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Childhood's Leafy Bower

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Found in each cliff a narrow bower; Fox-glove and nightshade, side by side, Emblems of punishment and pride—Sir Walter Scott

 

The boy looked up into the vast darkness, fear gnawing at his belly. He knew where he was, but it looked all wrong. Reaching out a trembling hand, he touched the leaves. Thick growth surrounded him, trapping him, enclosing him in an inescapable prison. He wanted to run, but his feet were rooted to the earth, planted like the hedgerows on both sides. From far away, he heard a deep-throated growl.

James sucked in a panicked breath and jerked awake, shivering. He was drenched in sweat, the bullet wound in his left arm throbbing with pain. From a corner of the bedroom, he heard rustling, and then a loud thump. His heart pounding, James fumbled for the light, at the same time recognising the man-sized shadow in the armchair.

Lewis. Sir. Robbie. His superior, his boss, and his friend, all rolled into one.

“James?”

His voice coming through the dark was calming, restorative. James dropped his hand from the lamp without turning on the light. “No worries, sir, a bad dream.”

“Shouldn’t wonder.” Lewis snorted. “Been that kind of a week, and both of us at odds.”

“You should go along to yours. Can’t possibly be comfortable there,” James said, trying to slow his pulse with long, careful breaths. Been an age since he’d dreamed about the maze, but spending time at Creve Coeur, and with Scarlett, had dredged up memories best left to moulder.

“And you should have gone to hospital after a gunshot wound in the arm,” Lewis said with a bit of testiness in his voice. “That’s both of us going against advice.”

“Only a graze,” James retorted. Because it was. Bullet hadn’t even gone into flesh, just whizzed by close enough to take a chunk of skin out of his arm. Burned like hell.

“Let’s get something in your stomach, then,” Lewis said as if he’d decided for both of them. “So you can take the painkillers. After tea, I’ll be on my way.”

“We’re meant to be back in the morning, oversee excavation of the body.” James felt woozy, half in the dream, the walls of the maze closing in. He’d not even gone near the God forsaken place this time round, yet it still had so much of a hold on him.
Never should have drunk that glass of champagne at Scarlett’s party. He’d not eaten much beforehand, as often happened when he was deep into an investigation, and nothing after. Would he have rushed Hopkiss if he’d been completely sober? Never know.

“You can stay here, tucked up with a good book. Medical leave.” Lewis had gone into the short hallway toward the kitchen, turning on the light outside the bedroom as he did so. “I’ll see what’s on offer in the kitchen.”

“Sir, it’s long after midnight,” James protested, although he knew there was no use once Robbie Lewis got it into his head to be nursemaid. Might as well lend a hand. Less likely to have his orderly kitchen put to disarray. He flung back the duvet and swivelled his hips to put his feet on the carpet. The room swirled around his head, and for a moment, he was sure he’d be sick.

Passed quickly enough, but left him unsettled. Probably a combination of his body readjusting after the injury and low blood sugar. While the idea of putting food into his dicky stomach was repellent, he knew it should be done. Something comforting, like soup and a cheese sandwich.

Lewis had already opened a packet of Batchelor’s chicken noodle and was humming quietly to himself as he stirred in the water. “Cupboard’s going bare, not much to choose from,” he said without looking up. “Popped bread into the toaster.”

“You’re the one enjoys strolling through the aisles at Tesco.” James settled into a chair at the table to watch. He should be helping but it seemed beyond his capabilities. Besides, Lewis had anticipated his appetite for simpler fare.

Lewis pulled a block of cheese out of the fridge, deftly slicing off the mouldy bits. “A word?” he asked, as if it really wasn’t all that important.

“What topic?” James countered, fairly certain he knew, nonetheless. Robert Lewis could get a confession out of a serial murderer. He’d pull the secrets out of James before the soup was finished. How best to resist his persistent governor?

“When did you leave Creve Coeur?” Lewis arranged slices of cheese on toasted bread to put them under the grill.

“When I left for Harrow,” James admitted, grateful for such an easy answer. The rest would be much, much more difficult, but he accepted that he’d have to open the vault and pull out the secrets. Didn’t do to keep them stuffed inside. After this week, what was the point?

“You’re musical,” Lewis said as if he’d only just thought of it. He set a round teapot and an assortment of tea bags on the table. “Did you play in the summer house?”

Far too close for comfort, that. “Like Briony, you’re implying?” he responded tightly. “Because, I used to play piano, as well.” He looked down to see his hands trembling and pressed them flat to the table. Made his arm smart all the more, and his head banged furiously. Definitely time for the Paracetamol. “No piano there, in my day. It was in the music room, in the house. I spent most of my time with Paul, Scarlett, and the other children.”

“Get this under your belt.” Lewis served the late night meal, sliding the bowl of soup in front of James.

He’d honestly expected the smell to turn his stomach right over and send him running for the bog, but surprisingly, it revved his appetite. James dipped in his spoon, getting two mouthfuls before Lewis even sat down.

