Satan’s Rock

Part 35

Cabbages and Kings

Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”

“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said;  “Come and take him off my hands, will you?  I have to go to work.   Oh, and don’t let him in…”

#

“I’ve found someone.”

Lesley regarded Roderick blearily:  “How sweet!   But I thought you were a monk?”

“No.  Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”

“Come in.”  Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm.  “You do know what time it is?”

“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”

“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.”  Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee   “Go away.”   Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle.  “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”

“I just do.  I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find.  You have to trust me.  And you have to put water in that kettle.”  

After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.  

“Logical, really.  Only one place he could have gone.  You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”

Lesley opened her eyes:  “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it?   You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already!  It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”

“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult.  We won’t force you to do it.”

“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”

“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose.  Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”

“What for?”

“For helping me through – for being right.  For being wise…”   She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee.  Stuff’s  in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”

Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs,   “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that.  Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”

Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white.   It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’.   It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.

“Hallo, lass!”   Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles.    “So you’m my cargo, eh?”

Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo?  Oh, Cyril, you old romantic!  You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”

Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then?  You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”

“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!”   With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.  

“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”

Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter.   Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods.   Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.

“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,”  Cyril said.  “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”

Roderick gave a supporting hand.  “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”

Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril.   Everyone knew him.   A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed.   His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.

“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick.  “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”

The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks.    She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves.   The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose.  There was a pause, then the engine revved and  the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.

Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil.   An apple dropped on her neck.   Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking.  Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another.  Outraged hooting broke out on  one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes.   In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.

 It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock.  If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.  

Then – anxiety.  The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt.   Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.

“Sorry about this.”   It was a woman’s voice.    “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room.   We’ll have it clear in a jiff.      You don’t have any oranges in there, do you?  I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”

Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges.  “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”

“Onions, then?  Some greens, maybe?   Can I have a look?”

Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter.  Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg.   She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.

“Don’t you go opening my van!”   Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.

“I’m sorry!  I only wanted a look!”   Charlie’s voice was all innocence.  Her face was set in steel.

“’Tis my property.   ‘Tis private, right?”

Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes.  A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her.  She was obviously a professional. 

Cyril had joined Charlie at the back.    “See?  You have got some oranges!   What else have you got down behind there?”  She made to climb into the display.  Cyril was equally resolute.  He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.

“I dissent sell from the van, missus,”   Cyril said severely.  “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”

Charlie’s voice had an edge:  “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”

“Twice weekly.  What of it?”

“Where?  Which houses?”

Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied.  “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.”   He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down.  Charlie’s hand stopped him.

“Now look!   I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!”  Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down.   From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured:  from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind.   Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van.  Backing off gave her great pain.  No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.

From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.

“Anything?”   Klas asked.

“I couldn’t see anything.   The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”

“You could have made it official.”

“We could follow it, too, but no.   Low profile, remember?   Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more.  This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation!  He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”

Klas glanced apprehensively skyward.  “Do we include seagulls in that?”  The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock.  “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.”  He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”

“Possibly.  It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though:  the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”

“How should we deal with the van?”

“Wait for it to come back.   Then follow it.”

#

Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen.   Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her.   They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come.  He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his.  He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind:  saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him.   He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.

What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door?   Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of  furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.

The intruder was near, approaching.   Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.  

“Hi.” Lesley said.

He could not respond.   He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.

She said:  “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”

“Yeah.”    Peter could hear his own heart beating.  It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too.  But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.

“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now.  I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”

#

The office window overlooked  the River Thames.   Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move.  Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed.  Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window.  They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three.   Jeremy felt at home among their cushions.  Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.

“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?”  Jeremy accused his operatives,  “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”

Charlie said:  “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”

“Not that late!   Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie.   You lost him.  Too casual, way too casual!”

“The rain, the birds…it was dark.  Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours.  Now he can’t remember it…”

Klas said:  “I think I must have read it.  It will come back to me…”

“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.

Klas shrugged.  “It will.  One cannot predict these things, but it will.  The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.”  he murmured.

“What is?”

“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion.  I have never known such a thing.”

