Stafford Dricombe often referred to the third floor of the Great House at Boult Wells as his father’s control tower, and certainly its windows commanded the best view the house could afford of the Driscombe estate. From his position at its big west window he could see across the treetops of Berkley Wood all of five miles to Marney’s Folly, a bland and totally pointless tower a previous Driscombe had erected upon what was then deemed to be the highest point of the estate. That was two hundred years ago, of course, when follies were the fashion and when the estate was no larger than seven miles across. Now Driscombe lands covered a much larger spread, mainly in the form of tenant farms. Their tentacles were long, towards Caleybridge in the South, Bulmouth in the North, Baronchester in the East.
Marney’s Hill was no longer the highest, nor could all the Driscombe property be seen from the top of his folly, for Africa was far from view, Asia even further. Nor, were all the engines of Driscombe prosperity so visible: diamonds lurked deep beneath the bedrock of a far-off mine, and the oil that filled their pipelines never saw light of day. Driscombe fortunes were entwined in property, immersed in politics, and bathed by financial markets. They were only counted by those whose business it was to count – bankers in city offices in the major markets of the world. Stafford knew nothing of accounting, cared nothing for the business of the Estate. It was something he had been born into and never saw fit to question.
Today promised to be vexing. He sighed heavily, looking down on those sunbathed lawns which fronted the House, then a little beyond to the walled area of the pool. The sun was scarcely affected by breeze in that arena of mosaic stone and blue water. It would be hot. Jacinta, Stafford’s wife, with two of her friends were stretched out on sunbeds beside the pool. They were topless, all three, and although distance lent a certain modesty, it was easy to see from this high advantage how the years of over-indulgence had worked upon Jacinta’s figure. The Honorable Lucy, at just seventeen the newest addition to Jacinta’s privileged circle, was, by comparison, a very model of temptation, and Stafford was tempted. She had fruits just ripening, delicious to touch; a firm young body her brief yellow bikini pants did little to conceal. Stafford would want her; Jacinta would know: a little game they played. Supplying new flavours for him to taste was one of the subtle ways Jacinta kept the fires of her marriage burning; for she knew her own talents well.
“I can’t see clearly, Stafford, as you know,” Lord St. John Driscombe had approached with his usual stealth. “Yet I am aware that what is going on down there offends common decency. I won’t have young women disporting themselves in such a flagrant manner. Put a stop to it!”
Stafford glanced down at his father’s shrunken form, smiling mildly. The old man, swathed in a blue silk dressing gown, leant heavily upon a walking cane, a stance made the more unsteady by a tremulous arm. His tautly bald head was ploughed by the furrows of a frown.
“It is the fashion, father,” He soothed. “In private circumstances; I think this is private enough, don’t you?”
“I do not. Exhibitionism! Deplorable manners! Unconscionable!” Lord St. John snatched a ‘kerchief from his dressing gown pocket to catch the dew that was gathering at the tip of his rather prominent nose. “Another consequence of your injudicious marriage. That woman of yours flashes her blasted titties everywhere. She does not merely dress like a tart, she manages to undress in similar style!”
“Please, Father!” Stafford murmured, “You speak of the woman I love.”
“I’m speaking of a blasted docker’s daughter! A theatrical, for god’s sake!”
“You’ve dispensed with your chair this morning, Father. Oughtn’t you be seated?”
“Don’t need it! Never do. I choose, y’see. I choose.”
“Yes, Father.” Stafford spied his father’s wheelchair parked in a corner of the room. “Shall I fetch it for you?”
“If you must.”
The son brought the father his wheelchair promptly, aware how the ancient man could collapse without warning when the vitriol that bore him up was spent. This suite of rooms at the top floor of the Great House was St. John Dricombe’s world, an air-conditioned palace he rarely left, even though a special lift stood ready to ferry him down to the outside world. It was a luxuriously appointed prison, appropriate to his power and wealth, but it was a prison nonetheless. No sooner was the chair positioned behind him than the old man sank into it with the grateful hiss of a punctured tire.
“I might take a constitutional downstairs later on.”
“Take a turn on the lawn.”
“Well, I want those hussies out of the way when I do.” The old man’s tone altered. “He’s done it again, hasn’t he?”
Satisfied Lord St. John was comfortable, Stafford turned back to the window, not wanting to face the gimlet glare of those beady grey eyes. “Yes,” He said gravely, his eyes focused now on Marney’s Folly. “I’m afraid he has.”
