Jeremy Piggott’s phone bleated piteously enough to make him answer it.
“Hi Jerry, its Sullivan.”
“Howard, how nice! I thought you’d forgotten us.”
“Nothing to report, Jerry old thing; until now, at least. Whole issue’s gone a bit stale, if you ask me – my prospective stepdaughter’s out of the picture….”
“That was a pun, I take it – since she created the bloody picture?”
“Oh very good!”
“What is our boy up to, then?” Piggott asked: “Exams and such? Being ordinary?”
“Well yes, actually.” Sullivan replied. “Apart from the physical differences we spoke about last time – lads do grow around about his age, don’t they? He’s picked up with this rather nice little girl (surname Walker, Lesley; I’ve asked office to get some background) and they have a pretty warm thing going, I can tell you. He took her to the house at Crowley yesterday, so he’s obviously still obsessed with the history issue…”
“Did they find anything?”
“I don’t know: I’m curious about that. I went over the place myself quickly afterwards and there’s something odd. It’ll be in my report. History wasn’t all they were researching, by the way. A certain little girl will have paid a visit to a chemist’s this morning, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Okay, send the photos – I’ll see if there’s anything in the gen. on this Walker girl. Cartwright hasn’t been back to the rock, or met up with your girl?”
“Photos should be in your mailbox. And no to both: in fact, my young friend with the stepdaughter potential is still as mad as a cat with him: I doubt if they even speak. Look, how much longer should we keep this up? Melanie senior is spewing wedding bells whenever she opens her mouth, so it’s getting difficult to side-step, if you see what I mean?”
“Maybe for years. Cartwright could be a sleeper, your Melanie girl may take us off on a different route? I don’t know, perhaps it is time for a change. I’ll keep you posted.”
“Right’o. Just a thought, hm? Take care, Jerry.”
The line closed, leaving Jeremy Piggott, British Secret Service, to ponder events in Levenport. Howard Sullivan’s brief had been to keep tabs upon Peter Cartwright, but the whole investigation had begun to look like a dead end. Since his bureau had traced this boy; he whose printed image adorned the scrap of floating paper which saved a Senator’s life, surveillance had revealed little or nothing. Yet a burning question remained: why the picture? A clue, a signpost to something more?
“Someone’s pulling your strings, Jerry old mate.” Piggott mused. “You’re a bloody marionette, that’s what you are.”
He dialled a number from the phone’s memory. “George,” He said when a voice answered. “Levenport file. I’m sending you some stuff on a family called Walker, focus the daughter. Pictures follow. Check it out. Then I want a conference call tomorrow morning with anyone still on the case. Circulate the appropriate memo, will you?”
Piggott replaced the ‘phone, settling down to an interrupted viewing of a television soap for which, were he quite honest, he had little regard.
In the meanwhile, returning from his day at Crowley, Peter Cartwright had to submit to some well-meaning interrogation by his mother and father. Lena’s horror was limited initially to the state of his clothes.
“Well, you might as well throw those away.”
“I can’t! They’re designer jeans!”
Bob, who knew both where Peter had been and who had been there with him, was concerned for different reasons; but he was wise enough not to say so. There were questions he did not need to ask – the alterations in his son’s demeanor told him all he needed to know.
“Well, Peter my son, the Crowley place must have impressed you mightily, that’s all I can say. He seems to have brought most of it back with him, doesn’t he, darling?”
Lena was fussing: “Go up and run a bath. And get those clothes off you, for heaven’s sake! I’ll do what I can with them.”
There was an interlude while Peter went through the business of undressing, and Lena ran his bath for him, collecting his soiled clothes from outside his bedroom door. She re-entered the kitchen, laden with these, to find her husband in reflective mood.
“Odd, I’d say.”
“Well, I had a call from our novice Bishop today. He asked about Peter again! Again! And I told him where Pete was going today. Strange thing is, he seemed to know already.”
Lena frowned, “You’re imagining it,” she said.
Somewhat later on this same evening, Peter finally broke free of parental curiosity and bathing rituals for long enough to switch on his PC. There was one email with an enclosure.
You deal with this. I can’t.
He opened the enclosure. It read:
You don’t know me, or I you, so I’m hoping I can convince you I’m not some pervert by using a phrase that’ll mean something: ‘ the stones are awake’, gettit? Because it’s vital that we meet.
Here’s the plan. For the weekend of 8th September you and Peter are going to stay with an old school friend, Mary Wilson, who’s moved to Mancheste. Birthday? House party? You choose. You’ll forget to take your mobiles, so you’ll be difficult to trace. You and Peter can both use this same story – the pitch is that there will be six of you going. That’s just in case you’ve got parents who worry (Sorry, but I don’t know your parents!).
Train tickets to Manchester for you both on the reference number below. You’ll be met at Piccadilly, and measures taken to see you aren’t followed.
Look, this is for real. Keep it between yourselves. We believe you are being watched, so be careful. I know how iffy this looks but if you travel together and if I add that Vince Harper gave me your email I hope that will be enough to persuade you.
