©1986 by Michael Skywood Clifford
“Are you absolutely certain Zena’s disappeared?”
“Yes,” replied Detective Inspector Hanson.
July sunlight scorched through the large bay window illuminating the potted aspidistra, casting long dark shadows on the victorian floral carpet. An adjacent black vase fronted with Japanese characters was crammed with honesty and dried flowers. A ticking grandfather clock, regency wallpaper, an old bookcase, and the scent of potpouri added to create a stifling atmosphere in Maddy Quebric’s front room.
Maddy’s head was not unlike a bulldog’s: broad and pug-nosed with moist yet penetrating eyes. Her pudding-like figure leaned back on the hessian settee and gazed out the window, listening to the hum of traffic. She rubbed her lips pensively and then looked back at the two policemen facing her.
“And Zena didn’t turn up for her GCSE cookery exam at school, yesterday?” she asked.
“She didn’t,” said Constable Kean.
“That’s odd. She really liked cooking,” said Corky, sitting in the corner, twirling her ringlets around her fingers.
“Could you describe this strange medallion you found in her room,” asked Maddy.
Detective Hanson sat up slowly and wiped the perspiration from his eyelids as if he was trying to wake up. “I should be asking the questions, young lady, and you should be answering them, not the other way round,” he protested, squinting. “I’d like you to go through it all again. Hopefully, this time you’ll remember her visit more clearly. Let’s hope so. I’m told that you’ve previously shown some skill at police work: so far you’ve remembered nothing at all.”
Maddy Quebric averted her eyes and contemplated her knee caps for a moment. She didn’t much care for sourpuss here who had the charm and expressive qualities of a dead crocodile. He must be a newcomer at Charles Street Police Station; she had never met him before.
“At what time did Dorothy Brent and Zena Saxby call here on Tuesday?” he asked.
“It was after school – it was about 3.45.” explained Maddy, “I’d seen Zena around before but I didn’t know her. Dorothy introduced me to her. She was pleasant enough, but, as I said, quiet. She just browsed through a magazine. Occasionally she made the odd comment about clothes or things in the magazine. She also scanned though some of my books on the shelf. Dorothy and Zena left about 4.40, at the same time. That’s it.”
Constable Kean mopped the sweat from his neat beard with his hand and loosened his tie.
Corky, fidgeting on her chair, asked Hanson if he would go through it all again.
He sighed again.
“Briefly, yesterday morning,” he began, “Zena Saxby’s mother arrived back home from her Spanish holiday. When she got back to her bungalow she found things were not as they should be. Zena’s bedroom window was wide open, her clothes were in a dishevelled heap at the bottom of the wardrobe, her drawer contents had been emptied on the floor, and her perfume bottles and other things had been swept off the dressing table onto the carpet. The bedroom was a complete mess and yet, oddly, Zena’s bed didn’t appear to have been slept in.
“Even if Zena hadn’t been by nature a tidy girl, which she was, Mrs. Saxby would have been rightly alarmed. She phoned the school but was informed that Zena hadn’t attended that day at all, despite her exams, so she rang the police. We looked over the bungalow, then we visited the school, and also made other inquiries. It appears that you and Dorothy Brent were the last people to see her on Tuesday when she came here.”
“And the medallion you mentioned?” asked Maddy.
“You’re determined to know about the medallion aren’t you? Well..,” said Hanson scratching at his nose as if treasure was buried beneath it, “We found it on the bedroom floor. Zena’s mother had never seen it before, although it could be Zena’s. Its a voodoo-like charm made of ebony on a beaded necklace. We also found some black hair on the window catch. We’ve sent that over to forensic.”
“You haven’t mentioned that before,” said Maddy.
“No – and I haven’t mentioned the footprints in Mrs. Saxby’s garden either. Due to the rain last week they have recorded well. Now these footprints are odd.”
“Why?” asked Maddy.
“I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, if you just hold your horses, madam,” said Hanson obviously vexed at being continually interrupted. “A very narrow muddy path called Haystack Lane leads up from the canal past the bottom of Mrs. Saxby’s garden. A trail of footprints led from the canal and follow along this path. After fifty yards or so the trail – for no apparent reason – suddenly leaves the path goes over a stile and into a field and completely encircles a barn. Once around the barn the footprints return to the stile and again appear in Haystack Lane. The footprints continue along the lane until they reach the stile at the bottom of Zena Saxby’s garden. They go over this, travel up the garden and finish under Zena’s window at the back of the bungalow.”
Maddy wished she had her penguin notebook handy to jot down a few notes.
“And there’s another set of smaller footprints. These come from the front of the bungalow, go around the east side of it, and then go across the lawn to Zena’s bedroom window.”
“You couldn’t go through it once more, could you?” said Corky, fanning her face with her hand. She was hot and quite bewildered.
“Not again, I’m afraid. Now, how well did you know Zena?” Hanson asked her.
“I’m at the same school,” Corky said. “I saw her around a bit. We never spoke. I heard that her mum won the pools a couple of years ago. Err…I knew she liked Home Economics. I don’t really know much else.”
Hanson turned to Maddy, “When Zena came round on Tuesday did your mother or father talk to her?”
“They weren’t here; They’re on holiday. They won’t be back ’til Sunday.”
“Okay. I see. Right, we’ll go through it all again. Tell me all about everything that happened from the moment Dorothy Brent and Zena Saxby called.”
For another twenty minutes Hanson picked at Maddy’s memory with increasing irritability. Eventually he pushed himself up from the armchair, walked over and distractedly looked out of the bay window into the street. The sunlight grazed his pitted skin into cratered relief.
“Right,” he said after a prolonged silence, “A couple of points before I leave.
“You, Ms. Quebric, have some reputation for being something of a fifth form Sherlock Holmes, don’t you? I am informed that you provided helpful information about the Thurlaxton School fire last year. It was an unusual case and credit where credit is due. Very good. Nevertheless I don’t need to tell two intelligent girls like you two that it would not be a good idea to get involved with this. Zena’s disappearance, as likely, has a simple explanation. Okay? Nevertheless, if you remember anything that may assist us in our investigations then please contact me immediately. Okay?”
Both girls nodded.
“The second thing is that we’re keeping this out of the media for the time being so please keep this quiet. Remember what they used to say in the war, ‘Careless talk costs lives.’ Right, we’ll be on our way.”
* * * *
After the police had gone Corky, who expressed little interest in the affair, disappeared upstairs to use Maddy’s father’s darkroom.
Maddy’s unclad feet trod the cold quarry stone tiles into the kitchen and sat at the old farmhouse table. The lemon air freshener activated her taste buds so she chewed some honey on toast to the accompaniment of the warm old valve wireless chortling out radio two. She decided to take her mind off Zena by reading the Daily Mirror. Boring political stuff was on the front page: ‘Conservatives still hold the lead in the polls’. More rubbish was on the inside: ‘Win a bingo-holiday for two’, ‘Love-birds in Majorca,’ etc. Three minutes later the toast was eaten and the tabloid was discarded. Maddy’s mind was on Zena again.
Had she told the police everything? She went over Zena’s visit again and again but she couldn’t remember anything new. Everything she had told the Detective Inspector had been accurate if insignificant.
It was so complicated. Where had Zena gone when she left on Tuesday? Home? Who would want to harm her? A burglar? A rival? A nut-case? Maddy wanted to go and look around Zena’s bungalow but Hanson had warned her off. Did it matter? Surely a few questions here and there could hardly do any damage?
And what trouble could she and Corky get into if they stuck together and always left messages to explain where they were. Thinking of her absent parents, she realized that leaving notes would be of little use if there were no one around to read them but ….what the hell!
It’s stupid thinking we could get into trouble, after all we’re only asking a few questions here and there.
* * * *
There was knocking on the front door.
A tall youth with black bushy hair, a large forehead and small earnest eyes, stood hesitatingly on the doorstep. He looked anxious, almost sad, as if his dog had died. His name, he said, was Nigel: Nigel Swain. He wondered if he could have a word. “I-i-it’s about Zena Saxby. She’s disappeared. You know about it, d-don’t you? The police have been round, haven’t they?”
