Carruthers took the gravel track he’d ridden with Chelsey, negotiating his way between the tall trees, with an early morning mist rising and creating a silky blanket around their trunks. There was a chill in the air and he shivered, regretting wearing only a flimsy pale blue T – shirt and jeans. The busy tapping of woodpeckers greeted his ears and large blackbirds flew noisily above, seeming to mock him in what was in all probability a futile exercise.
He’d left Casey behind deliberately and although it was true he didn’t want her involved for safety sake, he was on a personal mission to find his wife and Foulkes was his only possible lead.
And what was it about Casey’s answer to his question that made him feel uneasy? Possibly that it was difficult for him to concede that Goldhawk had a conscience, but in which case why relay his feelings to Casey? Why not himself or Chelsey?
More pressing matters soon forced these issues to the back of his mind and reaching the point where the track split, he had little problem determining the one he and Chelsey had taken. The single gnarled oak that was dwarfed by giant deciduous trees along the path had seemed incongruous to him at the time, and did so again now.
Sure enough, the narrowing trail dwindled away and through the trees, surrounded by bracken and gorse, was the clearing where they’d run across Foulkes and his buddies.
This time however, there was neither sight nor sound of them, but as he slipped into the enclosure there were tell-tale signs that someone had been there. Cans, bottles and stubbed out cigarettes littered what should have been a pretty area. Carruthers wondered whether the patch was purely Foulkes’ domain or if the spot was frequented by a nucleus of vagrant types.
A shotgun sounded nearby, he heard a dull thud followed by another, more audible this time. Pushing through the bracken at the back of the clearing he found himself on a mini-trail, and formed a claustrophobic sensation of trees and undergrowth closing in on him. Thankfully it was short-lived, because through the mass of twigs and branches lay another clearing, oval shaped and a good deal larger, in which he saw two figures, one of whom held a shotgun. His heart began to pound on realization that the man with the gun was Foulkes.
Carruthers marched into the clearing as Foulkes fired again, then as his companion gestured towards him Foulkes swung round. ‘Well, well, well – if it ain’t the writer’s hubby – you should watch where yer walkin’, fella – could get a nasty surprise – what are yer doin’ back ‘ere anyhow?’
‘We need to speak.’ Carruthers took his eye off of Foulkes fleetingly and focused on the rifle barrel. ‘And don’t point that thing at me; it’s illegal practice anyway.’
‘Is it now?’ Foulkes raised his head, lofted the gun onto his shoulder; Carruthers felt his fierce, fiery eyes travel over him. ‘Can’t say I see us ‘aving much to talk about either – unless you’re thinkin’ of callin’ a Ranger in which case…’
‘No – look, right now I don’t give a damn about your poaching. I need to find my wife.’
‘Ah…’ Foulkes tilted his head again, slanted his eyes. ‘So I saw right; she’s left yer ain’t she, with that…’ Foulkes minced his lips, ‘guess I ought to stop right there.’
‘So it was you, you did spy on her.’ Carruthers felt rage grip him, took a step forward but so did Foulkes’ tall, gangly accomplice – and besides, Foulkes had the gun, but also no doubt, the information he wanted.
‘Calm yerself fella – from what I saw you ain’t losing much…’
‘How dare you…’ Carruthers kept himself in check – but barely. He screwed his eyes, ‘What did you see?’
‘Well now, that would be tellin’. Foulkes sneered, exposed his yellow teeth. I reckon, to
bring you running back to these parts I guess it means a lot – how much is it worth?’
‘You despicable low-life…’
‘Steady on fella…’ Foulkes lowered the shotgun, prodded it into Carruthers’ midriff, curtailing any advance he made. ‘Best advice is, let’s keep it nice and friendly like –
from where I’m standing you ain’t exactly on the right track to find out what I saw. Now you and your wife are monied people; I noticed that right away. I figure a miserly sum wouldn’t set you back one iota.’
Carruthers sighed, moved the barrel away from his stomach. He had no fear that Foulkes would use the gun, his anger might have blinded him in that respect, but if he wanted information he was going to have to play ball with the vagrant.
‘And what do you term a miserly sum?’
‘Well now,’ Foulkes’ wild eyes stopped roaming, locked onto Carruthers as he scrubbed his chin with a scraggly right hand. ‘Like I say, I figure you want to know bad. Call it two hundred and I’ll tell yer what I saw.’
‘That’s ludicrous,’ Carruthers hissed. ‘I don’t carry that kind of money in my back pocket.’
‘Well I sure as hell don’t take credit cards.’
