Carruthers scrambled from the shower, snatching the phone from his bed. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello, this is Mrs. Winterman; am I speaking to the gentleman from the forest earlier?’
‘You are…’ Carruthers’ grip on the phone tightened upon recognition of the woman’s voice, and the slight delay that followed did nothing to calm his nerves.
‘Well – I’ve been speaking to my husband – and I wasn’t sure at first, but now – yes I do recall seeing a woman fitting the description you gave. Would she have been wearing a light blue top and jeans?’
‘Yes, she was.’ Carruthers clawed his scalp, just wishing the speaker would crank up the pace of her speech.
‘We believe we may have seen her near the perimeter of the car park, close to the toilet block. There’s an old dirt track runs nearby – it’s not used much…’
‘Yes, but what was she doing there, was she…’
‘She was on her mobile phone. I recall now she seemed agitated if her body language was anything to go by. We didn’t think anything of it you see, just somebody having a heated conversation, and then – well…’ the woman paused, Carruthers heard a male voice in the background and then she let out a sigh. ‘A short while after a car came along the dirt road, a grey one I recall, and she walked straight over and got into the front passenger seat. After a few minutes it drove away – I never saw her get out, but as I say, we didn’t pay much…’
‘What kind of car – did you see the driver?’ Carruthers hands were shaking; he needed them both to clutch the phone.
Another delay as the woman consulted the male. ‘No, I’m afraid not, my husband thinks the car was an Audi, but he’s not certain. Visibility was poor by then you see, with the approaching storm…’
‘Never mind – Mrs.Winterman,’ Carruthers said in a voice as unsteady as his body. ‘If you recall anything else please call straight away. And can I please have your details in case the police should…’
‘Yes, most certainly.’ Helen Winterman provided Carruthers with an address in nearby Brockenhurst and he took spidery note on the hotel’s courtesy pad.
‘I do hope everything is all right, Mr…’
‘Carruthers, Martin Carruthers. Thank you.’ Carruthers terminated the call, feeling a gut wrenching sickness at the thought that his wife could have simply walked to somebody’s car – somebody she’d obviously arranged to meet, because that would explain the phone call she’d made as she headed for the toilets – and then well out of his sight got into the car of her own free will and allow herself to be driven away; in effect, totally abandoning him for another man.
But hang on – he took a bottled water from the mini-bar, wrenched off the cap and poured some liquid down his parched throat – just hang on because Chelsey wouldn’t do that – however moody, unpredictable, changeable she’d been of late, his wife simply wouldn’t abandon him in the middle of nowhere in favour of a pre-arranged meeting with another man.
Well just let her turn up later with some cock and bull excuse at why she’d disappeared, sprung from the depths of a novelist’s imagination.
Except that it wasn’t like that, it couldn’t be. And so it went on, his mind the captive of see-sawing thoughts, illogical yet possible. He wanted her back; he wanted her back in the hotel room now; how he willed her to come through the door with a plausible explanation of what he’d just heard. But it wasn’t going to happen. Whatever had occurred wasn’t going to be easily explained, he knew it. And what did he do now, through the pinball machine of broken thought that was his mind?
He couldn’t go to the police with Helen Winterman’s visual account, even if he genuinely believed this miserable situation wasn’t of her own making. He no longer had anything to go on. She’d got willingly into a car as far as Winterman had been concerned, and that put an end to any possibility of Foulkes being involved. Surely it had to.
But had the woman been wrong? She’d said herself they hadn’t paid too much attention. And yet he’d a strong hunch from the outset that she’d seen something and withheld it, probably because she’d sensed the delicacy of the situation. So they’d obviously seen enough.
He needed a drink, and this time it would be a stiff one. He raided the mini-bar, poured himself a neat scotch and then raised it to his lips where it lingered a moment before he slammed the glass on the table.
What would getting drunk solve? Nothing.
He checked his watch; enough time had passed now for Chelsey to have made it to their Chiswick home if that had been her intention, but a hastily made call to their home number went unanswered and caused him no great surprise.
Carruthers flung himself on the bed, a tired wretch of a man, his head felt heavy and his eyes began to yield to that weight. He’d had enough for now; the storm had done little to raise the blanket humidity of the day, which was pressing him to sleep when the phone rang again.
‘Oh Martin, I’m so sorry to disturb you, I know you said not to call but…’
‘Casey, not now, please.’
‘Are you all right, Martin – is Chelsey not there with you?’
Carruthers clasped a hand to his brow and rolled over, exhaling deeply. ‘No Casey, she isn’t. I don’t know where the hell she is, now what do you want?’
‘It’s just that I met a publisher at a function this afternoon. He might be interested in Chelsey’s latest offering.’
