Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© 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.

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Five. The Lost Ones

On the morning following her second date with Patrick Karen met her best friend, Bea, at Café Trocadero, a small coffee bar in a back alley off North Street in Caleybridge.

“I got you a Cappucino.”  Bea greeted her, her welcome flashing through deep navy blue eyes.  “There’s a queue already.”

For all its lack of self-advertisement, (it was hidden away behind main street shops) the little café was busy when Karen arrived.  Its reputation as a meeting place was well-known among the local art college set, for whom ‘down the Troc’ meant casual morning coffees or sandwich lunches.

“I can’t stay too long.  I’ve got some lunchy thing going with our heroes of the Council.”  Karen told Bea.  “Purton again.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?  More business?  God, I’m desperate for a ciggy!”  Bea ferreted in her patent leather handbag, retrieved a packet of Rothman’s and offered.  “You?”

“Crone, you know I’m resisting!  I don’t know, Bea.  Purton’s a contact, I guess.  I think he’s a bit creepy.  Speaking of creepy, didn’t you get invited to dinner with Francis and Shirl?”

Bea winced over the flare of her cigarette lighter.  “Oh, don’t!  Grotty little man – he and Shirley are so freaking proud of their new house, – I mean, new house – picture it!  I spent the entire evening keeping Bops and Francis from ripping each other to shreds.  And Shirley’s no help.  I kid you not, she was sitting in that leather armchair of hers like Eleanor of Aquitaine, and snatching at empty air, you know? All evening?  I worked it out.  She was catching those little bits of dust that float about and trying to put them in her ashtray.  I ask you?”

She drew deeply on her smoke.  “Oh, that’s better!  How you manage, I can’t begin to imagine.”

“That’s Shirley.” Karen laughed.  “How is Bopper?”

“He’s alright, I suppose.”  Bopper or Bops (real given name Robert) was Bea’s husband of two years.  “Worried about work.  There’s rumours about the factory closing down, you know?”

“Yeah, I heard,”  Karen said.  “What will you do if it closes, Bea?”

“Jump in the freaking river, or something.  Anyway, it hasn’t happened yet:  what about your news, girl?  Come on, tell!”

“Tell what?”

“Oh!  Oh, all innocence!  Only Patrick Thingummy-Croft, that’s what!  And don’t attempt to deny – the entire town is a-buzz, darling.  What a fish!”

“Well, fish he may be, but it was only an outing.  Wonderful, so the entire town knows?  Tim’s coming down this weekend, isn’t he?”

“An outing?  It was a date, dearie.  Capital ‘D’.  And when I say the ‘entire town’ I mean Shirley, actually, although how she knew…  So what’s he like?  Oh, poor Tim!”

Karen blanched.  “What do you mean, ‘poor Tim’?  I just went out with this guy once.  He had tickets for the Beatles, for gods’ sake!  Anyway, he’s far too young for me; and far too rich, apparently.”

Bea shook her head.  “Sad.  I said ‘poor Tim’ because I saw the look in your eyes when I asked what he was like.  He fancies you, you’re attracted to him…”

“Shut up, Bea!”

“Ah, that blush of yours; it gives you away every time!  Mind you, he is young, isn’t he?  So much more stamina.  I think he looks Irish, with all that hair – so bloody sexy!”

“And it isn’t going to happen,”  Karen said firmly.  “Yes, he’s quite nice, and – alright, I could like him quite a lot if I allowed myself – but you know the score, don’t you?  I don’t see myself as a spoilt rich boy’s plaything.”

“Why not?  I would be!  Darling, you’re a Ju-whatsit expert in a wacky job with a six-foot-six copper for a boyfriend.  You’re gorgeous but you’re not exactly a soft target, you know?  Tim’s kept you strapped down for years, Karen.  Spread your wings a bit, and if Patrick’s prepared to accept the odds have a little fun with a son and heir!”  Bea stopped herself, reading the mist that once again clouded Karen’s eyes.  “But it’s more serious than that, isn’t it?”