Charlie asked:   “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt?  Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper?   Ah!  It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”

“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”

“They were really determined, the birds!”   Klas mused.  “A methodical attack, almost.   It was as if they knew…..”

“Is he quite with us?”   Piggott asked Charlie crudely.   “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”

“They did assist in his escape.  Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”

“Oh, very odd!”   Jeremy seethed.   “Anyway he’s gone.  Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.”   Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”

“Unlikely.  There was a big storm and the tide was running high.  No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north.  The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”

  “And your reasoning?”

 “We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?”  Charlie said;  “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days:  only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”

“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?”  Klas asked.

“It’s possible.”  Charlie nodded.  “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it?   Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”

“The boy went north, too.”  Jeremy said.  “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours.   That could have put him in Scotland, too.  Two separate trips, one shared destination?   So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”

“I don’t know!”  Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice!  Anyway, this is pure conjecture.  For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”

Piggott grunted;  “Where’s our Howard now?”

“He’s dropped from sight.   The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”

“Seriously?  We didn’t actually lose them, did we?” 

Charlie ignored the sarcasm.  “We can’t be everywhere, chief.  I had to put local lads on it.   It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know, now.  Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”

“So what do we do, drop this?   Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”

Jeremy Piggott shook his head.   “I would.  I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed.   Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get.  With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into.  He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic?  Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”

“Al Khubar?”  Charlie asked. 

“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously.   “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead.  They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.”  Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge.  “He’s a man with a mission.  Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs  can reach.   Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better.   He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”

“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”

“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate:  but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway.  We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process.  And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”

“Ah!”   Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted.  Very intriguing!”

Jeremy smiled grimly:  “Can you imagine?   Look, our people are working on this, OK?  Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be.  For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath,  find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down  – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”

© 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: Inigo de La-Maza from Unsplash

River Thames: Kevin Greive on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part 29

The Homecoming

Peter and Lesley had returned from St. Benedict’s Rock together, to sit and warm themselves in the greasy embrace of the Causeway café, from where they had embarked upon their journey some hours before.  Lesley’s mood was no longer hostile or defensive, but after Peter told her that the eccentric old woman she had seen dancing in her cottage garden had appeared to him to be no more than a child, she became quiet for a while, because there was no doubting Peter’s honesty about what he had seen and it was her first experience of his altered vision.  She was deep in thought and unaware that something new was occurring to gently rock Peter’s world.   It was a transition as sweetly soothing as the breath of a summer breeze; as if a door had moved soundlessly open.  So subtly did it begin, at first he noticed no differences at all;   he did not see how his view had changed.  Only gradually did he realise the causeway road was less a road now, more a stony track.  Beyond it, on The Rock itself, the windows of the dejected, half-ruined cottages were glazed again.   There were fishing smacks hauled up on the tiny beach with distant figures moving among them with fish to land, nets to mend.  An oxcart laboured painfully upward to the tunnel that would lead it through to the south face, and ultimately the Great House.

It was a thing of moments.  As rapidly as his vision came it dissipated.   The causeway was a road again, everything back in place.  Then, as his dream died he felt Melanie standing beside him.   She was there only for seconds, but her presence reassured him.   She was well, she was safe.

“What are you grinning at?”  Lesley asked suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing.”

“That’s my line.  There was something, wasn’t there?  One of your insights?”

“Okay, you got me.   I saw us doing some course-work together this evening.  I thought human biology would be nice.”

“You should be so lucky, pervert!”  Lesley grinned at him.  “Now can we get moving?  I’m hungry and if we eat here we’ll probably die?”

They abandoned the café at precisely 1:37pm.   That was the time on Howard’s carefully synchronised watch.   He advised his two colleagues of this, but counselled restraint.   “We don’t take him now, not in broad daylight, and not while he’s with her.  Anyway, we stick out like sore thumbs here.   Wait until they separate.”

Watching the couple pass not three metres from the dark-windowed surveillance van Howard felt the infection of Lesley’s presence, the life which radiated from her, the brilliance of her smile, the music of her laughter.  He may have regretted the probable despoiling affect his plans for her boyfriend would exert; or he may not.   He was too old a hand, immured to such pettiness as the destruction of innocence, the theft of youth.          

