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Continuum Episode 8 – Celeris

The story so far:

Wth a clear notion she must escape the Consensual City, Alanee sets out into its nightlife, determined to find the aerotrans port and Dag, her friendly pilot.  She is unaware she is being watched, or of the plotting that surrounds her.In the throng on the avenues, Alanee finds her concentration ebbing.  A gift of music from a goblin creature elates her, then leaves her irresolute and alone.  A bystander, sensitive to her distress, asks if he can help her…

“Thank you.”  Alanee finds words “Could you tell me where I can find the aerotran port, please?”

The man who has introduced himself as Celeris does not hesitate.  “I can do better.  It would be an honor to guide you, Lady.”

What is it about him that disturbs her?  “You’re very kind, but I don’t want to break up your discussion.”

Celeris looks puzzled for a moment.  “No, no.”  He casts a glance over his shoulder at the assembly he has left:  “They won’t even realize I have gone, I promise you.  Come, please!”

The hand he offers seems so finely-boned and fragile Alanee is afraid to grasp it lest it crumble, but his grip is firm and surprisingly confident.  “I shall look after you.”

He leads her by avenues and gardens, away from the nightlife of the City.  He leads with a purpose, but Alanee notices that no-one greets him as he passes, or acknowledges her.  She feels almost as though she is elsewhere, afloat on a different plane.

 “And you are Lady…?”

“I’m not sure you should call me ‘Lady’.  My name is Alanee.”

Celeris stops instantly, “You are undoubtedly a lady.”  He declares.  “I am privileged to know you, Lady Alanee!”

They continue walking. “You are not from around here, are you?”

“Are you?”  She returns.

“I?   Very much so, yes – all  my life!”

“Why does no-one know you?  At least, they don’t greet you, do they?”

His eyes engage with hers, though he does not stop walking.  “I’ve noticed that, too.”  His smile is impish.  “What brings you to the City?  You are far too beautiful for this ravening horde – they can hardly be restraining themselves.”

“I was brought, but no-one will tell me why,”  Alanee replies.   They arrive at the platform of a large door-less elevator which, its sign declares, is ‘descending’, threading their way into some free space between a small huddle of passengers who mostly wear flyers’ uniforms, similar to that sported by Dag when Alanee met him last.  There are one or two gold helmets among the crowd too, but although Alanee scans their faces, she cannot see her erstwhile pilot amongst this group.

“They’re being mysterious about it, are they?”  Celeris nods.  “The High Council are like that.  They relish a drama, a bit of mystery.  Don’t stand for it, Lady Alanee: demand to know your fate!”

“How do you know the High Council have anything to do with it?  I didn’t say that, did I?”

“Why no, you didn’t have to!  It is only by the invitation of the High Council that anyone may enter the Consensual City.  Such invitations are rare, so you must be someone quite important, I think; don’t you?”

This is not the first such challenge to leave Alanee floundering.  She does not reply.

At a warning chime the elevator slips downwards; an angled descent of about thirty degrees, through levels of various decoration and population.

At the fifth such level the aerotran deck declares itself.  Five large High Council aerotrans pose in orderly file while drabs fuss around them – one is clearly ready to leave, forcing Alanee to suppress an insane urge to run in case this should be Dag’s aerotran – in case she should miss the dark pilot whose face remains so fresh in her thoughts.

Celeris shows Alanee that she need only follow the general throng, for almost all the passengers on the elevator have disembarked here, and there is a general migration towards a suite to the right of the deck.  Once inside this unimposing area, however, most disperse:  speaking quietly among themselves they take stairs to upper levels, or filter through doors, leaving Celeris and Alanee alone in a dingy foyer with rushes for a floor and lackluster paint on its green walls.  As bland as the décor, a clerk at a scuffed wooden desk barely acknowledges their approach.

“I want to talk to an aerotran pilot!”  Alanee breaks the silence boldly.  “His name is Dag.  Could you tell him Alanee would like to see him?”

The clerk is writing something.  “Dag?  What makes you think he works here?”

“He’s an aerotran pilot!  Isn’t this where aerotran pilots work?”

The clerk gives her a sour look.  “Don’t be funny!  There are cargo pilots, and there are official pilots – oh, yeah, and there are taxi pilots.  They don’t all work from here.”

“Let us assume this one does?”  Celeris, until now content to be in the background, advances, speaking in clipped tones.  “Lady Alanee would like to speak with him.  Now.”

It is as if somewhere within dark halls of the clerk’s mental anatomy a light has been switched on.  His tone lifts a half-octave.  “He may be in.  I’ll just check for you, Lady Alanee.”

A screen on the shielded side of the desk flickers into life.  The clerk scrolls with his left hand, tracking the lines of script as they pass with his right forefinger.

“Yes.  Yes, you must mean Master Pilot Dag Swenner.  I’m afraid Master Pilot Swenner is on outward flight at the moment, Lady.  He isn’t due back until the day after tomorrow.  Would you like to send him a message?”

No, Alanee sighs, no message.  A forlorn hope, anyway, she convinces herself:  why should a man who did no more than ferry her once be the salvation she seeks?  But still, she would have liked to see him, and the thought of him out there alone makes her sad.

“I’m sorry your friend is away.”  Celeris says as they take the ascending elevator.  “A master pilot, too.  You have excellent taste in friends.”

“Well, not my friend, really.”  Alanee admits; “Just someone to talk to.”

Celeris moves so he stands directly facing her, letting her have the full force of his incisive stare.  “Talk to me.”

She demurs, “Oh, you don’t…”

“But I do!  Lady Alanee, I want to know everything about you.  Come now, indulge me!”

And so Alanee does.  Shyly at first, she tells him of her home in Balkinvel, and the warm Hakaani plains that roll like an ocean swell in the morning mist, recalling the afternoon when she was lifted from everything she loved and knew to be brought to this strange place.  At the use of the word ‘strange’ Celeris laughs (a soft sympathetic laugh) and nods approvingly.

“Strange indeed!”

