Slow Poison - Chapter Twenty-Three
The King’s Head
Becky was framed in the doorway to the stairs, Alan’s arm around her shoulders. The others in the bar looked on with quiet concern.
“You know Trim?”
“Well no. I know the Trims of course. They are my neighbours. Sometimes looked after Sarah. They had her when we were in Amsterdam.”
“But did you know the son?”
“Well, no. Yes, I think I met him once at some party of other. Their anniversary. I spoke to him, I think. But I didn’t know him.”
“Was this Trim who had been making calls to you?”
Becky looked at Alan. He reached for her hand and held it lightly.
“Yes. I think so.”
“Any other communication?”
“I had received some odd things. After the funeral.”
“What kind of things?”
“Bits of metal. I don’t know what they were. I think he may have sent flowers.”
“Do you recognise this?”
Barnes pulled a small envelope from his inside pocket and lay it on the table before them. He lifted a corner and the mall diamond pendant rolled out, resting at the edge of the newspaper.
Becky gasped, rising to her feet as though to escape the sight of the jewel. Alan caught her as she fell, limp and lifeless, lost in another dead faint.
“I’m sorry about that. I really am.” said Barnes.” I had no idea it would have such a devastating effect upon her. Bloody stupid of me.”
Alan felt like punching Barnes, but he held Becky and tried to bring her back to life with light kisses and soft words.
“Do you know the significance of this?” Barnes asked Alan, holding the diamond up to the light.
“Not anything that should have this effect.”
“Well no. She thought she had lost it in the Hotel on the night of the murder.” Alan lowered his voice.” Where did you get it?”
“It was delivered by special delivery a couple of days ago.”
“Where from? Was there a note, or something? Did someone just find it? What?”
“The envelope was posted in Stonehouse. There was no message. Just the one word. Muffin.”
“Oh, Jesus, it’s him.” said Alan, turning as white as a ghost.
“Becky told me a few things. There was a card at the funeral. It said “Muffin.”
“Did you know this Trim?”
“I hoped you might.”
“Don’t you have any idea where they are?”
“Well, not really.”
“Surely his parents know where he lives.”
“You couldn’t know. His mother, Mrs. Trim died of a stroke on the night that Sarah went missing. The father has no idea where Trim was living. He thought Cheltenham, but he has no idea.”
Becky was conscious, but could not open her eyes. She heard the words. The sounds drifted through the spongy mass of her nightmare.
“Sir,” said the pilot, “we should be going.” He nodded in the direction of the window.
Ten minutes later they were ready. Becky and Alan swathed in bright yellow cycling capes, heads down in souwesters, following Barnes and the others as they climbed the low wall. Becky was numb to both the cold and the impending tragedy. Alan held her tight and marched her forward with an anxious sense of purpose. He could seethe others below the bright rim of his hat. They plodded ahead into the wind, into the snow tracks they had made an hour before.
Alan had some idea of their general direction. His father had brought him here when he had first joined the firm. Bellamy senior had been stationed at the base before the war. The King’s Arms had been a popular watering hole for the commissioned officers, but there was always a contingent of privates and sergeants ranged around the bar in the saloon. Bellamy senior himself had joined the family firm when the war was a year behind, in Forty-Six.
As the small party trudged on through the deep snow Alan remembered some of the vivid stories his father had related over gin and tonics in the King’s Arms. Stories of Forty-Seven, with its snowbound prisoners tunnelling a passage out.
Becky pushed forward, taking each step with the unknowing action of an automaton. The pilot turned and shouted something at them through the snow, but only the wind could be heard. He had seen the outline of the camp gates and thought they might be glad to share the news.
“I DON’T BLOODY LIKE THIS!” Barnes shouted to Wheeler.
“I DON’T FANCY GOING BACK UP IN THIS.” Wheeler shouted. But there was little alternative now.
The interior of the cabin was as cold as the open parade ground. The wails and moans whined at them from broken windows. Alan looked for the flagpole, but it was gone, and its metal base was well hidden beneath the ice. The pilot clambered aboard his craft and leaned out to help Becky. Alan led her into the cabin, followed by Barnes and Wheeler. With the door closed against the elements, there was a brief silence, almost an intake of breath, before the rotor blades began to slice at the falling snow. There was little else that could be heard when the revolution of the blades began to slice at the falling snow the pilot was belted in, his helmet and microphone in place. The craft lurched suddenly and they were airborne, the wind pulling them to the south. The pilot compensated quickly for the strong winds and the helicopter rose noisily above the camp and into the cloud. Becky sat huddled against Alan. Thankfully for her, the noise was too intense for conversation. There was nothing she could think of to say. There were questions, so many questions, but there was no one here that could answer them.
