gone! Some bugger’s just marched in here and cleared the place out. This isn’t Karen, Patrick. My mate Karen wouldn’t do this!”
“Here’s something else she wouldn’t do.” Patrick had known he would have to show Bea his copy of Karen’s letter and the moment seemed to be now. He withdrew it from his jacket pocket. “At least I hope not.”
Bea read the letter slowly, turned it over in her hands and then read it again. “Oh, man, what’s going on? You poor sod.” She said, sympathetically. Then: “I don’t get it.”
“It seems pretty explicit.”
But Bea did not agree, “No! I mean, Karen? No! For a start, she wouldn’t write on paper like this. Blue vellum? Not Karen. Anything would do for Karen because she hates writing letters. I don’t think she’s ever bought a writing pad in her life! And black pen, she uses, never blue. I get annoyed with her for that, but she once explained to me all legal documents have to be filled in in black. Yeah, with me?”
“With you,” Patrick confirmed.
“Another thing. Karen and her mum, they aren’t too close, if you see what I mean? If she was going to chuck you, and I know she wasn’t, she wouldn’t ask her mum to do it for her. She’d at least call you! Apart from anything else, she wouldn’t trust her mum to do it. See, if her mum liked you, she might not do it at all.”
“In that case,” Patrick said, already seeing Karen’s relationship with her parents thrown into a different perspective: “I’m glad I showed it to you.”
“So am I, Patrick, so am I. Trust me – although this may look like her writing, she didn’t write it.”
“Anyway,” Patrick reverted to the subject of Karen’s furniture, “This has to have happened today. Someone should have seen something. Have you tried the apartments downstairs?”
Bea said that she hadn’t, so they knocked on doors, but despite the lateness of the hour and the annoyance that caused, they learned nothing. No, Karen’s neighbours had not seen any sign of removal men because they had been elsewhere; at work, or simply ‘out’. When all the possibilities had been exhausted, the pair were forced to admit defeat, and return to their respective cars for their journeys home.
Near to tears, Bea rounded on Patrick: “I’ve ‘phoned round to just everybody. Nobody’s heard from her! I hope you haven’t done something to put her in danger, mate…”
“You know I haven’t! She was being followed. It’s all to do with a case she’s on. I can’t figure it out yet, but I’m going to find her. That’s a promise, Bea!”
Nodding, Bea drew a deep breath. “Her mum must know something about this, though whether we’ll get much out of her is another matter. Go and see her again. I can’t, I’ve got to work.”
Patrick could, and the very next morning, he did.
At nine-thirty the terraced street was quiet. Unwilling children, happy children, cacophonous children had all been subsumed by their schools while relieved parents sat indoors. dosing their fatigue with coffee. The world of work had gone to work, the world of street life was on hold, as yet unwoken.
The Eversley’s door was as bland as it had always seemed, yet Patrick had a premonition. As soon as he touched the doorbell it was confirmed. The curtain of Bridget Eversley’s front room twitched savagely and behind it Bridget herself, scowling.
Patrick did not have to wait for long. There was an abrupt turn upon a latch, and the front door swung back, framing the stern figure of Bridget.
“What do you want, young man?”
“I’m sorry. If it’s inconvenient, I can come back.”
“If you’ve something to say, you should get on with it. Be quick. I shouldn’t be talking to you at all, y’see?”
“No, I don’t think I see. Did you know Karen’s apartment has been cleaned out – all her furniture, clothes, everything taken?”
“I expect she sold it. Needed the money, I shouldn’t wonder. Do you know I had a visit from the police last night?”
“You’ve been reported! Going around, harassing people, making a nuisance of yourself…”
“That’s untrue! I only want to…”
“You want to get over it, young man, that’s what you want to do. You saw her letter. She doesn’t want to see you no more. ‘Ccording to the policeman, she was a bit frightened of you. You wanted to be with her all the time, that sort of thing. Possessive, that’s what he said. Now make yourself scarce or I’m going to get on the ‘phone right now.” And Bridget Eversley slammed the door.
Dumbfounded, Patrick stood on the street for a few minutes, staring up at the windows and curtains that were suddenly closed to him. Overnight he had pondered upon why Bea, who had apparently only met her once, had been so scathing in her criticism of Bridget. Now he saw. Nevertheless, he had to question himself; was it true? Had he been the real reason Karen had fled? A darkness that had been lurking in the corners of his mind, a worm that writhed and twisted deep within; they threatened him now.
He drove back through the town half-expecting to see her face among the faces on the pavements; to catch the frightened look in her eyes when she saw she had been discovered, watch her duck quickly into some shop or doorway to avoid him.
“…he expected so much of me… Maybe he expected too much…”
Patrick returned to Radley Court.
Throughout his life, the old Georgian pile had been his refuge and his home, the burrow into which he could fly when the world was growling and likely to bite. Not now. As he drew up beneath those tall windows the Court’s emptiness echoed like the doors in Karen’s apartment. They seemed to offer little better than a roof and nothing so much as a welcome.
