Part twenty-two

Encounter at Maslingham

At about the time of Jeremy and Maurice Shelley’s meeting in a Surrey garden, Peter Cartwright was alighting from a car in the market place of a small northern town.   Since his unusual exit from the Manchester fast food restaurant he had been transported in the back of a plain white van to a large house in Willenshaw.   Here he was met by Hal, a portly northern businessman, in whose BMW he rode for another one- and-a-half hours to Maslingham, the town with the market place.

Although he had asked, Peter had been unable to elicit any information concerning either his destination, or with whom he was supposed to finally meet.    The wiry little man in overalls had stayed with him no further than a carpark below the restaurant, where the van’s driver had concealed him politely, but without comment.   Hal, though talkative, seemed reluctant to answer questions.

“Furniture, lad.  That’s all I know.  Been a remover all me life, me father before me.”  Said Hal, who looked as if he hadn’t moved a piano in years.  “When I took over the firm it were dying on its feet: not worth a snuffed candle.   I built that firm, lad, with’t sweat of me brow.  Worth two million now.  Two million!”

This and similar jewels, interspersed with long, considered silences, made the hour- and-a-half in the car pass slowly.  As this was also Peter’s first intimate acquaintance with cigar smoke (Hal puffed regularly on a fairly generous Havana) he came close to travel sickness.   All in all, he was grateful to finally be decanted in Maslingham.

Having parted with Hal: (“You’ll be waiting a bit.  We can’t afford a direct link up, y’see; too easy to trace us back through the vehicles.  Good luck lad – you’re in‘t badlands up here, mind!”) Peter found himself completely alone.    Maslingham had one of those town centres you could encompass at a glance: a market building stood in the centre of the flagged whinstone square, supporting a rectangular tower with a clock face on each side.  Each face told a different time.   Along two sides of the square were functional shops, a Chinese takeaway, a couple of touristy cafes.   The third side was lined with town houses.   All the buildings were of green sandstone. One or two were still possibly in private hands, the rest given over to office accommodation, except for ‘Luigi’s Italian Pizza Takeaway’.  Luigi’s disported a fading yellow menu in the downstairs front window, and emitted a heavy aroma of stale fat.

On its fourth side the square was cut by a road, busy with traffic en route to somewhere else.   A ‘bus pull-in with a shelter of black wrought iron and glass stood beside this artery: a small group, scarcely a gang, of youths draped around it, like gibbons on a climbing frame.   They regarded Peter with more than casual interest: he was probably the first new face they had seen in a week.

“Are yer lost, ma-ate?”   Asked one; a question which, though innocent enough, initiated sniggers from the others.

“Fook all to find.”   Another commented.   Again, the giggling.

The first questioner was a lanky lad with a shock of black hair and a long, pinched face.  He swung himself down from the bus shelter:   “Can we ‘elp you, like?  Where are you lookin’ fer?”

“I don’t know.”   Peter replied, truthfully.  “Someone’s supposed to meet me here.”

The shock-headed boy was clearly the group leader.   He approached, the rest of his gaggle grouping dutifully around and behind him:  three other boys, two girls.

“No-one ever cooms ‘ere, ma-ate.  Yer must be in the wrong place.”

“I think he’s swank.”    A second lad said.

“He coom in a swank car.”   One of the girls piped.   “Have yer got any money, like?”

“Not much.”   Peter was becoming uncomfortable, although he tried not to show it.  The youths sidled around him, like sniffing dogs. 

“Reckon he ‘as.”  The first boy said.  “Reckon he’s got cash!    Buy us some chips, ma-ate?”    Everyone laughed.

“Chinky’s closed.”   The third boy said.

“Oh aye!”   The leader looked regretful.  “Still, he can give us the money so we can get ‘em later can’t he?”   He looked to Peter for confirmation.  “Can’t yer, ma-ate?”

“I’m not giving you any money.”  Peter replied, as steadily as he could.

“Why, that’s not very gen’rous, is it?”

There comes a moment in such encounters when the inevitable must be faced.   Peter was not unversed in gang culture.  It was as prevalent in Levenport as anywhere else.  There had been groups like this around his school, even at college:  rarely students themselves, these skulks of vulpine sub-humans with shifting, cunning eyes huddled in dark covens around the perimeter walls, at the amusements in the town, by the corner shop with cheap lager to sell.   These were not the sophisticates, the Ross Copelands with scams and wit, of a kind:  they were an altogether a more primitive, and by definition a more dangerous species.   Peter usually managed to avoid them.

            A rapid scan of the group revealed that, of the girls, the taller black-haired one who had asked him about money was likely to be a problem.  Her arms and hands were a picture gallery of bad tattoos, her cat-like features set in a cadaverous half-smile, eyes thirsting for violence.  Of the boys, who had the knives?  Two were his own age or possibly less, one a convinced introvert with downcast eyes and no opinion to share, the other eager but too generously-built to be a threat.  The older, shock-headed boy who had first challenged him, though rangy in stature had the self-confident face of a fighter.  Yes, he would be one.   His immediate companion,  stockier, heavier,  and less assured?  Maybe he was also carrying some sort of weapon.  The second girl, his girlfriend obviously, draped gothically over his shoulder.

