The Continuum – Episode Twenty-Three: Impostor

From the previous episode:

Alanee has learned from the dying Cassix that she is to be Seer to the High Council, and she has been shown the Continuum that is Cassix’s greatest fear.  After she has left him, Cassix summons his fellow Councillors to tell them of his choice of successor.

Lady Ellar remains at the old Seer’s side until he dies.

After so emotionally exhausting a night, Alanee has slept only fitfully, beset by dreams.  She rises early to pump her veins with all the tsakal they can retain and dresses herself in her formal robe before venturing into the City.  She would slip anonymously through the shopping avenues to a small emporium she recalls noticing on the day of her first shopping adventure with Sala.

“Lady greet you in your good fortune!”

She has scarcely closed her door.

A woman in her forties confronts her, thrusting a face caked with makeup into hers:  “May I prevail upon you to consider my husband as your assistant?  He is so gifted!  You may remember him – he was….”  Alanee, ducking back to evade a gale of sour breath, does not catch the rest of the sentence.  A small bundle of blankets is stacked against her wall.  The woman has clearly been here for some time.

“I hadn’t thought…”  Alanee protests.

“I will not accept refusal; simply won’t accept it.  He has such talent.  And you will need him, my dear.”

There is a keen edge to the woman’s voice.  Gathering herself, Alanee realises she should have been prepared for encounters like this, but part of her still believes her meeting with Cassix last night was a dream.  Obviously word has already spread.

“I’m sorry, I’m not thinking of any assistance just….”  She is uncertain how to finish her sentence.  “But if you would like to give me your summoner tag, I will call you.”

“I urge you to give this your immediate attention, my dear.”

Now the woman’s voice has definite menace.  Alanee bridles:  “I’ll give it attention, then.  No, thank you.  I will not need your husband’s assistance.  Now, will you leave me alone?”

Like a viper the woman rounds upon her.  “Leave you alone?  No, Lady Alanee I will not do that.  No-one in the City will leave you alone – not now!  Every step you take, Lady!  Think well!”

The woman is glaring at her, snatching up her bundle.  Alanee is confused by this sudden ferocity.  Is the woman mad?

“Lady Alanee?”  From across the avenue comes a rat of a man with irregular teeth, scraping along on ragged sandals.  “Is this her?  Oh, Lady Alanee!  I can’t believe my eyes!  So exquisite a Seer the City has never known!  A pretty face, Lady!  An inviting body, eh?  How far can you get, do you think?  How long before the High Council finds you out?”

“Yes, this is her – the Hakaani peasant!”  The woman snaps.  “We can see it!  It doesn’t take a Seer!”

“Take a Seer to bed, more like!”

Alanee has turned away, walking down the avenue.  Behind her, others join the string of sotto voce comments that are yet just loud enough:

“Cassix’s whore!”

“Poor old man.  Too much for him, I shouldn’t wonder!”

There is studied casualness in Alanee’s step. 

“Look at that!  She even walks like a courtesan!”

“Busy night, I expect.”

Alanee increases her pace, and as the avenue opens out onto the Grand Park there is another shock awaiting her.  At the far end of the lake, The City has raised a painted portrait of her, a salacious facsimile in garish colour at least fifty feet high.  Across its upper edge a banner proclaims:

“The Lady Alanee – newly-elected Seer of the Consensual City”

Her first thought is for the artist who worked so dextrously through the early hours to produce this likeness, albeit a rushed and unflattering one.  Her second identifies Portis as its probable instigator, for she is depicted clad in a low cut dress unlike anything in her wardrobe.  Her lips are made to pout provocatively, her cleavage is heavily emphasised.

Small groups of early morning walkers are staring up at her likeness.  As she passes, an agitator hurls a ‘bomb’ of green paint at the picture, quickly following up with further packages of red and blue, to onlookers’ encouraging laughter. 

The agitator sees her.  “There she is!  Habbach, there she is!  Nice going, Lady!”

Heads begin to turn.

“Sire Cassix’s lucky successor!”

“Successor!  That’s a new word for it!”

“Our Seer!  What do you see for us this morning, Lady?”

“Lady?!  Shouldn’t we consider a new title?”

Someone hurls a missile:  no more, perhaps, than a clod of earth from the Park, but it strikes Alanee heavily on her back.  She starts to run.  Something whips past her ear, smacks into the wall to her right; something harder and more injurious.  The taunts have given way to angry shouts.