Carruthers checked his watch, a jerky movement; his adrenalin was pumping in torrents. ‘I need the village cash point,’ he said bitterly. ‘I can be back by seven-thirty. Where will I find you?’
‘Now yer talkin’’ Foulkes sneered. Carruthers could smell the sweat and grime oozing from the man, it made him feel ill. ‘Where I’m standing now; ain’t plannin’ on going far – not with two hundred quid coming in my direction.’
Carruthers was exasperated, felt like smacking Foulkes but retained his composure.
‘How did you manage to find us, and why?’
‘How? Easy – though it was by chance. I know this Forest like the back of me hand – that picnic area ain’t so far from ‘ere as you might think. Me and me mates were just headin’ for a little free food, plenty to be found in that area – so we cut across country and what do I see? You and yer wife tying yer bikes up.’
Foulkes lowered the shotgun, placing both hands over the barrel. ‘And why? Because yer wife struck me as a snotty bitch – that’s why I gave yer the wrong directions, sent yer on that long, winding road – and then when I saw her I couldn’t resist a bit of fun…’
‘You disgust me.’
‘Yer wasting time fella – two hundred quid and I’ll tell yer exactly what I saw…’ Foulkes scowled, ‘the sooner you get yer money, the sooner yer get to know what happened.’
Carruthers swallowed his indignation, walked briskly back along the narrow track and then onto the parking area where he’d left Casey.
He was greeted by the sight of her empty car and for ten long minutes, becoming increasingly more tense and livid, Carruthers developed a sense of déjà-vu. He yelled repeatedly for her, his voice swallowed up in the Forest vastness.
‘Not again.’ He sat on her car bonnet, hand clutching his forehead, trying to think straight but losing the struggle, when her hand clamped on his shoulder making him jump to high heaven.
‘Marty, are you all right?’
‘No, I’m bloody well not.’ Carruthers let out a heavy sigh. ‘I asked you to wait here, where have you been?’
Casey shrugged. ‘I took a walk around the big oak – look I didn’t know how long you’d be and it was time better spent than staring at it through a car window.’
‘Didn’t you hear me shout?’
Casey shook her head. ‘No, I’d have come right back if I had.’
‘You gave me a bloody big fright.’ Carruthers got up, looked into her large brown eyes – it was so difficult with Casey to know what he was reading in them.
‘Okay, look – I struck lucky and found Foulkes.’
‘You did? Oh Marty, what did…’
Carruthers raised a hand to silence her. ‘The downside is he won’t talk without a payout. I should have known but…’
Casey felt inside her jacket. ‘How much, I’ve got some cash.’
‘Two hundred quid,’ he said, watching her head drop.
‘I’ve only got about forty.’
‘Look, it doesn’t matter; I can get to a cash point and back in less than half an hour.’ He shot her a disgruntled look; ‘Although I’ve wasted ten minutes waiting for you.’
‘How did I know, Marty?’ Casey’s husky voice betrayed resentment as she opened her car door. ‘If you’d have let me come with you…’
‘Okay, okay.’ Carruthers slid in beside Casey, realised he was taking his frustration out on her. ‘Smack my wrist?’
‘I’ll do more than that in a minute.’ But Casey Jennings met his eyes with a sympathetic smile as she drove them out of Ornamental Drive and onto the road back to Lyndhurst.
Foulkes watched Carruthers troop away and spat into the undergrowth. Two hundred perishing quid, he should have shovelled a lot more than that out of the lousy bugger. The twat would have paid it even though he wouldn’t like what was going to be told.
But in the end, the two hundred quid was easy money, and in any case although he despised this type of guy it wasn’t the bloke who’d ruffled his feathers. No, it was the tall, willowy blond woman he’d taken a dislike too the moment she opened her mouth. He’d seen her at the picnic site, prancing across the field to the car. He knew the make alright, he’d driven a few motors in his time, not legally mind, but what difference did it make? He’d got a look at someone inside it; he hadn’t been close enough to give a description but if he told the bloke what kind of car he saw, that would likely give the snooty bitch’s game away in any case.
Oh he’d been watching, you bet. At first he’d been doing it to annoy her – to get his own back for her show of toffee-nosed arrogance. After she’d crossed the field though, and come out of the toilet, that’s when he’d seen her take a different direction – make for the car – her phone held to her ear like she was being directed. He’d seen the short conversation that followed, and how she’d been hurried into the car – after she’d taken a quick look around of course, obviously to check that the coast was clear; only it wasn’t –
A trampling in the undergrowth interrupted Foulkes’ thoughts, causing him to turn. ‘Smith,’ he called. ‘Smith, is that you?’