“Of course not!”  Karen said brusquely.  Then she sighed.  “Sorry, Bea, I don’t mean to snap.  It’s more about Tim, really.  We’re just drifting apart, and me going out with someone else, well, that’s another sign, I suppose.”

“Writing on the wall?”

“Maybe.  Yes, maybe.”  Karen said.

#

It was not a lunchtime venue Karen would have picked willingly.  Beaconshire County Hall’s staff canteen was an echoing cavern of metal frame chairs and scratched tables that banged and scraped like a school orchestra.  In a supreme act of tokenism, the management had sectioned off a corner as an ‘Executive Dining Area’ within which, barricaded by planters of undernourished geraniums and ferns, tables with chairs upholstered in lemon-coloured vinyl squatted upon a square of starved carpet.  There was even table service, of a sort, although nothing could be done for the food.

“Miss Eversley!  Good of you to join us!”  Frank Purton stood up as Karen wormed her way through a host of dining County Hall ‘Executives’. Purton was a swarthy presence with blackened hair and a wide, thin mouth that so lacked lips as to be almost invisible when it was shut.  This feature, surprisingly offset by a pair of wide, brown, enquiring eyes gave him a chimp-like appearance.  Yet he was a lawyer of reputation in the County and Karen had already been exposed to the incisiveness of his mind.

“Can I introduce a personal friend of mine?”  Purton’s voice had a sharp, saw-like edge.  “This is Norman Wilson.”

“How do you do; Karen, isn’t it?”  Norman Wilson, a grey-eyed thirty-something, half-rose from his chair.  In complete contrast to his host’s regulation suit, Wilson wore a thin red sweater and brown casual trousers.  He seemed quite slow and nervous – out of his element, perhaps?  Karen spent half of their encounter trying to catch a glimpse of his feet, suspecting sandals and socks.  She was here at Purton’s behest, the result of a telephone conversation that morning, and curious to discover why he had invited Wilson, though she suspected it had something to do with…

“Boulters Green.”  Purton laid her suspicions to rest.

The canteen was presided over by a four-masted square-rigger known as Hilda, whose echoing commands punctuated any meal experience, something to which, Karen was later told, those who lunched there regularly were accustomed,.  Norman Wilson was clearly not a regular diner.  He startled visibly at Hilda’s cry of “More Soup – more soup here!” and her “This sausages is rubbish!” made him almost jump from his seat.  As manageress, waiting upon the ‘executive corner’ was a function Hilda would not delegate.  Her blue-check aproned mass advanced with billowing dignity towards their table.  Wilson visibly cringed.

“Sirs, Madams, what you want today?  Not sausages – sausages is not good.”

“Try the lasagna.”  Frank Purton advised.  “Hilda’s lasagna is excellent.”  And Hilda beamed rosily from ear to ear, responding in a tone that was almost confidential, given her vocal talents:  “How you like you pasta – well done?”

“Boulters Green?”  Karen enquired after their orders had been taken.  “I thought we’d laid that one to rest, Mr Purton.”  That had been the subject of her earlier telephone call.

Purton nodded.  “We checked the maps ourselves today.  Absolutely incontrovertible.”

“Then I don’t see…”

Frank Purton fiddled with his napkin, almost as if he was aware of the weakness of his own argument and a suggestion, possibly, that he was missing the Rotadex that was his constant office companion.

“That’s not the problem.  Norman?”

Norman Wilson startled slightly again, this time because his fascinated gaze had been fixed upon a cruising Hilda.  His eyes had followed her ever since she left their table. Purton went on:  “Norman and I play golf together, that sort of thing.  Have done for years.  We were discussing this and that the other day and our little matter came up.”

“It’s rather more than a ‘little matter’, Frank.”  Wilson objected.