Radio contact was difficult until the helicopter had begun the aerial tumble over the ridge of the hill chain. Without compass reading and the advanced onboard radar, the journey might have developed into yet one more tragic coincidence for the tabloids to exploit.
“Better send an ambulance down to the playing fields, sir.”
The radio operator who had taken the message of imminent landed reported to the duty sergeant.
“Barnes on his way back, is he? Better get an interview room ready down at the Centre.”
“I’ll radio through, sir.”
“Did he pick up the mother okay?”
“I don’t know, sir, the contact was very bad.”
“This bloody snow”
There was an ambulance standing by when the helicopter touched down. Janet and Glyn were at the Centre already. They had been there for several hours, talking to anyone who seemed to be in authority. They had no idea of the airlift, but picked up the buzz of excitement as the ambulance arrived.
“Oh, no, Glyn. you don’t think they’ve found her?”
He had no answer for her question. He pulled her to him and held on tight. The ambulance men shuffled in, pausing to stamp the snow from their boots at the door.
“Have they found the girl?”
“The girl? Oh, no, mate. We were just told to stand by.”
Ten minutes or so passed before the drone could be heard. Glyn looked around to see if the journalists were still huddled in their corner, but they seemed to have gone. There were newspapers strewn over the trestle tables along the wall, all bearing the same two photograph somewhere or other, with headlines in thick black type.
The halogen beam of the helicopter played around the room as it came in to land. The ambulance men hurried out, bent low to avoid the overhead rotors. Glyn and Janet watched numbly as the small group approached the Centre.
“It’s Becky.” Janet mouthed quietly.
“And Bellamy. Now don’t say anything.” Glyn warned her.
“As if I would.”
Becky had waived the help of the ambulance men for Alan’s arms. He held her close to him as they entered the Centre. Becky blinked dazedly in the strange calm of the hall.
“Oh Glyn, she looks like death.”
Neither Becky nor Alan had yet seen them. Becky was near to collapse by the time Alan had brought her top a chair, removed first his own creaking oilskin and then Becky’s. Janet hesitated, and then she marched over to where the incoming group were seated.
“Becky, oh Becky, I’m so sorry.”
Becky looked up at her, unsure for a second or two. Janet threw her arms around Becky’s shoulder and held her.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” she sobbed.
Glyn followed Janet over. He looked at Alan and felt at once how close they had become. A man could tell.
“Alan, thanks for looking after her.” Glyn said, extending his hand.
Alan reciprocated and gripped Glyn’s hand firmly.
“It’s a bad business.” Alan said.” Do they know anything yet?”
“Nothing. Well, they don’t know where the bastard’s taken her.”
“Did you know him? Do you know any reason why he might do this?”
“Not really.” Glyn replied.” He went to the Tech school. I went to Marling. I knew him by sight.”
“But why would he do this. Was he a nutter?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
Janet was still oblivious to the vast tapestry that was unfurling if anyone could begin to see the whole. Glyn was afraid of the threads he held in his own hands. The possibilities were staggering.
“Didn’t you know him?” Glyn asked.” he was nearer your age than mine.”
“I don’t know. Not by name. I haven’t seen a photograph yet.”
Glyn pulled him away from Becky’s side, his arm around his shoulder. He let him over to the scattering of newspapers, from Saturday, the Sunday’s too. Glyn fanned them out. The Sun had the clearest, largest spread. The headline; HEARTBREAK KID MISSING!
Alan went cold. Colder than ice. A heartbeat rang in his ears. Somewhere, far away, he heard a voice. It was his own.
“Hudson! Oh god. I know where he is. I know where he is. I know exactly where he is.”
Glyn stared at him, deciphering codes. He looked around, searching the faces for someone to call out to.
The Cotswold Cottage
He longed for the deep bath he had thought of. The stairs proved more of a challenge than he had anticipated. Each step a painful movement.
“Jesus!” he spat out, wincing with the effort.
His whole body felt broken and damaged. Flu. It must be. It had to be. It couldn’t be anything else. No.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to have a bath.”
