“I don’t know who you are!” Daphne Scott-Halperton sounded defensive. Whilst she could sense nothing threatening about the mop-haired young man looking up at her from the auditorium, he had stayed behind after the rest of her devotees had left, which was to say the least unusual. “If you want to guidance from someone on the other side you’ve missed your opportunity. I can’t work without the atmosphere of an audience, you see. So that’s that, I’m afraid. Next month?” Daphne regarded her monthly appearances at the Gaiety very much as a sideline and their duration as strictly limited. She was on overtime.
“Please, Miss Scott-Halperton, I don’t want a reading, just information.”
No deputations from the Choir Eternal, Patrick wanted to say: no guiding spirit of Emeline Pankhurst or voice of Elizabeth Fry, suddenly anxious to communicate from beyond the grave. He had already endured two hours of those, unable to offer any satisfactory explanation why the almost inarticulate spirit of Boudica should be so well informed concerning Great Uncle Harry, who, despite being dead, was still enjoying his pigeons.
Miss Scott-Halperton was eyed him suspiciously. “Information about what?”
“Someone who comes here every month – I suppose you might consider her one of your ‘regulars’?” This evoked no response from the stage, so Patrick continued; “I thought she might have turned up tonight, it was sort of a last hope. She’s vanished: been abducted, we think.”
He gave his best description of Karen, to which Daphne, who was a large and quite forbidding force, appeared to listen politely, “She never misses your sessions, I’m told. Tonight, though – I waited for her outside and she didn’t come. I wondered…”
“Yes, yes,” Daphne interrupted him. “I know who you mean.” Her mind went back to her previous performance, just as it had when she opened the front door of her cottage a few days since to find Karen standing in her porch, her clothes dripping from the rain. “One moment, young man. I’ll be down.”
There were steps at the end of the apron stage. Daphne descended with the careful progress incumbent upon one of her dimensions and possibly, Patrick thought unkindly, her capacity for gin. “She obtained my address from the library. I must warn you that is a loophole I have since closed. I give private consultations but I am very careful to reserve my personal details to whomsoever I choose.”
“She went to your home?”
“Indeed she did, young man. Some days ago. She was a troubled soul, beset by many demons, you understand; one of which had broken free of the underworld to pursue her, poor child. Such people carry the Devil’s mark, I’m afraid. One wishes the best for them, yet acknowledges there is little that can be done.”
Patrick tried to clear his brain. Miss Scott-Halperton seemed to inhabit a separate universe he was not equipped to understand, but somehow he had to build a bridge between them. Dipsomaniac or not, eccentric or not, the medium must now be considered the last person to see Karen. She was free then, might she still be free?”
“You want me to help you to find her? I may not be able to do that, young man.”
“I’ll take the crumbs from anyone’s table. Right now, I’ve nowhere to turn.”
Daphne alighted majestically three seats away from Patrick, then contrived to look learned by placing her fingertips together and nodding sagely. “I see your pain and I shall try.”
“So she probably came to you the day she disappeared. Do you know where she intended to go after she left you?”
“Into battle, I imagine. She was intent upon outfacing her tormentor. A sad mistake. I advised her against anything so impetuous, They are not of this world, you see.”
“I hoped she might have given you some clue.”
“I witnessed the demon that beset her, young man. At my last session its malevolence took possession of the gallery just above where you are sitting, a loathsome sight. It was looking down upon her, filling this hall with the evil of its intention!”
“Some idea where she went?”
“Why, to the field of battle, I imagine.”
“Which would be where? Geographically, I mean?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Scott-Halperton, you’ve got me with that one.”
“Demons, child, are drawn to people of greatness. Megalomania, lascivious vice and greed are their oxygen, you see. You will find no demons in a poor man’s cabin, but in the stately corridors of men of power, they are legion. There do they hold their dominion!”
“Are we talking about any specific men of power here?” Patrick felt he was riding a chariot behind an increasingly unpredictable horse. “I mean, names?”
“I can tell you no more. They are there to be found. Seek them amidst the fire – beware the inferno, young man!” Daphne’s head was sinking slowly into her ample chest, and her eyes were closing. Patrick, who had passed the previous two hours watching her use a similar device to introduce the visitation of a spirit guide waited, half-expecting something similar with some concrete information within it, but after a few minutes the psychically gifted matron began to snore.
