Constable Ray Flynn looked uneasy.
“Grab a stool” Patrick coaxed him. “How do we open this conversation? Are you sure you don’t want coffee, tea, something to eat? ”
“No, no.” Flynn patted his stomach, gave a false smile. “Too fat already, see? Wife’s trying to make me cut down. Good thing, really.”
“You’ve got a family?”
“Aye. Two, both girls. Six and nine. Chips and more chips, that’s all they wants.” Flynn seemed about ready to run. “Nice kitchen, this. You’ll get some good meals out of here, I ‘spect.”
“Please sit down, Ray. How can I…”
“Friend of Tim’s. Tim Birchinall. We used to be partners before he moved to the Met. Used to play rugby together. Karen’d recognise me, all right. Yes.”
“Yes.” Patrick understood. “He asked you to come and see me, you didn’t want to.”
“That’s right. That about covers it. Yes.” Flynn manoeuvred his ample quarters onto a kitchen stool. “Rachel Priest, ever hear of her?”
“No, I can’t say I …”
“No. Where’s this going?”
“There’s others, I’m sure. I don’t know their names, but there’s others – down the years, you know? Nobody never hears of ‘em because they made ‘em vanish. Not just disappear – vanish. All trace – gone! They’re good at it, mind. Birth certificates, education records, everything wiped clean. Nobody remembers them, because it’s like they was never there – never born, see? Now there’s Karen. Tim’s right cut up about it, I can tell you.”
Patrick was incredulous: “’They’ – Who are ‘they’, Mr Flynn?”
“Don’t rightly know – never did. Someone who can wipe away the evidence from the inside, that’s for sure. Someone with very high connections. Very high. Tim and I, we used to talk about it in the car, never come up with nothin’.”
“But you’re police! You know this much, surely there must have been questions asked? These people must have had friends and relations, who would report them missing. You’d have to investigate.”
“Not Beaconshire. Not our force, no.”
“Who then?” Demanded Patrick, showing his bewilderment. “I don’t understand!”
“Well, first off, these people, they’re careful who they select. Prostitutes, runaways, people with as few loose ends around them as possible. You know it, don’t you? There’s folks around won’t cause much of a ripple in the pond; as won’t be missed, like. Second off, these people, they got fingers in our pie too. The force, I mean. They likes us to be family men, they encourages that, ‘cause we’re less likely to stir that pond, see? Our missus and our kids, we put them first – don’t want their lives made unpleasant. Don’t want their lives to be hell.”
“You’re saying these people threaten your families? That’s outrageous!”
“Sorry to say it, young ‘un, but it’s true. Tim wanted to get away, ‘cause of it. He wanted to marry Karen, but not while he was workin’ in Beaconshire. That’s why he moved to the Met. Now, seems like they’ve got her, so there was no point, really. I shouldn’t be here. You never knows if you’re bein’ followed, or not. I’d better…”
“No, wait, look – of course there’s a point. We’ve got to rescue Karen, Ray! Tim, you, me – we’ve got to get her back.”
“Me? No, count me out. I said to Tim what I’m sayin’ to you, I’ve a family to look out for. Anyways, no-one can’t do nothin’ for Karen, I’m sorry to say. She’s gone.
“Constable Flynn, I won’t accept Karen’s gone…”
“I see that. I see you’s very fond of ‘er and that makes it hard. It’s true, though; I knows it, Tim knows it, and it’s breakin’ his heart, bless ‘im. You won’t never see Karen again, but you can help by keeping her name alive, Mr Hallcroft. Don’t let her be forgotten, because that’s what they rely on. No-one takes no action, see? But there are differences this time, an’ Tim’s goin’ to follow ‘em up, best he can, from he’s end.” Flynn got back to his feet. “And I didn’t tell you that. Forget I came here.”
”What differences?” Patrick pressed.
Differences? Well, there’s this long-haired bloke Karen was frightened of. He’s been described to us before, Tim and me, ‘cause he harasses women a bit. I rather doubt it, but if he took her hisself, that could mean they’re getting careless – her bein’ a local girl, and all. She has friends, parents. It won’t be so easy to hush her disappearance up like they’ve done the others. They’ll do it in the end, though, I’m afraid.” Flynn made his desire to leave plain. “Now, that’s all I got to say. Tim wanted you to know what’s what, see? Thank you for your time.”