She didn’t know him but recognised his face. She’d seen him around. He had a famous father or something. Nigel followed Maddy’s invitation and sat himself down at the kitchen table.
“I’ve come round to s-see if you can help at all. Perhaps you know something I don’t. I-I’m really worried.”
He listened but was disappointed with what the police had told her. There was no new information.
“I’d give anything to find her quickly,” he said, losing his stammer for a while. “I feel awful about what’s happened. I blame myself. I should have warned her, you know. I had a nightmare about her – last week – I must be getting psychic. She was in a dark room screaming my name. It was an omen. I know it was. She was in danger but I never warned her.”
Zena, he explained, had not only been a good friend of his for years but also of his family’s.
“Did anyone dislike her?” Maddy asked.
“Not really. I’ve wondered about that. She wasn’t Miss mega-popular but I can’t think of anyone who’d want to hurt her.”
“Did she have any rivals? Was there anyone who’d want to play a nasty joke on her?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“What about boyfriends?”
“Nothing really. She didn’t have any as far as I know. Oh I see what you mean. Oh no, not me. I was just a friend, nothing else.”
“Could she have just gone off? Ran away depressed or gone on a mad holiday, or to see a friend, and left her bedroom in a mess?”
“No, Zena wouldn’t do that; not when she had her Home Economics GCSE. S-s-she’s in trouble. I think she’s been kidnapped.”
“I’m sure. There was something menacing about the room in my dream: she was trapped. It was weird. S-s-she was calling for help. Anyway – it makes sense for other reasons: her bedroom’s been turned over, she’s not been seen for two days, and her mother is rich: she won the pools a while ago.”
“Yes I know. I see what you mean.”
Nigel thoughtfully ran his fingers along the wood-grain of the table, “I d-don’t know. Maybe not,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Why don’t we go and pay a visit to Zena’s bungalow and look around.” he suggested a moment later.
“I’ve thought about that.”
“I’ve been told to keep my nose out of this but somehow I can’t resist it. Let’s do it.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said a concerned voice from behind them. “We’ll get in a lot of trouble and a lot of hassle.” Corky scrutinized them with her dark brown eyes. She had quietly returned from the dark room and spoke from the doorway.
“That’s alright. We’ll avoid that.”
“I recognise trouble when I see it, and I see it. You’re hooked on this, already, aren’t you, Maddy? That’s a bad sign,” said Corky, twiddling with the lens cap on her camera.
“What a wet blanket,” whinnied Maddy. “Such enthusiasm. Here we are about to rescue Zena from the clutches of crime and to make that conceited copper who came here this morning look like the donkey’s bottom he is, and I’m surrounded by negativity! Listen, Corky…you met Nigel here?”
“H-hello,” said Nigel almost blushing.
“You and me and Nigel are not going to get into any trouble. We’re going to dabble a bit, that’s all. We might even sort it out. We’ll go to Zena’s and if we don’t solve the mystery in five minutes I promise to give up.”
“No you won’t, you never do. The trouble with you is that you read too many Enid Blyton mystery books when you a nipper!” scoffed Corky.
“Bring your camera,” said Maddy, “we might need a crime photographer.”
“That sounds a bit more up-market. Okay, you always get your way,” she said, “but you’re mad. Don’t blame me later if you find yourself neck-deep in cow-pat.” She pointed to her camera. “Do you really want me to bring this?”
“Yep. Good idea. Let’s go.”
Nigel face brightened at the unified decision.
Eighteen minutes later the three teenagers stood at the bus stop in Welford Road. The police had called at half past eleven. It was now half past two.
* * * *
As the teenagers walked the last few yards towards Zena’s Saxby’s bungalow they heard the shouts of an argument from further along the road. As they rounded a corner both the white bungalow and the argument came into view. Zena’s parents, whom Nigel recognised, stood yelling abuse at each other in the front drive. Irene Saxby shrieked from the storm porch while Peter Saxby formed vulgar gestures and spat obloquy back at her from between two garden gnomes on the front lawn.
“You’ve never given her any love,” he was screaming at his wife, “all you do is think about yourself. Look at you, you old gin soaked trollop! How could you! How are you gonna live with such negligence? I love that girl and now you got her murdered!”
This insult was evidently the final straw for Mrs. Saxby. She groped about as if seized by a fit, her head and arms giving up all synchronisation. Grabbing a nearby milk bottle she flung it at him but her aim was wide and it smashed into a garden gnome; milk and glass splinters flew everywhere. Peter Saxby, blackening the air with his swearing, turned heel and ran off to a parked van. Once safely inside he fired the ignition, made a high speed turn and accelerated away.
Mrs. Saxby deflated into a heap on the doorstep. Frustration was ingrained in her face, weariness lay in her crumpled posture.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Saxby?
“Oh..you startled me. Who are you?” asked Irene Saxby suspiciously, looking up.
“Hello, I’m Maddy Quebric.”
“We’d like to try and help you find Zena.”
“That would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?” she said sarcastically, running her misted eyes over Corky and Nigel.
“What do you want? Are you Zena’s mates?”
“We know Zena a bit,” said Maddy. “I wonder if…it would be possible to look around for a few minutes? I’m sure we could throw some light on this whole affair if we were allowed to look around….perhaps look inside her bedroom?”
“Everybody wants to look in her bedroom. The police have been looking through it, then that pig came round to look as well. I shouldn’t have let him in. Do you know where she is?”
She looked Maddy up and down.
“Go on then. Why not? Everybody’s trampling through my home today. Why don’t I make it open house for the whole of Leicester,” she said sadly, “I don’t know what you hope to find.”
“Huh. There won’t be anything that the police haven’t already found,” dismissed Corky sceptically to herself.
But Corky was wrong.
“That ex-husband of mine is a no-good chronic drunk,” said Mrs. Saxby, reclining on her sofa in her front room. “I did wonder if he had run off with Zena after one of his drinking sessions, but if he knew where she was why would he come round here complaining about her being missing? Yet if I catch the faintest smell of him in this business I’ll..I’ll…I won’t be responsible….
“He only comes round when he’s needs money,” she continued a breath later, “He’d spend anyone’s money. I never give him any now. He’s never forgiven me for coming up on the pools when we were divorcing.” She shrugged her shoulders. “He’s a rat!”
“I suppose you told the police about him?” enquired Maddy.
“Yes. After they had looked round here on Wednesday, the police went to question him. He said he hadn’t seen Zena and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Suddenly, this afternoon, Without any warning he comes round and pushes past me at the door. He goes into Zena’s bedroom for a few minutes and then wanders about shouting the place down. He began screaming that I should have taken Zena to Spain with me. He said I’d neglected her. He’s a rat! I forced him out of the door by threatening to call the police. You saw what he was like.”
“Would you like me to pour you another cup of tea?” asked Corky.
“No thanks luv.” Mrs. Saxby leaned forward and studied Nigel more closely, “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I, sonny?”
“Yes. My s-sister, Leslie, knows Zena. I’ve been round here with her.”
“Ah yes, I knew I recognised you. Ah, Leslie, she’s a nice girl.”
“What’s Zena been doing in the evenings?” Maddy asked.
Mrs. Saxby explained that Zena had quietened down a lot of late. She used to visit St. Annes youth club, but had stopped going there months ago. Zena had been a skin-head a year ago and had openly neglected schoolwork; recently however Zena had changed and had been revising conscientiously for her exams. The only time she went out nowadays was to go shopping on Saturdays or to go to the library.
“She used to read a lot of books about animals, always about animals.”
“Its g-getting o-on,” said Nigel in his nervy way. “Perhaps Mrs. Saxby could do with a break.”
“Do you mind if we look at Zena’s bedroom now, Mrs. Saxby?” Maddy asked.
“You can have a look. I’ll show you where it is. I’ve tidied up her clothes in the wardrobe but I’ve left everything else a mess as I’ve no stomach for it at the moment. The police are finished with the room so perhaps you could tidy it up a little.
“Corky’ll do it: she loves tidying things up, don’t you?” said Maddy.