Trim slid the bathroom door shut, suddenly too aware of his nakedness. The scalding water softened the goose-bumps, eased the tension slightly, but the migraine remained, the steam dripping in rivulets from the coloured bottles. Where was the satisfaction. There was only an uncomfortable feeling of frustration. Why did fucking Fred have a fucking daughter. He thought of Lenny. Attempting erection. He could usually do it. Nothing. It had been days since the last time. He looked down, parting the bubbles and could only see the swelling of the scar tissue curving around the wrinkled skin of the uneven sac. None of the usual images could harden the flesh. Nothing helped. Neither pleasure nor pain. There was only panic.
Lenny. How could it have been Lenny. They had been so careful. It must have been Lenny. When? And then he knew. Suddenly. Instantly. Peebles. There had been a headache. Not like this, but a headache all the same. There had been a ‘you go to bed, I’ll get some stuff.’ And he had. And he had. But there had been so much time in between. ‘All the chemists were closed. I had to go to four.’
There had been a lorry driver. They had both noticed him. In the snug. Had craved the tattooed arms, the sweaty length, the bit of rough. Jesus Christ. He should have locked the bastard up sooner. Why had it been Lenny back there in the dark, with the soft dripping of the viaduct overflow, the river boat lights reflecting in the oil slick street? How could he plan the sweet longed for vengeance with this happening? Where was the pleasure in this, he wondered. But they would all suffer; the Husband, the Mother, the Wife, the Lover, the Girl - and you, Old Man, will you know, will you know and be avenged? Avenged for all your pain and loss. For all those years. All those times. When suffering never ceased.
Oh god. It would be easier to dig out the Mercedes and slither down into the valley, drop the girl at Woodcock Lane and drive down to Clevedon. That would make a fitting finale. A stroll along Clevedon pier. The planks missing. The mud sucking the body down, down with the sand weevils. But the Pier was long gone, washed away with a winter tide, out beyond the bird infested islands scarring the Bristol Channel like skimming stones. Trim heaved a sigh and lay back in the water with his head resting on the tiled surround. The low crackle of the television filtered up through the silence.
Den was more than surprised to see Kramer sitting in the windowless interview room. He sat wheezing in a chair studying the graffiti on the wall behind the chair Den would use.
“Don’t you ever take a fuckin’ day off?”
“Hmmm? You must speak slower. I cannot understand English so well.”
“Oh, leave it.”
“Are you well? Are they treating you well?” Kramer whispered.
“Yeah. I’d rather be here than fuckin’ Coventry. I bin watching the tube. It’s a fuckin’ disaster area. The whole fuckin’ UK!”
Kramer seemed not to understand.
“The fuckin’ snow! Don’t you watch the fuckin’ news?”
“I watch only the Netherlands programmes. We only have a little snow here and further in the North.”
“Well, I wouldn’t fuckin’ know, would I?”
“Has your defence attorney been to visit with you?”
“Few days ago. I can’t fuckin’ remember.”
Den pulled out a pack of rolling tobacco.
“Hang on. Yeah. I had to look at some photo. The other geezer in the bar. The one what followed us.”
“Your knife. You did have it with you the whole time?”
Den looked down at his hands. The cigarette was finished. He jammed it between his lips and looked up at Kramer.
“Yeah. What do you mean? Hang on a bit.”
He searched his memory. The memories of the night brought a dull ache throbbing in the back of his throat.
“I dunno. I remember when I was with the prossie that me jeans felt lighter when they dropped. The knife was heavy, see. But I dunno. I was too pissed. Why?”
Den took a plastic lighter from his shirt pocket and lit the cigarette.
“Do you ever take glue? Adhesives?”
“What? Sniffing” like?”
“Nah, not me mate. Not since I was a nipper. Does yer fuckin’ head in, that stuff.”
Kramer was amused at the boy’s indignation. He looked plump. Prison life obviously suited him.
“Any road, why all the fuckin’ questions? Wos goin’ on?”
“There are still questions to be asked. To be answered.”
“Well go on then.”
“There is nothing more for now. I will be seeing you again.”
Den hovered, waiting like a piccolo for his tip. None came. The guard did not hear Kramer’s call, and so Kramer opened the door, waiting until the guard came for Den before he picked up his small briefcase, following the two men to the reception area. Den was led away without further exchange.
“Do you have a quiet place where I can make a call?” Kramer asked someone.
“This way, sir.”
“I was just thinking about you.” said Koning breathlessly.
“I’ve seen the O’Rourke lad.”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Go ahead. What’s happening?”