It had been a busy twenty-four hours for Howard.  On his return from Manchester, knowing Peter would alight at Levenport he had stayed on his train until the next station, some thirty miles down the coast.  He hoped by so doing to avoid an immediate crisis, although since the debacle at Hemlington station his cover was blown.   Peter knew what Peter had probably always suspected.  and now the risk of Karen Fenton, Melanie’s mother, sharing the knowledge was too great.   His life with Karen had to be over.   Howard faced this with some regret because, in spite of all he had been taught as an operative, he had formed a strong attachment to Karen.  A lengthy cab journey back to Levenport, bouncing on hard leather in a very aged Mercedes, gave him plenty of time to ruminate upon this misfortune.   In two years playing the part of a family man he had become convincing enough to make Karen love him.   They were not idle years:  whilst watching Peter and Melanie he had been able to pursue other work, but Levenport was his base; Karen’s was his home.   Looking forward to their times together had been consolation during some of the more testing phases of his job.

The subject-matter of Howard’s next telephone conversation with Jeremy had come as no surprise.

“That was a right fecking balls-up.  Sorry, mate.”  This, at least, was unexpected.  Piggott rarely apologised.  “Two right wankers we had on that one.  Local lads from Bristol.  No more. I’m sending two of our own guys.”

“Did we get anything from his stuff?”

“The coat and a bag?  Nah, nothing, he didn’t even have a ‘phone in there.  No worries, my people’ll be with you before midday tomorrow.”

“You want me to meet them?”

“They’ll find you.  You’ve got to keep your head down, old son. Shack up at that hotel on the quiet end of the seafront you were talking about.   The Lord something-or-another?”

“Crowley.”

“Yeah, that’s right.  Use the name Conway.  Stay indoors, Okay?”

“Sure.”   Howard could imagine doing nothing else.   Levenport was a small town.  His was already a well-known face.  “Do we still pull the lad?”

“As of now, yes.   Higher authorities are becoming interested for some reason.  I can’t go for a shit up here without signing three forms at the moment.  When you get him bring him straight in.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I get support.”

 “Good.   Listen, don’t pull the Walker girl, understand?  That’s a big ‘don’t’.  We just want him.”

“And what do I do now?”

“Come back with him.  We can’t use you there any more, can we?”

Howard closed the line with a muttered curse.  Apart from his personal difficulties, there were the small issues of two very expensive suits and a lot of sundry clothes and possessions hanging irretrievably in Karen’s bedroom.  Expenses never took account of such trifles.

He slept well.   When morning came and a whimpering sun crept between the black masses of headland and island, it found him moodily awake, perched on his airy window-sill.   His gaze was fixed upon the vista of the seafront, paving still wet from night rain, but his thoughts were elsewhere.   Karen would be rising soon: she would make her way to the bathroom wearing just a t-shirt or, often, nothing at all.   He might have been watching the graceful curve of her retreating back, might have urged her to come back to bed for what he, alone again, knew would have to be a last time.   Might-have-beens:  they were the piers which sustained his whole world.   As he grew older, he looked down upon them from his creaking platform more and more often, watching helplessly as waves of reality wore them down.   Soon there would be no-where else for him to hide.   All his covers blown, he would knock at some door someday to seek refuge, and the chances were he would not even remember who he was.   Mr. Who?  Mr Who, who had turned his back on someone he loved to chase an adolescent with a probably coincidental connection to an attempted killing.    A strange young man, certainly, but no threat – no danger to anyone.   Just a normal lad trying to grow up normally.   The assassination attempt had not even been a success.

Howard (we shall continue to use this name even though Jeremy had moved his identity on another notch) tried to turn his mind to the matter in hand.    Jeremy would want the boy lifted today.   Two new operatives were coming to help him, Special Branch people probably.   He might know them.   Together, that made three adults skilled in the arts required to subdue trained and hardened terrorists, to capture one slender lad; although, for all their undoubted negligence, the pair who had attempted to lift the boy at Hemlington were no pushovers, and Howard had been amazed to see that Peter had eluded them.   Had they been too confident, too casual because their target was apparently so easy?  Could he have been too relaxed himself when a similar thing had happened to him in Manchester?   Peter had help then, he knew.  Was there help at hand here, too?               

