The man known as Mark had been watching her intently, clearly impatient at Iltud’s diffidence. He broke in. “You’re not going mad, and neither are we, as you will see when well enough. Last night did your vehicle lose its electrics, also your other devices? Did you see what you thought were the Northern Lights? Did you feel a crackling in the air, static electricity like you’ve never felt before? I can see from your face that you did. That’s just what happens when someone crosses the barrier. Everything Iltud here has told you is true, and plenty more besides, like no electronic devices work here. Don’t ask me why, I’m not a scientist. There are no cars, nor lights other than oil lamps and candles, no telephones or radios, or any such like, not even thunder or lightning. No one on the outside knows we’re here and that’s the way we like it to keep it, and why, once you find us, you’ve really joined us whether you wish it or not.”
She goggled at him, as he continued. “Did you see what you thought was hunting you? We call them the Guardians, but it was just as well we had business in the area and found you.”
“This is some sort of joke…” but her response was interrupted by Martha pushing aside her husband and entering the room carrying a tray holding tea and some sort of sandwich, followed by an older grey-haired woman carrying an old-fashioned doctor’s visiting bag.
“There’s a time and a place for everything Seigneur and you Iltud should know better. It’s too soon; she needs rest, time to recover and to see her son, not you overwhelming her. Explanations and questions can come later; she’ll come to understand.”
“You know the laws with new incomers Martha,” replied the Seigneur who was clearly the senior figure despite being the youngest by some way. “They were near her, too near. You know what that means, the barrier was weaker. It’s growing again. More like her must be expected.”
Sally could see that the Stewards’ wife was clearly not one to be overawed in her own home. “She’s a guest in my home and Doctor Gillian here needs to examine her. Come back and bother her this evening if you must.”
Her husband clearly didn’t know where to look and the younger man smiled bashfully at the chiding. Suddenly Sally sensed the tension in the room had gone and a warm humour surfaced among her hosts, relaxing her as the two men nodded at her and ducked out of the room speaking in their strange language or dialect. There was closeness between them all, a trust that only comes from long familiarity and shared endeavours.
Doctor Gillian, another simply dressed but spry looking older woman smiled at her and sat by the bed while Martha hovered at its end. “Let’s all have some tea and you can eat your sandwich while I check you over.”
Fifteen minutes passed as the doctor cleaned and re-bandaged Sally’s gashed head and, other than heavy concussion, the doctor pronounced everything else to be minor, recommending a week’s recuperation in the cottage; Sally noticing Martha’s apparent pleasure at this, seemingly having a young child to grandmother was her main motivation in her now childless home.
The Doctor sat back in her chair, studying her closely. “It’s almost too much to take in isn’t it? Those born here in the Pocket can’t really understand the impact it makes on us outsiders for the first time.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a stray like you who came here by accident, at least that’s what I thought then. I’ve been here nearly twenty years. Trained as a Doctor in Edinburgh – I’m from Islay originally by the way – have you been there?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“Shame, I would have liked someone to tell me what it’s like now. Anyway, I worked in Bristol, Frenchay. My husband left me, no children, my life just slowly dissolved I suppose – any of this ring a bell? I quit my job, gave up my flat and came west one night not knowing where I was going, I think the western moors reminded me of my childhood. Hiked across the moor and found myself here…”
“But those things, what Iltud’s friend called… What were they again?”
“I must have been lucky; I came straight through unmolested, thank God.”
What are they Doctor?”
“I’m not sure I can answer that. You’d better ask Iltud or someone in authority. Just be glad that you made it through intact, not all do. I won’t describe some of the things that have been brought to my door… Anyway, here I still am. I’m not sure anyone looked for me very hard, just another lost soul who disappeared with no obvious evidence of foul play. I was as out of sympathy with the world as it was with me. It must have taken me three months to accept my new life here though, it wasn’t easy. They were looking for a Doctor for this part of the March and the upper villages, and I found a new life, even a new husband. Hopefully you can too, more easily than me.”
“But, my husband…”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Forget that last part then. Sometimes my tongue runs away with me. At least you’ve got your young son with you. He’s fine by the way. I examined him last night when you were brought in and gave him a mild sedative to get him to sleep. I hope that’s alright?”
She smiled anxiously at Sally through her blushing cheeks, picked up her things and made her goodbyes, promising to look in again the following day. How many times has she given that speech, thought Sally? It’s well practised, a sort of ongoing conversation with an old part-abandoned self, almost as if she is still trying to come to terms with the disjoint in her life?
Martha came back after letting the Doctor out. The day outside was maturing now and a beautiful bright spring sunlight played out across the room, enlivening those within. “Do you want to get up and see your son? He’s asleep in the next room. You’ll need a bath – it’s downstairs in all these cottages I’m afraid – and the boys found your vehicle last night and brought your bags back. Then I suggest some more rest.”
