Inga, who everyone regarded as Radley Court’s housekeeper, discovered Jacqueline in the ‘snug’. She was solicitous. “You want I make some tea for us? You should eat.”
Jacqueline Hallcroft inclined her head slightly, murmuring: “Please, Inga,” without breaking her mood. A reminder that the year was still young, a wood fire, hissing and snapping in the fire basket painted her white blouse with a whisper of rose Her hands rested upon the back of the old leather sofa, her chin upon her hands, watching through the window as curtain-folds of rain swept the darkened vista of Radley Court’s green acres. Inga, so sensitive to every nuance of her employer’s emotions, doubted she had even heard.
“You are worried, yes?”
“Yes.” Jacqueline took a long breath.
“This rain is so heavy, I hear it on the news. They are saying it will be floods soon. The River Boult, it will not bust itself, Mr Jackson says. He says it never does.”
Jacqui smiled absently, “You think I should be worried?”
“No, I think you are.”
“Look, Inga, he’s probably managed to get the car stuck somewhere, you know how he is.” Privately, she doubted. She had never visited Boulter’s Green or driven down Nowhere Lane, but what could Patrick possibly find to do for seven hours in a muddy field with three piles of stones? Or how might he pass the time, sheltering from this rain with a young, nubile journalist in tow? In the car, or maybe already back at The Huntsman? Seeing Inga beside her did not help. Could the girl not stand for ten seconds without posing? God, why was she everywhere surrounded by youth? Long legs, short skirts… Three days after her bloody honeymoon, why did she feel so dreadfully insecure?
A telephone ring came echoing from the hall.
Inga trotted cheekily away, leaving Jacqui freedom to repeat that question of herself. Patrick had never been anything less than devoted to her, since those first London days. It had been as if the fates had invented two new people, as if she had been reborn, yet sometimes it seemed as though there was nothing Patrick could do to convince her of his own rebirth. There was a corner of his mind (or was it a corner of hers?), a not-so-often cast in his eye she saw – a reservation he could never hide. And the more she tried to ignore it, the more it drew her, so there were times when she looked at Patrick and could see nothing else.
“It is for you, the call.” Inga had returned, framed by the doorway. “Is a Mister Leathers, I think.” She giggled, “He called me his ‘darling’.”
Jacqui found the receiver parked neatly across the main body of the ‘phone. “Who is this?”
“Ah, Mrs Hallcroft, have I found you? Leathers here, the ‘Record’. I don’t suppose Miss Shelley is with you?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr Leathers. She’s out with my husband.” Had she let a trace of cynicism creep into her voice? Leathers heard it.
“Ah, my dear, you have absolutely no need to worry, you know. Our ‘Becca’s a consummate professional. That’s one of the many things I hate her for. No, she promised to call in at lunchtime, and it’s unlike her to be careless in matters of punctuality. She asked me to chase up some information for her, and she’ll want to know the results, I think. Did she mention anything to you?”
“No, I’m afraid…”
“No matter. I called her hotel, she went out this morning and hasn’t returned yet. She’ll call, I’m sure. So sorry to have troubled you…”
Without wasting any further time, Jacqui dialled Jackson Hallcroft’s office. “Jackson, can you get away? I’ll pick you up in the Landrover. Something’s wrong.”
Stafford Driscombe withered beneath Jacinta’s stare. His wife was seated more or less as he had left her, eight hours before, by the front window of their apartment in Kensington. The curtains were drawn, now, and a glass of gin had supplanted her lunchtime platter, but the look she was giving him was chillingly sober. He could not avoid seeing the air ticket that lay defiantly displayed on the table.
“I think you had better level with me.” She said, quietly. “What’s going on, Staffy? Who were those people? Who was that woman?”
“I have not the faintest idea what you mean.” He crossed to the cocktail cabinet to pour himself a whisky. “I have had a hard day, can this not wait until tomorrow?”
“No. I repeat, who were those people – the ones who accompanied you this morning?”
“Why do you feel you need to know?”
“Why? Turn off the light.” Jacinta’s voice was edged with steel. “Go on, do it!”
“Good God, for what reason?” Stafford blustered. But he obeyed, nonetheless.