‘Who is he?’ Carruthers asked, his enthusiasm at low ebb.
‘Bob Leonard of Leonard-Collinson, you know him.’
‘Yep, I know him.’ Leonard-Collinson were lesser known publishers, the kind he’d go to if he had belief in a writer’s book, as a last resort. But Carruthers was far from pursuing that path for now as far as Chelsey was concerned; he’d find her a lucrative contract elsewhere. He was taken aback that Casey had even thought to mention it. However it mattered little at the moment. ‘I’ll speak to Chelsey,’ he said abjectly.
‘Are you and Chelsey okay, Marty? You seem, well – flat.’
Casey Jennings’ soft yet husky voice was soothing in its way, and tired though Carruthers was, she was a good sort. Everyone thought so, apart from Chelsey that was.
Carruthers became drawn into relaying events of the afternoon in much the same fashion as he had Noades, only this time with the demoralizing eye-witness account of Helen Winterman.
‘Oh how awful for you Marty, and after all you’ve done to promote her career – you must be…’
‘Hang on, Casey. I don’t know what to think at the moment, I’ve been that worried. I really don’t need you jumping to conclusions, there’s probably some innocent explanation to this. Right now I need some rest, it’s stifling here. I’ll be in contact, okay?’
‘You be sure you do,’ came Casey’s concerned reply. ‘Sorry to have bothered you, Marty, but I’m here for you. Please remember that.’
‘I will. I will.’
Carruthers flung his phone to the side, lay back on the bed. The next thing he heard was the tap on the door.
‘Sorry to disturb you pal, but when you didn’t show downstairs I thought I’d pay a welfare call.’
‘Oh – yes, come in.’ Carruthers swept a hand across his eyes. ‘What time is it?’
‘Eight o’clock.’ Noades hovered uncomfortably as Carruthers scrambled his senses. ‘I take it no news. Huh?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ but Carruthers checked his phone just in case. ‘No. I fell asleep, I was that tired.’ He made for the window, forcing up a sash, lit a cigarette and held it over the edge.
‘I hadn’t realised your wife was a famous writer – the receptionist told me. He didn’t mention…’ Noades coughed, changed tack, ‘Well I suppose the police will be more inclined to act…’
‘What did you mean by that?’ Carruthers frowned at Noades’ puzzled look. ‘You started to say “he didn’t mention”…I wasn’t aware there was a male receptionist.’
‘Oh I see…the manager, as a rule he informs us when we’ve a personality in our midst.’
Carruthers gave a nod. ‘But in any case the police won’t be in a rush to act.’ Turning sharply, he drew on his cigarette, aware he was smoking inside and with a member of staff present at that, but he didn’t care. ‘She was seen getting into a car with a bloke.’
Carruthers relayed Mrs. Winterman’s account, becoming more dejected as he went. ‘You know,’ he said with an air of finality, ‘I’ve been trying to keep an open mind on this, but how can I really? It speaks for itself.’
‘The reality is, pal, we don’t know that.’ Noades glanced down at Carruthers’ untouched scotch. ‘And resorting to the hard stuff won’t help. I suggest we take the original course of action, and take a trip out to the forest. You never know what it might turn up.’
Carruthers shook his head, he couldn’t see any purpose in it, but it was one up on the sense of hopeless confinement he felt now, and if there was any chance it might lead to something –
He glanced at Noades, and then at his cigarette – ‘Sorry Robin, but needs must.’ He squashed it on the outside window ledge. ‘Okay, let’s do it.’
‘I suggest I drive; no offence.’ Noades winked, Carruthers supposed the gesture was intended to keep his spirits up. He managed a smile. ‘I don’t think my nerves are up to your forest roads, at any rate.’
Noades’ car was parked in the staff bays near the entrance arch, a smart little red sporty number Carruthers couldn’t put a name to, until the hotel barman told him it was a kit car he’d assembled himself.
The storm had receded into the distance where a few rumbles of thunder persisted, leaving the evening overcast and damp, and still intolerably humid. ‘We’ll follow the route you would have taken,’ Noades said, ‘apart from the village one-way system that is.’ He slipped the car into gear and followed the road out of Lyndhurst as Carruthers kept sharp eyes on the leafy roadsides, quiet now that the storm had deposited its torrents of rain.
Noades gave Carruthers a quick glance. ‘Gillian – that’s our head receptionist – was saying she’s a reader of your wife’s books, says she doesn’t think there’s been one for a while.’
‘No, I told her there’ll be a release soon. I’m her agent, I should know. Oh look I’m sorry,’ Carruthers said, apologising for his surly response.
‘No, it’s okay; I can understand you being distressed.’ Noades kept his gaze straight ahead, moving up through the gears on the open road.