“Very.  I bought this dress.  It took every credit I had.  I thought it looked good but now I’m wearing it I don’t know.  Everyone stares at me.  It’s OK, apparently, if some revolting little monstrosity publicly tries to stick his hand on my breast, yet if I show any leg I’m a harlot or something….”

“Stop, stop!”  Her companion raises his hands defensively:  “You mustn’t heed the ways of the city, Lady!  Your dress perfectly frames your beauty:  it is that they stare upon.  They are filled with regret because after seeing you they will have to go back to their wives!”

He speaks over the throng (they have returned to the humdrum of the avenue where they met) “Lady Alanee, would you do me the honor of dining with me?  There is a diner near here where the food is superb, and I would really enjoy sharing it with you.”

Alanee would politely decline, but she is quite hungry; and this oddly child-like man makes a charming companion:  so she says:  “Why thank you, Sire Celeris!  The honor would definitely be mine!”   

So, behind another green door, in another honeycomb of warm, confidential spaces and comfortable upholstery she comes to be pouring out the rest of her story.  She tells it all, or nearly all, from her interview with Cassix and Remis at the Terminal through to the moment Celeris, appeared to her out of the crowd.  She withholds only two things, the details of her interview with the High Councillors (Sala has warned her not to discuss such matters) and the reason for her quarrel with Sala.

Food has been placed before them; a sort of spicy fish steak in a sauce so intensely flavored it takes Alanee’s breath away.  As they eat Celeris listens, nodding once in a while.  When she lapses at last into silence, her story done, he asks:  “And what do you think of our city?  Apart from ‘strange’, I mean?”

“I think it is a very grand city.  If I were a city girl, I would love it.”

“But…?”

“But I’m not.”

“So this Dag, he is your means of escape?  You hope he will take you back to your home?”

Alaneee bites her lip.  Should she confess?  He seems so kind, but what if this Celeris is some high official, who will turn her in?  “No!  No, Celeris, I see that I must stay here.  Perhaps when I understand what is being asked of me, things will feel better.  For now, I just need a friend.”

Celeris reaches across the table and rests his hand on hers.  Though his touch is cool the vibrancy of his whole being pulses within it.  “Would you consider me a friend?”

Alanee thinks of the one she had hoped to reach tonight.  She cannot help comparing Dag with this enigmatic creature.  Yet he is listening well, he understands.  Sometimes it is only necessary to be there.  “You’re very sweet.  I think you’re already my friend.”

Celeris radiates delight.  The squeeze of his hand is like a static shock that sends arrows of warmth through Alanee’s whole body.  “Thank you!  I know we shall be great, great friends!”

They eat and talk, talk and eat:  and the hours pass, and evening becomes night, and in no time at all it seems that midnight is upon them.  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand to walk her home.

“How will I find you again?”  She asks, adding hurriedly:  “If you want me to find you?”

“I will show you how this is done.  Have you your summoner?”

Alanee has long forgotten the miscellany within her clutch-bag.  She rummages.

“This?”

“Yes.  It’s your link to all who know you within the city.  If I press my finger upon this pad – so – I join that happy society.  There, see?  My name upon your screen.”

“I live here.”  Outside her door, Alanee does not want the talking to end, does not want to be alone.  Were she bolder she would invite Celeris in, just so they could talk some more; just so she is not alone…

“I’d better get to bed.  I’m sure they’ll want me early in the morning.”

“Of course.”  Celeris bows ceremoniously.  “Good night, Lady Alanee.  I have so enjoyed this evening.  I hope we will meet again very soon.”

He has taken her hand, brushed it lightly to his lips.  Alanee watches him go, striding along the avenue with a purpose that belies his stature.  Later, when she lingers at the door of sleep, trying once more to center her mind on the prospect of escape, she will realize that all the talking through the hours has been about her.  She knows nothing about Celeris at all.

#

Of the gathered High Council, only Trebec notices Portis as he enters the Council Chamber.  The florid man’s face is etched with care.

“Are we all present?”  Portis asks.

“We await Sire Calvin, I think…no!  Here he is…”  Trebec’s voice is strained.

“You know more than I, clearly – what’s amiss?”

“You will learn.”

The Council is called to order by the Domo.  Slowly, for these are men and women of advanced years, chairs around a vast polished mahogany table are occupied.  “Sire Cassix.  I believe you requested this summons?”

Cassix rises to his feet.  The Seer is not among Portis’s closer acquaintances:  to Cassix’s mind Portis always looks hungry, as though he is anticipating his next meal but knows he will have to negotiate to get it.  This evening he looks especially starved.

“I bring grave news.  Sire Carriso, I know this should have reached you first, as Councillor for Dometia, but such is the urgency I thought it best to deliver this report to the whole Council.  Please forgive me.”

Cassix draws breath, drawing his shoulders back, aware that all eyes are upon him.  “This afternoon a little after 4.00 pm I sensed a disturbance of immense size from the direction of the Kaal valley in central Dometia.   It was of such proportions I could not clearly define it at first, but upon checking, I discovered that the foundry at Takken ceased production at that time.  Shortly after, a distress call from Kaalvenbal, the principal town of the region, spoke of the River Kaal as ‘boiling’.  Subsequently, a high static electrical charge in the air began to burn the citizens of that town. Our last report, an hour ago, spoke of ‘buildings alight, people suffocating’.  Thereafter all communication ceased.  I have received no news from Kaalvenbal since then.”

A rising murmur of consternation threatens to drown Cassix’s voice.  He pauses to allow the substance of his report to sink in.

“How?”  Carriso asks, distressed:  “How has this happened?”

Cassix shakes his head.  “I cannot say.”

“You are the Seer.  If you can’t…”

Cassix’s heart goes out to the young Councillor.  “I know how you love your people, Carriso.  If I could comprehend this myself I would tell you more.  It’s completely outside my experience.”

Portis swallows hard:  “Do you have any ideas, then; any theories, Cassix?”

“Not as such.  You will recall I made reports last year regarding a disturbance in the eastern sky I have referred to as the Continuum.  There may be a connection.”

