It is often said that a beloved dog gives heart to a home. If that be true, the absence of Petra, the Woodcrofts’ canine dynamo had left a void in the lives of everyone at Radley Court. Her ‘hospitalisation’ after her fight with the dark man had given brief respite to Mrs Buxham, the Woodcrofts’ ‘morning lady’ whose ancient bicycle rarely escaped Petra’s clumsy enthusiasm.
On her morning ride from the village Mrs Buxham customarily collected milk and newspapers from the delivery box at Radley Court’s gates, which made the final portion of her journey along the length of the driveway a precarious proposition. Petra was forever anxious to reinforce her bond of love with Mrs Buxham, usually while she struggled with her heavily laden bike at the difficult final corner around the end of the stable block on her way to the kitchen.
No-one had warned Mrs Buxham of the exuberant Labrador’s return – perhaps they had failed to take account of the extra energy and joy a week of incarceration in a recovery cage might generate – the greater dimensions of Saturday’s newspapers, the extra order of milk; or the protective ‘collar’ around Petra’s neck that concealed her head within a trumpet of white plastic. With all these factors conjoined, Petra’s surprise greeting achieved undreamed-of objectives for the dog; reducing Mr Buxham to an untidy heap, bringing her face down to a level at which every inch could be licked, and generating a considerable pool of delicious white liquid that had to be consumed by drinking.
Patrick, snatching breakfast in the kitchen, heard Mrs Buxham’s startled porcine squeal, followed by a clatter of toppling ironmongery. Given the usual severity of Mrs. ‘B’s Methodist nature, he might have expected her to be apoplectic when he rushed to her aid. Instead, he found her convulsed in fits of laughter, pinned against the stable wall by Petra’s sixty-six pounds of boundless enthusiasm. The dimensions of that canine neckwear, together with the wearer’s utter inability to manage it, would plague the family for some days; but the incident involving Mrs Buxham stayed with Patrick always, as demonstration of a dog’s ability to win over the fiercest adversaries, just by the application of a moist tongue.
Amanda was rarely talkative in the mornings, one of her principle objections to her education being, as she saw it, the outrageous obsession with ‘rising before eleven’. No-one with pretensions to a position in Society, in Amanda’s estimation, should be asked to leave their bed before luncheon.
“Early rising is the province of common people, Patrick.” She confided as she huddled in the passenger seat of Patrick’s sports car. “A person of any consequence cannot hope to be at their best at such unearthly hours.”
“I imagine your teachers will have risen around seven,” Patrick reminded her, “By your definition, that makes them…”
“Common people. Unfortunately yes.”
“Is this an opinion you’ve made known to them?”
“Of course. To be taught with integrity one must offer honesty in return. Now kindly just drive me, Patrick. It is really too early for conversation.” As a signal the lines of communication were now closed, Amanda shut her eyes and tucked her little chin deeply into the collar of her jacket.
Patrick allowed himself a quiet smile. From the shortest of conversations with his eight-years-old sister it was easy to deduce the reason for her frequent changes of school. The score so far was five, of which this was the second in the current year; and by the look of Elverton Staithes Academy, he thought as he drew up outside its rather severe frontage, it would not be the last.
Once he had seen Amanda safely onto the school premises, Patrick drove his car down the gentle hill that formed the main street of Elverton. Cottages and a few local shops lined the pavements to either side of the road. He paused at a newsagent for a copy of the Beaconshire County Herald, then drove the rest of the way along the village street to the riverside and the staithes from which the school had taken its name.
The staithes, or traditional landing places for boats, were the reason for Elverton’s existence, although they were separated from the village by a flat plain of what had once been a wetland, now tamed into pasture. At this point the River Hart had widened into an estuary, and Patrick’s view of the opposite shore from Quays Lane was still veiled by early mist, promising a warm day. One or two precarious-looking wooden jetties projected from the river bank, although their usefulness was long past. There were boats, certainly, moored in the river, but far from the Elverton shore, which had been reclaimed by tidal mud. Dredging had stopped in the nineteen-twenties, so water barely reached the staithes now, even on a spring tide. In its place was a brew rich with small creatures, a paradise for waders and coastal marauders to feed upon, and emitting a wind-borne odour made powerful by the scents of salt and reed.