“Huh? Oh sure,” said Corky.
At the end of the hall they faced Zena’s bedroom door.
“Come and tell me if you find anything,” said Mrs. Saxby and left them to it.
“Go on Nigel,” insisted Maddy, who stood the furthest away, “Go for it.”
* * * *
The room was about twelve feet square and painted in autumnal colours. Several posters, mostly of animals, hung on the walls. Furniture, clothes and personal objects had been spin-dryered all around the room in complete disorder. Opposite the door was the room’s only window looking over the long back garden.
Maddy inspected the casement. The police had been thorough – they had taken all the black hair from the catch. She unfastened the catch, opened the window and looked outside. Various footprints, no doubt the ones that Hanson had earlier described could be seen imprinted into the muddy ground. She would examine those later. She closed the window and knelt down. The dirty marks on the carpet were the result of dirty shoe prints, but sadly they didn’t seem to lead anywhere in the room. The intermittent muddy stains were so poor no shoe could be identified from them. She stood up and carouselled slowly round, methodically observing the room.
Corky searched under the bed. Nigel went through the waste paper basket, which, much to his distaste, was full of used tissues and old cigarette ends.
“I didn’t know Zena smoked.” he said, half to himself.
“Nor me, I’ll go and ask her mum,” said Maddy.
“Yes, Zena did smoke,” said Mrs. Saxby drinking a gin and tonic, ” but not much.” she said. “She smoked in her room. I tried to dissuade her but – oh damn! Who’s that now?”
The doorbell was ringing.
In the hall Mrs. Saxby opened her front door to a
fair-haired man wearing a plastic jacket and a plastic smile.
“Hello. I’m Richard Courtwall, your local independent candidate,” He said, grabbing Mrs. Saxby’s hand and eagerly shaking it. “I called on Tuesday and your daughter said – “
” – Excuse me! You came round here on Tuesday night?” interrupted Maddy.
“Hello,” he said. Maddy ignored his outstretched hand.
“Who answered the door on Tuesday night?”
“Ummm….Mrs. Saxby’s daughter. A young girl – about seventeen. She told me her mother would be back after Wednesday lunch time. I couldn’t come yesterday but I’ve managed to get round here today to introduce myself.”
“What time did you call?” asked Maddy
He looked uncomfortably at Maddy’s dark hair, her thick set features, her beetling brows.
“Is there something wrong?”
Mrs Saxby went to explain but Maddy quickly cut her out:
” – we’ll explain everything to you, Mr….. Courtwall, if you’d only tell us when you called.”
“Let me see. I came on Tuesday at about 8.o’clock.”
“What about the girl? What did she say?”
“This is the blonde girl in the pink jumper you’re talking about, isn’t it? A pretty girl with a fringe? Yes?”
“That’s my Zena,” said Mrs. Saxby.
“She didn’t say much. She said she was too young to vote, but if I wanted to see her mother to come back after Wednesday, as she was back from holiday. I told her I’d come round tonight.”
Maddy continued to fire questions.
“No, There was nothing unusual in her manner,” said the candidate, “No, I don’t think I noticed any cars parked on the road, or in the drive. I’m sorry, I’ve no idea if there was anyone else in the house.”
He was suddenly cut off by a squeal coming from Zena’s bedroom.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Maddy!” It was Corky’s voice.
“I’ve got to go. Mr. Courtwall, you’ve been a great help. The police will be round to see you. ‘Bye.”
“The police?” He said, frowning, his eyelids forming the creases of a pram hood.
Leaving Mrs. Saxby to answer the questions of the perplexed candidate, Maddy dashed back to Zena’s bedroom.
* * * *
Corky’s eyes radiated with pride, as if she had won first prize. She held out an envelope to Maddy
“I sat on the bed and felt something rustling under me, like a paper bag. Nigel helped me to unfold back the blankets and about two feet from the pillow lay this yellow envelope. Its got a message in it. Have a look.”
“You shouldn’t really have moved it.”
“Its too late now.” said Corky.
“Well….I suppose you’ve looked inside it as well?”
“Yes, but we used these gloves from out of the drawer so as not to add finger prints. We couldn’t resist a look to see if it was important. We weren’t sure. It could have been a birthday card. What do you make of it. Have a look.”
Maddy’s hands, now clad in the pair of blue Shetland wool gloves that Corky had passed her, took the envelope. It was slightly creased, but despite that, looked shop-new; a yellow lemon envelope of the type to be found in a box of notelets; a special envelope – not the office standard white or brown. The outside of the envelope was virginal; there was no mark or message on it. She turned it over several times and sniffed it. No smell. She lifted the flap, as delicately as was possible with gloves on and asked if it had been tucked inside.
Yes it had been, stammered Nigel, whose complexion had bleached albanescent, as if suddenly he had become a candidate for the morgue.
Inside the envelope Maddy found a folded piece of white paper. The paper seemed dwarfed by the envelope and didn’t match in colour or size. She removed the folded sheet carefully, making as minimal a contact with her gloves as possible. She carefully put the envelope down on the dressing table and unfolded the white piece of paper. A message made of cut out letters from newspapers and magazines sprawled across the top half of the paper. It read:
WE HAVE THE GIRL. WAIT FOR CONNEXION.
Maddy read the message several times.
“I knew s-she’d been kidnapped,” said Nigel. “I knew that dream meant something.”
“It’s a funny place to put a ransom note,” said Nigel.
“That’s right,” said Maddy, turning the sheet upside down and around. Then something caught her eye, she noticed something at the bottom. Faint letters scratched, etched into the paper. It was as if someone had written on a sheet of paper placed over another sheet and the writing pressure applied to the top sheet had left faint indentations in the underlying one. Maddy looked more closely at it.
“There’s something written on the bottom here. Its not that I can’t read it…its fairly easy to read….its just that I can’t understand it.” Maddy pulled out her penguin notebook and copied down both the ransom message and the hidden letters. These appeared to read:
Chanting Praises / and thanks / until I an / fadder/ Jah / who
After another examination of the folded paper Maddy returned it to its lemon envelope.
Why had the letter been placed in a bed. Not exactly the sort of place where it would be easily found. Perhaps it had got there by accident. And why hadn’t the police found it? Why hadn’t it been left on, say, the dressing table, the window ledge, the pillow or anywhere for that matter, where it would be seen?
“Oh, I also found this,” said Nigel. He held a pink slip of paper in his hand. “I found it in the waste bin. It’s a train ticket to London. Its dated 23rd April – Saturday – a day return. It might be important.”
Maddy studied it. “Lets have a word with Mrs. Saxby about this.”
Mrs. Saxby stepped into the room a few minutes later, and seated herself on a wicker chair by the window. Her mood had improved out of all proportions – notably by the proportions by which she had reduced the gin bottle. Maddy asked her if she’d ever seen the yellow envelope before?”
She was certain she hadn’t.
“You’ll be able to look at it when the police come,” said Maddy seriously, replacing the envelope back between the sheets.
Maddy then passed the train ticket into the woman’s knotted hand.
“Did she mention going to London; sightseeing, or anything? It was on a Saturday.”
“She didn’t say anything about going to London. She could have done: as I said she often went out on Saturdays.”
“Could this ticket belong to anyone else? Yourself, for instance?”
“No. I haven’t been on a train for years.”
“I’m sorry to keep on asking you for things, Mrs. Saxby, but I’ve just two more requests. Do you have a recent photo of Zena that I could borrow for a while? I promise to return it.”
“There’s the school photo on the shelf in the lounge taken last year. It’s a nice one in colour. The police took the other one I have.”
While Corky went off to get it Maddy made her second request. “Could you please tell Nigel here of all the clothes, books, jewelry, ornaments, etcetera, that you can remember Zena having. Nigel, here, will make a note of it all. Perhaps Nigel, you’ll do a rough check to see if they’re all here. Is that okay?”
“Sure, Maddy,” he said.
“While you’re doing that we’ll go and look at these footprints outside.”
“D-Don’t be too long or I’ll leave you to it, cause I’m ravenous,” warned Nigel.