“Can we contain it?”
“Of course. We must, mustn’t we? There’s a little more fuss, this time – third in a row, that sort of thing. The press loves stuff like that. I imagine it will find a space in the nationals, but it will all die down.”
“This has to stop. This has to be the last, d’ye understand?”
Stafford’s sigh had the weight of the world upon it. “Yes, I do understand. If you could just…”
“We’ve been through all that. You know what I think.”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’ll be all, then. Get the kitchen to send up my breakfast, will you?”
The son departed, leaving the father to the gaoler of his years. Free of the yoke of family, Stafford wasted no time. In his rooms, he donned a pair of swim trunks inappropriate to his girth and age, threw a bathrobe and a towel over his shoulders, and padded out across the lawns towards the pool.
From his west window, Lord St. John Driscombe watched. His eyes may have been too dim to see detail, his ears too muffled by years to hear, but he knew. Maybe he remembered the days of his own youth, when he, in his turn, had been just as ready as Stafford to trade upon his position and wealth. He could not blame his son, but he could foresee danger. Confined within the high stockade of his family’s prosperity, Stafford suffered from none of the insecurities his father had experienced in his own time, which left him vulnerable to the moral gauntlets society might force him to run, and could cripple even one as rich as he.
Soft memories came back, little wisps of reminiscence that seemed to taunt him more and more with the years, and regrets came in shades of fragrant rose from that enchanted land of the past.
Lord St. John Driscombe gazed out over his verdant lands as he drifted towards sleep.
“Ah, dear Antoine!” He murmured.
For Patrick Hallcroft, there was no rest. He had spent the quiet hours awake when the world was sleeping, staring into the shadows. Where was Karen now?
In his pain he would have rejoiced, almost, if he had known she was safely asleep somewhere, even if that meant he would never see her again. Another’s bed, perhaps? No, he could not, would not ever, believe her to be so fickle. Yet the other thoughts – the alternatives – were too terrible; he could not allow them to intrude in the sacred space of hope he kept alive in his heart, because in his heart he knew the critical hours were already past. Three days: it had been three days. No-one had seen or heard of Karen for three days.
Patrick rose and breakfasted early with no credible plans. What should he do? A little after eight the telephone’s brayed and he raced to answer it, praying for news.
“Let’s try this another way. To whom do I have the honour?”
“I’m Patrick Hallcroft.”
“Great! Right man! Tarquin Leathers, darling –Sunday Record. You might have read my stuff?”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“What price a by-line, eh? Never mind, Patrick. I’m on my way to see you, about your jilted lover story?”
The Press! Patrick stirred his brain into action; “Yes, it’s more of a missing person story, really..”
“Nah. Nobody reads them. Listen, I’m coming from London, I’ll be a couple more hours. You’ll be at home, won’t you, Patrick?”
With his head still trying to catch up, Patrick replaced the receiver, hearing Gabrielle descend the stairs behind him. “Who was that?”
“The Sunday Record. They’re coming to see me.”
“Ugh! Ghastly rag! But still, Patsy; national ‘paper, no publicity’s bad publicity, and all that? I’m off, so I’ll miss them, I’m afraid. Oh, and Mummy’s out too. She’s trying to prise Sprog into another school. This one’s nearly as far as Harterport – I ask you! But still, you’ll have Mrs. B. for company, won’t you?”
Radley Court had lapsed into its comfortable morning silence when, much later, Patrick’s hearing picked up the crunch of wheels as a heavy car swung around in front of the house. He caught a glimpse of a black Jaguar as it passed his window, so he was downstairs in time to greet the car’s occupant.
“Mr. Hallcroft? Detective Sergeant Ames. I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes?” Patrick registered his surprise. “Were you expecting someone else?”
Ames was comfortably aware of the task his superior officer had presented to him in a three-in-the-morning telephone call. Someone had tipped off a hawk from the national press that a routine missing persons enquiry was being stonewalled. His Chief Inspector had been quite specific.
“I’m putting you in charge of this one, Charlie. I want one of your best snow-jobs, please. We don’t want to see it grow more than a couple of column inches.”
