Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Two. Three Buses

Stafford Dricombe often referred to the third floor of the Great House at Boult Wells as his father’s control tower, and certainly its windows commanded the best view the house could afford of the Driscombe estate.  From his position at its big west window he could see across the treetops of Berkley Wood all of five miles to Marney’s Folly, a bland and totally pointless tower a previous Driscombe had erected upon what was then deemed to be the highest point of the estate.  That was two hundred years ago, of course, when follies were the fashion and when the estate was no larger than seven miles across.  Now Driscombe lands covered a much larger spread, mainly in the form of tenant farms.  Their tentacles were long, towards Caleybridge in the South, Bulmouth in the North, Baronchester in the East.

Marney’s Hill was no longer the highest, nor could all the Driscombe property be seen from the top of his folly, for Africa was far from view, Asia even further.  Nor, were all the engines of Driscombe prosperity so visible: diamonds lurked deep beneath the bedrock of a far-off mine, and the oil that filled their pipelines never saw light of day.  Driscombe fortunes were entwined in property, immersed in politics, and bathed by financial markets.  They were only counted by those whose business it was to count – bankers in city offices in the major markets of the world.  Stafford knew nothing of accounting, cared nothing for the business of the Estate.  It was something he had been born into and never saw fit to question.

Today promised to be vexing.  He sighed heavily, looking down on those sunbathed lawns which fronted the House, then a little beyond to the walled area of the pool.  The sun was scarcely affected by breeze in that arena of mosaic stone and blue water. It would be hot.  Jacinta, Stafford’s wife, with two of her friends were stretched out on sunbeds beside the pool.  They were topless, all three, and although distance lent a certain modesty, it was easy to see from this high advantage how the years of over-indulgence had worked upon Jacinta’s figure.  The Honorable Lucy, at just seventeen the newest addition to Jacinta’s privileged circle, was, by comparison, a very model of temptation, and Stafford was tempted.  She had fruits just ripening, delicious to touch; a firm young body her brief yellow bikini pants did little to conceal.  Stafford would want her; Jacinta would know: a little game they played.  Supplying new flavours for him to taste was one of the subtle ways Jacinta kept the fires of her marriage burning; for she knew her own talents well.

“I can’t see clearly, Stafford, as you know,”  Lord St. John Driscombe had approached with his usual stealth.  “Yet I am aware that what is going on down there offends common decency.  I won’t have young women disporting themselves in such a flagrant manner.  Put a stop to it!”

Stafford glanced down at his father’s shrunken form, smiling mildly.  The old man, swathed in a blue silk dressing gown, leant heavily upon a walking cane, a stance made the more unsteady by a tremulous arm.  His tautly bald head was ploughed by the furrows of a frown.

“It is the fashion, father,”  He soothed.  “In private circumstances; I think this is private enough, don’t you?”

“I do not.  Exhibitionism!  Deplorable manners!  Unconscionable!”  Lord St. John snatched a ‘kerchief from his dressing gown pocket to catch the dew that was gathering at the tip of his rather prominent nose.  “Another consequence of your injudicious marriage.  That woman of yours flashes her blasted titties everywhere.  She does not merely dress like a tart, she manages to undress in similar style!”

“Please, Father!”  Stafford murmured,  “You speak of the woman I love.”

“I’m speaking of a blasted docker’s daughter!  A theatrical, for god’s sake!”

“You’ve dispensed with your chair this morning, Father.  Oughtn’t you be seated?”

“Don’t need it!  Never do.  I choose, y’see.  I choose.”

“Yes, Father.”  Stafford spied his father’s wheelchair parked in a corner of the room.  “Shall I fetch it for you?”

“If you must.”

The son brought the father his wheelchair promptly, aware how the ancient man could collapse without warning when the vitriol that bore him up was spent.  This suite of rooms at the top floor of the Great House was St. John Dricombe’s world, an air-conditioned palace he rarely left, even though a special lift stood ready to ferry him down to the outside world.  It was a luxuriously appointed prison, appropriate to his power and wealth, but it was a prison nonetheless.  No sooner was the chair positioned behind him than the old man sank into it with the grateful hiss of a punctured tire.

“I might take a constitutional downstairs later on.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Take a turn on the lawn.”

“Yes Father.”

“Well, I want those hussies out of the way when I do.”  The old man’s tone altered.  “He’s done it again, hasn’t he?”

Satisfied Lord St. John was comfortable, Stafford turned back to the window, not wanting to face the gimlet glare of those beady grey eyes.  “Yes,” He said gravely, his eyes focused now on Marney’s Folly.  “I’m afraid he has.”

“Can we contain it?”

“Of course.  We must, mustn’t we?  There’s a little more fuss, this time – third in a row, that sort of thing.  The press loves stuff like that.  I imagine it will find a space in the nationals, but it will all die down.”

“Stafford?”

“Yes, Father.”

“This has to stop.  This has to be the last, d’ye understand?”

Stafford’s sigh had the weight of the world upon it.  “Yes, I do understand.  If you could just…”

“We’ve been through all that.  You know what I think.”

“Yes, I do.”

“That’ll be all, then.  Get the kitchen to send up my breakfast, will you?”

The son departed, leaving the father to the gaoler of his years.  Free of the yoke of family, Stafford wasted no time.  In his rooms, he donned a pair of swim trunks inappropriate to his girth and age, threw a bathrobe and a towel over his shoulders, and padded out across the lawns towards the pool.

From his west window, Lord St. John Driscombe watched.  His eyes may have been too dim to see detail, his ears too muffled by years to hear, but he knew.  Maybe he remembered the days of his own youth, when he, in his turn, had been just as ready as Stafford to trade upon his position and wealth.  He could not blame his son, but he could foresee danger.  Confined within the high stockade of his family’s prosperity, Stafford suffered from none of the insecurities his father had experienced in his own time, which left him vulnerable to the moral gauntlets society might force him to run, and could cripple even one as rich as he.

