Alan Furbeck paused by the river to admire the blue, white and red sails fluttering, dipping and tacking like giant butterflies. He had belonged to a sailing club once, still remembered the thrill and the spills. He hadn't carried any extra weight then, now he needed care to prevent his muscular frame from laying down fat.
Ahead the pony club was setting up the hurdles for the weekend gymkhana, a regular event drawing in riders from nearby villages and farms. It was as if time, had somehow stopped or, like a video, had been reversed. And yet a few miles over the river lay a city holding all the pleasures and violence of the modern age.
The toe-rag who had fired the bullet which ended his police career could be said to have done him a favour. He wasn't going anywhere; a late entrant he had trod on too many toes. Believed implicitly that a man was innocent until proved guilty- he wasn't sure that applied to women. They used sex as a weapon more deadly than a gun and paradoxically it often led to their own demise.
It was with some reluctance that he returned to his car and headed towards the city and the agency which had rung last night to offer a commission. Might as well check it out he had nothing on his book at the moment and his police pension, although adequate, didn't allow for riotous living. Not that he would ever make a fortune through private investigation but it put a bit of jam on the bread and butter and more important it kept his mind active.
As he drove over the bridge towards the city he glanced down at the embankment where lads in ubiquitous reversed baseball caps tormented the swans. Soon, if this heat continued, some would be tempted to join them: how many would the river claim this year? There had been a time when the City boasted of several open air lidos but now the last one had closed..
Leaving the river behind him he drove past the old factories, now derelict, and reached the municipal car park as Little John, the town clock, chimed the hour. The Agency office was above a watch-makers shop, to reach it he had to walk through the shopping centre and up the street where Woolworths had once held pride of place. Now it was tawdry with daubed windows, cheap jewellery shops and shoes sprawling over the pavement. He turned left to where, between yet another shoe shop and a cafe, lay an alley, a relic of Dickens' day, holding the watch-makers premises and various small offices. He climbed the narrow wooden staircase to the sparsely furnished agency office: a computer desk, a telephone and one extra chair. The girl behind the desk wore a well cut trouser suit and grey blouse, her mouth, as bloody as a knife wound in pallid flesh, provided the only colour. Her eyes were fixed, like a rabbit in headlights, on the screen.
She turned to him at last, 'Hi. This is one is right up your street.' She handed him a photograph of a young man and a dog. He recognised the face.
'Haven't you anything more recent? This must have been taken six or seven years ago.'
'Not the man, he's dead,' she said laconically as if death was of no more importance than the fly tottering on the edge of her coffee cup. 'It's the dog you have to find and they don't change much once they've left the puppy stage.' She gave him a phone number.
Alan ran his hand through his thick frosted hair and smiled bleakly. Patronising bitch. Despite a slight limp he could still give a good account of himself when need be. His thick set muscular body had not yet run to seed and his nose could suss a crook as swiftly as a trained dog could sniff cocaine.
'All right? Usual rate and expenses.' She batted the fly, it dropped into the coffee dregs.
Alan nodded, well why not? It was whisky money and it shouldn't take him more than a week or so.
As Alan strolled through the underpass where the strumming of a guitar led him to a pony-tailed busker. He held out a one pound coin before putting his question.
'Lot's of dogs about mate.' Came the laconic answer.
He took out the photo copy he had made of the dog. 'This one? With a girl named Liz.'
'Maybe. Who wants to know?'
'Look the girl isn't in any trouble. I want to buy the dog.'
'Right. What's in it for me?'
'Twenty when I've checked your information.'
'What if she won't sell?'
'You'll still get paid.'
'She's usually with a group down Wheelergate only today they're trying their luck by the castle.' He reached up to grasp Alan wrist. 'Don't let on I said owt.'
Alan smiled, 'I won't. She's a big girl then?'
'It's not the girl but her minder. He's a nut case. You'd best watch out for 'im if you upset Liz.'
'Thanks for the warning.' Alan dropped two coins in the box at his feet.
The heat of the sun seemed a blasphemy as Alan waited for Christine Langley in the car park of the crematorium. .
'Mr Firbeck?' He nodded, held out his hand which she took in a firm grip. Her eyes were dry but as bleak as Dartmoor on a November day.
