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Well Head Cottage – 5

Later, cosy in the cottage, with the curtains drawn against the darkness, Jean settled down to watch a DVD. She was content and looking forward to a longer walk the next day, if the weather held. If not, she had work to keep her busy. She tried not to think about the experience in the farm shop. It was done, and after Sunday she wouldn’t go there again.

At eleven she checked the door locks and went to bed.

It was hard to tell how much later it was when she woke. She struggled back to full consciousness, her skin prickling with nerves. She didn’t think she had been dreaming but something had come between her and sleep. She lay still and quiet in the warm bed, listening, waiting to see if there would be more, tense, listening.

An owl called, far away, and there was a click and buzz as the fridge cycled into life, the latter noise causing her to twitch with shock. Though all seemed well she couldn’t settle. She sat up against the pillows. Her ears were alive to every creak and rustle, and her heart thumped. Something had alarmed her.

Since the robbery at her home earlier in the year, she had been more aware of noises in the night, not exactly nervous, but less secure than she used to be. She knew, that the only way to get back to sleep would be to go to the rooms downstairs, and reassure herself there were no problems.

She sighed and reached to the bottom of the bed for her dressing gown.

It was chilly on the landing. She flicked on the light and stepped gingerly down the stairs.

It was all okay, wasn’t it? Everything appeared normal. Her walking stick, which she didn’t really need any more, but carried because she had become used to the feel of it in her hand, was leaning against the wall, beside the hat stand. She picked it up and turned to move down the hall. She pushed open the door into the lounge. She didn’t want to turn on the light it would be too bright for her night-time eyes, too glaring. Though the curtains were drawn across the window, she could see enough to know that all was as she had left it.  Her empty glass was still on the table. Relaxing now, pretty much convinced all was well, she tutted, picked it up and carried it with her into the kitchen.

The tiny red light on the microwave glowed bright in the gloom, that, and the illumination from the cooker clock, was enough to see by. The moon shone through the small panes, glinting on the taps and the stainless steel of the drainer. She walked, in her bare feet, across the chilly tiles to the sink. Her nerves were settling as the ambience of the house, calm and undisturbed, wrapped around her. She reached a hand to the tap to rinse the brandy snifter. As the water ran over her fingers she glanced up, directly into the pale oblong of a face against the window, the eyes no more than a glint of moonlight on moisture, the mouth a dark gash. Jean gasped with shock.

The figure withdrew quickly as their eyes met, and she heard the thud of feet running across the garden, the swish of bushes in the narrow side passage. She cried out, just once, and then brandishing the walking stick before her, rushed to the kitchen door.

The key was on its hook, fastened to the side of the cupboard and, with shaking fingers, she slid it into the lock, struggling with darkness and nerves. She turned the key and handle and flung open the door. Afterwards she acknowledged that it was the worst thing to do. She should have turned on all the lights, maybe poked the buttons on the smoke alarms, made a fuss and bother but, in the event, she banged her hand on the switch for the outside light, and stepped into the cone of brightness outside the door. Replaying it later she even grinned at the sight she must have made, wrapped in white towelling, hair dishevelled, waving her walking stick, and shouting into the darkness, but in truth it hadn’t felt funny, and she was absolutely convinced she hadn’t made a mistake. There had been someone there, looking in through the window, and she didn’t want to think what might have occurred if she hadn’t disturbed them. Did they intend to break into the house, and then what? Had they any connection with the shouting and gun fire that she had heard on the first night? And, what, if anything should she do about it?

Now, she turned on the lights, all of them, and rechecked the window and door locks. There was a burglar alarm but she hadn’t set it, because she worried that she would forget in the morning and activate it walking down the stairs. She didn’t relish the thought of a blaring klaxon before she’d even had her coffee. She dug out the instruction leaflet and reminded herself of how to bring the darned thing to life.

She made a cup of warm milk, poured a shot of brandy into it, and took it back up to bed. Propped against the pillow, sipping the drink, she acknowledged that this visit wasn’t panning out the way that she had hoped.

From the disappointment of Lesley not coming with her, the outpouring of despair from Doris Smart, and the unsettling encounter in the new farm shop, it had all been disappointing. Now this latest thing had her wondering if she should cut her losses, call it a day, and go home.

If she did that though, she doubted that she would ever come back. She had loved this place for such a long time and hoped that this first visit, without Jim, would have been a move into the future by way of the past. She didn’t want to remember it as a place of upset and failure.

She only had one more day on her own. Lesley should arrive by early evening tomorrow and then she would feel better, they could visit old haunts, have pub lunches, talk and laugh into the early hours, and it would all be fine.

As she turned out the light she felt calmer, it had probably been an itinerate, a chancer, and she had scared him away hadn’t she. She must remember the alarm, but that was all that was necessary. She really was still too lazy about security, despite the events of the past spring.

She pulled the quilt up to her chin, concentrated on relaxing her limbs, and the next thing she knew the sun was sneaking round the edges of the curtains and warming the room.

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Well Head Cottage – 3

Loud knocking on the back door took her from the living room, where she had been about to start work, into the kitchen. Doris Smart’s face was pressed close to the little pane of glass. Jean waved and unlocked the door. She stepped over the threshold, carrying a large shopping basket.

“I can let you have some eggs, I’ve got carrots and a cauli’, there are some nice baby sprouts. If you want a chicken, I can bring you one tomorrow. Didn’t want to bring it over just to ‘ave to take it back. There’s some spuds as well, nice they are.”