Soft memories came back, little wisps of reminiscence that seemed to taunt him more and more with the years, and regrets came in shades of fragrant rose from that enchanted land of the past.

Lord St. John Driscombe gazed out over his verdant lands as he drifted towards sleep.

“Ah, dear Antoine!”  He murmured.

#

For  Patrick Hallcroft, there was no rest.  He had spent the quiet hours awake when the world was sleeping, staring into the shadows.  Where was Karen now?

In his pain he would have rejoiced, almost, if he had known she was safely asleep somewhere, even if that meant he would never see her again.  Another’s bed, perhaps?  No, he could not, would not ever, believe her to be so fickle.  Yet the other thoughts – the alternatives – were too terrible; he could not allow them to intrude in the sacred space of hope he kept alive in his heart, because in his heart he knew the critical hours were already past.   Three days:  it had been three days.   No-one had seen or heard of Karen for three days.

Patrick rose and breakfasted early with no credible plans.  What should he do?  A little after eight the telephone’s brayed and he raced to answer it, praying for news.

“Tarquin Leathers.”

“Who?”

“Let’s try this another way.  To whom do I have the honour?”

“I’m Patrick Hallcroft.”

“Great!  Right man!  Tarquin Leathers, darling –Sunday Record.  You might have read my stuff?”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“What price a by-line, eh?  Never mind, Patrick.  I’m on my way to see you, about your jilted lover story?”

The Press!   Patrick stirred his brain into action; “Yes, it’s more of a missing person story, really..”

“Nah.  Nobody reads them.  Listen, I’m coming from London, I’ll be a couple more hours.  You’ll be at home, won’t you, Patrick?”

“I will!”

With his head still trying to catch up, Patrick replaced the receiver, hearing Gabrielle descend the stairs behind him.  “Who was that?”

“The Sunday Record.  They’re coming to see me.”

“Ugh!  Ghastly rag!  But still, Patsy; national ‘paper, no publicity’s bad publicity, and all that?  I’m off, so I’ll miss them, I’m afraid.  Oh, and Mummy’s out too.  She’s trying to prise Sprog into another school.  This one’s nearly as far as Harterport – I ask you!  But still, you’ll have Mrs. B. for company, won’t you?”

Radley Court had lapsed into its comfortable morning silence when, much later, Patrick’s hearing picked up the crunch of wheels as a heavy car swung around in front of the house.  He caught a glimpse of a black Jaguar as it passed his window, so he was downstairs in time to greet the car’s occupant.

“Mr. Hallcroft?  Detective Sergeant Ames.  I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes?”  Patrick registered his surprise.  “Were you expecting someone else?”

Ames was comfortably aware of the task his superior officer had presented to him in a three-in-the-morning telephone call.  Someone had tipped off a hawk from the national press that a routine missing persons enquiry was being stonewalled.  His Chief Inspector had been quite specific.

“I’m putting you in charge of this one, Charlie. I want one of your best snow-jobs, please.  We don’t want to see it grow more than a couple of column inches.”

Professionally, Ames was up for promotion in June, so being slam-dunked into a case like this one, which could expose him to criticism from his superiors, represented a minefield; on the other hand, handled well, the result could be one of those unwritten portions of his CV which would make the appointing officers nudge each other confidentially and smile.  He was confident; the Hallcroft-Smythe boy seemed a decent, outspoken sort of chap – he fell into the easily placated, reasonable bracket of middle-class complainants who could be nudged off the circuit with a chrome bumper smile and a few well-placed cautions. These were the issues in Ames’s thoughts as he was shown into the refectory at Radley Court.  It was nine-thirty a.m.

“Thank you for seeing me so early, Mr Hallcroft.  This is about the alleged disappearance of  Miss Karen Eversley.”

Patrick sat the gruff-faced man at the table, offered him coffee, which was refused, then took a chair facing him.  Ames thumbed through a thin file he had managed to scoop together on a dawn raid at Caleybridge Police Station, wondering.  Apparently the boy’s mother had been a brief – maybe that was his only leverage.  Well, okay, maybe. Whose was the tip-off?  Did he have other connections?

“Your girlfriend’s mother is satisfied her daughter’s absence is nothing more than a decision to move away.  She has a letter that seems to bear that out, and she is confident it is genuine.”

“I don’t think it is.”

“I’ve just been to visit the lady.  She’s quite emphatic.  I’ve read the letter.  You’ve seen it, I imagine?”

“Yes.”

“Photocopied it?”

“I returned the original.  I have a copy here, somewhere. Karen borrowed one of my father’s cars to get away – she hot-wired it…”

“Very resourceful.  It doesn’t mean she was running away from anyone; merely that she wanted to get back to town and a taxi wasn’t immediately available.  Oh yes, someone called for a taxi, we’ve checked.”

“The car was damaged in a way that suggested it was being attacked.    She took nothing – absolutely nothing – with her.  Not so much as a toothbrush.  Believe me, she ran.”

Ames sighed.  Sitting back on the chair, he gave every appearance of considering his next words.  “So, Patrick:  on the one hand we have this letter, which Miss Eversley’s mother asserts  is genuine and states categorically that she left of her own free will; on the other, your insistence that she was attacked.  But then, you told us her car was at this place…what’s it called…Boulter’s Green.  It wasn’t, was it?”

“Yes, it was.  It has gone now:  Anyone who got hold of Karen would have access to the car keys, presumably.”

“Or she simply drove away again?”  Ames drummed the fingers of his left hand on the table.  It was a bad habit.  His wife frequently expressed her irritation when he did it and his colleagues liked to mimic him for it.  If Patrick had noticed it though, he gave no sign.  He waited patiently for the sergeant’s next remark.