“Berrer tak it off ‘im then;” intoned the stocky lad.  “Gan ter ‘elp yer find yer wallet, swank.”

Some instinct drove Peter forward, singling out the shock-headed lad.  He did not know how he had detected the blade in that right sleeve, or how his stare had become so icily cold it could induce the fingers reaching for it to fumble and fail to grip?   Neither had the shock-headed boy time to understand how the roles had altered, how the stranger was his intended victim no longer, and instead he had become the prey.  Those eyes fixed unblinking upon his were as hypnotic and as binding as a cobra’s.   Peter the vicar’s son was hunting. 

To Peter one point and one point only mattered, the shock-headed lad’s chest closest to his heart.  Inside  he was a spring, coiled to its tightest; a whip, primed to crack.  Vaguely, he felt the group jostling around him.  Felt it, but ignored.    Peter’s first blow lifted the shock-headed boy head and shoulders above the would-be plunderers, the second launched him through and beyond them, its impetus carrying him backwards several meters before slumping to the pavement, where he lay without moving.   Immediately, Peter sensed the second threat.  That spring rewound itself instantly, the trigger primed once more.   He cast about him for the source, found the stocky young man was reaching into his jacket, drove his hand like a wedge into the flesh of the young man’s neck and gripped.    A screech of pain echoed in the empty square, a knife clattered to the stones of the pavement.   Now there was space around him, room to move.   Those who remained were backing off, worsted and frightened, horror in their faces   Far away in the back of his consciousness Peter could hear the Goth girl screaming as he raised her boyfriend clear of the ground and dangling him from the end of one extended arm turned slowly, like the second hand of a clock until he had aligned him with his shock-headed friend.   Then he let him fall.  His two most dangerous adversaries lay crumpled beside one another on the paving, while the traumatized remainder of their group backed well away, whining obscenities.

“Come on son; better get you out of here.”  

His shoulder was being held by a restraining hand, a hand that was large and kind.    Sensing this instantly, Peter felt the tensions inside himself release and he allowed the hand to draw him back.  A car had parked behind him with its door opened.  Unquestioning, and with as yet no clear sight of the owner of the hand, he got in.

As he was driven away in a flurry of tyre-smoke three images printed themselves onto his cerebral cortex:   two slumped bodies, lying very still, and the form of the raven-haired girl in a foetal crouch.   Her eyes followed his departure: they were the terrified eyes of one addicted to terror – mirrors of insatiable hunger.

“By god, lad, they weren’t joking when they said you might be dangerous!”    Chortled the big man who was the owner of the hand:  “Still, at least I know I’ve got the right one!”

He was clean-shaven and muscular, this latest of Peter’s drivers; dark of skin and casually dressed in an Arran jumper and he was driving fast, but with precision.  The narrow back-streets of Maslingham were quickly behind them and they were climbing a steep, winding hill overshadowed by trees.   The little town glimmered in late afternoon sun to the right of them as they ascended. Although dusk was still some hours away other vehicles sharing this shady road glowered behind angry headlights while the big man’s car remained unlit, a grey ghost in flight towards the hills.

“Just in time.   Looks like someone called the fuzz.”

Further down on the valley road Peter could see the blue lights of two police cars flashing rapidly towards Maslingham.   He felt cold fingers of shock creeping around his throat; what had he done?  He was mad, he was lethal!   Something inside him was beyond his control and he was a killer!   An involuntary moan escaped his lips; slumping back in his seat he stared at the branches flitting past, suddenly aware of the agony of his swollen fists, and consumed by furnaces of guilt.

In no time at all they had cleared the trees and their car was driving across open moor.   Early autumn winds gusted at the car; low sun forced the big man to squint his way with a hand shading his eyes.  Then they were off the main road, scraping down a twisting lane into a deep, narrow trough between the hills where, at last, the driver guided the car more slowly, wary of the wild life which seemed to use this road as their highway:  rabbits, weasels, the occasional hedgehog all promenaded here, scornful of human company and reluctant to give way.  More than once he had to stop, chivvying a four-legged pedestrian with bips from the car’s high-pitched horn.

“Come on, sunshine, move yer fluffy arse!”

For mile upon mile, turn after turn, Peter was oblivious to all but the memory of those few minutes on Maslingham Square.   Where had he learned such a capacity for brutality, gained such strength?     In the lea of his confrontation with Copper Copeland he had spared a moment to wonder just how he had achieved an upper hand, recognising that some new-found ability must have come to his aid,   but nothing as devastating as this!   Was he a murderer now, wanted by the police?   Would he have to be locked away, for the sake of public protection?   He must have asked these last questions out loud, for the big man chipped into his thoughts.

