Cabbages and Kings
Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”
“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said; “Come and take him off my hands, will you? I have to go to work. Oh, and don’t let him in…”
“I’ve found someone.”
Lesley regarded Roderick blearily: “How sweet! But I thought you were a monk?”
“No. Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”
“Come in.” Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm. “You do know what time it is?”
“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”
“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.” Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee “Go away.” Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle. “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”
“I just do. I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find. You have to trust me. And you have to put water in that kettle.”
After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.
“Logical, really. Only one place he could have gone. You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”
Lesley opened her eyes: “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it? You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already! It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”
“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult. We won’t force you to do it.”
“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”
“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose. Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”
“For helping me through – for being right. For being wise…” She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee. Stuff’s in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”
Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs, “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that. Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”
Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white. It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’. It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.
“Hallo, lass!” Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles. “So you’m my cargo, eh?”
Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo? Oh, Cyril, you old romantic! You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”
Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then? You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”
“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!” With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.
“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”
Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter. Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods. Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.
“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,” Cyril said. “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”
Roderick gave a supporting hand. “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”
Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril. Everyone knew him. A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed. His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.
“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick. “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”
The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks. She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves. The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose. There was a pause, then the engine revved and the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.
Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil. An apple dropped on her neck. Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking. Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another. Outraged hooting broke out on one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes. In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.
It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock. If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.
Then – anxiety. The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt. Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.
“Sorry about this.” It was a woman’s voice. “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room. We’ll have it clear in a jiff. You don’t have any oranges in there, do you? I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”
Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges. “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”
“Onions, then? Some greens, maybe? Can I have a look?”
Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter. Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg. She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.
“Don’t you go opening my van!” Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.
“I’m sorry! I only wanted a look!” Charlie’s voice was all innocence. Her face was set in steel.
“’Tis my property. ‘Tis private, right?”
Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes. A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her. She was obviously a professional.
Cyril had joined Charlie at the back. “See? You have got some oranges! What else have you got down behind there?” She made to climb into the display. Cyril was equally resolute. He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.
“I dissent sell from the van, missus,” Cyril said severely. “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”
Charlie’s voice had an edge: “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”
“Twice weekly. What of it?”
“Where? Which houses?”
Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied. “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.” He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down. Charlie’s hand stopped him.
“Now look! I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!” Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down. From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured: from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind. Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van. Backing off gave her great pain. No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.
From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.
“Anything?” Klas asked.
“I couldn’t see anything. The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”
“You could have made it official.”
“We could follow it, too, but no. Low profile, remember? Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more. This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation! He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”
Klas glanced apprehensively skyward. “Do we include seagulls in that?” The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock. “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.” He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”
“Possibly. It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though: the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”
“How should we deal with the van?”
“Wait for it to come back. Then follow it.”
Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen. Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her. They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come. He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his. He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind: saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him. He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.
What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door? Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.
The intruder was near, approaching. Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.
“Hi.” Lesley said.
He could not respond. He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.
She said: “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”
“Yeah.” Peter could hear his own heart beating. It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too. But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.
“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now. I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”
The office window overlooked the River Thames. Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move. Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed. Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window. They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three. Jeremy felt at home among their cushions. Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.
“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?” Jeremy accused his operatives, “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”
Charlie said: “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”
“Not that late! Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie. You lost him. Too casual, way too casual!”
“The rain, the birds…it was dark. Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours. Now he can’t remember it…”
Klas said: “I think I must have read it. It will come back to me…”
“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.
Klas shrugged. “It will. One cannot predict these things, but it will. The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.” he murmured.
“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion. I have never known such a thing.”
Charlie asked: “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt? Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper? Ah! It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”
“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”
“They were really determined, the birds!” Klas mused. “A methodical attack, almost. It was as if they knew…..”
“Is he quite with us?” Piggott asked Charlie crudely. “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”
“They did assist in his escape. Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”
“Oh, very odd!” Jeremy seethed. “Anyway he’s gone. Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.” Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”
“Unlikely. There was a big storm and the tide was running high. No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north. The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”
“And your reasoning?”
“We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?” Charlie said; “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days: only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”
“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?” Klas asked.
“It’s possible.” Charlie nodded. “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it? Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”
“The boy went north, too.” Jeremy said. “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours. That could have put him in Scotland, too. Two separate trips, one shared destination? So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”
“I don’t know!” Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice! Anyway, this is pure conjecture. For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”
Piggott grunted; “Where’s our Howard now?”
“He’s dropped from sight. The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”
“Seriously? We didn’t actually lose them, did we?”
Charlie ignored the sarcasm. “We can’t be everywhere, chief. I had to put local lads on it. It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know, now. Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”
“So what do we do, drop this? Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”
Jeremy Piggott shook his head. “I would. I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed. Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get. With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into. He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic? Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”
“Al Khubar?” Charlie asked.
“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously. “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead. They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.” Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge. “He’s a man with a mission. Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs can reach. Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better. He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”
“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”
“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate: but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway. We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process. And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”
“Ah!” Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted. Very intriguing!”
Jeremy smiled grimly: “Can you imagine? Look, our people are working on this, OK? Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be. For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath, find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”
© 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.
Featured Image: Inigo de La-Maza from Unsplash
River Thames: Kevin Greive on Unsplash