“Must be useful to you, having a brief as a family member – she’d be able to advise you.”  Charlie Ames leaned forward, “If I were her I’d be advising you to be careful, Mr Hallcroft.  The police are very accommodating, and as far as I can see we have followed all the correct procedures.  There’s no justification for the allegations you seem to be making.”

“A uniformed officer put Karen – Miss Eversley –at risk by his actions.  I have been assaulted and no-one has even asked me for a statement. Now, you’re refusing to take this matter seriously.  Listen;”  Patrick was rising to his task  “Karen Eversley’s disappearance isn’t the first to be associated with Boulter’s Green; two other young people have vanished recently.  She was investigating those disappearances when she was taken.  Something’s wrong here, you must see that!”

“I do not see anything of the kind.  That’s a very serious accusation.  If you’re alleging that an abduction of some sort has taken place with the complicity of the local force…”

“I’m not saying who is directly implicated, I’m simply telling you something is wrong.  Three disappearances!  Somebody should be taking an interest, at least, surely?”

“These other two disappearances; were they reported?  There’s no evidence of it here.  And is this place some kind of catalyst?  I only have your word for that.  What real evidence I have suggests Miss Eversley left of her accord.  I have nothing, apart from some damage to a car which you attribute to an attempted assault, to say otherwise.”

“Her possessions?  Where are they?  Her apartment’s been stripped!  Her friends?  No-one has heard from her.”

“Circumstantial at best.”  Ames laid the file on the table, his palms on the file.  “There’s nothing here, Mr Hallcroft; nothing.  As far as I can see the local boys have done more than enough to check and re-check your story.  You might have had a robbery, that I concede, but as to Miss Eversley’s involvement…”

“So you’re determined to do nothing.”

“I, Mr Hallcroft?  I’m an experienced copper, looking at a very sad young man whose girlfriend has moved away without telling him.  I feel sorry for you, I really do.  But I am also looking at a complainant without any case to bring, a complainant who copied a personal letter without the recipient’s permission, someone whose behaviour has been generally disruptive and who is seeking the ear of the national press…”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You will be contacted very shortly by a journalist.  I want you to be aware of your position, Mr Hallcroft!  Discuss it with your mother, if you will.  You are making unsubstantiated allegations against the police, and the police don’t take kindly to being pilloried by the press when they have no case to answer.  I’m advising you to think before you say anything, and I’m warning you that you face action if you persist in this – criminal prosecution, damages…have a think about that, will you?”  Ames rose to leave.  “Thank you.  I’ll find my own way out.”

A beneficent sun had reached the summit of its climb before more gravel was compressed, this time by a small but exciting automobile with several Italian references.  The figure that emerged from it did not look Italian at all.

Tarquin Leathers was a large man with a great deal of good living encompassed by his red waistcoat.  The thicket of unnaturally black hair that coated his head was forced into a quick decision when he raised his hat in greeting as to whether it should remain with its host or follow the chapeau.

“Mr Hallcroft!   What a journey!  My dear, the traffic! How are you?  Can we talk?”

“Mr Leathers.”  Patrick said.  “I’ve been told not to talk to you,” There had been sufficient time for him to ruminate upon D.S. Ames’s visit, “but I will, anyway.  Come in – can I get you coffee, or something?”

In the breakfast room once again, Patrick reiterated his story, bringing in D.S. Ames’s comments at the end.  “I’ve been threatened by the police twice now.”

“It’s good!  It’s very good!  It means they’ve something to hide!  I like the story of your centre-temps with the man-ogre by the river, darling.  Describe him for me again, will you?  Long, unkempt hair, aquiline nose, gorgeous toothy snarl?  Must be careful – mustn’t go too Transylvanian, must we?  Think now – did he have any deformities?”

Patrick, his story fully told and copiously noted, watched the newspaper man leave in his little car, understanding that Bridget Eversley would be his next port of call.

“That’s if you can get anything out of her.”  He warned.

“Oh, my darling man, you have no idea!  As soon as she knows I’m press, she’ll sing like a tweety-bird!”

Reflecting that he had not eaten, Patrick headed to the kitchen, where he made himself a sandwich and repeated his morning’s interviews in his mind, trying to elicit any new knowledge they had to offer him.  He knew already, did he not, that the police were intent upon obstructing any but the sketchiest inquiries into Karen’s absence?  Yet it had taken Tarquin Leathers to point out the significance of D.S. Ames’s arrival on the scene.

“A detective sergeant from ‘Division’, my dear chap.  A ‘fixer’, I shouldn’t wonder.  You should be ecstatic!.  Your stirrings have caused ripples in the big pond!”

For himself, Patrick was more inclined to believe that after an hour of waiting, two buses had appeared at once.  His days of persistence were yielding a minor hailstorm of results – something over which he could exert very little control.  However, something had disturbed that bigger pond, and Leathers had been less than forthcoming concerning his sources.  Enthusiastic about the publicity, Patrick had been too scared of pressing for that information.  Nevertheless, somebody had touched a wire.  Who was it?  Tim Birchinall?

“Anybody home?”

The voice from the hall had a slight country lilt.

“I’m looking for Mr. Patrick Hallcroft.”  The intruder said.  “Have I found him?”

Emerging from the kitchen, Patrick frowned.  “Did anyone invite you in?  Who are you, please?  What do you want?”

The man did not reply at first.  He was stocky, square in build, with a slightly florid complexion not enhanced by his choice of dark colours; black shirt open at the neck, chestnut sports coat and lovat cord slacks concertinaed over brown brogues.  He looked, if anything, more awkward than his style statement.

“I didn’t want to wait outdoors,”  He said;  “Too conspic’u’s.  Dunno what I wants, really.  Somethin’ to say.”

“You’d better come through to the kitchen, then.”  Patrick regarded the man warily,  “Should I know your name?”

The question, simple as it was, did nothing to improve the man’s confidence. “Dunno as I should tell you that, neither, but I s’pose…”

“Suppose?”  Patrick was already back in the kitchen.  His visitor followed him in.