‘Back in a minute,’ he heard Smith call from a distance. ‘Getting some supplies.’
But it couldn’t have been Smith who’d caused the distraction. Puzzled, Foulkes began to force back the bramble bushes on the overgrown track where he’d heard the rustling. He knew the forest well, he’d lived rough in it for long enough – but that knowledge caused an
overconfidence for which he was about to pay the price.
Foulkes gaped as he stared into the face of the newcomer. Seconds later he let out a moan.
‘I wonder what this Foulkes character saw that’s worth two hundred quid.’ Casey took her eyes from the road, looked squarely at Carruthers. ‘I wonder who he saw?’
Carruthers threw up his hands. ‘I really have no idea.’
‘It’s just incomprehensible to think that she’d get into a car with a complete stranger.’
‘It obviously wasn’t a total stranger,’ Carruthers said irritably. ‘She was speaking to him on her mobile phone when he picked her up.’
Casey put her foot on the pedal all of a sudden, throwing Carruthers back in his seat. ‘You say ‘he’ Marty, but how do you know that?’
‘Just a figure of speech,’ Carruthers answered gruffly, irked by her sudden acceleration.
‘And in any case, that might have been a coincidence; she could have been on the phone to anyone.’
‘Yeah, I’ll give you that; all too much of a coincidence in my book though.’
‘Perhaps.’ Casey checked her mirror, roared past a tractor. ‘I just hope it’s not somebody she’s met at some function or other.’
Carruthers glared across, shocked. ‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Well you know how she likes to socialize – I mean, men?’ Casey craned her head. ‘Oh come on Marty, she never could resist a bit of flirting.’
‘And that’s all she does, she never takes it further.’ Carruthers shook his head furiously. ‘Casey, that’s nonsense. Chelsey wouldn’t just walk out and leave her belongings – this has got nothing to do with her so called flirting. I’m surprised you even considered it.’
‘Excuse me for talking out of turn, but I really can’t see any other possibility.’
Carruthers might have been rattled, but his memory received a jolt also. ‘Her diary’s missing.’
‘Say again?’ To Carruthers’ relief Casey kept her eyes on the road.
‘I said, Chelsey’s diary’s missing.’
‘Perhaps she never brought it.’
Carruthers shook his head. ‘I checked her belongings earlier, it was there. I’d swear to it.’
‘Well there you go then; she’s been back and removed the incriminating evidence.’ This time Casey did turn slowly towards him. ‘Another bloke I mean.’
‘I know what you mean.’ But suddenly Carruthers’ eyes widened. ‘Adrian searched through her things…’
‘I guess because he thought it might give us a clue. But I’d already checked and…
‘Why the hell should he want the diary?’
‘I’ve no idea. And in any case I kept my eyes on him.’ Carruthers reflected on that – well he had, until he’d gone to the bathroom. But in any case, as annoying as Adrian was, what would he want with her diary? There had to be some other explanation as to why it was missing, but it only heaped further turmoil on an already besieged mind to contemplate that now.
Casey spotted a cash-point on Lyndhurst High Street and pulled over for Carruthers. ‘I only hope this works for you Marty – could be this guy’ll take your money and feed you a load of crap…’
Carruthers climbed out without offering a reply, he didn’t like the way Casey was vilifying his wife. It was a side of her he wasn’t used to seeing, but he had to concede he might be fuelling Foulkes’ anti-social habits without recompense.
Nevertheless he had no other option.
Carruthers collected his money from the cash-point and Casey drove them back, showing
the same careless abandon in her driving that she had previously, but at least she didn’t force the issue on Chelsey’s lack of virtuosity. In fact she remained silent throughout the ten-minute drive, her only attempt at speech coming when they reached the parking area.
‘I’ll wait for you here,’ she said, her voice oddly flat.
Carruthers exhaled heavily. ‘Casey I do appreciate what you’re doing to help, it’s simply that I can’t bring myself to see things from your angle.’ He laid a hand on her lap. ‘Listen, I could do with some company,’ then seeing her eyes widen, ‘no - I really could.’
Casey bit her lip, nodded and then brightened a little. ‘Okay then, let’s go find this guy.’
Carruthers led her through the Forest tracks; a cool wind had risen in the short time they’d been away and he detected a subtle change in its direction. The fresh air seemed to remove some of his lethargy.
They passed through the clearing where Carruthers and Chelsey had originally found Foulkes and then carried on into the large one where the vagrant had indicated he’d wait.