In flight she has little time to think; all she can do is race for her original destination, a little book store on the Avenue De Grange, but to get there she must pass all kinds of emporia, and nearly every window displays that picture.

‘Lady Alanee – newly elected Seer to the Consensual City’.

On one picture someone has fancifully outlined her breasts, daubed with livid red nipples.  Another shows her with her pursed lips rendering an obvious service to a crudely sketched male appendage.  All the while her hostile pursuers are multiplying.

The little book emporium is so unobtrusive that by ducking inside Alanee hopes to shake off her pursuers.  Shutting the door to the avenue she leans back against its jamb to regain her composure.  The clamour from outside has dwindled briefly, giving her the hope her plan has worked.  Not for long.

A shout.  “There she is!”  The features of the agitator leer at her through the glass.  In moments there are a dozen faces – the banging begins.

“Get her!”

“Drag her out!”

“The door has bolts.”  The shopkeeper says.

He stands in a doorway at the far end of his shop, a diminutive male figure of considerable age, his bald head fringed by a disorderly tumble of white hair, eyes blinking behind rimless glasses.  His upper body is wrapped in a woollen garment so stretched and faded it might be as old as he: voluminous trousers drape his shrunken thighs.

Needing no second bidding, Alanee throws the big iron bolt in the centre of the door, a second before a first shoulder from outside charges the wood.  There are two further bolts above and below.  She slams them home.

“You excite them.  Come into the back room.”  The old man shouts to make his voice heard.

His emporium is as small (a single narrow aisle with high shelves of books to either side) as it is dark; its subdued light shrouding rows of upper titles in mystery.  Somehow, though, its warm smell of leather is comforting:  even rushing through it Alanee feels its assurance wash over her; quelling her fears.

Whereas the shop is of the books, the back room is of the man.  As she shuts its door behind her, putting a second barrier between her and the noise from the Avenue, she enters a space not much larger than the rest-place by her apartment kitchen.  The shopkeeper’s imprint is everywhere:  a muddle of shelves and tables with, at its centre, a leather armchair as old as any of the books outside.  Walls the colours of an apple, red and green, a ceiling with a single light.  Papers, books, boxes, wrappings, a few rudimentary tools, a stretcher, a guillotine:  items relevant to the bookbinder’s trade, strewn over any horizontal surface that will accept them, including the floor.  Many of these haphazard piles are teetering on the verge of collapse.  All are dusty, even the viewing screen (the room’s only other source of illumination) on a desk beside the chair.  Alanee, already deeply shaken, tries not to imagine the creeping things that might lurk in these neglected creases and ravines.

“A customer this early?  A fine lady too; and so many friends.”  The old man squints at her:  “You are a customer I trust:  or am I merely safe haven?”

Alanee has gathered enough breath to bid him good morning, at which irony hiss eyebrows knit so tightly it seems his whole face might shut like one of his books.  She is sure the odour of ancient parchment attaches itself to his wrinkled flesh.

“I came to you with a purpose.  All these people!”  She shrugs helplessly:  “I don’t understand how…”

“No?”  For all his years the old merchant’s eyes are too quick and bright for his spectacles to subdue them.  “But then you are not of The City, are you?  No, you wouldn’t understand,.  The wrath of the people is a tolerated instrument here, all too often:  tweaked strings, I shouldn’t wonder.  As to who tweaks them….”  It is his turn to shrug.  “You have an enemy, Lady, a puppeteer.  Now, we are able to talk, so how may I help you?”

“I thank you for that;” Alanee is regaining her composure.  “I want a book.”

A dry cackle of laughter.  “I have several of those.”  The bookseller leans forward confidentially, putting his weight on a precarious stack of papers and disturbing, Alanee fancies, a thin waft of dust:  “Few read books these days:  every year, fewer.  Any particular kind of book?”

“Yes.  A red book.”

“Does it matter what the book contains?”

“Not at all.”  She makes a shape with her hands:  “A book so by so, and of roughly this thickness.  It should be bound in old red leather, and secured with a lock.”

“Intriguing.  Do I know the title of this book?”

“It has none.  There should be nothing on the binding.  I want this book to be made, and its cover distressed to appear  ancient.  No-one ever need open it.”

“Ah!”  Sighs the old man:  “A shelf-filler.  Very well, would you demonstrate those sizes to me again?”

