Edging through the space between the wall of the tiny passage and its grisly occupants had been a major hurdle to Patrick. To have to pass with his face an inch or two inches from such stark reminders of the frailty of life, even with a merciful cloak of darkness to veil them would have been trial enough, but his added conviction that one of these bodies must be all that remained of his beloved Karen so stuck in his throat he had to fight back a surge of vomit. Rebecca got him through; Rebecca, her hand clasping his, almost dragged him past the horror – her torch set upon the steep rise of the tunnel ahead of them, her resolution putting his failing courage to shame.
The steady dripping of water from above them would cease as the floor level rose, although not before it had soaked them both and set them shivering convulsively. Patrick in his car coat fared reasonably well, but Rebecca’s sweater was heavy with water. She made no complaint despite her obvious suffering, though, and the passage reprieved them by ending as dramatically as it had begun. Stone steps confronted them, eight steps, leading up to a wooden door.
Teeth chattering, Rebecca ran her torch over the door’s stout wooden planking and its rusted iron ring handle, which latched on the other side. “This is as old as the tunnel;” she whispered. “Shall we try and open it?”
“Can you hear anything?”
Together, they pressed their ears to the timber, listening for some sound beyond the door, but there was none. Patrick tentatively made an effort to turn the ring. The latch on the inside could be heard rasping alarmingly, then it jumped from its stay with a loud clank. Patrick leant his shoulder against the door and pushed, finding virtually no resistance: it swung easily back – so easily he almost fell.
Rebecca was also applying her weight. She did fall, uttering a loud expletive and immediately admonishing herself “Whoops; language!” She had pitched forward onto what felt like a rather threadbare carpet. She regained her feet. “Friggin’ hell!” she exclaimed, admonition forgotten, “Will you look at this?” She swung the torch around her. Speechless, Patrick followed the light as it scanned the walls and carpeted floor of the sort of living room that might grace a small rented apartment. There were cheap framed prints on the walls, several chairs and a settee, upholstered in red cloth, beside a small table. The only noticeably absent detail was a window. Her beam settled upon a light switch beside a door in the further wall.
“Might as well try it,” she said.
Flicking the switch rewarded them in stuttering seconds, as the starters of two fluorescent tubes above them on a low ceiling stirred into life. Patrick, stupified, stared about him at an electric fire upon a false grate on one wall, a standard lamp beside the settee sporting a brightly coloured shade depicting an American baseball scene, magazines, some newer, some older and well-thumbed, on the table and on one of the chairs. Upon the settee, a plate, a knife and a fork – and on the plate, a half-eaten meal.
“Shepherds Pie, by the look of it.” Rebecca said, wrinkling her nose. “A few days old, though. Someone was eating here, the old guy, I guess; looks like he had to leave in a hurry.”
Added to the same frame as the door by which they had entered was an inner door made of steel, which would have prevented access entirely, had it not been left wide open. This door was heavily barred, with a hasp and padlock anchored to the wall.
“So, what do you think? Servants’ quarters?” Patrick asked, not admitting to the plethora of possibilities that nagged at his mind.
“Maybe. Let’s see what else there is.” Rebecca was still standing by the light switch, and its adjacent door, which she opened with little regard for caution. “D’you wanna see if that heater works? I’m bleedin’ perishin’!”
Beyond her door, a short passage led to others: the first, a bathroom: basic, but still functioning with a cabinet that had been emptied of all the bottles and potions it contained.
“There’s been some stuff in here.” Rebecca pointed to the marks where bottles of liquid had stood. A half-used toilet roll hung from a string on the wall.
Opposite the bathroom, a bedroom – bare floor, a single divan bed, stripped of linen, a small table with a mirror above it. There was a yellowing Beach Boys poster pinned to one wall, a smaller picture of Manfred Mann on another.
“Surely someone still lives here. Look at the table, those splodges of colour – it’s like someone’s been painting something.” Patrick who, having conquered the electric fire, appeared at Rebecca’s shoulder, had the feeling he wasn’t functioning properly any more.