'Wouldn't you rather I called on you at a later date?' He asked. The crematorium was hardly the place for asking questions.
Christine Langley could tell him nothing. The first she heard of David’s return was when the hospital contacted her. He had asked her to find and take care of his dog. He had been living in a squat with a girl named Liz. If she had another name he didn't mention it. He died without leaving an address.
'How long had he been in the area?' He saw her startled look and swiftly added, 'the photo was taken in London...Eros in the background.'
'How clever of you to notice but I'm afraid I don't know. The last letter I had from him had no address but said he was living in Hackney. You'll let me know if you discover anything and you'll find the dog.'
'I hope so. I've been making enquiries. I'll be in touch,' they shook hands and parted.
Alan watched her drive away. Who would have thought David Masters would surface, like flotsam, in this still backwater. He knew more about Christine Langley's grandson than he cared to tell. It was David who had given the information which led to a drug's raid. Memory flashed the scene before him: The startled cries, as they charged in. Himself grappling with a youth; twisting a knife from his hand. Meridith bringing a woman to the floor; a man leaping down the stairs making for the door . The sound of gunshot; searing pain as a bullet hit him and sent him hurtling down the steps. He hadn't heard the second shot-the one that killed his young colleague Gwen Meridith -hadn't known about it until he awoke in his hospital bed.
The memory brought an acrid taste. The desire for revenge swept over him again. It had all happened too quickly to get a good look at them. He gritted his teeth. By the time he had got back on his feet the trail had been cold but not his hatred-hatred of every bit of scum that floated in his reach. He thought he had put it behind him when he accepted early retirement and moved away from the City but, "there is a destiny shapes our ends." Oh he would no doubt find the dog but what else might be dredged up?
Was it possible the girl Masters had left the dog with, was the one who escaped in the raid? And what of those he had fingered? Nick Orick and Diane Castledine? Alan's Super had brushed aside his suspicion that they had been forwarned. David Masters had been in protective custody from the minute he had coughed. There was no way he could have warned anyone. Was it, as the Super insisted, just a lucky chance that brought a fourth man on the scene? A man with a gun!
This would not do. He needed a whisky to drown the foulness. He would find the dog, make a few enquiries, give Mrs Langley time to come to terms with her grief and then present the bill.
Jan Castledine turned off the M1, a glance in the mirror assured her she wasn't being followed yet she could not shake off the fear. She drove past the council estate that sprawled over what once had been rich farming land. Now few of the houses were council owned since during the 'Thatcher' years tenants had been given the opportunity to buy. Those who had managed to sell, before recession and negative equity had taken their toll, had moved on, only to lose their superior property. She frowned; her husband Steve had taken advantage of the opportunities created. First, from Council renovation grants on older property and then by buying reclaimed property at knock down prices. He had re-sold through advertisements in London papers: all legal enterprise she supposed and yet the images of the disposed troubled her.
Leaving the main road she headed towards the river, ahead lay the village where she intended to lay her ghosts, to re-visit the past and to sort things out with her husband Steve. The hedgerows lining and dividing the road from paddocks and farms were heavy with blackberries already tinged with red; but lack of rain had left them small and hard.
On the seat beside her lay the keys to the Victorian semi-detached villa where she hoped to begin a new life. The rent on the London flat was paid up to the end of the year and she had told no one of her intention to leave; had left no forwarding address. She glanced at the wedding ring on her finger, she must contact Steve, let him know she was back and get things sorted. Dear kind irritating Steve, it was time they divorced; he should find someone who could share his life. He wouldn't be too upset since he had never been in love with her. Their parting had been amicable, which wasn't surprising since there had never been any kind of passion between them. No great quarrels, you couldn't maintain a quarrel with Steve, he just walked away and then behaved as if nothing had happened. Why is it that friendship and passion are so rarely bedfellows? Steve was comfortable to be with, like a favourite chair or a well-thumbed book. She sighed, she had enjoyed his company, missed seeing him across the breakfast table but between the sheets she couldn't pretend, though she had tried, as she had tried once or twice since, but the memory of Nick lay between them.
The house on the perimeter of Badely Holme was tucked back, down a lane between what had once been two farms. Now the land opposite was a paddock for retired horses and the houses backed onto meadow land. The house itself was fronted by what had once been a pocket size lawn now covered with labour saving slabs. A low, neatly trimmed hedge separated it from its neighbour, over it Jan could see a velvet lawn framing a standard rose, beautifully shaped and budding, the whole edged with a multi coloured border of flowers. From the window she would see anyone approaching or passing by.
