Peter and Lesley had returned from St. Benedict’s Rock together, to sit and warm themselves in the greasy embrace of the Causeway café, from where they had embarked upon their journey some hours before. Lesley’s mood was no longer hostile or defensive, but after Peter told her that the eccentric old woman she had seen dancing in her cottage garden had appeared to him to be no more than a child, she became quiet for a while, because there was no doubting Peter’s honesty about what he had seen and it was her first experience of his altered vision. She was deep in thought and unaware that something new was occurring to gently rock Peter’s world. It was a transition as sweetly soothing as the breath of a summer breeze; as if a door had moved soundlessly open. So subtly did it begin, at first he noticed no differences at all; he did not see how his view had changed. Only gradually did he realise the causeway road was less a road now, more a stony track. Beyond it, on The Rock itself, the windows of the dejected, half-ruined cottages were glazed again. There were fishing smacks hauled up on the tiny beach with distant figures moving among them with fish to land, nets to mend. An oxcart laboured painfully upward to the tunnel that would lead it through to the south face, and ultimately the Great House.
It was a thing of moments. As rapidly as his vision came it dissipated. The causeway was a road again, everything back in place. Then, as his dream died he felt Melanie standing beside him. She was there only for seconds, but her presence reassured him. She was well, she was safe.
“What are you grinning at?” Lesley asked suspiciously.
“That’s my line. There was something, wasn’t there? One of your insights?”
“Okay, you got me. I saw us doing some course-work together this evening. I thought human biology would be nice.”
“You should be so lucky, pervert!” Lesley grinned at him. “Now can we get moving? I’m hungry and if we eat here we’ll probably die?”
They abandoned the café at precisely 1:37pm. That was the time on Howard’s carefully synchronised watch. He advised his two colleagues of this, but counselled restraint. “We don’t take him now, not in broad daylight, and not while he’s with her. Anyway, we stick out like sore thumbs here. Wait until they separate.”
Watching the couple pass not three metres from the dark-windowed surveillance van Howard felt the infection of Lesley’s presence, the life which radiated from her, the brilliance of her smile, the music of her laughter. He may have regretted the probable despoiling affect his plans for her boyfriend would exert; or he may not. He was too old a hand, immured to such pettiness as the destruction of innocence, the theft of youth.
It had been a busy twenty-four hours for Howard. On his return from Manchester, knowing Peter would alight at Levenport he had stayed on his train until the next station, some thirty miles down the coast. He hoped by so doing to avoid an immediate crisis, although since the debacle at Hemlington station his cover was blown. Peter knew what Peter had probably always suspected. and now the risk of Karen Fenton, Melanie’s mother, sharing the knowledge was too great. His life with Karen had to be over. Howard faced this with some regret because, in spite of all he had been taught as an operative, he had formed a strong attachment to Karen. A lengthy cab journey back to Levenport, bouncing on hard leather in a very aged Mercedes, gave him plenty of time to ruminate upon this misfortune. In two years playing the part of a family man he had become convincing enough to make Karen love him. They were not idle years: whilst watching Peter and Melanie he had been able to pursue other work, but Levenport was his base; Karen’s was his home. Looking forward to their times together had been consolation during some of the more testing phases of his job.
The subject-matter of Howard’s next telephone conversation with Jeremy had come as no surprise.
“That was a right fecking balls-up. Sorry, mate.” This, at least, was unexpected. Piggott rarely apologised. “Two right wankers we had on that one. Local lads from Bristol. No more. I’m sending two of our own guys.”
“Did we get anything from his stuff?”
“The coat and a bag? Nah, nothing, he didn’t even have a ‘phone in there. No worries, my people’ll be with you before midday tomorrow.”
“You want me to meet them?”
“They’ll find you. You’ve got to keep your head down, old son. Shack up at that hotel on the quiet end of the seafront you were talking about. The Lord something-or-another?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Use the name Conway. Stay indoors, Okay?”
“Sure.” Howard could imagine doing nothing else. Levenport was a small town. His was already a well-known face. “Do we still pull the lad?”
“As of now, yes. Higher authorities are becoming interested for some reason. I can’t go for a shit up here without signing three forms at the moment. When you get him bring him straight in.”
“I’ll do it as soon as I get support.”
“Good. Listen, don’t pull the Walker girl, understand? That’s a big ‘don’t’. We just want him.”
“And what do I do now?”
“Come back with him. We can’t use you there any more, can we?”
Howard closed the line with a muttered curse. Apart from his personal difficulties, there were the small issues of two very expensive suits and a lot of sundry clothes and possessions hanging irretrievably in Karen’s bedroom. Expenses never took account of such trifles.