A suppressed ‘harrumph’ comes from Councillor Selech’s end of the table.  Selech heads a group Cassix calls the ‘Continuum Skeptics’.

Cassix continues; “Three days ago I became aware of a significant increase in the size and activity of the Continuum.  I mentioned this at our last gathering.  I have been diverted since then so I have not had an opportunity to check it again.”

This suggestion instigates a clamor of dissent.  The Domo raises his hand.  “Sires, let us have quiet.  Cassix, how large an area is affected by this event?”

“The only evidence so far is anecdotal:  an aerotran pilot delivering plasma supplies to Kaalvenbal called in:  he spoke emotionally of a ‘cylinder of fire without heat’ rising several thousand meters into the air.  He seemed to think its girth was at least forty miles, but…”

“But what?”

“He was overwrought, disoriented.  We lost contact with him afterward, and his aerotran does not respond to our sensors.”

“He’s dead, in other words,”  Trebec mutters.

The Domo’s fat fingers drum upon the table’s polished wood.  “Speculation avails us nothing.  We will send a second aerotran to survey the extent of this enormity.  Carriso, you must organize medical facilities; we will send the supplies and specialists the Dometians need.

“Trebec, make Braillec your base to prepare a surface expedition to the scene.”

Sire Calvin, most ancient of the Councillors, intervenes in his high, piping voice:  “Sire Domo: all this electrical activity….is it possible that for a while these citizens might be deprived of The Word?”

The Domo nods, casting a worried glance in Carisso’s direction.  The Dometian’s skin is drained of all pallor.  “Sire Trebec, maybe you should despatch a Legion from Braillec to escort your expedition, just in case?”

“NO! No, Sire!”  Carriso finds his feet, impassioned.  “You think I don’t see what you intend?”

Calvin tries to placate him:  “They are our people too, Carriso.”

For a moment no-one speaks.  Carriso, watched with pity and concern by every member of  High Council, stands motionless, then, with a sound akin to a sob, the Dometian Councillor rushes from the room.

The Domo sighs heavily:  “Gentlemen, that will be all for tonight.  We await more detail.”

Slowly, and by diminishing pools of earnest conversation, the High Council disperses.  In an antechamber, Calvin takes Cassix to one side.  He speaks quietly.

“Cassix, is it possible your thoughts add up to more than your lips divulge?”

The Seer nods.  “I am already considered eccentric by two-thirds of the Council, downright dangerous by the rest.  That does make restraint the wiser course.”

“Well, I consider you neither, so I am to be discounted.  Speak, man?”

“Very well.”

From across the room, Councillor Portis watches as Cassix and Calvin converse in low, confidential tones.  As words float between them, he sees the ancient Councillor’s parchment skin pale more than his years dictate.  When they part, he thinks he detects tears on the old man’s cheeks.

#

Nearly two thousand miles to the south and east of the Consensual City a malefic red orb of a sun is rising, glowering down upon the blackened valley of the River Kaal.  Its early glare flows across naked rock like fresh blood – the dark, arterial blood of departing life. 

No more the village, Kaal-Takken is nothing but charcoal twigs ready to topple in the first breeze:  no more the people, for they are gone – just gone.  And no more the river where the sweet Saleen swam in gentler light.  The river is dry.

#

By the habbarn where the child slumbers his Mother watches.  She gazes fondly upon his sleeping face, recalling happy hours of love and games so innocent they brought her own childhood again into her life.  And she grieves for those times, knowing they have passed.

The child is a man now, or soon to be.  His games have changed, their naive simplicity become more sinister, their nature destructive, their consequences far-reaching. 

Oh, she has missed none of the physical changes; longer face, broadening shoulders, bold, self-confident stance.  Although she may not undress him now, she is too close to him not to notice his obvious manhood, which frequently embarrasses him because he does not understand.  She would explain to him, he needs to know, yet this defensive wall growing between them somehow prevents her.

He called her ‘Mother’ tonight, not ‘Mummy’.  It was the first time.  And he would not permit her to tuck him up, or kiss his forehead as she always did.  This, she knows, is natural change:  the end of one thing, the beginning of another, but she hates it!  And when she looks into their future – her future, Hasuga’s future – she sees only fear.

Tonight the fear shall not be hers alone.  It will waft like a contagion through the splendid avenues, the trysting alleys, the tall trees and waters of the park.  Its insidiousness will seep into the greatest minds of the City, and the least suspecting; for all will succumb to that first shred of doubt.  Something a thousand miles away has served them notice, and it must not be ignored.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Two A Letter

The story so far: 

In Abbot’s Friscombe, the nearby home village of the Smith family, Jennifer Althorpe, a journalist for a major national newspaper devoted to sabotaging Joe’s brother Ian Palliser’s political career is at work, trying to stir up a scandal story by rekindling anger over Joe’s reputed involvement in Rodney Smith’s fatal motoring accident, some years before.

Meanwhile, unaware the net is closing, Joe accepts Sophie’s invitation to go horse riding together – a lyrical day out culminating in an act of love which Joe unwittingly destroys by blurting out the name of Marian, his deceased lover.

For the whole of that night Joe lay uneasily in his bed, applying the salves of drink and deductive reasoning to his wounded conscience.  But the more he explored his thoughts and feelings, the more he had to accept there was no logic to be found.  Sophie was as perfect a companion, perhaps even a partner, as he could ever wish for; he was attracted to her and yet he had used her.  Brilliantly though Sophie’s star shone, at one spontaneous, disastrous moment it was Marian who had filled his heart.  Just as once, in another unforgettable instant, Emma Blanchland had worn Sarah Halsey’s mask; Emma Blanchland who was now Emma Peterkin and lost to him forever.  Why?  What part of him insisted he should not move on, but always cling to the impossible, to the memory, to the romantic dream?  He was fairly certain he could fall in love with Sophie – if it were not too late.

In the afternoon when Joe returned Julia had a letter for him from Carnaby, his solicitor, suggesting they appoint to meet, so he had telephoned:  the old man seemed to think there was a matter of some importance to resolve, and Joe had promised to visit him at eleven the next morning.  Before he left for the town, he called Sophie, counting himself fortunate that it was the daughter, not her mother, who picked up the ‘phone.