* * * *
Following Mrs Saxby’s directions the girls went right out of the bedroom, straight along the corridor and then unlocked the side door into the garden. They stepped out into breathless air onto a crazy-paved path.
If Corky’s could have foreseen the third photograph that afternoon she would have gone back inside, locked the door, and refused to budge.
Maddy and Corky immediately found one of the footprint trails that Hanson had described earlier. The trail went down the side of the bungalow – where the girls now stood – and then headed across the back garden to Zena’s window.
Once they had reached the window the footprints reversed their direction, returning the way they had come. Maddy compared the footprints entering the garden to the ones exiting. She had no doubt that both were made by the same footwear.
As the girls studied the mass of footprints beneath Zena’s window they moved about carefully so as not to add to the confusion with their own impressions. Despite the hot weather, the sparsely seeded ground was soft from the previous weeks heavy rainfall and still fertile for footprints.
“There’s the other trail,” said Corky pointing.
The second trail came up from the bottom of the garden and ended at Zena’s window. “This looks like somebody else’s,” muttered Corky.
Corky was right. The prints in the first trail, Maddy had estimated as about male size nine, these were about male size eleven. This second trail had the deeper impressions of a heavier man or woman. What intrigued Maddy most was the one way direction of the trail; the footprints led to Zena’s window but did not return.
Maddy and Corky backtracked these impressions down the incline of the rose avenued garden until they came to a stile at the left hand corner of the garden. After a kneeling investigation of the footprints on the garden side of the stile they climbed over. An examination of the prints here caused Maddy some excitement. Again she looked at the prints in the garden and then at the ones in the jitty. She began humming to herself.
“Can you photograph these footprints, please?”
“And photograph the footprints on the other side of the stile. Just there.”
“Why?” asked Corky. “They’re the same, aren’t they?”
“I’m not so sure,” said Maddy mysteriously.
“Come on turkey-features, what have you found out? They’re the same boots, they look the same to me.”
“You brought your camera, Corky, so you may as well use it. All will be revealed later,” Maddy teased her.
“You haven’t figured this out yet.”
“Quite right, I haven’t. Corky! What are you doing??”
Maddy began to laugh. Corky had remounted the stile, and had done it in such a cock-eyed way she had got one of her legs stuck in it. Eventually, after a giggling fit, Corky freed herself and took the photograph as requested.
Minutes later the girls were walking side by side again. They kept to the left of Haystack Lane where it had been partly rubbled. The footprints they followed sometimes strayed onto the rubble and were lost, but this was rare, for they kept a mainly straight path on the right hand side leaving a pattern of holes in the mud. Twenty yards on the girls came to another stile. In the mud below were another muddle of footprints. It appeared to have been climbed over.
After examining the footprints on their side of the stile the girls clambered over and examined them in the field. Here were two trails of footprints: one leading away to the right, the other returning to the stile from the left. The owner of these footprints appeared to have made a circuitous journey around the an enormous barn that now stood before them.
This barn, which had the height of a two-story town house with five times the width, was a moribund building that had evidently seen better days. Sections of the stackyard wall had deteriorated over the years and sheets of hardboard had been prescribed as an ineffectual remedy, for they were now warped and in some cases adrift.
The girls tracked the trail of footprints that encompassed the barn to discover that at no point did the footprints appear to enter the barn, or to deviate off in another direction. Why should someone wish to encircle a barn? “Pass,” said Maddy, “Let’s have a look inside,” she suggested. Corky, despite yawning, agreed.
Maddy followed Corky between two supporting cast-iron pillars and into the barn.
Corky felt uncomfortable inside the vast space: it was a ghostly gymnasium, a forgotten dead place, despite the regenerating attempt of a sun beam falling on her face. It came from above through the iron rib. The corrugated iron roof overhead was warped, ripped, and many gaping holes had been shaped by the cold cutting torch of rust.
Wet rot touched wooden beams with disease where the bolted shoes connected with the rafters.
Litter and debris was strewn around the concrete floor, left by the ghosts of children, animals and winds that had passed through. It was a place of silence: speech had no permission.
Maddy, walking to the right, observed crisp packets, torn newspapers and other junk wrappings beneath her feet. Corky, her raw umber pupils probing shadow after shadow, moved off in the opposite direction.
The place had the staleness, the airlessness of a multi-story.
Corky accepted that Maddy was right; despite feeling tired she would carry on: soon any clues – if there were any – would be eroded away by the weather, so they had to look for them now.
She watched Maddy wading through piled up litter; she was like a child kicking through autumn leaves. There was no litter at Corky’s end of the barn. She wondered why. The wind must have driven most of it to the top corner.
She walked over to the blank expression on Maddy’s face.
“Shall we go?”
“You’ve found nothing?”
“Nor me. Okay.”
They slipped through the wall into the full daylight; they were both relieved to be outside again. They picked up the trail of footprints and followed them back to the stile.
Once they had climbed over the girls pursued the trail of footprints towards their source.
“Made with a Wellington, or a farmyard boot, don’t you agree, Sherlock, you stuck up detective?” said Corky.
“Something in that line,” responded Maddy, feigning to kick her.
Once or twice the trail became lost in the hedgerow or on the rubble: often several boot-prints would be missing, having strayed out of the mud, but a yard later would appear again. However, when Haystack Lane came out onto the canal towpath the girls came to a halt: the scent was lost; the towpath had been treated with a grainy road surface, hard and insensitive to footprints and the trail had ended.
The girls stood perplexed. Maddy looked about her and considered. The boot-wearer could have come along the tow path from either left or right. It was impossible to say. Closely followed by Corky, Maddy strode the yard’s width of the towpath and glared into the canal.
“He or she may have had a boat,” said Maddy.
“I just thought that.”
Corky excitedly watched a yellow hammer fly over the canal.
Maddy stood at the water’s edge looking uncomfortably at the disfiguring reflections of her plump body. She felt rather cheated after all her efforts. It was pretty stupid looking for inspiration in the water, when, if it was anywhere, it wasn’t there. She straightened up and looked around again.
“Which way, Maddy? Is this the end or shall we carry on?”
Maddy looked at her watch: it was quarter past six. She noticed mud on her shoes. “Ugh. What do you want to do?”
“Well you did promise to give up if you hadn’t solved the crime in five minutes. And I am a bit tired,” said Corky, taking in a breath of canal air, which on occasions smelled like a used ashtray. “Poo. I suppose you want to carry on though, so let’s…”
They decided to walk several hundred yards in one direction, return, and walk several hundred yards in the other direction.
They didn’t speak as they walked along; they felt comfortable in each others silence.
The girls had met nine years earlier, two years before they started high school together. They had laughed, cried and argued with each other so many times since they had met that they had become like sisters. It had upset Maddy that they had been split up to go to different comprehensive schools but it hadn’t damaged their friendship. During the holidays they were still knocking around in each others pockets; Maddy wondered if they’d be still doing it when they were twenty. She remembered Corky collapsing in a fit of monkey-chuckling when Maddy had said that if they had both gone to the same school they would never have done any work at all.
They had found nothing and were now returning alongside the hawthorn hedge. Corky would have photographed the red campion if her camera had been loaded with colour film. The dark green heart shapes of the black bryony, and the delicate petals of the many dog roses in the shrubbery were beginning to soften her attention to the tracking of homo-sapiens.
“As you’re tired, Corky, wait here if you like. I’m tired and could eat a horse, but I’m not going to give up yet.”
“Its like a dream, isn’t it? You know, like it’s not really happening. Its as if I need to pinch myself to feel I’m awake.”
“Its no dream. It’s real and its peculiar, almost sinister.”
“Come on, I’ll carry on,” said Corky, grabbing her friends hand, leading her to the left and along the the canal bank.
At first there was little to choose between their walk northward along the bank and this one to the south. More hawthorn, more campion and then gradual subtle differences became noticeable. Then, after a veer to the left, the towpath broadened and Corky noticed a clump of sessile oak trees, and a pair of fox-gloves. Maddy’s attention was engaged elsewhere; on a white footbridge that traversed the canal to the towpath on the other bank.
They stood alongside the footbridge.
