Carruthers’ mobile phone rang. He yawned, reached across the basin to answer it and was greeted by Casey Jennings’ throaty voice. ‘Marty – any chance we could meet up today? I’ve got great hopes for my new effort – I’m naming it Stapleton’s Demise. I have a feeling this could be my biggest ever, I’d really appreciate running through the outline with you…’
Carruthers placed his razor back in the cabinet and sighed. ‘Look Casey, this isn’t the best of times…’
‘Oh come on, Marty. Where’s your enthusiasm? You stand to gain from it as well…’
‘It’s not all about money, Casey.’
Carruthers caught Casey’s impatient exhalation. ‘Dammit – if I didn’t know you better I’d say that was exactly what it was – that right now your finances are balancing just fine; that you don’t need…’
‘Stop. Stop right there Casey. Don’t go down that road. You know I wouldn’t use you as a cash cow. As a matter of fact Chelsey and I are…’
Carruthers hesitated. Perhaps he was being unfair – Casey was, after all, both a client and friend, and Chelsey, perhaps on account of the mood she was in, seemed nowhere near ready; when all said and done it was only a fifteen minute drive to her house. It couldn’t do any harm.
‘Okay, I’ll be over shortly – but I’ll need to be quick. I’ll explain when I see you.’
Carruthers towelled his face dry and strode to the landing. ‘I’m just popping out,’ he said, sticking his head around the bathroom door. ‘A few loose ends to tie up.’
‘Let me guess what they are…’ but Chelsey’s tone was sarcastic rather than malicious as she slipped off her night gown, and Carruthers avoiding comment covered the short journey to Casey’s Ealing Common home in a little over ten minutes.
Pulling up at Casey’s neat, ivy adorned cottage on the east side of the common, Carruthers saw her door was ajar. He gave a quiet tap and walked through.
‘In here, Marty,’ Casey called from her study, which she’d created from a small subsidiary lounge. ‘Be a dear and shut the front door will you? It seems to have got cooler all of a sudden.’
Carruthers retraced his steps and duly obliged, Casey having slipped off her reading spectacles as he joined her in the study. Holding them between thumb and forefinger she gave him a long, questioning look.
‘So what’s the big development that you can’t find time for your bestselling author?’
Carruthers raised his eyes to the ceiling fleetingly. ‘That’s just what I am doing,’ he said in a voice of tested patience. He sat opposite her desk, slapping his hands on thighs. ‘As a matter of fact I’m taking Chelsey on a few days’ break. She’s been a bit under the weather of late.’
Casey curved her full face into a sympathetic, though knowing smile, fingering her long dark hair. ‘Looking to cheer her up a bit are you? I heard that her latest effort got rejected…’
‘How the hell have you got wind of that?’ Carruthers spurted, astonished at the speed at which she’d come by Goldhawk’s decision.
‘Oh come on, Marty,’ Casey leaned forward, patted Carruthers’ arm. ‘Nothing’s sacred in this business, now you should know that; news travels with the speed of a neuron cell. Now I thought you’d like to spend a few moments of your precious time with me, going through the main points of my new best seller…’
‘I repeat – that’s why I came.’
Carruthers narrowly held back from remarking on Casey’s attitude. It was unusual for her to derive such pleasure from somebody else’s misfortune; at least that was how it appeared to him.
He glanced around the small study, everything neat and tidy, the wall-to-wall bookcase full of neatly filed books; her desk as orderly as he could remember seeing it. But that was part of a growing puzzle because things were just too ship-shape. Her computer was switched off on her desk; no sign of writing materials and not a manuscript or folder in sight.
‘Well, I’m waiting, Casey.’ Carruthers drummed his fingers, hunched forward. ‘I’ve…’
‘I know, I know – you’re in a rush, your time is limited.’ Casey gave a reproachful smile. ‘I anticipated as much – don’t look so tense. I thought it better that I run through the storyline verbally rather than delay you with a skeleton outline…’
Carruthers forced a smile, shook his head in disbelief. ‘But you could have accomplished that on the phone…’
Casey chewed her lip, the corners of her mouth downturned. ‘What, and risk Chelsey’s interference? I don’t think so.’ Casey swung away from the desk, moving her solid, shapely frame closer to him. ‘Anyway, this is how it goes – my story revolves around an unholy trinity. By which I mean three unscrupulous individuals who manipulate people for their own ends; all individual and self focused characters in their own right and yet tied together by their own cunning and greed.
‘As the story unfolds, increasingly they find their dishonesty doesn’t pay; they double-cross one another, none of them profiting, and they end up victims of their own deceit.’