‘No, not just a shelf-filler: this book will be an impostor’,  Alanee thinks, as she repeats the dimensions.  In her mind she already sees it so clearly she is sure the bookseller must share her vision, and it appears he does, for he asks for no more detail concerning the volume itself;

“Now; the lock?”

“Old.  Do you have paper?”   Alanee draws a quick sketch.  

The bookseller nods.  “I know someone who can make me such a lock.   Let me be certain:  the pages may be blank, or printed in any fashion – it does not matter?”

“No.  It will not be opened.”

“Then it will be the more convincing, for I can use old pages from another source and rebind them. So many old pages are never opened.  I can have your book ready in three days, my Lady.”

“Tomorrow.  I need it tomorrow.  I’ll send someone to collect it.  Give me your number.”

This merits more blinking from those fevered eyes:  “I will do what I can.  It will be quite expensive, to make a book like that.  There will be window cleaning to be done, too, you know.  Very pricey, that is, in the city.”

“Yes.  Yes I know.  I will not forget your kindness.”  Alanee reaches in her purse, astounded at how sententious her own voice sounds.  She pulls out a wad of credits:  “Will this suffice?”

“Amply.”  The shopkeeper’s eyebrows arrive a short span from the top of his moonlike dome where they find further cause to remain, at the sound of a tooth-grinding siren from the Avenue.  “And here, right upon cue, as it were, is the cavalry.  Let’s see if they can afford you protection?”

#

Returned to her apartment, with a guard outside, Alanee can no longer hear the ribald invective from a throng who already view her as a source of entertainment.  They will not disperse until the same security squad that ensured her safe return put in another appearance, this time protecting Ellar the Mediant.  Alanee admits her, trying to disguise an episode of tears.  Successfully perhaps, for Ellar makes no attempt to commiserate.  Her news is starkly simple:

‘Sire Cassix is dead.  By his wish you are elected Seer to the High Council.”

So it is real.  In a few cycles of the sun she has been adopted by the fairy castle of her childhood dreams, and succeeded to one of its highest offices.  The Hakaani widow whose greatest ambition was to become manager of her Terminus and earn more than a hundred credit pay check is now a public figure.  The thought should make her swoon.  Why, then, is this cup so difficult to accept?  A thousand shouted reasons in the street; a million un-rebutted insults, insinuations and false claims?  Her tears express a yearning to return to simpler times when no-one but her neighbours knew her name.  The days before her are days she will face with dread.

“You must move to the Seer’s residence.” Ellar advises her.  “Although this initial hysteria will die down, you will suffer constant importuning from the citizens of the Lower City.  Only in the Upper Levels will you get any peace.”

Ellar is sitting stiffly across from Alanee on her living room couch, a drink clenched in her hand.  Alanee watches her with feline curiosity; for she recalls Hasuga’s words:  ‘Ellar cannot resist you now’, and she no longer fears this dominant, imposing woman.

“You should be aware,” Ellar warns her; “Your election is not a popular choice.  The majority of your fellow Councillors were very much against Sire Cassix’s decision.”

“If I am a Councillor now, where does that leave you?”  Alanee asks.

Ellar raises an eyebrow.  “In immense difficulty.  You see, I, too, wish he had chosen otherwise, but as Mediant my task is to intercede for you with the High Council.  Fortunately Cassix moved my election also; otherwise my position would be completely untenable.  Even so, it is not a task I relish.”

“Are you telling me you wish to step down?” 

“Can you convince me I should not?”

Alanee considers this.  “You are a good Mediant, I think.  I will need guidance.”

Ellar nods.  “I believe that your coming here was a bad idea.  I accept, though, it was not of your making.  I do not blame you, Lady.  Now Cassix has placed you where you apparently can see the shape of things to come:  however, he has also given you to Sire Hasuga.   Henceforward have no illusions as to who controls the fate of this City.”

 “Suppose I was the one to resign?”  Alanee suggests.  “Suppose I didn’t want to be your Seer?”

This draws a wry smile from Ellar.  “Yes, indeed – suppose that.  In a way it would be all we could wish, wouldn’t it?  Except that Cassix was a great Seer, and no matter how onerous your nomination must be for us all, you were his choice.”

“Which doesn’t stop me from taking my own decision?”

“No. The law of blasphemy does that.  Sire Hasuga has ratified your appointment; if you reverse it, he will not be pleased.”

“You make it sound as if it was really Hasuga’s decision.”

“Wasn’t it?  Sire Hasuga will have been uppermost in Cassix’s thoughts when he made his choice.”