He slept well. When morning came and a whimpering sun crept between the black masses of headland and island, it found him moodily awake, perched on his airy window-sill. His gaze was fixed upon the vista of the seafront, paving still wet from night rain, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Karen would be rising soon: she would make her way to the bathroom wearing just a t-shirt or, often, nothing at all. He might have been watching the graceful curve of her retreating back, might have urged her to come back to bed for what he, alone again, knew would have to be a last time. Might-have-beens: they were the piers which sustained his whole world. As he grew older, he looked down upon them from his creaking platform more and more often, watching helplessly as waves of reality wore them down. Soon there would be no-where else for him to hide. All his covers blown, he would knock at some door someday to seek refuge, and the chances were he would not even remember who he was. Mr. Who? Mr Who, who had turned his back on someone he loved to chase an adolescent with a probably coincidental connection to an attempted killing. A strange young man, certainly, but no threat – no danger to anyone. Just a normal lad trying to grow up normally. The assassination attempt had not even been a success.
Howard (we shall continue to use this name even though Jeremy had moved his identity on another notch) tried to turn his mind to the matter in hand. Jeremy would want the boy lifted today. Two new operatives were coming to help him, Special Branch people probably. He might know them. Together, that made three adults skilled in the arts required to subdue trained and hardened terrorists, to capture one slender lad; although, for all their undoubted negligence, the pair who had attempted to lift the boy at Hemlington were no pushovers, and Howard had been amazed to see that Peter had eluded them. Had they been too confident, too casual because their target was apparently so easy? Could he have been too relaxed himself when a similar thing had happened to him in Manchester? Peter had help then, he knew. Was there help at hand here, too?
“Mr. Conway?” The speaker took care to announce herself slowly, so as to draw Howard’s attention without over-reliance on his new, unaccustomed name. Howard had seen her coming anyway, and his heart had sunk as he watched her decamp from a surveillance van parked in front of the hotel.
“Hello Charlie.” He said, without a hint of welcome.
“Fate brings us together again, hmmm?” Charlie was a chilled blonde woman of thirty-five or so years. She was so chilled that Department legend had it she needed to be defrosted before she could piss. “Meet Klas.”
Klas came forward and greeted Howard cordially. Someone new, Howard thought. He doesn’t hate me yet.
Charlie and Howard had been thrown together before – Charlie was the super-efficient, super-active model of a modern major general: calm in a crisis, ruthless in command, technologically versed in every software programme, every piece of hardware the Department possessed. In every way she was the antithesis of Howard, and her presence was a slap in the face from Jeremy: because Jeremy knew how much Howard disliked her, how he had emphasised his desire never to work with her again.
Howard would be Jeremy’s scapegoat for the slip-up at Hemlington, that was now clear. Sending Charlie was his way of expressing mistrust. This was Charlie’s operation now, even though he, Howard, was still nominally in charge.
Charlie was as perceptive as she was brusque. “Still in love with me, eh, ‘Conway’?”
Howard ignored this. “Klas?” He asked.
“German father,” Klas said. “Ma was from New Brunswick. Bit of a mixture, really.” He had a nice smile, Klas. Not a trace of the cynicism commonly associated with operatives, even when with colleagues.
“Or a hybrid.” Howard said unkindly. “I suppose we all know what this is about?” They seated themselves around a coffee table in the hotel lounge, where Howard had been waiting and reading for more than two hours. Charlie slipped a document wallet across to him. Peter Cartwright’s photograph, replicated from different angles and in different lights, was inside. “Him?”
So it happened that the three of them were hidden in the back of the surveillance van on Levenport Seafront: Klas with his pleasant smile, Charlie in her accustomed flinty pose, Howard with his memories of the last time he had worked with this woman, and how she had stolen the credit for a success that was his. It was he, not Charlie, who had discovered the address of the bomb factory. It was he, not Charlie, who picked up the leader at his workplace so he could not access the others in his group. And as he saw Peter walk past, with the nubile girl on his arm, there occurred in Howard a stirring of old feelings, a revival of pages in his psyche he had been trained to ignore, long ago. In short, at precisely 1:37pm, there occurred a Road to Damascus moment.
Karen was slow to respond when, thirty minutes later, he walked into her kitchen. She looked up at him reluctantly, not wanting to show that she had been crying now for nearly two days. “Howard? Oh Christ, Howard, where have you bloody been?”
“Come on my love,” He said, as she sobbed out her distress in his arms; “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
Peter’s and Lesley’s afternoon passed quickly. Late lunch at Hennik’s Coffee Bar, afterwards the Mall, dream-shopping among the clothes and games; then later in the park, sharing some intimate game of their own, or just walking. Where they went or what they did was unimportant, save that they stayed together. Once or twice, Lesley noticed the SV with the tinted windows: “Is he, like, obsessed or something? I think he’s following us, Pete.”
Peter was all too aware of the ominous presence. “Following you, probably. Dirty little man!”