It was a disappointingly anti-climactic end to the interview. Patrick retreated quietly.
“Golly, how utterly, utterly bizarre!” Gabrielle enthused when he had finished his narrative. “I do wish I’d been there!”
Her brother shook his head. “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it. It was a long evening, and knowing my sister as I do, she would have been giggling the whole time.” He leant with arms upon his chair back, gazing moodily through the window of the snug, as if his eyes might find answers in the moonless darkness, “What I don’t get – I mean, seriously don’t get – is what Karen got out of stuff like that. It isn’t her, Gabs, not any part of her. At least, not the Karen I knew. Oh, god, I said it, didn’t I? The past tense – I ‘knew’. Am I giving up, in spite of myself?”
“No, Sweetie, not you; you’re a terrier. You’ll dig up the whole garden if you can’t find a bone. Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, are you so sure of your image of Karen? The girl I met was very insecure and vulnerable, not the tough female detective type at all. I think she hated what she was, I do! I also think she was haunted by the ghost of her sister, and in desperate need of your protection and love.” Gabrielle gave a nervous little laugh, “Gosh, sorry! That just slipped out!”
That night, sleepless, Patrick lamented the waste of days – the fruitless telephoning of newspapers with no interest in running the story, and even his doorstepping of a local organisation dedicated to tracing ‘the lost ones’. Their answers were kind and, for the most part, patient, but no better than the verdict previously delivered by DC Ames: ‘She’s an adult, she’s expressed her choice clearly, there’s no evidence of any harm having come to her’. There were endless hours frittered away in Caleybridge Library. ploughing column inch by column inch through back numbers of the County Herald, searching vainly for copy on either Emma Bartlett or Rachel Priest, those past disappearances cited by Constable Flynn.
And now, to cap it all, an evening spent at a spiritualist gathering led by a half-inebriated medium. Were these the despairing measures of one with nowhere left to turn? Yes, it had been wasted time, because in his heart he knew the last straws of hope were sinking. So why did his thoughts keep re-running the old woman’s final sentences concerning ‘men of power’ – ‘they are there to be found’ – did those words allude to some clue he had missed?
In the morning he caught up with his mother before she embarked on her newly extended school run with his little sister Amanda. “The other night you mentioned that Lord Lieutenant bod – Sir Clive something? Do you know where he lives?”
“Sir Clive Webster; yes dear. I also have his ‘phone number somewhere. Would it be a good idea to call him first?”
“I would, but at some point in the conversation I would have to tell him my reason for wanting to see him, and I’m not sure I could answer that.”
“So beard the lion, you thought.”
“And see what develops. I don’t suppose you could…?”
“Oh, Patsy, you’re such a wimp sometimes! What makes you think I could give an answer that was any better than yours?”
“Because you know him, and because you have a way of…”
“I tell you what. I will offer you a trade. If I agree to try and bring the two of you together on some pretext, will you take our darling youngest to school tomorrow and bring her back? How’s that?”
“It is. I have succeeded in placing the dear little bugger in her third school this year, which is twenty-five miles away. And apparently I have landed upon the one bloody school in the County, in Elverton, that gives lessons on Saturday mornings – from nine until twelve, to be precise. It isn’t worth taking her, coming back, then going to fetch her, so – you catch my drift?”
Patrick sighed. “Okay, I agree. A morning kicking my heels in glorious Elverton. But are we sure we want her back?”
“No promises, Patsy, I’ll try my best. In the meantime, try not to be horrible to your wonderful little sister, darling. That’s my prerogative. Just a suggestion, while she passes her hours of learning you could poodle down the road to Harterport? Take your swimmies. It isn’t far.”
The one attribute Patrick’s Daimler lacked was stealth. Its distinctive exhaust note drew attention, whether or not attention was wished. Turning into the car park of the King’s Arms, even on a Friday lunchtime when it was fairly busy, it turned the heads of two people for whom Patrick would rather have retained an element of surprise. Mark Potts was one, standing beside a very new-looking Sunbeam Alpine. The other, a much older, quite wasted figure, was equally familiar to Patrick, but seeing him in Mark’s company surprised him nonetheless.