“Don’t worry, lad, you didn’t kill anybody!   Gave ‘em a few bruises, maybe,and a few bad memories, but they’re tough, those lads.   An hour in Casualty and they’ll be right as rain.  Mind you;”   He grinned:  “If I hadn’t got there when I did….”

Around a sharp, declining corner, squatting above them on a steep grassy bank a house came into view.   This was not, like so many of the dwellings on the moor, a lonstead built by smallholders in the mine-working days:  a crude construction of random rubble.   No, this was an imposing if somewhat grim building of dressed stone:  the windows were large – weavers’ windows made in days when no electricity helped working eyes – and the slate of its roof glared orange where it caught an oblique shaft of evening sun.  A rough driveway led up to and around the rear of this house with the light from an opened back door to welcome them.

The big man got out, came to help Peter with his door.  “Hop out now!  I’m not staying.   I’m going to drive on, in case we were followed.  If you trot up to that door, they’ll make you welcome.  I just want to say…”   He faltered:   “I just want to say I’m honoured, young man.   I never thought I’d see this day, I never did!”   Before Peter could ask him what he meant, he had turned away.   And with a slam of the car door, a tearing of wheels and flying grit, he was gone.  

Peter’s feet crunched through gravel.   Save for a distant rushing of wind through heather, his was the only sound.   A faint odour greeted him as he approached the open door.   It told of recent cooking, of herbs and freshly baked bread.

  Cautiously, he peered inside, to find himself face to face with Vincent Harper.

“Hello mate!”   Vincent said.  “Long time no see.  Have a nice trip?”

Upon a similar sun-blessed evening separated from that moorland house by some distance and almost two centuries of time, Arthur Herritt was seated in a chair in the Salon Parisien at Mountsel Park, watching Francine Delisle, who was perched upon a sofa opposite him, making irritable stabs at embroidery.  Her needlecraft, he allowed himself to think, was at least as inadept as her musicianship, and her posture nearly a match for both, yet the woman was undeniably charming.  Hurriedly, he rebuked himself for his thoughts.   As always, he felt compelled to limit his time with her, for fear of absolutely betraying his feelings.

“I’m contemplating a small excursion,” Said he, “From which I am loathe to exclude you, Francine.   I am hoping you will agree to accompany me.”

“Well I am sure, sir, that  as grateful as I may be for your hospitality, I shall go mad if I do not have a change of scenery soon, so I beg you to take me wherever you intend to go!   May I know your purpose?”

“Truthfully I am not sure of that, I want merely to investigate a place with which you may possibly have a connection,  We shall be on the road, of course, but I shall see to it you are protected.”

“Arthur, please!  I am assured enough!  May I be apprised of our destination, then?”

“It is not far.  I wish to visit Levenport, to view the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.”

“The Crowley place? You would take me there?  Oh, Arthur, would you take me there?  Oh, Arthur!”

So impulsive a reaction took Arthur by surprise, if not by Francine’s very vocal enthusiasm, then by her physical response, for she seemed disposed to throw her arms about his neck like a child, possibly even to kiss him!  He caught her shoulders to restrain her fervour as kindly as he could:   “Francine, I thought that we agreed…”

The full significance of her impetuosity came over Francine, and she blushed furiously, though insufficiently: her true feelings expressed themselves in the soulful blue lakes of her eyes; “We did.  For goodness sake, whatever came over me?”

“At least until we know more of the history that brought you to me…”

“Oh, Arthur, what is this?  What makes me act so wickedly?” And the unspoken question.  ‘Why do I feel for you in this way?’  Dare she even think it?

“That is what we shall endeavour to find out,” he said, turning away to hide the flush of colour in his own flesh.  “Although those answers may not come to us tomorrow, we shall set forth bravely in the forenoon!” 

As she watched him leave a black cloud of depression enveloped Francine so that she began to weep.  Tears spilled over, coursing almost unregarded down her cheeks.  It was not Arthur’s invitation to visit St. Benedict’s Rock that affected her so, not that.  She had heard of the place, of course, in her years in Mountchester, but it had held no special significance for her then, and very little now.  No, it was the invisible cage imprisoning her that distressed her so, the prison of a past she did not have, compounded by a danger she could not understand.  In her mind she perceived Arthur as standing beyond the bars, beyond her reach.  The journey of the morrow would not resolve these puzzles, but just the chance to share them without the constriction of Mountsel Park, which, for better or worse, she saw as her cage.  The Great House in which she felt so very much the guest of Arthur was also the barrier that stood between them.

How might she explain this growing affection for Arthur?  She took no pleasure in it.  Her undisciplined feelings were a constant embarrassment to her.  A daughter of a good family must deny herself simple transports of affection, and constantly defend her reputation; so what were her true feelings for this man who sparked such wildness in her?  What would be the price she would have to pay for his rescue?

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Image Credits: Featured Image Free-photos from Pixabay

Hooded Man: David Ortega from Pixabay

Moorland Scene: Gamopy from Pixabay

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