Carruthers sat back, fingering his chin. ‘Okay, intriguing as far as it goes, though at present it doesn’t stretch a whole distance. This Stapleton – I assume he’s the night in shining armour?’
‘Oh no. Far from it.’ Casey’s face soured momentarily before her dark eyes shone. ‘But there is a hero out to set the world to rights.’
‘Okay.’ Carruthers got to his feet, gripped Casey’s shoulder. ‘But I’d like to take your framework for the book – if I might take a copy with me?’
‘Oh what – and spoil your break Marty? No, I wouldn’t dream of it; what can you be thinking of? I’m just so glad you came and that I could run through the basics with you. Is there anything I can get you or are you in too much of a hurry?’
Carruthers phone rang and he answered to the rising tone of Chelsey’s voice. ‘I trust you’re not going to be a whole lot longer, Martin, because if you are…’
‘No, of course not; as a matter of fact I’m on my way.’
‘Got to go,’ Carruthers mouthed to Casey, a hand over the mouthpiece. ‘Duty calls, but I like what I’ve heard. Show me the works – I’ll call you when I get back.’
Carruthers was aware of a raspy reply, although there was a light-hearted punch on the arm from Casey. He felt a pang of guilt that he’d cut her short but he’d fulfilled his obligation, and when the chips were down Chelsey always came first.
Carruthers arrived home to find that Chelsey’s mood hadn’t improved one bit. In fact it had taken a significant step downhill. It wasn’t so much what she was saying rather than the manner in which she was acting. Things flung rather than placed; voluminous sighs and the odd expletive thrown in for good measure.
He’d half a mind to put the trip on hold, only the notion that their break would restore his wife’s equilibrium persuaded Carruthers otherwise.
Chelsey’s brother Adrian, whom she assured him knew much about the tourist industry, along with everything else it seemed, had arranged a reservation for a week at a hotel close to the Forest centre. Having checked on line himself, Carruthers had to accept that the “Chequers Inn” seemed fine, set back from Lyndhurst village’s main street it exuded a relaxed, Edwardian charm.
Chelsey didn’t say a lot on the journey down, she’d fallen into a subdued and sullen mindset, and any conversation that Carruthers initiated had been met with a flat reply or incoherent murmur. As they reached the Lyndhurst turn-off however, she broached the subject that might have been the reason for that sullenness.
‘Martin, perhaps if you were to approach Ambassador Press – Simon Penrose, the editor there, has been a long time admirer of my work. I know that for a fact.’
Carruthers nodded, compressing his lips to seal off a caustic reply. Penrose, he thought, had been a long time admirer of more than her work. He’d got touchy feely with her at a literary gathering only a few months back and to Carruthers’ annoyance Chelsey hadn’t seemed to mind at all. He chose his words carefully for fear of aggravating her. ‘I’ll make Penrose my first priority on our return, if that’s what you want.’
‘I’ve just a feeling Penrose won’t turn me down, that’s all.’
‘No, I doubt that he will.’ Carruthers was aware of Chelsey’s eyes upon him but at that moment his mobile phone rang and pulling over he checked the identity of the caller. Chelsey leaned across, her gaze on his phone. ‘Oh, now there’s a surprise. Well Jennings can wait; we’ve a journey to complete.’ Her lips developed that unpleasant curl. ‘Surely you’ve told her we’re taking time out? Didn’t you grant her a generous enough portion of your time this morning? I mean why it couldn’t wait until you got back I really don’t know, do you?’
Carruthers compressed his lips, looked away into the thickening forest and concealed his irritation. ‘I merely made use of the time at my disposal – and yes, she’s well aware of our break.’
‘Well, she doesn’t seem to have got the message, or perhaps it’s not a business call?’
Carruthers bit the bait, he couldn’t stop himself. He slammed his hand on the wheel and turned on her. ‘Now if this is a sample of what I’m going to have to endure during this trip then I’m turning round and we’re heading home.’
Chelsey scowled, lofting her head. ‘Then my dear, you’ll be heading home without me. We’ve come this far, according to the signpost we’re eight miles from our destination and I’m damned if I’m going back now. I’ll walk if I have to, baggage and all.’ She unbelted, opened the passenger door.
‘Oh for God’s sake, Chelsey, spare me the dramatics. Now please put your belt back on.’
‘Then stop annoying me!’ As Chelsey treated him to a fiery stare from her blue eyes and slowly buckled up, Carruthers dropped his phone into his shirt pocket, pulling out of the lay-by just as it rang again. This time he didn’t retrieve it, he kept on going fully aware of his wife’s glare upon him. But this time he kept his composure, he didn’t want confrontation now. If he’d have carried out his threat and turned for home, Chelsey would have got out at the first opportunity and walked. Her remark had been no idle one.