“Mr. Palliser; how considerate of you to call.”  If words were knives their cut could have been no deeper.

“Please, Sophie, don’t be angry with me!”

“No?  You have other expectations?”

“I know I messed up, and right now it must seem unforgiveable, but Sophie…”

Seem unforgivable?”

“Alright; alright.  Completely unforgiveable.  And I wish I could explain it, I really do.  You can’t imagine how wretched I feel!”

“Oh, I believe I can!  About as wretched as you made me feel, and a little worse, I hope!”  Sophie sighed, letting her anger dissipate, then said, in a more subdued tone:  “It was a mistake, Joe – an awful misjudgement.”

“Something terrible possessed me.  I can’t explain how, but there’s so much that’s  good between us, so much that feels right, and I… ”

Sophie cut in:  “You might as well know, I’m driving up to London with Daddy this evening. He thinks it’s time I made use of my Two-One in Art History, as do I.  He knows the owner of a gallery who will offer me some work.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t believe I will.  The Bayswater flat is big enough for us both and I shall live there.  Daddy will continue to come back at weekends, of course, but I rather think I will stay in town, at least for a while.  It’s time I built an existence of my own.”

“So that’s it?   One stupid mention of a name, and it’s all over?”

“I think it’s for the best.  On a personal note, Joe, there are things you need to sort out.  When you’ve found that brother of yours, see if you can find yourself.”  Her voice was chill.  “Until you have, I believe I should keep well clear; for my own sake, do you see?”

Before he could make any riposte, the line went dead.

Had he means to see, to hear, Sophie after she replaced her receiver, Joe might have bitten back the helpless frustration he felt.  For the Sophie that her mother saw, across the hallway of their home was pale, with eyes dark-shaded where she had not slept.

“He matters, doesn’t he, darling?” Emily Forbes-Pattinson said.

Sophie nodded in silent reply.  “Do you know the one thing he didn’t say, Mummy?  Not once.  He didn’t say he was sorry.”

 

Joseph set off for his meeting with Carnaby in Braunston with Sophie’s words still churning in his thoughts, and only the urgent compulsion to find Michael driving him on.  He could harbour no illusions – his solicitor’s urgency must mean the result of Marian’s autopsy had arrived, and he was giving way to some form of panic, beginning to feel the need to put physical distance between this place, these emotions, and himself.  Perhaps Emma’s advice and Ian’s offer would not have been such bad choices after all.  With this conclusion refusing to take a sensible form he parked up outside Carnaby and Pollack.  Carnaby was in reception when he arrived and greeted him cordially.

“Joe, Joe!  Come in; do.  Take a seat.”  Carnaby waved a bunch of papers in one hand as he sat behind his desk, stirring up a small flurry of dust from the tooled leather.  “Here!”  He said triumphantly, as though he had just discovered the papers:  “These!  Are you sitting comfortably, my dear boy?”  Joe nodded, waiting.  A pause, then, with sudden gravity:  “Are you ready for a shock?”

Joe did not answer – could not.

Shock!  Marian, dead in his arms, filled with the drugs he had bought her – the moments of that night he could not remember, no matter how hard he tried.   Second autopsy, police investigation:  oh, god, what had he done?  A surge of sheer fright rose in his chest:  he could hear his genie’s insane laughter, see the mist rising.

“Dear chap!  You look quite ill!”  Carnaby pressed his intercom, summoning aid.  Struggling to breathe, Joseph recovered sufficient consciousness to discover he was accepting a glass of water from an attentive secretary.  The elderly solicitor was bending over him, his face a mirror of concern.  Joe drank deeply.

“I really did not mean to alarm you, dear chap; I am so, so sorry!”  Carnaby fussed.  “Do you feel better now?”

The secretary was called Naomi and she was, Joe thought, quite pretty.  Her large dark eyes were anxious. “Should I call the doctor, do you suppose?”  She asked.

Joe raised a hand.  “No, it’s all right.  I get this sometimes, I’m not ill.  Did I pass out?”

“Very nearly, I think.”  Carnaby told him.  “Have you had this looked into, Joseph?”

Joe said that he had, that the doctors had told him it was all to do with stress.

“Well, I have good news then.”

Joe was incredulous, and must have looked it.  “Good news?”

The solicitor nodded to Naomi, who retreated, closing the door behind her.  “Yesterday I received these…”  He waved the papers again.  “The full copy of Marian Brubaeker’s Last Will and Testament.  The terms of the will make it clear you are Mrs Brubaeker’s principle beneficiary.  There are some details to be worked out, of course, but you may rest assured.  You are heir to virtually her entire fortune.”

Joe was still trying to clear the buzzing in his head.  He blinked at Carnaby:  “But I thought her husband…”

“No longer.  Mr Brubaeker won’t contest it.  That’s final.”

“Weren’t the police involved?”  The journalist – Lynd – had he been lying?

Carnaby shook his head.  “Brubaeker was asking for a second autopsy at one stage, but of course with the information now at our disposal, he won’t want to proceed.  No point, dear boy, is there?”

“Information?”  Joe repeated stupidly.

“There!  You see?   You haven’t had the letter!  Third party in this matter is so inefficient!  I’ve never dealt with such a slipshod firm! (Carnaby’s opinion of a no doubt beleaguered Mr Gooch had obviously altered in the course of their dealings – such reversals in Alistair Carnaby’s estimation were not uncommon)  You should have been told, Joe, because you obviously didn’t know.  Marian Brubaeker had congenital heart disease – she would have been aware of it, especially because, it seems, in her case corrective surgery didn’t work.  I obtained a full diagnosis from the record of her medical history, which, if anyone else had bothered to examine it in detail, would have saved us all a lot of trouble.  My take on this is that Mr Brubaeker was well aware of his wife’s condition, but completely unaware of you until her will was read to him.  The second autopsy threat was nothing more than that – a threat.  He hoped to see you scurry away at the proposition of a police investigation.  Bless her, she could have popped off at any moment.”

