“Ciggy?” Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick. “Oh, you don’t, do you? Do you mind if I do? I’m absolutely gasping.”
Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft. When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course). Patrick Hallcroft? He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking! But now?
Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore? He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary. His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked. Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return. Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.
“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?” He asked.
“Everyone has, darling. At least you got demoted to an inside page.”
“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’? It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”
Bea shrugged. “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect? That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that. I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering. The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something. ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue? It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”
“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”
“At least you tried. Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch. Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick. So the least you can do…”
“Would a timeline help?”
“Timelines are always good.”
“Right; Saturday morning. I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”
“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute. Why didn’t you follow those three cars? Karen would have.”
“Oh yes. And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!” Patrick rejoined. “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”
“But you didn’t. You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”
“No ‘thought’ about it! At least give me a hearing!”
“I didn’t want to go to the police. All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway. I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.” Patrick thought for a second. “No, wait. That isn’t what I wanted. I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”
“Why? Does he have his doubts? More to the point, do you? My god, Patrick!”
“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start. And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know? I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him. I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course. It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself. Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north. It wasn’t much of a delay though. We were there by one-thirty.”
“How did you know that?”
“I didn’t. I guessed. By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone. It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick. Bad karma!”
“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone! The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something. A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy. Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”
“Your old man didn’t believe you? No, wait – brains, Bea! He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”
“Our little snake! Oh, it was my fault, I suppose. When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught. I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself. ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too. All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”
His hand was resting on the table. Bea squeezed it consolingly. “No, mate, she isn’t right. Go on, fill in the rest.”
“My mother lived up to her promise. She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant? She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”
“Isn’t he supposed to be ill? It was on the local news. He had a heart attack or something.”
“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather. You’re right, though. His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson. That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you. Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”
“And I saw him.” Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes. “I wanted you to keep some faith in me. I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”
Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand. “Pat! Avoiding the question, yeah? What happened with Wilson?”
“He’s a strange guy. Enigmatic, I think that’s the word. Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home; corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing. I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew. Much more than my mother told him. He already knew.”
“Well, what did he say? Can he do anything?”
“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”
The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth. Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed. The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.
All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner. Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident. The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.
“Hallcroft, isn’t it? Come in, young man.”
There were further surprises to come. Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe. A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.
“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.” And Wilson added, pointedly, “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.” Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke. “Now, why did you want to see me? Your mother was most insistent.”
Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design? He had to clear his throat before he responded. “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley. I believe you met her.”
Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her. A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate. Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson. I am sure you remember.”
Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances. “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”
“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”
Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder. “Impudent whelp, aren’t you? Why are you here, boy?”
“To find Karen,” Patrick retorted. “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return. They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”
Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody; “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft. If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature. It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”
“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton. Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder? Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson. I will find out who.”
“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken. Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour. She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone. She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions. She sent a letter to that effect to her parents. I take it you have read that? After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”
Carmody’s eruption happened. “I won’t stand for any more of this! See here, Hallcroft: the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation. Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning. My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority. The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one. Is that understood? Is that final enough for you?”
“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens. Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one. If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground. For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman. I‘m sick of the sight of him!”
“Unbelievable!” Bea shook a troubled head. “And that was it?”
“Not quite.” As he – what would you say – showed me out? Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’. A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”
“It’s not good, yeah?” Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears. “Poor Karen.”
“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?” Patrick said, tight-lipped, “Very professional. They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off. And then, finally, last night…” He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face. For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down. But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.
“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess. A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home. I saw the red glow against the sky. Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road! From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.” Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face! Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower! All gone. I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before. I never want to see its like again.”
“Of course I think! I was warned, wasn’t I? Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory? There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage. One police car turned up – one! A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids! I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”
Patrick drew himself up. “Anyway, nobody slept last night. It was sunrise before they got the fire out. It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer. It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire. Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.
“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”
Bea interrupted him, “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”
“I can’t answer that…”
“You do! You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere! And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it! He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim. This will happen again, Patrick! Again!”
“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea. I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing. But there’s a family – my family – to consider. You, too. I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”
“I don’t care. She’s my friend, she was always my friend.”
“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know? Right from wrong, good from bad, all that? This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose. I’ve never seen him that way. In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,. He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back. This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it. He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is. He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”
“So you’re giving up.”
“In my heart, no. Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now. I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.” Patrick sighed. “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was. I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t. Not without causing more harm.”
Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now. “You are, you’re giving up! Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably. It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”
“I know,” Patrick acknowledged miserably. “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger. Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”
“You can trust me, Patrick. You can trust me.”’
There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends. It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by. Not without regret, however, and not without damage.
Patrick? He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins. All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.
Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows. It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career. She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears: it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.
Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers. Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months. He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end. His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.
Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too. Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life. For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him. But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.
It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did. Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organizations, 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