The chrome kettle clicked and shuddered and blew steam across the kitchen. Adam tore his eyes from the TV screen and glanced at the large digital clock. 5.18. His mother would arrive back on the 5.20, and the trains always ran on time. She’d be home in less than ten minutes.
He grabbed two mugs from the kitchen cabinet and tossed a spoonful of instant coffee into each without taking his eyes from the screen. Rolling news. Rolling, rolling, rolling…. the square headed guy with the immaculate haircut, and the bob-cut pasty faced blonde, newsing it up for England.
5.27. He could set his watch by his mother’s movements, unlike his, and he still didn’t understand how she managed to do that, the ability to appear at the precise moment that she said she would. He sat at the kitchen table and sipped the coffee, cheap supermarket lookalike tripe. He grimaced and cursed. Footsteps on the path. Heels. She was almost home.
He heard the key in the lock and watched the door open.
‘Adam!’ she said, a note of urgency in her voice the languid youth could not miss. She was in the kitchen, standing before him, breathing unusually heavily.
‘Hi Ma, I’ve made you some coffee.’
‘Never mind that, son! You must get in the hole. They are coming!’
The youth scoffed.
‘This isn’t the middle-ages, mother. Who are coming? And I’m not getting in any hole either! Drink your coffee before it gets cold.’
‘Bugger the coffee!’ she shrieked, ‘I mean it!’ and she took one of the mugs and threw half the content down the plughole, before setting the mug upright in the sink.
‘Get in that hole before I give you the back of my hand!’
Adam’s mouth fell open.
His mother had never once struck him, not in anger, not in his memory, and nor had his father, so far as he knew, though he could barely remember his dad at all. Parental discipline in the Goodchild household had only ever consisted of stern voices, and an occasional stoppage of his money allowance, and in truth, that had always been more than sufficient.
‘Don’t you think you are overreacting a tad?’
It was as if his mother wasn’t listening.
She was wrestling with the oak panelling set to the right of the large brick hearth. Carnachan had made it, built it with his own hands.
‘You never know when you might need a hiding place,’ he used to say, as if it had been born from deep within his long forgotten Irish genes. ‘You just never know,’ in that quiet way of his.
Sometimes that voice alone could reduce Mary to tears, when he spoke in that way, as she looked at him and marvelled at his presence, his immaculate body and calm face, and right there, when she had finally opened that priest hole, as Carnachan always referred to it, she thought of him from all those years ago, from before Adam was born. He had built it with such great care, like wood craftsmen always do, carpenters, that’s what he was, a professional carpenter, and though it would take ages for him to complete anything, when it was done, it was always immaculately constructed, and beautifully finished.
A work of art, they called it, the pair of them, as they laughed and smiled together, and shared a bottle of stout, a secret hideaway that only the two of them would ever know. His meticulousness was the first thing that had attracted her to him, once she had overcome the initial feeling that he was simply being over fussy. He wasn’t fussy at all; he was meticulous in everything he did. She grew to like it, that meticulousness.
‘Get inside boy!’ she ordered. ‘Please son. For your mother’s sake!’
Adam looked down into his mother’s eyes. He saw fright and terror, mirrored images he had never seen before. It alarmed him. His heart rate exploded, and for a second he had to fight his limbs, for oddly, they did not wish to obey.
‘Oh, Mum, do I have to?’
She ignored his protests and ushered him inside, and already he was entombed. Adam could hear her outside replacing the panels, ensuring that everything was just so. In the darkness, he pressed his ear to the wood and listened. Silence. He was alone, but for the three large vaguely interested spiders that sat quietly in their webs above his head, awaiting their prey. The boy was sadly, too big for that.
A large drop of cold sweat fell from his armpit and dribbled down the secret white skin of his left side. He hadn’t noticed before it was a cool evening, and began shivering. His teeth chattered, in the darkness, surrounded in silence.
Mary sat at the kitchen table and glanced nonchalantly at the Bournemouth Echo. Terrorists Arrested In London, the headline blared, not that she noticed the words, for her mind was absent from that little cottage. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and shifted in her seat. Loud footsteps on the path brought her back to the present. Two sets at least, possibly more. Urgent steps, military, manly, unsettling footsteps.