‘The fact is, that her normal publisher rejected her latest offering – I’d been telling her I didn’t think it was up to scratch, but of late she’s been excitable to say the least.’ He sighed,
yearning for a cigarette, but the interior of Noades’ car was immaculate, and he sensed that
smoking inside his vehicle was something he never did. ‘I must say I didn’t expect a straight-forward refusal, however. And so basically that’s why we’re here; we reckoned a short break was probably the best thing – for both of us. I just didn’t allow for this – development…’
‘I don’t suppose anything like this has happened before?’ Noades must have seen the look of irritation on Carruthers’ face as he added, ‘I just thought I’d ask.’
‘It’s okay.’ Carruthers chewed on the inside of his lip. ‘No, not on this scale anyway.’ True, there had been unexplained absences; she wasn’t immune to disappearing for a few hours occasionally, returning without explanation of where she’d been – but he’d assumed she’d been out walking as she was apt to do. At any rate it didn’t warrant dwelling on here.
They’d reached the turning into Ornamental Drive and Noades slowed the car down, the engine growling in protest. Things looked so different now in the gloomy evening air, the big firs and pines dripping their water onto already soaked ground. Carruthers broke off any attempt at conversation, focusing now on the slightest movement amongst the trees either side of the road, but it was as if any human, any animal had given up on the day, and left the area for the nocturnal creatures sure to follow.
And then with dusk setting in early they reached the picnic area, the point where Carruthers had last seen Chelsey, deserted now apart from a gathering of deer near the woodland fence to their left.
‘So this is it,’ Noades said, looking across at Carruthers, any cheeriness in his manner long gone. ‘Where did this woman say she’d seen Chelsey?’
Carruthers stretched an arm to the far left, perhaps two hundred metres distant, where an old dirt road terminated in a dead end. ‘I think that’s what she meant, but it’s pointless now, there’s nothing to see.’
‘You never know, and now we’re here we may as well take a look around.’
Noades jumped from the car, looking for Carruthers to follow suit, which he did reluctantly. His stomach felt hollow, empty, he’d hardly eaten that day but lack of food wasn’t the reason. The disappearance of his wife was that reason – and the way she’d deserted him. And now, taking that trip across the rain-sodden picnic area in the same direction she’d trod, caused anger, pain and confusion to rain on him, lodging in the base of his stomach.
They veered to the left, where the long-disused track, littered with weeds, curved to meet them; Carruthers noticed the toilet block was about twenty metres to their rear. He stopped, put hands on hips and exhaled loudly. ‘Well, this is about it, where they say she was when she was picked up. Damn her doing this to me.’ Carruthers smacked the fence support with his balled fist. ‘She must have known I wouldn’t see a thing through the crowd.’
‘Either she or somebody else did.’
Noades gave him a lop-sided look, shrugged, ‘Well, we don’t know. Do we?’ He sighed. ‘I’ll take a quick look in the woods.’ He hurdled the fence, watched a group of deer shy into the woods and then disappeared.
Like that’ll help. But Carruthers bit back the words. It would have been unkind to have uttered them given the help Noades was providing.
He’d been gone some minutes leaving Carruthers a lonely, isolated figure, when he returned through the foliage speaking on his phone and appearing agitated. ‘You didn’t tell
me…’ Carruthers thought he heard Noades say, but on his approach the call was terminated. ‘It’s girlfriend trouble, I’m afraid. You think you’re the only one,’ he added awkwardly.
Noades studied the ground around him, his eyes falling on some tracks. ‘Well, it looks as
though whoever met her reversed all the way back – hey – what’s that…’
He backtracked to where the woodland encroached and scooped up a small leather case from the tufted grass. Slipping it open he beckoned hurriedly to Carruthers. ‘You better come see this.’ Noades dug his hand inside the case, producing the small grey object that had been inside. ‘Would this be your wife’s?’
Carruthers scrambled over the log fence ignoring the splinter that spiked his hand, and grabbed the phone from Noades. ‘Yes, this is Chelsey’s – she must have dropped it when she got into the car – there’s still life in it,’ he muttered.
‘Yeah, well I guess the case protected it from the elements.’ Noades gazed over Carruthers’ shoulder. ‘That’s why she couldn’t call you.’
‘Oh yes? Look at this…’ Carruthers, his jaw clenched, his eyes bulging, was staring at a text message – ‘Look, meet me at four, I’ll ring when I’m there – you don’t know what you’ve been missing...’
‘Oh shucks,’ Noades whistled. ‘So she was seeing someone.’
‘Not just someone,’ Carruthers uttered with rising fury. ‘The text is from Alexander Goldhawk, the bloody publisher!’