~ The Sleeper ~
~ Hot car parks, he thought, were a special kind of hell, created by humankind for humankind. Metal and chrome snapped angry sparks of light, fumes hung in the windless air. Vehicles slotted neatly (and not so neatly) into parking spaces, disgorging men and women who bustled into the supermarket to return pushing loaded trolleys, arguing, chatting, laughing.
He reversed the car, easing slowly toward the exit until he came to a tiny section beside the recycling bins where a woman was squatting beside a small purple-blue car. She looked hot and frustrated as she rose, pushing her hands into her hair, biting her lip. Pulling into one of the few remaining spaces, he got out of the car.
‘Could I help?’
The woman cast a quick, flustered glance at him, looked away, then, more slowly, looked back.
‘A flat tyre. And I have milk and butter.’
‘Do you have a spare?’
‘No,’ she snapped, not at him, he thought, but at the situation. ‘I’ll have to ring the AA.’ She reached for her phone.
He offered her an unopened water bottle, Her brows went up. ‘Thanks. I have no idea what happened. I didn’t feel anything, and when I came out — look at it. Oh,’ as her call was answered, ‘Yes, I have a flat tyre —‘
He looked at his own phone, rarely used and certainly unneeded until she finished her call.
‘An hour,’ she groaned. ‘They’re very busy.’
‘Where do you need to get to?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps I could give you and your shopping a lift?’
Alarm bells went off in her eyes. A normal reaction, and one he didn’t blame her for. She was a pretty young woman alone, being offered help by a strange man. Predictably, she refused, closing down, edging away.
‘Thank you, but I need to be here. I’ll just get a drink in the cafe while I wait. And ring my friend...’
An apologetic smile, the smile a well-mannered woman gives when she has to refuse a man anything, hoping he won’t get angry, and she walked quickly away. He looked after her for a moment, glanced around the car park again, then got into his car and carefully parked in a space that allowed him to see everyone going in and coming out of the store and, most especially, the little blue-purple car.
The caravan park was small, peaceful, just what they’d been looking for, or rather what Claire had been looking for when searching for a holiday, and with a view over the small bay that made the long drive worthwhile.
The owners, a Madge and John Lawson, had been quite charming. It was their first year of opening, Claire and Rosie almost their first booking.
They sat outside, that first evening, sipping cold beer. To their left, patchwork fields rolled toward the distant moors; to their right and ahead, the glimmering sea and the jut of wooded land that formed one arm of the small bay.
‘A Bentley, though.’ Rose cast her a look.
‘Oh, come on. What would you have done?’
Rosie knitted her brows. ‘Not sure,’ she admitted. ‘Hung around a while, anyway, asked his name. There were people close by. You were safe enough.’
Claire pursed her lips. ‘Maybe.’ But it had been hot and she had been upset and annoyed after a long drive and then going out again for shopping. ‘It just seemed really...strange.’ And so did he.
‘Sad old world, isn’t it,’ Rosie lamented. ‘when we have to be wary of strangers offering to help us.’
‘Hmm.’ Yes it was, and it was indeed sad but true that you couldn’t always trust strangers. Male ones anyhow. She shifted in the chair.
‘So...?’ Rosie lifted her brows.
‘What did he look like?’
Like nothing on Earth. ‘A male model, the kind you see in Vogue, or Harpers and Queen in designer suits, standing by a car that costs the size of a mansion. Well, he was wearing dark glasses, but..’
Rosie’s mouth opened. ‘Wow,’ she said blankly. ‘Do you think he shops there often? Shall we go back tomorrow? Strength in numbers, and all that.’
‘Yes, because he looked like just the kind of man who would shop regularly at a Sainsbury’s ever day of the week.’
‘Even the rich have to eat.’
‘Well, we will have to shop there again,’ Claire acknowledged. She had needed to buy more milk and butter, the originals being respectively almost cottage cheese and liquid when the AA finally turned up. Madge Lawson, on hearing this, had offered her a cool-box for her next shopping trip.
‘I know camping would’ve been cheaper.’ Taking a sip of beer she changed the subject. ‘But this is wonderful.’ The air was scented with salt and cut grass, seagulls called distantly; nearby, a blackbird sang from the woods. She closed her eyes with an echo of that delightful childhood feeling of holidays, of freedom, of nothing to worry about for the next few weeks...