As she spoke Doris unloaded the bag, and piled the contents onto the draining board. Now she folded the basket over and placed it on the kitchen table. She turned to look at Jean. “I’m sorry Mrs Duncan. First, I’m sorry about your husband,” Jean smiled at her, acknowledgement of the courtesy, “And I’m sorry if you thought I was rude earlier. You weren’t to know, about the shop.”

“No, it’s such a shame. And the tea garden is closed as well?”

“Aye. It is. I couldn’t keep it going.” The bright eyes sparkled a moment but it was tears that lit them, not the laughter that had used to be so near the surface. “I’ll be honest Mrs Duncan, I’m struggling. It’s been a bad year. The B&B business finished. I had a few of them bad reviews on the internet, we were fighting back, answering the complaints that were all made up. Then somebody said they’d been bitten by fleas and bed bugs. Well, they weren’t, of course they weren’t, but what can you do. Mud sticks and the bookings dried up. A couple of my regulars still wanted to come but you can’t run a business with a couple of regulars. Then we lost some ewes. Out in the summer grazing, that just about broke my Ted. They’d been worried, dogs probably. It doesn’t matter how many signs you put up, how many notices in the shops and what have you, it still can happen. But this was bad, half a dozen several days on the run. Awful it was. Then we had the fire in the shop. We were out, at a wedding, just one night, but it meant nobody saw until it was too late. Destroyed all the stock, the fridges, everything. We were lucky that it didn’t burn down the whole farm, but the shop was finished. I tried to claim, but I’d got the insurance wrong. It had grown from a little stall you see, and I didn’t realise. A separate venture they called it. I suppose they were right but it meant I got nothing.

A fox got in the hen house one night. Leastways that’s what we think happened. It could have been vandals, but we don’t have much of that up here. Anyway, the chickens were dead, most of ‘em. Locked ‘em up night times to keep ‘em safe, and look where it got me. Oh, it was just one thing after another. Then…” The woman paused, struggling for control. Jean’s instinct was to throw her arms around the thin shoulders but when she felt Doris tense and pull away she stepped back to the table. Doris coughed and continued. “My Ted is gone, Mrs Duncan.”

“Oh, Doris I am so sorry. When? Was he ill? An accident?” Doris was shaking her head.

“No, not dead, just gone. The trouble was too much for him. We were eating into our savings, we couldn’t fight back. Not with everything coming at once like that and,” She shrugged her shoulders, “He went off one day and didn’t come back.” She was crying openly now and when Jean pulled a chair from beside the table the other woman lowered herself slowly onto the seat, dragged a tissue from her pocket to wipe her eyes. She looked up at Jean, seemed to make a decision and continued. “I never would have thought he could do a thing like that. For hours I walked about looking for him. The police looked for him, they put notices in the shops, in the paper, even the local radio. But he were just gone. He’d taken the Land Rover and there was no sign of it, so they said it must have been deliberate. I still don’t believe it. I still keep waiting for him to come walking in. I can’t hold on much longer. When it starts to freeze I’ll have to get the flock in. When the spring comes, I can’t manage the lambing on my own, and I can’t afford help. I’m going to have to sell up, all of it. We had already let the big field go but now it’s the whole farm. But, if I do, what will he do when he comes back?” Jean was lost for words and so she sat beside Doris at the table. She took the other woman’s hand in hers.

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Diana didn’t say anything.”

Doris shook her head. “No, she hasn’t been up for a long time and I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to risk losing this job. I need it. It’s only a bit but it’s regular.”

“Oh, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s hard to know what people will do, and I just couldn’t take the chance.

We thought we were okay, we didn’t need much. We didn’t have a mortgage but there were some loans, huh, show me a farmer without loans. Without the tourist trade we went down so quickly.” She flapped a hand in front of her. “Oh look, what am I bothering you with all this for. It’s not your business and you here on holiday. Ignore me. Do you want the chicken?”

The unexpected outpouring had left Jean struggling for how to respond. “Yes please. Is there anything I can do for you, Doris.?”

“No, there’s nothing anyone can do. I’m just trying to get by, day by day, you know? But, it can’t last much longer and then I’ll have to go and I’ll have let him down, Ted.”

“And you’ve no idea where he might have gone?” Though it was obvious all these questions had already been asked Jean felt compelled to go through the routine. It seemed the only way to show sympathy in the face of such a disaster. “I knew that it was hard for hill farmers but I am so sorry about all this.”

“Aye, well. I have to accept it and if I sell now, I’ll perhaps be able to buy a little place and then maybe, I’ll get work. I can’t think about it, I can’t see a way ahead, not properly. But we have to keep going don’t we. You lost your Jim, you have an understanding.”

“Yes, I did but it wasn’t like this. It was hard, yes it was horrible, but then my way ahead was relatively uncomplicated, there was insurance, well you know, all that stuff.”

“Yes, I can’t believe I could say this to you, Mrs Duncan, but there’s a bit of me that envies you that. Forgive me, I know that’s an awful thing to say but this… this is torment, and I don’t see any end to it. I can’t believe he would have done this to me without something terrible happening. I think he had a breakdown, lost his memory. I think he’s out there somewhere lost and on his own. It breaks my heart, and it’ll stay broken till he comes home. Well, now you know, and don’t you upset yourself. There’s nothing you can do, there nothing anyone can do. But please don’t tell Mrs Turnbull. I’ll not let her down, and when I go, I’ll make sure there’ll be someone to take over, but please don’t tell her.”