“Peckish, were you?” Lewis smiled fondly, biting into his cheese toast. “Our Val used to make this when the wee ones were up at night, after they’d been ill.”

“As did mine.” Although that was so long ago, it seemed more a fantasy of a lovely familial scene than any event connected with his actual childhood. He’d had many bumps on the road of life, and never considered his own youth conventional. Except for the years at Creve Coeur, he’d often been the one on the sidelines, a loner. Too cerebral for the boys at boarding school, all obsessed with sport. He’d done well athletically, but most still hadn’t accepted him.

At Creve Coeur, he’d been one of a pack, acknowledged and accepted as one of the children of the manor. If anything, it was Scarlett who’d been different, with her aristocratic bloodline. None of that had mattered on a sublime July afternoon doing what children do.

He finished the soup, lingering over the cup of tea and cheesy bread, those days filling his memories. Both the good and bad. “Did you see the maze when you were on the estate?”

“Don’t know that I did.”

In the distance, the sound of a low growl crawled up his spine. He had to drink down half the tea to regain his equilibrium. “No longer in its prime, which I have been told was even before my time. My father was—“

“Grounds keeper,” Lewis put in. “I remember.”

“When he was barely out of his teens, the maze was apparently magnificent. Well maintained, hedgerows trimmed to perfection--with a little park at the centre.” James considered whether to continue. Like the dizzy spell earlier, he had to force himself not to sick up what he’d just consumed. He hadn’t talked about this in decades. It asn’t as if there were any fearful memories involved.

Were there?

James clicked his fingers to take his mind off useless anxieties. “Mind you, your old governor, Morse, had a hand in this.”

“How so?” Lewis chuckled. “I cannot imagine him taking clippers to the hedgerows.”

“No, but there were a series of deaths around the estate.” The distraction had succeeded, he could work out the story without adding in extraneous detail. “I was never told the whole tale when I was a lad, but the end result was that Scarlett’s Aunt Georgina had gone quite mad because a lover jilted her. Her father kept a tiger, and somehow, she coaxed the tiger to kill some people involved.”

“Oh, aye, I’ve heard something of that case.” Lewis waggled his finger in the air as if just retrieving some long ago heard gossip. “Before my time, it was.”

“In the early sixties.” James nodded, pouring more tea. Now he’d never sleep, which would definitely keep any nightmares at bay.

“The tiger nearly attacked Morse,” Lewis related. “It was only the quick shooting by one of the staff that saved him, and another of the Mortmagnes.”

“Right.” James stirred in sugar and took a sip to judge the sweetness. “Which was why the maze was irresistible to the children. We’d go tiger hunting, playing hide and seek in between the rows.” His heart rate accelerated so suddenly he couldn’t breathe. What the bloody hell was that about?

“James?” Lewis asked, the worry back in his voice.

James couldn’t focus on him. Had to set down the cup with deliberate care, tea sloshing out onto the table even so. He clamped all ten fingers to the edge of the table, sure he was on a roller coaster. The tiger roared loudly in his ears, drowning out whatever Lewis was saying.

“I’m calling 999.”

“No, no—“ Everything normalised just as abruptly. James squinted at Lewis, dismayed by the man’s tender concern. “Should lie down, as you said. And Paracetamol.”

“Need to come clean, here and now,” Lewis said in the tone that broke hardened criminals. He shook two tablets out from a bottle already on the counter.

When had that got there? James took the pills, chasing them down with his tea. Hard to decide which hurt more, his arm or his head.

“What happened when you were a boy?” Lewis stepped directly in front of James, a barricade in rumpled tweed, and missing his tie.

“Nothing,” James whispered, ashamed. “Not to me because I—“ He’d resisted right from the start. Never let Lord Mortmagne manoeuvre him into a corner; never, ever went into the music room alone. He’d known the secrets, from far too early an age. What had he learned later in psychology classes? Survivor’s guilt.

Yes, he had that in spades.

“What?” Lewis fit the palm of his hand against James’ cheek.

“Scarlett and I were playing in the maze with some of the others,” he said finally, with the sensation of falling down a deep cave, like Alice at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel. One scholars now knew was written by a man most probably a paedophile. A man who took photographs of little girls. “I had to answer the call of nature, so I wandered farther in. I could still hear them but got turned around.” His entire body flamed, heat rising as if his temperature shot above 40 in mere seconds.

“You got lost?” Lewis asked gently, perching on the edge of the table. He reached around behind himself to locate James’ cup and placed it in his hands. “Easy to do. I once took our Lyn and Mark to a maze. Had to be rescued by a pimple faced lad after an hour.”

James doubted that was entirely accurate, but it gave him half a smile anyway. He missed Lewis’ sweet touch on his cheek. “I’d never been out there on my own before.”

“How old were you?”