“Yes; yes, I’m sorry.  Please, you explain to Miss Eversley.”

“Karen,”  Karen said as kindly as she could.

Wilson nodded.  “I have a nephew, Miss…Karen.”  After a hesitant beginning, his words fell over each other in his eagerness.  “A lad named Gavin; Gavin Woodgate.  He’s disappeared, Miss…Karen.  Completely vanished!  I would never have put two and two together if Frank – Mr Purton – hadn’t raised the subject, but there’s a connection, you see, with Boulter’s Green.  Between High Pegram and Pegram-Saint-Something-or-Another, you see.  That’s where he was last seen.”

Wilson’s right hand was around the back of his neck, apparently manipulating the muscles there.  His left rested on the table, twitching.  The man was obviously on edge.

“I’m very sorry.”  Karen sympathized.  “How old is Gavin?”

“Nineteen.  He’s nineteen.”

Their lasagna arrived at alarming speed, in the hands of a slim, anaemic-looking girl wearing a white mop cap which, after she had delivered their plates, she removed to wipe her hands.  Karen’s pasta lay on the white china before her like pages of ancient parchment, almost daring her to eat it.  She stabbed at it with her fork, but the tines failed to pierce its integrity.  “And he disappeared how long ago?”  She asked.

“Three weeks.  Three weeks ago.”

Wilson’s habit of repetition was becoming almost as irksome as the food.  “You shouldn’t be concerned.  I’m sure he’ll turn up.  Lads that age…”

“You wouldn’t know.  You don’t know Gavin.  He’s a quiet, studious sort of boy.  For Gavin to stay away even one night would be a terrifying experience.  It just isn’t in him.”

Purton offered support.  “I have to agree.  I have met young Gavin and he’s definitely not the impulsive type.  If he was planning to, let’s say, take a holiday, he would plan it meticulously.  He certainly wouldn’t just disappear.  It’s very odd.”

Karen swallowed a briquette of pasta painfully.  “You want me to find him for you?”

“Frank insists you are the best.  Hence…”  Wilson waved a hand at the empty air.

“One door closed, another to open.”  Purton was obviously referring to her morning telephone call when she had told him of her lack of success in connecting anything or anyone to his mysterious letter.  “Another job for you, Karen.”

Disengaging herself from the lasagna’s accusing stare, she asked:  “That last time he was seen, was he alone?”

“He liked country walks, you see.  A friend of his (nice lad) drove past him on the road that goes by the lane to Boulter’s Green.  He was on his own.  Sunday afternoon, that was.  He didn’t return home, or turn up for work the following morning.”

“Okay.  I’ll need a recent photograph.  Tell me all you can about Gavin.  Where does he work, what are his interests, who his friends are, especially the one who saw him?  I take it you informed the police?”

Was Karen mistaken?  Did Purton and Wilson exchange glances?  The movement was very quick, a flicker of eyes, no more.

“Of course,”  Wilson said.  “Their reaction was much the same as yours.  He’s nineteen, an adult.”

Hilda collected their three scarcely blemished booklets of lasagna.  Her accusing sniff must have been no more than a habit, given the standard of cooking, yet it made Norman Wilson flinch again, almost as if she inspired fear in him.

“You not enjoy, yes?”

“Honestly Hilda, no.”

“You not hungry, I expect.”

Back in her office that afternoon Karen feasted upon salmon and cucumber sandwiches from a little deli on the corner of her road.  Whilst eating, she tried to focus on her new task.  It was a standard ‘missing persons’ enquiry really, but it was work, and pleasing that Frank Purton had the confidence to recommend her for another job.  She was just trying to wrap her head around Norman Wilson and his apparent nervousness when the ‘phone jangled at her.

“Karen, it’s Frank. I want to flesh out our conversation over lunch.  Sorry about the food, by the way.”

“No problem.  For well-done Lasagna, it was perfect.”