“Now come here.” His wife beckoned him to the window, drawing the curtain aside just a little. When he hesitated, she said stridently: “Stafford, come on!”
“What am I looking for?” He muttered, joining her.
“See the first floor display window over there? Take a moment to adjust your eyes, then tell me what you see through that window, my precious darling.”
“All right, I see him.”
“He’s been there all day! He has a camera! Is he press?” Then, because Stafford did not seem to want to reply: “Well, is he? I’m going to ask you once more, Stafford, and if you don’t answer me I am out of that door!”
“Bloody hell, woman!”
“I’m leaving you. I’ve packed a bag, and I’m going to put as much distance between us as I can in twenty-four hours.” Jacinta picked up the air ticket and waved it in front of his nose. “I‘m used to being kept in the dark, Stafford, but not when the consequences of your stupid actions are likely to implicate me! Now, who were those people today? Who was the woman? Yes, the woman! You weren’t going to tell me about her, were you? And why is that odious little man with his camera so interested in taking my picture? Did he get a clear shot of her, do you think?”
Stafford sighed a long sigh, then slaked his thirst with a generous slug of single malt. “I don’t know, I imagine not. Don’t leave me, Sweetie, please? I don’t want to lose you, you know that.”
“And the timing couldn’t be worse, I know that, too. So, explain, Staffy. Explain now.”
“Very well. Come away from the window. I will tell all.” Slumping into an easy chair by the far wall of the room, Stafford switched on a standard lamp that shone down upon his features, illuminating the flab of his advancing years; the balding scalp now grey, the heavy eyes, the slack, spoiled lips. “There are times when I wish I had avoided politics altogether, you know.” He said. “So many things have to be looked into, so many ‘i’s dotted, ‘t’s crossed, and so on. Those people today were specialists, my dear. Their business is sweeping up the dust of a misspent life and disposing of it tidily. They are really very good at what they do. Today, I was just helping them do their job, that’s all.”
“And the woman? Who was the woman?”
“Honestly, you really don’t need to know about her.”
Jacinta snorted, “Yes, Stafford, I do. I can’t watch over your carelessness if I don’t have the opportunity to question the suitability of these little dalliances of yours. Remember Lucy Bedington-Carey? Have I met this one? Or is she part of your ‘dust’?”
“Is that all you have to say?” Jacinta’s stare was unremitting. “Do you expect to get away with that? What kind of damned fool do you take me for? I want to know details, Stafford. I want to know why I am involved, and exactly what I am involved in.”
“Of course you do! And I will explain, but it is complicated. To be truthful, I am trying to pick upon a place to start. You see, the mess is a minor issue; it isn’t as serious as you seem to believe. And it isn’t mine, not entirely…”
The rain had begun a little before noon, as Patrick and Rebecca were embarking upon their subterranean discovery. It had become harder as the hours passed, until by evening it was a deluge of some substance. In the open landscape of the Boult valley the river did its natural duty, which was to drain the onrush of surface water from the hills and offer a conduit to the sea. It was a disciplined, partly engineered watercourse that would not ordinarily flood, but merely rise to its task. There was an effect, however, that lay unseen.
Patrick and Rebecca, entombed beneath the turf of the riverside meadow, could only feel the creeping embrace of water in the old tunnel as, rendered invisible by darkness, it rose silently around them. At the foot of the steps which finally led up to their blocked means of escape the river came seeping, pooling around Rebecca’s ankles, her calves, her knees. It was advancing steadily. Neither of them knew how high it would rise, nor if it was possible the tunnel might become completely flooded. That was a question left unasked. In the meantime, they were left in no doubt of the severity of the deluge from above. Although they could not see or hear it, it found every means of penetrating their tiny space.
Rebecca’s immediate danger of total immersion could be avoided by crowding up to the top of the steps where Patrick knelt, working with hammer and chisel to try and cut around the flagstone that blocked their path. He was chipping against impacted stone and clay, aggregate five centuries old, the fabric of a tunnel that was as stalwart as it was cunning, whilst becoming seriously concerned for Rebecca. Her spare flesh was ill-suited to resist the onset of cold. “’Becca, you can’t stay down there, you’ll freeze to death. You’d better come up.”
