Carruthers spent a miserable afternoon in the hotel bar, more populated than he’d hitherto seen it on account of the adverse weather. His intentions of returning to the Forest and tracking down Foulkes thwarted by the conditions, he was running things through his mind for the umpteenth time and getting nowhere when a hotel porter came in, laying the local afternoon paper on a table opposite. Its headline immediately caught his eye: “Leading writer disappears in Forest mystery.”
Carruthers got to his feet, taking the paper in his hands as calmly as he was able. Unfolding it he took in the smaller print beneath the main headline, getting hotter as he read, “Local police are not regarding Mrs. Carruthers disappearance as suspicious, believing it to be of domestic origin.”
To hell it was domestic origin, but that thought drew his mind to her diary, because if Chelsey had returned for it, then forming any other conclusion was going to be difficult.
It struck Carruthers that he hadn’t checked with reception; somebody might just recall giving her a spare key.
However, a trip to the reception desk proved negative and left Carruthers wondering just who had taken Chelsey’s diary, and why. It was a development that needed reporting to the police considering their insistence that Chelsey’s disappearance had been of domestic origin.
He needed some fresh air and stepped out of the foyer to find the humidity had subsided a little. The rain had ceased apart from the occasional spot and pockets of brightness were showing through the heavy cloud. After leaving a message on Sergeant Higginbotham’s
phone concerning Chelsey’s missing diary, Carruthers chanced a walk along Lyndhurst’s main street, painfully aware that twenty four hours had passed since her disappearance. Twenty four hours that had seemed an age.
He turned right at the foot of the hill, crossing over a cattle grid to find himself in a wide expanse of country park. He wandered for a while without rhyme or reason, following a hilly trail between bracken and heather which led loosely in the direction of Beaulieu, before aware of the growing weariness in his legs he diverted onto a sandy track winding down to meet the Beaulieu road. From there he followed the road back to its junction with Lyndhurst High Street, noticing to his right a green mound, on top of which stood a bench in the shade of a huge yew tree.
It was a steep climb for Carruthers’ ailing legs, and resting his back against the bench he drifted into an unpleasant slumber, vaguely aware of the wind rustling the yew’s branches, and then of something more tangible – his mobile jarring him back to life in what was now approaching twilight.
‘Marty, it’s Casey, where are you?’
‘Still in Lyndhurst,’ Carruthers answered tiredly.
‘Still no sign of Chelsey?’
‘No…’ he trailed off, searching his pockets for his cigarettes.
‘I heard there was some kind of incident last night.’
‘Yeah…’ Carruthers didn’t want to be reminded of it, ‘you could say that.’
‘Marty, I’m coming down.’
Carruthers gripped his brow, what he wanted now was a good sleep, not his brain spinning in a late evening conversation with Casey –
‘Casey it’s late…’
‘I’m halfway there. I anticipated you’d have returned to Lyndhurst. I’m so worried…’
‘Okay.’ Carruthers got to his feet, conceding it was too late to stop her. ‘I’ll meet you in the hotel lounge.’
‘Fine Marty, I won’t be long.’
Carruthers trudged back to the hotel, ordered a Cajun chicken salad and then took it through to the lounge where his sore stomach accepted it grudgingly.
So, by her reference to the ‘incident’, Casey had to have been referring to his fiasco at Goldhawk’s. Despite his fatigue and worry Carruthers’ curiosity was piqued. How had Casey picked up on it, and so quickly? Similarly she’d seemed to have had instant knowledge of Chelsey’s rejection by Goldhawk – and now he’d wrenched the real reason from the editor, that still bit deep. He wondered briefly whether Casey might actually have been at Goldhawk’s party, but didn’t have time to dwell on it, because within a few minutes of him having consumed his food Casey Jennings had breezed through the lounge double doors.
‘Oh Marty, but you look so pale.’ She took his hands, kissed him on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry to arrive like this but I was so worried – particularly after I’d heard what happened.