The Yew Tree Inn had settled into its age with gentle and picturesque ease. Long, and low, it was heavily be-wigged with dark-gold thatch. The enormous old tree that gave its name to the place, towered over it.
Claire had picked up a local ‘eateries’ (which translated to local pubs) leaflet from a rack in the laundry room that morning after stuffing her sweaty travel clothes into one of the machines. Madge Lawson had said the Yew did wonderful Sunday lunches, not too expensive. Claire and Rosie were on something of a budget, but they could afford to eat out once in a while. They had decided on an early lunch and a lazy afternoon.
It was cool in the dining room, and delightful, savoury smells wafted from the kitchens. Mrs Lawson had been right, Claire acknowledged, the food was wonderful after subsisting on sandwiches during the drive and a quick dinner of scrambled eggs when she finally arrived at the caravan after the flat-tyre debacle. There was pudding to follow and they sat over glasses of red wine for a while as more people entered the room. The interior, in that common leitmotif of old English pubs, was dark red and gold, exposed beams polished almost black, and little nooks where tables were set. Much more pleasant, Claire thought, than a large, noisy open space.
‘My god,’ Rosie said suddenly. ‘Is that him?’
‘Who?’ Claire asked, all at sea.
‘Bet you that’s him. The guy with the Bentley.’
Claire stiffened. ‘Where?’
‘Just walked into the bar.’ Rosie was frankly gawping. ‘Must be. Tall, black hair, endless legs. Phew.’
Claire felt her neck heating up and resisted looking. She couldn’t see, anyhow. The beam she was sitting next to obstructed her view.
‘Anyway,’ Rosie added, still staring. ‘I saw the car pull in. Black Bentley Continental. Pure class. Pure money. Now he’s talking to the barman.’
‘Well, don’t stare.’
‘Still wearing dark glasses,’ Rosie noted unabashed.
Claire liked Rosie, she really did, but she worried for her. Rosie, blonde and attractive, had not yet learned that life could kick dirt even into the prettiest of faces. Claire’s job in London (that she did not for one moment regret leaving) had left her with enough scars to fear that a rattling fall stood in Rosie’s future. And she couldn’t think that a frighteningly handsome man, rich enough to cruise round in a Bentley, would ever take notice of an ‘ordinary’ woman. Men liked that tended to choose people of their own class and wealth.
‘You know,’ Rosie said thoughtfully. ‘He reminds me of Mark.’ A glance. ‘Mark Lowry.’
Claire frowned. She had thought the same thing herself.
‘Don’t you think? Same sort of...type. Where did you say he went, again?’
‘Abroad, I think.’
Rosie was watching her, kind and shrewd. ‘Okay. Look, I know you’re not a —‘ she spread her hands, ‘a thing, but there is something.’
Claire couldn’t help snorting. ‘Not a thing but a something?’
Rosie cast up her eyes. ‘You care for each other.’
‘Yes,’ she said slowly. But not like that. Or not exactly. She was damned if she would work it out, actually. It was like caring for an angel with a broken wing, she sometimes thought, some beautiful, powerful and wounded being. Not that there was anything in his manner to suggest he found her (or anyone else) beneath him, rather as if what he was elevated him in some way she had not yet fathomed. And too, there was the underscore of sorrow like some deep-running tide, that caused her to feel some diffidence. Treating him — even thinking of him — as a normal (if gorgeous guy) seemed oddly demeaning.
And he wasn’t normal at all. Their friendship, strange relationship, whatever one wanted to call it, was not normal either.
‘And no, we’re not a thing. We’re friends.’ She finished her wine, stood up, reaching for her backpack.
‘I do know there’s more than one kind of relationship,’ Rosie said. ‘I just think, if there were a fire, he’d save you first.’
‘I think he’d try and save everyone.’ And I think he did try...And failed.
The man was leaving and Claire couldn’t help but note the way he walked as that, too, reminded her of Mark: the back utterly straight below wide, flat shoulders, the slim waist and almost predatory prowl. There was an arrogance about it. In older times, warrior-kings might have owned a carriage like that. People got out of the way for someone who walked as if they owned the world — or didn’t care who did. The door creaked shut behind him.