“Of course, I won’t, and please, Doris, if there is anything I can do, ever, just let me know. Here.” Jean pulled a sheet of paper from the shopping list pad on the wall and scribbled her contact details. “If ever I can help you in some way, call me.”

Doris took the piece of paper and dredged up a smile from the depths of her misery. “You’re a good woman, Mrs Duncan, thank you. I’ll bring a chicken tomorrow, you can pay me then. Cash if you would. Is your sister coming and that lovely boy?”

“Carl? I hope so, he’s at college now, so it will depend on his classes and suchlike.”

“College, good heavens. I remember when he was nothing but a little thing. Do you want giblets for the cat?” it was obvious now that the woman was trying to restore some equilibrium, was possibly embarrassed by the outpouring of grief. Jean respected and acknowledged the strength it took. She had been through similar situations herself when the emotion had ambushed her, suddenly and embarrassingly. She let go of the woman’s hand. Gave her back her dignity.

“No, thanks Doris. I left Slumpy at home, a neighbour is feeding him.”

“Aye well, it’s a precious thing that – having nice neighbours.” Doris shook her head gathered up her bag and, without another word, she stepped through the door and off down the path.

Jean turned to stare at the pile of vegetables beside the sink. What a dreadfully, sad conversation.,

Jean’s mind began to turn, scenarios started to play out in her head. She went through to the living room, opened her laptop, and began to type. Listing the facts, making short notes of ideas and inventing explanations. Lesley thought it ghoulish using real life events for her books, but they all started somewhere and often it was somewhere sad and tragic. She was always very careful that none of the characters were identifiable.

A sheep farmer walking away from his farm and his flock though, it was intriguing.

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Well Head Cottage – 2

Ever so slowly Jean’s nerves began to settle. When there was no more noise, her muscles relaxed and, when it became clear that the drama had past, she stepped out from the corner. She picked up the glass from the floor, lifted the edge of the curtains and peered out into the dark garden.

There was nothing and no-one to see. She stood for a while, watching, waiting, until she was sure that, whatever had been going on, was finished.

Well, that was it, her contented mood was shattered. She blew out the candles, checked the door locks and went to bed. It took a long time for sleep to come. She wasn’t afraid now it was past. Looking at it calmly, it didn’t really seem that she had been in danger, and yet… Replaying in her mind, were the events in the clearing.

A gun man with an automatic weapon had crouched and fired. The noise and shock of all of that resurfaced and niggled at the edge of her memory, indistinct as it had been on the day. Lost in a fog of illness, it had been a nightmare that came back, in bits and pieces, over the following weeks. There were things she was told, things she thought she remembered. She accepted it was a part of her history, that, realistically, she would never completely forget.  She spoke aloud into the dark room, a habit she had developed when her world became so quiet after Jim died. “It’s over Jean. It was just some country thing. Nothing happened. There is nothing to worry about.” But as she turned onto her side under the duvet, she acknowledged that she had been shaken to the core.

Eventually she slept.

There was a moment of disorientation when she woke in the strange room, but it was fleeting and she smiled as she threw back the curtains to a bright morning. The grass in the little garden sparkled with dew and already the wildlife was up and about.

Drinking coffee at the table outside the back door, she replayed the events of the night before. Here, in daylight with birds chattering and complaining in the trees, the rumble of a tractor somewhere far away, and the bleating of sheep on the rise just over the narrow river, she could view it all calmly.

Whoever had been outside with a gun had been very close to the house. But, they hadn’t threatened her, safe inside. She knew that Diana had refused permission for the hunt to cross her land, years ago. Her friend was a vegetarian and totally opposed to hunting of any sort, but, she hadn’t been to the cottage herself for almost two years, and so her influence had obviously waned.

Jean decided that she wouldn’t mention it. There wasn’t anything Diana could do from a distance and Jean felt that, in the country, then country ways had to be respected.

It had probably just been someone out lamping, luring, and shooting rabbits, and there was no point dwelling on it any longer. She took her cup back into the kitchen, collected her coat and backpack and set off to walk to Hawks Farm.

There had been a few small changes in the area. A couple of new bungalows had been built on the road into the village. The farm itself was a disappointment. It had always been neat and pretty. Flower pots had lined the path to the little shop and tea garden, and there had been chickens running loose in front of the house.

Now, it appeared neglected, the paint on the fences was dirty and peeling, the pots were filled with weeds. As Jean walked closer she could see that the tea garden was deserted. The plastic tables and chairs were piled in a corner and they were grubby and wet. Weeds had grown around the legs. They had not been put there because it was the end of the summer season, but had been stacked for a long time. She rounded the corner of the building and was swept with disappointment when she saw that the farm shop was also closed. The display counters, which stretched along the front wall, were bare and broken, the place looked dark and dishevelled.

She went nearer, peered through the glazed door. The interior was destroyed, the walls blackened, and piles of twisted debris covered the floor. The paint on the door itself was bubbled and scorched. She looked up and saw the roof was bulging inwards. The shop had burned, it was shocking.