‘By that I take it you heard about my little run-in with Alexander…’
‘Yeah.’ Casey sighed, sat down, clasping her hands in her lap. She was smaller than Chelsey, perhaps five feet four with a firm figure and an attractive full face, marred only by a blemish on her left cheek from where she’d had a mole removed.
‘I’d worked for ages on “Stapleton’s Demise” and then completed my collection of short stories. I called Alexander to let him know, only he wasn’t at his office. His secretary hadn’t heard from him either, which was unusual. I thought he must be at home so I tried there, and that’s when I spoke to Jacqueline.’ Casey placed a hand on Carruthers’ wrist, her husky voice dropping a touch further. ‘What’s happening Marty, what’s going on?’
‘Well if I knew, I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting here now…’
Carruthers saw Casey’s chin rise in resentment. ‘Oh look I’m sorry love; plain fact is I saw the old green monster for a while…’
He summarized finding Chelsey’s phone with Goldhawk’s message on it – ‘Fact is, I ended up getting things completely wrong and doing a two-hundred mile round trip in the process.’
Casey’s head dropped, she examined her fingers absently before returning her gaze to him – ‘You said that you spoke to Jacqueline…’ Carruthers prompted.
‘Yeah – Jacqueline didn’t elaborate, I’m not sure she knows anything about the lecherous old rogue’s motives. She just said there’d been a bust-up, that you socked him one, though he didn’t say why – and that since then Alexander’s been acting odd. She couldn’t reach him on his mobile phone, at his office – or anywhere.’
‘Did you know that was the reason the old bastard rejected Chelsey’s book?’ Carruthers asked, renewed bitterness causing tremors in his voice.
Carruthers exhaled heavily. ‘I would have thought you’d have grasped it – Chelsey rejects his advances – albeit in text form, so he rejects her latest book….’
Casey shook her head. ‘But surely Marty, he’d be the loser there…’
‘Only if it sold, and I’m afraid the main ingredients there lie in its advertising and distribution, which of course Goldhawk has control of. The old rogue could quite easily shut her out if he’d a mind to – and quite frankly, that’s exactly how I think his mind works. I’ve tried telling her – at any rate, that’s how it is.’ Carruthers sank back in his chair, met Casey’s eyes. ‘Thanks for coming Casey – I’m sorry I’ve been a little offhand, just so worked up. You’ll excuse me if I don’t show too much concern that Alex has gone off in a huff. Right now I reckon I owe him a lot more than a punch on the nose.’
Casey gave a thin smile, stretched across and patted his hand. ‘So what happens now?’
‘The police reckon it’s domestic, nothing suspicious.’ Carruthers glanced across to the large coffee table where several papers lay. He found the local and handed it to her. ‘Here, it’s made the headlines.’
Casey swept her long dark hair from her eyes, read through it quickly and then regarded him with a sorry expression. ‘Oh, Marty, do you think that’s plausible though. That she simply arranged to meet some fella, had it planned all along?’
‘Absolutely not!’ Carruthers responded more forcefully than intended, attracting the attention of an old couple in an alcove. ‘Sorry no…’ he said in a deliberately hushed voice. ‘Okay, I might have thought that earlier, but now my head’s cleared…’ he shook his head, ‘no, I don’t see it at all.’
‘Okay.’ Casey nodded, expressionless, took the paper back and returned to her seat. ‘So what do you do now? Just sit around here hoping she shows?’
‘No, there’s a guy called Foulkes, looks and acts like a creep. Even if it wasn’t intentional, he’s the reason she’s missing today.’
Carruthers gave his account of their meeting and explained what happened thereafter. ‘He knows something, Casey – and he’s known to the police as well – I’m going back first light tomorrow. I’m counting on him living rough – he seems the type. I’ll find him, you bet I will.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
Carruthers looked into Casey’s large brown eyes, wide open, earnest – ‘No Casey, you go home. I don’t want to involve you.’
‘You need support, that’s why I’m here.’ She leaned across, held his wrist, tightened her grip. ‘You wouldn’t send me out into the dark, cold night would you?’
