‘Thank you, yes – it’s just the heat, I’ll be fine.’ Now facing the woman, Carruthers could see that any resemblance was restricted to similar build and hair. The person now regarding him with concern was older than Chelsey, judging by the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and spoke with a northern accent.
‘It was my husband who noticed first,’ she remarked. ‘We were concerned you were going to keel over – well as long as you’re okay…’
‘To tell you the truth I’m concerned about my wife,’ Carruthers spurted before she could turn away. ‘She set out for the toilets ages ago and seems to have vanished into thin air. I know it sounds daft, but I don’t suppose you’ve seen a tall, blonde woman looking lost?’
The woman shaped her mouth to speak and then just as quickly compressed her lips. She looked over her shoulder, exchanging a glance with her grey haired partner whom Carruthers adjudged to be in his fifties.
‘No…’ she said, but without any real assurance. ‘Well – with all the people here…it’s so busy today that…’
‘I can well understand.’ But Carruthers wasn’t convinced. He’d an idea she’d been about to say something and thought better of it. He reached down, delved into his holdall for the pen and notebook he habitually carried, scribbled his phone number on a leaf and handed it to her.
‘There’s probably nothing to it,’ he said in a voice he knew was strained. ‘She’ll probably appear at any moment but I’ve got a bad feeling about this – she’s been under stress you see – anyway, if you do happen to recall anything, please call me. I’m afraid I
don’t have my phone with me right now, I left it at the Chequers Hotel where I’m staying – wife’s instructions, you know.’
‘I see,’ the woman said, though her expression told Carruthers she didn’t really see at all.
‘Can we do anything for you, Mr. Carruthers?’ It was the grey haired man who spoke – ‘Would you like a lift?’ He glanced around, tilting his face towards the heavens. ‘Seems like we’re in for a storm. We’re headed that way.’
‘No – thank you – I’ll wait here. I’m not going without Chelsey.’
‘Quite.’ The man swapped what Carruthers thought was an uncomfortable glance with his wife. ‘Well, I’m quite sure it’ll turn out okay, you’ll see.’
Carruthers nodded, ‘Thank you.’ He watched the woman tuck his number into the back pocket of her slacks and partner her husband to their four-by-four.
Carruthers turned his attention to the field, sweeping his gaze over it once more, again to no avail. Overhead the sky had darkened further, the sun having turned hazy had now disappeared entirely. In the distance thunder growled, but still he waited, he waited until the first heavy drops of rain began to fall, until lightning flashed, and even the hardiest picnickers had vacated the area.
But still there was no sign of Chelsey.
Perplexed and agitated, Carruthers resigned himself to the fact she wasn’t going to show. He now faced the prospect of a lengthy walk back in what threatened to develop
into a full blown thunderstorm at any minute. The potential dangers of a trip through the forest in thunder and lightning, riding his own bike with one hand and guiding Chelsey’s in the other were starkly apparent to him. But they were heavily outweighed by his concern for Chelsey. Okay, he’d probably get back to the hotel and find her there, possibly cozily chatting across the bar with Robin Noades – and then all hell would break loose. But of course that was nonsense. Whatever had happened, and he willed her to be there when he arrived, he certainly wouldn’t find anything like that.
But what of the couple he’d not so long ago spoken to? Why the look of uncertainty on the woman’s face? Why did she suddenly button up and not consider whether she might have seen Chelsey, and what of the odd exchange of looks with her husband?
Of course it could have been the working of his own mind, paranoia setting in, but he couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t.
Halfway along the lane that led to the main road into Lyndhurst, Carruthers was forced to abandon his attempt at handling both bikes. A large four-by-four had approached from behind, the thunder having rendered its presence inaudible, until its rude booming horn gave him such a shock, destabilizing him as he careered into a roadside ditch with Chelsey’s bike landing across his midriff.
The four-by-four of course went by as though nothing had occurred, but Carruthers could now add outrage to the myriad of emotions he’d already experienced in one short day.