Suddenly the unrequested kindness in the older woman’s voice unlocked a pressure reservoir of suppressed emotion within the younger woman. Perhaps it was the loneliness of her recent months punctured by a stranger’s concern, perhaps it was the bewildering situation, the confrontation with her and her son’s mortality, but she reached out and hugged her hostess to her, crying like a baby, ”Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
Andy Bowson and George Edward were in their offices by seven the morning following their return to London. Overnight updates from the teams in Birmingham had to be gone through and preliminary ballistics reports were expected mid-morning. On top of that, potentially relevant snippets of data, received from various agencies required review before a twelve noon inter-agency sub-committee meeting which had been set up on their journey down the previous evening. Dager was also in the office early and he called Bowson into his office.
“This thing seems to be snow-balling Bowson. I understand we will be meeting senior representatives from GCHQ and MI5, probably our mystery friend from last night, our own Commissioner, Command head, and potentially the Home Secretary with associated hangers on. Something’s touched a nerve and we aren’t getting any time or space to do the job properly. Just get ready for it; you know what’s at stake.”
Bowson had never seen his superior like this before, he reflected unsympathetically. The pressure’s getting to him, the prospect of thwarted ambition and not being able to glide away from a debacle unscathed. Why hadn’t Sally called, what was going on with her? Surely she hadn’t walked out on him now? Had she left a letter at the home he hadn’t visited for so many days? Why now with so much else on? A chill settled on him, tipping his shaky equanimity into another train of thought. Was it something to do with this case, had she been targeted in some way because of his job? He needed to get home right now, but was trapped here. Should he call the local station to send someone round to have a look at his house? No, that would look panicky. Just as he had decided to pick up the phone to his local station his mobile rang. It was a Devon & Cornwall police sergeant.
“Chief Inspector Bowson, you reported your wife missing late last night? I’m sorry, but your wife’s car has been found abandoned on a road on the south-west fringe of Exmoor with an empty child seat. It was unlocked and if there was any luggage it’s been removed. There’s no sign of her or the child. We closed the road for forensic tests and are making enquiries with the locals: there are only a few farms up there, but we are stopping any traffic to see if anyone passed that way yesterday and saw anything. We’ve ordered a helicopter search of the surrounding moorland which will start shortly, but you know what it’s like up there. I believe her parents live locally; will you be able to come down?”
Shock, stunning shock, a momentary stopped heartbeat for Andy Bowson. It can’t be, it’s not possible… His brain clouded and then his heart-rate rose as his body tried to compensate for the additional load of stress that had landed on him. A busy, all-consuming professional world briefly lost its grip on him as he tried to take it in, only to reassert its iron control at the prompting of his telephone correspondent, “Chief Inspector Bowson, are you still there?”
“Sorry? Any… Any clues, evidence of foul play, where she might have…”
“I’m sorry, nothing obvious… perhaps forensics will help?”
A long, slow exhale, don’t go to pieces man, you’re a professional. “I’m not sure I can make it today, I’ve got something on here. I’ll need to get permission, I’ll have to get back to you…” Almost as an after-thought, “Do her parents know?”
“Not from us. Do you have their details? Do you want us to call them?”
The implication in the man’s voice was clear, ‘You’re taking it too well. What the hell’s wrong with you? You should call them…’
“Okay, I’ll speak to her parents and make enquiries from this end. And I’ll try to come down asap.”
“Can you keep me informed of any developments? Thanks.”
He placed the phone down, got up and walked to his boss’ office.
Halfway over he checked himself and headed for the coffee machine, brushing aside questions from a couple of his team on the way. What was he doing? Admitting to Dager of all people that his personal life was in melt-down, that he couldn’t cope with the pressure, that he’d have to abandon the biggest challenge of his career to race down to the West Country after his errant wife? You’ve got to be professional, report it to your superiors and leave it to the local force to find her. That’s what they would expect of a dedicated career officer. The hard, professional veneer was reasserting itself, pressing down the fears for his son, and, yes, for his wife whom deep-down he still loved. ‘Don’t you?’ he asked himself, ‘I must do, haven’t really thought about it like that, for how long now? A wobble, get it over with before you lose it, face it down.’
He breathed deeply and walked into Dager’s office, closing the door behind him.
“Can I have a word boss?”
Dager gestured silently to him.
“My wife and child have disappeared on the way to her parents in North Devon. The car’s been found unlocked and abandoned, but intact, on the moor… Any luggage she was taking has also gone and I’ve heard nothing from her for two days. The local force is out searching and they consider her a missing person, but there’s no trace. It seems from my conversation with her parents that it must have happened some time yesterday evening.”
Dager looked at him, apparently stunned. “What d’you want to do? What do you want me to do? I, we, need you, here. And you know the protocols…””
“I need to go home to see if there is anything there that might give us a clue, but that can wait until after the meeting later. Can you chivvy the local force to step up the urgency? What if it’s linked to my job?”
“Okay, but if any evidence at all emerges that it’s linked to your job, you’ll have to stand down from this investigation. You know the issues, especially if it’s blackmail.” He sighed, “Almost certainly it’s got an innocent explanation, but I will make a few calls; I’m sure it will be resolved happily.”
He took that as his dismissal. On the way back to his desk he thought that Dager had almost been genuinely human for once. Yes, the pressure was definitely getting to him too.
© 1642again 2018