The old brass door-knocker her long dead mother had bought for her in Lymington market demanded attention. Heavy quality, British made, long before the cheap foreign rubbish had flooded into the shops. It did the job it was built to do. It did the job well, and Carnachan had approved of it, because he knew that it would last.
Rat-a-tat-tat! Louder this time, and then a man’s voice, ‘Open Up! Police!’
Inside the hole, Adam heard the voices.
‘Coming,’ Mary said gently, as she slowly made her way, as unflustered as she could manage, toward the ancient planked door. She undid the lock and pulled it open. Two men. Civilian clothes. Miserable, fit looking white men. Middle-aged, and between them, one gun, one large, black, and frightening, firearm.
‘We have a warrant to search this house!’ barked the leading man, as he pushed past her into the kitchen.
‘But why?’ she said, following them into her home. ‘What on earth for?’
‘You know damn well what for!’ he snarled. ‘Are you alone?’
‘Yes, I am. Look, who are you? Identify yourselves.’
‘Inspector Jarvis Smeggan,’ the leading one grunted.
An unusual name, she thought, though somehow is seemed to fit, for he gave off the appearance of misery personified.
‘This is Sergeant Trevor Hewitt.’
She glanced at the hastily flashed ID cards, though in truth she was none the wiser.
‘Where’s the offspring?’ demanded Smeggan, managing to say even that in a spiteful manner.
‘Still at school, football practice, something like that.’
Smeggan sniffed, and glanced around the room.
Adam was shivering less than ten feet away, his ears pricked like a forest pony surrounded by foxes.
‘Take hold of her!’ ordered Smeggan.
The sergeant grabbed her from behind, his arms curling under her armpits, locking together behind her head, forcing her arms into the air.
Smeggan closed on her and stared into her eyes. She could smell his breath, stale tobacco, spiced sausages he’d recently eaten; she guessed he’d not long burped, and turned her head away. From behind, the sergeant shook her, and forced her to face his boss.
‘It’s very simple,’ Smeggan said, ‘you either help us and go free, and we’ll spare the sprog the indignities that are bound to come his way, or you don’t…. and pay the consequences.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘You’re hurting me. Let me go!’
Adam listened in silence, feeling inadequate. Hateful.
The inspector drew back his arm and slapped her heavily across her left cheek.
Mary felt the sensation of blood running in her mouth. Tasted it too. Tears could not be far away, for both of the Goodchilds.
‘It’s very simple,’ he repeated, ‘all you have to do, is tell us where the Tinbergen Papers are.’
‘The what!’ she said, incredulously.
He grabbed her chin with his finger and thumb and squeezed hard.
‘You heard me! I am rapidly losing my temper!’
‘Inspector, I have no idea what you are talking about. Let me go before I make a complaint.’
He drew back his hand and slapped her again, as Hewitt held her tighter still. Blood seeped from the corner of her lip and began dribbling down her chin. Smeggan came closer and smiled, exhibiting crooked teeth.
Mary brought up her right knee with all the power and force she could muster. All those long evenings of keep fit and yoga and judo classes had finally paid dividend. Those jerking knee movements they specialised in so. She caught the intended target bang on. Smeggan’s mouth fell open, as he gasped for breath. He turned to one side, and doubled up.
‘Bitch!’ he squawked from the corner of his mouth.
‘You all right, boss?’ mumbled Hewitt, momentarily relaxing his grip.
Mary sensed it and twisted violently one way, and then the other, and with all her strength she burst from Hewitt’s full Nelson hold. She ran to the back door, unlocked it, and was through it, before they could stop her.
The garden to Lilac Cottage was long and narrow, and was packed with plants of every conceivable size and shape. Mary was not so much a gardener, as a plantswoman, and she loved them equally, dearly; as if they were members of her own family. Plants can hear, you know, she would tell her neighbours and friends, if those same friends ever said anything remotely detrimental about any one of them.
The garden stretched all the way down to an old wooden stile that gave access to a small meadow, where in the early morning and late evening, a family of deer could be seen grazing. A narrow paved path ran down the centre of the garden as if some giant had scrawled a pencil line in the earth. Beyond the meadow lay the open forest.
By the time the policemen reached the back door, Smeggan, breathing heavily, saw that Mary was half way down the garden.
