Arthur Herritt toyed with his glass, rotating the thick leaden stem between finger and thumb, staring into its deep ruby charge of Port as though some vision might appear. He would discard no possibility of resolution these days.
“I feel – I cannot deny it – such attachment to her. This extraordinary sense of familiarity is most perplexing.”
Across the polished walnut acres of his desk, Abel Montcleif frowned. As Arthur’s business manager he had several caps to wear. As his lifelong friend, he had only one. “You know so little of her…”
“That I concede. In spite of my sensibilities, that I must concede.”
“And I have been able to discover little more.” The higher pitch of Montcleif’s voice found greater clarity in the dark lustre of the panelled room. “In essence all we have is a woman who arrived in our city a decade since, already bearing someone’s child. Even her name is not her own.”
“Jebediah Fletcher? I spoke with him, and found him quite pleased to be rid of her. Whether that reticence is motivated by guilt, or fear, or both, is open to question. He certainly seems more than willing to relinquish any claim to Mrs Delisle.”
“Knowing the man as we do, is it not difficult to believe he gave her shelter merely as an act of charity? She is a fine young woman, Arthur…”
“I know it…”
“And therefore vulnerable – or calculating. I don’t wish to impugn her character, but we do not know it. And the Hart-Witterington fortune is an inestimable prize.”
Arthur sighed, “No, that is too obvious. I shall not accept she is merely clever.” He sipped from his wine; “What news of the lady’s assailants?”
“None, I fear. The one you shot wore only that simple robe. There were no brands upon his body. I spoke with the Justice and he is satisfied the man was a scoundrel: you shall hear no more of that. The other? No trace, although it does seem the pair of them together may tally with Mrs Delisle’s accounts of two men who she saw loitering by Jebediah’s house.”
“So, we have gained no ground?”
Montcleif cocked an eyebrow; “A certain young lady would seem to have gained considerable advantage, would she not? Albeit (I shall add hurriedly) she may be in no doubt wisdom – and caution – will prevail.” He rose to his feet, walking slowly past Arthur’s desk to the window. “Yet there is something…”
Arthur turned in his chair “Something?”
“Aye, sir. Something troubling, in its way…or, should I admit, it troubles me? It has no direct connection to Mrs DeLisle, however. Ye recall the night of the great storm?”
“Most certainly. My blessed guardian first took ill upon that night while I sojourned in Bleanstead, a distance down the coast where the storm was less severe. There, of course, I first met with Mrs Delisle; is that of significance? ”
“As to its significance, I must leave you to judge. Though none so grave to us as Lord David’s mortal illness, that night certainly brought a confluence of events. We were fortunate not to lose two of our ships. The ‘Pietrie’ was torn from her moorings, and the Pelligore was lucky to make safe harbour. Less widely acknowledged, yet nonetheless important, Lord Crowley lost his life that night. You may have heard?”
“I believe I did – although he had been unwell for some time, had he not? Eccentric old buzzard, ’tis said; built himself a bird’s nest on top of St. Benedict’s Rock. The ugliest house in the land, I have heard it called. Yes, that was a fatal night indeed.”
“What if it was more than that?”
“How say you?”
“That night the gale did its best to strip old Crowley’s house from the rock. There were those who said it should never have been built there, that the rock was an unholy place, the haunt of a monkish clan who consorted with the Devil. Those same voices insist the storm unleashed the rock’s venom upon this valley; a plague of snakes, gull attacks on anyone who ventured to make safe the house, or even recover the old Lord’s body. The ingress of vermin has led right up the River Leven to our very doors! Peculiar, is it not, that Jebediah Fletcher’s fears for his safety as Mrs Delisle’s ward have burgeoned from that time?”
You paint a powerful case, Abel. I shall keep my rabbit’s foot close to hand.”
“You jest, but how many murders have there been in Mountchester this year? Street crimes, motiveless stabbings, child killings?”
“Oh come! This is the currency of the mob, surely? Have you forgotten the cholera has only recently left us? There are penniless war casualties everywhere – these are troubled times!”
“I know, Arthur, I know, but still I have suspicions. ‘T‘is as if the storm spilled over a pot of imperfections and they run through the streets like an Egyptian plague.”
So Lord Hart’s death, and Crowley’s, and Mrs Delisle’s misfortunes – all were ordained upon that night?”
“Well, sir, mayhap they were. Meanwhile, does the good lady seem secure here?”
“Indeed she does, Abel. She and the maid we picked for her have become fast friends. They seem quite conspiratorial at times. Ah, and I have employed a teacher of pianoforte to give her lessons, which will please you. He is as perplexed as I, for she has skills as a musician, he thinks, yet no notion of an instrument she might have learned to play.”
