Part Twenty Seven

The Inquisitors

Beyond Hemlington, Peter’s train was much emptier than before.   Walking back through the aisles toward his own carriage, Peter’s eyes met those of Howard.  There was no mistaking the surprise on the big man’s face, however quickly he attempted to disguise it.   Both knew, in that moment of encounter, the gloves were off.

“Well done!”    Howard murmured.

Peter may have smiled.

#

” So does my mother know?”  Melanie asked.

“Karen?   Bless her, not yet.    Not at this moment.  And she will be afraid, I do not doubt.”

“But Bianca?”

“Bianca.   Ah yes.   She knows.  My dear, she has always known.”

“Always?”

“Since you were very young.”   Agnes replied.  The rain still beat upon the window.   The bay, furious now with the intrusion of the North Sea  gale, was a race of white horses, galloping to shore.   “She recognised the signs in you – told us of them many years ago, my dear.   You were marked with your gift, even then.   When we heard you were going to leave Levenport, we almost jumped at the chance, you might say.  We had to persuade your aunt, rather, I’m afraid. She didn’t want to be placed in the invidious position of telling her sister you were missing – as doubtless she will have done by now.   We couldn’t divulge where we were taking you, you see.  She had to feign ignorance and contact the police to protect her own position.”

This was evening.   Agnes had returned in the Land Rover, after a protracted absence, amidst a flurry of protest and coughing and smoky blueness.  The day was far gone, but there was still no sign of the weather abating.   They sat facing one another amid the clutter of Agnes’ life, each vaguely discernable to the other in gathering twilight.

“I wish I had recognised the signs, whatever they were.”  Melanie mused.    “It might have changed some things.”

“The knowledge would have been of little use to you.  Without the innocent years we are incomplete:  you deserved to grow up somewhat before you took this burden upon yourself.”

“But I don’t want this – what:  burden – gift – whatever it is?  I’m not taking it upon myself at all.  I’m not accepting it.”

“The choice isn’t yours.   You have it inside you.  The decision, if there ever was one, is made.”

Melanie sighed resignedly.  “Okay, then.   How long am I to stay here?   Since my life is pre-ordained and you seem to have my schedule, you must know that.”

“Until tomorrow.”   Agnes said.  “And no, I don’t know what is to become of you, my dear.    I would that I did.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Someone is coming to see you; someone very important.  They will have a much better idea of your future than I.   My part in this is very small, believe me.  I have a secluded lifestyle, that is the sum of my worth.  I offer a safe resting place.  You will have few enough of those, I think.”

“Is that who you went into town to meet?   Is this ‘someone’ here already?”

“No, he comes from far away.”   Getting to her feet, Agnes moved towards the kitchen.   “It’s time for you to sleep.   I would guess you got very little rest last night, hmm?”

At this the spell, the mist of perfect tranquillity in which their conversation wafted around them, was lost.   Melanie felt that all peace, all contentment, all of her childhood, was taken away in that moment.   The storm in the bay was finding a silent, stealthy way in, through the fastened windows, under and over and around the battened doors.   It gathered in rage behind her as she went up the stairs.  White horses in a demonic race, a hunt to the death.   And she, Melanie the gifted, was their helpless, hopeless prey.

There were nine text messages on Peter’s phone.   They were all from Lesley.   The last one said simply: “Y won’t U answer Yr feckg fone?”

When he called her number she didn’t answer.  He knew she was there, holding the little red and green mobile in her hand, looking at his name on the display.   Lesley went nowhere without her ‘phone.

It was a difficult afternoon.   Peter’s parents were hanging close, taxing him with questions:  what was his friend’s house like, who else was at the party, had Manchester changed much?  He excused the absence of his bag and jacket by saying he had absent-mindedly left then unattended at the railway station in Manchester.  Otherwise, he answered all of their questions  as truthfully as he could, describing Vincent’s cottage in a way which made it sound like a house in the city suburbs, adding Simeon himself to the picture using Vince’s modified version of his name (Simon) as a ‘really nice guy from somewhere out on the moors’ with whom he had met and formed a friendship at ‘the party’.   Somehow, though, he knew he was not believed.    In fact, his father’s disbelief tingled in his spine like a pincushion full of needles: as soon as he could, he escaped through the kitchen door and headed for the seafront.

The incident at Framlington had gone unmentioned.   When Peter’s train pulled into the station at Levenport Howard Sullivan failed to emerge, and Peter liked to imagine him cowering down in his seat until he had gone, before sneaking from the station by some devious route.  There seemed no good reason for panicking his parents with tales of attempted abduction, yet there were many pressing reasons for doubting his safety.  Whoever it was, if they wanted him badly enough it could only be a matter of time before they got him.   On the seafront, at least, it was open enough to see them coming.

Lesley was still refusing to reply to his calls.   He sent a text.    “Pleze Lesley. Hennik’s.   Now.”