Selfishly she muttered, “Damn it.” This would mean that she would have to shop in the village. The locals had long since succumbed to the lure of the retail park, just a short drive along the motorway, and so the nearby shops were rather dull. There was a bakery which was okay, but the tiny supermarket was very lack lustre.

She was disappointed. Visits to the farm shop had been one of the pleasures of stays in the cottage. Diana hadn’t mentioned anything about it being destroyed. If she had been forewarned she would have brought more supplies with her. She didn’t want to go to a hypermarket and, if she was staying for three weeks, she didn’t want to have to make do with the limited choice in the village.

As she turned away a figure appeared at the corner of the building. Wrapped in a blue jacket and with a woollen hat pulled over her grey hair, Doris Smart stepped across the paved path. “Can I ‘elp you?”

“Mrs Smart, Doris. How are you?” Jean moved forward with her hand outstretched. As she reached where the other woman stood, it was a struggle to keep the shock from showing in her face. It had been almost three years and in that time, this once bright, bubbly, busybody of a farmer’s wife, had lost the sparkle that once lit her bright blue eyes, her shoulders had hunched, and her once round, clear skinned face had become lined and grey.

“Oh, it’s you. Mrs Duncan. I didn’t see it was you.” Unexpectedly the voice was still strong and, as Doris Smart smiled, the ghost of the woman Jean remembered showed itself.

“Doris, it’s lovely to see you. I came to buy some things but…” Jean half turned, swept a hand towards the sad, empty shop.

“Aye, well. As you see I can’t help you I’m afraid. Sorry.”  Doris shook her head, waved a hand towards the gate, leaving Jean with no choice but to walk past her and down towards the road. Doris nodded once as she fastened the latch and then turned away to stomp back towards her front door.

With no other choice, Jean retraced her steps and walked into the village where she bought some bread and a pie for her lunch.

She would call Lesley, get her to bring some things. But, apart from the small disappointment about shopping there was a greater unease. There had been something unsettling about the feel of the farm and the change in the farmer’s wife. It was sad that the little shop had been destroyed but surely that wasn’t enough of a disaster to cause such a deterioration in the woman. She wondered if she should call Diana and ask her. Or, was she yet again poking her nose in where it might not be wanted. Lesley was coming in just a few days and there was no doubt that she would tell her to mind her own business. With a sigh Jean climbed the stairs and started to unpack her suitcases.

 

 

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Chapter 58 – The Legacy

So, anyway – When I started this I thought it might be a short story and a bit of a break from writing novels – and The Truth Series. However the story had other ideas and so we now have this. I have really enjoyed writing it and the good news is that there is a real possibility that it will be published – after edits and so on and with a different title.- in a few months from now.

I am chuffed of course but I am also aware that when I started this I promised that I would post the complete story. And so, here we are the final chapter. Due to the developments I will take it down in a couple of days. If you have been following the story but have missed any just contact me in any of the usual ways and I’ll send you a PDF of the whole thing.

The Legacy.  Final Chapter 

See note above.

 

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The Legacy

Chapters 1 to the final chapter have been removed for safe keeping. Just in case this ever does make it to publication. The final chapter will be available for another couple of days.

When I started it I didn’t intend it to but it’s grown a life of its own so we’ll see. If anyone is interested in reading just leave a comment and I will send you a pdf of the missing chapters to get ou up to date.

Cheers.

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Chapter 12

Flora didn’t get any further than reception. The young woman behind the counter was polite, sympathetic even but, without an appointment she couldn’t issue a visitor’s badge and without a visitor’s badge Flora could not go up to the offices. “You’re welcome to wait here and I can call up to see if he’s free, but right now it’s the morning meeting and I can’t interrupt.”

She had given the name of Mark ’s mate, the one he had lunch with, teamed up with at away days. Alan was on the scene before her and though she had never liked him, he was a part of the circle and so she had put up with his unwelcome advances and off colour comments. Now she would force herself to see him, he had been close to her missing boyfriend after all, he could have some ideas.  She couldn’t expose herself to this girl on reception by mentioning Mark, couldn’t face the look that would sweep across her face, the lowering of her eyes, the cough of embarrassment. The thought of sitting and waiting in the public area with the real chance that he wouldn’t talk to her anyway was too much on top of everything else. She felt eyes on her back, people huffing behind her as they waited to speak to the receptionist.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll come back. I’ve got some other stuff to do. Really don’t disturb him.” She turned and scurried from the building, bumping into a small table holding advertising blurb and a pink orchid in a pot. It skidded across the polished boards but she didn’t turn to replace it. Now she knew there would never be another time to go there, never, never, never.

She was surprised to find Cill not on the bench but under the concrete awning outside the office building. It was raining though so it made sense. She drew in a breath and took the couple of steps towards the other girl. Cill reached out a hand and pulled her into corner. “Okay, look over there, by that stupid statue thing, see that young lad? No, don’t move out, stay close.”

“Yes, yes I see him. The one in the blue jacket?”

“Do you know him?”

“No, I don’t think so. No.”

“Right. I reckon he’s been watching me. I don’t know him either. He’s walked back and forth three times since you went in there and he’s been on his phone. I know he was giving me the once over.You get a sort of feel for that stuff. He’s watching me.”

“But why? What would he have to do with you? Are you sure?

“Well, I’m sure enough to want to move away. I wondered if he’d seen us together and it was you he was after though. Oh, hello?”

“What?”

“Right, that bloke, that older bloke. Do you know him?”