“Mr. Conway?”   The speaker took care to announce herself slowly, so as to draw Howard’s attention without over-reliance on his new, unaccustomed name.   Howard had seen her coming anyway, and his heart had sunk as he watched her decamp from a surveillance van parked in front of the hotel.

“Hello Charlie.”   He said, without a hint of welcome.

“Fate brings us together again, hmmm?”   Charlie was a chilled blonde woman of thirty-five or so years.   She was so chilled that Department legend had it she needed to be defrosted before she could piss.   “Meet Klas.”

Klas came forward and greeted Howard cordially.  Someone new, Howard thought.  He doesn’t hate me yet.

Charlie and Howard had been thrown together before – Charlie was the super-efficient, super-active model of a modern major general:  calm in a crisis, ruthless in command, technologically versed in every software programme, every piece of hardware the Department possessed.   In every way she was the antithesis of Howard, and her presence was a slap in the face from Jeremy: because Jeremy knew how much Howard disliked her, how he had emphasised his desire never to work with her again.

Howard would be Jeremy’s scapegoat for the slip-up at Hemlington, that was now clear.   Sending Charlie was his way of expressing mistrust.  This was Charlie’s operation now, even though he, Howard, was still nominally in charge.

Charlie was as perceptive as she was brusque.  “Still in love with me, eh, ‘Conway’?”

Howard ignored this.  “Klas?”  He asked.

“German father,” Klas said.   “Ma was from New Brunswick.   Bit of a mixture, really.”   He had a nice smile, Klas.  Not a trace of the cynicism commonly associated with operatives, even when with colleagues.

“Or a hybrid.”   Howard said unkindly.  “I suppose we all know what this is about?” They seated themselves around a coffee table in the hotel lounge, where Howard had been waiting and reading for more than two hours.   Charlie slipped a document wallet across to him.   Peter Cartwright’s photograph, replicated from different angles and in different lights, was inside.  “Him?” 

So it happened that the three of them were hidden in the back of the surveillance van on Levenport Seafront:  Klas with his pleasant smile, Charlie in her accustomed flinty pose, Howard with his memories of the last time he had worked with this woman, and how she had stolen the credit for a success that was his.   It was he, not Charlie, who had discovered the address of the bomb factory.   It was he, not Charlie, who picked up the leader at his workplace so he could not access the others in his group.  And as he saw Peter walk past, with the nubile girl on his arm, there occurred in Howard a stirring of old feelings, a revival of pages in his psyche he had been trained to ignore, long ago.   In short, at precisely 1:37pm, there occurred a Road to Damascus moment. 

Karen was slow to respond when, thirty minutes later, he walked into her kitchen.  She looked up at him reluctantly, not wanting to show that she had been crying now for nearly two days.  “Howard?   Oh Christ, Howard, where have you bloody been?”

“Come on my love,” He said, as she sobbed out her distress in his arms; “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

#

Peter’s and Lesley’s afternoon passed quickly.  Late lunch at Hennik’s Coffee Bar, afterwards the Mall, dream-shopping among the clothes and games; then later in the park, sharing some intimate game of their own, or just walking.   Where they went or what they did was unimportant, save that they stayed together.   Once or twice, Lesley noticed the SV with the tinted windows:  “Is he, like, obsessed or something?  I think he’s following us, Pete.”

Peter was all too aware of the ominous presence.   “Following you, probably.   Dirty little man!”

“Cool!   Really?”  Lesley felt like teasing.  “He’s quite hunky isn’t he – he could be sorta nice… I fancy his wheels!”

“Nope – chav for certain.  I think he’s a bit creepy.   Best avoid.   Come on, we’ll use The Woolmarket to get to mine, he can’t drive through there.”

Lesley was curious.  “You’re really worried, aren’t you?  Is it your pair from Hemlington, do you think?”

“The guy driving isn’t, but who knows who else is in there – could be.”  Peter was reasonably certain that this was the case, although he did not feel any immediate danger.  The vehicle had been tagging them since they passed it on the Esplanade just before lunch.   If they had wanted to, the occupants could easily have grabbed him before now.   Obviously, Lesley was the reason they hadn’t.  