She left the car on the road, for the house had no garage, cars not being a priority when these villas were built. As she carried her cases up the path she saw a shadow at the window next door and idly wondered what manner of person her neighbour would be. Not that it was important for she intended keeping herself very much to herself.
Leaving her cases in the hall she walked through to the kitchen. Grey mottled tiles still covered the floor and the old gas-stove stood by the side of the sink. Opening the window she felt her spirits rise at the sight of the garden. It was larger than she remembered and very secluded, ideal for sun bathing. The dividing hedge on the left consisted of various bushes chosen for their leaves. Green holly spattered with gold, russet beech, green and yellow laurel all intermingling with and topping the neighbour's privet.
The bottom and right hand side were enclosed with walls draped in climbing plants. Clematis was in full bloom. The lawn, although no bowling green, had been tended. No doubt Steve had kept an eye on the place even though he hadn’t occupied it. There was nothing to fear. The garden was secluded, safe, she must stop looking over her shoulder.
A host of sparrows splashed and chirped in the birdbath watched by Pan the mischief-maker, his flute enticing folk to disaster. She had described the birdbath to her half sister Diane who had laughed derisively. 'A Pan, darling; next you'll be buying those grotty plastic gnomes.'
Jan sighed. Diane was part of the past, it must be all of seven years since she took off without so much as a hand wave. Jan no longer hated her; if only she would get in touch, let her know she was still alive. Just that, she didn't want her life complicated again.
The house had that faint, musty unlived in smell but Jan felt a surge of pleasure at the sheer space of it as she wandered from room to room. The living room held the sideboard, table and four odd dining chairs they had bought from the second hand shop in town, only two of the chairs had been used. Perhaps she would buy a stool and eat in the kitchen.
Two shabby fireside chairs, and two beanbags, sat in the front room, there was a time when they seemed adequate, and indeed Diane had preferred them to formal chairs. For a second Jan seemed to see her sprawled in the beanbag her long legs curled under her.
She ran her finger along the top of the bookcase, her own essential piece of furniture. There was surprisingly little dust here or on the drinks cabinet Steve had made. She held her breath and listened, someone had been here. No she was being ridiculous, there was no food in the house or newspapers but someone had cleaned it fairly recently. The thought unnerved her and she had to steel herself to inspect the bedrooms. She toyed with the idea of leaving them until she had been shopping for groceries but she had to sleep tonight so she may as well get it over with.
Her footsteps echoed on the bare treads as she climbed the stairs. She hesitated outside the door of the bedroom, which she should have shared with Nick. Her stomach knotted; she took a deep breath to steady herself before entering. The bed was made up, there was a large, mirror fronted wardrobe and matching mahogany dressing table where sat a framed photograph of the four of them on the river bank. Herself and Nick, Diane and Steve, How young they were then.
She caught sight of herself in the mirror, her fair shoulder length hair greased by the heat of the day, a smudge of dirt on her pale cheek. She gave a wry smile as she recalled the admonition of Meg, her foster mother; '"You'd best be good because you'll never be beautiful."'
Much later Nick had unwittingly agreed with Meg as he held her in his arms; '"I don't know what it is, you're not beautiful but you've got something."' But that something wasn't enough beside Diane. With a sigh she picked up the photograph. Here captured in time, Diane took centre stage. She was as dark as Jan was fair. Where Jan's smile was awkward, forced to say 'cheese', Diane's was broad and mischievous, her eyes danced with joy. Small wonder Nick fell for her, there was no contest.
Jan replaced the photograph and turned to the task in hand. The bed would need airing, mentally she added a hot water bottle to her shopping list and power points and a microwave on her list of improvements.
Walking firmly across the room she opened the bedroom window and leaned out to savour the fresh clean smell of country air. The scent of roses from her neighbour's garden reached her. Below a black cat slunk into the hedge setting off a cacophony of bird alarm. Beauty and cruelty side by side but cats are not in themselves cruel they must obey their nature. Diane held that all mankind are animals controlled by instinct and her instinct had been to take whatever she desired. Even when they were children; '"Finder's keepers, giving back, cheaters."' Resolutely Jan dismissed her ghosts and set off for the supermarket, a twenty-minute drive away. When she was settled she would find the old shops, where service was friendly, gossip rife and the bread sold was real.