“Karen, I want to emphasize that this is Norman’s investigation, not County Hall’s.  Are we sure we have that clear?”

“Of course.”

“Good, because unofficially, strictly unofficially, mind, the County has an angle on this.”

“Which is?”

“Gavin Woodgate isn’t the only missing person who was last seen on that road.  A Miss…hang on, I had a name…”  She could hear Purton’s Rolodex whirring.  “Anna Parkinson.  It’s a difficult one for us, Karen.  This girl was about Gavin’s age or a little bit more…”

“So they could have run off together, is that what we’re saying?”  If that were true, she could understand why Frank would have been reluctant to bring the subject up in front of Wilson.

“Oh, no.  These episodes, if that’s the right word, are a few months apart.  The thing is, Miss Parkinson was a lady in a certain trade, if you take my meaning?  Now, normally this is one for the police, who would take little action, but given the delicate nature of the situation…”

“Delicate?  What exactly is the County’s angle on this, Frank?”  Karen asked, her curiosity aroused.  “Was one of her clients a Councilor?”

“She was a – favourite – of someone important in the County; someone whose affection for Miss Parkinson leads him to want to find her, but who is extremely worried about issues of confidentiality.  Look, I’ll send everything I have over to you; apart from a certain name, of course.”

Puzzled, Karen asked:  “And she was last sighted on a country road in winter?  Not the most likely place you’d expect to see a working girl.  Who’s your witness?”

“Oh, dear, I suppose you have to ask that, don’t you?  Look, put delicately, the important person I referred to argued with Miss Parkinson over some…some matter when they were out driving together.  Miss Parkinson became quite excited, as I understand, and they parted.  It was a quarrel, nothing more…”

“He threw her out of the car.  I take it he stopped first?”

“Yes – at least, I hope so.”

“Nice gentleman.  And this just happens to have taken place on the High Pegram road, near the lane that leads to Boulter’s Green?”

“Yes.”

“Do we know precisely when – I mean, was it day or night; at what time, and so on?”

“It was late at night, I think.  He wasn’t too specific.  Look, Karen, I trust you to keep this confidential.  If it leaks out, it could do a lot of damage.”

Karen sighed.  “I’m sure.  Don’t worry, Mr Purton, your important person’s reputation is safe in my hands – even if I do think he should be in jail.”

Frank Purton’s information arrived ‘unofficially’ by way of a very junior-looking clerk the following morning.

“What’s your name?”  Karen asked him brightly, taking the large, plain brown envelope he offered.

“Peter Lasky, Miss.”

“Thank you, Peter.”  He looked about the right age.  “Do you know Gavin Woodgate?”

Peter Lasky shook his head vigorously.  “Nah.”

“He worked at County Hall, didn’t he?  Architects’ Department?”

“Dunno.  Don’t know ‘im.”  Peter had reached the door, groping for the handle behind his back.

“OK.”  Karen sighed.  “Here’s my card.  If you or your mates remember him later, give me a call, yes?”

“Yeah.”  Taking her card gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if he thought it might be infected, Peter left.

In a small town like Caleybridge, somebody once said, everybody knew everyone else.  Over the next few days, Karen would learn just how many had never heard of Gavin Woodgate.

But not yet.

The big envelope lay on her desk, staring up at her, and she stared back.  She needed air; her brain needed air, her digestion, still suffering from her previous day’s encounter with Hilda’s little piece of Italy, certainly needed air.  Grabbing her spring coat, Karen took her office keys from the hook and let herself out onto the street, leaving the envelope unopened behind her.  Anna Parkinson would keep her secrets for a while.

Every now and then the English spring produces a day which surpasses itself for just that fresh, clear air Karen needed – a day of calmness, a day of peace.  This was such a day.  She felt no guilt at confronting the work ethic, especially in the face of such naked invitation, so she shut all thoughts of her two missing persons away in a mental cupboard she had installed specially for such occasions, and walked.