Amanda, his younger sister, emerged onto the threshold, ready to pounce. Patrick greeted her moodily. “Ah, the Great Uneducated. Hasn’t mumsy found you a school yet?”
Amanda rarely approached her brother, seeing him, to his mind, as a disfigured vexation – a break in her perfect circle. Yet for one so young she had an uncanny ability to lift his spirits, because her permanent sense of outraged moral rectitude amused him, even in his darkest hours.
“Gabrielle told me what has happened. I sympathize, although of course I spent no time in Miss Eversley’s company. I wouldn’t, you see. I deceived myself into thinking we could be friends, but she has proved to be a common woman, I’m afraid. Really, Patrick, you should try to meet some rather better people. Why are you laughing?”
“’Manda, has no-one apart from me ever told you what you sound like when you say those things? It’s funny – repulsive, but funny!”
“I don’t see why. I’m serious. A decent girl wouldn’t run off like that. A decent girl would…”
“Yes, yes. You tell me, my sweet little prig; what would a ‘decent girl’ do?”
“Well, she’d finish with you in a dignified manner.”
“Can I finish with you in a dignified manner?”
“Certainly not, I’m your sister.”
“All right, tell me, then – what’s the proper way to finish with a boyfriend? The sophisticated way. How would you do it?”
“I’d choose somewhere decent and refined…”
“So he would be embarrassed to make a fuss, of course! And I’d just tell him, firmly, that I had found another.”
“Another what? Look, are you going to be quiet?”
“I thought you were in need of serious conversation.”
“Whatever made you think that? Amanda, my little duchess, Karen hasn’t left me, she’s been taken from me. There’s a difference.”
“So you insist that to be the truth? You are so misled! A common woman, Patrick, with common morality! Do not waste your grief upon her!”
“Go away. Now!”
Amanda grimaced, then trotted indoors. Patrick, following her, watched her cross the hall to the stairs in a series of un-ladylike cartwheels. In her absence, the house returned to an empty, uncomfortable peace.
He mooched from room to room, unable to favour one place over the next, neither wishing for company – although his mother was home – nor content with solitude. All the while his mind was churning, self-accusing then self-justifying, doubting, then angry at himself for entertaining doubt. The strident advice of Karen’s mother, the harsh criticism of his father still rang in his ears, eroding his determination. But through all the turmoil, in the end, there was his shining vision of Karen and his memory, still fresh, of their shared moments among the stars. In the end, there could be no doubt.
Nevertheless, it would be midday before he could gather himself together sufficiently to pick up the telephone.
“Metropolitan Police switchboard.”
The operator was immediately helpful, and the process surprisingly fast and efficient. No, he hadn’t a warrant number, only a name, Timothy Birchinall. Could Constable Birchinall call him back, the matter concerned Miss Karen Eversley? Yes, his message would be passed on. Of course, it would be Constable Birchinall’s decision whether to respond.
Gabrielle found Patrick alone in the snug when she returned from work that evening. He was doing nothing but stare at the wall, his hands clutched about his knees and rocking in his chair, back and forth. With some difficulty, she got him to recount the misfortunes of his day.
“A lot of wasted hours. Karen’s parents seem to have been warned off, possibly lied to, by the police, so I don’t feel I can go back to either of them. I’m certain the long-haired man has her and to be honest, Gabs, I don’t know where to turn.”
“Try not to stress!” She laid a cool hand on her brother’s twitching fingers. Seeing him in this distracted state was not familiar to her. He was normally calm and decisive –positive in thought and deed. “I’m sure there’s some logical explanation.”
Patrick shook his head. “I’m not. I left her on her own – I knew I shouldn’t have. I just didn’t think it through. He’s got to her, and God knows what he’s done!”
Gabrielle winced. “You weren’t to know he – they – whoever – was going to try something like this. Stop blaming yourself. The way it seems to me, she got away from whoever it was, anyway. I think she went out to those ruins on her own terms.”
“Then where is she now? ”
“What are the police doing?”
“Nothing! They refuse to do anything – if anything, they’re trying to keep me quiet – to criminalise me. They’re accusing me of causing a nuisance, or something. Oh, Gabs, you know what I’m thinking; what if he’s hurt her. What if he’s…?”
“What can I say, Patsy? All I can think is if anyone could take care of themselves Karen could. She seemed to me to be a pretty robust and strong.”
Some time had to elapse before Gabrielle could coax her brother to calm down. Her own mind was troubled now, almost as much as his. Try as she might, she could not fit the evidence together in any way that was believable: the clearance of the apartment was most difficult to explain: if Karen had arranged it, the move must have been planned before – long before – Karen’s visit to her house. Removal men did not act on a few hours’ notice, but a few weeks, or days at the very least. And even then, how had she packed all the odds and ends that go with a removal: the boxes of books, the china, the clothes, the bric-a-brac of living?