Quays Lane, a neglected thoroughfare, tracked the River Hart on the final part of its journey to the sea, carving a way through that wasteland that always attends the margins of a big expanse of sluggish water. To the left were ruins of forgotten buildings, rotting wood and blackened concrete, a testament to ill-informed dreamers who believed a café would flourish here, or there a boatyard thrive upon the working trade from the river. To the right the fallen ships lay, beached and waiting, for their broken owners to return. They never would of course, long dead, most of them. Those decaying hulls, carvel, clinker-built or rusting steel, were their legacy to a river that taught them nothing was ever fair in life, that all their years of thankless labour earned them only pain and an early grave.
He would be grateful enough, Patrick, when his drive through that neglected foreshore gave way to harbour walls and the lofty profiles of nobler beasts of the sea; the trawlers of a fishing fleet that little knew its days were numbered, the coastal cargo vessels, the working boats of the estuary and (although only visiting of course), two Royal Navy destroyers, moored up at the head of the dredged channel.
Harterport was all it said: a working port, and a busy one, too. Yet it had another and usually gentler side. As he joined the main thoroughfare at the end of Quays Lane Patrick would find it; a beach that began to the west side of the harbour: a beach of golden sand that ran and ran, straight and true towards a distant headland a mile and some furlongs away. As if the world was anxious to prove it could still deign to smile if happiness was what you wanted, here the sky seemed bluer, the air more clear. The sea that had grown from a river was azure blue, the Esplanade wide and regal. A funfair was striking up bravely with morning music as the first most dedicated bathers began their migration towards the beach.
The seafront lacked that Victorian faux-nautical experience of a pier, making do instead with a pavilion built in the Art Deco style, its white profile honed into voluptuous curves and peppered with acres of creative glass. Patrick parked on the Esplanade nearby and made for a coffee bar he knew on the first floor, that overlooked both Esplanade and beach. Here, at a time of day before the first rush of holidaymakers, he could command a table with a clear view (for the mist had not spread beyond the freshwater channel), of a crystal horizon. He still had a couple of hours to kill, so he ordered a bacon sandwich, collected a cup of black coffee and spread his newspaper out before him, thumbing through its pages more in hope than expectation. There were several articles bearing Rebecca Shelley’s by-line, but none concerned the disappearance of Karen Eversley. Obviously Cedric the editor had guillotined her story – or maybe the waspish little Miss Shelley had never written it?
Patrick had not quite time or distance enough between himself and events to think dispassionately, nevertheless there were questions in need of dispassionate answers. What had really happened to Karen? He had been first to point out the possible collusion between a member of the County Clerks’ Office and Gasser’s ‘friends’ in attempts to lure her towards those ruins. If anything his chance discovery of Potts keeping company with the nameless ancient who had been watching him on Monument Hill reinforced this view. What was the connection that kept those two together? Karen had believed there was a fourth person in the car the night Gasser and Potts came to blows. Roberts, Gasser and Potts – did the cadaverous old man fill that last seat, and if so, what part had he played? From all Karen had told him, under examination Perry Roberts had proved a weak link. Perry was now ‘on holiday’. Everybody was entitled to a holiday were they not? But then again, what if Perry was being kept out of reach?
Around Patrick’s inner world of thought, the coffee bar was becoming busy, intruding upon his peace with the rattle of cups, the clatter of chairs, the melodies of conversation. Someone had turned on a musak tape. Below the crittall windows the beach was becoming crowded, briefly-clad figures pitching their windbreaks and dancing coyly in the shallows. Comfortable to have his thoughts disturbed so, Patrick ordered a second coffee and settled himself to enjoy the scene.