“That’s it, then,”  Alanee sighs with the resignation of one whose fate has passed to other hands.  “You must work with me.  I have a great deal to learn.” 

“Work with you?  Work alongside you, perhaps.”

“What exactly is your price, Lady Ellar?”

Ellar takes a sip from her drink before placing the glass carefully on the table.  “Price?  Believe it or not, yesterday Portis and I completed the list of duties we saw as befitting your service to Sire Hasuga.  Oh, have no fear….”  She waves a hand airily; “I do not expect you will even read them now. 

“If Cassix planned this, placed me on the Council, made you his successor, it was because of your of immunity to Sire Hasuga’s will.  He had not that gift, and neither have I.  But as a Mediant I am not afraid to commit blasphemy in the City’s cause…

Alanee interrupts:  “I don’t see what ‘blasphemy’ means.  If it means you mustn’t question anything Hasuga does or says he can stampede all over you.  That’s never been the way, though.  You’ve always adjusted, filtered, altered his will in subtle degrees:  so where does that stop and blasphemy begin?”

Ellar allows herself to smile.  “Perhaps when it is stated out loud?  Alanee, my ‘price’ is this.  Now Sire Hasuga has the power to overwhelm those subtle adjustments of which you speak, persuade him it is still in his interests to maintain the wellbeing of this city, and I will help steer the Council to accept the best options you can negotiate.  We can work together – shall we say, as a team?”

“You think he has other plans for The City?”

“I fear he has.”

“Or suppose he is a child just growing to manhood who knows less than any of us where the future lies?  If we are on his side we can guide him, give him responsibility – work with him and we will all learn – maybe not at his pace, but we will learn.”

Ellar says grimly.  “We once mistakenly allowed an aerotran to enter the airspace above The City and Sire Hasuga saw it.  He played with it for an hour, throwing it about the sky like a toy.  Its pilot never flew again:  Beware of Sire Hasuga, Lady.  You have a tiger by the tail.”

Alanee is deflated for the moment.  She gives a dismissive shrug.  “Meanwhile, I have to move into Sire Cassix’s chambers, do I?  Can I view them?”

“Certainly.   I will send a guard with Sala to conduct you there.”

The retort is quick as a thrown knife.  “Has she clearance?”

Does Ellar betray her surprise ?  “Yes, her status has been raised.  She is now a member of the Inner Court.”

“A courtier.  So she knows of Hasuga?”

“She has not met him yet.  Will not, unless he desires it.”  Ellar replies without a flicker of expression, though Alanee cannot help but wonder if she knows from whom Sala first learned of Hasuga.

“And;” Alanee continues:  “I shall need to study, the Book of Lore, as well as any other histories.  That was Cassix’s wish.”

Ellar gives her a curious look, but merely assents.  “Of course.”

Both women will leave this meeting with something new.  Ellar has further developed her appreciation of Alanee.  In spite of her reservations concerning Cassix’s choice, she now sees a clearer picture of the adventure before her and comprehends its inevitability.  Meanwhile Alanee, tidying the debris of their meeting, senses she has within her grasp someone who can be both enemy and ally, foe and friend.  She has not lost her mistrust of Ellar, but she has opened a window deeper into the Mediant’s soul.  So she loved Cassix, did she?  That, at least, is something Alanee understands.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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 Twenty-Six The Tragedy of the Commons

The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

© 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-Seven Poppy’s Courage

The woman was concerned.  “You’re hurt.”   Where Edgar’s hand clutched his side, there was blood.  Blood seeped between his big fingers.  She tried to clarify her thoughts; Edgar was here, which implied that he had won his confrontation with Oddjob, although she could not be sure.

“Edgar, where’s the big man?”

“Where I left him, Poppy.  He’s asleep.”

She had known Edgar use the word ‘asleep’ before.  It was a euphemism.  Oddjob was dead.  That would explain why Edgar was calm, his violence having found focus and spent itself upon Oddjob, leaving him feeling guilty and ashamed.  It was not a phase that could be relied upon to last, What was more, Barbut, Oddjob’s colleague would soon return, an encounter they must avoid.  Hiding was impractical, so the only answer was escape – to pass through the door to the outside, a place without walls.  Outside was darkness, outside was cold; early rain now turned to snow.   Edgar’s shivering form needed to be clothed.