Patrick felt incapable of adding more, so at Flynn’s request (“I parked my car round the side, see?”) he shepherded the nervous constable out into the rear courtyard and watched his hesitant progress as he checked around every corner before finally risking exposure in the open. Bilbo the Shetland looked on with half-detached scorn as he edged past his paddock and contributed one of his loudest whinnies to exacerbate Flynn’s fraying nerves.
Determined he should not remain alone in the house, Patrick drove into Caleybridge, bought flowers, then went straight to the hospital to visit Jacqui. He discovered her in the ward dayroom and her face lit up when she saw him because she was bored with her metal ‘scaffolding’ and hoped he would lighten her mood. His body language did not bode well.
“No news, or…oh, Pat, not bad news? What’s happened, my love?” She would let the ‘love’ word slip from time to time in their conversation, but it was never more than an expression of friendship, or at least, Patrick never took it as such. He tried to respond with his account of all that had passed since his last visit, but his words reflected the despondency he felt. When he came to relate the substance of the interview with Ray Flynn his voice threatened to break and he had to turn away to control an onset of emotion that was not sudden, but had been building ever since the frightened copper’s words had laid the truth before him: ‘Karen’s gone’.
Jacqui took his hands in hers. “He thinks she’s been murdered, doesn’t he?”
“I’d say he’s certain of it. There’ve been quite a few disappearances; the two individuals Karen was searching for, two others he could name and more still, apparently. None ever found, ever.“
“He could be wrong, Pat. You mustn’t lose hope!”
Although Jacqui could protest that Flynn’s was only one man’s opinion she knew she could do nothing to lessen the shock, so she held her peace, keeping secret the dread she felt in her own heart. Instead, she joined in his valiant hour as he attempted to talk of trivial things, while she knew he was wanting to be active, to find some challenge to surmount, and when their conversation began to show the edge of his confusion she insisted that he leave.
“You go, Pat! Get out there and find her, please.”
Patrick smiled ruefully. “Go where? I feel like I’m running around in circles. I listened, didn’t I? I trusted! My father told me to leave it to the police, and all the police did was warn me off! I waited – I’ve wasted three days, trusting advice, putting my faith in them, and now I learn they’ve done nothing. Nothing!”
Jacqui reached up to pat his cheek: “Then don’t waste any more time complaining? Try the local press. The police may not like it but they can’t stop you. You might find out something about these other disappearances from the County Herald archives. Then there’s this spiritualist woman, you need to see her. There are still some avenues to explore, aren’t there? Now I’m getting a headache, Pat. Get going!”
The Beaconshire County Herald offices occupied a narrow frontage on Caleybridge’s High Street, one of a row of shops in the Victorian style with brown-scumbled doors and narrow stairs worn down by labour. The stairs confronted Patrick as he entered from the street, with only one alternative, a scraped and faded panel door to his right over which a sign ‘Advertising and Enquiries’ had been fastened, fallen, then drunkenly re-nailed.
“Yes, ya Mush?” A man of stunted proportions and uncertain age emerged from a back room to examine Patrick suspiciously over a high counter. Beneath a flat, peaked cap he probably slept in, this man’s eyes squinted through slits in a leathered skin etched by years of Woodbine cigarettes, the latest of which, adhering to his lower lip, swealed behind a teetering finger of expended tobacco. “Penger’s the name, Mush. How can I be of help to yer?”
Patrick felt that this man’s hospitality would not extend beyond one request, so he weighed his priorities. “Well, Mr Penger, I wondered if I could talk to a reporter? I have a story he might want to cover…” His sentence wilted before a hostile stare.
“Not advertisin’, then?”
“No. I mean, I suppose I could…no. No not advertising.”
“Make yer mind up, then, ya Mush – eh? Eh?” The man’s features compressed and withdrew as if powerful suction had been applied from some spot behind his nose, then exploded in a gale of putrid breath, defeated fag ash and cackling laughter. He slapped the counter-top emphatically. “Nah.”
“Your sign does say ‘Advertising and Enquiries’.”
“It does, ya Mush. Yes. It’s young Vicky you’ll be wantin’.”
“It’s ‘alf-past-four. She’s gone ‘ome.”
Patrick bit his tongue. Bewildered as he was by such lack of industry, he would need this man’s assistance, so he decided instead to follow Jacqui’s suggestion and ask to go through the newspaper’s archives.