“Did he, she or it come from over there then?”
“I don’t know,” said Maddy.
“Some mega-detective you are.”
Maddy shook her shoulders and pulled a face. “He, she, or it may have dropped out of the sky for all I know: may have been transported by helicopter or reindeer and sleigh…..although I agree its more likely he, she, or it came from over the bridge, or from further along the towpath. I’m going over the bridge. I won’t be long. Coming?”
“No, I’ll wait,” said Corky leaning against the iron rail at the end of the bridge. She heard Maddy clonk up the steps onto the timber planks and clatter slowly over the bridge.
A moment later Corky made a discovery.
Corky yawned and felt a bit cheesed off with herself. She wanted to prove herself. She wouldn’t have admitted to Maddy how inept she felt in these detection games; it wasn’t envy; she wasn’t envious – she just wished she could have a bit of respect sometimes. She felt the need to assert herself. She needed something to wake her up. All these feelings, ticked away inside her, unchecked.
Her observation became focused again, more concentrated now she was alone. Her fascination for plant life was replaced by a concentrated scanning for anything out of the ordinary, anything that struck an odd chord. Later she compared it to photographing wildlife. Hours and hours of intense patience, watching, waiting – all for one photograph.
Her eyes scanned the river with a cold expression similar to that worn by Detective Inspector Hanson earlier that day. The eyes, the only part of her head that moved, ranged slowly, smoothly across the breadth of the canal, from bank to bank. She watched the silver threads of reflection dancing on the grey-green surface of the canal; its play of shimmering and disfiguring shapes both soothing and fascinating. She saw the reflected ripples of the inverted river bank, distorted trees with edges constantly broken by the floating patches of mirrored sky.
As her scrutiny approached the nearside bank she sensed something discordant. Something slight, but odd. Something small, but something vertical. Not exactly vertical, more at an angle.
It wasn’t far away and was close to her side of the bank. She left the bridge and walked further up the towpath. After twenty paces she could see the object quite clearly, despite its being partly submerged. It was a shoe or a boot. She knelt down on the path, taking care not to fall in, and reached forward. This was certainly a prize; was it the boot that had made the footprints? Corky had high expectations.
Maddy shouted as she returned across the bridge, “Don’t fall in!”
As Maddy arrived by her side Corky had her fingernails embedded in the stitching around the sole of the boot. She was at maximum stretch and Maddy was holding her round the waist.
“It can’t be stuck in the mud. The canal’s deeper than six inches. I’ll hold you again. We’ll both pull.”
“Now!” shouted Corky. The boot moved slightly but Corky lost her grip and nearly fell in. She was only saved by Maddy clinging to her dress, which fortunately didn’t tear as they fell back onto the grass.
Simultaneously, as they fell, the boot continued to move. As they were falling to the grass, the surface of the water emitted large air bubbles with accompanying belches. As they fell back, as the bubbles and belches became bigger and louder, the toe of the boot slowly, sluggishly moved up to a vertical position as though the fulcrum of its movement was axled through its submerged heel. Then to the horror of the two girls the whole boot started to raise itself out of the water. The heel became visible and the water surrounding it became thick with cloth. Then the unbuckled end of a belt emerged. Then the boot, now further out of the water, showed its attachment to a leg, which as soon as it became visible, reeled over with the boot. Suddenly images appeared that haunted Corky’s dreams for many years. A hand, brown with dripping mud, with its fingers knotted with the tendrils of underwater plants, came up in the Camelotian way as the boot had, only this time it only disappeared for a second before reappearing. More belching and gulping noises, culminating in a voluminous spewing of water, an expulsion of water by trapped air. Seconds later this liquid epilepsy subsided leaving visible to both girls the rotting corpse of a man. His hands were now floating within two feet of them. His head, which like its body was on its side, was visible but quite deep in the water. His long waterproof coat bubbled up in places where parts of his body, held back by weeds, were unable to float to the surface. The coat was like a pneumatic life belt, one that had failed.
All this had taken no more than eight seconds.
Corky turned away and was sick. Maddy, shocked herself, slowly helped her friend away from the grisly sight. She sat her on the footbridge steps.
“We’ve got to get the police.”
Corky was crying. Minutes passed before she could speak.
“I’ll…I’ll be okay,” said Corky, going greener by the second.
“Can you hang on a minute while I take some photos?”
“Oh M-M-Maddy. Surely your not….?” She looked at her friend in disbelief.
Maddy didn’t answer.
Trying to concentrate on anything other than what she had just seen Corky unslung her camera from her shoulder and passed it to Maddy.
“All you have to do is focus. I’ll wait here. Don’t be long.”
Back at Zena’s bungalow Maddy and Corky found Nigel had gone, but had left his phone number: 724386.
But it was the police Maddy dialed.
“There’s a body in the canal,” she told Detective Inspector Hanson.
“The girl? You’ve found her?”
“No, its a man.”
“I’ll be over.”
* * * *
Maddy and Corky had to hang around in the bungalow all afternoon while various policemen, photographers and police scientists attended to the body.
Later Hanson and a policeman named McTavish – interviewed both Maddy and Corky separately. During one interrogation McTavish accused the girls of being complicit in the kidnapping; Corky bit her lip to control her anger.
Hanson warned Maddy firmly, “Mrs. Saxby is definitely to be left alone.”
When the girls returned to Maddy’s in Meadvale at half past nine they were exhausted and edgy.
Corky’s sleep was broken by the noise of talking on the phone in the hall. Showered and dressed, she descended the stairs and whisked the morning newspaper from the letterbox on her way through the hall. The pervading smell of cloves excited her nostrils as she walked in the kitchen reading a news item. “It’s in the paper!” she exclaimed, “The dead man’s in the paper.”
“I thought they were keeping it out of the papers?” said Maddy looking up from her tea mug.
“…it doesn’t mention Zena.”
Maddy read the news statement. It said the public were asked to help with police inquires by phoning the police if they knew of a man fitting the listed description. An inquest was yet to be held.
There was nothing new in it.
Five minutes later Corky passed to Maddy a slice of marmalade on toast. “What are you going to do today?” she asked dreamily.
“Ssshh, just a minute,” said Maddy irritably.
“Sorry to disturb you, you old ratbag.”
“I’m thinking. None of it makes sense, Corky. Zena is last seen on Tuesday night. She goes missing between then and Wednesday lunch time, when her mum gets home. There’s a trail of footprints up from the canal, and a returning one from the front drive. Her room was thrown about and a ransom note left in her bed where it would be unlikely to be found.
“The ransom note is on a white piece of paper in an ill-matched yellow envelope. It says ‘We have girl. Wait for connexion’ which has yet to happen. Then, a hundred yards from her house, we find the dead body of a mystery man in a canal.”
“And don’t forget the steps that go around the barn.”
Frowning, Maddy bit into her toast and chewed over the sweet marmalade.
“I discovered something else,” she gobbled a moment later with her mouth full, “the man we found in the river wasn’t the man who made the footprints.”
“How do you know?”
“When the police dragged him out I had a good look at his boot soles. The soles of the footprints were ribbed. His weren’t. Although the size was about the same. It’s all quite mad.”
“So what is the solution then?”
“Zena’s… been kidnapped.”
“Oh brilliant! Where is she then?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about America?” ventured Corky, “‘Connexion’ is spelt in a sort of American way.”
“Yes. I noticed that. Pass us over some more toast,” said Maddy.
“I quite fancy Nigel,” Corky sighed. “He’s looks all sort of lonely. Not as nice as James though.” She had fancied James Riverdean for ages, a sixth former. She was quite aware he wasn’t interested but she hadn’t given up home. You never knew: one day pigs might fly.
Maddy had had some of her worst times with boys and never liked talking about them. She wasn’t pretty like Corky, but more akin to a cuddly baby elephant, and could hardly get clothes to fit her properly – and she had never got used to being insulted about it.
“I rang Nigel up when I got up. I told him what happened. Told him the police will probably call on him. He’s coming round today or tomorrow. He said he’d ring and let us know.”
“Oh. So it was him you were talking to on the phone, earlier. How did he get on with his list?” Corky asked.