Casey Jennings, whatever she wanted – had to wait.
He drove on with Chelsey re-assuming her broody posture, his own mood not improved by Casey’s call. There was literary rivalry between the two and marked coolness whenever they crossed paths. At the moment Casey held the upper hand and Chelsey’s stance in relation to her was little short of open hostility. Why Casey should choose to call when she might have guessed they were on the journey down intrigued and mystified him, but he would have thought that in so doing Casey would have realized that relations between the two could hardly have been improved. However she had the tendency to be somewhat forward at times and he attributed her call to that reason.
Once established in “The Chequers,” and with Chelsey refreshing in the bathroom, Carruthers made a hasty call.
‘Casey,’ he said in a hushed voice, ‘what is it? You might have known we’d be on the road.’
There was a pause before she spoke. ‘As a matter of fact, Marty, I thought I might be in time to wish you a safe journey.’
Carruthers clasped his neck with the palm of his hand, the bedroom was stifling and the perspiration dampened his collar. ‘It’s a bit late for that, I’m afraid. We arrived some fifteen minutes ago.’
‘Oh I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice as spirited as always. ‘It’s just that I’ve been working flat out on Stapleton’s Demise – you know – a chapter a day keeps the agent at bay…’
Carruthers grimaced, both at the hackneyed cliché and from his feeling that the reverse was happening. He kept an eye on the bathroom as Casey continued, her tone dropping, ‘I really was sorry to learn Alex rejected Chelsey’s new book, Marty. I hope she doesn’t give you a hard time. You deserve a good break.’
‘Try telling that to Chelsey.’ Carruthers couldn’t resist letting his frustration vent. He heard movement in the bathroom. ‘Look, I’d better go. I’ll let you know when we’re back.’
‘It’s such a shame you have to be looking over your shoulder every time you make a phone call, Marty – you have my sympathies – and of course my best wishes for a good time there.’
‘Thanks. Bye Casey.’ Carruthers terminated the call. Casey’s remark had struck a nerve. He stared out of the window watching the incessant traffic flow along the narrow high street which formed the pulsing heart of the New Forest capital. Sunlight reflecting from vehicle bonnets dazzled him momentarily and he turned to find Chelsey emerging from the bathroom, a towel draped around her otherwise naked body.
‘Who was that I heard you talking to, Martin?’ She flittered her free hand towards him. ‘No, don’t tell me, I’m sure I can fathom it out.’
‘I was merely returning her call,’ Carruthers retorted, cursing his wife’s acute hearing.
‘Which was purely a personal one of course.’
Carruthers smothered resentment that rose like acid in his throat, at least he trod a faithful line, which was more than could be said of her, with her openly flirtatious manner at social functions, or any other gathering where she had the opportunity.
‘You might at least have left your affairs behind.’
Oh that hurt. That was pushing him too far.
‘What am I supposed to make of that?’
‘Anything you want, chum.’ Chelsey scowled as she collected some jeans and a blue top and flounced back into the bathroom.
Carruthers could feel heat generating inside him and it wasn’t attributable to the warmth of the day. Chelsey was simmering again and he wasn’t about to add ingredients to her pot.
He headed downstairs and found the bar, elegantly Edwardian but sparsely populated, he felt, when one considered the bustling nature of the village. He’d already noticed that its make up consisted of an assortment of pubs and restaurants, and supposed therefore, that competition was stiff.
He found the barman, neatly attired in black waistcoat and matching trousers to be of affable nature, and after tending to Carruthers’ request for a long, cool lager, he enquired as to the nature of his stay.
‘I’m down with my wife, from London,’ Carruthers said, trying to disguise his growing sense of despondency. We’re taking a short break.’ He changed the subject, ‘Quiet day for you today?’
The barman nodded; a slim, fair haired man Carruthers adjudged to be in his mid thirties, and named Robin Noades according to the identification tag attached to his lapel.
‘Most of our clientele use us as a base for touring the forest, particularly on a fine day like this – they’ll return this evening, and if you’re dining, you’ll notice a difference.’
‘I’m sure I will.’ Carruthers took a long gulp from his drink, placed it down and drew a deep breath. ‘I’m looking forward to sampling some fresh air,’ he said, swelling his chest. ‘The wife and I are considering hiring a couple of bikes.’
‘If you’re looking to do some cycling, then this is the place to do it,’ Noades said, polishing a glass and placing it carefully above the bar. ‘There’s Ornamental Drive for instance, just a few minutes from here – outstanding woodland – giant Douglas firs, some of the tallest trees in the country and plenty of picnic areas to go with them. Great on a day like this.’ Noades glanced through the window opposite. ‘I hope the weather holds up for you.