Rebecca detected his mood. “Hey, Patrick, keep it together, Okay? Those colours are creepy, though.” She gave the table a closer look; smears of blues and reds, greens and flesh tints, sharp strokes of black.
Patrick had to speak his thoughts. “Yeah, okay. I just didn’t have the shrivelled little bloke I saw down as a follower of Manfred Mann.”
And she thought ‘or a wearer of stage makeup’: she thought, but she did not say. Instead, “You’re jumpin’ to conclusions. Look, there are two more doors yet. We need to check this out quickly, and then we have to get out. If you are right, the incumbent won’t want us in his home, and we don’t want to meet him!”
The remaining door on the left-hand side of the passage proved to be another bedroom. A bare bed base, and bare walls. Then, finally, a door that was different in so many ways from the others.
“Look at this! It’s padded! Heavy, too!”
The door, secured by two strong iron bolts on its outer side, was faced with black, cushioned leather. It swung wide under Rebecca’s hand to reveal a space of almost total darkness, for the light from the living area could not reach this far. She struggled with the doorjamb on the open side until her hand found a switch. She flicked it down.
“Language!” Patrick reminded her. Then he saw.
Sepid blue light faded up on a spacious chamber, the very sight of which took the breath from Patrick’s body. At its centre, and dominating the space in every sense, stood a large, wide bed with a headboard of padded black leather. Bedclothes of red silk were strewn about it as though it had been slept in that very morning. The walls were also padded, again in black hide, so the light that filtering through grills in the ceiling was almost conquered by their gloom. A stout, red-upholstered chair in Louis XV style stood in one corner. Picture frames, four of them, lay broken upon the floor. There was one other strange, disturbing thing about that floor – a plate of steel which was bolted to it, and attached to that, a pair of manacles.
“I need pictures,” Rebecca said. “Then we go. See if you can find anythin’ that will give some clue who was here!”
“I think I can tell you who was here.”
Rebecca grabbed Patrick’s arm and turned him so he had to look into her eyes. “See, mate, a couple of posters don’t mean a thing! Yeah, I know what you’re thinkin’. You may be right, but that won’t explain this room, now will it?”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking. You can’t. You never met the occupant of this room, ‘Becca, but I know who it is – or was. I told you about him yesterday. The padding? The restraints?”
This gave Rebecca pause. “No; no it can’t be! A madman imprisoned in the Driscombes’ cellar? The Driscombe family? No.”
“Why not? Rochester kept his wife in the loft.”
“Yes, but that was… he could get in and out by the tunnel, couldn’t he? So there’d be no reason to associate him with the house.” The embers in Rebecca’s eyes were glowing brightly. She grabbed his arms. “Patrick! Man, what a story! If it’s true!”
“I think it might be. There’re no windows anywhere, but I’m sure we’re under the house and, what’s more, there must be access somewhere. I’ll see if I can find that. You attend to business.”
So, while Rebecca busied herself with camera and flash, Patrick took the torch and set about discovering the final piece to the puzzle. It wasn’t hard. At the end of the passage he needed only shine the beam upward to see an aperture through which a frightened medieval Catholic might once have dropped. This narrow shaft, and part of the iron stair-frame that had ascended through it was easily detected. Just as it was easy to see how the staircase had been cut, quite recently judging by the brightness of the sheared metal, and the shaft itself plugged with new concrete.
“They’ve blocked it off permanently,” he said.
“And concrete takes a while to dry, which is the reason the Driscombes tried to delay the Special Branch inspection. I’d say the upper end of that is covered by floorboards or somethin’ now. That’s why the big steel door is open. Whoever finished tidying up down here had to leave through the tunnel.”
Patrick stared around him. “Isn’t it possible he just escaped?”
“I doubt it. The place has been cleared out, apart from that half-finished meal. From the way you describe him, your long-haired nutter wouldn’t have been much of a housekeeper. No, this is political, Patrick, and it’s big! This is dear bumbling old Stafford desperate to be a government minister, and not wanting to explain why he has a dangerous madman in his cellar. As to where the fruitcake is now, that’s a separate question. Speaking of escape, it’s time we did, too. Come on! Switch the lights off, so nobody can discover we were here.”