“Yes.  I’m not in uniform, see?”

“Oh, you’re a policeman!  I feel so special!  You’re my second policeman of the day!  Coffee, sandwich?  Have a sandwich!  I’ve got beef, or ham?”

At the news that others had gone before the man blenched visibly. “Well, I’m no-one, really.  Just a constable, see. I’m off duty.  I’m a friend of Tim’s.  I’m Ray Flynn.”

 

© 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

 

 

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Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nineteen. A worm

The night had been merciful to Patrick.  Ravaged by all the tensions of the day and his imaginings (what danger might Karen be in, or the unthinkable – was it already too late?)  he had wanted to keep going; to keep up his search for her.  Even after he abandoned his vigil in Nowhere Lane his desperation drove him on, standing shaking and soaked to his skin before the night desk at Caleybridge Police Station, where the desk sergeant was made to listen to his account of events before, not unkindly, telling him to go home. Midnight was close before he drew the Daimler to a shuddering halt in the drive of Radley Court and his family were able to step in and advise – no, insist – he rest.

“Bath and bed for you, young man!”  Gwendoline instructed him in a tone she normally reserved for Amanda.

“It makes sense, Patsy dear,” Gabrielle soothed.  “There’s nothing to be achieved now, and you wouldn’t be a lot of use to Karen in this state.  Get some sleep.”

“You’re making a fool of yourself, boy,”  Jackson told him; though his tone was less censorious than before.  As he watched his son labouring up the big stairway there were etch-lines of concern on his normally placid features.

So Patrick acquiesced, and of course sleep came, the moment he laid his head on the pillow.  Sleep; dreamless, deep, and long.  It was near ten the next morning when he woke.

“Let me get this straight.”  The detective constable looked up from his report pad.  “You’re trying to tell me this Miss Eversley has been abducted – is that what you’re saying?”

Patrick nodded emphatically.  He had waited at the police station for nearly an hour to gain an interview with a member of CID.  He wasn’t about to see it wasted.  “How many times do I have to repeat myself?  She was following up an investigation.  The investigation took her to the old ruins at Boulter’s Green.  I followed her there.  She walked from her car to the ruins, and she did not walk back.  I waited for hours but she didn’t return.”

“You’re certain of this, are you?  Did you see anyone – anyone at all – during the time you spent there; any other persons acting suspiciously, any activity of any kind?”

“No, I didn’t.  I stayed until long after dark.”  Patrick paused, “No, wait – that isn’t quite true.  When I was down by the river there was someone, a woman, looking out of one of the windows of the Driscombe place.  Anyone in that house would have a clear view of Boulter’s Green, wouldn’t they?  Couldn’t we ask them?”

The detective frowned.  “I’m afraid we won’t be disturbing Lord Driscombe unless we have a lot more to go on, young man.  He is a Peer of the Realm, I’d advise you not to forget that.  Now, this was yesterday afternoon, after your father reported the theft of a vehicle.  You found that vehicle, didn’t you?”

“Yes; yes I did.”  Patrick felt that his concerns were being somehow turned against him.  “But yesterday morning we told your officer – my Dad told him – Karen had been abducted.  It wasn’t a theft.”

“’Karen’ would be Miss Eversley, yes?   You recovered your father’s car from outside her apartment.  Let me see, what were your words last night?”  The policeman studied the report in front of him.  “Ah, yes.  ‘She was being chased.  He was after her’.  Any idea who was after her?”

“No, I don’t know his name.  But he was large enough and strong enough to frighten her.  I had to defend her from him once; I reported it, and he’s been stalking her ever since, so I know the threat was real.”

“You certainly made a report, Mr Hallcroft.  We investigated that.  We found no evidence of an assault having taken place, or any witnesses who could describe this person.  A tall man with long hair and a leather overcoat – isn’t that your description?  A little theatrical, don’t you think?”

“Don’t believe me, if you choose not to. My sister and her boyfriend had to deal with him, they’ll tell you.  Karen also reported to you she was being followed, after he assaulted her.”

“True, true.  You might say in the few days of your acquaintanceship with Miss Eversley the pair of you drew quite a bit of police attention.”

“That’s so unfair!  I’ve known Karen longer than ‘a few days’.”  Patrick wished he had brought his mother to this interview.  “Look, it’s obvious Karen had no intention of stealing anything: my father’s car was parked on the street.  She’d left it there and swapped to her own car, once she’d got away.”

“Got away?  So she wasn’t abducted, was she?  In fact, there’s no evidence she didn’t simply ‘borrow’ your father’s vehicle to get back to town.   You see, Mr. er..”  The detective constable glanced up at Patrick with pedagogic disdain:  “Mr Woodcroft, Miss Eversley wasn’t exactly short of enemies, was she?  In her line of work, it’s entirely possible a disgruntled client might threaten violence against her, but they wouldn’t be interested in abducting her. If someone broke into your house, as appears to be the case and they were chasing her, she certainly got away; as to where she went after that, well, following your reasoning, somewhere out of reach, don’t you think?”

Patrick firmly refuted the policeman’s explanation.  “No constable, I’m reporting her missing.  I believe she may be in danger.  I’m asking you to follow that up.”

“You’re sure she’s not at home, or her place of business?”

“Certain.  I checked both.  Why?”

The constable studied his pad for a moment or two.  He pursed his lips.  “Well, we might as well get this out of the way.  You see, Mr Hallcroft, I’m having a little bit of trouble with this story of yours.”

Patrick stared.  “Why?”

“Last night you came in here unloading all this and you seemed, if the night-duty officer’s account is anything to go by, a little bit off-balance.  Nevertheless, we did send a car out to this lane you spoke of, and our constable investigated it thoroughly.  He walked the route you described to the ruins and he looked around as well as he could by torchlight.  He saw nothing unusual.”