They were near The Woolmarket, which led from the top of the town down to the seafront: narrow (once filled with stalls selling food produce, now lined with antique shops, souvenir kiosks and café bars)  it was as crowded as anywhere in the town at the peak of the season.   Although much quieter in autumn, it would still deny access to their ‘tail’, or at least force abandonment of the van.   After their last attempt, Peter was sure the kidnappers, whoever they were, would not try to apprehend him again on foot.  They would need transport.

Behind the surveillance vehicle’s bland exterior, Charlie was engaged in earnest conversation over a ‘phone link with Jeremy Piggott.

“I don’t know.   He seemed fine.   Just made some remark about nothing happening for a while and he was going to get a ‘paper.”

“He may have some scheme of his own?”   Piggott suggested.

“Jer, he’s been gone three hours – he said he’d be back in two minutes.  His ‘phone’s switched off.”

Piggott did not admit his concern.  As a professional, he told himself, Sullivan was not that imaginative.  He had never before shown any signs of having his own “schemes”.  Yet there had been something indefinable in the tone of his voice during their last telephoned conversation.   And Jeremy was used to losing his people this way.

The day was Monday:  it found Piggott in a hotel room, away from his office on another case.   If he took a moment to look around it, survey its clinical functionality in the light of a dull grey afternoon, he might find unwelcome reminders of what he was and what he had.   He was forty-two: there was little, really, to declare for his life which would not have fitted into a suitcase the size of Howard’s – a failed marriage, two children he never saw, ruinous child support that bled all pleasure from the business of existence, a house which, small though it was, took what remained of his income.   Howard Sullivan had spent last night in a room just like this: or worse; then Charlie had arrived on his patch the next morning to turn another screw.   Howard was forty, wasn’t he?

“Listen, Chas.   I think you may be right – there could be a problem.   Back off, OK?   Just keep a watch on the Cartwright home.   I want to see what happens.”

Meanwhile the surveillance vehicle had been on the move.   Klas had shadowed Peter and Lesley to the top of the Woolmarket, parking just up the street as the pair turned into the pedestrian only complex.   Before they disappeared, Lesley glanced back at him with a little shrug of her shoulder, pursing her lips in a mocking air-kiss.

“Sweet child.”  He murmured.   “And so clever, hmmm?”

Long Lane, the spine of the old town, emerged three streets from Peter’s house.   As they walked these final pavements Lesley and Peter scanned each side looking anxiously for a sign that the Surveillance Vehicle had arrived before them.   There was nothing.   Five minutes later they opened the door to the kitchen of the Cartwright household.

The room was empty; the house quiet.

“Do you think we’re alone?”   Lesley asked.

“Dunno, maybe.   Why?”

Lesley grinned.  “You know why.”    She moved close to Peter, draping his body, every inch of his body, with her own.  “I’ve been dying all afternoon!   Can we go study now?”

“Oh, I think so.”   He agreed.

“Upstairs?”  Her lips teased his ear.

“No.    No time.”

She felt the hard edge of the kitchen table rub her thighs as his hands cupped beneath them, lifting her.

Lesley laughed out loud.   “Hey, back up a bit you silly sod.  Not here, Pete!  What if somebody comes?”

“They’re out.  They’re both out.”  He was peeling her jacket from her, his hands finding a way beneath her t-shirt.

“You don’t know that!”  Lesley’s hands offered token resistance, but as resistances went, it was already going.  Peter’s impatience, her desire for his touch overwhelmed her.   Intending to make the very best of what was to come; she sank back, thrilling at the touch of cool wood on her naked flesh.

“How does this…?”   Ardent in the minefield of fastenings, Peter was clumsy.

“At the front, dopey!  Oh, here, let me….let me…. Peter….

“Peter?”

Only when she had resolved the mystery of the clip and sought to fold her arms about Peter once more, did it dawn upon Lesley that her lover was no longer close to her.   She opened her eyes quickly to find Peter staring over her shoulder, beetroot-red, guiltily trying to retrieve his boxers.