“He said Zena’s mum couldn’t remember anything missing.”
“Another blank as they say in the movies.”
“We can’t complete the jig-saw because we need more pieces.”
“That sounds even more like something out of some old B movie.”
“And where do you think we get more pieces from?”
“You tell me.”
“How about her friends, family and acquaintances.”
“That’s not much good if she didn’t know who her kidnappers were.”
“Its the only thing we can do.”
“Less of the ‘we’,” said Corky averting her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Not for me, thanks. I’m back in your dad’s darkroom today. I’ve got a few films to develop – yes, yes – including yours, but I’m fed up with playing detectives today. One dead body is enough for a lifetime for me, thank you.”
“Corky, you can’t desert me now.”
“Today is for me. Tomorrow I may help you, but not today. As for deserting you to do photography – just watch me.”
* * * *
Maddy stood outside No 57 St. James’ Street, a three-story Victorian Terrace with shaling bricks, jammed up blinds and patched up windows. She rattled the brass crab knocker against the front door. The man who let her in drew a four in the air with his finger as he voiced Peter Saxby’s room number. Despite Hanson’s threats Maddy had phoned Mrs. Saxby after breakfast and obtained her ex-husbands address
The entrance hall was dimly lit by a 40 watt bulb, was wallpapered with pre-war daisies – now yellow with age, a filthy carpet and an old slot telephone. Maddy climbed the staircase and knocked on room number four. The door opened.
Peter Saxby’s grey hair receded to form the beginning of a widow’s peak. His pupils were tinged with bloodshot. His slim, slippery figure was a crossbreed between a short-haired terrier and a jockey. His clothes fitted well but when they were last washed was in doubt: he didn’t smell too sweet.
“Hello, Mr. Saxby.”
“I’m Maddy Quebric. I’d like to ask you some questions about Zena, if I could.”
“Are you with the police?” he asked with a tinge of irish accent.
“No. I just….”
“A friend of Zena’s, were yer?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Come in then. Drenking alone is no fun.”
It was a two-roomed flat, not a bed sit as she had imagined. She looked round: a portable TV, a half-eaten curry, a pin-up from a nudey magazine on the wall, a bottle of whisky on the floor….
“Just a mo,” he said. He went through the door in the corner of the room and shortly returned with a mug which he generously filled from the bottle of whisky. “Now, get that down yer,” he said.
She thought it best to take a sip. Whisky had always been a mystery of adulthood to her – she couldn’t understand why did people pay to drink such vile tasting stuff.
“So you want to know all about Zena, do you! Well, well. She loved me, you know, but she never loved her mother. We used to tark. She could never tark to her mother.
“She was a bit of a twit, really, but a lovely lass. Always books and stupid things she’d be after. She was sweet on horses. Loved to have one herself but we never had no money ’til the old lady came up on the football coupons. And then when she had the money the old Jezebel kicked me out.”
“Holy Joseph, it makes me see pink. There we were waiting fer our ship to be a comin’ en all those years, and when it did she pulled out the rug. I’d always wanted to start a business, you know. I’m a man of the world, you know, and I’ve still got a good double ledger between these ears. A small grocery shop it was, but she’d have none of it. Come on, drink up. I can’t be a drenkin’ on my own when I’ve got company. That’s it, lass.”
They both swigged back some whisky.
“Uh…How much did she win?”
“£45,729, and not a thank you fer me.”
“Come on, drenk a bit more. I can’t answer questions fer people who won’t drenk; ‘t ain’t natural.”
Maddy swallowed again, understanding why the Indians called it firewater. He tried to top up her glass but she resisted; she quickly asked him more questions.
No, he said. He couldn’t think of any one who disliked Zena. Of course he didn’t know who would want to kidnap her? Sometimes she was a pain. The last time he saw her was at the railway station. She was a bitch. She didn’t even want to say hello to him.
“Oh, what happened?”
“It was about a month ago,”he said concentrating, “I’d come back from Liverpool. I was coming out of the ticket barrier and saw her buying a platform ticket from the machine. I walked up and said hello. She turned round and said hello, but pulled an uncomfortable face and then ran off out of the station.”
“She had a platform ticket but didn’t go on the platform?”
“Yes, she had the ticket in her hand.” he thumbed his stubble. “Yes, I thought it was a bit peculiar, now you come to mention it.
“So she acknowledged you and ran off out of the station.?”
“Well, she didn’t exactly run off. Just walked fast. I think she had some luggage. She didn’t look too pleased to see me at all. And me, her own flesh end blood!”
“Can you remember anything else about it? What time it was?”
“It was….now let me thank. Yes, I remember my train came in just before twelve thirty.”
“Can you remember anything else about it?” asked Maddy.
Maddy felt strange: she was hot inside, and her thoughts were becoming confused and giddy. The smell of mouldy food and the stale air was making her feel slightly sick.
“Can I have a drink of water?” she asked.
“Whisky and water?” he replied. “Through there,” he said pointing at the sliding door at the far end of the room.
Carrying her mug, she slid back the door and a long narrow kitchen presented itself itself to her.
At the sink she poured the whisky away, carefully keeping an eye open in case he should follow. She could hear him muttering to himself. After the last of the whisky had gone she filled her mug with water.
As she went to re-enter the lounge she understood what she had only half-noticed under the kitchen table. She stopped and turned to check. She had been right: Wellingtons. She backtracked, quickly bobbed down and pulled out one of the rubber boots.
“What the hell are you doin’ in there? Come on. Come end join me. I’m a-finishin’ all the whiskey.”
Then suddenly he was at the door; his hands were shoulder-high on to the frame as if to stop him dropping through. He was gabbling.
“Can you lend me a fiver? I need some fags….
“Hey, what you doin’?” he said.
He staggered from the doorway into the room and snatched the boot off her. “You’re snooping.”
“I was just looking at your wellingtons.”
His mood seemed to have changed.
“Look Mr. Saxby, I was merely looking at your boots. I’m sorry. I’ve taken up a lot of your time. Its time I left now.”
Her arm was gripped like a vice as she walked past him. He re-seated her upon a kitchen chair. “I’d like to go,” she said.
She looked up at his face. He seemed weary.
“I want to lend some money, girl. Don’t thenk I’m taking it – its only a loan – I’ll pay you back. Ah… you’ve got some whisky left. Allow me.” He picked up her mug.
He took a deep swallow from her mug.
“That’s water.” he looked astonished.
Slowly his languid face began to quiver. His nostrils grew larger as his breathing started to race.
Maddy forced her thick fingers into her tight pockets to find money. Like a peace offering she held out her two pound coins.
“I need more,” he said.
She dropped all her loose change in his palm.
She hurried through the lounge, onto the landing and down the staircase and went out through the front door. As she reached the ground floor she heard him closing his door and coming out into the landing.
She wouldn’t follow him. Maybe a professional investigator would probably break into his flat after he’d gone so as to get a good look at his wellingtons – but no way – this was amateur stuff and she wanted to get as far away from him as possible. She ambled speedily up St. James Street and across London Road and into the park, where she began to slow down and feel more at ease.
She arrived home with aching feet – she had no money to catch the bus – and found a message from Corky saying that she’d gone round to her mum’s for the day. Feeling tired and peculiar Maddy went to bed. She attempted to read her book about Louis Armstrong but under the soporific influence of the whisky she fell into deep sleep.
Maddy got up late, past lunch time, and moped around.
In the late afternoon – after Maddy had told Corky about her meeting with Peter Saxby – the Zena Saxby affair took on a new twist. While Maddy was examining the photographic prints of footprints that Corky had taken at Zena’s, Corky suddenly shrieked as she began to read the evening paper. “Look at this!” she shouted, “They’ve figured it all out.”
Maddy read on the front page of the Leicester Mercury:
“…GIRL KIDNAPPED. Police Make Enquiries.
A white seventeen year old girl, whose name is being with held by the police, has been kidnapped by a black gang. The girl, who was abducted on Tuesday from her own house, and who attended Rowley Hills School, will be returned to safe hands for a ransom payment yet to be stated. Police are waiting further developments.”
