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