“Yeah?” She was shaking so hard she could barely talk. “If I do you’ll have no room to work.”
“I’m not getting anywhere, as it happens. I could use your ideas if you have any. And we’ve got to get you warm.”
“I’m not goin’ to refuse.” As once before, when they had first put their combined efforts into trying to raise the stone, Rebecca fed herself up into the space Patrick could provide for her. “There, that’s nice. Are you goin’ to cuddle me, then?”
“I can hardly help it. It’s a bit like squeezing a wet sponge.”
“Funny! Very funny! Here’s me trying to spark a bit of romance…Patrick, there’s somethin’ I ought to tell you, somethin’ on my mind. In case we don’t get out of this, you see?”
“We will get out of this. Jacks knows where we are.”
“Yeah? It’s been a long time, and she ain’t turned up so far. I’m beginnin’ to doubt it, mate. She might reach the ruins; after that I’m not sure there’d be anyone up there who’d know where to start looking. Anyway, see – this mad bloke, it’s not much of a stretch to assume it was him lived in that room, and we’ve got to suppose he’s been responsible for a few missing persons, not just Karen.”
“Possibly. I’m sad for the others, of course, but only Karen concerns me.”
“Yeah, well listen. There were three bodies down there….”
“Do we have to talk about this?”
“Yes. Because it’s very possible Karen wasn’t one of them. Two were killed around the same time – that ties in with those two kids you told me about – Gasser something and Anna Parkin?”
“Gasser Gates and Anna Parkinson. God, poor Gasser! And I never thought I’d say that.”
It’s no surprise though, is it? You thought they vanished around here, and it seems very likely they did. The third body’s been down there a lot longer, Patrick. Years longer – nothin’ left but the bones. D’you remember tellin’ me about a red Riley parked with Karen’s car in that old boathouse?”
“I do. It was a basket case. Someone found a way to move it, though.”
“Fifteen years ago, a woman disappeared somewhere around Caleybridge. It’s hard to find out much about her because most of the records have been lost, but we know she was called Rachel Priest. We know that, and we know at the time she disappeared she was driving a red Riley Pathfinder.”
Patrick nodded, because at some level the information had reached him and been absorbed. His mind was on the advancing water because at that precise moment it had reached his feet…
Above their heads what light the day afforded was melting slowly into night. Close by, on the road to High Pegram, the headlights of Jackson Hallcroft’s Landrover lanced through failing visibility and ever-increasing rain, as Patrick’s new wife and his father searched for, but could not find, the lane to Boulter’s Green.
“It should be somewhere here. He said it was here!” Jacqui’s voice was brittle with desperation. “An old signpost, a lane on the left.”
“There’s no signpost, honey. We’ve been this way three times and we haven’t found anything. I reckon he meant the upper road, on the other side of Pegram.”
“Which is nowhere near the river!”
“Maybe; but maybe the lane he was talking about led down to the river. The road might loop round. Hell, it could go round in circles in this weather and we wouldn’t know. Anyways, I can find nothing along here. I’m going to try.”
Neither Jackson nor his daughter-in-law had ever visited Boulter’s Green. Although Jacqui had worked in Patrick’s department for years she had never even seen the marking on the Council’s map that had first led Karen to the place. Other than by Jacqui’s vague memories of Patrick’s description, upon the only occasion they had discussed the location of the old ruins in any detail, they had no clear idea of what they sought: the signpost might have been the only thing to guide them, and the signpost was gone.
The headlights sped off into the twilight, probing fruitlessly for a sign that was not there. Later, a despairing Jackson would visit the duty sergeant at Caleybridge Police Station to ask for directions to Boulter’s Green, and he would be met by a blank stare.
“Boulter’s Green, was it sir? No, I’ve never heard of it, I’m afraid.”
“Are you new here?”
“No, no. Been here thirty years. I’ll be retiring soon.”
“Ask around. Is there anyone else who can tell us where it is?”
“Well, no. Everyone’s out, see? A busy evening, the weather being the way it is.”
“Then radio them!”
The sergeant’s bland expression was unchanged. “I don’t think we need to do that, sir. Boulter’s Green – it doesn’t exist, now, does it? Your little joke, isn’t it? You know it’s an offence, wasting police time, don’t you?”