“No, nor did I; that’s the point!  But her car is parked there…”

“That’s the thing Mr Hallcroft.  It isn’t.”

“What?”

“There was no sign of a car.  Nothing.”

Patrick regarded the detective constable blankly.  “It was there, and it was locked.  I don’t believe you.”

“To be honest, it’s immaterial whether you believe me or not.  We haven’t found the vehicle.  So as far as we’re concerned, if Miss Eversley is missing at all, the most likely explanation is that she has simply gone away for a few days.  She is an adult, and no-one from her family has reported her missing.  We might pursue her for theft and any part she played in the damage to your father’s property, but otherwise the police can’t be involved.  I’m sorry.”

 

Ah, we are only human, are we not?  Patrick’s conviction was total:  Karen already held an unassailable place in his heart.  She was his chosen; the one he would spend a lifetime beside if he could.  And only those who have loved and lost could ever understand his agony of fear for her.  Yet it would be wrong to assume that other counsels could not plant a tiny worm where such pure flowers grew.  Driving through the town after his visit to Caleybridge Police Station the detective’s explanation of the previous day’s events picked at the locks of his devotion.  He was not a fool.  In his imagination, he extrapolated upon their interview.

“Tell me, sir, how long have you known Miss Eversley?”

“A few weeks.”

“Really?  As long as that.  Were you intimate with her?”

“Well, yes.”

“Well yes.  And what do you know about Miss Eversley’s past?”

“She had a sister.”

Slowly, as if writing this down:  “She – had – a – sister.  What was her sister’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did Miss Eversley go to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has she any close friends?”

“I don’t know.”

 I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Now, when it counted, he was discovering how little he did know about the woman who had entered his life.  He had to believe what the policeman had told him.  The car had been removed.  After he left could Karen have returned in the night and driven away from that muddied lane?  If so, where?  Where would Karen, feeling afraid, seek shelter?  And if she had found refuge, why had she not called to tell him she was safe?  There was, of course, an alternative answer he did not want to contemplate; that she had winged her little car up the A38, so by now she could be with Tim Birchinall in London.  Birchinall, his rival!  He baulked at the thought, not really believing she could do that to him so coldly, but knowing she was in fear of her big, aggressive Mr Nasty, and that might be enough to make a renewed relationship with a rugby playing policeman a temptation she couldn’t resist.

Only Karen’s mother was at home when he pressed the doorbell that afternoon.  A matronly figure whose apron was wrapped about her by her personality, she greeted him effusively.

“So you’d be the young man our Karen’s been seeing?  Come in, dearie, come in!  You’ll catch your death out there!”

If Patrick had sought to raise concern in Bridget Eversley, though, he was to be disappointed.  She sympathized with his agony, but not the reasons for his concern.  When he told her how worried he was for her daughter, Bridget thought he was over-reacting.

“A dark man?  No, she hasn’t told me about any dark men, dearie.  You shouldn’t worry about Karen, you know, she’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one; gets it from her sister Suzanne.  She knows how to look after herself.  She’s probably gone off on one of those Spiritualist retreats – she does, from time to time.”

Patrick was puzzled.  “Spiritualist?”

“Oh yes, dearie, she’s very much took up with that.  You didn’t know?  There’s monthly meetings she goes to; some woman at the Gaiety, can’t think of her name.  She took her dad last time.  Kept him quiet for a few days after, I can tell you.  Then again, if business has been a bit slow lately she might have gone to one of her friends, I suppose.  She does that sometimes, too.”

Patrick pressed her; did she know where he might find any of Karen’s friends?

“There’s one, Bea I think her name is, but I can’t say where she lives. I met her once, it was at the County Show.  Nice girl; dark, sort of flashy, but nice.”

When they put their heads together, Patrick and Bridget, they discovered their knowledge of Karen’s life and habits amounted to surprisingly little.  “She’s an independent minx.  If she’s lit off for a while, I shouldn’t be surprised, nor should you.  She’ll be back when she’s missing her Sunday dinner.”

#

The circumstances were not ideal for a first meeting with one of Karen’s parents, Patrick told himself, but at least he had learned something more about their enigmatic daughter,   Spiritualism!   He found the very thought of Karen attending a spiritualist meeting disturbing; it was inconsistent with the image he had built of her: it did not fit.  Nor would her mother’s description of Karen – ‘She’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one’ – comply with his; the woman in his heart was gently loyal, grounded and dependable, the woman in his head was subtly altered now.  He could not avoid thinking about that.

Exhausted by small doubts Patrick was glad enough to break from his search for a brief while, and Jacqui, still abed at the hospital, was at least as glad of his visit.  She smiled delightedly when he walked in.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes!”  She crowed.  “Where did you go yesterday?””

Despite the turban of bandages around Jacqui’s head and the brace that kept her from moving her neck, her facial features had regained their refinement, so her obvious pleasure at seeing Pat made her look radiant.

“Doesn’t anyone else visit you?”  He asked.

Jacqui pouted.  “I told you once, but you probably didn’t listen properly.  My mum and dad live in Australia now, and when they went they took my brother Ade with them.  Not that Ade would have been a dutiful relative when it came to things like visiting.  He used to have trouble remembering where the door was, most of the time.  Still, our loss of a drug addict is Australia’s gain.  Aunt Vi came to see me this morning.  She thinks I’m too thin.  Do you think I’m too thin?”

Patrick said he thought she was just perfect, and they chatted on happily for a while; touching upon subjects like hospital food, beds, and matrons.

“The night matron on this ward’s a killer!  I swear she creeps around the beds in the early hours administering lethal doses to anyone who dares demand a bedpan.  They clear out the bodies in the morning.  Anyway, you haven’t told me yet.”

“Told you what?”

“Where you went yesterday.  How’s your little Miss Marlowe?”

So Patrick told her – about the large man who had been stalking Karen, about the connection between two dilapidated buildings on a regional map and a case she had been working on, and about her disappearance.