‘Well?’ said Smeggan, struggling to stand upright.
‘Sir?’ whispered the sergeant.
‘Are you going to let her escape?’
‘No, sir. Certainly not, sir.’
‘You know what to do, Hewitt.’
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, detachedly.
He raised the HK417 and trained it on the escaping woman.
She was now at the stile, her right foot on the cross beam.
‘Take out the terrorist!’ ordered Smeggan.
‘Are you sure, sir?’
‘Are you questioning my orders, man? I won’t tell you again.’
Mary Goodchild was now over the stile, and had leapt onto the freshly nipped meadow. She hadn’t changed her shoes, and they weren’t truly suitable for sprinting over damp grass.
She never heard the short spit of automatic fire.
Mary fell down dead on the grass, her blood staining the meadow, a scarlet mess to be cleaned later by the creatures of the night.
Smeggan smiled horribly, and turned away.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s search the house. Should be fun.’
Back in the kitchen Smeggan said, ‘You take upstairs, I’ll do down.’
‘Leave the weapon there.’
‘Yes sir,’ Trevor said again, placing the warm gun on the kitchen table. He was reluctant to part with it, for he’d grown fond of the Heckler & Koch HK417 Assaulter Carbine. It hadn’t let him down yet, nor any of his contemporaries, and that was vital in any modern armed unit. He trudged toward the narrow twisty staircase and began ascending.
‘Wait!’ yelled Smeggan.
Hewitt glanced down. ‘What is it?’
‘What is that, there?’ said Smeggan, pointing to the mug on the table.
‘Looks like coffee, sir.’
‘Is it warm?’
The sergeant came back to the kitchen and stuck his index finger in the drink.
‘It is, sir.’
‘And that there?’ said Smeggan, turning and leering at the half empty mug, sitting in the sink.
Hewitt smiled, ever willing to be impressed by his slightly strange superior, and made his way to the basin.
‘It is sir, warm too, sir, yes.’
‘So all along she was not alone. I thought not. No one makes themselves two cups. I’ll bet the kid was here too. He might still be here. Find him, Hewitt, find him man!’
‘Pity we didn’t bring the dogs,’ said Hewitt, glancing around the cottage, pondering where a youth might possibly hide.
‘We’ll find him, Hewitt, we don’t need damn dogs.’
‘Shouldn’t we call an ambulance, sir, to take away the body?’
‘Later! She is unimportant; it is the boy we must find. He could still be here, and if he is, I want him, understand? I want him!’
‘Got you, sir. We’ll find the little sod, if he is here.’
Adam was becoming breathless. He had never been the fittest boy in the class, and his slight figure did nothing for his fortitude. He was running toward Brockenhurst railway station where he intended catching the first train out of town.
After hearing the shots, he had let himself out of his father’s priest hole. He’d carefully closed it again, keeping the secret, before tiptoeing across the kitchen, and peering out through the back door, through the dusty glass. Two men were a little way down the garden, their backs to him, chatting as if without a care in the world. One of them was carrying a large black gun, and it was dangling down toward his feet.
Adam thought he saw smoke drifting from the barrel, though he might have been mistaken. Beyond them at the far end of the garden, past the stile, in the field, on the grass, he imagined he saw his mother, lying motionless. He couldn’t be certain, for he didn’t stay long enough to see. He didn’t want to see. The mere thought of what might be lying there chilled his soul. No one wants to witness the sight of their dead mother, not at his age, not at any age. Self-preservation had kicked in. He had turned tail, and ran.
He had never been a particularly brave boy.
Worse still, in stressful situations he had often opted for the easy way out, and that invariably meant on his toes. He’d run. He was running now. He was a consummate runner. What else could he have done, he pondered, and on that point, for once, he was right.
The railway station was busy with commuters coming home from the city, eager for their dinner and their mistresses and their cheap bottles of imported red wine, and the blockbuster midweek movie on TV. They were all flooding out. Adam was going in, against the tide. He thought of buying a ticket, only to realise he had no money. He was dressed in a hundred times washed sweatshirt and dirty jeans. He liked his clothes that way, streetwise and trendy, or so he imagined, for he didn’t want to be seen as the country boy from the upmarket town in the sticks, with the plummy accent.