It was twenty minutes before she appeared, running across the street to the coffee shop, a magazine shielding her head from the rain.  She sat down opposite him, fixing him with an angry look.

“I don’t know why I came here.”  She said.

“I forgot to take my ‘phone:  left it behind.”

“Oh, right!   And you couldn’t be arsed to use a landline – just call me?”

“I’ve only been away two days!”   Peter sipped miserably at his coffee.  “I just – didn’t – that’s all.  I wanted to.  I missed you.”

“Yeah?   Well, shall I tell you the crack from round here those two days?   Melanie Fenton’s gone missing.   She left her aunt’s on Friday morning and hasn’t been seen since.”

“What?”  Peter was genuinely shocked.

 “And shall I tell you what else?  When Peter Cartwright went missing on Saturday morning too, word got out that he was with Melanie Fenton:  that you two buggered off together!    Even Mel’s mum thinks that’s what happened.”

Peter was trying to absorb the news that Melanie had disappeared.

“I thought you’d dumped me, you bastard.  I thought you’d gone.  I warned you, didn’t I?   Don’t dump me.”  Lesley felt all the insecurities of the last few days welling up in her eyes.  “Oh shit!”

Groping through the confusion in his head, Peter tried to find words of consolation, but nothing came.   “I’m not with Melanie.  I’m here.”   Was all he could come up with.

“Yeah?   And for how long?”

“What do you mean?”   Lesley who, behind her spectacular appearance was always uncertain of herself, had a penchant for self-destruction.  Peter was seeing this process eating at her now, and he wanted so badly to put it right, but its logic defeated him.  Why should she be so furious with him, when all he had done was drop out of sight for a day or so?

“Peter, you never forget your phone.  You’re so bloody methodical you never forget anything!   You just didn’t take it with you, wherever you went.   And you didn’t call me to tell me where you were, or what you were doing, because you didn’t want to.  You didn’t bloody want to!”

Lesley got up and stormed out, back into the evening rain.   Peter hurrying to pay for his coffee, followed.   She ran as though she did not want to be caught.   He was breathless when he finally drew up with her.

“Les, don’t do this, please?”

She stopped.   He said:   “I’m sorry – really sorry.  Don’t break us up over this?”

Her eyes still brimmed with anger, but her voice had calmed.   “Peter, I can’t handle it.  I really can’t.”

“Handle what?  I don’t understand.”

“Handle you!.   There’s something about you, something secret inside I can’t get to, and its just doing my head in, like, totally.   You’ve a whole part of your life I have nothing to do with, something you won’t, or can’t share.  Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Melanie has something to do with it.”    He started to protest but she held her fingers up to his lips.   “No, mate- don’t say anything.  I know it’s true.  I know whatever it is kept you from calling me these last two days:  I know that I can’t fight it.  I love you, Peter.   I – love – you; understand?   I mean, really.   But I’d rather back off now, you see?   It hurts too much, otherwise.   I deserve all of you, Petey.  I can’t have that, so I’m gone.  Leave me alone now, yeah?  Let me get my life back.”   Lesley turned and walked away.   As she rounded a corner of the street that led up into the town she called over her shoulder:   “Hey, maybe I should move to fecking Seaborough!”

Peter did not go home.   Instead, uncaring that he should be pounced upon by the menthol-breath man or any of his associates, he did something in the best tradition of all the great romantic novels:  he went for a long walk in the rain.   As he kicked at the reflections of streetlights on the pavement he tried to weigh Vincent’s email with its dire warnings about secrecy against his sense of love and honour towards Lesley, and, of course, Lesley came out on top.   Lesley, he knew, was more important to him, more immediate than any of the surreal events of the last few days.  Despair in her eyes had told him what he must do.    If he did it, he might not have to lose her.  Yet was it fair to embroil her in his haphazard fortunes?   Would she, like Melanie, choose to walk away?   Melanie was missing, though, and he felt certain that it had something to do with her connection with the stones.  She would never really be able to deny the thing she was.  Had the people who shepherded him to Simeon taken her, or was she in the hands of someone else?

Finally, there was Karen, Melanie’s mother.   What would Howard Sullivan do?   There were too many questions, too many people whose lives were turning, unstoppably, around them.   Desperate for some answers Peter returned to his favourite haunt on the Esplanade.

The short summer season was dying, so there were few tourists:  those there were ran with clacking heels between the pinball stations of pub and club, amusement hall and hotel lobby, their voices raised in lyrical protest at the rain.   It was a hard rain, driving in off a distant tide, battering his face with all of Lesley’s scorn and fury.   He paused to lean against the railings for a while, oblivious to his saturated clothes, staring across at the black mass of St. Benedict’s Rock as if to do so might apprise him of its ancient secrets:  but nothing came.  Although gulls wheeled silently as ghosts in and out of the lamplight above him, none perched or seemed inclined to talk in any language but their own quarrelsome tongue.   Their intermittent cries were just seagull insults, nothing more.