“My god, Pat, this is horrible!  Poor Karen!  Where can she have gone, I wonder?”

“I’m worried out of my wits.  I wonder if she might have gone back to Tim, you know?  London’s a good distance away, and he’s a copper, after all.”

Jacqui placed a comforting hand on Patrick’s arm.  “Scared you might lose her?  What, gone back to the rugby-playing lump, after having tasted you?  Don’t be silly!  I met – what was his name – Tim, once.  Dull as ditchwater, darling!  No contest!  You think they’re after you, too, don’t you?”

“I was warned off,”  Patrick said.  “Maybe I should have taken notice, and you wouldn’t be in here.”

“Really now?  You think my attacker mistook me for you?  Pat – do you?”

“Maybe: just maybe.”

“Wonderful!”  Jacqui groaned.  “Dear old Jacqui, getting in the line of fire, as usual.”

“Don’t say that.  I had no idea…”

“I know, Pat, I know.  Let me see, if she’s gone to ground somewhere, where could that be?  You’ve tried everything – parents, friends…?”

“That’s the thing.  She seems to have had only one best friend.  Someone called Bea?  I have to trace her.”

“Bea Ferguson?  Oh, I might be able to help you there.  See if you can find me a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll write the address down for you.  She had loads of friends, though, Pat:  loads!”

The rain had ceased before Patrick left the hospital, prompting him to lower the top on his car and driver faster than he should, relishing the fresh wind in his face as if it might blow any trace of mistrust from his heart.  It was no distance to Caleforth, the village where the young Fergusons had made their home.  Theirs was a small red door in a street of little cottages clustered together in terraced solidarity.

“Who are you looking for, dear?”  The next door was white and open.  An elderly head was peeping through it.  “They’re both at work.  They’ll be back about six o’clock, I expect.  Shall I tell them you called?”

#

At first, she had thought the colours flashing through her head would never clear, the pain of the blow would never ease:  which was why, perhaps, she kept her eyes closed against the world.  That was why?  No, fear was why.

Behind closed eyes she was safe:  the tall man would be unsure of her condition, giving her some time to assess.  She had no clue where she was, other than the detail of her immediate surroundings, a bare white room with the bed she lay upon, an upright chair and a stout wooden door.  There were no windows: the only illumination came from a strip light on the stale white ceiling.  All this she had seen before the big man’s hand sent her back into her nightmare.

He had gone, she was fairly certain.  Her screaming seemed to concern him; had he been afraid someone would hear?  She believed she was alone and the door was closed.  If she could be sure, absolutely sure of that, she might chance opening her eyes, but lacked the courage to put it to the test.  Better to feign unconsciousness or sleep.

She had slept, at some time.  She was stretched out upon the bed, and before she was hit she had been sitting up.  Gabrielle’s marl sweater and Lee Cooper jeans had been stripped from her body: In their stead, she seemed to be dressed in some form of shift.  Someone – she could only assume it to have been that tall grey vulture of a man – had undressed her, and this induced a shudder of loathing she could not suppress.

“You’re awake then.”  The voice was dull, toneless.  Not the voice of the grey man.

Reluctantly, because her head was still buzzing, she blinked her eyes open.  He was sitting on the upright chair, watching her.  She remembered.  “You’re Joshua.”  She said.  Her jaw was bruised, her mouth difficult to move.

“You can call me that if you like.  It’s of no consequence.”

She attempted an embittered smile as she recollected the phrase.  “Was it you put me in these clothes?”

“Yes.  It’s how he wants.  Oh, and don’t worry yourself.  I left your underclothes alone – and I’m a nurse, by the way.  I’m qualified.”

“Should that console me?  I seem to remember you pretending embarrassment at the sight of my legs, not long ago.  But here you are, in the end, just another dirty little pervert.”

Joshua grinned.  “Ah’m a good actor, aren’t I, lass?”

Her mouth wouldn’t cooperate because her lips were swollen.  She was drooling, and the drool was blood.  “And who is ‘he’?  The lunatic who hit me – who’s that, Joshua?  Are you his keeper?  He belongs in a zoo, doesn’t he?”

“His name is Edgar.  I’d worry about Edgar, if I were in your place.  He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get you, and he’s not likely to waste his opportunities now he’s succeeded.”

She pulled herself erect, sending a thunderflash of pain rocketing through her neck and head.  When the red mist cleared she could look down at herself.  “A white shift.  Very clinical.”

“He likes white, does Edgar.”

Though every move brought a new flush of pain, she could certainly move.  Nothing was wrenched, or broken.  “What does Edgar want with me?”  It was a foolish question really.  The answer, though, was unexpected.

“He’s in love with you.”

What?

“Alright, he’s obsessed with you, if you like.  Whatever you want to call it, he thinks of it as love.  He believes, for the minute, that he loves you.  A bit like a child loves a toy, you know?  Until he gets tired of it and breaks it.”

“Jesus God!”  Ignoring the warning pain in her head Karen leapt to her feet, made the two strides to the door.  She had the advantage of surprise and she used it, throwing the door open, launching herself through it into she knew not what, only hoping there was some magic path leading back to the light.  But beyond the door was a corridor, a bare, dim space, lit by another fluorescent strip screwed to another low ceiling.  There were steps leading upward not more than a few paces away.  She raced for them, only to find they ended in a hatch that was secured by heavy bolts.  When she swung back again Joshua was standing in the middle of the corridor, smiling benignly.

“There’s no way out, I’m afraid.  No way at all.”

 

© 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

 

 

Tarpington’s Grass

 

“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little book and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “No details.  I mean, how did it move?  Where did it move?  For what reason did it move?”

“It was an event.  It didn’t need a reason.”  Stated Vicki Blomquist with finality, as though her explanation was beyond question.  She tried to find the page Peregrine had closed upon, unaware she was turning to the wrong end of the book.  “I presume that was his last entry?”