“No.” Flora was shaking her head, frowning as she peered through the drizzling rain to where Fuzz met Simon.

***

“What’s going on Fuzz?” Simon glanced around the small open space and couldn’t see the woman they were looking for.

“Okay, don’t turn round.” Fuzz was putting on an act, keeping his head down, pretending to search in his pocket, turning back and forth. “Over there by those offices, behind me. There’s a coupla girls. I spotted ‘em pretty soon but the blonde went into the building. The scruffy one waited outside. I think it could be ‘er. The blonde not the skinny one. She’s just come out agen. Don’t let ‘em see you lookin’ I think she might have clocked me. She were sittin’ waitin’ but she went over there just now.”

Simon walked to one of the benches and sat, gesturing to Fuzz to join him and then turning his head, back and forth, as natural as he could make it. “It’s no good, I can’t see well enough. I’m just going to take the bull by the horns. If it’s not her then I’ll just apologise, if it is I’ll wing it but if it really is her I don’t want to lose this chance. Good work Fuzz.”

“It were easy, I di’n’t even ‘ave to try, she were just there. I guess we’ve been lucky.”

“Okay, you wait here I don’t want to go over there mob handed.” Simon stood and turned towards where Cill and Flora were watching him from the shadow of the porch.

“I think he’s coming over here. What the hell is this about.” Cill had panic in her voice. As she hissed at Flora she picked up the bag and thrust it into her arms. “Come on, come on, let’s get outta here.” With that she scurried away, keeping close in to the damp walls, her head down, shoulders hunched. Flora hurried after her, but turned again and again to peer back at the older man who had left the square and was trying to cross the road. The flow of traffic held him. He turned so that he was looking straight at her now and raised a hand, the palm outward facing towards her patting the air, ‘wait, just wait.’.

The unease that she felt became fear and then panic and as Cill began to jog, Flora sped up to keep pace and followed down a dark alley between the buildings, past a row of bins and a pile of old boxes beginning to sag in the wet. Cill was running even faster and she turned and grabbed Flora’s hand pulling her along as their feet slipped and splashed on the damp ground and through dirty puddles. “This way, stick with me. Keep up,”

Simon had made it across the busy road now, he turned back to call over to where Fuzz had started to follow. “Hurry up, come on.”

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Chapter 11

Simon picked up his phone and clicked through to the contact list. His finger hovered for a moment and then he gave a shrug and dialled. “Fuzz, are you busy?”

“Hiya Simon. No, I’ve got nuthin’ on. Back at the garden centre tomorra but nuthin’ today. Why, do you fancy a game of pool?”

“No, I just wondered if you wanted to give me a hand with something?”

“Oh right, erm, is it decoratin’? only I ‘ave to say I didn’t really think it were for me.” Simon smiled as he thought of the debacle when he’d asked Fuzz to help him with some of the painting only to have to do it all again when the boy had gone home with a few pounds in his pocket and paint covering most of his clothes and much of his hair.

“No, the decorating’s finished. You should come up and see it, it looks good. No, I’ve got a job and I thought maybe two would be better than one.”

“Cool. So, like an assistant?” Simon sighed, this could be a massive error.

“Well, yes a bit. I’m going to Kirkhall. I’m trying to find a missing woman.”

“Brilliant. Will ya pick me up?”

“Okay. I’ll be with you in ten minutes.”

When he had first met the young lad he had tried to hold him at arm’s length and had been absolutely against asking for his help but then, in the face of danger and confusion Fuzz had been an unlikely hero. He didn’t want an assistant, couldn’t afford one, but maybe two of them covering the town centre would give them more chance of finding Flora. He was making an assumption, believing she was still near home and he had to start somewhere after all.

As he drew to the kerb in front of Fuzz’s gran’s little terraced house the skinny figure made a big show of pressing back against the tiny garden wall. Simon raised his eyebrows. Okay, he knew Fuzz had a very low opinion of his driving skills but felt he was improving, albeit slowly. He didn’t enjoy the car and the busy roads. He would much rather stride out on the hills. Often he would go on his own and spend hours hiking across the tops but lately Fuzz had gone with him a few times and they were comfortable and easy with each other. They were in tune, just moving through the landscape their boots pounding in time and their eyes resting on the endless sky and the surge of grass before the wind.

He pushed open the passenger door. “Yeah, yeah, very funny. Come on get in.”

As Fuzz settled in and fastened his safety belt Simon handed him a print of the picture Carol had provided. “Okay, so this woman has gone missing. We are going to Kirkhall as a start in the hope that she is still there. Quick background is that her boyfriend vanished quite a while ago and she hasn’t been well since then. Now, she’s gone off and her friend thinks she’s gone looking for him. So, to start with we’re going to try and find her and then, maybe we will take it on to the next stage and see if we can find out what happened to him, this bloke – Mark .”

“Maybe he’s just buggered off ‘cos he’s sick of her. But, she looks pretty fit… Shit, Simon, signal will ya, that bloke ‘ad right of way anyway. Bloody ‘ell.”

“Sorry, sorry. I wasn’t concentrating. He might just have, as you say, ‘buggered of’ but there’s more to it. So, for a while Fuzz listened in silence as Simon told him the rest.

“So, the police ‘aven’t got a clue then?” Simon shook his head.

“Apparently not. They’ve looked and they insist that they are still looking but Flora is in a bit of a state and doesn’t think they are doing enough.”