“Come on, we must get that bandaged and find you something to wear.”  The woman rose to her feet, grabbing a selection of clothes from her box; capable, in command.   Edgar, by contrast, was in submissive mood, following her lead meekly from her room, along the landing of the old house and down its creaking stairs.  The floor of the hallway was covered by a threadbare runner of carpet.  She swallowed her revulsion because it was also covered, liberally, in blood.   There was no sign of Oddjob.

“Where is he, Edgar?”

Edgar nodded at the under-stairs cupboard.  “I put him in there.  He’s upside down.”

She stared.  “Why?”

“It’s just the way he went in, Poppy.  Shall I turn him round?”  Edgar offered, moving towards the cupboard door.

“No!  No, Edgar, it’s alright.  We’ll just – leave him like that.  Come now, let’s get you tidied up.”

“Anything for you, Poppy.  Anything, my dear.”

Edgar sat obediently on the edge of his bed as the woman investigated the gunshot wound in his side and adjudged it not to be serious.  She improvised a bandage before seeking out the clothes he had worn for their journey to this place.   Only then did she dress herself, surprised by the difficulties that donning a sweater, jeans and canvas shoes represented.  Someone’s coat had been thrown around her for the journey here: she had not worn outdoor clothing at all within her memory.  For his part Edgar dressed quickly and proficiently, reminding her that, although her treatment of him as a child suited them both, he was a sentient adult with a quick, incisive mind.

She folded up the blood-soaked rug, carried it at arm’s length into the kitchen, throwing behind the scullery door. “What did you do with the gun, Edgar?”

“I took it from him, Poppy.”

“I know that.  What did you do with it?”

“I shot him with it.  Three times.  In the head.  Pop, pop, pop.  Why did he want to hurt me?”

“He didn’t understand you, Edgar.  Where is the gun now?”

“Because I was bad to him?”

“Yes.  You know how bad you can be.” Much as the woman had disliked Oddjob, she pitied him for his last terrified moments.  She had been close to a similar precipice many times.  Oddjob had made a mistake.  He had paid.

She gave up on the gun.  Edgar clearly did not want her to know where it was.  She imagined he had jammed it into Oddjob’s throat, or somewhere worse.

Meanwhile, the pendulum of Edgar’s mood was swinging.  “Chin up, old girl.  This is no place for a chap of discrimination and taste, is it?  Let’s break camp before the cavalry arrives.”

He was right, it was time to run.  Nevertheless, at the front door of the house the woman wavered.  Out there, in the darkness, snow was falling:  the blowing white mist of the high moors draping every inch of cover.  Out there, there were no walls.  Space, immensity without limit.  Panic welled up inside her so swiftly it took her breath.  She was tottering, her head swimming.   Edgar’s arm supported her waist.   “Courage, Poppy!  One step at a time, eh?”

And he guided her into the night.

#

As the car headed north, Patrick asked:  “What will happen to Mr Purvis?”

Rebecca grinned at him over her shoulder:  “A nice comfortable night in the Accident Department, I hope.  He’ll get lots of free tests.  That’s what usually happens.”

“He does this sort of thing frequently?”

“Not frequently, exactly…Is there a map in this thing?”  She asked, rummaging through the glove compartment.

Patrick had already retrieved a road atlas from the pocket on the back of Rebecca’s seat.  He passed it forward.  “What do we want to find?”

“Amy gave me an address, but it’s so remote she had to use an Ordnance Survey map to find it.  It sounds ideal – fits what we’re looking for.”  Rebecca discovered a navigation light and flicked through the pages of the tattered atlas.  “But it won’t be in this, will it?  Look Tarq, this town – can you see?”  She held the atlas up to the light.  “Martlock?  Amy said there’s a road, or a track or something around about here on the B1724, at least, that’s what I think she said.  It’s only ten miles, yeah?   It goes straight up onto the moor, so it’s going to be quite hairy.   Pity you couldn’t pinch a Land Rover, genius!”

Tarquin slipped the Toyota into a higher gear.  “You’re the philosopher here, Patrick,” He said.  “Can you explain why it always rains when you are trying to drive an unfamiliar road in the middle of the night?  I’d really like to know.”

“Nothing personal;” Patrick assured him.  “It’s all to do with the juxtaposition of the spheres.  What sort of place is it, ‘Becca?”

“An old farmhouse, Amy thinks. I didn’t manage to get much info., with Beefy breathing on my neck.  Can’t you do anything with these wipers, Tarq?  I’m seeing double.”