She paid for the meal over Rosie’s objections, as a woman’s voice said, quite loudly, ‘— saw him in Monaco —‘
The barman shook his head. ‘Summerland’s a private estate.’
The woman was about Claire’s age, and looked as if she should have indeed been in Monaco, rather than a sleepy coastal village. Long straight hair, ombré eyebrows, false eyelashes, deeply tanned, high-heeled and perfumed. Heavy gold shone at wrist and neck. She was Instagram-perfect, and her voice twanged with upper-class vowels.
‘Well, if you know him,’ the man offered cynically, ‘he’s not driven away yet, you can just walk out and see him.’
The woman hesitated. ‘No, I want to surprise him.’ She smiled with bright, even teeth. ‘We rather lost touch. How long has he been here anyway?’
The barman didn’t sound as if he believed it for a moment. ‘Well, if you’re a friend, you can ring him. But as I say, Summerland’s private and he don’t take well to trespassers.’ He moved away to fill a pint glass.
Blushing with second-hand embarrassment, Claire herded a silently-giggling Rosie out of the pub, stopping in the deep porch and getting out her phone. She didn’t want the man to think she was following him. A faint scent of his cologne, sandalwood, incense, lingered.
‘I bet you anything she didn’t know him.’ Rosie thumbed her phone idly. ‘Or she’s an ex.’
The purr of the Bentley’s engine sounded and the sleek car slid out onto the road.
‘I’m not like that, am I?’
She laughed. ‘Like what? Like Miss Instagram? Of course not!’ nudging her. ‘You’re hopeful. There’s a difference.’
It was only a five minute walk back to the caravan and the little village, curling its way down toward the sea, was tree-lined and shady. The land slept; only one car passed them, a vintage Mercedes, gleaming silver, in perfect condition. Its top was down. The women from the bar was at the wheel, dark hair blowing.
They passed a village shop-come-post office, hand-written signs announcing: ‘Free Range eggs, local produce.’
‘I can get milk here,’ Claire remarked. ‘Save the drive to the supermarket.’
The rest of the afternoon passed quietly, which was just what Claire had signed up for. The sparkle of the sun on the peaceful sea, the soft sough of the warm breeze in the trees was soporific. From where she sat, she looked across to the promontory of land that jutted out into the bay. Thick woods cloaked it almost entirely, but she could glimpse what she thought was a large, pale building among the trees.
After a shower, they lazed some more as the sun turned the sea sparking gold and the placid sky streaked jade and violet. The breeze stilled and the first stars pricked out. From the wooded promontory, smothered lights gleamed. It intrigued her, that almost-peninsula, and she opened her iPad to Google Earth.
Yes, a house, or rather a mansion, huge and sprawling among gardens, perhaps a conference centre or hotel; Google didn’t say.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...
She flicked to Street View, moving along the coast road until she came to the turning and angled the view. Huge, wrought iron gates were closed shut under the shadow of vast trees. Hmm. A private estate? Owned by the black-haired Adonis in the Bentley? Summerland? Was it? She looked, but couldn’t find anything else that looked like a private estate within twenty miles.
She closed the iPad, wondering if the Instagram girl had managed to gain access.
She didn’t dream of Manderley that night. She dreamed, as she had before, of a cold sea sighing against lost shores, of a voice held in the curl of a wave, the spreading fretwork of foam, a voice that sang of grief and the fall of glory as the moon looked down, remote, pitiless.
She woke only to the call of an owl, perhaps from the deep woods of the promontory, the distant breathing of the sea. Perhaps it was that which had triggered her dream. But she lay for a long time, aching with the ancient sorrow in the song. It was familiar, the voice, but her dream-shrouded brain groped into mist and slid, resistless, back into an untroubled sleep.
She woke to the tap-tap of a bird walking on the caravan roof, followed by the scolding chatter of a magpie. Through the window came the scent of the sea and the warming land, hay, roses. Calm blue skies and greeted her as she took her coffee to the small verandah and sat down. The tide was out, leaving a gleaming fan of sand. Seagulls wheeled like snowflakes, and from somewhere came the distant, sound of a tractor, softened by the distance to a sleepy drone.
