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The Rose in Darkness
An Inspector Charlesworth Mystery
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
THE WIND SHRIEKED LIKE a demon, malignant, driving the rain before it across the sodden countryside through the starless night. Thunder and lightning seemed as one: with a crash like gunfire the heavens split open, flooding the blackness with a white flash that hung for a moment, blinding, to lose itself again in the pitchy dark. In the small Hertfordshire town as the car sped through, flooded streets and pavements gleamed wet beneath the blurred lamp-light; along the margins of the winding lanes the hedges bent all one way, yielding, resilient, to the whip of the gale. But above them, the trees creaked perilously, lashing free their branches of the still clinging leaves of an early autumn; and on the long, straight stretch that lies between Wren's Hill and the main road to London, a great elm, unsound at root and core, gave up its struggle and, with a splintering roar, toppled and fell—and lay with tossing branches, a giant in its death throes, across the narrow road.
The car came to a juddering halt, its streaming black bonnet half covered by a broken branch. Footbrake driven down almost into the floorboards, hands braced on the driving wheel, face blanched with shock, Sari Morne sat motionless and let the blessed stillness flow over her: stillness, but for the thudding of the rain on her rooftop, the high, shrill moaning of the wind ...
And saw through the forest of branches, bright lights approaching, halting, focused on the fallen tree.
Her first thought was one of terror. They've realised that they'd got ahead! They've turned and come back for me!
Somehow reverse her car, flee back the way she had come?
But what if they hadn't in fact been ahead? What if, retreating, she ran full tilt into them? And she thought of a white face upturned, peering out from the rain-spattered windscreen of the following car, flick-flick, flick-flicking across its blankness—of bloody hands outflung as though to grasp at her through the impermeable glass ... To stay? To go? Oh God, help me! she prayed. What shall I do?
But on the other side of the tree, a car door opened and a figure emerged and came towards her, forcing a way through the branches to the great dark trunk lying heavily across the road; and a voice called out something, words blown away by the wind—and yet with a note in them that, with a heart-stopping reassurance, she recognised.
A note of Englishness, of cool, half-humorous, public school Englishness—exasperated perhaps but still upper lip. Nothing frantic, nothing menacing, certainly nothing foreign about that only half-heard voice. Just a stranger, held helpless as she herself was held helpless, by the falling of the elm across their path.
She switched off the ignition, opened the door, staggered out into the darkness and the driving rain. The wind lifted her hat and she reached up and pulled it down, holding it with two fisted hands, so that the big brim almost met beneath her chin like a great black poke- bonnet. Forced her way as close as possible to him through the branches -on her side of the tree. Words came croaking across to her, shouted, blown away. 'Now what?'
'I must get by!' she cried and knew that her own voice was inaudible: screamed it out again, desperately, against the howling of the wind. I—must—get—by!'
For supposing they had been following behind her after all, were to catch up with her here by the fallen tree?
The voice yelled back, blown away, drowned by the hissing of the rain, the swish of wet leaves, the crackle of snapping twigs as the great elm settled. Silhouetted against his car's headlamps she could see the tall figure, collar turned up, gloved hands gripping the brim of a dripping wet hat, as she gripped her own. 'Not a hope! Not—a—hope!'
'But I must get past,' she wailed, terrified. 'I must! I must!'
The voice called back on a note of anxiety also: 'Me too!'
And of course, all in a moment she knew what to do. Simply change cars. 'Exchange— cars?'
'Exchange! Swap cars!'
Swap cars; and turn and go on, she to London, he to Wren's Hill or wherever he wanted to go. 'Change back—in the morning?'
She heard only snatches. He seemed to exclaim, first incredulous, then exultant. But he was not so careless, not so reckless, if you liked, as she was. 'What—make—?'
What the hell does it matter? she thought. We can change back tomorrow. Does he think I crouch all my life waiting for trees to fall, so as to pinch people's cars? What did it matter who had what kind of car? And if she lost the brand new Halcyon for ever, well, all right, what would that count against her safety, against escape from her pursuers? She shrieked, 'The new Cadmus. The Halcyon 3000.'
Voice blown away, blown away. But: 'Good lord! So have I!'