“So she died of a heart attack?”

“Heart failure,” Carnaby nodded.  “Hastened possibly because she was in the habit of taking stimulants, but there was no doubt as to the cause of death.  The day before she died she had seen her consultant:  he foresaw an event and tried to persuade her to stay in hospital, but she wanted to die in her own home.  So that was that – dreadful affair, absolutely tragic.  Poor woman!

“But if I may be so indelicate this makes you a rich man, Joseph.  Because Mrs Brubaeker had been examined by a highly qualified consultant close to her time of death we have the best possible testimony that she was of sound mind, therefore her husband – they were virtually estranged, by the way, did you know that? – has no grounds to contest the will!”  He slapped the papers down on his desk then performed a small act of contrition, tidying the sheets into a neat stack.   “I will proceed with the details at this end, if in the meantime you seek some advice as to the disposition of funds.  I can help you with that, too, if you so wish.  Take time to consider, Joseph; that’s my recommendation.  Oh, and one more thing…”  Carnaby pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer:  “Amongst Mrs Brubaeker’s effects we found this – it’s addressed to you.

“Of course, the assurance of this money will grease the axles of your house purchase considerably, unless your plans will now change?  I imagine you could afford something rather larger.  I’ll send you the paperwork.  Now, do you want me to order a car for you?  I don’t believe you should drive yourself, at least not for a while.”

Around the corner of the street there was a café Joe had used occasionally in the days when he was Carnaby’s clerk.  Still somewhat disorientated, he sat heavily at a table, ordering coffee and sandwiches from a fragile-looking waitress.   Then, with some apprehension, he opened the envelope Marian had addressed with the simple word ‘Joseph’, and unfolded the letter it contained.

“My dearest, dearest Joe,

Oh, how should I begin this letter?  The very fact that you are reading it means that now you know a truth I could never bring myself to tell you.  You see, I have the mark of The Reaper upon me as surely as you have the mark of Cain upon you.  We both know our destinies, don’t we?

I told you once, Joe, that although you have many gifts, earning your own living does not feature among them.  So I have made certain you will never have to, my dear.  I don’t expect you to run my businesses if you don’t want to, in fact I wonder really if you should. Janessa Marchant, whom you know, would make a very able Managing Director if you wish them to continue.  I took the small liberty of offering her an interim contract until you decide what to do.   My solicitors are arranging valuations, so you will be able to sell them for quite a handsome sum if you elect to do so.

  Darling boy, you have given me a life; something no amount of money can ever repay.  Our years together have been such a wonder to me, more precious than words can express.  Thank you for each minute of each hour of each day we spent together, for your patience with my silly tantrums, your understanding of my moods and needs.

Don’t mourn me, please.  Don’t feel grateful: the gratitude is all mine.  If you keep the Alsace house, as I hope you will, when you visit there in one of those glorious summers spare a moment to remember me?  I cannot imagine anyone else but you inside those walls, my darling.  We were so happy there, weren’t we?

Take very special care of yourself.  Live, love someone who understands you, be happy, my sweet Joe.

In my last sleep, with my last breath, I will think of you.

My deepest love,

Your Marian.”

“You alright, mister?”  The waitress asked him.

 

There was nothing that Joe could do with the rest of that day, or most of the day that followed.  So profoundly affected was he that thoughts of Sophie, or Michael, or the Parkin murder and everything that arose from that were pushed to the back of his mind for a while.   Instead, he was filled with the recollection of his last night with Marian;  with his new understanding of her behaviour in those few final hours, which shamed him now because of the tawdry manner in which he had attempted to cover up his involvement in her death.  Although he could only consign that dreadful morning to the past, he resolved to accord her memory the respect he denied to her body in death.  He would walk with her forever in his thoughts.  Without regret or apology, Marian would always have a place in his heart.

On the evening following his appointment with Carnaby, Joseph told his aunt and uncle of his inheritance.  How should he not, when its consequences would affect all their lives so profoundly?  To his surprise, Owen’s was the gentler, intuitive reaction:  “I suspected there was something more to tell, Joseph.  You know old chap, for such a secretive person you’re deplorably bad at keeping secrets.”

Julia was infuriated.  “How dare you not tell us, Joe?  How could you keep something like that from us?  That poor woman!”

But it was a tempest that soon blew itself out.  They were happy for him because they shared Marian’s assessment of Joe’s character, and they could be content now, knowing that at least he would be comfortably off.

Although Marian had forbade him to mourn, Joe grieved for her in ways he could not share with his aunt and uncle, for Marian was no more than a name to them.  Instead, he ‘phoned someone who had known her well.  “Is that Janessa?  I thought it only fair you should hear this from me.  I’d like you to stay on as Managing Director, if you would.  Yes, I will be keeping the companies on, but I’ll be only distantly involved.  Marian had great faith in you.”

“I’m so glad,”  Janessa rejoined;  “I’ll get on with the Winter collection.  It’s good that something she achieved will survive in her memory.  We all loved her, you know.”

“As did I,”  Joe said.

For an hour, or very nearly, he and Janessa shared words that expressed their remembrance of Marian, opening gates that perhaps had been closed to them both.  And if it is not remembered who wept and who did not, at least this mutual expression of grief was a way for them both to rise above depths of woe; which in Joe’s case allowed him to begin thinking rationally again – thinking, that is, of Michael.

 

“Ah, I was expecting you.”  It was something less than a welcome.  Margaret Farrier surveyed Joseph from the shelter of her doorway.  “You’d better come in, I suppose.”

Hatton House was a smart, double fronted stone building towards the west end of Cross Street, the road which ran from Church Lane by St. Andrew’s Church to Feather Lane at the corner where stood the now-closed King’s Head pub.  Margaret’s Georgian front windows overlooked most of Hallbury to the Common beyond; then beyond again to the grey backcloth of the Calbeck Hills.

Margaret Farrier was something of an enigma as far as the village was concerned; very tall, almost six feet in height, with a pride of bearing which spoke of a distinguished family whose history in the Parish traced back a number of generations, Her appearance was that of a woman twelve years younger than her true age; her skin still moist and youthful, her eyes lively, her mouth firm.  The hair on her head was almost jet black, tied back so it shone.  She was in all ways an impressive lady, with an indomitable disposition.

