Satan’s Rock

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

   © 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:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Tarpington’s Grass

Tarpington’s Grass

https://frederickanderson.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/photo-1503542724004-53e16040c0c9.jpg?w=269&h=404

“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little notebook and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “Not much to be gained from an entry like that.  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.”  Vicki Blomquist stated with finality, placing the matter 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 Tarpington’s 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 said.  “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,  her eyes raised towards the ceiling and her hands spread in a gesture of supplication,.  “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.”

“Well, he’s definitely not here, and no-one’s seen him for days.  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 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 – 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 drink 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.  It sounds to me like they’re finally ready to invade.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “Her aunt’s place is 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 odor 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.”

“That much we can agree, at least,” Saul said. “You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald. 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!”

“If you attract our gold package, for less than five pounds a month 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 refrained from informing the 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 familiar 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 furry legs.

“Dammit!”  She said.

© 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 – Thomas Budach from Pixabay

Grass Mower: Ulrika Mai from Pixabay

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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