“Event, event!”  Marcus Batt cried impatiently.  “It can’t just be dismissed as ‘an event’.  Tarpington has disappeared – there must be more to it than that.  Why was he awake at half-past-three?  How could he see if the bin moved – in the darkness?”

“Perhaps he heard it?”  Peregrine craned his neck to see out through the kitchen window.  Three plastic wheelie bins, recycling, general waste and garden waste, were sitting beside the path in an orderly row.  “They don’t look as if they’ve moved at all.”  He said.   “What’s Chipperby doing out there?”

“Investigating probably,”  Marcus responded with an attempt at irony.  “Chipperby’s always investigating.”

Peregrine frowned.  “Isn’t that why we came?”

“No, it most certainly is not.”  Vicki had taken up a stance in the middle of Tarpington’s kitchen with her hands in a gesture of supplication, her eyes raised towards the ceiling.  “Oh Mighty Ones, hear us!  We await you!  Show us your beneficence we beg you, and allow us to extend to you our humble welcome!  Ah, each day brings you nearer,   I feel it; I feel it! Peregrine – can’t you feel it?”

“She’s gone off on one again,”  Marcus said.  “She’s beginning to twitch.”

“He could be on holiday?”  Peregrine suggested.  “No, scrub round that.  Tarpington never goes on holiday.”

Outside in the passage, Saul Chipperby was seeking clues to substantiate his friend Donald Tarpington’s cryptic final note.   A member of the ‘Lallybridge Alien Life Society’ or LALS for several years, he sometimes found their collective company a little overwhelming; but that was not to say he disbelieved in their mission; oh, no.  Lallybridge was a hub for alien activity, Saul was convinced of that.  Hadn’t he seen those mysterious silver discs in the eastern sky sunset after sunset, heard the strange hum that persisted behind the moan of a north wind, the creak of the trees in the birch wood on the night when the blue light shone from behind St. Wilfrid’s Hill?

Donald Tarpington had gone – abducted, without a doubt.  Like seventeen-year-old Shona Trott from the Post Office and Glen Tebbit, the butcher’s boy.  They had been returned, fortunately.  They were found together in Margate six months later with no memory of their miraculous experience.  And Shona was carrying what would inevitably be an alien child.  But Donald Tarpington, he was a member of LALS. His abduction could only mean the visitors were ready to make contact at last!

Saul wasn’t sure what evidence of Donald’s abduction there might be.  When the Society met on the first Tuesday of each month, signs of alien activity were freely discussed, and scorched circles generated by great heat from landing craft featured highly in those discussions, but when it came to specifics – size and so on – no-one had actually seen one.  Nevertheless, scorch marks on the concrete could not be discounted, in Saul’s opinion, any more than signs of a struggle, or a pungent alien type smell.  There was a pungent smell certainly, but it emanated from the three neatly aligned wheelie bins.  He approached them cautiously, opening them one by one; first the blue recycling bin, which was half-full, then the general waste bin which was black and very full, and then the green garden waste bin…

“Don’t tell them I’m here.”

The creature was a caterpillar, wasn’t it?  Except that it had limbs – or possibly tendrils, it was difficult to tell.  It was certainly very green, as a mallard drake’s head is green, and it spoke:  well, it sort of spoke, because its words entered Saul’s head by means other than his ears.

“I won’t,” said Saul, astonished at his lack of astonishment.  The creature’s eyes were large, dreamy and the clear blue crystal of a mountain lake.

“Can you get me food?  I’m hungry.”  The creature’s thoughts read.  “I simply love these little short things, but I seem to have eaten nearly all of them.  They taste delicious.  What are they?”

“Grass cuttings.”  Said Saul.

“What on earth is Chipperby doing?”  Peregrine demanded, watching his LALS colleague passing back and forth beyond the rear window of Tarpington’s lounge, into which room the quorum had adjourned and within which they were helping their absent host by downsizing his decanter of vintage port.

Peregrine opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing, Chipperby?”

“Mowing the lawn,”  Saul replied.

“Good lord, why?”

“It needed to be cut.”

“Did you check out the garden waste bin?”

“Where do you think I’m emptying the grass box?”  Snapped Saul.

Vicki Blomquist’s ‘Event Temple’ took a further half hour and two more generous measures of port to complete, during which time Marcus and Peregrine prowled around their erstwhile friend’s home, ostensibly looking for anything which might help them understand the method of his abduction, while allowing their focus to constantly stray into criticism of his choice of underwear or his loudly coloured ties.  Their efforts were curtailed by Vicki’s loud proclamation:  “Griselda’s been abducted too!”

The assembled company were jointly rendered aghast.  Griselda Burdock, a member of LALS like themselves, had been prevented from joining their investigations at Tarpington’s house by a need to visit Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were expecting to join her for a post-abduction session at the Skinner’s Arms later that evening.

“Her aunt’s texted me three times,” Vicki told them.  “Griselda returned from shopping, it seems, without ever re-entering the house.  “The bags of shopping were abandoned, their contents scattered on the path by the side gate.  That was three hours ago!”

“Did her garden waste bin move?”  Saul enquired, with what he hoped would sound like a thin veneer of sarcasm.

“I think we’d better go and check this out.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “It’s only three streets away.”

“Yes,”  Saul agreed.  “I’ll come back here later and clear up.”

“This must be reported,”  Peregrine said.  “It’s a major news story, at least!”

Saul, Vicki and Marcus greeted Peregrine’s enthusiasm with sad, downcast eyes.  The people at the local paper would, as usual, laugh and offer unkind suggestions as to the real reasons for their colleagues’ absence, and if they were lucky enough to avoid a charge of wasting police time, the reactions of the local constabulary would run along similar lines.  The LALS reputation for extravagant claims of alien invasion was well established in Lallybridge.

 

“Where are you going with that wheelie bin?”  Miles Purvis called across the road as Saul Chipperby rumbled past.  “It looks heavy!”