“Yer can try. Week, year?”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
Mr Penger’s eyebrows disappeared behind the peak of his cap. “Well, now, Mush.” He turned and waved a craggy hand at the shelves that lined the far wall of his ‘office’. They were filled with very large, red leather-bound volumes. “See they? A year each; eighty years, fifty-two newspapers each year, twenty-eight to thirty pages each newspaper – all in there. Unless you know where yer goin’, you’ll be proppin’ my counter up until yer drawin’ yer pension. I can’t have that, can I? I haven’t the facilities, see?”
Patrick faced defeat. “I must trace these things. What can I do?”
“Well, young Vicky’ll be in tomorrer morning, I’ll tell ‘er expect yer; ‘Bout half-past-ten? Yer don’t look as if yer get up too early. An’ the library, they keeps all our back-numbers up ter ten years, I think it is, so yer could try there. Not tonight, though. They close early tonight.” Penger leaned across the counter to the full extent of his restricted growth, tapping his nose confidentially with a forefinger as he murmured in a voice loaded with innuendo: “Trainin’!”
With his day drawn unwillingly to a close, Patrick might have returned home, but instead he pointed his car once again toward Nowhere Lane and Boulter’s Green. There, alone in the peace and warmth of late afternoon sun, he might persuade himself he could feel closer to her: to Karen, whom he loved if anything more in absence than in the few days they were together. Amid the waving fronds of vetch and wild barley he had space to pause and contemplate. He could revisit past conversations, trying as he did to remember any small, neglected clues that might lead him somewhere – anywhere. What had Flynn, that most uncertain of policemen, said? There was someone behind this with very high connections – very high. Who? It would have to be a senior member of the establishment, would it not? Who, in Caleybridge’s little world, was equipped to fill such a role?
Then there was the curious behaviour of the Woodgate family; had they deliberately tried to draw Karen to this place, and if so, why? Gasser should have been the last person his influential father wanted to have around, so why search for him, unless…unless Gasser and the Parkinson girl were a threat to him. Could he have been the one who evicted Anna Parkinson from his car, out here in the chill of a February night – and had his son known? Gerald Woodgate, member of the Watch Committee responsible for overseeing the local police force: he was ‘high up’, was he not? He was in a position to exert influence on the conduct of officers, perhaps even to squash an investigation.
The more Patrick thought about it the more convinced he was that all of these people – from Gerald Woodgate at the top of the pile to Mark Potts at its base, had coordinated their efforts to herd Karen towards these deserted ruins. Maybe their agendas had been different, but their objective was one and the same. Maybe that entailed delivering her into the clutches of the dark man, maybe not; but such had been the effect. Had the other missing persons Ray Flynn had named been similarly treated? No, they had made special efforts to secure Karen because Flynn was right: she was different, a local girl with relatives and friends. Tracks had to be covered, alibis arranged – and it all led here; to a couple of stone piles that masqueraded as Boulter’s Green. Why? There was nothing here! And why had Karen been their target when there must have been easier prey?
With all these questions in his mind, Patrick climbed the slope between those two ruined buildings to the upper meadow, where he could gaze across a swathe of open turf towards the river and the serene presence of the Great House at Boult Wells. Here was the place Karen swore she had encountered her wizened little man, her ‘Joshua’. If he was to believe she had actually seen this Joshua, then somehow he had managed to disappear, although there was no clue as to how that could happen. Yet something more was troubling Patrick about this scene; something in his head he felt he should recollect, but couldn’t.
Eventually, as the shadows lengthened, he surrendered and turned for home, where his welcome was tempered by his father’s questioning. Jackson was in severe mode, insisting his son should inform him when he intended to cease obstructing the police and return to his work.
“I think I understand how you feel, boy, but moping around like a sad spaniel is no solution. Getting back to routine will help you get past this. Nothing else will.”
Patrick, who had no intention of dividing his time, made some sharp response and a family row ensued which cast shock waves over the rest of the evening, only subsiding when Jackson had retired to bed. Still incensed, Patrick almost rounded on Gwendoline when, contrary to custom, his mother put her head around the door of his bedroom. “Patsy, darling, don’t be too hard on your father. He’s trying his best.” Then, after a second of thought, she added, “Love, you see – real love – isn’t easy for him. He doesn’t do emotion very well.”