“At least you’re seeing something,”   Tarquin muttered.

Martlock crept up on them without their noticing, an apologetic clutch of squat grey dwellings split asunder by a road its Victorian builders had never designed it to accommodate.   A few anaemic streetlights threw reflective glimmers onto the uneven tarmac, a few brave windows cast their dim message of habitation out into relentless rain.  A hardened town, embittered by a climate that could bring snow even in May: a scattering of shops half-starved – a market square, some cobbled alleyways that rose up onto the sheer slopes of the moors, looming behind their cloak of darkness.  Citizens scornful of the storm’s attack emerged shirt-sleeved from the public houses, The Red Lion, The Black Horse, gathering defiantly along the pavements, dodging puddles and glancing only briefly before launching themselves across the road.

It was over almost before it was begun, that town.  Ascending steadily as they drove beyond it, the companions were plunged into inky night once more, and rainfall that had been plagued by doubt finally became snow.  Hedges newly hued in white rushed by, occasional headlights, oncoming, brought hearts to mouths.

“Somebody’ll have reported this thing stolen by now,”  Tarquin said, referring to their transport. “Although why anyone would want it…”

“The turn-off should be here somewhere,” warned Rebecca.  “Just after a sharp right-hand bend.  That’s it!  Look!”

“Alright, alright, I see it!”  snapped Tarquin irritably.  “That?  Are you sure it’s that?”

“Must be.”

“Okay.”

The gap in some dry stone wall on their left provided access, but not to anything that might have been described as a road.  Tarquin sent the car diving into it with a silent prayer.   A sharp descent, a gut-wrenching bang as the car’s suspension bottomed out, then a rise and an airborne moment before the headlights stabilized, shining on a track that was doing its best to impress as a river, with water flooding down it.

“That was a ditch!”

Patrick groaned.  “We’re going to get stuck in this!”  The gradient before them was simply too steep.

“Not if we keep the speed up, m’dear!”  Tarquin yelled.  “This is hardcore.  Look to your teeth!”

His foot applied hard to the accelerator, the comfortable newspaper hack was suddenly rallying a special stage:   “Whoa!  Lots of hill!  Sit tight!”

Wheels spun, Rebecca squealed as the left front wing failed to miss a rock, with a crash which sent the whole chassis sideways.  A headlight was extinguished, the back end of the car slewed, Tarquin wound it back into shape, spinning the wheel left and right like a Finnish Ice Racer.   In second gear for most of the time, he was thrusting the car into the hill at near-suicidal speed.

“Tarquin!”  ‘Becca shouted.  “I don’t want to die, mate, okay?”

“Are you dead yet?”

“No.”

“Then keep quiet.   I’m working!”

Looking back in one of the ascent’s rare, more sober moments, Patrick spied the scattered lights of the little town far below, animated into crazy trampoline leaps by the action of the car.  Beyond the oval provided by their one remaining light he could see nothing in front but the reflections from the blizzard.

Becca shouted out again.   “Slow down, Tarq!”

“Why?”  Tarquin’s grunt was cut off as he nearly bit through his own tongue.

“Some windows – lights.  That’s the house, I think, yeah?  See it?”

In the next brief cessation of the gale, Tarquin did see it.  They each saw it, just as they saw the van parked in front of it..  “Bugger,”  Tarquin said.

“Turn off the light!”  Becca commanded.

“You’re f***ing kidding, aren’t you, darling?  I can hardly see with it on!”

“Then bloody stop!”

“Is there nothing this woman won’t put me through to get her Pulitzer?” Tarquin complained as he switched off the engine.  “I’m not as young as I was, you know!”

“Oh, shut up, Tarq!” Rebecca snapped.  “Whose is it, do you think?”

“My money says that’s the same van that was hired in London.”

Rebecca nodded in the dark.  “Mine too.  How far away are we – a quarter mile?  They must have seen us coming, even if they didn’t hear us.  They must be in the house.”

Patrick could barely disguise his eagerness.  “How many, I wonder?”

“Two, three captors – two hostages.  At least, that was what left London.”

“So what next?”  Patrick asked.

“Whatever the story is, we aren’t going to find out from here,”  said Rebecca, with decision. “I’m in need of some air – do you young chaps fancy a walk?”