Saturday afternoon was a time for relaxation, a quest for inner peace of which Alice Burbridge’s bathing ceremony was an implicit part. She had risen at six-thirty, sneezing from a slight cold, donned her black, lavender-piped track-suit and taken her usual run in the park. Dressed for the day in sloppy Pringle and Ralph Lauren she had breakfasted (a little cereal, a piece of pawpaw, some black coffee) then shopped; a taxi from Lancaster Gate to Kensington, a spidery lunch of green salad with a friend before, surrounded by fashionable bags, a taxi back to her flat, to close her door on the world. There was magic in the clicking of locks as they secured her against intrusion, a moment of purity as she threw the switches to turn off her intercom, trip out the doorbell. These were the things, once in each week, that she treasured. Alice’s time, and hers alone.
In her bathroom she shed a white towelling bathrobe in front of a triptych of full-length mirrors to survey her nakedness critically, rather as an aesthete might evaluate a work of fine art, and here pause, increasingly with the years, to wonder: where had all the cynicism come from? Why were those little lines around her mouth always and always creeping back? What had spawned the empty pool of hopelessness behind her great, dark eyes?
Alice put all doubts into a little box of forgetfulness to leave stashed by the mirrors for another week, running her bath carefully, adding the cocktail of oils she favoured, testing its temperature to perfection. When she wrapped herself in the waters they must caress, enfold, cradle her. Head back, she could close her eyes, and there would be her mother waiting for her as she pushed her bike through the wicker-gate in the garden of her childhood; Sid the rough collie pursuing that toy ring she used to throw; air thick with the scent of gardenia and lilac, fresh in the morning sun. Home in summer.
Pleasant lethargy would set her mind adrift to her early career: that first hesitating entrance to a room of stern faces, the auditions which so amused her now, so tormented her then. The questions, the eyes that crept and saw too much, no matter who was a friend of a friend, a contact, a recipient of her father’s money, or next season’s shining star. The young, successful model, in the good days.
Then the memory forever present: Paul Bascoe. He who spoke softly with just the lilt of an accent, like warming her hands by a fire. His gentle voice commanded, and how gladly she had obeyed! Her body still purred when she remembered. He had taken her with no fumbling uncertainty, no doubt or imprecision. He had taken her as she had always wanted to be taken and still did; smoothly powerful, impossible to deny. Oh, how he had opened her, exposed the whore in her, taught her about herself as no other man had done before or since! Never in her direst nightmares could she have imagined it was just a test! What did it say about the woman in this bath that the greatest night of her life had been an application for a job?
She did get a letter from him, just one, inviting her to recall how she had admitted to enjoyment of risk – the threat of discovery; could she see herself risk-taking in other situations, perhaps in pursuit of information, or in seeking people who were missing? If so, there was someone she should see…
Alice went to her first meeting with Jeremy Piggott more in the hope of finding Bascoe again than anything. She had never thought of herself as physically brave. When Jeremy had told her what he wanted her to do she was hard put to avoid breaking into a run as she left; yet within a month she was in his office again, signing documents which bound her by the Official Secrets Act.
The work? It started slowly at first, then, as contacts led to other contacts a few leads proved productive: a modelling Agency importing cocaine, a colleague who was people trafficking. Small fry.
Her big break came on a high profile shoot in Bahrain. She met Prince Shumal at a royal reception and found the heady perfume of power intoxicating: in a week of debauchery she underwent recruitment to the Prince’s Amadhi cause. Her double life had begun.
Thereafter the chess-game of existence as a double agent pleased Alice: no, it did more than that, it excited her, it thrilled. Wherever her modelling work took her, she excelled; manipulating, juggling relationships, even casual meetings under the ever-present gaze of two jealous masters. British Intelligence as her official paymaster gave her an office, a security clearance which passed muster with the Amadhi. Even when fate had thrown her a curved ball – tripping over Yahedi in Hyde Park, not knowing she had accidentally kicked the American Senator’s intended assassin – not until she saw him again in the Prince’s Apartments, she was able to handle it: she was comfortable as long as she was within the structure, knew whose side she was on. This was why she found the circumstances surrounding Peter Cartwright so disquieting. Her loyalties were confused.
Feeling a first chill as the waters which embraced her cooled, Alice emerged from her bath with aphrodisian grace. She took a warm towel from the rail and returned to her bedroom where, donning a fresh bathrobe, she seated herself at her dressing table. More mirrors: a fresh triumvirate of mirror-glass, and a chance for a little private game she liked: a companionable conversation with herself, the Alice in the looking-glass. In a drawer of her dressing table lay the tablet she used to record her thoughts. While it was booting up she rehearsed the questions she would ask.