Professionally, Ames was up for promotion in June, so being slam-dunked into a case like this one, which could expose him to criticism from his superiors, represented a minefield; on the other hand, handled well, the result could be one of those unwritten portions of his CV which would make the appointing officers nudge each other confidentially and smile. He was confident; the Hallcroft-Smythe boy seemed a decent, outspoken sort of chap – he fell into the easily placated, reasonable bracket of middle-class complainants who could be nudged off the circuit with a chrome bumper smile and a few well-placed cautions. These were the issues in Ames’s thoughts as he was shown into the refectory at Radley Court. It was nine-thirty a.m.
“Thank you for seeing me so early, Mr Hallcroft. This is about the alleged disappearance of Miss Karen Eversley.”
Patrick sat the gruff-faced man at the table, offered him coffee, which was refused, then took a chair facing him. Ames thumbed through a thin file he had managed to scoop together on a dawn raid at Caleybridge Police Station, wondering. Apparently the boy’s mother had been a brief – maybe that was his only leverage. Well, okay, maybe. Whose was the tip-off? Did he have other connections?
“Your girlfriend’s mother is satisfied her daughter’s absence is nothing more than a decision to move away. She has a letter that seems to bear that out, and she is confident it is genuine.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“I’ve just been to visit the lady. She’s quite emphatic. I’ve read the letter. You’ve seen it, I imagine?”
“I returned the original. I have a copy here, somewhere. Karen borrowed one of my father’s cars to get away – she hot-wired it…”
“Very resourceful. It doesn’t mean she was running away from anyone; merely that she wanted to get back to town and a taxi wasn’t immediately available. Oh yes, someone called for a taxi, we’ve checked.”
“The car was damaged in a way that suggested it was being attacked. She took nothing – absolutely nothing – with her. Not so much as a toothbrush. Believe me, she ran.”
Ames sighed. Sitting back on the chair, he gave every appearance of considering his next words. “So, Patrick: on the one hand we have this letter, which Miss Eversley’s mother asserts is genuine and states categorically that she left of her own free will; on the other, your insistence that she was attacked. But then, you told us her car was at this place…what’s it called…Boulter’s Green. It wasn’t, was it?”
“Yes, it was. It has gone now: Anyone who got hold of Karen would have access to the car keys, presumably.”
“Or she simply drove away again?” Ames drummed the fingers of his left hand on the table. It was a bad habit. His wife frequently expressed her irritation when he did it and his colleagues liked to mimic him for it. If Patrick had noticed it though, he gave no sign. He waited patiently for the sergeant’s next remark.
“Must be useful to you, having a brief as a family member – she’d be able to advise you.” Charlie Ames leaned forward, “If I were her I’d be advising you to be careful, Mr Hallcroft. The police are very accommodating, and as far as I can see we have followed all the correct procedures. There’s no justification for the allegations you seem to be making.”
“A uniformed officer put Karen – Miss Eversley –at risk by his actions. I have been assaulted and no-one has even asked me for a statement. Now, you’re refusing to take this matter seriously. Listen;” Patrick was rising to his task “Karen Eversley’s disappearance isn’t the first to be associated with Boulter’s Green; two other young people have vanished recently. She was investigating those disappearances when she was taken. Something’s wrong here, you must see that!”
“I do not see anything of the kind. That’s a very serious accusation. If you’re alleging that an abduction of some sort has taken place with the complicity of the local force…”
“I’m not saying who is directly implicated, I’m simply telling you something is wrong. Three disappearances! Somebody should be taking an interest, at least, surely?”
“These other two disappearances; were they reported? There’s no evidence of it here. And is this place some kind of catalyst? I only have your word for that. What real evidence I have suggests Miss Eversley left of her accord. I have nothing, apart from some damage to a car which you attribute to an attempted assault, to say otherwise.”
“Her possessions? Where are they? Her apartment’s been stripped! Her friends? No-one has heard from her.”
“Circumstantial at best.” Ames laid the file on the table, his palms on the file. “There’s nothing here, Mr Hallcroft; nothing. As far as I can see the local boys have done more than enough to check and re-check your story. You might have had a robbery, that I concede, but as to Miss Eversley’s involvement…”
“So you’re determined to do nothing.”