Her associations also served to impress.   The meadow across the street from her house was Farrier’s Meadow, named after her great grandfather:  a roadside bench on Church Hill bore the family name; a steep rise behind the house was Farrier Hill.  Even the old wrecked thresher that lay crumbling in Flodder Field was known as the Farrier machine.  Then there was a scholarship to the local High School, a prize for the Shire’s most promising artist.  Yet distinguished as she was Margaret was in her forties now and unmarried.  Her only close relationship, as far as was known, was with her brother.  Patrick did not live in the same house (he rented a room with the Pardin’s on Feather Lane) but would, for example, always accompany her to church, or take her to Braunston, if she had need.  General opinion agreed that neither of them would ever marry, and it was almost certain that with their departure, the Farrier family line would die, too.

Margaret led Joe briskly to her drawing room, motioning to a chair.

“I’m not to your liking.”  Joe said, as he sat down.

She stared.  “What makes you say that?”

“I make ripples?”

“You are given to cause disruption, yes, that is true.  However, that is not always such a bad thing, young man.  You should be careful with your relationships, perhaps.  You have the village fairly buzzing with rumours.”  She sat opposite him, folding her knee-length skirt carefully across her legs.  “Now, what do you want of me?”

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

 

© 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.

Photo Credit:  Debbie Hudson on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Six. A Minor Tapestry

There was a rising bubble of panic in Karen’s chest.  Not fear – it could not be fear of the tall stalker who had followed her from the park – she knew herself, didn’t she?  She was tougher, much tougher than that!  Excitement then?  She was almost running through the twos and threes of shoppers on the street, casting about her for something, anything she might use to her advantage.  The next turning led into the street where she had her office; she did not want him to follow her there.  But what could she do?  He was close, too close!

Then, across the street, she spotted the familiar bobbing gait and beetling eyebrows of Bob Stawkley, Patrick’s superior at the Planning Department.  Karen didn’t know him well, but she could at least be justified in engaging him in conversation.  She launched herself through the traffic without a thought of injury, gaining safety on the further side amid squealing brakes and outraged car horns.

“Mr Stawkley!”

Bob Stawkley’s bushy eyebrows were raised in horror.  “Good God, woman, you’ll get yourself killed like that!  Whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, nothing; clumsy me!  I just wanted to talk to you, that’s all.  Have you got a moment?”

“It must be pretty serious if it’s worth risking your life for.  I suppose I have, then, haven’t I?”

“Bob.  Do you know a lad called Gavin Woodgate?”  It was a bizarre, haphazard way to begin a conversation.  It didn’t fool the old department chief for a moment.

“Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No, of course…”  Karen saw her attempted nonchalance was failing.  Honesty prevailed.  “Well, yes.  I’m being followed.  A tall man with long hair and a leather coat.  Can you see him?”  She didn’t want to look for herself, to risk engaging with those fierce eyes a second time.

Stawkley’s luxuriant eyebrows lowered as he cast a glance up and down the road.  “No.  There’s no-one fitting that description.  Miss Eversley – Karen – are you all right?  You look badly shaken.”

She felt able to turn now, disbelieving:  for the large man to have vanished so rapidly seemed impossible.  There were no side alleys or even shop doors immediately available, yet he was nowhere to be seen.

She inhaled deeply.  “Oh yes.  Thank you.  I’m so sorry, Bob.”

“Your office is just up here, isn’t it?”  Stawkley was solicitous.  “Do you mind if I accompany you?”

“There’s no need…”

“Nonsense.  I think there is.  If nothing else I can ensure you get across the road in one piece.”

He insisted, taking Karen’s arm in his.  She did not resist: after all, they were not exactly strangers.  Bob Stawkley was her sister Suzanne’s contact, one of many to whom Karen owed her business’s survival in the early days.  Stawkley saw her safely back to her office.  She offered coffee, he declined.

“I really must be on my way.  You’ll be fine now, Karen, there are no tall men out there.  Incidentally, no, I have no recollection of anybody called Gavin Woodgate.”

So she thanked Bob and let him go.  As soon as he had loped from view she locked the doors, made coffee anyway, then sank into her chair to celebrate her escape.  Purton’s plain brown envelope was lying as she had left it on her desk.  It was a moment which could be delayed no longer.

Two files slid out when she tipped the envelope.  The first, a wedge of papers, prefaced by a photograph of a pallid, clean-shaven youth with Brylcreemed brown hair and ill-concealed acne, was made up of letters in scrawly handwriting, a few old family snaps and copies of various examination certificates.  There was also a tidily composed precis of the information she had learned in person over their memorable lunch.  Gavin Woodgate was last seen by his friend, Mark Potts who drove past him as he was walking on the High Pegram road at around three on a Sunday afternoon.  The weather was fine.  Did Gavin have other friends?  Apparently not.  Gavin’s hobbies were stamp collecting and train spotting.  Maybe that explained a lot of things… a quiet boy, a loner most at home in his own company.  Not the socializing type.

The second file was slim:  a photograph of Anna Parkinson depicted a grim-looking girl no older than her teens with straight, lifeless hair and defiant eyes.  The image had been lifted from a police record, Karen was sure – everything about her picture trumpeted disillusionment and rebellion.  There was not much more:  Anna had no known connections except for a Caleybridge landlady who was owed rent.  She was last seen on 21st January on the High Pegram Road, at two o’clock in the morning.

She would have been cold.  It was probably snowing then, or at least there would have been lying snow.  Karen imagined Anna wearing thin, cheaply alluring clothing, abandoned to fend for herself on a country road in the early hours,  watching as her client for the evening’s car retreated into the distance. Maybe she explored this middle-aged (Karen assumed he was middle-aged, though she didn’t know why) pervert’s favouritism to its limits, and maybe his actions were tweaking his conscience now; or was he simply covering himself for the time when her body surfaced in a ditch somewhere?