After parking the car Jan transferred her purse from her handbag to her shopping bag, one bag was easier than two. She bought tins of soup and beans, free range eggs, turkey pieces, rice, salad, cheese, potatoes, apples and oranges, but was unlucky regarding the hot water bottle. Meg used to warn against sleeping in unaired beds; she had also predicted the dire consequences of leaving off vests; neither she nor Diane had heeded that warning; it was summer and for once gloriously hot?
She was loading up the car boot with groceries from the supermarket when she heard footsteps close by. A girl, in tattered jeans and an overlarge sweater, was hurrying away. The car door was open. It was a minute or two before she realised her handbag, which she had left on the seat, had gone. She shouted, began to run after the girl, stopped as she remembered the car boot. Returning, her heart pounded. She locked the boot and sat trembling behind the wheel. She had not anticipated crime here. Her pulse raced. She would have to report the theft even though there was no money in the handbag, there was her cheque book. No! The police wouldn't be interested and of what use was a cheque book without a guarantee card? Even if the girl was found she wouldn't want to prosecute, she looked so very young; no more than a teenager, desperation led. Moreover the last thing she wanted was to draw police attention to herself. It is never wise to stir mud.
Feeling slightly wobbly she locked the car before returning to the store to telephone the bank. Now she would be without a cheque book for some time. Gone were the days when one could walk into a bank and have one issued there and then. Technology was supposed to make life easier but it didn't cover life's hiccups.
She was almost home when she remembered the windows. She should have closed them. In London she had locked and bolted every window and door but surely here it was different. True her bag had been snatched but that could happen anywhere. There was a time when such crimes were unheard of. Was it just that? Had these things always happened but were not so widely reported or had evil, like a stone skimming on a pool, spread widening circles infiltrating even this quiet haven? And yet how were the youngster supposed to live now they received no state benefit?
A further shock awaited her, the back door should have been locked. Had she forgotten that too? She put the groceries on the draining board and listened. There was no sound, not even of birdsong, the window was closed. 'Is anyone there?' She called helplessly.
Not daring to investigate further, she went out into the garden, perhaps her neighbour would help. A cold shudder ran down her spine. She sensed she was being watched, she stared towards the hedge and saw a shadow move away. Someone was behind the hedge. Mentally she shook herself, she was being paranoid, no doubt her neighbour was gardening. If she called, told of her fear she would look a fool if there were no intruder and she herself had forgotten to lock up. She returned to the house banging the door to alert any intruder but re-opening it poised ready for flight.
No sound, she sighed with relief. The bag snatcher had unnerved her. Leaving the door open she began to put away the groceries on the shelf at the cellar head. She must contact Steve and set about furnishing the place properly, throwing out the junk. It would be good to have things about her she herself had chosen after having lived, so long, in furnished accommodation.
She stopped, a tin of baked beans in her hand. She heard the stairs creak, heavy, uneven, footsteps plodding down, down. Someone coming from the attic. Her fingers tightened round the tin, she hadn't inspected the attic. Steps on the lower stairs, now they had reached the hall, shuffling, hesitant. Petrified she waited her heart thudding. Her hand rose ready to throw the can. The door opened. She dropped the can and fled; out of the door; down the path; her legs wooden; her breath uneven. She fumbled with the latch on the gate, open it and without daring to look back she pounded on her neighbours door.
The door opened:
A tall handsome woman, dressed in a long crinkle skirt and smock smiled at her. 'Hullo, do come in, I hoped you would call.'
'There is someone in the house', Jan babbled.
'What? Someone? Oh yes Mrs Hudson. Here she is now,'
The said Mrs Hudson came panting up the drive. A short bulky woman with a flowered overall over a blue dress. She wore pink framed glasses and her hair was covered with a knitted woolly hat.
Jan felt weak with relief, but her heart still pounded unpleasantly. The relief was followed by a surge of anger. She had made a complete fool of herself. 'What were you doing?'
'I might ask yo that, the woman said truculently. 'Scared me 'alf to death.'