Rosie still slept, and Claire decided to walk down to the village shop to pick up milk, eggs and possibly bacon, for breakfast. The lane was littered with strands of hay, dusty, quiet, only a Land Rover passing her as she walked.
The store was one of those post-offices-come-mini-marts that were becoming increasingly rare in villages, edged out by large supermarkets. It was a charming jumble, and the door opened to the sound of a tinkly bell.
‘On holiday?’ the woman asked as she laid her purchases on the small counter.
Claire smiled. ‘At Southview Park, yes.’
‘Ah, yes. Madge and John’s first week. Do you like it?’
‘It’s lovely, and what a view to wake up to.’ She slid her card into the reader. ‘What’s that big house on the promontory?’ She gestured vaguely.
The woman’s face didn’t change, but something closed behind the dark eyes.
‘Oh, that’s Summerland. Private, that is, love.’
She’d been right then. ‘Oh, yes,’ she murmured. ‘I heard something about it in the pub,’ and took her time packing in case any more information was forthcoming. It wasn’t. The woman’s flat, tight-lipped smile raised Claire’s hackles. It was a smile that said the woman had been the recipient of not-so-casual questions about Summerland before, that Claire was just one in a long line of people who had tried to prise information from her.
Claire almost regretted she’d not accepted the man’s help, could say airily, ‘Oh, yes I’ve met him, he gave me a lift.’
Smiling to herself, she said a polite thank you, and left the shop.
‘Intriguing,’ agreed Rosie, finishing her coffee. ‘You should have accepted his help, then we’d know all about him and his mysterious Summerland.’
Claire shrugged. ‘It’s not that mysterious really, plenty of estates are private.’ Her eyes went to the window.
‘But the locals seem...tight-lipped.’
‘There’s nothing in that. He probably owns a lot of land round here; he might own the pub, the shop.’ She got up and transferred the plates to the sink, running hot water onto them. ‘Anything you want to do today?’
She heard Rosie’s grin. ‘The beach,’ she said. ‘With a pair of binoculars.’
‘Did you bring those?’ Claire asked, surprised.
‘No, they were in a cupboard.’ Rosie slid the strap over her shoulder. ‘Might as well use them.’
‘I’ll take my iPad,’ Claire decided. ‘It’s not bad for close-up photos.’
They took the track down from the caravan to the little cove and found it empty but for a dog walker just leaving. Putting their things in a pile, they trotted down to the water (because you couldn’t go to a beach in summer without having a paddle) and found the water shockingly cold. Now and then, they both sent covert glances toward Summerland. It was only a quarter of a mile away and they could easily have walked to it at low tide then clambered up the rocks and into the trees.
‘We’d get shot,’ Rosie giggled.
‘It’s not the M.O.D.’ Claire objected. ‘Just private. And they wouldn’t shoot us, not in England, just escort us away.’
‘Well, I bet it’s dodgy as hell, drug dealing or something.’ Rosie dried off her feet and pushed them back into her sandals.
‘That’s so...common,’ Claire protested, half-laughing. ‘No, I’d rather him be a Max de Winter.’
‘My literary friend,’ Rosie said fondly, raising the binoculars to her eyes. ‘My dearest darling. Of course you would. You’re not cynical enough.’
‘Cynical enough not to accept his help in the car park.’
‘And you can be so dumb, too.’
Claire rolled her eyes. ‘You wouldn’t say that if I’d been found dead in a ditch.’
‘Hmm. No, but I suppose not all men are serial killers. Especially incredibly rich ones who look like gods. These binoculars are very good,’ she added, ignoring Claire’s mutter that she suspected incredibly rich people probably could get away with being serial killers, and what about Hannibal Lecter? ‘But you can’t see much. Except trees. And Google isn’t very forthcoming. The pictures of the house are pretty old, I think. It just says an estate in Devon formerly owned by the Ferrers family. Gorgeous old place.’
Claire knew that; she’d looked herself. She brushed sand off her legs.
‘Well, if I see him again, I’ll ask him.’ She still thought it was more likely he was just a fairly reclusive millionaire, and why not?