“Well, p’raps they’re not. It’s been a while ‘asn’t it.”

“Yes, but fair play they’re probably doing the best they can. They haven’t got much to go on. He just vanished in the night.”

“I don’t know ‘ow you can say that. After the way they treated you.”

“It’s in the past, all that. Okay they made mistakes and I was the one that paid but you know Fuzz, I can’t hold a grudge forever. It screws you up that sort of thinking, I see that now, plus they did sort everything out for Charlie Clegg.”

“Aye, ‘appen they did but then agen that Colin ‘ad been in jail a long time for sommat ‘e ‘adn’t done.”

“Yes, but that was partly his own fault for lying to cover up for himself and his wife and let’s not go through all that again. It’s over.”

“Aye well, as I say, I don’t think I could be so forgivin’. You just missed the turn by the way. You should ‘ave gone left there.”

“Oh shit. That’s your fault, distracting me.”

“No. It’s your fault ‘cos you’re such a crap driver. ‘Ere, turn in ‘ere and then you can go back.”

“Alright, okay – I’ve got this.”

“Yeah, course you ’ave.”

It had started to rain and between watching the sign posts and concentrating on driving in reduced visibility Simon was quiet and Fuzz plugged in his ear buds and sat beside him, legs jiggling up and down and fingers thrumming in time to music that Simon could only hear as an irritating fizz and burble.

By the time they reached the outskirts of the little town he was glad the journey was over.

“Did you bring a rain coat?”

“What?”

“Something waterproof. It’s pissing down”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not – you’ll be soaked. My other anorak is on the back seat. Put that on.”

“No, bloody way. I’m not walking round in that.” As Simon turned and glared at him Fuzz shrugged his shoulders and stuck out his bottom lip.

“Put the sodding jacket on. We’re wasting time and I’m the boss. I bet you don’t talk back to the woman at the garden centre.”

“Well, she doesn’t make me wear naff bloody anoraks does she? Oh, awright. Bloody ‘ell.”

“Thank you. Now, I suggest we start at the centre, all the busier parts and then work our way out from there. If you see her don’t approach her. Just call me on the phone, keep an eye on her and we’ll see how we go. She’s not properly well, she’s worried and confused and Carol said that she has panic attacks so let’s make sure we don’t scare her. I’m parking in the pay and display over there. You go down that road, the one to the station and I’ll go the other way. Do a couple of circuits, try and look in the cafes and shops and keep your eyes open. Right let’s get on with it. Hey, you look good in that coat, almost respectable.”

“Bugger off Simon.”

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Chapter 10

“How long have you been here?” Flora and Cill had finished two huge doorstop bacon sandwiches and were on their second mugs of tea. It had been a long time since Flora had eaten anything like the food her granny used to make and she had loved it. Now, in the muggy warmth of the café with food in her belly and the damp coldness of the early hours dissipating she felt so much better. Almost normal. It could have been any day, except it wasn’t and the woman across the table from her was a little dishevelled, a little grubby and there was a hardness around her eyes that was wrong in someone so young.

“Here?”

“Yes, you know just around? Oh, sod it, how long have you been sleeping rough?” Cill smiled at her.

“A while. Sometimes I stay with a mate but it wasn’t on this weekend so…” She shrugged.

“But isn’t it dangerous.”

“Yeah, it can be. Look, I’m not being funny but I don’t want to talk about me. My life is what it is and it’s what I’m doing right now. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year, even next week but, well, it’s my business.”

“Sorry, yes of course. It’s just that, I couldn’t do it.”

“What.”

“Sleep in the street, have nowhere to go.”

“So, what are you going doing? You said you don’t want to go back until you found out what happened to him, that bloke of yours. So, what are you going to do? To be honest I reckon the best thing for you to do is just get yourself back to that house, your friend and just carry on.”

“No, no I can’t. I want to have my life back. I want to return to work but I can’t not until I know what happened to him. It’s wrong just going back to how things were before, I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

“Why? Why not just accept he’s probably dead?” She shrugged now and ran a finger through a tiny thread of tomato sauce left on her plate and then licked it clean. “Just go back, tell yourself he’s dead, grieve and then carry on. Live.”

Flora had no answer, the comment had been harsh but sounded so simple, so logical. The bald statement had confused her, her mind refused to process it and she felt the quiver start, way down in her stomach. “No, not right now. I need to feel as though I did something at least.”

“You didn’t even love him anymore.”

“No, no that’s true but I did care, I do care. It’s not right that he should just be forgotten, brushed to one side.”

“So then, where do you start?”

“Perhaps, yes perhaps I should start by going back to before it happened. Just try and find out what was going on with him. We were hardly talking, spending less and less time together. Maybe that would be a start. Maybe that’s why I came here, to his office. Do you think?”

“Whatever.”

“I know it’s not your concern Cill and thanks. I was a mess when I first saw you, you’ve helped me.” The sudden smile was as unexpected as the sun bursting through a rain cloud and transformed the sullen, cynical looking face into the young girl’s that it should have been.

“Yeah well, I got a breakfast out of it.” But there was a different lift to her shoulders and a sparkle in her eyes. “Are you going to his office then, is that your plan?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Well, if you like I’ll look after your bag, wait for you in the square. You’d look a bit odd carting all that stuff with you.”

“Thank you. That would be excellent. Thank you.”  There it was again, the brightening.