Patrick read her mind. “You don’t know what to believe, do you?” He said.
“I believe you, darling brother. How should I not? Alright, you’re given to exaggeration from time to time, and you might be romancing slightly over this slavering cretin’s mendacious intent, but I don’t believe you’re lying. It’s just hard to accept, that’s all.”
“Well, that somebody who was staying in my family home has been taken, I guess. It just doesn’t happen; not in dear old pottering Beaconshire.”
At around eight-thirty the telephone bell clattered in the hall. Patrick answered it. The voice a the other end of the line was deep and unfriendly.
“You’re Patrick Hallcroft. Birchinall here; what do you want?”
“Thank you for calling back, Mr Birchinall, I’m sure I’m not the first voice you would want to hear…”
“Very perspicacious of you. Shall we get on with this – is there something I can help you with? I take it you haven’t just called to say hello?”
“Is she with you?”
“Karen. Is she with you in London? I’m not making a scene or anything, I just want to know, that’s all.”
The line was quiet for a few seconds, then Tim Birchinall said: “Why would you think she was with me?”
“Because she isn’t with me. She’s disappeared. She was being harassed by a big long-haired guy, something to do with an investigation she was on, and I think she was forced to run from him. Nobody’s seen her or heard from her and I think something’s happened to her. I just hoped she might have come to you…”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute! This big bloke with the long hair – did you see him?”
“Not in daylight. I had to fight him off for her once, but it was in the dark. He wears a long leather coat. My sister got a better look at him, do you want to speak to her?”
The voice on the line sighed. “No, that won’t be necessary. The bad news is, I’m afraid, she isn’t with me. Patrick, isn’t it? I’m sorry I was sharp with you, Patrick; you did the right thing by ‘phoning me. I’ll pull a few strings at this end if I can. You may get a visit from a police constable shortly, okay?”
“The police aren’t interested.”
“No? Well, I hope this one will be.”
She was seated upon red cushions in a tattered Lloyd Loom conservatory chair that faced a small upright table. These two items of furniture, with the addition of an ancient leather sofa, were the only adornments to the space she had already come to know as ‘the end room’. Two strip lights on a low ceiling cast dimly upon the torn ruins of a carpet patterned in a Turkish mode, and upon windowless walls of white emulsion; or emulsion once white. There were two doors to the room; one, which faced her, was kept padlocked and referred to as ‘the supply cupboard’ the other, behind her to her right, led to a passage. Her ‘bedroom’ was one of two doors from the left side of that passage; the other was the room of Joshua, the nurse. Two doors also broke up the wall on the right of the passage. One, a bathroom, was well appointed and clean, the other, which Joshua was particularly careful to explain, was ‘Edgar’s Room’.
“Never go in there unless he invites you, which he will do through me. If by any chance he changes that, make sure I know where you are.”
The door was substantial, faced with padded leather. Karen had wanted to know how much of Edgar’s room was padded on the inside.
“That, lassy, you’ll be finding out soon enough.”
“Is he in there now?” She had asked.
“He’s sleeping. That’s what he does, mostly.”
“And when he wakes up?”
“He’ll be hungry. He’ll eat, then he’ll want you.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Then he’ll get agitated. I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Joshua told her. “You’re not going to like what he wants, I’m afraid, but you mustn’t blame him too much. Edgar’s ill. He’s a very sick man, is Edgar. When he’s awake he can’t cope – the tension gradually works on him until he explodes, you see. It’s anxiety, really, but it manifests as harm.”
“Harm to me?”
“See it this way, girl. It’s a challenge, alright? From now on think of living as a challenge. Every day you survive you live another, and if you’re clever and you can discover how, you might keep Edgar going for days, maybe even weeks. But you’re the minnow and he’s the shark, you see. It can’t last forever, can it?
“You’re saying he’s going to kill me, aren’t you Joshua?”
“Try not to think about that – not yet. You have to write a list of your needs for me. Be as specific as you can, there’s no need to deprive yourself. I’ll get you a pen and some paper. Co-operate, that’s the first step. Then I’ll help any way I can.”
“Help me get out of here?”
“No, hon, I can’t do that. No-one ever gets out of here.”
“There have been others, then.”
So there it was. Her destiny was to die. And in the ‘room at the end’ there was a confirmation of her fate – the slightest of odours which, though she could not trace it to any source, was one she knew well enough – it was the smell of death, the distant foulness of decay. Yes, there had been others.
All Karen could do was sit, wearing the white shift that was required of her, waiting out her time. There was a pile of well-thumbed paperbacks on the table for her to browse, which she did, idly, unable to concentrate, as the minutes ticked by. Soon enough the sound of the door latch came, and from behind her, Joshua’s voice:
“He’s awake. He wants to see you now.”
© 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