#

No sooner had the woman followed Edgar’s lead and stepped from the house into the whipping blast of the open moor than she saw the beams of the van’s headlights snaking up the side of the hill.  They had made their escape just in time.  Shielded by darkness, Barbut’s return concerned her less now they were out on the moor.  Even the cold was a condition to which she was accustomed.  She had been cold, more or less, for eight years, just as she had been hungry, or hurt, or afraid.  This deprivation counted with her rather less than the emptiness of the void which surrounded her. Of far greater import was agoraphobia, the terror of limitless, unseen space, and Edgar’s mood.  He had been surprisingly complicit thus far, but for how long could she expect that to continue?    Edgar?  She need be in fear of him, not for him.

Probing through darkness, she and Edgar had covered very little distance when the familiar white van’s headlights were snuffed out before the house.  She was able to watch not one, but three heavily-built men emerge from the body of the van to hurry indoors, their jackets pulled over their heads against the elements.  Her thoughts rushed back to Oddjob’s conversation, overheard on the telephone:  sedation, the mention of a beach.  She held no illusions.  If she was to survive this night, if Edgar was to survive, they must get as far beyond the reach of these men as the elements would allow.

The heather and broom carpet was unforgiving, snatching at their ankles, and interlaced by little channels, a thousand of them, filled with frozen rainwater threatening to take their feet from under them.  Unseen sheep snickered in the dark, or gave vent to loud, old-man coughs that might cause many an inexperienced traveller to cower.  In her head, the woman pictured those three big men as they noticed the broken stair rail, registered Edgar’s room with its unsecured door.  Maybe it would be Barbut who would open that cupboard under the stairs…  Suddenly Edgar stopped, scenting the wind almost as a dog might – almost like the wild creature he was, the woman thought.

“We have company, Poppy.”  He said quietly.

The woman paused, listening.  At first all she could hear was the rush of the wind and steady whisper of snow, but as her concentration improved, there were other sounds too – of feet moving softly through the broom, even, she thought, a low undercurrent of urgent, hushed voices.  “How far away?”  She hissed, trusting Edgar’s instincts.

“About fifty yards, Poppy, I do believe.   Over there.”  Edgar pointed grandly into the darkness.   “Might be following us, do y’think?”

The woman had never known Edgar to act in this fashion.   Rational thought was rare for him:  phases of sobriety were usually tantalizingly brief and presaged fits of distress or anger.   She was on edge:  when would the mood break, and when it did, what would follow?   She could not handle a manic spasm out here on the moor – conditions were too severe.  She needed – they both needed – enclosure, something around them; to be inside a room, a box, space with features she knew and could touch. Above all, she must get Edgar out of weather which was beyond her experience.  Her heart was pumping wildly.  She had to take a risk, a chance.

She shouted above the gale:  “Help!   Help us!”

“Holy Crap, what’s that?”   The response was immediate, female, and much nearer than Edgar had led her to believe.   “Tarq!  Over here!”

From the direction of the house the sound of pandemonium breaking out announced a discovery – the blood-soaked rug, possibly, or simply their absence – or maybe someone had opened the under stairs cupboard.  Raised voices, torch beams, running feet.

A figure, small and slender and as inadequately dressed as the woman herself suddenly took shape in the white fog, to be joined almost immediately by a second, more substantial presence who clutched a hat to his head.

“It’s the abominable bloody snowman, Rebecca m’dear.  I do believe we’ve struck oil!”  Tarquin Leathers exclaimed.  “May I be so presumptuous as to inquire your names, my dears?”

Alarmed though she was by Tarquin’s extravagant language, so incongruous in the teeth of a howling blizzard, the woman had to trust these strangers.  It was not a matter of choice.

“I’m Poppy, and this is Edgar,” she raised her voice once more against the wind, “And we need to get out of here.”

If any reinforcement of her argument was needed, the crack of a gun and a snick of a bullet in the heather nearby supplied it.  “Back to the car!”  Rebecca yelled.

A third figure materialized in the haze of snow:  “Wait a minute!  Is this who I think it is?”

Another shot, another bullet, uncomfortably close.  “Have we met, dear boy?”  Edgar asked.

“Yes!  Last time, I pushed you into the river!”  Patrick rounded on Rebecca.  “Leave him here!  A bullet’s too good for him, but it’ll do!”

“You may be right, dear boy,” Tarquin reasoned, “ but if we stay to argue you will find these bullets undiscriminating.  Let’s save the moral discussion for later, shall we?”