“Sergeant whoever-you-are, two people who went out this morning to visit this place you insist is a figment of my imagination have not returned. They are missing: just like Karen Eversley is missing, just like two other people before her were missing; all of whom disappeared after being seen near this non-existent place. Doesn’t that at least get your attention?”
“Sir, there is nothing I can do for you tonight. If you wish to file a missing persons report, you need to wait for twenty-four hours, sir. Now take my advice and go home. You’ll probably find them there.”
From beneath a stone slab, buried by rocks in Boulter’s Green, if you were standing close by, you might have heard two voices weakly calling, needing help. No-one was close by. In the world above those plaintive cries the hour was passing midnight, below and around them the water had risen until only a small chamber a few feet square remained, and now, though the stone that thwarted their freedom left gaps sufficient to admit a limited amount of air, there was little enough to breathe.
“This is f***ing ridiculous!” Rebecca managed between short gasps. “This is the coldest I’ve ever been, the longest I’ve been this close to a fanciable bloke without any nookie, and all I’m really interested in is keeping my bleedin’ camera dry!”
“Definitely a turn-off.” Patrick conceded. “Especially stuck in my neck. Keep quiet, and try to save your breath.”
“Patrick, mate, you know there’s no point, don’t you? At best no-one’s going to come until morning, and I won’t last ‘til then.”
“Just don’t give up. Keep breathing for me, will you?”
“Just keep breathing.”
And soon there was only that; the faint whimper of breathing to break the silence, while the rain beat steadily down.
Jacqui, waiting in the Landrover outside Caleybridge Police Station, could read the frustration in Jackson’s face as he clambered back into the driver’s seat.
“It’s down to us,” he said wearily. “I guess I knew that already.”
“Then one more try!” She urged him, determination etched into every line of her face. The Pegram road, and really slowly, this time. I want to get to know every inch of that damned hedge!”
Another fifteen minutes, then, to reach the road, watch-hands tracking faster than motion as the rural miles crept by. Time so substantial they could feel its passing, fence and hedge unremitting, no clue betraying the whereabouts of a tiny, wooded lane in the rain-drenched darkness. Blasts of anger from those with simpler destinations, some dangerously late in picking out the little Landrover in their headlights, to remind them of their precarious state.
It was Jacqui who spotted it, finally; Jacqui who saw how the hedge disappeared for a moment into shadow – no more than an undulation, perhaps, but then…
Jackson turned the wheel blindly, no signal – drawing blaring ire from one more frightened motorist who had seen those weak tail lights almost too late. Her eyes closed tightly, Jacqui braced for the impact that must surely come, but no: the Landrover thrust through brushwood that had been dragged across the entrance to Nowhere Lane and its two occupants crowed their victory as if this stony backwater was the gateway to Atlantis itself.
Backwater, certainly. The downpour had turned their path into a minor river which better defined its course than the growth lining its either side. Headlights blinded by brush were less an indication than the splashing onrush of floodwater beneath their wheels, which Jackson quickly learned to use to his advantage, steering to follow the sound. In such fashion they arrived at the final sharp incline that marked the lane’s conclusion, and almost collided with Patrick’s car.
With an oath, Jacqui’s father-in-law managed to stop only fractionally late, slewing sideways as his wing nudged the stationary vehicle’s fender. Jacqui was already primed to leap from her seat.
“There’s someone inside! Patrick?”
The car’s driver door swung open, and the figure who emerged was not Patrick. Caught in headlights, Jacqui saw the cadaverous features and owlish eyes of a much older man who did not seem disposed to stay around, but set off down the remaining yards of the lane like a hare, with Jackson in close pursuit. Hunter and hunted got no further than an old gate which barred escape long enough for Jackson to grab an ankle and bring his quarry down. Ancient though he may have appeared, this fugitive fought like a man possessed of demons, demanding the combined efforts of his pursuers to finally restrain him, with Jacqui’s foot firmly planted in his groin as insurance.
Jackson shouted above the rain. “Listen, buddy, we don’t want to do you any harm, okay? No harm! We need your help!”
© 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