They went back. The day was in full swing by this time and travellers heading for the station rampaged down the pathways. A couple of people were walking dogs, there were prams and people speaking into mobile phones. Flora had been out in the months since Mark  disappeared but never alone and never into the full swing of a busy town centre. She moved closer to Cill, she wanted to cling to the girl’s arm but knew she shouldn’t and felt the ground swirl a little beneath her feet, the buildings tipped. She gasped. “You okay?” Cill had turned to look at her.

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that I have these – things, sort of panic attacks. I’ll be fine.” As she spoke she felt the sweat break out on her forehead.

“You really shouldn’t be here, doing this. You need to go back.” There was real concern in the young girl’s eyes now and she put a hand under Flora’s elbow and ushered her toward the bench where the old man had spent the night.

“Oh God, you’re right. I know you’re right. I’m such a bloody failure, I’m a mess. I didn’t used to be like this you know. I had a good job, in a solicitor’s office, I had responsibilities and staff under me. Shit look at me now?”

“Well, after all you’ve been through though…”

“Yeah right, but look at you. You must have had some problems; nobody ends up on the streets unless they’ve had stuff go wrong and you’re together. You’re okay.”

“Am I – well, maybe. What the hell are you going to do though?”

“I’m going to leave my bag with you. I’m going into his office and see his closest mates and ask them about him. Ask them about how he was, in the weeks before.”

“But surely you’ve done that already?” Flora shook her head violently.

“No, I wasn’t allowed to at first and then by the time the police decided I hadn’t done anything they’d all gone. They didn’t answer my calls, they didn’t come round. Well, I was at my mum’s but anyway they didn’t. The only person who stood by me was Carol. She never wavered.”

“So, you’ve left her to worry about you. That’s not fair is it?”

“No, no I didn’t I left her a note.”

“Huh…”

“I’ll call her later. I will. You’re right I shouldn’t let her worry. Just give me a minute to catch my breath and then I’m going over there. To the office.”

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Chapter 9

When he heard the tapping on his front door Simon looked up from the screen where he’d been reading the news. He was surprised, if this was the woman who’d called him then she was younger than he had expected. He smiled and waved, minimised the display and went to open the front door.

“Hi.” He held out a hand as she stepped into the warmth of his office space. “Ms Price?” She nodded and glanced around. “Come on in, can I get you a coffee?”

“Lovely, that’d be great.” When Charlie Clegg had come to him with his problem, they had met in the street outside and then gone straight up to the flat and talked over glasses of whisky in the gathering gloom. Now the office had been refurbished, it looked more organised, more professional but he was having trouble getting rid of the feeling that it was all pretense. He brought her in, led her to the seating area. She was nervous, he had felt the tremor in her fingers.  She was dressed in business clothes, a dark suit, and heels. Her auburn hair was loose around slender shoulders but held back from her face with a band. She placed her black leather bag on the floor beside her and pulled at her skirt, covering a fraction more of slender, shapely legs. He tried not to look but she was a pretty girl, with unusual hazel eyes, flecked with gold. She raised a hand to her throat and he saw there were no rings.

“Milk and Sugar?”

“A splash of milk please, that’s all.” He had recently bought a coffee machine for the downstairs space. Not because he was inundated with clients to be plied with drinks but because it saved him having to trudge upstairs when he was in the middle of a particularly tricky game of patience on his computer. He hoped he’d got it right. Simon liked his coffee strong and black and had only ever made it for himself in this contraption. He placed the small porcelain mug in front of her on the table and sat down opposite, sipping at his own drink.

“So, I honestly don’t know what I can do for you. From what you told me this morning it doesn’t seem your friend is missing. It sounded more as though she has just gone off for a while to sort some stuff out.” Carol Price was struggling, trying not to stare at the long scar that ran down the side of his face. He never thought of it until he met someone new and that happened so infrequently that it still took him aback when he watched them struggle to pull their gaze away. Gloria and his solicitor had both suggested he have a plastic surgeon take a look, see if his appearance could be improved and he had told them it didn’t bother him. It didn’t, but he felt sorry for this young woman and didn’t know how to make her feel at ease. He raised a finger to his face. “Cut myself shaving.” He gave a laugh but it was the wrong thing to have done. She blushed now and looked away.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.” She put the cup down, picked up her bag.

“That was clumsy of me. I apologise. I know it’s a bit of a – well a thing but please don’t worry. Look, drink your coffee and tell me about your friend. Why are you so worried? What’s all this about a murder? If you really think that she’s in danger do you not think you’d be best off going to the police?”

“No, I couldn’t do that to her. They treated her so badly, they accused her of killing Mark, her boyfriend. They didn’t even know what had happened to him, still don’t. But, they threw her in a cell, badgered and questioned her. They pulled her place apart, searching everything, even the loft, poking sticks into the garden, her car boot. It was horrible for us all and it really affected her. She had to have therapy. I thought she was getting so much better but she doesn’t think they are still looking and it torments her.”

“Okay, hang on while I get my pad. He retrieved the paper and pencil from his desk and then went back to the seating area. Tell me what’s happened. Right from the start.” It was odd to him, but in the face of this woman’s distress and nervousness he felt a calm come over him. The things that he had been through had shown him how quickly things go wrong and how, what at first may appear to be a simple can be terribly complicated. He smiled at her and waited. She took a breath and then began the tale.