British Railways would like to apologise for the late running of the Bournemouth train. This was caused by an incident at Basingstoke station earlier this afternoon. The next train for Bournemouth will arrive at platform two in approximately fifteen minutes.
Adam shivered. October 20th, and it was getting noticeably colder. He made his way down the platform to the waiting room and let himself in. It was empty, except for one woman sitting on the far side of the room. A neat young woman in a dark suit, her feet and knees together, a black briefcase at her side on the benchseat, the evening edition of The Messenger wide open in her hands.
She glanced up at the youth, pleasantly she thought. Adam looked away, and that was unusual. He chose to sit as far away as possible, on the opposite side, at the far end of the long and narrow room. The woman returned to her newspaper. Adam stared at his shoes. He would bum a ride to Bournemouth where he would hide in the lavatories on the platform, until the guards were off guard. Then he would dash out, and take his chance, and rush through the gates, and hurry on down toward to city, before they could catch him. That was the plan.
In the quietness, disturbed only by the neighbouring rookery, and occasional strident tannoy announcements, he began thinking. In his mind he heard the men hitting his mother. He heard her crying out. He remembered standing in that darkened hole, sweating. The truth was, he’d almost wet himself.
He revisited the uselessness he felt. It was not a new experience for him. He had spent most of his seventeen years feeling pretty useless. He had failed her, the one person he adored; the one person who had seemingly valued him, his opinions and his feelings. He had failed her totally, completely and utterly, and worse than that, he had abandoned her at her greatest moment of need. What was life all about? What was life for if a young man could not protect his own mother? When the train came he might leap in front of it, finish everything, for there was no one left to care, though of course he could not possibly do that, for such an act would require great courage, and anyway, his mother would not want him to do that.
Adam began crying.
Quiet sniffles to begin with, soon to become blaring wails. He no longer cared about the woman sitting there; he no longer could feel embarrassment, he no longer cared about anything.
The woman stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’ she whispered. ‘Are you all right?’
Adam nodded, his head almost between his knees, as the wailing continued. She collected her things and crossed the room, and sat beside him. Not too close, for one never really knew what kind of people inhabited railway station waiting rooms at night.
‘Are you alright?’ she repeated.
He looked up, through red eyes.
‘No! I am not all right!’
‘What is it? What on earth is the matter?’
‘The police have just murdered my mother, in our home, that’s what the bloody matter is!’
The woman’s mouth opened. She stared into his face.
But that couldn’t be right. What he had just said. That couldn’t be right at all. The youth must be mistaken. Perhaps he was on something; perhaps he was tripping, it still happened, despite everything. Yet the terror in his eyes was real enough, and she knew from her acting experience with the BAP, the Bournemouth Amateur Players, that terror such as this could not be reproduced on demand, not exactly in that way, not even Sir Richard Maygram or Dame Kate Winslet could do that, so realistically. It just wasn’t possible. She believed him.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
‘Bournemouth,’ he mumbled.
Chatting seemed to calm him, she imagined.
‘How old are you?’
‘You look younger.’
‘Everyone says that.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Adam…. Adam Rexington,’ he mumbled.
He hated his real surname, Goodchild. Rexington was the name of the late school bully who had left the previous term, to annoy the army. Everyone was terrified of Johnny Rexington, and had breathed a huge sigh of relief when he had finally buggered off to join the army, and if one percent of his powerful presence came along with that name, then Adam would settle for that. He wasn’t the only pupil who studied the casualty lists praying, so far without success, to see the name Rexington secreted there.
‘How old do you think I look?’
She pulled a face. ‘Thirteen, maybe.’
Dagger to the heart. Thirteen! Jeez!
How could he ever be taken seriously when people thought he was still a kid?
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, sitting back on the seat, wiping his face on his sweatshirt sleeve.
‘Elizabeth. Elizabeth Mariner, but my friends all call me Liz.’
She was a looker, stylish, he noticed that for the first time, way out of his league, he knew that well enough, but by God she was a looker, all right. The kind of woman he could never talk to, not in a million years, the kind of woman you might see in a mucky magazine in skimpy clothing, and yet here he was, talking with her, chatting with her, chatting her up, he fancifully imagined. He forced a smile, ever mindful that he possessed neither ticket nor money.