Nothing so very odd about that, it was the new car of the moment, immensely popular. 'Well, all right then. So neither of us has anything to lose.' Never mind whether or not he heard her; she struggled back to her own car, blown and buffeted, reeling as she walked, clinging to her hat, the rain sluicing down on each side of it in sheets of silver. It took an effort to yank open the door against the tug of the wind, but she managed to lean in, grab up her handbag from the passenger seat, let the door slam shut. Nothing else in there: a rug, a few odds and ends stuffed into the glove compartment, no doubt, but she couldn't think what—the car was so new, it had had no time to get filled with the elegant clutter any car of hers usually held. He had evidently done the same, for she saw the blur of a light coat as he leaned in at his own offside front door. He came round and stood in the light of his headlamps, seemed to be hunched over something; she guessed that he was sorting a card from his wallet or writing down his address. I suppose I must do the same, she thought, and scrabbled in her bag for a piece of paper, found only a folded toilet tissue, printed laboriously with a ballpoint pen the name of her block of flats: HEATHCLIFFE HEIGHTS in groggy capitals and HAMPSTEAD. She struggled back to the tree. He met her there, bawling into the maelstrom, gesturing to his right. They moved along, one on either side of the great dark bole till she saw that by stooping and crawling, they could in fact fight a way through, under the main body of the tree where a broken branch lifted it three or four feet clear of the surface of the road. He did what he could to help her, forcing aside the smaller branches that bent and whipped back against her progress, and she emerged at last and stood, head bent against the wind to keep her hat from flying off, as she beat and scraped at the tawny leather of her coat, brushing off wet leaves and broken twigs, flicking her hands to shake away the water with a jangle of bracelets inside the cuff of her glove. 'My God, what a night!'
'Extraordinary,' he mouthed back at her, 'having—the—same—cars!'
'Yes, well....' No time for pleasantries, she longed only to be gone. She held out the paper to him, its ink already blurred by the rain. He handed in return a scrap of paper, prodded with a gloved forefinger, tan leather turned to a sludgy blackness. 'Given you—my 'phone. Get in touch—tomorrow?'
She almost snatched the paper from him, shoving it carelessly into her pocket. 'All right, yes, well, I've got to go.' If her enemies had been behind her, now they would be held up by the fallen tree. If they were ahead—if they were waiting for her somewhere ... Well, at least, she thought, I'm no worse off than I was before. And it occurred to her with relief that she would still be driving a car whose controls she was used to. But ... She shouted into the wind: 'How do we turn?'
He caught at least the word 'turn'. He gestured back the way he had come. 'Farm entrance. Only a short way. Reverse into it.'
'OK.' She did not wait to learn how he himself proposed to manage. If we knew about the farm gate, then he must be familiar with this road; in such weather, he could never just casually have observed it. But anyway, she couldn't care. Get into the car, back it, turn it, step on the gas: get home, get home!
She prayed that Rufie would be in. The whole evening had been hideous; she needed his warmth, his affection, his ever passionate interest in all that might befall her. Dear Rufie, beloved Rufie, the perfect companion, the perfect chum! 'Oh, my God, my poor dovey darling!' Rufie would say when he heard about the white face peering out at her from the little black car following, about the fall of the tree, the terror lest her pursuers had shot ahead of her after all while she was in the pub and might be waiting for her somewhere beyond the tree. 'Oh, my poor dovey darling!' She prayed, she prayed that when she got home at last, Rufie would be there. If she got home.
And he was there. In the vast tarmac'd yard seven storeys below her own window, the planners had arranged a car park for the tenants of the flats—several long rows of open sheds, no walls, just peaked roofs rather dreadfully thatched to match in with the pseudo-Tudo of the rest of the block. You drove in from one open side and parked in any space that happened to be empty, simply driving forward and out when you were ready to go. By custom, many tenants adopted their own places in one or other of the sheds, much as elderly clubmen may appropriate certain chairs. And in his accustomed space—there was Rufie's car. She drove in next to it, leapt out and made a dash through the rain to the blessed light and warmth of the entrance hall and up to the flat. 'Oh Rufie, thank God, thank God you're in!'
Only just that blessed minute and still very cold and shivery from being out in that horrible storm. But he'd got lonely and bored, his sketches had all gone wrong, he'd rung up Etho and gone round. And now he'd had a jolly stiff brandy and she must have the same; and he peeled off her soaking clothes—so relaxing with Rufie who didn't care whether one had anything on or not—wrapped her in a warm dressing-gown and poured her out a drink. 'Oh, no darling, you know I never do; and in fact I did have one, on the way home, at a pub.'
'Well, you must have another, Sari, you look flaked-out, honestly you do. So now, darling, tell from the beginning. You were followed from the cinema?—You should have let one of us come with you.'
'What, and see me in my one poor fill-um? I couldn't. It was better to be alone.'
'And they followed you from there?'
'Oh Rufie, this dreadful face staring out at me, peering out at me, this horrible white face sort of upturned, as if the—the person was urging on the driver, pointing ahead to my car—!'
