“Are you OK?” Justin sat in the driving seat of the police Peugeot, staring into her face, registering the scar, she guessed, yet afraid to bring it into the conversation. Outside, the world was completely opaque. Someone could have stood a yard from the car and never known they were there.
He touched the line on her cheek, running a single finger its length. “I didn’t know what to do. It was all so horrible.”
“Yes,” she replied and took his hand from her skin. “But it happened. And it’s over. You didn’t need to do anything. This is my battle. Mine.”
Something crackled on the radio in jacket pocket. He reached up and turned down the volume. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, you know.”
She lit a cigarette, half opened the window and blew the smoke out into the opaque cloud of fog. Old habits returning. It should have occurred to her, while she thought through matters in the nursing home outside Sevenoaks, that Justin would be in agony. “I’m sorry. I ought to have got a message to you somehow. I’m sorry. I just wasn’t ready to see you.”
“I didn’t mean that. I just didn’t understand what happened.”
“Join the club.” Would there come a day, she wondered, when could tell someone everything? Of Harry in the furnace? Mitch, with his newly-scarred cheek, exacting a terrible revenge? It was unrealistic to expect that kind of deliverance. The events of Beulah and the fast-cycling seasons seemed to conspire and envelope her in a strait-jacket of lies and deceits.
He folded his arms on his chest. “Alison, I don’t want to force you to say anything you don’t want. If you want to tell me something, do it in your own time. No ties. Nothing expected in return.”
She looked into his eyes, knew he meant every word, and stifled the urge to kiss him. “You’re a hero, Justin. Why are you hanging around a mad, old trout like me?”
“You called,” he replied with a weak grin.
“Ah yes.” She gave him a nice smile and didn’t dare to take this particular line of the conversation any further. The thick blanket of fog gave them an odd sensation of privacy. “I thought a lot when I was getting better. I had the space to do that and I need to tell you something, though you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Most people in Beulah are one way or another.”
“Nevertheless…” The moment seemed pivotal, for both of them. This was the start of a conversation she could never have with Miles. There was no guessing where it might lead. “They killed someone. On the night of the Burning Man. They built this big straw figure, put it in the bonfire and there was someone inside.”
He didn’t burst out laughing, which was something. He didn’t even look much surprised.
“Well?” she asked, to break the silence.
“I was sort of expecting it,” he admitted. “Sara told me about you finding something. A bone.”
“Hmmm.” She wished Sara could be a touch more circumspect at times.
“So where is it?”
“Gone. I came back from Sevenoaks and looked at the place where I left it. Somebody had been there. It could have been anybody. I don’t know.”
“Could you not be a little more forthright and tell me I’m out of my mind or something?”
He shuffled in the tiny driver’s seat of the car. “If that’s what you want. Is it?”
“No,” she replied firmly. “I want you to agree with me, say there is something going on here, and find out what the hell it is.”
“Well in that case, I need to know. Are you asking me as a friend? Or as the local plod?”
“That’s not a fair question.”
He gave her a chilly stare. “Oh, but it is. Because the answer depends on who I am. As the local plod I’d have to ask what evidence you have. And we both know the answer to that. None.”
She stared silently out into the fog. Justin was very on the ball. It was a mistake to think otherwise.
“As a friend,” he added quickly, “I’m with you all the way. Something about this perfect little place stinks to high heaven. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there. The nick have been looking at this place for one thing, not that they’ve let anything slip to me. I still think that fire at Paternoster was fishy too. Why the hell did Mitch run like that? How did it happen in the first place? And now you’re telling me something happened in that bonfire. I don’t know…”
“Justin,” she said emphatically. “Something did happen. I know. I saw it.”
“OK.” He tried to look sympathetic. But she wasn’t sure. Maybe some doubt still lurked there. “Let me be the first to say something’s up. Whether it amounts to murder I don’t know. But it’s there, written in John Tyler’s face. All of their faces. They’re waiting for something to happen. And sometimes I think…” He stopped, uncertain of himself.
“Go on,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s in your face too. I’m not stupid, except in a few understandable ways. There’s something here I’m not being told. I need you to be frank with me.”
Alison looked him in the face and said, as honestly as she could, “I can tell you what I know. Nothing else, unless I’m certain about it myself. I don’t want anyone else around here thinking I’m crazy. And I want to be sure it won’t hurt you as well.”