“I, Mr Hallcroft? I’m an experienced copper, looking at a very sad young man whose girlfriend has moved away without telling him. I feel sorry for you, I really do. But I am also looking at a complainant without any case to bring, a complainant who copied a personal letter without the recipient’s permission, someone whose behaviour has been generally disruptive and who is seeking the ear of the national press…”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You will be contacted very shortly by a journalist. I want you to be aware of your position, Mr Hallcroft! Discuss it with your mother, if you will. You are making unsubstantiated allegations against the police, and the police don’t take kindly to being pilloried by the press when they have no case to answer. I’m advising you to think before you say anything, and I’m warning you that you face action if you persist in this – criminal prosecution, damages…have a think about that, will you?” Ames rose to leave. “Thank you. I’ll find my own way out.”
A beneficent sun had reached the summit of its climb before more gravel was compressed, this time by a small but exciting automobile with several Italian references. The figure that emerged from it did not look Italian at all.
Tarquin Leathers was a large man with a great deal of good living encompassed by his red waistcoat. The thicket of unnaturally black hair that coated his head was forced into a quick decision when he raised his hat in greeting as to whether it should remain with its host or follow the chapeau.
“Mr Hallcroft! What a journey! My dear, the traffic! How are you? Can we talk?”
“Mr Leathers.” Patrick said. “I’ve been told not to talk to you,” There had been sufficient time for him to ruminate upon D.S. Ames’s visit, “but I will, anyway. Come in – can I get you coffee, or something?”
In the breakfast room once again, Patrick reiterated his story, bringing in D.S. Ames’s comments at the end. “I’ve been threatened by the police twice now.”
“It’s good! It’s very good! It means they’ve something to hide! I like the story of your centre-temps with the man-ogre by the river, darling. Describe him for me again, will you? Long, unkempt hair, aquiline nose, gorgeous toothy snarl? Must be careful – mustn’t go too Transylvanian, must we? Think now – did he have any deformities?”
Patrick, his story fully told and copiously noted, watched the newspaper man leave in his little car, understanding that Bridget Eversley would be his next port of call.
“That’s if you can get anything out of her.” He warned.
“Oh, my darling man, you have no idea! As soon as she knows I’m press, she’ll sing like a tweety-bird!”
Reflecting that he had not eaten, Patrick headed to the kitchen, where he made himself a sandwich and repeated his morning’s interviews in his mind, trying to elicit any new knowledge they had to offer him. He knew already, did he not, that the police were intent upon obstructing any but the sketchiest inquiries into Karen’s absence? Yet it had taken Tarquin Leathers to point out the significance of D.S. Ames’s arrival on the scene.
“A detective sergeant from ‘Division’, my dear chap. A ‘fixer’, I shouldn’t wonder. You should be ecstatic!. Your stirrings have caused ripples in the big pond!”
For himself, Patrick was more inclined to believe that after an hour of waiting, two buses had appeared at once. His days of persistence were yielding a minor hailstorm of results – something over which he could exert very little control. However, something had disturbed that bigger pond, and Leathers had been less than forthcoming concerning his sources. Enthusiastic about the publicity, Patrick had been too scared of pressing for that information. Nevertheless, somebody had touched a wire. Who was it? Tim Birchinall?
The voice from the hall had a slight country lilt.
“I’m looking for Mr. Patrick Hallcroft.” The intruder said. “Have I found him?”
Emerging from the kitchen, Patrick frowned. “Did anyone invite you in? Who are you, please? What do you want?”
The man did not reply at first. He was stocky, square in build, with a slightly florid complexion not enhanced by his choice of dark colours; black shirt open at the neck, chestnut sports coat and lovat cord slacks concertinaed over brown brogues. He looked, if anything, more awkward than his style statement.
“I didn’t want to wait outdoors,” He said; “Too conspic’u’s. Dunno what I wants, really. Somethin’ to say.”
“You’d better come through to the kitchen, then.” Patrick regarded the man warily, “Should I know your name?”
The question, simple as it was, did nothing to improve the man’s confidence. “Dunno as I should tell you that, neither, but I s’pose…”
“Suppose?” Patrick was already back in the kitchen. His visitor followed him in.
“Yes. I’m not in uniform, see?”
“Oh, you’re a policeman! I feel so special! You’re my second policeman of the day! Coffee, sandwich? Have a sandwich! I’ve got beef, or ham?”
At the news that others had gone before the man blenched visibly. “Well, I’m no-one, really. Just a constable, see. I’m off duty. I’m a friend of Tim’s. I’m Ray Flynn.”
© 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