Before Jan had time to protest Christine introduced her and explained she had asked her to give the house an occasional clean.
'I see, but I will not be needing you any more.' Jan tried to keep her voice steady.
'What about Len then?'
'Len, my hubby. He does the garden and Mrs Langley's, he's there now, but if you'll not be wanting-.'
So that was the shadow behind the hedge. Before she could answer Christine said, 'Would you make the coffee, please, Mrs Hudson.' She waited until that lady had left the room before turning to Jan. 'Please don't be too hasty in dismissing them. They are very reasonable and I'm afraid I may lose them too. You see they live over the river and it would hardly be worth their while coming just for me. If you could keep them on for a little while until I've found someone else for them.'
Jan frowned, a cleaner she could do without but a gardener, that was different. She was a townie and only familiar with backyards. She mustn't be too hasty. 'Well perhaps he could carry on at least for the present.'
Jan refused her neighbour's invitation to coffee, saying she had still to unpack.
'Just a moment, I have this morning's mail for you. I usually bin the circulars but a letter was delivered by hand from the solicitors Bent and Knotley. I take it you are Ms Castledine? If they had let me know you were coming I'd have aired the bed.'
'The solicitors asked you to look after the house?'
'Yes. I've collected all the mail for them too, mostly bills and circulars but I expect they've been forwarded to you or your husband.' Her shrewd eyes were on Jan's wedding ring.
She obviously was a woman who missed nothing. Jan merely smiled, she could have refuted the assumption since the ring had belonged to her mother, but she had no intention of telling Christine Langley more than she needed to know. She waited until she was back in her own kitchen to examine her mail. Suddenly she remembered there had been an unposted letter to Meg, her foster mother, in her bag, oh well she would be seeing her soon. She dumped the circulars in the bin before opening the hand delivered letter. Inside was a brief note asking her to call at the office at her earliest convenience.
She still had the letter in her hand when the phone rang. She stared at it in disbelief. It couldn't be for her; she had a new number and was ex directory-she shook away her fear. B.T. couldn't have got round to changing it. The call would be for the previous tenant. The insistent ringing continued, she picked up the receiver. A muffled voice said, 'I know you are there Diane. You won't get away with it.'
'Get away with what? Who are you?' There was no reply. Her hands shook; some one was looking for her half sister Diane. But why here and now? What kind of trouble had Diane got herself into? Her head began to throb, perhaps it had been a mistake to come back, she should have known there was no escape. Diane was good at hiding even when they were children and Jan had often given up and run to Meg Fergus.
'But what if she's dead?' Jan had asked in despair.
Meg's answer had always been the same, '"Dead or alive, she'll turn up like the bad penny she is."'
Jan sighed, Meg had been right then but this time Diane had been gone seven years without so much as a postcard and Jan had almost stopped thinking about her.
Through the echoes of time she heard herself calling:
'Where are yo?' And the maddening disembodied answer:
'Yo's in the field
kicking up his heels
if yo want him
yo go an' find him.'
Christine Langley hurried into the garden before her neighbour returned from work. She had tried several times in the last fortnight to catch her, but had not even managed to say good morning since that first day.
The battered Renault 4 pulled in at the side of the road as Christine cut a perfectly formed yellow rose. The woman behind the wheel was obliged to acknowledge her. 'Lovely roses,' Jan said.
'Do you like them? I always think they are like evil women, pretty to look at but concealing deadly thorns.' Her eyes, dark and bright as a blackbirds, discomforted Jan.
'I expect you're longing for a drink it has been so hot today. I'm going to have a drink of home made wine, won't you join me?'
'Thanks, I'd better not I've some marking to do and wine makes me sleepy.'
Christine let her lips droop and then brightened, 'A cup of tea then. We really should get to know each other. There is no need to stay long.'
It would have been churlish to refuse. As she sat on the Queen Anne chair in Christine's tastefully furnished lounge Jan let her eyes wander round the walls hung with sketches.
'That's our local ditch,' Christine volunteered as she returned with the tea.
'But the wooden cross?' Jan's face reflected her bewilderment.
'Surveyor's marker. When I saw it I thought it was just right for Hamlet.'
'Hamlet?' Her neighbour was more than eccentric, she was mad.
'Dramatic Society. I do the back-cloths-grave yard scene. And that one, by the window, is Pinders' Pond.'