Bung this in your trash straight away. It’s got a little gizzy all its own to take care of it from there. Then wipe your history and we should be safe enough.
PS. If your parents get suspicious or I haven’t earned your trust, don’t worry – we’ll set up something else. Remember, no mobiles. See you soon!
The mail concluded with ticket references. There was no signature.
Peter thought for a moment, and then sent to Melanie:.
“I’ll go. Are you coming?”
He waited for a reply, that night and the next day. Nothing came.
These early days of September were the countdown days, last precious remnants of the long summer break. Lesley and Peter spent as much of this time as they could together, although it was littered with tedious bouts of revision. For light relief Lesley practised on an acoustic guitar, melodically enough to inspire Peter to join in with vocals until he lost the key so entirely she made him promise to stick to his intended mathematics-based career choices. For most of the time they could work in each other’s company: their disagreements were rare.
Peter dwelt less and less upon thoughts of Melanie in these days. He was loyal to his friendship with her, even a little guilty at allowing Lesley to eclipse her so completely, but he could not relate to her if she wanted no contact with him, and the silence was thunderous. So he went on with the business of preparing for his final year with fewer backward glances than he might. And he was taken by surprise when Lesley gave him the news.
They had broken from studies for a morning coffee at Hennik’s.
“What?” Peter could not help a reaction: “How do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“Like – gone – gone away. To live with some relation or another up-country, I think. She’s changed to another college. She won’t be back next term, for exams or anything.”
Lesley studied Peter’s face, trying to suppress the tiny lump which kept coming back into her throat: “You still fancy her, don’t you?”
He came to himself. “No.” He said, rather too quickly. “No, I don’t. I never – I mean we never…..we were just friends, Les. But I hoped we still would be, you know?”
There was a wisp of betrayal in his girlfriend’s eyes. “No.” Peter repeated more carefully. “I could never feel for Melanie the way I feel about you. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. You know that really, don’t you?”
Lesley tried to tell herself she did.
“It was just a shock.” Peter reasoned. “I mean, why? I know she didn’t get on with that Howard bloke who lives with her mum, but surely…”
“Exam year? Has to be a good reason, doesn’t there? The reason is you, Peter dear; or rather, us.”
‘This honesty thing is out of control,’ Lesley thought to herself: ‘What are you doing to me, Petey? I’m turning honourable!’ She said: “Mel may just have been a friend to you; but to her you meant a great deal more. You were, like, the love of her life? Oh, don’t look like that! I’m sure of it. I shouldn’t say these things to you, but I can’t help it. Mel is – or was – my friend too, yeah?”
Wisely, Peter made no reply. He could not tell Lesley what he believed to be the real reason for Melanie’s departure, any more than he could admit to the bereft feeling now clawing at his heart. Okay, so maybe there had been something deeper there, once, but what use was there in revisiting it now? Melanie had gone; not in flight from a lost love, but running from the inevitable. Like his, her life had changed irreversibly: that email had to have been the catalyst. She did not want to be found so easily again.
Lesley meanwhile knew, despite Peter’s pretense, that he thought a lot of Melanie; that they had been more than simply friends. She was also aware of a mystery in Peter, a part of him she had yet to see. There were no deliberate lies or subterfuges, no evasive moments or avoided looks: but he had something within him that was hidden. All of which would not matter, if her relationship with him had not become, that afternoon at Crowley, at once so simply definable and so complicated: she was very young, but she was also very much in love.
“Don’t you dump me, Peter.” She warned him: “Not ever, do you hear?”
Hidden away in her bed room under the guise of shared homework, Peter did his best to reassure her he would not.
Lena Cartwright led a chaotic life: this was the construction she always placed upon her ‘higgledy-piggledy days’ as she called them, when anyone asked why she seemed to be flying about for no reason. Should any of her friends try to pin her down to an itinerary, or to delicately suggest that, for all her rapidity, she was actually going nowhere and doing very little, she was inclined to fall back upon ‘her art’ and given to explaining that artists don’t think in the same way as other people. These were the only times when she would refer to ‘her art’ at all: for the most part she kept her paintings very close to herself. They were personal to her, the hours she spent in her studio, and very carefully unrecorded. Production was slow. A sherry bottle was usually present.
This is not to say Lena was lacking in work or commitment: she had plenty of both. Long ago, she had forfeited all pretensions to “High Art”. Her talent, she knew, would never rival Rauschenberg or Hockney, she had no great message to leave to the world. But that did not inhibit a modestly profitable stream of local commissions, seaside views alongside sketched portraits and a smattering of graphics. Besides, she had, as she put it to anyone who would listen, ‘a vicar to run’, in her role as a vicar’s wife. Altogether these things, generally, filled her day from eight o’clock breakfast to eight o’clock supper.
Lena exercised one strict discipline; she would never drink in the presence of her only son. These days Peter was usually somewhere other than home, he touched base more and more rarely, so the sherry bottle was wont to stray into the kitchen as well as her studio, guaranteeing her affability for the evening to come. On this particular Saturday, Peter being elsewhere, the mistress of the house could be found doing a little desultory baking when a knock on her kitchen door announced a very distraught Karen Fenton.