They wandered down to the pub that evening. Mellow golden light slanted through the small windows, and only a few locals were sitting over a drink in the bar. Taking their own out into the garden, they sat in the shade. Claire took out her phone for a shot of the picturesque old building. She liked to collect holiday photos; they were memories to look at through the long, grey winters.
A woman walked into the garden, straight across her shot. Miss Instagram, now in designer jeans and sparkly sandals. She settled herself at a table, took a long drink of something pale and fizzy, then looked across at Claire and Rosie.
‘Hi,’ she said, and stood up again. ‘Mind if I sit with you?’
‘Not at all.’ Claire said over Rosie’s half-groan.
With a swirl of dark hair, a waft of expensive perfume, the woman sat down.
‘Kate Barrington,’ she introduced herself.
‘I’m Claire. This is Rosie.’
Kate Barrington had very blue eyes, the whites chemically bleached, thought Claire.
‘I’m a blogger,’ she said. ‘Ghosts, legends, folklore, that kind of thing. Can I —‘ she waved a hand, ‘interview you? Are you here on holiday?’
It was completely unexpected, until Claire remembered Rosie looked nothing like most peoples’ idea of an astrophysicist.
‘Er...yes? Yes, we’re on holiday, at the Southview Caravan Park.’
‘I’m staying here.’ Kate waved toward the pub. ‘I saw you yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ Rosie agreed. ‘You were asking about that guy in the Bentley—‘
‘Claire’s spoken to him,’ Rosie volunteered over Claire’s strangled choke. Apollyon. Really? ‘She got a flat tyre, and he offered to help.’
Claire shifted, trying to kick Rosie’s ankle under the table as Kate Barrington turned enormous eyes on her.
‘I only spoke to him for a few seconds,’ she said, hating the excusing tone of her voice. ‘And I said no. I didn’t know him. He seemed nice enough, though.’
‘Thank god you said no.’ Kate leaned toward her. ‘You might not be here now.’
‘What?’ Claire exclaimed, feeling her relaxation drain away in the wake of a chilly little shiver.
Kate Barrington tapped manicured nails on the table. ‘Well, this guy is such a mystery.’ She took a quick sip of her drink. ‘No electronic footprint, a total ghost. Some people think he’s American, or maybe from Russia, or a drug baron from South America. There are rumours,’ she whispered, ‘that people have vanished around here.’
Claire glanced at Rosie. ‘And you wanted me to accept a lift from him.’
‘But didn’t you want to speak to him yesterday?’ Rosie asked Kate brightly. ‘If he’s so dangerous—‘ She raised her brows interrogatively.
‘Not speak to him, just find out about him. For one thing, there’s no way Van Apollyon is his real name. I Googled it. Do you know what — who — Apollyon is supposed to be?’
‘I know,’ Claire said as Rosie looked mystified. ‘Revelations, the Destroyer, the angel of the Abyss.’
‘That,’ Rosie said after a moment, ‘is really hardcore.’
Claire couldn’t help laughing.
‘But,’ Kate flapped her hands. ‘Whoever would call themselves that?’
‘An actor? A musician? I don’t know!’
‘But he’s not, the name is nowhere on the internet. And then, there’s Summerland. You know it’s a kind of concept of the afterlife, like the Isles of the Blest?’ She started flicking through her phone. Claire looked at Rosie. Rosie looked back at her with an infinitesimal shrug.
‘And it’s as private as Porton Down.* Okay, not quite, but you get what I’m saying? And absolutely no-one here will talk about him or Summerland.’
Claire thought about the woman in the shop closing down. ‘Hmm, but well...if he’s rich and private and has a strange name, that doesn’t exactly prove anything, does it? He may just be eccentric. If you’re wealthy enough you can be.’
‘I’m sure it’s more than that.’ She held out her phone. ‘Look, it’s an old OS map of this area. There’s a tumulus, sometimes thought to be an entrance to the Otherworld.’
Claire very carefully didn’t look at Rosie this time.
Kate rattled on, ‘But more than anything, it’s him. Yesterday he was wearing dark glasses, but I managed to get a picture of him in Monaco.’ She took her phone back, flicked through a few more pictures and passed it back.
The shot had obviously been taken from above, a first floor window, perhaps, and zoomed in. There was a suggestion of shimmering light, the sea, maybe, white buildings. Kate had caught him with his head lifted, like, Claire thought, a wolf scenting something on the wind. He knew she was taking pictures.