‘Can I travel with you…. Liz…. to Bournemouth?’
‘Sure,’ she said, smiling in that crushing way she possessed, her sparkling green eyes coming into play. ‘Come on, I think the train’s coming.’
The train was indeed coming, a red and gold electric train, running off third rail propulsion. It had been smart once, but no longer. It was a former South West Trains unit, Adam could tell that easily enough, because you could still see where the old letters had been torn off. They had been replaced with yellowy-green British Railways signs. The rampant lion logo was back, and it was everywhere. British Railways, British Railways, damned British railways!
The train was half empty, or half full, depending on how you looked at life; carrying bored, tired looking workers, yawning their way home. Adam and Liz found a seat half way down the carriage, a seat just for two, where Liz sat by the window, with her briefcase on her lap. Adam sat beside her; close enough to feel the warmth from her body.
‘So,’ she said, eager to keep the conversation moving. ‘What do you do?’
To Adam it sounded like something a member of the Royal family might ask, and he laughed aloud.
What do you do?
Either way, he ignored the question and said, ‘Liz, I haven’t got a ticket.’
‘You fool!’ she scolded, yet still in a happy kind of way. ‘You should have said. I would have bought you one.’
‘Too late now,’ he said, cockily.
‘They are really hot on that kind of thing now, you know, anyone travelling without a ticket. They could call the police. You could get arrested. What are you going to do?’
He shared his plan with her, whispering in her ear from the right side of his mouth, just in case someone might overhear.
‘We can do better than that,’ she said, grinning.
‘I’ll go out; and at the end of the platform, I’ll pass you my season ticket through the railings. Then you come out after me. Easy peasy.’
She grinned again, and just for a moment she seemed like one of his mischievous school friends. What a surprise, he thought, her talking like that, an adult and all. It was almost as if she belonged in his world, and not theirs. Then he remembered: ‘But there’s a photograph on it,’ he said, unconvinced. ‘I hardly look like you, do I?’
‘They never look at that, ever,’ she said convincingly. ‘Especially at nights, they are just too tired. Just cover it with your thumb. Unless you are too scared of course…. Adam Rexington.’
A challenge. He recognised that well enough.
‘I’m not scared,’ he said, sitting up in his seat to his full height, a height at which he could just about look down on her. ‘I’m not scared of anything.’
Who are you kidding, she thought, remembering him blubbering his eyes out but twenty minutes before, but she couldn’t help liking the skinny kid. There was something strange about him, and he might just be of use to her one day, and you couldn’t have too many friends. She’d hooked him, and she knew it.
Adam dawdled getting off the train. When he finally jumped down to the platform, he didn’t walk toward the exit, but away, as if he were a stranger, who didn’t know the way out. It was a dangerous moment, for it looked odd. It could attract attention. He half expected some gorilla to shout: ‘Hey you!’ But no one did.
In the next moment she was walking alongside him, on the other side of the railings. She dropped the ticket at the base of the fence, just as she promised, and walked briskly away, without a word or a backward glance.
He stooped to tie his shoelace. Peered around. Nothing. Nobody. His arm shot through the railings and grabbed the ticket. He turned and hurried after the last of the passengers. Safety in numbers, and he didn’t want to be alone, or the last one out. He flattened his thumb against her face, flashed the card at the weary guard, and strode confidently through the ticket point. As before, he expected a challenge, a bawling out, yet none came. Ahead, he saw her dawdling at the top of the incline that led away from the station. She wasn’t looking back; she was clever, and cool.
He hurried after her and caught her and fell in step beside her, as they disappeared around the corner.
‘Like a dream,’ he said. ‘Worked like a freaking dream. Sorry….’
‘Told you so,’ she said, grinning at their joint minor triumph over authority.
‘Want the ticket back?’
‘In a minute, when we are well clear.’
‘What would you have done if they had caught me?’
‘Reported it missing, stolen, not a problem.’
‘I like you,’ he smiled. ‘You’re clever. You think of everything.’
She giggled, hardly believing she’d enjoyed a compliment from a kid like him.
‘So where are you going now?’ she asked.