Then came the roar.
It was quiet at first, distant at first, but all the world heard it and all the world paused. On the beach the dancing stopped, in the coffee bar the clatter and conversation was suddenly hushed, as though some dark cloud had overwhelmed it – as, in a way, it had. In moments the roar had reached crescendo, drowning the Esplanade with its despotic sound. Fascinated, Patrick watched as the Esplanade below his window became host to a swarm, an infestation of motorcycles great and small, Velocettes and Vincents, Nortons and Matchlesses, Ariels and Triumphs.
Their riders, clad in black leather but bare-headed, for the most part, were by no means all in the first bloom of youth. Young or old, they milled around the full width of the Esplanade, dispelling normal weekend traffic as they hectored a stream of would-be bathers from the sands and whistled the girls who scurried past them, seeking refuge in their cars or hotels. At first Patrick feared for his Daimler, parked within his vision close by, but he need not have feared. These riders, for all they were ‘Rockers’ for a day were motorcycle men. They respected, even admired a powerful machine, four wheels or two. A few of them might pause to inspect it, now and then, but no-one seemed moved to do it harm.
“Bloody young thugs, the lot of ‘em!” A little line of spectators was gathering at the windows of the coffee bar, bystanders of a sort: scared but protected, as they imagined, by the glass. “Worst thing they ever did, scrapping National Service.”
“Aye, that’d knock ‘em into shape!”
Remarks of this ilk brought murmurs of agreement from men, many of them still with World War memories fresh in their heads, from women over-brimming with horrified moral rectitude. Patrick, distancing himself from their conversation, felt estranged. The balance beam was so thin, and itself a separate expression of outrage.
“Oh, hey! Look; look! Here they come! Here they bloody come!”
A man in florid shirt and florid flesh gestured floridly. All followed the direction of his outstretched finger to a point much further up the Esplanade where, no larger than flies at this distance, a similar host of motor scooters and their riders could be seen to be gathering.
“Now we’re for it!”
With a little more thought the colourful man might have been puzzled. Yes, British coastal towns were passing through a phase wherein youth particularly was identifying its new-found freedom in tribalism and yes, gatherings of motorcyclists, defining themselves as either ‘Mods’ or ‘Rockers’ would terrorize the streets, riding in gangs, but at this hour if they had coalesced at all they would be more intent upon vandalism. They were rarely as organised as this, or so obviously intent upon confrontation. Alcohol, the detonator, would not be available for hours yet: the pubs and bars were closed.
Certain something unnatural was going on, Patrick felt, as he studied the throng of bikers for some clue to their unrest. Nothing seemed untoward at first, but then he saw how a vanguard of four motorcycles had been lined up at the leading edge of the bunch of riders like racers on a grid. Although these four machines were rider-less, a cultured eye could quickly find their owners. Unlike most of the others, these men moved randomly, away from their bikes, their heads obscured by open-face helmets and their features concealed behind scarves. They were mingling with the other riders, speaking conspiratorially, all their body language and gestures urging action. And action came soon enough.
As if by a given signal, the four agitators remounted their bikes and kicked them into life. Then, in a surge forward that would not have disgraced a cavalry charge, the mass of bikers set off along the Esplanade. Many of the customers in the coffee bar took this opportunity to disperse but some, Patrick included, remained at the windows, mesmerised as the scooter riders further up the road, though less ordered, were quick to respond. The two gangs met, their bikes strewn across the road, and then, as if by consent, they parked their machines. There would be no expensive jousting, the battle would take place on foot.
Battle it was; an exchange of threats lasting less than a minute before forces were engaged and mayhem began in earnest, a tangle of flailing arms and fists that mushroomed into a mob and spilled over the seawall onto the beach. Lives were rarely endangered in such exchanges, despite the presence of flick-knives, knuckle dusters and other medieval weaponry. Property would be damaged, windows broken, innocents intimidated, and the reputation of Harterport reduced to one in a list of resorts where visitors might risk experiencing violence. Those were the costs.