“Come on, you two.”   Howard’s voice snapped.  “No time for that.   We have a lot to do.”

© 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.

Picture Credits:

SV : Ian Dooley on Unsplash

Solitary man: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Four of Conversations

Intrusion

Mountsel Park, in Arthur’s opinion, was at its best on those Spring mornings when the rhododendrons in the Step-Wood were in full bloom, the lawns were silvered by dew and a gentle mist diffused the hard lines of the house’s stone-hewn grandeur.  Mountsel was an  old house but a merchant’s house, given more to display than beauty, more to theatre than poetry.  Yes, theatre was everywhere; in the echoes of the grand, almost baronial hall, the high windows, the extravagant statuary, heavy tapestries and drapes.  Part of such a place’s function was, after all, to impress, but those it sought to inspire were traders, not literati, and the higher echelons of London centric society were rarely to be spotted here. Instead, on the nights when its doors were thrown wide the salons and corridors were filled by prosperous local stomachs that could comfortably support a wine glass without the aid of a table, and ribald local humour such as graced the better houses of many provincial cities where money was made and exchanges were done.

In the brightness of day the house’s commanding position, too, giving it such clarity as a viewpoint, could only be softened by cloud or rain.  The aspect from which, on brighter days, could be picked out so clearly the urban clutter of Mountchester and extend down the navigable river Leven to the Channel and beyond would be muted by distance to a watercolour palette of melted tones; greys, blues and a dozen more subtle shades.  Upon these mornings Arthur could imagine himself immersed in a timelessness when the hours no longer mattered.  He could lose himself – he could mask the dark and haunting things that pursued him always: in essence,he could forget.

It was the Spring of the year following Hart-Witterington’s passing.   Arthur had not relinquished his mourning, for he missed the old man and his idiosyncrasies sorely; he had regarded him as immortal; never thinking that, despite his great age, death could overtake so dominant a life-force.  But then, on the one weekend he had been away, the one weekend he had extended by a day, his protector, the great man of substance who had built this house, had left him.

Alone in the world was a description Arthur did not care for:  he put it to the back of his mind, for Hart-Witterington had left him everything; the house, the business that provided eggs which, if not golden, were at least sterling silver; everything, in fact, but the gift of good company.  He had much to be grateful for, in terms not just of the warehouses he now owned, stacked along the City bank of the river and bursting with artefacts from the emerging markets of the East, but the organisation which conferred upon him a wealth of leisure to enjoy it.  Too much leisure.

He had breakfasted on his favourite devilled kidneys early, taken one of his horses for exercise in the parkland that surrounded Mountsel, before visiting one of his tenant farmers who was in feud with a neighbour over the damming of a stream.  By the time he had returned to the house and changed out of his riding clothes, the hour was eleven o’clock local time. He was contemplating means to fill the final hour before luncheon when Edkins discreetly tapped upon his study door.

“A visitor, sir.  Without appointment, I’m afraid; a Miss Delisle?  She has a child with her.”  The old butler imparted this information with the controlled horror of a meticulous house servant for whom exposure to children was deeply distressing;  “Shall I tell her you’re unavailable?”

Surprised, Arthur managed a slight shake of the head,  “No, Edkin, show them to the morning room, if you would.”

The old butler raised an eyebrow,  “But a child, sir?”

“A very well behaved one, if my memory serves me.  See if they require refreshment?  A brandy for myself, too, if you please.”

Approaching the doors of the morning room, it would be fair to say Arthur’s emotions were mixed.  After his chance encounter with Francine Delisle he had entertained thoughts of meeting her again and how such a rendezvous could be devised.  The tragic news of his protector’s impending death had all but driven her from his mind, so only recently had she revived in his thoughts.  Yet there must be grounds for this sudden visit:  had some misfortune befallen her?

She was seated on a salon chaise, and much as he remembered, if anything the more alluring because until this moment he had seen her only by candlelight,  or otherwise protected from full view by cape and bonnet against a gale. Her countenance was pale, emphasised by a grey dress trimmed with rose, her eyes the darkest pools of solemn blue

“Mr Herritt, how kind of you to receive me!”  She said quietly,  “I do hope I do not impose?”