“Oh damn! What a twit I am,” uttered Maddy, “I understand now. That wasn’t very clever of me.”
“What do you mean?” asked Corky.
“Why I didn’t I twig it? Its in a different language, look.”
Maddy pulled her out her penguin notebook and thumbed back and forth through its pages. She found a page and passed it to Corky. Corky read the penciled message:
Chanting Praises/ and thanks/ until I an/ fadder/ Jah/ who
“That’s the writing I found at the bottom of the of the ransom note. Can’t you see? Its Patois, or Rasta. Jah is the Rastafarian god. And that medallion Hanson found I bet it was Rasta as well. I know, I’ll phone Kandy; she might be able to help. I’ll go and see her. ”
Corky, remained behind in the kitchen and pursed her lips. Some Rasta’s had abducted Zena. So what? It was little use to realise that now. It just proved how out of their depths their own pretentious investigations were. Maddy was going to feel a right fool now.
Maddy stepped off the bus in St. Saviours Road in the Highfields district of Leicester, the prominent ethnic area of the city, and the district where Kandy lived.
As Maddy walked to Kandy’s she knew she was now truly hooked. Everything that happened in the search for Zena increased her addiction for it. Even when she wanted to forget about it, to avoid it, something happened to nudge her on. She was beyond the point of no return now. It was a battle; a battle with herself perhaps.
Corky had been wrong about Maddy feeling stupid with herself for not realising something which now seemed obvious. Maddy rarely criticised herself for her intellect. Her bugbear was that she continually criticized herself for her looks.
Maddy had learned to avoid the love affair with mirrors and shop windows that many of her peers had fallen into. The reassuring reflection she hoped to see of herself never materialized. To counterbalance her lack of physical graces she had decided – somewhere, at sometime (she couldn’t remember exactly where or when) – to be a genius with her mind. That was her domain.
She didn’t know if she would discover anything else in this Zena case – after all, a body, a ransom note and a train ticket was not too bad for two days work – but she was determined to persevere. She was going to use all her energy to find the answers. She knew her strength and stubornness. Corky had been quite wrong: instead of Maddy’s confidence wilting despondently it had inflated with renewed conviction.
Kandy Davis pulled Maddy close as she came in the door and hugged her. Kandy was cat-like, elegant and her eyes were black pool-balls that moved as lazily as her speech. She was a Leicester born West Indian with beautiful black-olive skin. She kept spluttering with laughter into her coffee as Maddy told her the whole story.
“I’ve never seen you so worked up. You’re too excited – calm down, calm down.”
“This whole thing is really bugging me.”
“I can see that.”
After Maddy had gone over the story again she was surprised that Kandy already had some information to pass on.
“It makes sense now,” she said, “My boyfriend, Tyrone was stopped by a police car last night. One of the police said that they were looking for a white girl. They accused Tyrone of knowing where this girl was being kept. And then they said, in as many words: find her or things could get difficult around here. The threat was repeated before the police left. Now you’ve explained what it was all about.”
Maddy asked Kandy if she would play detective for a while: “Find a few things out for me, Kandy. You can move about the black community in Leicester – could you see what you can find out? See if anybody’s not out these days, or has disappeared? Or if anyone is frightened, or anything? Don’t get yourself in trouble, of course, but if you could just do a little snooping I’d be grateful for that.”
Kandy’s pupils rolled and her smile ripened. “I suppose I should be cautious and think about it but I won’t. Hey, I’ll be a black Miss. Marples,” she whooped with laughter.
Later Maddy said goodbye and thanked her. “Look after yourself – and don’t laugh. We have found a corpse you know.”
“Nobody’s gonna bump me off,” she said defiantly.
Maddy kissed her and went out into the evening.
About twelve minutes after Maddy had left the house the telephone rang. It was Corky asking for Maddy. She sounded breathless.
“She’s just gone.”
“Oh god! Where is she?” She sounded panicky.
“She’s on her way home.”
“Thank God! When did she leave?”
“Not long – about ten minutes ago. Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
“Absolutely everything. I’m getting jumpy. If you see Maddy send her back here as quickly as you can. Bye.”
“But I don’t….” But Corky had called off.
* * * *
At ten to eight Maddy turned into Meadvale. A figure ran towards her, calling wildly. Maddy was being embraced, then tugged along by the arm.
“Come on, quick. I’ve been waiting ages.”
“Whatever’s wrong, Corky?”
“We’ve got to go to the hospital. That’s why I’ve been waiting. Nigel’s been attacked. He’s in a bad way. Quickly – visiting time starts at eight.”
“Uh?” said Maddy moving into Corky’s stride.
“Nigel’s been beaten up. We’ve got to move if we’re going to get there.
“We’ve got to go. I’ll tell you about it on the bus, we should just catch it.”
On the bus, traveling along through the dark streets, Corky explained: “About 7.30 the phone rang and a man asked for you. He said he was Nigel’s father. He said Nigel was horribly beaten up by four men this afternoon. He was taken to Woodbridge hospital and kept asking to see you. Nigel’s father found your number on the telephone book or something. I didn’t know what he was going on about but he was obviously distraught and desperate to talk to you. He gave me the visiting hours and said he’d be there.”
“Nigel is hurt bad?”
“I think so.”
The bus, usually a fast service, tortoised its way down Evington Road.
* * * *
Nigel was found in a large ward, obscured to the other patients by an impediment of studding, a partition which gave him the privilege of privacy on three sides.
“He’s in a coma,” his father said.
Blue bruise marks had formed on Nigel’s left cheek from his top lip to his high jaw. His jaw was broken. One of his eyes was blackened, both were closed. Maddy studied him closely, Corky, saddened by the sight of him, turned her eyes away.
“I’m glad you’ve come,” Nigel’s father said to Maddy, speaking quietly, slowly. “He wanted to say something to you when he was admitted to hospital, but he began to babble and lost consciousness. The doctors tell me he’s satisfactory – but he has a broken rib. They’ve X-rayed and fortunately the rib hasn’t hasn’t punctured his heart of a lung, although as you can imagine it has affected tissue and muscles.”
Nigel’s father looked down and grimaced. He was a distinguished looking man, smartly dressed in grey trousers, a white open-necked shirt and a loosened blue tie. His animated face, his easy style and his resonating voice was calming yet carried a sense of authority.
“Is he going to be alright?”
“He’s got to have a small operation. They say it’s not difficult. They are getting it prepared now – the sooner the better.”
“Its been a shock,” he said, his voice faltering slightly.
“What exactly happened?” asked Corky.
“I’m still trying to establish the facts. I’ll explain what I know and then perhaps you can do the same for me.” He sat deeper into the chair and leaned back.
“As you can imagine,” he began, “I wasn’t too receptive to details when I was informed of Nigel’s accident. All I was concerned about was his health.”
His voice became calm now, matter-of-fact, in control again.
“Basically, two women found him. The women came out of a jitty into Kirkby Street, a small back street and heard shouting and saw at the end of the street three thugs in leather jackets kicking a body on the ground. That was Nigel. A fourth youth, who had been revving his bike, saw the women and shouted a warning. They all mounted their bikes and sped off.
“An ambulance brought Nigel here. While this was happening the police came to find me at a hosiery firm where I was giving a speech. I came here. Nigel asked for you, then started rambling, making no sense at all, and then he slipped into unconsciousness. I drove home and searched the phone book but you weren’t listed. But later, when I phoned my wife and daughter to tell them to come home – they’re on holiday in Yarmouth – I saw your name and number scribbled on the cover of the yellow pages. Then I phoned you.
“If I can find cretins I’ll break their heads open. Look what they’ve done to him. They are going to pay for this – and they’re not going to get off with a damn fine! It disgusts me.”
“Did they get the registration numbers of their bikes?” asked Maddy.
“No. They were too far away.”
“Did anyone else see them?”
“No. The police have been round all the houses near that end of the street. The police told me everything.”
“Oh? How come?” she asked impulsively. She thought she was the only one who could back fire questions at the police.