Throughout, the helmeted and masked figures were clearly visible, urging their fellow bikers into the thick of the fighting. One even took an advantage point atop a high part of the sea wall so as to conduct the melee more emphatically, waving his arms like a manic evangelist.
The affray would be over as quickly as it began. The whine and whoop of police sirens announced not a victory, not a defeat or even a truce, just the need to disperse. As they grew close, Patrick noticed how the four activists melted back into the hubbub, ready, as Patrick guessed, to make their escape.
It was time to move. Since his mother’s suggestion that he should go for a swim was impractical now, Patrick returned to his car, intending to retrace his route along Quays Lane to Elverton and park up somewhere along the way for an hour, maybe to find a riverside walk, while he waited for Amanda to finish school.
The first part of his drive, back to the end of the Esplanade, was fraught with escaping motorcycles, which flew past his car with scant regard for safety in their efforts to evade the police. This traffic vanished, however, once he had turned off into Quayside Lane, because most of the bikes followed the main road; out of town, as he supposed, towards the bridge that would take them over the Hart and across Harter Moor to the estuary of the River Boult and Bulmouth, where they might look forward to a similar entertainment for the afternoon. Four-and-a-half miles further along Quayside Lane, some hundred yards beyond a dilapidated boathouse, he found a parking layby beside a footpath that led down to the river. Here he was able to walk for a peaceful, uninterrupted couple of miles beside the estuary, watching the seabirds and alone with his thoughts until it was time to collect Amanda.
What happened next could only have been down to chance. Sitting in his car to while away some final minutes Patrick’s eye was drawn to a motorcycle approaching from the direction of Harterport. Imagining this bike and rider to have been involved with the ‘Mods and Rockers’ confrontation he watched it closely as it approached, only to see it turn off the road and through one of double doors into the broken-down boathouse, but not before he had seen that its rider wore an open-face helmet and a dark scarf across his mouth and nose. All attention now, Patrick sat up smartly. Someone had opened the door from inside the building to admit the bike: that same someone was now pulling open the companion door. The sound of car doors slamming was distinctly audible, followed immediately by the appearance of the doorman, who jumped aside as a line of three large black cars emerged, and rushed to close the doors behind them. The cars waited for him as he strove to secure the lock, then he climbed into the rear seat of one. All three drove away.
Patrick was so preoccupied with finding his camera in the glove compartment he barely realised until the last seconds that the cars were coming his way. He was low down, leaning across to the glove box as he realised, and therefore just straightening up as the second car passed. Staring through its passenger window he met the coal-black eyes of a long-haired man with sharp features and a wide, sadistic mouth. There was a cut on the man’s left cheek, with blood running from it. It was an exchange of glances that lasted no more than two seconds, and Patrick had never plainly seen that face before, but instinctively he knew to whom it belonged. In darkness he had been just that close to it once, beneath a bridge beside another river. It was the face of Karen’s nightmare stalker – the dark man.
“How was school?” Patrick asked as Amanda took her place beside him.
“Actually quite satisfactory. We had a productive discussion concerning conventions of dress.”
“Do you feel like a bit of an adventure?”
“Rather!” Amanda’s green eyes shone.
It was not much of an adventure, really. Patrick had to make sure the old boathouse was deserted, because he did not intend to expose his sister to danger. And then, to avoid drawing attention from occasional traffic using Quays Lane he led Amanda around to the back of the building, where he bade her keep watch. The only window was too fogged by grime to see through, and its glass wired for security, but in such poor repair it could not withstand a determined blow from a rotting fencepost that lay nearby.
Patrick had no need to climb inside, all that was required was time to allow his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. Inside the boathouse he could pick out plainly all four of the motorcycles which he was fairly sure had led the unrest in Harterport. There were also two cars: one was a decaying blue Riley Pathfinder, caked with dust. The other car was Karen’s.
© 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