Her steps led her to Albert Park.  Here, on a rising slope overlooking the river, a bandstand stood, surrounded by benches where she liked to sit sometimes, away from the town’s noise and hustle, watching the placid waters of the Caley.

Resting here brought back the reclusive innocence of childhood, memories of how once Suzanne, her sister, and she had spent hours in this place, sitting and reading until rain or darkness forced them home.  They were so shy, the pair of them!  They had few friends and needed none, for they were wrapped in a world entirely their own.  Oh, Suzy!  How close we were when we were young, how far apart we grew with the years!  Those memories still hurt, despite the passing of time.  There were wounds – wounds which had led her down the spiritualist path, and which persuaded her that somehow she could retrieve that pearl of early innocence.  In death, Suzanne was the friend and confidante she had not always been in life.  Miss Scott-Halperton might have been the fraud her father said she was, but those sessions had helped her to resurrect her sister’s ghost.

Karen dozed for an hour before a chill breeze awakened her.  The cloud now hiding the sun brought Tim to her mind, and she quailed at the thought of the weekend to come.  It was time to return to work.

Reluctantly rising to her feet, stretching the stiffness from her hips and back, she was brushing down her coat when she saw him.  He was all of fifty yards away, leaning with his long back to the railings which bordered the river, powerful hands extended to grip the top rail to his either side, his black leather duster coat riffling in the strengthening wind.  His face was framed by lank dark hair which straggled across long, aquiline features and his eyes, black and sharp as needles, were focused entirely upon her.  So intense, those eyes, as if they could reach inside her and tear out her soul!  She dropped back upon the bench, her stomach clenched with fear.  To be stared at was an intrusion not unfamiliar to her, but never like this.  This was neither approbation nor anger.  It was cold, analytical, as though she were dead and lying on his table, ready to be cut open.

Very carefully, for she had to keep control of rebellious legs, she rose from the bench once more to turn back into the comparative safety of the street.

And he followed her!

She knew though she dared not turn.  He was close: she could hear his heavy tread above the traffic noise as path turned to pavement. Trying to summon up some professional nerve she quickened her pace, listening for his footfall, and sure enough it was there, matching her own! The street was busy, she reasoned – there were plenty of spectators if this creature ventured to attack her: that could not be his plan, although the thought sent a peculiar thrill through her body she would rather not explain.  No, he would track her and if she should be so foolish as to lead him to somewhere he would not be disturbed – somewhere like her office – then he might make a move.  She didn’t want to lead him there, he must not learn where she worked, so somehow she had to shake him off.  On the street now, she cast about her desperately for a diversion, some way to lose him without sacrificing the protection of the crowd. If she ducked into a shop she might use their telephone to summon the police, although she did not relish the thought of the conversation that would follow: former colleague’s girlfriend or not, the local constabulary was scathing in its criticism of her profession.  So how?  There had to be a better way…

 

© 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

 

The Public are cautioned not to feed the Sharks by Hand

 

Scandals pepper our history.  Those in public life daily run a gauntlet of falsely conceived accusations of impropriety, as well as some genuine ones.   The media, or hitherto the gutter press, has feasted eagerly on the carcasses of the luckless and the guilty, while those most adroit in the art of escapology survive.

Bad news, people.  We are all ‘The Media’ now.  Escapology is a science of the past.

A couple of centuries ago, the old lady who made the blacksmith ill by concocting the wrong herbal remedy would once have been able to start afresh in another village;  now she faces a lynch mob of millions.

There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The internet has given the vultures wings, and no crevasse, no shield of politics or faith can hide you from the rip and tear of their beaks.

Lynch mob?   Witch hunters?  Whatever soubriquet you give to those who get ghoulish pleasure from seeing their quarry squirm, they are very much among us.  And the severity of the crime or the reliability of the evidence is of no concern to them, when it is set against the warped satisfaction of bringing their victim to ruin, without ever really questioning either the morality or the dire consequences of what they do.