“May I?” Gwendoline entered his room hesitantly. She was averse to intruding upon her children’s privacy, even Amanda’s. She perched on the edge of her son’s bed. “I was told something today I thought you might like to know; by a sister sufferer, in fact. Her youngest is almost as impossible as Amanda – but that’s by the bye. In the course of my preparation with Karen for our interview with that cypher from the Clerk’s Office; Purton, I think his name was, Karen mentioned someone called Norman Wilson, a deferential chap, she said, who was party to her original briefing for the Woodgate investigation – you know, the one she was trying to get out of? Well, I hadn’t heard of him at the time but it turns out he, Wilson, is Sir Clive Webster’s deputy.”
Patrick frowned. “Sir Clive Webster – should I know him?”
“Well, I believe you should, actually. Clive is Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire, the Queen’s representative for the County. He’s responsible for arrangements around royal visits and crown patronage; a symbolic role, largely, but pivotal, in its way. How shall I put it? There are not many parties of worth that omit him from their list of invitations. Here’s the thing, though; Clive’s had one foot in and one on a bar of soap for years, poor chap – heart trouble? Now – this was odd – when Karen and I visited Purton, Clive’s car was in the County Hall car park. Odd, because Wilson does most of his work these days. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that makes him a player; what do you think?”
Patrick agreed. A bit part, perhaps, but implicated nonetheless. “One hell of a team.” That was the thought that guided him into sleep.
She came clattering down the bare wooden stairs notebook in hand, a tottering little bundle of mini-skirt and heels. “You’re Mr Hallcroft,” Her smile was toothsome, “Rebecca Shelley.” She extended a bunch of fingers like the tines of a table fork. “Pleased to meet you!”
Patrick said he wanted to talk to her about the Karen Eversley disappearance and she said “Ah,” then she thought for a moment before she said: “Come up to my office.”
He followed her bobbing and barely disguised rear as she led him back up the stairs, and into a beige room that owed little to either formality or comfort. The chaos of shelving around its walls extended to piles of documents and journals on the floor. There was a desk which Rebecca ignored, and an old married couple of chairs with pummelled leather seats.
“Take a pew.” She invited him. “Excuse the mess.”
Rebecca (call me Becky) had heard of Karen Eversley, yes. Did she know of her disappearance? Funny, that, the wires were being tweaked; somebody was missing, she had not heard who. As Patrick expanded upon his story, she wrote on her notepad busily, her eyes widened and her mouth set into a lipless line. When he had finished, she appeared to pore over her notes for several seconds, then: “Have you given anyone else this story?”
Patrick felt moved to be honest. “Tarquin Leathers.”
“Tarq? Oh gawd! The ‘Record’. You weren’t in last Sunday’s, so it’ll be in the next edition, if they decide to use it. Prepare yourself for a surprise, Patrick. You have read his stuff, I take it?”
Patrick confessed he had not.
“Well, good luck! Anyway, we come out on Saturday, so it’s our exclusive, in a sense.” Rebecca got to her feet. “Thank you for your story, Patrick.”
“You will run it?”
She sighed. “I’ve got a lot of checking to do, before we go to press tomorrow evening. I’ll have to run it past Cedric.”
“Our editor. Listen, I can’t promise, okay? See, this is a local ‘paper, Patrick, and we walk a fine line between the news on one hand and our advertisers on the other. When it comes right down to it, the advertisers carry us. The circulation wouldn’t feed a church mouse. You’ve dropped a lot of names, here, mate – a lot of squashed toes. Police corruption? An accusation like that has to be founded on bedrock, because they’ve got the smartest lawyers in the game, no joking!”
“What about the attack in the Planning Department? On myself and Jacqueline Greenway – who’s still in hospital, by the way. There must be records of that, surely? No-one was interviewed, and there were enough witnesses!”
Rebecca shrugged apologetically. “I know, Patrick, I know.”
“You’re not going to run it, are you?”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Furious, Patrick hit the street with his letter to ‘Cedric’ the editor of the Beaconshire County Herald already half-composed inside his head. The Daimler Dart was parked beside the pavement a little further up the street. A neatly folded piece of paper protruded from under the driver’s side windscreen wiper. Still seething, he snatched at the paper, ready to cast it into the gutter when he caught part of the wording written upon it out of the corner of his eye, which induced him to pause. It read, in large black type:
‘YOU WERE WARNED’.
© 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