Unwillingly, Patrick threw the switches as he was instructed, following the young reporter back into the darkness of the tunnel. Reliant only on her torchlight now, he had to rush to catch up with Rebecca’s determined stride; plunging, stumbling in the scarce light, downhill, through the stone arched vaulting, only pausing long enough to edge past those three more permanent occupants, before scrabbling after a receding beam up the slope on the further side of the riverbed. Rebecca understood a danger that perhaps, in his eagerness to uncover some further clue about the person who had lived in this anachronistic dungeon, had escaped him. It was not to elude him for long.
“Too late!” Rebecca stopped, so abruptly Patrick almost ran into her.
Nearing safety at the end of the tunnel, there was no sign of welcoming daylight. The torch picked out the steps that should lead them upwards, into the ruin of Boulter’s Green. “They’ve closed the trap.” She muttered. “I sort of expected this.”
“A trap it is then!” Said Patrick, with feeling.
The torchlight shone full in his face. “And a trap it was? Mister Patrick! I’m thinking of some bad, bad words!”
In the next ten minutes or so, Rebecca reiterated her entire vocabulary of reprehensible language, interspersed with dire threats, at the top of her voice, pausing to listen, now and then, for some response – any response. There was none.
The silence imposed by that weighty barrier to the outside world was chilling. Patrick felt the gooseflesh rising on his arms. At last he interjected, “I don’t think our captors are responding to threats so I suppose we have to try and get it open. Care to join me?”
He mounted the narrow steps, positioning himself so he could apply the full pressure of his shoulder to the stone slab. Rebecca slithered her way up to join him. “It’s a bit intimate, isn’t it? Do you mind?”
“Nice as your body surely is, you’re soaking wet and my mind just isn’t on it right now. Come on, get pushing!”
Patrick’s plan was to use the strength of his legs to make one step at a time, but it quickly became evident that was not going to work. The already heavy door had been additionally weighted down from above, and despite their best-combined efforts, the pair failed to shift it one inch. All they could achieve was a faint sound of abrasion from the stone that had been piled up over them.
“Whoever closed it put half a house on top.” Patrick opined. “Rebecca, I think we’re in trouble.”
“Put your back into it, mister. Keep trying!”
“So be it. One, two three…”
And on, and on. For most of a half-hour they tried, dividing their strength between leverage and an attack on the surrounding stone with hammer and chisel, the only tools from Rebecca’s bag they had brought with them from the outside, until exhaustion had diminished their effort to such an extent that to continue was pointless.
“What next, Miss Resourceful?”
“We’re not goin’ to get out this way without more tools. Do you think there’s somethin’ back in that apartment we can use as a crowbar?” Rebecca, torch in hand, was already retreating through the tunnel. “You keep chisellin’, I’ll have a look.”
She was not gone for long. “How are you doin’?” She asked, not climbing the steps to be beside him.
“Not well. I’m moving some of the clay, but there’s not much room to work. God knows how they built this thing. You were quick; was there anything?”
“Dunno.” Rebecca muttered, so quietly Patrick barely heard her. “Didn’t get through.”
“I was scared I wouldn’t get back,” Her voice was hushed, “Patrick, I think they’ve turned off the pump. It’s already waist deep back there.”
If he was quiet, Patrick thought, he might still be able to hear that far-off, but very heartening hum, All he heard was the trembling fear in Rebecca’s breathing, Yet still they should be alright, shouldn’t they? And he tried to tie the strands of comfort together; the logic that said however low the lie of the land on this side of the river, here, at the head of these steps they were still higher than the level of the water. The water entering the tunnel was seepage, not under any pressure, so…
“How high’s it goin’ to come?”
“Somebody’ll come and find us, right?”
“Someone’s bound to,” he assured her. He did not share the thought that they had seen too much, that whoever had replaced this stone did not intend they should survive. Shrugging off the portents of doom, Patrick turned back to his work with hammer and chisel.