‘Well this is the spot.’ Carruthers halted, placed hands on hips and glanced at Chelsey, ‘But as you can see, there’s nothing.’
Casey drew in air, looked around the large oval clearing, noticing that at its far end the trail continued. ‘Perhaps he’s moved further on,’ she said. ‘Let’s go check.’
‘Wouldn’t have thought he’d do that,’ Carruthers said dubiously, ‘not when he’s sitting on two hundred quids’ worth of easy money.’ He lofted his hand. ‘No sound of shotguns either, not a sound apart from the birds.’
Nonetheless Carruthers followed her through to a trail every bit as narrow as the one that had led them into the clearing, but this time bramble and nettle partially obstructed their path, causing them to edge sideways to avoid being stung.
‘Foulkes – Foulkes, where yer gone?’
Carruthers heard the coarse shout from somewhere to his left and finding himself in a small, earthy clearance in the trees amidst which were pitched a couple of grey, canvas tents, he encountered the tall, gaunt man he’d seen Foulkes with a short time previously.
‘Where is he?’ Carruthers demanded, his impatience growing.
The gaunt guy afforded him an unfriendly stare. ‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t be calling him, now would I?’
‘He said he’d be waiting…’
‘Aye, that’s right.’ The vagrant wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. ‘I brought some of our haul,’ he said, pointing to a cluster of wildfowl that Carruthers had to turn away from, ‘went back to join him but he weren’t there.’ He sniffed. ‘No telling where he gets to sometimes.’
‘Are you telling me he’d go walkabout when he’s onto easy money.’
The vagrant shrugged. ‘Maybe – maybe not, but he ain’t here.’
Carruthers sighed, ploughed back along the track with Casey and Foulkes’ accomplice following in his wake. He reached the clearing to find it empty, turned and cursed. ‘I’m
losing my cool with this. Look,’ he said pointing a finger at the gaunt guy, ‘tell him I’m coming back at twelve – and he’d better be here if he wants the money.’
‘Want me to take the money now? I reckon he’ll be here…’ the man said, arms outstretched.
‘Go to blazes.’ Carruthers stormed off, Casey hurrying to his side. ‘You’re not really coming back here, are you Marty? It’s plain to me he was having you on.’
Carruthers slapped a hand on his forehead, drew it down across his face. ‘I would have gambled he’d be here…’
‘It really isn’t worth chasing him around, Marty…apart from being a trickster he’s
obviously unreliable to boot. He’s probably found somebody else to rip off.’
‘Perhaps.’ Carruthers gazed at Casey, narrowing his eyes.
‘What is it Marty – what’s the matter?’
He leaned towards her, parting her hair at the neck. There was a jagged scratch, a good three to four inches long, running from jaw bone to neck…
‘Where did you get that? Been in a cat-fight?’
‘What?’ Casey brushed his hand away with her forearm, run her finger along the line of the scratch, her complexion colouring. ‘No, don’t be silly, of course not.’ She hefted her shoulders. ‘I probably caught it on some tree branch – oh well, no big deal, it’ll heal.’
‘Keep an eye on it, there’s a trace of blood there too.’
‘Thank you for caring.’ Casey gave an uneven smile which Carruthers returned, and then they both fell silent journeying back.
‘What will you do now, Marty?’ Casey prodded after a while. ‘There comes a time…’
‘I know what you’re going to say, but we were down here for a week, I may as well see it out.’
‘I’ll worry about you down here on your own, Marty,’ Casey said as they entered the hotel car park. ‘I’m going to have to be off. I need to be pushing on with “Stapleton’s demise – I really can’t wait to finish this one.’
‘Oh yes – Stapleton’s Demise. I’ll be following your progress with interest, once this is all over.’ Carruthers reflected on that. Casey’s dedication to her work was impressive; it really was good of her to travel down to him in his hour of need. It was a pity, that of late, Chelsey hadn’t followed her example.
Casey pulled up, placed a hand on Carruthers’ shoulder. ‘Marty, I think you should come straight back with me, leave this be and accept the inevitable. Chelsey’s abandoned ship, left
you for another – presumably male – get on with your life, love – show her it hasn’t ruined…’
‘How can I show her if I can’t find her!’ Carruthers sighed. ‘No – thanks for your help, Casey, but I can’t agree to that.’
He walked on alone to the hotel, entered his room and flung himself on the bed. He was beginning to doze when the phone rang. ‘This is reception, Mr. Carruthers – a police inspector Manners is here to see you.’
Carruthers experienced an involuntary intake of breath. ‘I’ll be right down.’