Already wet through, cuts and bruises now added to Carruthers’ discomfort, albeit minor ones but they itched like hell, as he pushed on towards Lyndhurst, reaching it one dreary hour later.
He deposited the cycles in the rear of the hotel car park, he’d return them tomorrow, and after all they were the least of his worries.
Despite his ordeal, Carruthers bounded the broad hotel stairs two at a time, hurrying along the corridor to his door, his hand on the lever in rising expectation and as it yielded to his pressure freely his spirits rose. So she was here, somehow she’d beaten him back – probably with a lift from whoever she’d met –
Carruthers swept into the room, his spirits having risen like a high-powered elevator, but disappointingly there was no trace of Chelsey and the room appeared in the same condition as he’d left it.
He snatched his phone from the bed where he’d deposited it prior to leaving, but found no new calls or messages. Maybe she was downstairs; perhaps she was in the lounge reading, possibly in the bar. God forbid that she was chatting up Noades, but by the nature of things now he’d actually be glad about that, at least he’d know she was safe. It began to bother him now, that possibly he’d been in such a rush to get back downstairs earlier that he’d left without securing the door. Try as he might, he couldn’t recall whether he’d done so or not.
Carruthers didn’t bother to change his soaked clothes; that could wait. He had to know whether she’d somehow returned ahead of him.
He ran down the stairway, hurried along the passage checking out the lounge area as he went – it was empty save for an elderly couple playing a board game.
Ringing the bell on the foyer desk he summoned the attention of the receptionist. She’d asked at the outset if everything was all right, obviously taken aback by his bedraggled appearance and despairing manner.
‘I’m looking for my wife, I managed to lose sight of her this afternoon and wondered if she’d checked back in here – I’m a bit anxious.’
‘I’m sorry, Carruthers. Chelsey Carruthers.’
‘Not the writer? The receptionist laughed, checking her desk, clearly expecting a negative answer.
‘Yes – it is.’ Carruthers was aware his reply sounded abrupt, he simply wanted confirmation of her safe return.
‘Oh, really?’ She raised her head. ‘What a coincidence, I’m an avid reader of her books – I was only thinking a few days ago – there doesn’t seem to have been a new one for some time. When can we expect…’
‘Soon…’ Carruthers interrupted, rapping his fingers on the desk – he hadn’t expected this – certainly not to be led into having to explain how a publisher’s rejection had brought them here – and he wasn’t about to be drawn into it. ‘Look,’ he said with mounting impatience, ‘I just need to know whether she’s checked back in.’
The receptionist glanced across her desk. ‘No, it doesn’t seem so.’ Her reply was apologetic but negative. ‘Have you tried the lounge – or bar?’
Carruthers shook his head. ‘Not the bar, no, thank you,’ he muttered, making full haste for it. Noades was there, he was washing glasses, but the bar was empty.
‘Why, hello there.’ Noades flashed a smile which irritated Carruthers no end. ‘You got caught in the storm I see.’
‘Ten out of ten for observation,’ Carruthers muttered. ‘I was looking for my wife.’
‘Oh…’ Noades bit his lip. ‘Well, as you can see she’s not here,’ he said, sweeping an arm around the room to emphasise the point. ‘I take it there was a race back and you won.’
‘No,’ Carruthers said tersely, aware now that he was standing in the bar in his cycle gear, rain still dripping from his drenched body. ‘Look, I’d hardly have rushed in here like this if there was – I’d want to get the hell out of these clothes…’
‘I’m sorry, a foolish assumption on my part,’ Noades’ smile, which Carruthers couldn’t help regarding as derisory, vanished. His tone became more sympathetic, earnest. ‘If there’s been a problem, if I can help in any way, I’m due a break…’
‘Thanks.’ Carruthers breathed out heavily, he didn’t want to be explaining his dilemma to
this man, but he had to start somewhere. He needed to converse with someone, and right now
Noades, who’d seemed to have hit it off with his wife from the outset, was the obvious starting point.