I think the trouble started when it was deemed appropriate to include certain offences under the law that do not need corroboration.  I am not saying this is wrong, although it is a very difficult area and one which should be applied with extreme care.  The problem, though, is compounded by the inadequacy of the law in dealing with libel, still less with slander.  Accusations that fall within that category, the more lurid the better, can be offered up to the hanging jury of Facebook without fear of redress.  Are you a journalist in search of your Big Story? Have you an old score to settle?  Do you personally dislike someone in the public eye, or are you simply hoping to make some money?  Then start a rumour, begin the daisy chain of innuendo that will bring the object of your jealousy down.

I have always been uneasy with this situation because there is no proportionality.  By aligning a minor transgression, a naïve or foolish misunderstanding with a real crime, some angry or lascivious act which inspires real fear or creates a scar, we demean those who are true victims – even discourage them from coming forward, because genuine people are naturally shy of administering such blatant excoriation.  It is an erosion of free speech, and it is a breakdown in the rule of law.

This week a senior politician resigned from his position as Minister of Defence because he had to admit to patting a journalist’s knee ten years ago.  To the tuneless thunder of other journalists’ feet as they jumped on the bandwagon, allusions to ‘other offences’ have been made, though lacking proof.  Notwithstanding my personal view that any accusation made by a journalist should be discounted, or at least subjected to very close examination, there can be no doubt the man has shown fallibility.  He has been, at the least, clumsy.  But where once there might have been an acceptance that the ‘rules’ have changed in the last decade or so, an apology made and admonition given (even the journalist herself commented that she did not feel threatened and she thought the resignation ‘absurd’), that will no longer satisfy the ravening horde.  Now it must be ostracism and ruin for a very talented man in fields where sexual ineptitude are irrelevant, and who might have had much to contribute.   And now, of course, the pack is loose.

Any politician in the UK Parliament now has to walk in fear, lest a friendly pat or a playful remark made a generation since is brought from its closet and shaken out in the light of this burgeoning set of new ‘rules’ which the feminist movement is writing down as fast as it can think them up.  Many are being accused who haven’t transgressed but that doesn’t matter.  This thinly clothed hatred of the male sex is glaring out from under every stone and it does not care who it hurts, or how.  Our political balance is at a very crucial point.   When this kind of hysteria infects the slow-witted and the fast-persuaded it can have consequences that are extreme.

Meanwhile, the BBC played host on national television this week to a senior female politician from Her Majesty’s Opposition – a party aggressively seeking power – who told a very insensitive anti-Semitic joke.

I have always admired the Jewish community’s sense of humour, especially when they happily direct jokes against themselves; but I do not think any Jewish person I have known would have enjoyed this particular example (and no, I won’t repeat it, although ‘Harriet Harman’ on YouTube will produce what you need, if you must witness it).  Yet there has been no further coverage of the incident on the BBC or, as far as I know, any other channel, despite concerns over the growth of anti-Semitism on the ‘Left’ of Ms. Harman’s political party.  Ample grounds, certainly, to fuel another witch hunt if you have the taste for it – strangely though, no-one has.

So, where are we?   Has the state of the world so altered that a few injudicious sexist remarks or examples of the latest regime of ‘inappropriate touching’ can bring down a government, altering the future for us all, and promoting to power a zealous party of neo-Marxists with an unhealthy hotbed of racism seething beneath?  Is that really where we are?

Look, there are genuine cases – of course there are.  I have been lied about – we all of us experience that from time to time.  I have also been assaulted, compromised, victimised, and so on.  But I am not scarred, not by any of these things.  My scars have more to do with the viciousness of the mob, and its constant attacks on my freedom.  I was once proud of my nation.  Now?  I’m not so sure.

I am beginning to wonder; if I were young and unattached again, how would I set about forging a relationship with the opposite sex?

The answer is, I think, only in the presence of witnesses.