He smiled,  “Not at all.  I thought we addressed each other in familiar terms, Francine.  I was Arthur; do you not recall?”

She returned his smile.  “Indeed, I do.”

Arthur turned his attention to young Samuel, who had positioned himself defensively behind his mother;  “And you, sir.  I trust you are well?”

The child looked uncomfortable, and rather trussed in his blue velvet suit.  He mumbled a muffled  “Well, thank you sir,”  without raising his eyes.

 Francine stepped in hurriedly,  “As are you, Arthur?  We are so pleased to see you are in good health!”

“The cholera, you mean?  That has largely passed, has it not?”

And so, haltingly at first, the ease of rapport they had found over dinner at ‘The Rifleman’ in Bleanstead was renewed, until it was almost as if a momentous three months had vanished altogether.  Edkins brought tea and shandy for the visitors, a brandy for his master.  As the conversation at last turned to the reason for Francine’s visit, her brow creased in a frown. 

 “I suppose I must declare myself, mustn’t I?  First may I ask for your indulgence a little further?  Could Samuel be entertained elsewhere?  Another room, perhaps.  He is quite independent.”

“Mama!”  The boy protested.

“Darling boy, you need not be distressed.  I have something to say that is for Mr Herritt’s ears alone.  A confidence, do you see?  And you needn’t fear for my honour, I promise.  Mr Herritt and I have already flouted convention without his giving me any cause for distrust.  Can it be managed, sir?”

Arthur said it could, and Mrs James, his housekeeper, was sent for, to lead a reluctant Samuel away for ‘A look at he hatchery’.

As soon as they had gone, Francine, having sipped from her tea bowl, as if by doing so she would gain time to choose her words, began her tale.  “You might think this curious, Arthur, that our fortunes should have taken such similar turns these past few months, but they have.  Oh, we have not suffered such tragedies as you, my guardian is still very much with us, Heaven be praised, but he is grievously beset.  His fear is for Samuel and I.  He is convinced our lives are in danger.”

“Why should he reason thus?”   Arthur asked;  “Who wishes you harm?”

“I do not know.  By my faith I don’t.  I have so few answers!   We had returned from Bleanstead only three days when he confronted me with his concerns.  He was quite ashen, as though he had just received a shock, and he told me I must find another, safer situation.  I managed to placate him, as a consequence submitting Samuel and myself to virtual imprisonment within his house, and we have been in this condition every day until last evening when he raised the matter with me again, quite forcefully!”

“You say he is your Guardian,”  Arthur interposed.  “He is not a blood relation?”

“No.”

“Would I know his name?”

“He has begged me to repeat his name to no-one.  He seems terrified to have any association with me.  It is quite unbearable!”

Arthur walked to the window that looked out upon the park, half expecting to see some strange carriage or a posse of runners, so earnest was his companion’s tone, but the tranquil innocence of the park was undisturbed.  The mist of morning was fully lifted now and the lawns might be already dry.  He rather wished the same clarity could have visited his mind. “What, do you suppose, renewed his  anxiety?”

“I can throw no light upon it.  But this morning I discovered a valise packed for us and ready in the kitchen.  A handsome had been ordered to the tradesmen’s door “

“With no destination at all?”

“None!  Oh, he did not leave us without money.  I have sufficient to keep us in lodgings somewhere – until summer, he said.  I am not to contact him or acquaint him with my address because, in his words, it would be better if he could not have the information extracted from him.  To that end, he was also emphatic that I should not return to Bleanstead.  That would, apparently, endanger Maud, because whoever pursues me will expect me to go there.”

Arthur shook his head.  “So we have to assume he is fearful of violence, or torture, perhaps.  Who does he believe to be pursuing you, that is the question?  Could there be somebody from your past who bears you ill-will?”

“ I have no notion.”   Francine’s hands were clasped her in her lap and her knuckles were white.  “It is possible, you see, that I have enemies.  May I be frank with you, Arthur?  Can we rely upon each other’s confidence?”

Exigency in the silk of her voice brought him immediately to her side.  “Never doubt it,”  he said gently.  “What is it you need to say?”