Patrick parked up, then accosted the pair. “Nice car, Mark. Have you had a pay rise?”
Potts seemed less than glad to see him. “What are you doin’ here, Hallcroft?”
“Beer’s good. Why not?” Patrick nodded to Potts’s companion. “’Good morning. Last time we met, you didn’t stop to introduce yourself.” He turned back to Potts, “Did you know your mate here spends his nights spying on the parked cars up on Monument Hill?”
“We haven’t got nothin’ to say to each other, have we?” Potts was unfazed. “If you don’t mind, Hallcroft, we were in the middle of a conversation.”
“Really? It wasn’t anything remotely to do with Karen Eversley’s departure, I suppose?”
Potts leered. “Moved away, has she? Nosey bitch. Couldn’t stand you once she found out you was a pervert, eh? Good riddance, I say.”
“No, Mark. Disappeared – like Gasser, who suddenly isn’t around anymore…”
“Or that sexy little prossy girlfriend of ‘is? No surprise there, either. Stuck his nose where it didn’t concern him, maybe, Maybe a bit like you, Hallcroft – stickin’ your nose in. You want to be careful, you do…” intending to add detail to his threat, Potts was brought up short by a heavy nudge from the older man, who had so far made no contribution to the exchange.
“Aren’t we missing some drinking time?” He said, in a dry, cracked voice.
Patrick ignored the interruption. “What happened to Gasser, Mark? Where did you really leave him that night?”
Potts dropped his voice, attempting to sound dangerous. “Everythin’ happened just like I told it to your bitch girlfriend, see? Nothin’ no different. You want to watch it, chap, or …”
“Careful, Mark!” Patrick cut in. “Saying things like that, you’re worrying your silent friend, here. Was this the other bloke in your old car; you know, the night you beat Gasser up?”
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about! You’re getting’ it all wrong, Hallcroft. I ain’t sayin’ no more. Oh, yeah, an’ if you were thinking of harassing Perry don’t bother. He’s on holiday. Three weeks! Go and have a drink, peaceful-like, and stop provokin’ folks.”
Patrick shook his head. “No thanks, I’m fussy who I drink with. Anyway, you should be flattered; I only came to find you. I was hoping you had something more for me, like maybe you knew a bit about Karen’s disappearance.”
“Well you was wrong, then, wasn’t you?”
“I dunno. Maybe if I’d found you without the present company…Never mind, in a way I think you’ve given me more than I expected. I’ll think about that.” He turned on his heel and began walking back to his car, leaving Mark Potts to glare at his back. When he reached the Daimler there were choices because it was often his custom to vault over the door and straight into the driving seat, but today, lacking the required level of exuberance, he opted for a proper use of the door. It was, in a sense, his undoing.
As he gripped the door handle an iron hand clamped over his so fiercely he could not move it. The face of the cadaverous man, the almost silent man who had witnessed his encounter with Potts was suddenly just inches from his own, growling fiercely: “You’ve been told, boy. You won’t be told again, so listen. She’s gone, understand? You won’t see her again, so give this up before you and your family get hurt. Stop now, you got me?”
Shocked into silence for a few seconds, Patrick could only nod, dumbly. It was enough. Before he could make a more suitable response the man was striding away purposefully and rapidly, a repeat of their last encounter when he had woken to see that face outside his car window. His eyes followed the tough little man’s retreating back, his ears heard Mark Potts’ derisive laughter.
With utter deliberation Patrick climbed into his car, turned the key, pressed the starter. Then he selected first gear, decked the accelerator and almost jumped the clutch. The distance across the car park amounted to nothing, three seconds or less. He fixed his eyes on Mark Potts, watched the smirk on his face turn to horror, heard a scream from a bystander, saw the alarm on the small man’s face as he turned to see the danger, almost too late. He dived out of the car’s path just as Patrick swung the wheel and turned the Daimler’s high, blunt bonnet aside. As he drove out of the Public House car park he glanced in his mirror, gratified to see a row of shocked faces watching his departure, and his snarling aggressor being helped to his feet by Potts. Neither of them was smiling.
Patrick needed several minutes to calm himself in the lea of that encounter, and several hours of self-examination when he recognised how close he had come to intentionally harming the man. He had never seen himself as violent, or even lacking in temper; but the past few days had aroused emotions new to him, not all of which he welcomed.