“I didn’t know where else to go.” Karen said. Her face quivered on the brink of collapse.
“Come in, love. Come in.” Lena shepherded her friend hurriedly indoors. As soon as the door was closed, Karen broke down.
“Oh god, I had to come to you – I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to do this!”
Clutching Karen’s sobbing shoulders in her arms; Lena guided her into her kitchen. “Sit down and I’ll make some coffee – or maybe you’d like something stronger? What’s happened?”
“Melanie.” Karen said simply: “Has disappeared.”
This was not a Richter-scale shock. Peter had already told his mother that Melanie had ‘left town’.
“She’s moved to Saurborough, hasn’t she? To your sister’s?” Solicitously pouring solace from the sherry bottle, Lena presumed this was the cause of Karen’s misery.
“You know she and Peter aren’t close anymore?” Karen sniped, “Lesley Walker, now, isn’t it? A focussed young lady is Lesley. She sets out her stall really rather well, doesn’t she? But the let-down wasn’t exactly gentle, Lena dear, was it? No ‘Let’s still be friends’; no ‘Let’s still see each other, just play it cool for a while’?”
Lena would not be goaded. It was the old vicar’s wife thing again. She knew how to resist such crudely cast bait. “Ah, the young!” She went for a fatalistic sigh and very nearly made it: “My lord, it’s hard to believe we were like that once. Karen, I’m deeply sorry for the hurt Peter caused her, you know that. But we can’t live their lives for them, darling!”
“No. No, we can’t I suppose. And Peter wasn’t the only reason. Apparently – Christ, I didn’t know – she really hates Howard! Hates him! I suppose that happens, doesn’t it? I mean, just because I love him, it doesn’t mean….” Karen accepted the proffered glass, pausing to drink. “She wanted to get away: start fresh somewhere. I said it was a shame, with it being exam year, and everything, but it seemed for the best.”
Lena listened as her friend recounted how Melanie had left to stay with Bianca, Karen’s younger sister. Bianca was no stranger to her niece and at last Melanie appeared happy – happier than she had been for some time. Then the hammer fell.
“She sent me a text.” Karen said: “She never texts to me. Everyone else, yes, but when she wants to tell me anything she likes to talk, you know? But then, suddenly, a text! It just said that she was well and I wasn’t to worry. All day after that I went about trying to tell myself there was nothing wrong. It was half-past seven when Bianca called. She hadn’t come home. Oh, Lena!
“This was yesterday. No-one’s seen her since yesterday morning. The police found her ‘phone – it was still switched on – in a waste-bin in bloody Thorngate. That’s about thirty miles away! Someone’s got her, I know they have!”
Melanie had left her aunt’s house early, determined to take advantage of some September sun. She had declared her intention to go for a walk on the beach, but had, in fact, been last seen heading for the fish-dock further up the seafront. The police? An officer had visited Karen this morning. Oh, they were doing everything they could, but really, apart from circulating her description, what else could they do?
Where was Howard?
He’d gone up there, to Saurborough; rushed off early that morning – strange, though, that he hadn’t contacted Bianca as expected.
“He hasn’t called me either.” Karen managed a wry smile: “I suppose it’s possible I’ve lost both of them….”
The sherry bottle had joined them at the table, a centre-piece of telling significance, its level sinking like sand in an hour-glass. In the dwindling light of a late summer afternoon the two women faced each other both through it and around it, and the words hung unsaid for a long, long time.
“Lena,” Eventually breaking the silence, Karen spoke carefully; “The policewoman who came to see me said violent abductions are more likely to happen at the end of the day, you know, after dark? Disappearances in the morning, well, sometimes there’s a plan, like running away with somebody, or something? It got me thinking.” She drained her glass. “Lena, where’s Peter?”
Karen’s words cut through the gentle gauze of sympathy like a woodman’s axe. Lena bridled: “Good god what do you mean?”
“I mean, is he here?”
“Well, no. He’s away for the weekend. An old schoolmate is having a bit of a birthday and he’s staying over,” Lena was brusque; “My stars, Karen, just now you were censuring him for dumping Melanie, are you now saying he’s abducted her? That’s nonsense, surely!”
“Am I the only one who’s noticed? There’s something between Peter and my daughter – something that has nothing to do with relationships. It’s a sort of connection which I know is there but I can’t put my finger on. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it?”
“Well,” Lena scrabbled her mobile ‘phone from the worktop beside the ‘fridge and tapped Peter’s speed-dial angrily; “We’ll find out!”.
In the pause which followed, Karen said: “You don’t believe they could be together? I do. I’ve tried to add up the possibilities, and that is one. It really is one.”
Faintly, from above them in Peter’s bedroom, they both heard Peter’s ring tone.
© 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.
Image Credits: Header Image: Sagar Dani from Unsplash
Bottle: Vinotecarium from Pixabay