Piggott had learned who and where Peter was, but not from her. Although she had known his whereabouts from the first she had said nothing to Piggott about their first meeting, nor had she implicated Vincent Harper. Why?
“Why didn’t you tell Jerry you had met the boy?” The mirror asked her. She was pleased by her questioning stare, the slightly creased brow. So cool!
She answered, “Because I don’t think they can understand what he is.”
“Does that matter?” Asked her reflection.
“Yes, it must. Jerry just sees him as a pawn. If Vince is correct, there’s a chance he may be a lot more than that: he may be the White Knight. God knows we need one.”
The mirror scowled, “What gives you the authority to make that judgement?”
“Nothing, no-one. Jerry will lock him in a room, treat him as a spy. The Arabs want him dead. They want everyone who gets in their way dead. So what are the choices? Nobody speaks for the boy: I don’t think anyone can. And now there is a girl, too. She made the picture, didn’t she? Is she the kingpin?”
“Vincent does. Vincent speaks for the boy!” Alice paused: startled by the simplicity of the mirror’s answer. “Vincent…..he’s the key to this! Where did he learn about the boy?” She was deep in the throes of her little play, pleased with the way her eyes came alive, the fresh flush of her cheeks as she spoke: how lovely, how flawless those features still were! See the way she could still turn on that arch look, her head downcast, eyes suddenly raised to see …?
Bourta was a reflection in the glass just long enough for Alice to recognise him before his big hands swung her round in her chair. Overbalanced, she clattered to the floor and her head hit the corner of her dressing table with a bang. An array of flashing lights filled her vision, blinding pain exploded in her head. Jerry had warned her, shown her pictures of what this man could do. Oh god those pictures!
“Allah…Allah protect you!” She prattled the words, “Brother, we are both Amadhi. Why do you steal in here like a thief?”
“Beautiful woman – beautiful Alice Burbridge!” Bourta smiled down, a row of glistening teeth. “Are you Amadhi? I do wonder so. Please tell me, who is ‘the boy’?”
She was aware of her robe being torn aside. She felt the pressure of Bourta’s arousal as he knelt over her and she knew that those photographs had not lied.
As she knew she was already dead.
“What boy?” She tried to say. Then the knife cut her face in half.
Pain entered her like a fire which invaded so many places on her body that all the agonies became one. The cut across her mouth was just the first, for the knife was in skilled hands, butcher’s hands. Alice may have been conscious of two people in the room, may have heard their questions, registered the anger of one with the other as it was recognised not that she would not answer, but she could not. She had no means left to speak. Inside her some tiny vestige of a voice told her this was not for ever, it was just a gateway. Soon she would pass through; soon it would all be gone.
“Who is the boy? Tell us of the boy. Tell us where this boy lives!”
Where was the white light? She had been told about it; she had read about it – the long tunnel and the white light which always came. Where was the fucking white light?
“There is a female? Does she live with the boy? Who is ‘Vincent’? If you cannot say it, write it!”
Paper thrust in front of her, something, maybe a pen, pressed into her hand – but fading, not important anymore. No pain now. She was standing before the gate and there was her mother in the garden: And here at last, at the very last, was home.
The telephone call had brought Piggott news he half-expected and dreaded. So the ring on his doorbell found him ready in coat and hat to make a solemn evening journey.
A sallow youth who was his driver for the night stood waiting, a staff car murmured on the street. When Jeremy opened the official envelope passed to him by the youth’s cold hand, saw the photographs it contained, there was no shock, no surprise. God help him – how many had there been of these? He barely looked at them. The Alice Burbridge they showed was not how she would want to have been remembered, and they had nothing to do with the woman he had known. As the car whisked him across twilight London to the blood-soaked flat where her life had ended, he called in an APB on Mahennis Bourta, knowing it would be fruitless: the man – if man was what this monster was – would be far away.
Flying at thirty-five thousand feet over the Caucasus, Bourta, his eyes turned to the cabin window, may have known he had gone too far this time, that he had overstepped a final line. Salaiman his friend – how many men had friends like Salaiman Yahedi? – had turned his face. Salaiman the Prince of Assassins turned away, showed him his back! Had he outraged the conventions of death so grossly? Was it not a momentous deed? And in her death – yes, in her last agony how he had wanted, needed, desired that woman! Bourta stared long and deep into the eastern night, searching for the first red of approaching dawn. Only when he saw it, only when he had cleansed his hands of the day that was gone, would he rediscover sleep.
© 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.
Header Image: Comfreak at Pixabay
‘Alice’ Ractapopulous at Pixabay
Mountains: Confused_me from Pixabay