Thin as this minor tapestry of information seemed, it was riddled with obvious flaws.  Gavin:  train-spotter and philatelist; a boy who worked in a large County department yet who, if this picture was to be believed, had only one friend.  Anna, beloved in the eyes of someone high in the County establishment, should be a call girl of some sophistication, surely, to attract such elevated prey?  She should not be what her picture so clearly depicted – a streetwalker, a common pro from the sad little rank that hung around the bridge on Railway Street each night.  No, she was looking at two photographs, both of which were lies.  Who was she really looking for?  Who were the real people behind those two bland images?

Then there was that thin thread of coincidence surrounding three non-descript and forgotten ruins in some barely accessible field.  Why were two people whose disappearances were months apart, last seen on that same country road, and why did Purton and his colleague infer that their disappearance had something – some connection – with those ruins?  Might there be some link to the Turnbull letter?

Karen remained in her office, clinging, despite herself, to the false security of a locked door.  Yes, she had work, but nothing that could not be deferred until the immediate recollection of that darkly evil man had faded for a few more hours. Come evening though, she must stake out a man accused of an affair with his secretary.  Life had to go on.

By mid-afternoon she had run out of excuses; she must eat.  She would go home, snatch a quick sandwich before the stakeout. Nevertheless, she was still fluttering inside as she scanned the street, but of the lank-haired, black-coated man there was no sign. Encouraged, she ventured out.  Two hundred steps to the alley where her car was parked – she had counted them many times.  In a hurry, it was one hundred and eighty-two.  Karen hurried.

#

County Hall’s switchboard put the call through.  The instant Patrick heard Karen’s voice he knew she was in trouble.

“I’ll come right over.”

“Your work…”

“What are juniors for?  I’ll be there in ten minutes.  Karen…”

“Yes?”

“Don’t be afraid, OK?”

#

Karen was waiting for his buzz on the street door:  “Has anyone followed you?”

The road was empty.  “Not as far as I know,”  Patrick said.

He saw her pale, anxious face as she leant over the balustrade at the top of the stairs;.  She had obviously been crying.  As soon as he got to her he took her in his arms and for a moment he thought she would resist, but no; she clasped him to her as if she might drown and he felt so grateful she had called him – that he was the one she had turned to when she needed help.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”  He gently stroked the hair from her eyes.

“Come inside.” She said.

She shut the door behind them, locking it with unsteady fingers.  “I wish I had a bolt on this.”  She said.  “I should have a bolt; it would be safer.”

“Karen, has someone tried to get in here?” Taking her hand, he asked; “What’s the matter, darling?”  using the word inadvertently; allowing it to slip out in the onrush of his feelings for her.  It did not go unnoticed.  She squeezed his hand.  “I’m not normally like this.  I’m sorry. Thank you for coming so promptly, I must have sounded awful on the ‘phone.”

“I was happy to hear your voice – awful or not.”

“Someone followed me, a man – this morning, in the park.  I thought I’d lost him; but when I came home and pulled up outside, he was there again; the same man.  He was, standing at the end of the road, just staring at me!”  Karen’s eyes began widening with panic.  “Pat, he knows where I live!

“Well, he isn’t there now.  The road’s deserted.”  Patrick assured her. “Describe him to me?”

Karen gave him the man’s description.  She was talking fast, as a frightened person will, and Patrick was worried about her. “Listen, I’m here now.  Whoever he was, he’s gone.”

She nodded dumbly.

“Are you alright?  Do you want me to stay around for a while?”

“You must have left work early or something.  You’ll get into trouble.”  She was biting her lip furiously.  “No!  No, I don’t want you to go!”  She hit herself on the forehead with the butt of her hand.  “Oh, God, what do I want?  Look, you’d better get back to work….”

“If you don’t want me to leave, I’m here.  Don’t worry about work!”  He put a hand on her arm:  “Let’s make some coffee, and we’ll decide what to do next.”

Karen made no reply but gave the same unspeaking nod as before, her chin tucked in and eyes downcast.  Patrick followed her to her kitchen, intent upon helping her until he saw how she kept her back to him, and the tension in her shoulders told him she was crying.  He withdrew to the main room of her apartment, a warm space just sufficiently furnished – cream carpet, blue fabric couch, an overstuffed armchair – to be comfortable.  Her window looked out over a panorama of Caleybridge; its old streets, the river, the offices where he had been working half an hour since:  it looked so vital and alive; the greens of the park fizzing with soda freshness in Spring sunshine.  It drew him, that window:  Karen had set up her table so the vista was beside her when she ate, and  Patrick found himself migrating towards it, perching upon one of four bentwood dining chairs like an eager crow, impatient to fly down upon the spoils beneath.

There were sounds of paper towelled nose-blowing from the kitchen before his red-eyed hostess finally appeared, two mugs in her hands.

“This is a nice room!”

“I’m so, so sorry! I’m being stupid!.”  She put the mugs on the table, drawing up the opposite chair.  “It’s just so…”

“Have you seen this guy before – have you any idea what he might want?”  Pat asked her.

“Until today, no.  No, never.”  She stared into her coffee as if there were answers to be discovered there.  “I expect he’s going to turn out to be someone I owe money to, or something.  That would be sensible, wouldn’t it?”

Patrick grinned.  “I don’t know.  How many people do you owe money to?”

“Not too many.  Pat, I can’t explain.  There was something about him; something not quite…human.  His eyes!  Oh, God, his eyes!”  She raised a hand, shielding her face so he should not see evidence of resurgent tears.  “This is such nonsense.  I have work to do this evening; I have to go out again.”

“Then you don’t go out alone.”  He said.

He held her case for her as she locked her door.  She was shaking so much she could barely locate the key so he reached out to steady her hand again, which made her smile for a moment because she saw the humour of her situation.  “Karen Eversley, investigator.  Isn’t this ridiculous?”

“You’ve been badly scared.”

She coloured briefly, as though she wanted to admit to something more than fear.  “You’d better believe it.”

Karen drove them to a small car park which overlooked an office block in the town’s main business area.  The entrance to the building was about sixty yards away.