Carruthers forced a smile, ‘No. I don’t suppose I would. I’ll see if I can get you a room.’ He freed himself from Casey’s grip and made for the foyer.
‘No Marty, Casey called softly. ‘I can sleep on your floor, or in a chair, nobody will know.
‘It’s a room or no deal,’ Carruthers said firmly, receiving a wistful look from his visitor. He continued through to reception. No, nobody would know, only Chelsey if she came back that very night, and that was what he wanted most of all.
‘Are you sure you don’t want a companion for the night, Marty? I’d be more than happy…’
‘No, thanks all the same, but hey – thanks for coming.’ Carruthers looked at his attractive friend poised by the door in her low-cut silk blouse and almost wavered. The fact that he could even consider such a thought when not knowing Chelsey’s demise disgusted him. Looking at Casey now - mouth slightly parted, white teeth showing between her lips, eyes wide and seeming to will him to say yes, and fringed by her tumbling long black hair – one thing could so easily lead to another –
For a second he was frightened she wouldn’t budge and allow him through until he consented, but as he moved towards the door she stepped aside. Pulling his head down towards her with her right arm she planted a kiss on his cheek and then released her grip. ‘Okay Marty, you get a good night’s sleep. I’ll be just down the corridor if you need me.’
‘Thanks love, I’ll remember that.’ Carruthers unlocked his door and slipped into the room, closing it on her before he’d a chance to reconsider.
He let out a deep sigh; he needed sleep badly but doubted whether he’d get it. There were too many thoughts revolving in his head, clashing with each other, jarring him with worry. He checked Chelsey’s bag again, searching for some clue that might have been missed before. There was nothing amiss until he looked into its upper compartment. Her diary was missing – but it had been there when he’d checked. He was positive.
He checked all the drawers in a flustered flurry but to no avail – asking how it could have vanished, but his mind was too fuddled to come up with an answer.
|When he finally slumped onto his bed and closed his eyes he surprisingly got some sleep, but it was broken and interrupted on one occasion by what he thought was someone tapping
on his door. The sound jerked him back to consciousness, and a succession of possibilities
blew through his mind before he’d a chance to consider any of them. When he drew the latch, however, the dimly lit corridor was empty, neither sight nor sound of anybody.
That did for him as far as sleep was concerned, and he laid still, hands locked behind his head, staring out of his open window watching the dawn mist give way to blue sky, and lending volume to the birds’ dawn chorus.
He was itching to get out to the Forest, to find Foulkes, even if he knew in his heart the chances of stumbling blindly across him were remote. But it had barely turned five and out of respect for Casey and her offer to assist him, he needed to wait, at least until breakfast.
That was what he thought, but at five thirty the dull ring of the hotel phone had Carruthers reaching for it in such a hurry that he knocked the table lamp alongside it to the floor, shattering the bulb.
Cursing his clumsiness he grasped the receiver; Casey’s deep, cultured tones greeted his ears. ‘Marty, if I’ve guessed right, you can’t sleep; if I’ve got it wrong, I’ve woken you up – in which case I’m sorry – but I thought you might like an early start in seeking out this guy…’
‘Are you sure you can’t read my mind?’ Carruthers raised himself to the edge of the bed, carefully nudged the broken glass aside and stepped down. He had visions of dragging the low-life from his sleeping bag and shaking him until he had an answer – but in reality – ‘I think we might be a bit early love…’
‘Excuse the old pun, but doesn’t the early bird catch the worm?’
‘So they say.’ What the hell, he wasn’t going to do anything else other than to lay and wonder. ‘Okay, you’re on – meet me downstairs in twenty – and thanks.’
He hastily swept up the broken glass, showered and dressed, and went downstairs to find Casey ready and waiting in her car. ‘Thought I’d drive,’ she said brightly, hope you don’t
mind, it’ll save you the bother.’
‘Yeah, good idea, my concentration’s shot to pieces.’
Carruthers yawned; the fatigue was still there in his limbs, his eyes were sore and the remnants of a headache he’d taken to bed with him still nagged.