“I’m a big boy,” he said without thinking. Then, “What do you mean ‘as well’?”
She folded her arms and tried to think her way through these dangerous waters. “I mean there is a reason behind all this. A reason I’m here. A reason things happen to me. You have to let it lie at that for now. In the end, I promise, there’ll be no secrets between us.”
It was not the answer he wanted. “Let me understand exactly what you’re saying,” he continued. “You think that what happened to you wasn’t an accident? That someone was behind that too?”
She reached over and held his hands. “I’m not ready for this. It’s too painful and I can’t explain why that is.”
He looked deeply offended. “Dammit, if you don’t trust me, if I don’t know the truth, what’s the point?”
There was only one way. She leaned over in the car and kissed him slowly, chastely on the lips, touched his hair, and was taken aback by the sudden surge of electricity that ran through them. “I trust you, my boy,” she said. “More than anyone. Poor, naïve Miles. Sara even. But we have to do this one step at a time. And we have to be careful. We have to watch. And listen. And think. Like I said, there’s a reason, a mechanism to all this, and when we see that, we have them.”
His hair was longer, she realised. It felt soft and delightful underneath her fingers.
“And do I have you?”
He looked desperate. At that moment, she needed his help so badly. “I’m nearly ten years older than you, Justin. Damaged stock.”
“No. You’re the best. You’re…”
“The Queen of the May?” she asked, with a laugh, and felt like crying. No man had ever been this devoted to her. Justin was so special, and it couldn’t possibly work.
They sat in silence, his hand on her knee, staring out into the fog, and she toyed, for a moment, with the idea of moving across and straddling him, sitting above him, head crushed tight against the roof of the tiny police Peugeot, moving towards some slow, cathartic act of devotion.
Then he looked out of the side window and exclaimed, “Sod it.”
A dark figure had emerged from the gloom. It was wearing a trilby hat. A long walking stick waved in one hand. Justin wound down his window. “Morning, Sir Frank.”
The ancient, craggy face of Frank Wethered peered at them through the window. “Morning, Justin. Mrs Fenway. Bloody awful weather, eh?”
The two of them nodded glumly.
“Don’t know how they expect to practise cricket in this,” Wethered babbled. “Still, got to get their eye in for Monday. Big day, Beltane. I gather your husband will be playing.”
“So I hear,” she replied.
“Hope you’ll be there to watch that. I’m club president so I have to be, of course. Not that I’d miss it for all the tea in China.”
She tried to smile. “Me neither.”
“Well.” He doffed his trilby in a comical gesture. “Must be going. Leave you two to your own devices.”
“Thank you, Sir Frank,” Justin said icily, and they watched the old, frail figure disappear into the mist.
He looked at her, miserable and exposed again. “Well, that’s that. It’ll be all round the place by lunchtime. Village plod is shagging the townie woman again. And this time in uniform, in a lay-by.”
For some reason she could only find this amusing. The locals thought her crazy; why should she care what they see? “You might look a touch flattered.”
He wriggled awkwardly in his seat, an obvious case of priapic discomfort. “Oh, I’m flattered all right. But you know that. So where first?”
She beamed at him. “Beltane. We watch their rituals. We learn.”
“I’ll be in the thick of it,” he said miserably.
“Policing a village cricket match? Surely not.”
“No, they don’t need that. I’m playing. Got roped in to turn out for Wye. The desk sergeant runs the team. He’s a batsman short.”
Her head whirled. The thought of Miles and Justin facing each other across the vast, green expanse of the Minnis was deeply disconcerting. These were the two most important men there had ever been in her life. In a way she loved both. “How sweet,” she said. “You’ll be playing against Miles.”
“The demon fast bowler I suppose. Any tips?”
She tried to remember what Miles had said in the house. There could be no harm, no treachery, in passing on the comments. “His first three deliveries are good ones. After that, he goes to pieces. He says the smart move is to play safe at the beginning and knock the crap out of him at the end. Does that make sense?”
He looked naïvely grateful. “It could do. Thanks.”
She kissed him again and found the thought of the two of them locked together in the front seat of the car coming to the fore of her consciousness once more.
“Gotta go, Justin,” she said, and within the minute was striding through the thick, dense fog, back to Priory House.
(c) David Hewson 2012