Koning listened to the developments through half a bottle of Scotch, building and rebuilding a case for appeal. Adequate doubt, sufficient case for doubt - phrases buzzed around his head. Fingerprints, a name even. The kid might be damn well innocent after all.
“We’ve got Trim back for you, chief.”
“Oh, how is he?”
“In a bit of a state, I’m afraid. You know about his wife?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Shall I bring him in?”
Barnes pulled a cigarette from his almost empty pack, lit it, drew the smoke hard and replied.
“Yes, and bring some tea or something.”
The husband was led in by the constable.
“I wish you didn’t have to be here, but I’m afraid I do have to ask you some more questions.”
Trim sat down, but Barnes was not sure whether Trim had heard him. He sat looking down at his hands. Barnes offered him a cigarette and brought Trim to life. Barnes held out a lighter to the trembling cigarette.
“This is a bloody rum do. I can’t take it all in.”
He sat opposite Barnes, smoking. An old dried fruit of a man.
“Can you tell me something about your son’s movement’s, Mister Trim?”
There was a brief pause as the words sank in.
“He weren’t my son’
Barnes waited. Both men drew on their cigarettes. Then the husband continued.
“I wasn’t his dad, see. I met the missus when he was three or four. We never married. Hated me, he did. Wouldn’t let me near the hospital when he had his accident.”
“When he was a kid. Wasn’t the same after that. Serve the little sod right.”
“What kind of accident?”
“Got run over by a motor bike. Turned him, I reckon. Couldn’t have had kids anyway, not after the accident. I hope you find him and string him up. She were with us when her dad was killed. Oh god, at least he won’t touch her. You know. He won’t do that.”
Barnes listened patiently, replenishing the spent cigarettes and crushing the empty pack
“When did you last see him?”
“He drove off to the panto. We stayed at home and watched a film”
He hid his face in his hands and shook uncontrollably in his chair. Trim wailed and there was nothing that Barnes could do.
Others remembered. The girl in the chip shop came forward. She had recognised the photograph, but, no, she had not seen the little girl through the misty windows of the shop. The attendant at the garage remembered, brought the receipt with him, the time and the date printed above the VAT. But the Mercedes had not yet been found, had not been seen again. But there were snowy mounds along each kerbside that might have been anything from a Mini to a Rolls.
Knowing the destination made the journey none the easier. The flight groaned agonisingly slowly on, the rotor blades shuddering through their bones, their teeth clenching and jarring in the metallic noise. Becky leaned heavily against Alan, ghoulish holograms conquering her mind, drawing involuntary gasps from deep within her. She could not wipe the horror away, could not clean the slate. She could see her baby; broken and torn, bruised and bloodied, disfigured and lifeless, every second that dragged by, another second too late. She had seen her man ebb away, no amount of prayer or pleading able to halt time, able to heal, able to reverse the violent forces of weightlessness, the gravitational pull of Heaven, or Hell. So Becky clung to Alan like a little child, small and frightened. Like Sarah in the dark, carried home from Auntie Jan’s, or Mrs. Trim’s. Oh god, no, no, NO.
Sarah would be safe. Sarah must be safe. These nightmares were just that. These nightmares could not exist beyond the mind. Human beings, in all their many guises, surely did not have it in them to become the architects of such black dreams. Surely not. There was a high-pitched ringing in her ears. The phone. Who? What? ‘Is Sarah asleep yet?’
The Cotswold Cottage
Sarah wished she were asleep. She wished Trim had taken her to Mummy. Trim sat on the leather couch, staring ahead of him, unblinking. Sarah watched him for as long as she could and his eyelids did not move. She tried it herself and gave up after a few seconds. Maybe Trim was dead. If Trim was dead then she would be able to put on the duffel coat and open the door and call for help. If Trim was dead she would telephone Mummy. No, she couldn’t. She couldn’t remember the number. What was the number? No, if Trim was dead then Mummy would come. He blinked. Then he was still again. Dead again. He might have been carved from a cold slab of marble, or ice.
Inside Trim, behind the glacier eyes, the brain raced with kaleidoscopic thought, a babbling cascade of voices drowning out the locust wings.
“Everything to your liking, boys. Eat it all up now.”
Spluttering laughter behind a hand. Cold and greasy bacon for the dog.
“More tea, boys?”
Had there been ghosts in the room? The spectre had never left him. Had he packed the ghosts with the razor and towels?
“Look, you can see right down to the river. Let’s go now! Come on, race you!”