Carruthers ordered a lager shandy; he didn’t feel stiff alcohol appropriate right now, he needed a clear head.
Noades served him before slipping into a room behind the bar, returning a moment or two later with a pretty dark haired girl. ‘Lucy, here, will keep guard for ten minutes or so. I could do with a smoke, mind if we go outside?’
‘My sentiments, exactly.’ Carruthers swigged down his pint, he’d been craving for a cigarette but Chelsey’s disappearance had put that on hold.
He followed Noades along the rear corridor, past the central stairway and out into the hotel’s garden, deserted now on account of the storm. Noades led him round the side of the building, where in the shelter provided by the platform of a fire escape stairway he produced a packet of cigarettes.
‘I wouldn’t say no.’ Carruthers selected one from the packet, surprised and grateful that Noades had taken such an interest in his plight. ‘The door was unlocked when I got back, I thought for a moment she had beaten me here, but I’ve searched everywhere, I’m pretty sure now I must have left the room without locking it. I’m at my wits end,’ he said, explaining to a man who was little more than a stranger, the events of a sorry afternoon – of Chelsey’s wish to cut across land, of them getting lost and seeking the help of the guy called Foulkes who Chelsey had at once regarded as obnoxious; of her belief that he’d purposefully misdirected them, and that he’d spied on her under cover of the woods surrounding the picnic area.
Something that Carruthers couldn’t substantiate, but that had now, with her sudden
disappearance caused him increasing concern.
‘Was she upset? Might she have gone straight home?’ Noades asked, his contracting brows producing few wrinkles on what was an enviably smooth skin.
‘I hadn’t even considered that, I’d no need to.’ Carruthers inhaled on his cigarette. ‘To be frank I can’t see why she’d do that. This guy Foulkes had her rattled but apart from that Chelsey was as even-tempered as she could be.’ He shook his head, ‘No, that’s a non-starter.’
‘Nonetheless,’ Noades advised, ‘that should be your first move. Check home.’
‘Apart from calling the police, I suppose.’ Carruthers exhaled heavily, heard the rain hammering down on the fire escape landing, cascading onto the lawn below. It was difficult to imagine a worse start than this.
‘It’s what they’ll ask you; they’ll ask if you’ve had an argument and try to convince you that she’ll turn up safe and sound; in short, that you’re making too much of it, to give it a while.’
‘I thought you were supposed to be trying to help.’ Carruthers frowned at Noades, but there was no overly amicable smile now, just a steadfast expression on his handsome face.
‘I said it’s what they, the police will ask you, what you can expect from them at the moment. Now, I’m quite prepared to offer all the assistance I can. I have a certain knowledge of the area as I’ve said. I’ll be finished at seven, if you want to take a drive round I’ll be happy to accompany you. But let’s hope she’s shown before then. I’m sure everything will be okay.’
‘That’s very kind of you.’ Carruthers stubbed out his cigarette on an ash can. ‘But I can’t ask for any more of your time.’
‘Nonsense, I can see how upset you are, and your wife seems a very nice woman. You won’t get a lot of help from the cops at this stage, that’s why I’m offering to help.’
‘Okay,’ Carruthers managed a stiff smile. ‘I really appreciate it.’
‘No problem. I’ll be on the other side of the bar this time if you want me. Let’s hope it won’t be necessary.’
‘Yes, let’s hope.’ Carruthers smile dissolved with a grim twist of his lips. ‘I reckon I’ll get out of these clothes and clean up.’
‘Yeah, you’ll feel a lot better for it.’
They returned inside and parted company at the main staircase, where Noades slapped Carruthers gently on the shoulder. ‘Chin up fella. All’s well, you’ll see.’
But all was far from well, and despite Noades’ willingness to help, the man’s show of optimism did nothing to raise Carruthers’ spirits.
Carruthers let himself into the room, again painfully void of Chelsey, leaving his phone on the bed while he showered.
Then he heard it ring…