Stafford Driscombe’s afternoon had not been pleasant. After an edgy meeting with Leon Scherner, a fellow back-bencher whom he knew to be interested in a job at the Home Office, a contentious Commons debate required his presence in the voting lobbies, where his personal position, despite his instincts, had demanded he follow the wishes of his party Whips.
In the solace of a deep winged armchair at his gentlemen’s’ club, and behind the disguise of the day’s edition of ‘The Times’ he was able to indulge himself with half an hour of peaceful reflection.
“Stuffers, old chap.” The voice calling time on that peace was subdued, even a little obsequious. “May I have a quiet word?”
“Toby.” Stafford did not have to lower his newspaper to identify the owner of that voice. He knew it well. “I do so enjoy your ‘quiet words’. Have I been a naughty boy?”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly…I mean I wouldn’t precisely…” Tobias Simon Algernon Mountravers Fitzwilliam Caverley-Masterson was unused to speaking confidentially to the day’s headlines, especially as he had already seen them. “I say, lower the sight screen for a moment, would you, old thing? Meet a chap in the eye?”
Stafford lowered the upper half of his newspaper and glared over the top of the rest. Toby’s moustache (his only visible body hair) bristled officiously. “Derbyshire is doing uncommonly well,” Stafford said with heavy emphasis. “Three hundred and twenty-something for six. Excellent innings by Smith; should have been a century, y’know. Good chap.”
Toby nodded. “Standon looked a little vulnerable. Not his wicket, really. Too slow for the medium pace fellas.”
“What is it, Toby?”
“Ah, what was it? Well you see, I was having a tiny word with Reggie Maudlin this afternoon, and your name came up in conversation.”
“Yes. You know how anxious Ted is about his troops, especially as things are? It is so important to keep the wheels on the wagon, everything running smoothly, no bumps and jumps at the moment, isn’t it? We all agree. Reggie’s sure you agree?”
Stafford frowned. “Certainly. We wouldn’t want to leave Ted short of a wheel. Do I take it Reggie considers my wheel may require extra grease, Toby?”
“Good point, Stuffers; ably made. Shall we mix a metaphor or two? Shall we say there are one or two minor ripples on the pond – little matters Reggie feels you should take care of? Nothing major, of course.”
“Oh no, of course not. Nothing major.”
“So important for our beloved leader to have a strong team around him, you see. No rifts in the lute, as the expression goes.”
“No indeed! Wagons, ponds, lutes…awfully complicated, don’t you think? Tell Reggie he has no need to worry. The little matter is all in hand.”
“Jolly good, jolly good.” Tobias Caverley-Masterson rose from his chair. “I’ll inform Reggie, something along those lines. He is sure we can rely upon you to keep a tight ship.”
“I am, indeed, taking care of it, such as it is, Toby. He can have absolute confidence.”
“Excellent, old thing. You’ll have our full support, of course, if you need it. Toodle-pip.”
As Tobias drifted away, Stafford completed a thought begun before he arrived. The woman had to be taken care of. As was the case with all people of Stafford’s relentlessly logical mental composition, he was capable only of seeing the woman as a problem to be solved. She must not be permitted to obstruct his ambitions for this year, and unfortunately, (for he rather liked the little witch) she was a scandal primed and ready to happen.
Stafford watched the squat form of Tobias Caverley-Masterson retreat silently across the thick carpet of the Member’s Lounge. With the sigh of a man who must work when he would prefer otherwise, he folded his newspaper and eased himself from his comfortable chair. There were telephones in the main entrance hall. He commandeered a free booth and extracted a rather battered red notebook from his inside pocket, fingers moving quickly through the indexed pages to the letter ‘L’. Ladbroke, Lambert, Lanchester, Laughton, LeBoeuf, Lipman: Mortimer Lipman; a chap with a boat.
Mortimer Lipman: a small memory made his lips twitch in a smile as he recalled a previous occasion when Mortimer’s boat had proved useful in remedying a minor inconvenience within one of his companies. He recalled Mortimer’s words: “The wonderful thing about the North Sea, old boy, if you understand them, is the tides. Pop a champagne cork into the right spot and it won’t wash up in Norway until 1995.”
Stafford dialled the number.
© 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