“Don’t even remember.” He gulped a swallow of cooling tea. “Small enough that the hedgerows seemed ten feet tall.” And sinister. The wind rustling the leaves, causing small vibrations that seemed to crawl out of the earth, shaking every trunk. He’d tripped and fallen, curling up under one of the bushes with a sob.

And lain there, terrified, listening to the wild sounds of prowling tigers hunting for prey. “I must have eventually fallen asleep.”

“People came looking for you after a time?” Lewis asked, taking a drink from his own cuppa.

Shaking his head, James tried—unsuccessfully, he was sure—to separate reality from the macabre dreams that had sprung from that day. “We were quite often out most of the day, running around the place. No-one kept an eye on us.” Which was how Lord Mortmagne had got away with his perversions for so long. “Eventually, I woke and tried to find my way out. My father had always said, find the centre and retrace your steps.” He walked his fingers between the tea cup and plate. “Turns out, I was on one of those paths that dead end. Once I’d wandered around a bit more, I heard…”

Sobs. And not his own.

“Shorts off and pants too, there’s a good lad.” The voice came out in a low rumble, the warning of a predator before he struck.

Hidden in the foliage, young James flinched, terrified.

“Please, sir…” the child pleaded very, very softly. The afternoon breeze whistling through the leaves in the bushes was louder by far.

He knew who it was.

“I heard Paul,” he said equally softly. The tiger growled deep in its throat, moving back into the brush, receding. “And his Lordship, in the centre. They must have gone in while I was sleeping in the adjacent path.”

Lewis nodded, his eyes sad, as if he’d guessed something of the sort.

“I was never…” James clenched his teeth, willing himself to stay cut off from the emotion, but it would have been easier to lift a one tonne weight. “From that day, I knew to stay away from Mortmagne.” He’d peeped through the foliage, seen Paul hunched over on the bench, his clothing scattered on the grass. The shadow of an adult, doing what, he could not perceive. “I should have told my father, someone…but I didn’t.”

The tears fell unabated. His cheeks were wet before he was aware he was crying. “Everything would have been different if I’d only told…” The anguish was more than he could bear. Paul, Briony, others they hadn’t identified yet, how would their lives have changed without the abuse? He could have prevented so much suffering if he’d spoken up.

Lewis gathered him up as if he were still a small boy and not four inches taller. Some how he fit into those strong arms, cosseted and consoled. Until the tight squeeze pressed too hard on his bullet graze and sent him straight to the ceiling.

So much for the painkilling properties of Paracetamol.

“Bugger!” James jerked back, falling onto the sofa, and not sure at all how he’d got there, shards of pain exploding inside his arm, worse than when he’d first been shot.

“Sorry.” Lewis held up both hands, shocky apology, and—yes—James saw a hint of amusement flitting across his face, the sod. “I’d only meant to… That’s my cue to leave.”

“No.” James inhaled, marvelling in the weary peace that imbued his soul. Thick bars of guilt were still wrapped around his heart, but looser now. “You’ve unearthed something long buried. Deserve a kip after that. Safer than driving at half past the witching hour.”

“More like going on three a.m.” Lewis yawned, looking at his watch. “Could do with a bit of shuteye.”

“Seven will come before you know it,” James said, suddenly the sensible one. The pain in his arm was receding like water flowing down a drain. “Thank you, sir—“

“When will I get you to call me Robbie when we’re off duty?” He sat down beside James, pulling a woollen rug off the back of the sofa. A fond smile played across his lips.

“Robbie, then,” James conceded, his mind still half in the maze, surrounded by leaves. He wiped his cheeks dry. Even if Robbie went to sleep, he was likely to be awake for the duration. “I spent so much of my childhood hiding, afraid of a—“

“Boogey man?”

“Monster,” James corrected, settling into the cushions. He might have been too hasty in his assumption that the two cups of tea and the pain would prevent him from sleeping. Here, mashed up against Robbie along his entire right side was cozy indeed. “I concealed everything about myself, hiding in books, behind words, quotations, until no-one really saw me at all. Except you.”

“Prickly lad, I thought when I first met you. Moody and bottled up were some of the kinder things I heard early on.” Robbie nodded, toeing off his shoes to plunk his feet on the coffee table.

“Good of you to remind me, sir.” James smirked. “So why’d you keep me on?”

“You were the first bagman I’d met who listened, challenged, and especially, taught me that just because I was the detective inspector didn’t mean I was the smartest arse in the room.” Robbie chuckled. “You were my Morse, all over again.”

“Compliments will go to my head.”

“Exactly my intent,” Robbie said dryly. ”I learned to love opera associating with him. May start reading Shakespeare for pleasure after spending time with you.” He lay his head back against the sofa, looking sleepily at James.

“Then The Tempest for a bedtime story, and off to dreamland you go.” James covered Robbie’s hand with his own. “I would not wish any companion in the world but you.”

The snore of the great beast beside him lulled James into the sweetest of dreams.

The end