“Oh,” he said, looking surprised. “I have friends in the police,” he said, “I’m David Swain, your local MP,” he smiled. “You obviously don’t recognise me.”
“Sorry,” said Maddy.
Politics didn’t impress her. She went to considerable trouble to avoid the boring subject; television channels were switched and radios re-tuned when transmissions threatened to turn red, blue or purple, right, left or centre. Although she didn’t think the greens weren’t quite so bad. Anyway, most of it was double talk, hypocrisy and usually totally unrelated to peoples’ problems.
“Another one,” said Maddy.
“Another one?” asked David Swain.
“I met Richard Courtwall the other day. It must be my lucky week meeting two politicians in as many days,” she said.
“You’ve nothing to worry about – just imagine how many I meet in a week. Look, let’s go to the waiting room – visiting time is almost over – and you can tell me why it was so important for my son to see you.”
Minutes later, in the dimly-lit waiting room, Maddy went over the past three days with Nigel’s father.
Corky drifted over to a window on the far side of the room. She dreamily looked out into the night. A tabby went by. A church clock struck nine. It had been three days since Hanson had visited.
Dorothy Brent’s lovely face shadowed black and grotesque. An orange beak grew where her nose should be. She was a black crow; a black crow of hate; a black crow pecking at Maddy’s face. In the early hours, sweating uncomfortably, Maddy broke out of the nightmare into consciousness.
Corky laughed when she woke and found Maddy sleeping beside her.
That morning they set about the task of tidying up. The house had to be spotless – Maddy’s parents were returning from the Channel Islands that afternoon. It took more energy than Maddy could muster: occasionally she felt dizzy and had to sit down.
By the middle of the afternoon the house was well-ordered and clean; a fine example that would ingratiate any returning parent to feel easy about leaving their offspring to keep house again.
In the middle of the afternoon Nigel’s father phoned up from the hospital: Nigel was still unconscious.
After watching a channel 4 weepy, Corky left to return home for a family gathering.
“I’ll ring up later and I’ll creep a bit to your dad for using his darkroom,” she said to Maddy on the doorstep.
Left alone Maddy attempted to play her trumpet but became breathless and had to stop. She tried again but half-way through an exercise the room began to sway and her mouth craved moisture. She felt grotty.
When Mr. and Mrs. Quebric returned home at five thirty they found their daughter crumpled up on the settee fast asleep.
* * * *
Corky rang in the evening. Mr. Quebric answered.
Yes thanks, he was saying, we had a wonderful holiday. Of course the darkroom was tidy. Of course it was no trouble letting you use it, you can use it again whenever you want, providing you let me know, Corky.
“My dad says you’re in a call box,” said Maddy when she came to the phone, “why aren’t you phoning from home?”
“I can’t. A super-bore called Mrs. Hencombe has been on the phone for ages, for over an hour. Anyway I wanted to get out and walk. Its boring at home with all the relatives.”
“Come around. We need to work out what we’re going to do next.”
“Great. I’ll be around within the hour. I might be able to cadge a lift.”
“I fell off to sleep after you went. My mum insists I go to the doctor tomorrow. She’s going to see how bad I am in the morning. She’s worried I’ve got some bug.”
“Mothers always worry. It’s a mother’s complaint.” The phone lines became crackly. “I’ll come round in about an hour – about eight.”
“You can stay again if you like.”
“Okay, see you later.”
“Corky! Come back. I’ve just remembered what I wanted to ask you.”
“You know your dad’s got a tape recorder. An office pocket one.”
“Sorry I can’t hear you. Shout!”
“Tiny tape recorder! Your dad’s. Can you bring it?”
“Yes. You mean the small one?”
“Sure. If I can. ‘Bye.”
At nine thirty on Monday morning Corky walked up Aylestone road towards Rowley Hills Comprehensive School. As Maddy knew her mother would force her off to the doctors, Corky had been delegated the important task of making ‘enquiries’ at Zena’s school single handed. For this she was equipped with a note pad, a fibre-tipped pen and the miniature tape recorder of her father’s that she had taken to Maddy’s the previous night.
Maddy had foreseen that she would be restrained by her illness and her mother for at least a day and, as time was short, the tape recorder – which was small and easy to conceal – had given her the idea of getting Corky to record interviews which could then be played back later.
“It means you won’t forget anything. You can’t write down everything that people say, can you?”
Corky felt a bit put out somehow; like she was being underestimated again.
“The tape recorder is only a tool, you know. The skill of finding answers is asking the right questions, and I know you can do that,” said Maddy.
Corky was now entering the school grounds remembering their conversation. One advantage she had over Maddy here was she knew her way around. Nevertheless finding fifth year students could be difficult at this time of the year. The school didn’t break up until Friday, but like her, many hadn’t been at school since the exams.
* * * *
Under the strip lighting of the foyer, Julie Kotengo appeared, her face caked with make-up.
“What are you after, as if I don’t know?” she asked Corky.
“I’m looking for Ms. Taylor.”
“Not in trouble I hope.”
“No. I say, I do think your face painting is lovely.”
“Its much better than the script. I’m in the hall working on a dramatic production. I’ve got to buzz but I’ll see you in the canteen later.”
They arranged a time.
* * * *
Angular chairs, painted sinks, grafiti table tops, and poster displays surrounded Corky as she entered the Art room. The whir of the potters wheel, the clicking of fourth year pencils, and the smell of printers inks reinforced once again why this was her favourite classroom.
Diane Taylor, the art teacher was pleased to see Corky and asked her if she wanted the old screen printing inks that were now being replaced. Corky was chuffed. “You bet! I’ll send my dad round in his car to collect them before the end of the week,” she said.
Prior to bringing Zena’s name into the conversation Corky discretely switched on the tape recorder in her pocket.
“Ms Taylor, you used to have Zena Saxby in your tutor group, didn’t you?” she asked.
Diane Taylor’s slender neck relaxed and her pretty head lolled forward in contemplation. She smiled as if she was being flattered.
“So you’re asking questions about the poor girl as well. As I said to the police there isn’t really much to know.”
“What do you know?”
“Well…basically…Zena didn’t have a good fourth year. She had a tendency to rub people up the wrong way with her finely-honed sarcasm. She didn’t have many friends. She fell in with a bad crowd at her Youth Club. Mind you, she was different in the fifth year. She settled down a lot, although she still sometimes had her outbursts. She had got on well with another girl, Leslie Swain, Nigel’s sister.
“I don’t know her. I know Nigel,” said Corky.
“Poor Nigel,” she said. “The headmaster mentioned him this morning in assembly; he gave a talk on the senselessness of violence.
“The police have been here asking me all sorts of questions because she was in my tutor group. Yet, the funny thing is, there was something I didn’t tell them. I suppose I should let them know. It happened after they had questioned me.”
“What was that?”
“It was strange really,” said the art teacher, leaning against a table, slippery wet from kneading clay, “I don’t know if its important or not. I was looking for an overdue library book in Marjorie Alman’s locker. As I opened her locker several books dropped out. As I was bending down to pick them up I noticed one of the lower lockers had no front panel on it. The hinges had been torn off and the panel was placed inside the locker. I wouldn’t normally have taken any notice – people are always vandalizing things around here – but it had Zena’s name on it and – well this is odd, I thought. A girl who the police are looking for has had the front of her locker torn off.”
“When was this?”
“On Friday morning.”
“Well, I looked at it. I removed the flap from the locker so that I could look inside. One History text book, one Communication Studies text book and two exercise books. Nothing else. I asked a boy at a nearby locker how long the front had been off. He didn’t know. I flicked through the books but didn’t find anything of interest. That’s about it, I suppose. The police asked me to report anything to them that might assist with their inquiries. I thought this seemed quite strange at the time, but now it seems fairly tame. I suppose I should let them know but they always take so long asking questions.” She turned and smiled. “Mind you, you’re bad enough!”
“Could I borrow these books for a while?”
Diane Taylor wasn’t sure at first, but Corky managed to persuade her. “The two text books have gone back into store, so they’ll be mixed up with all the others now, but her exercise books are in my form room. I’ll get them for you but I must have them back.”