The brisk sound of approaching male footsteps drew Peter’s attention.  Two men, heavily-built and obviously not made for speed, had appeared on the Esplanade to his right, coming towards him more quickly than was comfortable for them.   Were they simply holiday-makers eager to get out of the weather?  Peter felt instantly wary.   All at once the wide, featureless expanse of the seafront seemed to harbour a thousand concealing opportunities for those who pursued him to lie in wait.   What was he doing here?   Was he mad?   Only ten hours earlier he had come within an inch of being kidnapped!    He took off, squelching wetly back across the road towards the East Mount and home.  Once among the early evening revellers on the hill, he broke into a run.

The evening meal was an interrogative affair.   His mother:   “Peter, if you’ve heard anything about Melanie, you really should tell us.  Poor Karen is beside herself with worry.”

“Why should I know anything?  Mel hasn’t called me for weeks.”   Then, mischievously,  “Why doesn’t she ask Howard?”

His father, suddenly attentive:    “Howard?  You mean Mr. Sullivan?    What makes you think he would know?”

Peter shrugged.   “He just seems like the kind of blokey who would, that’s all.   I mean, he’s like some heavy Secret Service agent or something, isn’t he?”

Lena Cartwright snorted.   “Just a big soft armchair, darling, that’s what he is.   But he did go straight up to Seaborough to try and do something, I’ll admit.   Poor Karen, she hasn’t heard anything from him all day, either.”  She stood, stretching to reach Peter’s plate.

Peter said with deliberation:   “Why, hasn’t he gone home yet?”

His mother’s face was a foot or so from his own:   “What do you mean, Peter?”

“Well, he was on my train today.  So he’s definitely come back.”

Lena said:  “I spoke to Karen just an hour ago.”

 “I wonder how he got on my train,”  Peter mused;  “I mean, if he was coming back from Seaborough, I should have thought he would have gone through London, wouldn’t he?”

“I think you must have been mistaken.”   His father said, slowly.

Peter waited, allowing his parents time to exchange worried looks.  Should he be doing this?   “No. It was definitely him.  We talked for a minute.  Funny, though.  He didn’t say anything about Mel disappearing.  He told me he went north for a job interview.”   He shrugged, adding brightly:  “D’you suppose he got it?”

There was a pregnant pause.   Bob Cartwright murmured:  “Maybe.   Peter, old chap, where were you this weekend?”

“I told you, Dad.   Went to a party.   Good party, too!  Lots of eats!”

“Then tell me why we, who have known you these many years, don’t believe you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re a bad liar, darling.”  His mother said flatly.   “Where were you tonight?”

“I said where I was.   I went to meet Lesley!  What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”   There was nothing Spanish about the process or religious either, come to that:  it was just the first protest that came into Peter’s head and he was no longer being careful about what he said.   “After I left her, I went for a walk, okay?  Dad, is that okay?”

“Now don’t get angry, dear.”

“You don’t believe me!  You don’t believe anything I say, so what’s the point of asking me questions?    I told you I went to a party; you don’t believe me.   If I tell you I went for a walk because Lesley and I broke up tonight, you won’t believe that, either!   I went for a walk, mum, all right?  A bloody walk!”

“Peter!”    His father’s voice menaced; but Peter met Bob Cartwright’s warning stare with a stare of his own.   Their relationship had passed beyond the point when the father could discipline the child.   The son stood taller and probably stronger now than the self-effacing cleric who had never, in all of his erratic ministry, been a man of authority, within his family or without.  His father’s look emitted worry rather than anger, anyway; it spoke of a man struggling to understand, trying vainly to re-enter the mysterious world of youth from a place too far off.

“I’m sorry you have had a tiff with Lesley;” Bob said gently;   “She’s a sweet girl and you go well together.   Peter, when you’re ready – or when you’re able, I’m not sure which it is, please share the burden you are carrying?   We only want to help?”

Peter sighed.   After all, they had a right to know.   The pursuit would not end and sooner rather than later it would reach their door – a door he knew could not be his for much longer, though he tried to deny the thought.   Not tonight, though.  He couldn’t tell them tonight, and if he did they would not believe him.   His father, a man of God?

“I will, dad.   I promise.”

As he walked out of the room, he heard his mother say: “So there is something!”

Later, in his room, Peter sent an email to Lesley. ‘Dearest Les, I need you too much.  I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.   Please meet me at the Causeway Café?  I’ll be there at 10.’  Then he sent a longer email to Vincent, relating the events of the day, and his fears for Melanie.

 Neither replied.

© 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: Molly Rosalee from Pixabay

Street at Night: Jack Finnegan from Unsplash

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