***

”And what about Mark , does your friend not have any idea what might have happened to him?”

Carol lowered her eyes and shook her head slowly from side to side. “She has no idea. She has hardly any memory after coming home from the pub. She says she can recall an argument but even then, they had so many rows round about then she isn’t really sure questions that it happened that night. She doesn’t know why she was in their room, she had moved out weeks before.”

“The blood that was on her, was that his or…?”

“It was his.”

“Okay. Look, I want to suggest something.”

“Right.”

“I’ll give it a go, looking for your friend. While it’s so soon after her leaving, well maybe I will be able to do something. But, more than that, I would like to have a go at finding out what happened with Mark . I won’t go into details but I know what your friend is going through. I know very well and if I can I’d like to help her, and you. What do you think?” He was shocked and embarrassed as her eyes filled with tears and she wiped them away with the heel of her hand. He handed her the box of tissues, they had been Gloria’s idea and he’d thought them daft but she took them from him as if they were a lifeline thrown to a beleaguered swimmer and dragged out several and used them to mop her face and then she sat with them in her hand, shredding them between her fingers.

“Thank you Mr Fulton, thank you so much.”

“Call me Simon,” he passed her one of the business cards. “Now, let’s get down as much as we can of the details. Have you time?” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, I’m late already but I think I’ll take a leave day. I won’t be able to settle at work anyway. I have to go and look for her.”

“Can I ask you not to? I think it might be better if you stay at your house. I assume you’ve already tried to phone her?”

“Yes, the phone is off I think, it just goes straight to voice mail. I don’t know that I can just stay at home though.”

“She might come back. If she has gone off in a panic she may very well come back when she feels calmer. There’s no point me running around looking for her if she’s already home.”

“Right, yes I see. Okay, I’ll do that.”

“And the suitcase. Don’t throw it away will you?  I don’t know whether it’ll help but I’d like to look at it.”

By the time she left she was much more controlled and she turned at the door, “Thank you so much Simon. I know you can help us. I can feel it.”

He watched the small car pull away from the kerb and then went back to his chair by the desk. Maybe she felt that he could help her, and for sure he was going to do his very best but heaven knew where he should start.

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Chapter 8

The town came to life, bus tyres swished on wet tarmac. Lights shone from the windows of offices and shops. The sky streaked with pink and pigeons gathered around the bases of the waste bins. It was time to move but Flora didn’t know what to do. She had run in despair from the house, from the suitcase full of his things and now it felt silly, illogical. She should just go back. As the thought pushed its way to the front of her mind she was swept by a wave of depression.

The girl beside her had rooted in her bag, taken out a packet of breakfast bars. She held one towards Flora. Her first reaction was to refuse. This girl obviously had very little and surely it was wrong to take from her. It was a friendly gesture though and right now friendship was a treasure she couldn’t turn away from. “Thanks.” She tore back the paper and as her teeth sank into the sweet, fruity bar she realised how hungry she was. “Do you know anywhere to get breakfast?” The girl raised her eyebrows.

“Breakfast?”

“I thought, maybe if you have nothing else planned you’d like to have something to eat.”

“I can’t afford breakfast.” There was no hidden subtext it was a simple statement, fact, bare and bald.

“I wondered if you’d let me treat you?”

“Why, why the hell would you do that?” The girl was shaking her head; she was suspicious and Flora understood.

“Well, you listened to me. You were kind. I promise you there is nothing odd happening.” She felt her insides sink, she didn’t want to be on her own, not right now. “I just thought it would be nice to spend a bit more time together. Look, I’m sorry I don’t want to pressure you but – to be honest I’m feeling really wobbly right now.  I suppose I should just go back home, but the thought of giving up, accepting that I’ll always have this empty hole as part of my life, well quite frankly it fills me with dread. I want to be strong. I’ve struggled with this so much and still it isn’t over. I want to try and find out what happened but I don’t know how and I – oh I don’t know, I just thought if I could talk about it more it might help me to sort things out in my mind. It’s okay if you don’t want to. It’s fine. I’m sorry.”

“No, go on then, why not? I understand, least maybe I do. We all have stuff that follows us around and I respect that you want to make things right. It’s a long time since I had a bacon butty to be honest and I’d love one. There’s a little caf’ Just down the road. It’s nothing special but it’ll be warm and you get a big mug of tea.”

Flora reached across and touched the other girl on the arm. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, you’re buying breakfast.” And with that she stood and slid her arms through the straps on her bag.

“What can I call you? I’d just like something to call you?”

“I’m Cill.”

As they walked through the square she noticed the others had already gone. The only evidence of their night-time residence was a few torn bags under the seat where the old man had been. A couple of community police officers strolled through the space, one of them nodded at Cill as they passed.

They were walking in a different direction to most of the other pedestrians. Away from the shops and offices, jigging and dodging through the crowd. When she saw a face she recognised it took her breath away. One of his colleagues, someone she hadn’t seen for nearly a year. She stepped across the footpath and pretended to stare into the window of a small greeting card shop. Cill, walked on for a few more paces and then stopped and turned her head. She retraced her steps and stood beside her, she touched her arm.

“Someone you know?” Flora nodded. Cill linked her arm and walked on the outside of the pavement, “I reckon he’s gone now, or she, whatever. Come on we’re nearly there.” She turned into a narrow road, the crowd thinned and the smell of hot grease and coffee drew them on.

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