‘Come on, wakey, wakey.’ Casey reached across and ruffled Carruthers hair. ‘Which way are we heading?’
‘Once we’ve gone round the one-way system take the A35 out of the village,’ Carruthers said, Casey’s strong hand having done nothing to remedy his aching head. ‘A couple of miles on there’s a turn-off – it shouldn’t take us too long.’ He glanced over at Casey as they met the road; fresh and bubbly he thought, for such an unsocial hour. One question bugged him, had prodded him constantly during his long, largely sleepless night – okay, he could understand how she’d found out about his confrontation with Goldhawk, but –
‘Mind if I ask you a question?’
‘Ask away,’ Casey said, her eyes fixed on the road.
‘How did you find out so soon about Chelsey’s rejection?’
‘What a strange question.’ For a moment the cheeriness had gone from Casey’s manner; she glanced at him. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Purely from a professional point of view,’ Carruthers lied, keeping his voice steady. ‘Speaking as an agent who provides him with quality writers and material, I wouldn’t want to think that Alexander advises all and sundry of his decisions.’
There was a delay before Casey answered, as she pulled out to overtake a slow-moving vehicle, a chancy manoeuvre Carruthers considered, as an oncoming car blasted its horn. ‘He did call me as a matter of fact, though it was out of concern for you – I don’t think it was any more than that. I think he felt guilty because he really does appreciate your time and effort – as do I Marty.’
Carruthers felt that Casey was about to reach over to him again, having taken a hand off the wheel, when he barked out, ‘Left here,’ a little louder and later than he’d intended. Casey’s reply was occupying his mind, something about it didn’t gel.
‘You could have given me a little more warning.’ Casey braked heavily, swung left as he apologized, aware of how aggressively she was driving. He’d been a passenger in her car on occasion and hadn’t picked up on it before.
‘Gosh it’s nice out here…’ Casey’s brow furrowed as she took her eyes from the road, ‘such a shame that you’ve had your break spoiled, Marty…’
‘I’m more concerned about Chelsey at the moment.’ Carruthers shot a glance at Casey, scarcely concealing his indignation at her apparent lack of concern for his wife – except of course that she had made the journey down on his – or their – behalf –
‘I do understand that, Marty,’ and as if picking up on his thoughts, ‘that’s why I’ve driven down here.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Carruthers sat stiffly; he recognised the large oak looming up. ‘This is it.’ He crouched forward. ‘Pull into the parking area – please.’
Casey pulled into a clearing and parked a distance away from two others cars Carruthers was surprised to find there, given the time of day. ‘Perhaps one of them belongs to your fella Foulkes,’ she said, killing the engine.
‘I don’t think he’s the driving type,’ Carruthers scoffed. ‘More like a Forest vagrant.’
‘Then how did he manage to turn up at where you last saw Chelsey?’
Casey sniffed, gave him a searching glance. ‘Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you told me you’d cycled some distance before you found the picnic area.’
‘Yes – we did…’ Carruthers hadn’t thought of that, though perhaps he should have done. Any optimism he had of finding the man began to ebb as he considered Casey’s remark. He couldn’t picture Foulkes in charge of a vehicle for one moment and yet that seemed the only way he could have found them –
Nevertheless, he wasn’t abandoning his immediate goal now; his wife was far too important a cause for that.
‘Stay here, Casey,’ he said with as much authority as he could muster.
‘What – are you joking?’ He saw Casey’s jaw drop in protest. ‘So what am I going to do, sit and stare at that big tree?’
‘It’s famous.’ Carruthers opened the passenger door, stepped out.
‘Oh – I’m impressed, but it’s still only a tree – look, Marty…’
‘No Casey, you look,’ Carruthers said, holding the door open. ‘You’ve been good enough to drop me here, but this isn’t your concern. I don’t want you getting wrapped up with guys like these, understand? I said, understand?’
Casey flashed a glance which he might have termed indignant, crossed her arms and stared at the Knightwood Oak, leaving Carruthers to pursue as closely as possible the course he’d taken with Chelsey on their first afternoon, though without any great optimism.