‘Dunno. I was going to go to my mate’s, but I have just remembered he’s gone up to London. I might have to sell my arse under the pier to raise some ready cash.’
Liz shook her head in disbelief.
‘Don’t be so stupid!’ she said, ‘don’t talk like that,’ not really knowing whether he was being serious or not.
There was a short silence as they walked in step toward the city.
Then she whispered: ‘Do you want to come back to my place? You could stay the night, if you want.’
‘Really?’ he grinned. ‘Truly?’
‘Yep,’ she said decisively. ‘But no funny business, you behave yourself, or you’re out. Understand?’
‘Sure, whatever you say, Liz, thanks a million…. for everything.’
Liz Mariner’s apartment directly overlooked the bay. It boasted a balcony, three spacious bedrooms, and an underground car park in which her new British racing green MG sports car soundly slept. To many folks it would have seemed like the height of luxury, yet to her, it was simply home.
The long hours and stressful duties of a financial trader in the city paid for it, and in her eyes, it was the least she deserved. Adam had never seen anything quite like it. The furnishings were new and sleek and Swedish, and looked as if they had been dragged directly from Beale’s apartment store window.
‘You must half be rich,’ he whispered, through his teeth.
‘No…. not really,’ she smiled. ‘Comfortable maybe…. but not rich.’
He didn’t believe her.
‘Now, dinner,’ she said. ‘Hungry? Spag bol suit you?’
‘Sure,’ he said, remembering just how hungry he was.
‘You’re not one of those vegetarian freaks?’
‘Good God no,’ he grinned, examining her CD collection. No Goosesteppers. No taste, not a surprise. She was old. ‘I tried it once but couldn’t hack it. I need my meat,’ and he grinned devilishly at her, back over his shoulder, reminiscent of a scene from an old Jack Nicholson movie. Adam returned to thumbing through her music collection, though he could still see her in the kitchen, and he would regularly check she was still there, as if he were a puppy dog, constantly ensuring he was never alone.
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Course you can, but if I don’t want to answer, I won’t.’
He paused a second as if pondering her answer, or maybe he was wondering if he should ask her the question at all. In any event, he did.
‘Have you ever heard of something called the Tinbergen Papers?’
‘The what?’ she said, pausing and coming to stand in the sitting room doorway.
‘The Tinbergen Papers,’ he repeated.
‘Can’t say as I have,’ she muttered, and she returned to browning the mince. ‘What are they?’
‘I have no idea. Don’t know anything about them.’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘It was something my mum said.’
‘Check it out on the Internet.’
‘Can I?’ he answered, like a kid being offered an unexpected ice cream.
‘Sure you can.’
He didn’t need to be invited twice. He flipped open the laptop that lay at the end of the CD’s and booted it up.
‘What’s your password?’ he asked urgently, ‘to get online.’
‘Andrew,’ she said, without emotion.
‘Aha, the dreaded Andrew,’ he said triumphantly, ‘the first man in your life, eh?’
That brought a wide smile to her face, though he couldn’t see it from where he was. He could hear it though, in her words, and he knew he wasn’t far off the mark.
‘None of your damn business,’ she said mockingly, ‘just get on with it. What does it say?’
‘I don’t believe it!’
‘Come and see for yourself.’
She wiped her hands on the blue and white striped pinny and ambled into the sitting room, and peered past his shoulder at the large screen.
Your search for “Tinbergen Papers”, the display said, At this time all files on this subject are being updated. No information is currently available. Please try again later. Thank you for using National Web Search, the leading British Internet search engine.
‘What do you make of that?’ she said.
‘Bloody censorship, that’s what it is!’
‘Damn right it is! It’s happening more and more. The damned government can’t leave anything alone. They are censoring the Internet left right and centre.’
‘I’m telling you! There’s a guy at Brockenhurst College, Marcus Cross, he is monitoring the censored sites. It’s huge, it’s everywhere. He’s even developed a program to leapfrog the censor. He’s called it KillCen. There’s a big demand for it too, I’m telling you, you’d be amazed, pity we haven’t got a copy here. It really works, his stuff, every time, it’s brill.’
Adam abruptly ceased talking, as if realising he had already said too much. He didn’t know this woman from Adam; so to speak, and she could be working for the police, or anyone else, for all he knew.