“Now what?”  Patrick asked.

“Now we wait.”

“What are we waiting for?”

“Who, rather than what,” She corrected him.  “Donald Carrington, who works in there.  We’re waiting for him to finish work and come out.”

“And then?”

“His wife tells me he never gets home before ten.  She thinks he’s with his secretary.  I want to see if she’s right.”

“Gosh, this is a real stakeout!  Although, of course, we can’t see inside.  I mean, secretary – office – nice big desk, where better?”

“Somewhere with cushions!  Anyway, I’ve managed to get pictures of both of them, so if they both leave at ten o’clock…  Could you get my camera out for me; it’s in the dashboard compartment.  And there are a couple of photographs of our culprits in there, too.  You might as well have a look, since you’re here.  Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

The camera was evident by its sizeable lens.  The photographs took a little more time to discover.  “Wait a minute!”  Patrick said.  “I know him!”

“You don’t, do you?”

“Not really.  I’m teasing.”

They sat in silence for a while, studying sporadic activity across the street.  Patrick assessed the photographs:  a middle-aged, care-worn man; a very ordinary woman looking a little dowdy, a little careless of herself.  She might be five years younger than her alleged lover, or five years older.

Karen said, after a while:  “Look, Pat, I’m being very selfish with your time.  You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Would you be happier if I didn’t?”  He asked her seriously.  “I can stay or go; you just say the word.”

She smiled a happy, relaxed smile.  “Then I’d really quite like it if you stayed.  If you didn’t mind.”

“Mind?  Spending the evening with you?  Why would I mind?”  Patrick hesitated: “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“You’re not.  In fact, a little closeness would be good for me right now.”

“We could call it our cover,” he suggested, putting his arm around her shoulder.  “The courting couple.  It would look more convincing – what do you think?”

Compliant, she snuggled into him.  “Hmmm.  Not too much courting.  We’ve got to keep our eyes on that door.”

“It’s a nice way to stake someone out.”  He said, as a hand somehow found a way to her knee.  “We’ve got at least five hours before ten o’clock.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”  She murmured, distracted.

“Still, it’s a long time.”  He said.

“Well, it would be, if…”

“If what?”

“If that wasn’t my mate Carrington just popping out of his door right now.”

“Damn!”  Patrick blinked at his watch in the dim light.  “Five-fifteen.  That’s just unfair.  I was getting on really good terms with this leg.  I suppose we could pretend we didn’t see him?”

“Shut up and let me do the pictures.”  Karen focused her camera on a departing Mr Carrington.  She took several shots, tracking his progress along the pavement until he disappeared, merging with the crowd.

“So now we wait for the naughty secretary?”  Patrick asked, persisting with Karen’s knee.

“It turns out she isn’t naughty at all. But yes, we wait.  What are you doing with my leg, young man?”

“My interests are purely aesthetic:  it is a beautiful leg.  I’m simply helping you pass the time.  ”

His hand was seeking, experimentally.  She stopped him.  “No, Pat.”

“It’s always safer on higher ground?”

“Not right now, alright?  Please?”  Karen turned so their faces were inches apart, so their breath mingled and the warm scents of each other made the moment impossibly intimate.  “Behave yourself,”  she chided him.  “Let me concentrate!”

It had begun to rain quite heavily.  Carrington’s secretary did not appear until a half-hour later, raising an umbrella and trotting briskly along wet pavements to the bus station.  Karen tracked her in the car, having to park at the roadside as they watched her catch her bus.  “Follow that bus?”  Patrick suggested.  “I’ve always wanted to say that.”

“No need.  That’s the South Monckton bus.  She’s going home.  Whatever my boy is doing, he isn’t doing it with her.”

“So what now?”  Patrick asked.

“Until next week, probably nothing. It’s always the same night, you see.   I’ll put in a progress report to his wife and who knows?  She may resolve the question with a domestic discussion before then.  She might join up the dots for herself. If not, next Wednesday I follow him.  Wall-to-wall excitement, isn’t it?”

“I’m on the edge of my seat.” Patrick felt concerned.  “Karen, are you going to be okay tonight?  Are you going back to your apartment?”

They were easing their way through late rush-hour traffic, a world full of pan-demonic, dashing people chasing buses, aiming for the station and trains.  It was difficult to imagine the loneliness, the vulnerability another couple of hours would bring, as these rain-soaked streets cleared of people and darkness took over.  The hour of Karen’s sinister stalker would have to be encountered, and he did not want her to be alone when it came.

Karen gave him a wry grin that failed to achieve its intended bravado.  “I’ve been such a wimp!  I’m in a tough profession, Pat.  I have to take care of myself.”

“I can’t help this,” He admitted.  “I worry about you.”

She replied seriously.  “I’d rather you didn’t.  That’s a responsibility I could manage without.”

“You’d rather I didn’t care about you?”

“I’m going to take you back to your car,”  Karen said.  “If it’s any consolation, I’ll probably stay at Mum and Dad’s place.  I could use a home-cooked meal, anyway.”

She did as she promised.  The Daimler stood waiting in the council office car park and Patrick thanked providence that he had left the roof up that morning.

He did not want to leave her.  “This is my number at home, so if you have any trouble, call me.  See you on Friday after work.  The Hunters, yes?”

“Yes.”  Karen took the scrap of paper he gave her with a smile that lit her face in a way he had not seen before.

“You deserve a special ‘thank you’,” She leaned across and kissed him tenderly.   “Thank you, Pat, for saving me.”

He clasped her hands in his.  “What are we, Karen?  To each other?”

And she smiled that same smile.  “We’re friends.”  She said.

“Didn’t that kiss mean we’re a little more than friends?”

“We’re kissing friends.”

He watched as she drove away, positioning himself so she would not see, as he had already seen, the folded slip of wet paper pinned beneath his car’s windscreen wiper.  Extracting it carefully, he got into the Dart’s driving seat before he peeled the fold apart.  The ink had run, but its hand-written message was concise and readable.  It said:

‘STAY AWAY FROM KAREN EVERSLEY’.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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