“Patsy!”  Rebecca placed frozen hands on Patrick’s shoulders, “We need to get at the truth, yeah?  I know how you feel, but…”  Edgar was becoming agitated.  The woman was ignoring everyone now, as she tried to keep him calm.   Wordless, Patrick broke out of Rebecca’s grip, stamping away in the direction of the car.

“They’re coming!”  Tarquin roared, “I think we should leave – now!”

Barbut and his ‘colleagues’ were splitting up, two advancing across the moor in their direction, the other starting their van: its headlights flared.

Rebecca and Tarquin broke cover to run after Patrick, the woman followed, dragging Edgar behind her.   It was not a great distance, it did not need to be.

“I hate to resort to the bleedin’ obvious,”  Rebecca cried, “But the soddin’ car’s facing the wrong way!”

“I’ll turn it!”  Tarquin replied.

“How?  There’s no room!”  Patrick reasoned.  The van’s bright beams were piercing the snow, throwing light upon their distressed Toyota, already half-buried in the confines of the track.  “And no time.”  He added, with finality.

The van was upon them, the figures from the moor catching up fast.   She who called herself ‘Poppy’ was fussing with the man-monster, stroking his arms and cheeks, trying to placate him.  The next burst of small-arms fire from the two on the moor would not miss.  Rebecca and Tarquin?  They were unarmed, and Patrick hoped fervently the man-monster was not holding a gun.  It was over.

As if to vie with his argument, a chatter of automatic rifles split the night.   Bullet-holes sprayed across the windscreen of the van in a neat line.  It skidded sideways and stopped.  One of their assailants on the moor was thrown backwards in a way that suggested he would not get up again, the other threw himself flat.  Hands that brooked no dissent gripped Patrick’s arms, turning him.  Fresh headlights glared in his eyes as the massy presence of a large long-wheel-based land rover slid to a halt only yards away.

“He’s the one!”  The flint-like figure from the hotel might have been difficult to identify in the snow, but his voice betrayed him.  He was pointing at Edgar.  “Jacket him, now!”

Three men, those whom Rebecca had outsmarted earlier that evening, all now dressed in uniform camouflage and each carrying an automatic rifle, closed around them, forcing them into the Land Rover.  A fourth, who was the driver, produced a straitjacket, which, despite the woman’s protests, he and the one Rebecca had nicknamed ‘Beefy’ used to restrain Edgar, pinning him against the snow-burdened Toyota as they tied him in.   Edgar howled, loudly and long, but he was helpless against the trained force of these men.  Everyone waited then, while the flint-like superior officer with two of the men combed the area immediately around the track and inspected the van.

“One dead, the rest have gone,”  was the flint-like man’s verdict as he climbed into the front passenger seat of the Land Rover.  “Van’s empty.  I expect the driver high-tailed it back to the house.”  He extracted a microphone from an RT on the dashboard and transmitted:  “Hotel Tango Alpha, area secure.”  Then, turning to address his captive audience;  “I’m sorry for the rough handling.  We’ve made special transport arrangements for Lord Driscombe.   The rest of you will have to accompany us, I’m afraid.”

Rebecca’s rueful comment from the darkness:  “Fait accompli?”

The driver of the Land Rover took his place, yet made no move to depart.  The three-man assault force had thrown a coat over Edgar’s shoulders and remained out on the moor, supporting Edgar, kicking wildly, between them.   Their attention was focused upon the western sky, and soon the reason became apparent as sounds of a helicopter filtered through the snow, loud and growing louder.

Among the Spartan seating arrangements inside the vehicle, the woman was placed opposite Patrick, giving him an opportunity to assess her, if not see her (there was no interior light) for the first time.  He was nervous, excited; could she be?   She was concerned for altogether different reasons.

“Edgar?  Where are they taking Edgar?”

“I think it’s alright,” he reassured her, “I think you’re safe now.”

“Edgar!  What will they do to him?  Why aren’t they taking me?”

“I don’t know.”  He replied, carefully.  “Perhaps they feel it’s time you had some freedom?  You’ll have to help me because it has been a long time, and I long ago ceased to believe this was possible, but tell me, are you Karen?  Are you Karen Eversley?”

The woman turned her head towards him, as though something, some nuance in his voice had sparked a memory:  “I’m Poppy.”  She said.  “That’s my name, Poppy.  Why won’t they let me be with Edgar?”

The noise made further speech impossible because outside, a helicopter was landing in the snow.

Author’s note:  Don’t miss next week’s final chapter of ‘Nowhere Lane’!

 

© 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