An air of tension pervaded Caleybridge Hospital. It had primed itself for a warm late spring weekend, with the spate of injuries that was likely to bring. It was busy, too, forcing Patrick to thread his way through the visiting hoards on his way to Jacqui’s ward.
“You’re lucky to catch me! I’m only waiting for a free seat in an ambulance.” Jacqui informed him with a grin. “They’re throwing me out this afternoon. No rigging, see?”
Her ‘halo’ brace had been removed together with most of the heavy bandages, so only a few light dressings remained. “You’ve no idea the relief! I actually felt like I was carrying a water jar on my head, or something, Now, I can move freely, look!” She waggled her head in demonstration, “Ouch! Well maybe not that much!”
“Would you like me to run you home?”
“Oh, you are a love! Would you mind?”
Jacqui’s apartment was across town. As he drove, Patrick was constantly forced to avoid small fleets of motor scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas, that were buzzing up and down the main roads, bare-headed riders flaunting their machines for the benefit of small groups of motorcyclists, who languished in side alleys or beside kerbs, watching and waiting.
“It’s going to be a hot weekend,” Jacqui commented. “There’ll be trouble, I’m thinking.”
Her apartment occupied the ground floor of a detached house set well back from the road within a high walled garden accessed by a black painted wooden door. The house itself, a lofty Victorian structure in red brick had a faintly disdainful air, its tiers of bay windows like an upturned nose sniffing at matters it would prefer to avoid. To approach the front door meant negotiating a short flight of stone steps. As he ascended these, Patrick’s attention was drawn to a pathway that led, he assumed, to the back of the house. Set into it was a padlocked wooden hatch. He remarked upon it.
“What is that for, Jacqui?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing interesting, at least.”
“No, tell me?”
“Most of these old houses had basements. For storage, usually – somewhere cold, before fridges, you know?”
“Yes, absolutely like wine. Most people have them filled in these days, and most people have the hatches filled in at the same time. Not my dear Daddy.”
“Then there’s still a basement down there?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Pat. If there is, I’ve never found any other way in, and I don’t relish opening that great heavy thing. So I remain blissfully ignorant – although I swear I can smell the damp sometimes. It’s probably flooded.”
“Shall I explore?”
“No! I mean, no thank you; I’d rather you didn’t.”
At her door, Jacqui tempted Patrick with tea and he accepted, wanting to be sure she had food to last her until she could shop for herself. And although she insisted she could manage: “I’ve some stuff in the chest freezer, I’ll be alright;” he made an errand to a corner shop for basic supplies.
Her apartment seemed ascetic and soulless. Perhaps Patrick had envisioned it would be so. Her furniture was wooden, plain and relentlessly practical, her carpets well-trodden, the walls bare. It was also something of a time capsule, exactly as she had rushed from it on her workday morning more than a week ago.
“Sorry about the bathroom. My bedroom’s through there – don’t look, I can’t remember if I made the bed or not,” For verification, she opened the closed door just sufficiently to peep through. “Not.”
In retrospect, Patrick thought as he drove back across the town, it was a home that existed as Jacqui herself lived; in limbo. He had known for some months of her indecision – whether she should stay in Caleybridge or follow her nearest kin the other side of the world. Her apartment reflected that: she might share the house now, letting the upstairs to tenants, but she had no enduring interest in it – no motive to remodel or change any of the furnishings, even the colours, her parents had left behind.
Such upheaval as would be necessary for Jacqui to migrate to a distant foreign land was alien to her careful nature; she had only a few close friends, but many acquaintances. Her life in Caleybridge was a fabric not easily torn apart, yet that did not seem to be the true root of her vacillation. Something bound her to this small, backwoods borough that was not entirely rational, the nature of which Patrick had no notion.
In the town the gangs of motor scootering youths who called themselves ‘Mods’ were gathering, no longer cruising around but parked in huddles, as many as twenty chrome-rich bikes in one place, their riders quaffing beer while they engaged in mawkish displays of machismo. Around them the streets were almost silent; pedestrians and other motorists alike intimidated by the waxing sense of threat. It was hot for so late an hour. The air was heavy. Conflict seemed destined to follow.
© 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