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.

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-Six. Masters of Discretion

Patrick, all protest smothered by Rebecca’s enthusiastic kiss as he was propelled backwards into his room, caught a brief glimpse of the sneer on a guard’s face before Rebecca kicked the door closed behind them.     She released him from her embrace with a severe look.   “You could put a bit more effort into it.”

“You took me by surprise!”  Patrick protested nervously.

“Oh, stop looking at me like that!  I’m not going to jump you.  What’s your bed like?”  She re-tied her bathrobe, throwing herself back onto the mattress, emitting a loud:   “Ooooh, you BEAST!”  Observing Patrick’s dumbfounded expression, she added quietly:  “That’s for the audience.  We don’t want to raise suspicions, do we?”  And when he shook his head in mystification, she laughed at him, saying in a stage whisper:  “Right, mate, how do we get out of here?”

“Get out of here?”  He foolishly repeated her words.  “What do you mean?”

“Dodge the goons.  There’s two in the corridor and one downstairs, it shouldn’t be too much trouble.”

“Wait a second!.  Last I heard, the story’s dead and those guys are taking charge?  We’re being escorted back to London, aren’t we?”

“I’m sorry!   I thought you wanted to rescue this Karen bird.  Was I wrong?”

“Of course not, but…”

“Faint of heart, Patrick, faint of heart.  That expression I used downstairs; remember?  ‘Two shakes of a lamb’s tail’?  A bit of code, that was.  Tarq understands ‘two shakes’ means two hours, and a ‘lamb’s tail’ is a motor – a car.   Right now, Purvy and Tarq are down in the bar with a few bevvies having a natter about the good old days, and Tarq’s beginning to look a little bit tanked up – all for Beefy’s benefit – that’s the big guard, Beefy, you like that, yeah?  Come the hour, Tarq needs some air and weaves his way out to the car park, watched by Beefy.  That’s when Purv collapses with his heart attack (or a fit, he sometimes does fits) to tax Beefy’s brains a bit.  We get a diversion going up here so he’s split three ways.  While he’s distracted Tarq nips off down the car park, nicks a car, and we all get out of here!  Good?”

“Optimistic!”  Was Patrick’s opinion. “Our friends don’t look like the type to be easily hoodwinked.  Is your editor going to pull this story or not?”

“Probably.  I don’t know.   I didn’t ‘phone him, I ‘phoned our researcher, Amy.  She’s got the address where they’re storing Edgar.”

Rebecca bounced hard on the bed, three, four, five times; each bounce accompanied by a loud “Yes!”  Then she stopped, grinned broadly at him and moaned:   “Yeah Patrick, yeah Patrick!  Ooooh, Patsy!”  After a pause, sotto voce:  “I’m good, aren’t I?  Okay, here’s how it runs.  I go back to my room. On the hour, you call reception, sound panicky.  Tell them there’s a young woman being harassed up here by two drunks, and someone should call the police.

“I chuck some clothes on – not too many, a little bit disarranged, a coupla  minutes – and then I scream and I keep screamin’.  Our goons come runnin’.  Doors open.  Hotel security’s jumpin’ about, guests start kickin’ up, our big chimps have to act civilized.  We run.   Time it right and they may even meet the local constabulary in the foyer!  We do more running, they have to stop and do explaining.”

Patrick bit his lip.   “It might work…”

“What d’you mean ‘might’?  It’s a perfect plan!  Can’t fail.  Remember, call the desk straight away.  We’ve got to give the local plods time to arrive.

“Right; sorry, Pat darling, it’s been wonderful and you’re fantastic but I have to go back to my room now.  How’s this for the ‘well seen to’ look?   God, I’m such a whore!  Come on, come over to the door – you’ve got to kiss me goodnight.  Nice and quiet and discreet, mind.  We’re supposed to be satisfied and ready for sleep!”

So it was that under their nearest guard’s disapproving stare Rebecca slipped out of Patrick’s door.  After it had closed behind her, she spoke to him, quietly and sweetly.   “Thanks, mate.  goodnight, now,” and retreated to her room.

#

A traumatized Jacinta reached for the glass that had become a constant companion, only to have her apoplectic husband snatch the decanter from her hand and hurl it at a Chinese vase in the corner of the living room.  Both exploded in a dreadful cataclysm of splintered ceramic and glass.

“How the hell could you let your bloody sister in on this?  For God’s sake, woman; if there was anyone in the world less discreet…”

“Oh, there speaks the master of discretion!”  Jacinta flared.  “There speaks the monster who kept his insane brother incarcerated in a cellar for years – right beneath my bloody feet!   I didn’t know!  No-one knew!”