The forecast is good.’ Carruthers thought that Noades’ enviably handsome features took on an apologetic air. ‘I’m a bit of a nature buff as it happens.’
‘I envy you that,’ Carruthers said with sincerity. ‘Life in London moves to quickly for my liking – at least these days.’ He mopped droplets of sweat from his brow; the hotel, decent as it was relied on overhead propeller fans for cooling rather than air conditioning, probably, he supposed, because they fitted in with the Edwardian décor – unfortunately they weren’t as efficient.
Carruthers saw Noades’ gaze switch sharply to his right, his eyes widening as in breezed Chelsey, tall and stylish in her pale blue top and designer jeans. Her immaculate fair hair streamed down her shoulders and no longer was there any hint of fire in her sky blue eyes.
‘I always know where to find him,’ she said, a quick look at her husband before her eyes connected and locked on to the barman. ‘He can track down alcohol the way a sniffer dog can drugs.’
‘For goodness sake, Chelsey,’ Carruthers muttered, turning away in distaste, though neither Chelsey nor Noades seemed to have noticed his resentment. ‘A lemon soda for me,’ she said, sliding gracefully onto a stall, ‘can’t handle anything stronger this time of day.’
Noades attended to her request, placing the glass before her. ‘Your husband was mentioning cycling out,’ Noades began, placing both forearms on the bar and leaning towards her. ‘I’ve been telling him of a nice area not far from here.’
‘Has he really?’ Chelsey raised her brows. ‘Sounds good by me, I’m impressed. Whereabouts are we going?’
‘Ornamental Drive, was it?’ Carruthers glanced at Noades, receiving confirmation.
‘Well, lets’s hope it’s not too hilly, your legs will never cope. She raised a finger, ‘And no mobile phones, okay? Even if we should happen to get lost. I’ll snap it in half if I find one on you.’ Chelsey was smiling but for a second there was intent in her eyes. ‘So where do we find this Ornamental Drive, Mr – ah…’ Chelsey stretched across the bar, Carruthers thought a lot closer to Noades than she needed to, and fingered his badge. ‘I see your name’s Robin, mind if I call you that?’
‘Fine.’ Noades shrugged, ‘I get called all sorts.’ But he seemed pleased and a little too attentive, and perhaps realising as much he quickly met Carruthers’ eyes.
‘I’ll draw you both a map of the area.’ Noades disappeared for a moment and returned with an A4 sheet of paper and a pencil. He placed it on the bar to attend to a customer before returning to them. ‘It’s not too difficult really. Follow the one-way system through the village and then take the A 35, whereupon you keep going until you reach this point.’ He stopped sketching and placed a dot on his rough map.
Chelsey looked at the map and then glanced at Carruthers. ‘I’m game if you are – why don’t we start now?’
‘Now?’ Carruthers gaped. ‘It’s a hot, sticky afternoon. Why not wait until morning when we’re fresher and cooler,’ he said, glancing at Noades for support.
But Noades simply smiled and shrugged. ‘If you’ll excuse me….’ He moved along the bar and attended to a customer.
‘Yes, now,’ Chelsey swirled some soda around her mouth and swallowed, ‘after I’ve finished my drink that is.’ She looked down on Carruthers’ pint, two thirds empty. ‘And before you’ve had a chance to down another.’ She prodded his arm. ‘You’re consuming far too much of late.’
‘This is supposed to be a break for us both, nothing wrong with the odd pint.’ Carruthers drew breath, looked into his wife’s widening blue eyes. He fingered his throat; he felt the afternoon heat on it and concluded it couldn’t be any hotter outside than it was in. He could see the frustration mounting as she looked away, her fingers tapping out an imaginary tune on the bar; he sensed Chelsey in flirting mode and sought the lesser of two evils. ‘Okay, give me fifteen minutes to change into more appropriate gear. You might want to change into something more practical yourself.’
‘Nope, I’m fine as I am. I don’t get as hot and sweaty as you Martin. Or is it Marty?’
Carruthers looked away, the temperature had just risen a degree but he wasn’t rising to her bait.
‘No, I’ll just wait down here while you change.’ She sniffed. ‘I’m surprised and a little disappointed that Adrian recommended this place, really. After all it’s a bit stuffy, could do with a little modernization. It does have one redeeming factor, though. Chelsey sipped her drink, then leaning forward on her stool, placed both elbows on the bar and cupped her face in her hands. Carruthers followed her gaze, bit his lip. ‘I’ll go and change, I won’t be long.’
He reached the door and looked back. Noades was already making his way along the bar towards her.