“I did not make my circumstances known to you when last we met, and I should do so now.  Indeed, it is imperative that I do.  Arthur, I have no past.”

“My word!”  He exclaimed, taking her hand in his.  It was cold, trembling slightly within the protection of his fingers.  “Many of us might wish we had no past, but the truth must be otherwise.  What are the circumstances that lead you to this conclusion?”

“If you want me to phrase it differently I shall.  I have no memory of anything before a night when I awoke to find myself lying,  heavy with child, before my guardian’s door.  His housemaid discovered me and I recall it so vividly because I have never felt such cold, never since then.  I really think that within another hour I might have died.”

Very gently, Arthur relinquished his grip on her hand, only to feel her reach for its reassurance once more.  “Oh, I am shameless!  Given a day, you would find me recovered to my usual self.  Today?  Today I had such a need to share my story, and you came first to my thoughts.  I cannot make any other excuse!”

“Nor should you be required to.”  He nodded.  “I am glad to be of service.”

“How must you see me?”

“With nothing but respect for your courage.  I see something must be done, and I see that it would be cruel to persist with this discussion.  I will reunite you with Samuel, and I hope that you will grace this house with your presence, for tonight, at least.  There are clearly many things to be said, but they will not suffer by waiting.  My housekeeper will conduct you both to a room where you can rest.  Perhaps you might join me for luncheon?  I normally eat at noon.”

Was he a little peremptory?  Under disguise of consideration for Miss Delisle’s welfare, had he concluded their conversation too soon?  Might he have learned more if he had allowed the thread to continue?   Arthur took no pride in his suspicions, nor was he blind to the meaningful glance his housekeeper bestowed as she took charge of Miss Delisle and her son: he, a man newly come into a fortune, a fact that was well known in Mountchester; she a young woman in straightened circumstances. A mother possibly without a husband, and certainlyt without alternative means of support.  If his thoughts were darkened by suspicion, who would doubt him, or blame him for that?  Of Miss Delisle he knew very little – one meeting, a convivial evening, some three months since.  Yet such meanness of spirit was not natural to him and he was, before all things, a gentleman, not a gallant.  He would not condemn a beautiful woman to hazard the road alone, without escort:  these were not the most propitious days for travel.   He had to know more.

Left to himself with an hour to squander before next meeting Francine, Arthur could have returned to his library, as was his normal custom before his midday meal.  He did not.  Instead, desiring the fresh air of a very pleasant spring morning he turned his feet towards the terrace on Mountsel’s facade, from which to could overlook the park.  Leaning against the stone balustrade he watched as the normal industry of morning took place on the driveway below: deliveries in a purveyor’s horse and cart diverted by a scullery maid from the road reserved for privileged visitors, to head around the East Wing in the direction of the kitchens; a pair of coach horses being led back to the stable block, three of Mr. Maple, the Head Gardener’s apprentices, attacking the rose beds by the fountain, pruning back to old wood,   Bees from the kitchen garden hives were busy adding their note to the proceedings, peacocks rehearsing in more raucous tones, all playing their instrumental part in the symphony of day.

In spite of all the distractions, it would have to be said Arthur’s inner thoughts were never far from Francine Delisle.  Her solo part in the orchestra of the estate was less voluble, but no less intrusive.  In his rapture, Arthur was unaware of an urgent approach of hooves, a thunder of heavy horse and furious haste.  It came upon him unexpectedly:  not from the driveway he could see, but around the West Wing, around the orangery, around the hatcheries, around the high walls of the tropical gardens.   Challenged by the shouts of the ostlers, the hooves spurned the civilised, muffling crunch of Mountsel’s imperious drive, opting instead for the flight of steps that ascended to the end of the terrace – the very terrace where Arthur stood.   He had barely time to turn before this horse was upon him; before its hot breath was panting down in his face and its rider – its mighty, bronzed rider, whose flint-cold eyes  glared fiercely enough to rip his soul from his breast – parted savage lips in a screeching war-cry.  It was a banshee screech, but the words that followed it were plain enough:

“The woman is ours!”

Before Arthur had time to respond, horse and rider had wheeled around, and by a cacophony of clattering hooves, returned from whence they came..

© 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.