Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-two

Encounter at Maslingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits: Featured Image Free-photos from Pixabay

Hooded Man: David Ortega from Pixabay

Moorland Scene: Gamopy from Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eleven                     Grounds for Suspicion

The story so far:

Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death.  In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.

Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.   

At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own.  Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness.  Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.

They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith.  By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head.  Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite.   The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place.  He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel.  She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.

This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner.  Emma brought so much to his table:  she was spiritual, a life force.  She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims.  She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.

Then Rodney died.  When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen.  By then there was no news to break.  Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead.  Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day:  the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they?  And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn.  Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.

Emma understood.  Joe was hanging himself from the inside.  He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.

“Charker Smith’s looking for you.”  She repeated the news she had heard.  She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed:  something she could not cross.  “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”

He had been thinking of it anyway, he said.  There wasn’t any future for him here.

“I could come with…”  her voice tailed away.

“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live.  Then I’ll write….”

It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors.  She did not say the things she felt.  They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes.  By morning Joe had gone.

#

 “Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”

Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.

Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack.  Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space.  His hair could not become scarcer because he had none.  He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.

“Come in, sit down!”

The office was the same, too.  The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which  Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there:  hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.

“Well now:  I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him.  You know the substance, I suppose?”

Joseph replied in the negative.  “I know very little.  I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk.  “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor.  I thought of you, of course.”

“Kind of you, Joseph.  Kind of you.”   Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger.   “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative.  He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”

Joseph choked:  “Sorry – what?”

“Yes, dear boy.  At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients!  My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable.  A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance.  I expect you know about that.  What was the quote he gave me?  Ah yes.  ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”

“Her entire estate?”

“Almost.  There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert.  In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds.   Dear boy!”  Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face.  “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”

Joe managed to breathe.  “No, I’ll be fine.  Mr Carnaby…”

“Alistair, please!  However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air.  “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph:  Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”

Morris Wayland Brubaeker.  Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce.  He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.

“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued.  “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged.  “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”

Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him.  “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”

“Well now.  Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding.  However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.”  Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks.  “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”

“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.

Carnaby pursed his lips.  “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation.  Very odd, but there you are.  The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy!  What do you think of that?”  Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that.  “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death.  You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”

“No.  No certainly not.  I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”

Carnaby nodded.  “He believes a police investigation is warranted.  If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”

‘Autopsy’.  The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain.  He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days.  The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked:  “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”

“We don’t at this stage,”  Alistair replied.  “Would you like me to find out?”

After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he.   Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.

“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself:  “I wonder where this may lead us?”

It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts.  The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.

He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth.  Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea.   Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him.  Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury.  Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt.  The driver opened the doors.

They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck.  The driver knew them.

“Come on, Martin!  Nearly missed ‘un this week!”

“’Tis ‘er!”  The old man accused.  “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”

.  “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,”  His elderly companion scoffed,  “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”

They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly.  As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded.  Joe heard them mutter between themselves.   He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died.  Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.

Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open.  He squinted into the light.  “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”

In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms.  He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal.  He had calculated that, this being Friday night,  Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.

“How’re you, Ned.  Good fishing?”  He ordered a pint.  The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “Pint, Aaron?”

Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top.  “Ah.”  He said.

Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry.  He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish.  The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight?  Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?

He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him.  It was time.

“Quiet tonight, Ned?”

Ned looked at him.  “Ah.  They all goes to town Fridays, see?”

Joe nodded thoughtfully.  “I saw Michael the other day.”

Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name.  Why, Joseph wondered?  The old publican must remember Michael well.  The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time.  Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?

“Your brother, isn’it?”  Ned replied.

“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned.  Michael said I should come and see you.  Urgent, he said it was.”

Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly:  not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.

“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?”  Ned murmured.  “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you.  ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet.  That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.”  Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.

“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”

They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe.  Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed;  yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own.  To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting.  Ned, however, was becoming restless.

Joe kept stoking the fire.

“One yourself, Ned?”  He offered as his next round was delivered.

Eventually nature took its course.  Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house.  Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety.  “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”

Aaron grinned back at him:  a row of blackened pegs.  “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.”  He slurred.

“You know about it, though, don’t you?”  Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door.  “Did she tell you?”

“’Er didn’t have to tell me!”  Aaron rejoined.  “I seen ‘er!   She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!”  He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale.  “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind!  That were a sight and no mistake:  titties jigglin’ up and down!  Bugger me!”

“Who else is in the coven, then?”

Aaron leered at him.  “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?  There’s folks round here I could tell on, see?  But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be.  An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too.  I likes they, mind!”

Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further.  Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open.  His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.

Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow.  Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.

“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.”  And he set himself to wander home.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.