“I’m taking it up to the Tarpington place,”  Saul responded.  “It’s Griselda Burdock’s.  While she’s away I’m getting both bins emptied from Tarpington’s house. It’s easier!”

“I suppose,”  Miles said doubtfully, trying to follow Saul’s logic.  “By the way, has Chipperby Lawn Services got a slot free to cut my back garden this weekend?  Great idea for a company, that.”

“I’ll maybe have some space on Sunday.  I’ll give you a call.”

#

Saul was not unaccustomed to the odour of fermenting grass, although its smell was the more malodorous for being confined within the walls of Tarpington’s living room.  Wherever he looked there was grass – grass in bags, grass in boxes, grass in basins, grass in bottles.  He wondered what Tarpington would make of it if he returned unexpectedly from the holiday Saul still darkly suspected might be the cause of his absence.

“Circumstances dictate cases.  I wouldn’t object in the slightest.”  It was the familiarity of the voice in his head that made Saul jump.  He shot a glance at the two creatures, one dark green, the other dark blue but remarkably similar in every other respect, that lay entwined comfortably on Tarpington’s brown leather corner unit.  Two pairs of dreaming eyes returned his look.

“Donald?”  Saul frowned.  This didn’t make sense.

“Of course, dear chap.  Who else would I be?”  The dark green creature’s response filled his mind.

“And you can address me as Griselda,”  ‘Donald’s dark blue companion’s ‘voice’ was equally familiar.  “Although we aren’t, actually.”

“I don’t understand.  You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald.”  Saul said.   “You actually look more like, well, caterpillars, I suppose.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“Caterpillars.”  Blue Griselda exchanged glances with Green Donald.  “That could present a problem.”

“It would explain the appetite,” Green Donald agreed.  “Could I have another bag of cuttings, by the way?”

“By all means!”  Saul slid a box of cut grass across the floor in the creature’s direction.  “You haven’t explained who you really are, yet.  What has happened to Donald and Griselda – I mean, you’ve given me their names, but…”

“We’re placeholders.”  Blue Griselda jumped into his thoughts.  “You can think of us as exchange students, if you like.”

“We’re Zoggians,”  Green Donald continued.  “The Donald and  Griselda you speak of have been teleported to our Mothership for modification, and we’re keeping their place for them until their treatment is complete.”

“The difficulty with teleportation – it’s a new system for us – is displacement of matter.”  Blue Griselda explained.  “If we break a creature down into its constituent atoms and then remove them we leave a hole.  That can cause quite a commotion!”

“But nothing like the disturbance that will result when we try to put them back!”  Green Donald added.  “So we swop – two Earth people out, two Zoggians (that’s us) in.  We’re keeping a window open for their return, when they’ve been upgraded to Zoggian specification.”

Saul was incredulous.  “Donald and Griselda are being turned into Zoggians?”

“Obviously!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Zoggian?  New, increased functionality, superb telepathic communication (including teleconferencing and augmented visuals) and full connectivity for our sensory navigation package – and that’s just to begin!”

“You can even download your own music on Zoggify!”  Blue Griselda chimed in enthusiastically.  “Although, this caterpillar thing does seem to be a bit of a problem.  We were supposed to appear identical to the earth creatures we are body-sitting for, but something seems to have become confused.”

“I found you in the garden waste bin,” Saul found himself explaining to Green Donald.  His long-held belief in alien abduction was helping him overcome the profound shock of seeing his convictions validated. “You could easily have got mixed up with a caterpillar or two in there.”

“And I sent up my transmission pattern for you to copy,” Green Donald mingled his thoughts with Blue Griselda; “So we are the same, effectively.”

“Which doesn’t solve our problem,” Blue Griselda reminded him.  “Am I the only one who feels a little stiff this morning?”

High summer approached and Saul’s Lawn Services business fell into decline, as an increasing weariness overtook him; so he was quite glad to arrive one Sunday at the Tarpington house to discover not a pair of voracious caterpillars but two extremely large dry chrysalids, one green, one blue, in their place.  Even then he forbore to inform the remaining membership of LALS (the Lallybridge Alien Life Society) what had passed.  Only when, upon a regular weekly visit, he thought he detected movement in one of the chrysalises, did he summon them to the Tarpington house, relating all that his larval companions had told him.  The members were not pleased.

“Why didn’t you inform us earlier?”  Marcus demanded.  “We might at least have averted the chrysalis crisis.”

“They asked me not to,”  Saul replied.  “I think they were afraid of publicity.”

“And now look what’s happened!”  Cried Peregrine.  “They’ve turned to bloody rock!  Vicki dear, what are you doing?”

Intoning the words of an unintelligible mantra, Vicki Blomquist was busily producing cards decorated with mystic symbols from her handbag and positioning them around the room, glancing frequently up to a point on the ceiling for reference.  “I’m generating the Event Temple, Peregrine.  One of us has to, or Donald and Griselda won’t find their way back, you see?”

“I think they will,”  Saul responded.  “The blue one’s splitting;  look!”

A tiny fissure had opened in the Blue Griselda chrysalis.  Marcus, ever thoughtful, brought a bath sheet from Tarpington’s linen cupboard and held it up, ready to preserve the hatching alien’s dignity as she returned to Earth.  “I don’t care whether she’s still one of us or not, she deserves a little respect,” he excused himself (somewhat lamely, Peregrine thought).

The assembled company would have to wait a further half-hour, regaled by Vicki’s chanting, before the head of Griselda Burdock finally appeared, her hair passably well styled, and looked around her. She registered no surprise at the presence of her welcoming committee as, giving a final heave she rose, thrusting the two halves of her chrysalis from her.  Marcus, about to bring her the towel, froze.  Griselda looked down at her large, bedraggled wings and her six legs.

“Bugger!”  She said.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.

 

 

 

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