'There were two people then?'
'I could only see this one face, well, this one white blur—to the left of the driving seat. And the—hands....' But she could not bring herself to tell him about the blood-stained hands. 'What's so frightening is that this is a new lot. I've never seen this—this awful white face before. And a different car, a little black mini. They always do use black cars.'
Black cars, very ordinary and inconspicuous. 'Perhaps it's just that you've never noticed; millions of minis about, you just wouldn't think of it.' He said carefully, knowing his own temerity: 'You're sure? I mean, driving through a storm, people do press forward, peer ahead at the road....'
'Oh, Rufie,' she said wearily, 'don't give me that again! Was I really being followed?—yes, I was being followed. How do I know I was being followed?—I know because I'm used to it, they've been watching me, following me for all these years, I know every turn and trick. And why am I being followed?—because they want the ring. And they're ready to kill me, if they don't get the ring.'
The marriage ring. The huge, splendid, glittering marriage ring that he had given her four years ago—that huge, splendid, glittering young man, Prince Aldo, heir to the dukedom of the tiny republic of San Juan el Pirata, of magnificence and wealth untold.
They were ready to kill her, to get back the ring.CHAPTER 2
SHE HAD DRIVEN DOWN that evening to Wren's Hill in Hertfordshire. They had a rather chichi little cinema club down there, which specialised in rare out-of-date films; and they were showing, for just that one Saturday, one of the rarest of them all—Sari Morne in The Spanish Steps.
A fair enough evening when she had started out; not till she was tearing along the country roads in her lovely new Halcyon had the storm begun to threaten, the clouds hanging dark and low, blotting out the light of an autumn evening, the air very heavy and still. If it broke before the doors opened, she thought, there would be few others turning out from their comfortable telly-sets for the pleasure of seeing, perhaps for the last time, this the last film—the first and the last film—ever to be made by Sari Morne. Sari Morne the bright star, flashing overnight into instant fame. Sari Morne, falling star, vanishing as unpredictably, never to be seen again. Or only in occasional revivals such as this, of a picture now four years old—four years old and yet unforgotten by the masses who had created for themselves an image, only to lose it the next moment behind a veil of obscurity, never explained away.
Even to herself—never quite explained away. Of course at the end, things had been—difficult. And then she'd been out of the scene for a bit, certainly. But even so ... Just no more offers, that was all. Options with the studio not taken up, money paid over as per (not very generous) contract—but no work required. She had badgered Ethelbert about it, he still worked for the company; but Etho just shrugged and said that after all, darling, she had left them rather flat, hadn't she?—all those scenes to be cooked in afterwards, with stand-ins in huge hats—just fortunate that the film had been set in sunny Italy and they could get away with wide straw brims. 'You were so naughty, Sari, rushing off with your princeling all the time, knowing you were needed....'
But she knew it had been nothing to do with Aldo really; Aldo was now long gone. She'd behaved badly to the company, but that didn't mean that she hadn't grown up since then; she wouldn't behave badly again. So—? Not much talent, perhaps; she was prepared to grant them that. But a beauty incomparable, a 'differentness', a persuasiveness, a charm—she knew it herself, could not fail to know, though she accepted it without vanity, simply a fact: a warmth and a humour and a charm, all the notices had said it—and the beauty.
Beautiful, all the critics had said—and something so much more than beautiful.
Vi Feather, sitting behind her grating, scooping in the money—for there had been quite a little crowd drifting into the Wren's Hill cinema after all—had recognised her immediately. 'Well, I never! It's you!'
'Good heavens, Vi, what on earth are you doing here?'
The small, pinched, raddled face, the greedy red-tipped claws, all a-sparkle with chippy little pretence-diamond rings, automatically closed down on the pound notes as she chattered, slapping down tickets, shoving back the change beneath her grille of metal bars. 'I chucked it, dear, soon after you—left. Glamour they think it is, but there's not much glamour, not reely, not in dressing: running from one to the other, except where it's the star and you don't often get a chance of that—keeping all that stuff in your mind, Continuity always after you.' A hand passed into Sari's range of vision, plonking down a note and Vi flicked back the ticket fastidiously, lest the brown skin touch her own. ('I can't be doing with these Paks, their nails so pale at the ends of their fingers!) Well, so I got a chance of this job so I came down here; pays all right and I do a bit of cleaning as well, if you want to know,' said Vi, daring Sari to think less of her for it. 'And then Dad died so I thought I better move in with Mum, save rent and all; Camden Town, we are—'
Excerpted from The Rose in Darkness by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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