“Cool! Really?” Lesley felt like teasing. “He’s quite hunky isn’t he – he could be sorta nice… I fancy his wheels!”
“Nope – chav for certain. I think he’s a bit creepy. Best avoid. Come on, we’ll use The Woolmarket to get to mine, he can’t drive through there.”
Lesley was curious. “You’re really worried, aren’t you? Is it your pair from Hemlington, do you think?”
“The guy driving isn’t, but who knows who else is in there – could be.” Peter was reasonably certain that this was the case, although he did not feel any immediate danger. The vehicle had been tagging them since they passed it on the Esplanade just before lunch. If they had wanted to, the occupants could easily have grabbed him before now. Obviously, Lesley was the reason they hadn’t.
They were near The Woolmarket, which led from the top of the town down to the seafront: narrow (once filled with stalls selling food produce, now lined with antique shops, souvenir kiosks and café bars) it was as crowded as anywhere in the town at the peak of the season. Although much quieter in autumn, it would still deny access to their ‘tail’, or at least force abandonment of the van. After their last attempt, Peter was sure the kidnappers, whoever they were, would not try to apprehend him again on foot. They would need transport.
Behind the surveillance vehicle’s bland exterior, Charlie was engaged in earnest conversation over a ‘phone link with Jeremy Piggott.
“I don’t know. He seemed fine. Just made some remark about nothing happening for a while and he was going to get a ‘paper.”
“He may have some scheme of his own?” Piggott suggested.
“Jer, he’s been gone three hours – he said he’d be back in two minutes. His ‘phone’s switched off.”
Piggott did not admit his concern. As a professional, he told himself, Sullivan was not that imaginative. He had never before shown any signs of having his own “schemes”. Yet there had been something indefinable in the tone of his voice during their last telephoned conversation. And Jeremy was used to losing his people this way.
The day was Monday: it found Piggott in a hotel room, away from his office on another case. If he took a moment to look around it, survey its clinical functionality in the light of a dull grey afternoon, he might find unwelcome reminders of what he was and what he had. He was forty-two: there was little, really, to declare for his life which would not have fitted into a suitcase the size of Howard’s – a failed marriage, two children he never saw, ruinous child support that bled all pleasure from the business of existence, a house which, small though it was, took what remained of his income. Howard Sullivan had spent last night in a room just like this: or worse; then Charlie had arrived on his patch the next morning to turn another screw. Howard was forty, wasn’t he?
“Listen, Chas. I think you may be right – there could be a problem. Back off, OK? Just keep a watch on the Cartwright home. I want to see what happens.”
Meanwhile the surveillance vehicle had been on the move. Klas had shadowed Peter and Lesley to the top of the Woolmarket, parking just up the street as the pair turned into the pedestrian only complex. Before they disappeared, Lesley glanced back at him with a little shrug of her shoulder, pursing her lips in a mocking air-kiss.
“Sweet child.” He murmured. “And so clever, hmmm?”
Long Lane, the spine of the old town, emerged three streets from Peter’s house. As they walked these final pavements Lesley and Peter scanned each side looking anxiously for a sign that the Surveillance Vehicle had arrived before them. There was nothing. Five minutes later they opened the door to the kitchen of the Cartwright household.
The room was empty; the house quiet.
“Do you think we’re alone?” Lesley asked.
“Dunno, maybe. Why?”
Lesley grinned. “You know why.” She moved close to Peter, draping his body, every inch of his body, with her own. “I’ve been dying all afternoon! Can we go study now?”
“Oh, I think so.” He agreed.
“Upstairs?” Her lips teased his ear.
“No. No time.”
She felt the hard edge of the kitchen table rub her thighs as his hands cupped beneath them, lifting her.
Lesley laughed out loud. “Hey, back up a bit you silly sod. Not here, Pete! What if somebody comes?”
“They’re out. They’re both out.” He was peeling her jacket from her, his hands finding a way beneath her t-shirt.
“You don’t know that!” Lesley’s hands offered token resistance, but as resistances went, it was already going. Peter’s impatience, her desire for his touch overwhelmed her. Intending to make the very best of what was to come; she sank back, thrilling at the touch of cool wood on her naked flesh.
“How does this…?” Ardent in the minefield of fastenings, Peter was clumsy.
“At the front, dopey! Oh, here, let me….let me…. Peter….
Only when she had resolved the mystery of the clip and sought to fold her arms about Peter once more, did it dawn upon Lesley that her lover was no longer close to her. She opened her eyes quickly to find Peter staring over her shoulder, beetroot-red, guiltily trying to retrieve his boxers.
“Come on, you two.” Howard’s voice snapped. “No time for that. We have a lot to do.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
SV : Ian Dooley on Unsplash
Solitary man: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash