Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

   © 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.     

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twelve         A Very Private Gathering

The Story so far:

Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby.  By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will.  However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.

In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder.  At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.

After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night.  But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight.  When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.

#

“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.”  Marian had her back to him.  “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit.  You’d better start looking right away.”

That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said.  “I don’t understand!”  He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”

She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare:  “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult.   I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”

But that was then.  That was before he had learned to love her.

“Have you found somebody else?”  Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice.  “Is there someone else?”

“What if there were?  You have no claim on me.  I told you, Joe!”

“Yes, you told me.  A long time ago, you told me.”

Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London.  “Finchley, as a matter of fact.”  The money languished in his account.  He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new.   Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose.  He tried different things, new things:  as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off.  Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her.  In her mind she was already elsewhere.

Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.

She had gone to work as normal.  She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.

Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying.  How often had he seen her like this?  Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed.  They were talking, just making small talk.  He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard.  She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.

“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself.  Get on with your life, my love.  Move on!”

She was close, so close for a moment.  She pressed a small parcel into his hand.   “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you?  Promise?”

Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in  Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen:  Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked.  Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside.  He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.

This night she was early.  She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.

“Give me the stuff, Joe.”  She said.

“Do you want to eat first?”

“No.  I want the stuff,”  suddenly angry.  “Give me the fucking stuff!”

He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject.  Minutes later she was back.

“You too.”  She said.

Half an hour, it took.  He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge.  The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.

Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.

“Don’t want me yet, Joe.  Not yet!”

The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog.  If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof.  “Mustn’t.  Bad boy! Naughty!”

With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game.  But this night was too special.  It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much.  His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury.  Her eyes blazed.

“My neck, Joe Palliser!  My neck!”

So it was, on the night when everything changed.

#

Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence.  They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.

“Came up ‘ere the other day;”  Tom said.  “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain.  Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”

Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains.  More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance.  There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.

Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still.  “Joe old lad!”  He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said.  “Super little motor!”

They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients.  A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”  Enthused Maybury.  “Jowett designed they were, you  know?    Lovely leathers – come and see!”

They came and saw.  The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts.   They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.

“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.

On the journey back, Tom said.  “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days!  I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”

Joe nodded.  Times had changed, he said.

#

The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.

“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily.  As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.

“When’s he coming back?”

“For you to talk to?  Never.”

“Oh, come on, Caroline!  You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake!  Tell him to call me, will you?”

“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!”  She clipped.  “Very well, I’ll tell him.”  And she replaced the receiver.

Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour.  When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell.  In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze.  He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.

“Are you interested?”

The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips.  She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet.  She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.

“In the house?  I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.”  She waved airily towards the summit of the hill.  “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.  How do you do?”

Joe realised immediately.  Of course!  He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice.  The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.

“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly.  “How do you do, Sophie?”

“There!  You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already.  How neighbourly can one get?”  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down.  Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin.  “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser.  Why would that be?”

Joe smiled.  Now she was facing the sun he could see her face.  She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light.  Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting;  though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use.  “I prefer ‘wary’,”  He said.  “Would you like to examine my teeth?”

Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”

Joe didn’t answer.  She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“Well, I must go now.  No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house.  I hope you will come and visit us.  We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”

Joseph watched her as she walked away.  She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current.  When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.

‘Very good!’  Joseph thought to himself.  ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’  His next thought was less complimentary.

Sunday dawned hot and sultry.  At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.

“What do you want, Joe?”  Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.

“How are you, Ian?  Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“Get on with it.”

“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”

There was a pause.  Eventually Ian said:  “How on earth would I know that?  It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware.  Anyway, I hardly remember the woman.  Is that all you called me for?”

“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”

“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”

“She was murdered, Ian.”

“Really?  So?”

“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”

Ian’s voice had calmed.  “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall.  Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race.  Some of them lived under the house, he told me.  I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip.  Why are you so interested, Joe?”

“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed.  I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak?  I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”

“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.”  Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge:  “Try asking around the village.”

“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”

“I imagine they would.  Look, Joe….”

“Yes, I know, you’re busy.  Keep well, Ian.”

That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.

Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury.  They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups.  At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.

They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose.   Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband.  The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature.  She was not, by instinct, a baroness.  Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on.  Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.

Each found their way to time-allotted pews.  They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.

Joe sat with Owen and Julia.  In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion.  Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company.  Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.

Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields!  As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased.  With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns.  Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone.  Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair.  He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.

A strange hour.  Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands.  At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.

After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones.  From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering.  While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.

“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!”  Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise.  “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”

Joe smiled,  “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head.  What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”

Tom grinned,  “I’d say ‘tis likely.  What do you reckon to our Sophie, then?  D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”

“I met her yesterday.  She has a clear understanding of her place in the world.  How old is she?”

Tom pondered this:  “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”

“She’s grown.”

“Everyone has, Joe.  Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch.  Ah, I’d say so.  But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while.  Do you fancy a go, then?”

Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma.  There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice:  he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.

“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”

Tom nodded.  “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”

Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church.  He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’.  He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went.  They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.

 

© 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:  Ovidiu Creaga on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eleven                     Grounds for Suspicion

The story so far:

Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death.  In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.

Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.   

At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own.  Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness.  Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.

They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith.  By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head.  Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite.   The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place.  He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel.  She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.

This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner.  Emma brought so much to his table:  she was spiritual, a life force.  She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims.  She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.

Then Rodney died.  When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen.  By then there was no news to break.  Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead.  Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day:  the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they?  And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn.  Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.

Emma understood.  Joe was hanging himself from the inside.  He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.

“Charker Smith’s looking for you.”  She repeated the news she had heard.  She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed:  something she could not cross.  “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”

He had been thinking of it anyway, he said.  There wasn’t any future for him here.

“I could come with…”  her voice tailed away.

“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live.  Then I’ll write….”

It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors.  She did not say the things she felt.  They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes.  By morning Joe had gone.

#

 “Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”

Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.

Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack.  Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space.  His hair could not become scarcer because he had none.  He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.

“Come in, sit down!”

The office was the same, too.  The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which  Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there:  hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.

“Well now:  I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him.  You know the substance, I suppose?”

Joseph replied in the negative.  “I know very little.  I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk.  “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor.  I thought of you, of course.”

“Kind of you, Joseph.  Kind of you.”   Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger.   “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative.  He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”

Joseph choked:  “Sorry – what?”

“Yes, dear boy.  At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients!  My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable.  A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance.  I expect you know about that.  What was the quote he gave me?  Ah yes.  ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”

“Her entire estate?”

“Almost.  There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert.  In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds.   Dear boy!”  Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face.  “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”

Joe managed to breathe.  “No, I’ll be fine.  Mr Carnaby…”

“Alistair, please!  However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air.  “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph:  Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”

Morris Wayland Brubaeker.  Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce.  He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.

“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued.  “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged.  “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”

Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him.  “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”

“Well now.  Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding.  However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.”  Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks.  “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”

“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.

Carnaby pursed his lips.  “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation.  Very odd, but there you are.  The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy!  What do you think of that?”  Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that.  “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death.  You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”

“No.  No certainly not.  I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”

Carnaby nodded.  “He believes a police investigation is warranted.  If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”

‘Autopsy’.  The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain.  He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days.  The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked:  “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”

“We don’t at this stage,”  Alistair replied.  “Would you like me to find out?”

After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he.   Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.

“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself:  “I wonder where this may lead us?”

It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts.  The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.

He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth.  Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea.   Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him.  Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury.  Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt.  The driver opened the doors.

They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck.  The driver knew them.

“Come on, Martin!  Nearly missed ‘un this week!”

“’Tis ‘er!”  The old man accused.  “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”

.  “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,”  His elderly companion scoffed,  “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”

They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly.  As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded.  Joe heard them mutter between themselves.   He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died.  Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.

Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open.  He squinted into the light.  “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”

In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms.  He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal.  He had calculated that, this being Friday night,  Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.

“How’re you, Ned.  Good fishing?”  He ordered a pint.  The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “Pint, Aaron?”

Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top.  “Ah.”  He said.

Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry.  He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish.  The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight?  Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?

He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him.  It was time.

“Quiet tonight, Ned?”

Ned looked at him.  “Ah.  They all goes to town Fridays, see?”

Joe nodded thoughtfully.  “I saw Michael the other day.”

Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name.  Why, Joseph wondered?  The old publican must remember Michael well.  The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time.  Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?

“Your brother, isn’it?”  Ned replied.

“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned.  Michael said I should come and see you.  Urgent, he said it was.”

Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly:  not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.

“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?”  Ned murmured.  “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you.  ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet.  That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.”  Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.

“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”

They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe.  Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed;  yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own.  To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting.  Ned, however, was becoming restless.

Joe kept stoking the fire.

“One yourself, Ned?”  He offered as his next round was delivered.

Eventually nature took its course.  Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house.  Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety.  “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”

Aaron grinned back at him:  a row of blackened pegs.  “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.”  He slurred.

“You know about it, though, don’t you?”  Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door.  “Did she tell you?”

“’Er didn’t have to tell me!”  Aaron rejoined.  “I seen ‘er!   She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!”  He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale.  “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind!  That were a sight and no mistake:  titties jigglin’ up and down!  Bugger me!”

“Who else is in the coven, then?”

Aaron leered at him.  “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?  There’s folks round here I could tell on, see?  But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be.  An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too.  I likes they, mind!”

Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further.  Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open.  His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.

Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow.  Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.

“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.”  And he set himself to wander home.

 

© 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.