Like a child he had been. And they had run through the streets that led to the river, run and hopped, their bright clothes causing scandal in the prim boarding houses along the route.
“Kiss me now, no one will see.”
The children on the bridge had seen and had shouted and hooted and whistled across the broad river. Over the babbling surface hung another living layer; the gnats and mosquitoes, hovering in glistening patches like sunlight.
“Fuck them! Come on, this is our day. We’ll never be here again. Fuck them.”
There was a slow amble back to the hotel. Unobtrusive, discreet, eyes for no one else, quiet and direct, filling the small room with soul prints that eased gently between the seams of the faded wallpaper. And the poppers had broken all the seals. The intake of breath and amyl nitrate leaving no door unopened. The sun had set and the neon welcome lights on the small basement disco had begun to glow before their shower. The darkness should have hidden them, but the black-light highlighted Lenny’s white jeans and T-shirt so that he became the focal point of the room, shimmering with the purity of a transfigured saint.
He shielded his eyes from the searing explosion of light that devastated the cottage, crawling into every crevice and crack. The light of the best high, the light of Hiroshima, the light of Bedlam, the light that hung over the gates of Hell. There was a scream, loud and shrill, almost drowning out the locust swarm, the beating of their giant wings. Sarah screwed her eyes up tight, but she could not shut out the light at all. It seemed to pass right through her. There were no shadows. The light flattened all before it into two dimensions.
Sarah felt her body shudder and urine trickled down into the hollow of the armchair. There was a rush of sound that began to emerge from beneath the thick layers of light. There was a deep guttural throbbing accompanied by a high-pitched whine. There was the sudden crack of a double-barrelled shotgun, from inside the cottage to without. There were shouts and whistles and the brittle bird song of shattering glass. But there was nothing to see beyond the windows. The view across the snow had disappeared, replaced by the light.
Standing at the window, almost transparent in the light, was Trim. Sarah could almost see him, could almost hear him, cracking his knuckles at the holocaust, snapping his fingers to the rhythm of the beating wings, clicking his tongue in annoyance. He fired repeatedly into the void before him, the migraine competing with the halogen sunburst.
Then night fell for a second time with near silence, and there might have been stars; tiny points of light, red and green, some silver, some the amber of Belisha beacons - low stars hedge-high beyond the hidden Victorian wall.
There were several escape routes from the cottage. Several ways out. There was a front door. There was a back door. There was a loose Gillette in the bathroom. There were the three remaining sachets and the bubble pack of Paracetamol. There were the cartridges. And there was Sarah.
He turned, and their eyes met. His - pale and distant - hers, full and black and deep. She watched Trim turning. He watched her watching him. How small she was. She already looked like a ghost, her eyes ringed with sleepless blue. The ghost of Fred, the spirit of Lenny. She watched Trim turning, watched the unseeing, unblinking eyes focus in on her. Sarah lost her breath at the touch of his fingers upon her arm. He was there so quickly, holding her. His fingers burst small capillary veins, flooding the epidermis. His fingers twisted the strands of her hair, pulling her head back, tilting her face up toward his own. Sarah could not breathe, not yet. There was a pain as a deep-rooted lock of hair came out in a bloodied hank to fall upon the tile. The scream broke loose, freeing her from his grip.
Trim came to, his body running with sweat. He looked around him, looked at the child. She cowered in the damp skin of the armchair, exuding strange animal smells, cowering like prey. She watched him fill his pockets with the brass and blue cartridges. He grabbed the shotgun and violently smashed at the overhead light with the butt, sending the room into deeper darkness. And, still fully conscious, she felt his arm roughly circle her waist and lift her. He was breathing hard, like a dog in heat, as he bumped his way up to the first bedroom, hitting the light switch from habit, throwing the cell into a cube of shadows, and she felt herself falling backwards onto the hard army cot.
“Stay there!” he snarled.
Sarah’s little legs would have carried her nowhere now. She was not even sure if this was the same man. His hair was matted and uncombed, his face unshaven, the beard darker than the dark-rooted blond of his hair. There was a smear of her blood across his cheek. She screwed up her eyes and tried hard to think of a prayer.” Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild, look upon a little child.”
“Shut up! SHUT UP!”
Sarah whimpered quietly, but she had made no sound. Trim was shouting at the locusts that filled his head, stripping his mind of memory and cells and sense.
“STOPPIT! FOR CHRISSAKES STOPPIT!”