'Ophelia?' It had been literature scripts Jan had been marking.
'Yes. See the willow tree? It is supposed to be very deep in the centre although as far as I know no one has drowned there. And that,' she indicated a third sketch, is the great hall in the Manor House. Developers want to demolish it. Jan smiled politely.
'Forgive an old lady for being nosy but what brings you to Badely?'
'I was born near here but I spent several years in London. Do you teach?' She asked to avoid revealing too much of her own past.
Christine’s eyes had a far away look. 'Only part time. I used to be a free lance artist.'
'Do you have family here?'
'I have no family now,' Christine said abruptly.'
Jan felt embarrassed at her faux pas. 'I'm so sorry, I didn't know.'
'How could you? More tea?'
Jan rose to her feet, 'no thank you, I really must get on.' The Christine's blackbird eyes made her feel uneasy. I'm getting paranoid, she thought; she is just a friendly old lady. As she rose to go the doorbell rang.
'Do excuse me.' Christine went to answer the door. Jan heard the murmur of voices at the door. Christine returned with a slim, long legged woman dressed in a short-skirted red linen suit. For a split second Jan thought it was Diane although the resemblance was superficial.
'This is Mrs Snow, the Vicar's wife.' Christine said.
'Yvonne-lovely to meet you at last' she gushed. 'You must get Christine to bring you to church.'
Jan gave her a non-committal smile, and took her leave. Between these two tall bright women she felt like a criminal at an inquest. She needed fresh air and solitude. Above all solitude.
She returned home and changed into jeans and trainers before jogging across the field. Out of breath she paused by the style to savour the scent of new mown hay. The farmer was working late. She watched rabbits scurry in a cloud of dust and partridges rise and glide down towards the edge of the wood. The hot dry summer had brought the nightmare of homelessness early for all those creatures that sought sanctuary in the growing corn. Progress had brought the combined harvester to the farm and soon the car would overtake the field. How many years before this village was swallowed by the encroaching town? The town where she had played tag in the streets with Diane.
A light breeze ruffled her shoulder length hair as she continued her walk back home. Leaving the field behind her she crossed the ditch and turned into the lane. There was a black Volvo parked by the house. As she drew nearer she saw Christine on the doorstep shaking hands with a man in a dark suit. A large black dog stood by her side.
She was too far away to see the man's face but there was something familiar about his stance. Her heart thumped painfully, what was he doing here? She hung back until he returned to his car. As she neared the gate Christine beckoned her and the dog sauntered over rubbing his head against her leg. His coat was shaggy and dusty, Jan stroked his head. 'I didn't know you had a dog. He's very friendly.'
'I didn't. Satan belonged to a relative who died; he seems to have taken to you. Are you all right? You look as if you're about to faint. Come in and sit down a minute. She led the way through to the living room where the French window opened to the back garden. Now sit down I'll get you a drink.'
Jan stared in dismay at the animal that lay with his head between his paws looking like a tattered rug. He panted under the weight of his long unkempt coat. It must be a coincidence. This couldn't be the same dog she had seen as a pup. There were probably hundreds of dogs named Satan.
Christine returned with coffee, set on a wooden trolley with hand-made crockery.
'Satan you said?'
'Yes. I hadn't realised he'd be so big. I'm sorry he frightened you.'
The dog raised and shook his head, revealing one black and one pale blue eye.
Jan clenched her teeth against crying out. Now there was no doubt, the similarities were too great to be mere coincidence. She wanted to ask where the dog had come from and who the man was she had seen leaving. She felt sick to her stomach, had the move been in vain? Had the past washed up like a returning tide? '"Cast your bread on the water,"' was one of her foster mother's, saws too which Diane had chirped, '"and it comes back soggy."'
Christine had been talking at length: 'The thing is, Mrs Snow the vicar's wife is trying to raise money for an appeal. She's calling soon to give me the dates of events. I'm sorry I'm boring you.'
Jan stood up, she was vaguely aware that her neighbour had been talking about the community's plan to oppose the new development project. 'I'm sorry I'm not feeling too well. I'll try to make it to your meeting but I can't promise anything.' She still hadn't asked the question foremost in her mind. Who was the man delivering Satan and where was his owner? But she was afraid she knew the answers.