“And why did I keep that little item from you?  Because the moment I tell you, you go running to your f***ing sister, and within twenty-four hours the world knows!”

“Not the world!  That isn’t fair!  Not the world, Staffy!  And what am I supposed to do, with the press attacking me openly on the public road – while you skulk around the lobbies like f***ing Bill Sykes, instead of being here, when I need you?”  Jacinta took a deep breath, “See here, Stafford, I will not be painted the villain in this.  When all’s said and done he was just one mucky little reporter from a mucky little newspaper, which I’m sure you can suppress.  All he has is rumour, darling – all he has is rumour.”

“Ah!  Rumour.  All he has?  Which is why three ‘mucky little reporters’ are searching Yorkshire as we speak, and one of those reporters is Rebecca Shelley?   They will find Edgar, in spite of anything I can do to stop them now, and when they find him, Marmaduke Peverel’s people won’t be far behind!”

Jacinta shook her head, bewildered.  “The Earl of Peverel?  What the hell has that old fool to do with anything?”

“Oh, for god’s sake!”  Stafford punched the air in his frustration, “Did you somehow imagine that just because you whispered a few sweet nothings in Ted Heath’s ear the Secretary of State job would drop into my lap?  It may surprise you, my dear, but I am not everyone’s choice for high office – Peverel, for example, would infinitely prefer to see Guy the Gorilla in the post.  Fortunately or otherwise, he has someone rather better in mind, and possibly more formidable:  Tamsyn Honeyday.”

“Tamsyn?   She’s an utter darling!   She wouldn’t…”

“Wouldn’t she?   She’s been after a seat on the front bench for years, and although he doesn’t like it to be acknowledged publicly, Peverel is very much her patron.  Somehow, Peverel has heard that Edgar exists, is fully aware of the scandal his exposure would cause and, furthermore, seems to know more or less where he is.  I would imagine his close friendship with Landseer, the owner of the ‘Record’, might have something to do with that, or a few judicious uses of a wiretap.  Whatever the reason, there are a lot of people far too close to discovering my brother, and very likely to substantiate your ‘rumour’ within hours!”

Jacinta was pale.  “Well, isn’t it obvious?  They mustn’t find him.  You must move him again.  Immediately!”

“It isn’t exactly easy to move Edgar around, my darling.  Finding the right accommodation takes time I don’t have.  No, he is in the right place, or at least somewhere I can still exercise a modicum of control over the situation.  I’m afraid the obvious answer is one that, in honour of his father’s memory, I have striven to avoid.  My dear brother, together with that ghastly woman of his, must be put beyond anyone’s reach, once and for all.”

A cold spark of fire kindled in Jacinta’s eyes.  They followed her husband as he went to the telephone, lifted the receiver, dialled.   “Mortimer?  Sorry to disturb, old chap.  Stafford Driscombe.  Do you recall our conversation the other evening?  Yes, that’s right, it turns out your services will be needed – tonight, if possible.  Does Hortsea Beach sound conducive?  Say three hours – no, four, for safety?  Two packages, old boy; I’ll see they don’t give you any trouble.”

“Oh, Staffy!”  Jacinta’s mouth moistened with hunger, “Oh my darling, are you going to kill them?  Staffy, oh, Staffy!  Will you do it yourself?”

#

She was tender, the woman, drawing coarse bedcovers over Edgar whilst he looked up at her adoringly. “Why are you so good to me, Poppy?  I’m really very naughty, you know.  Stafford wanted to take you away, did I tell you that?  Whatever would I do without you?”

She patted his cheek, reassuring him in a voice slightly slurred by a split in her lip. “Well, baby, you won’t ever have to do without me.  I’m always here for you, you know that.”

The one the woman called ‘Oddjob’ stared as her bloodied figure emerged, almost naked, from Edgar’s room.  He may have been experienced in ‘Professional Security’, but he was a novice at this.  Her eyes covered the hallway in the licking glance of a snake.  “Where’s his nurse?  He should be here.”

Oddjob frowned.  His colleague  Barbut, who was responsible for administering Edgar’s injections had gone to meet a couple of heavies they knew, hadn’t he, good lads who would manage Edgar’s ‘moods’ in their own way, but he wasn’t going to tell the woman that.  “He hasn’t come back yet.  I’ll send him up to you as soon as he arrives.”

“Oh, not for me, this is nothing:  no, it’s for Edgar; his sedative.  You’ll have to do it.  You have about ten minutes before he starts stressing.  Get forty mils into him and see if you can really knock him out this time, will you?”  She began climbing the stairs, adding, over her shoulder, “You’ll need to turn his mattress and change his bedding.”

Oddjob blinked.  “I can’t inject him!  I don’t know how.”

“Then start learning, or in a very little while you’ll have a ravening ape on your hands.  And no, before you ask, I’m not doing it.  He won’t let me near him with a needle.”

In her room, the woman washed thoroughly.  As she sponged away the makeup with which she had painted herself and dabbed at the dried blood on her face she paused, just long enough to think of Edgar, and how he was feeling now.   She had deceived him and in her own desensitized way, she regretted it.  Not that surrendering to full sex with him would have made any difference; she had learned the rules long ago.  Complete the business, satisfy him, and get out, because those pangs of betrayal and remorse which, being Edgar, would inevitably ensue must soon find expression in violence.  His illness rendered him incapable of proportion at such times, instead sending him to extremes when he could maim or possibly even kill.  She had acquired this knowledge the hard way, and barely lived to correct her mistake.

Seven, eight minutes passed.   She listened for the opening and closing of Edgar’s door, his groan of acceptance before the needle offered relief.  Nothing.  There was no sound.  She alone knew how much the move from his familiar surroundings had upset Edgar – she could read it in his body language, because brutality was a language where Edgar was concerned.   A new nurse, new rooms, colder climate – none of these things would have escaped him.  He felt lonely now, and not a little afraid.

At the foot of the stairs, the telephone rang.

She spoke aloud, as though Oddjob could hear her.  “Don’t answer that!  Give him his injection now, quickly!”  She rose to her feet, making for the door.  Then she overheard his half of the conversation, and she paused.

“Where?  That’s near Scarborough, isn’t it?

“No, I’ve got some help coming; we’ll be able to see to both of them.  What?  Of course they’re reliable. The nutter and the woman? Sedatives?  Yes, fair enough.  We can use those, can’t we?”

A brief pause.  The woman found herself rooted to the spot.  What was he doing, the stupid man?  Edgar’s treatment was imperative!

“Tonight?   F**k!  Alright, I’ll get it rolling.  Give me the name of that beach again?  Yeah – yeah – yeah, got that.  Gotta go, his Lordship’s getting edgy.  I might as well give him the big fix.  What?   Go on!   Tell me?”

Her heart was beating audibly.  Why hadn’t he hung up?  In her mind’s eye she could see Edgar, sketch the twisting motions of his mouth, the contortions of his fingers and hands.   He would be boiling now.  She wanted to scream aloud,  “Hang up!  Hang up!”  But the words stuck in her throat. What had Oddjob said – sedatives?  ‘The nutter’ must mean Edgar, and she, ‘the woman’.  What was meant by ‘the big fix’?

Instantly, the woman’s thoughts turned to her own defence.   Her window had been nailed shut – no escape from there.  The bed was heavy.  She pushed it against her door; stacked the chair on top, then – then what?  She sat trembling on the bed, and waited.  The telephone conversation below her had stopped.  The air was laden with silence – a cold, expectant silence.

Edgar could move without sound.  He was as agile and stealthy as a fox, which was why, when Oddjob at last replaced the telephone receiver and turned, Edgar was right there, in the doorway, facing him.   One glance at his eyes should be enough –   forget that his body was misshapen by the knotted steel of his muscles, that his mouth bubbled with spit, that his fingers were curled into talons; just one glance at those eyes…

Oddjob stepped back, remembered his training just in time, so as Edgar bore down upon him he twisted aside, a matador instantly ready to deliver the coup-de-grace, hands set for a double spear throat strike, and that should have worked, but for all his aggression, Edgar was wilier than any bull.   He went for the aide’s own windpipe, fingers grasping as though he would rip it out; heaven knew, he was strong enough.  Choking, Oddjob could not unbalance him – Edgar’s sense of centre was instinctive, like the animal he was – like the striking cat that goes for the neck – for one fatal bite undeterred by anything so simple as a karate riposte.   Martial arts were for people, and in this mood Edgar was not human.

Upstairs, the woman heard a crash as the security man was thrown across the hall, the splintering of wood as he collided with the stairs.  The thud of a body on the floor that shook everything in the house.

She heard the staccato crack of a pistol, too.

The woman breathed fast, limbs trembling.  Another shot.  Two more – four gunshots.  No!  Oddjob had been scared enough of Edgar to shoot him, He had killed Edgar!  He would come for her soon – and all she could do was wait.  Listen, and wait.

Time was passing – how long? Clasping at an empty hole in her stomach, the woman wept; what would she do, now Edgar was gone?  Who would defend her from – from whom?  Oddjob? The security man could have retreated, horrified by his crime:  he could be running somewhere out there on the moor because he had killed poor Edgar and he was a murderer now.  She could be waiting here for no reason; maybe all she had to do was pull the bed away, open the door and go down those stairs, go to the place where her poor, mad captor and lover had at last found rest, an end to his pain.  But maybe Oddjob was still there, and his friends would be coming soon…so she waited.  She had no plan, no expectation, she had only fear – fatal thoughts for herself.  Edgar was dead.  She would be next.  She must be next.

The bed moved.   Was it her imagination?

It moved again.

The chair beside her swayed, threatening to topple over.

She leapt from the bed, pushing with her shoulder against the door, thinking with her added weight, thin and frail though she was she might stop it opening.  This shouldn’t be necessary, she reassured herself:  the lock would hold – must hold.

The bed moved again.

It was a shock this time, as if a minor quake beneath the floor had shaken it.

Now a louder noise, wood protesting under strain.

In frozen fear, the woman watched the door bulge before force little short of superhuman. The lock burst with a rifle crack and suddenly her bed was grinding back across the floor and the chair was falling and…

“Oh Poppy,”  Edgar poked his head into the room.   “I’ve been very, very naughty!”

#

Patrick was pleased with the theatrical note of his call to the desk, and how he convinced the clerk that drunken hulks were terrorizing a young woman on his floor.  Rebecca could certainly scream; and, as she promised, she could keep screaming.  He heard his guard curse, then pound off down the corridor.  Swinging his door open, he witnessed a very distressed looking Rebecca, her blouse torn, half-slumped against her door jamb, arms waving ineffectually as she kicked out at the guard at her end of the passage.  Doors began opening; a very red-faced young man in a porter’s outfit appeared.   The second guard pitched in, trying to restrain an increasingly hysterical Rebecca, who screeched repeatedly:  “Get them off me!  Get them off me!” as they desperately tried to manoeuvre her back into her room.

By a stroke of fortune the guests in the room opposite Rebecca’s were obviously newly acquainted, even more fortunate that the male half of that pairing was at least six feet tall and as fleshy as a gnarled tree trunk, all the way up.  Valiant as they were, neither the fresh-faced young porter nor his elderly co-worker who immediately joined him might have tackled these professional thugs on their own, but a rampant male anxious to prove his manhood to his admiring consort tipped the scales in favour of Rebecca, who managed to wriggle free.  Patrick was already there and engaged, adding his own weight to the fray until she tapped him on the arm, gently reminding him that they should be somewhere else.

The pair dashed for the stairs.  Behind them, they could hear as the confusion of voices found direction, serving notice that their two watchers were regaining control.   If they had inclination, they might have turned to see the rampant young male being pinned face down on the floor with his arm in a hammerlock by the blue-jacketed guard, who in turn was suffering severe facial damage from the fingernails of his captive’s companion.  Sweater and jeans was locking the hotel staff into Rebecca’s room.

They did not turn.  They ran.

The commotion above stairs diverted an interested gaggle of businessmen and women from the hotel bar to such an extent that for a while no-one noticed Purvis writhing in apparent agony on the lobby carpet, or the anxious hulk of Beefy crouched over him.  The sight of a man with a half-dressed young woman sprinting towards the foyer added sauce.  A pretty girl in distress will always find friends, and when two large men came rushing down the stairs in pursuit it was easy to identify a cause.  Not all did, of course; most pretended they had something else to do and stood by the walls, but a sufficient few lent their added weight to thwart those giving chase to Rebecca and Patrick.

Rebecca gained the open air of the forecourt first and caught sight of Tarquin’s frantic wave.

“Over here!”

Grabbing Patrick’s arm she yanked him in Tarquin’s direction.  With the sound of a police siren gathering in volume in the background, her colleague was waiting by the open doors of a blue Toyota.  The car’s engine was running.

“Get in!”

Tarquin was already halfway into the driving seat and the wheels turning when Patrick lifted his trailing foot from the tarmac of the carpark, slamming his door to the squeal of tires.

“That was quick!”  Patrick complimented him.

“Silly sod left his keys in.  There’s always one.”

Rebecca snapped:  “Drive normal, Tarq!”   A police car, its blue light flashing, was descending the ramp to the hotel.  It’s driver passed them by without a second glance.

“Which way?”  Tarquin asked.

“North.”  Replied Rebecca, helpfully.

“Which way’s that?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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