Without the shield of dark glasses, his face was astonishing. Claire thought of the first time she had seen Mark Lowry though, as time went on, she almost imagined that he was...dumbing down his looks, casting a veil over them, that she could only see him properly with peripheral vision. Of course that was whimsy, but in Van Apollyon, she thought she was seeing an unblurred version, all hard, too-vivid lines. It was like a punch to the stomach; it fizzed through her head in the way some music does, heating her cheeks, burning in her eyes like a peculiar kind of sorrow.
Rosie said nothing, just stared.
It was his eyes, quite apart from anything else. Under perfect black brows, the shot had managed to capture their colour: deep, shining purple under outrageous lashes.
Aware her mouth was open, Claire shut it and pushed the phone over the bench. She felt as if she had intruded into the man’s personal space and it compelled her to say, ‘Sorry, but I don’t think you should take photos of people without their knowledge or permission...and anyhow, even if you can’t find anything about him on the internet — which there won’t be, if you don’t even have his real name — it doesn’t mean he’s unknown. If he was some kind of criminal, the authorities probably know everything.’
Kate shook her head, a mulish set to her pretty mouth. ‘I don’t think,’ she said stubbornly, ‘that he’s normal.’
Rosie nodded. ‘Well, he does look rather like my idea of a god,’ she mused. It was true enough, if a god were to have expertly cut short hair.
‘I have to ask, though: why are you so interested in him?’
‘You did look at the photo?’ Kate Barrington demanded, wide-eyed. ‘It was a couple of years ago when I read American Gods, and then later that year I was in Florida, and I saw him, and I immediately thought that he couldn’t be human.’ She was starting at the phone. ‘I...followed him a bit, and one day he got a plane to the UK...’
‘You do know,’ Claire interrupted gently, over Rosie’s desperate attempt to smother giggles, ‘that stalking comes under harassment?’ And was almost impossible to prosecute unless it ended in violence or death, a fact with had always infuriated Claire — and any woman who had ever been stalked. But, as she remembered almost six foot four of lean male power, Claire didn’t think Van Apollyon needed to worry about physical violence. At least not from Kate Barrington, and possibly not from anyone not carrying a lethal weapon.
‘Listen!’ Kate took absolutely no notice. “So I rang my cousin and she agreed to go to Heathrow to see the arrivals come in. She never saw him. He got on the plane but he didn’t get off.’
‘Wrong plane,’ Rosie gasped. Kate ignored her.
‘So then I went to Monaco and saw him there, just back in April. Pure chance. I got a room at the hotel and bribed the cleaner a thousand euros to find out his name and, if possible, where he lived.’ Claire stared at her in horrified fascination. ‘She found his name, or that name, and a picture on his iPad of a place called Summerland. So lucky it wasn’t locked. It was an old picture from Google. As I said, I drew a blank with the name, but I found Summerland. So here I am. And he he is.’ She smiled and calmly finished her drink as if everything she had said made perfect sense.
‘That’s er...all very interesting,’ Claire said pacifically. ‘But we really know nothing about —‘
‘But you saw him, spoke to him.’
‘Hardly at all. He seemed friendly enough, and we saw him in the pub last night talking to the landlord, so he’s obviously not entirely reclusive—‘
‘The locals,’ Kate lowered her voice impressively, ‘won’t talk about him at all.’
Claire and Rosie avoided one another’s eyes again. It was rather embarrassing to realise that the only difference between themselves and Kate Barrington was that they lacked the money, or possibly the gall to stalk the mysterious man. Not that they would have; they had just...speculated. There was a line.
‘Perhaps they don’t know very much,’ Rosie said in a neutral voice.
‘Do you know what it’s like living in the country? Everyone knows everything about their neighbours.’
‘Might not have been here long, in that case.’
‘Well, anyhow,’ Kate dropped her voice still further. ‘I’m getting a drone—‘
Claire gaped at her. ‘A— you can’t just fly a drone over his home,’ she hissed. ‘It’s probably illegal.’ She didn’t know what the regulations were for drones these days, but she was sure you couldn’t just fly them willy-nilly over private property.
‘Anyhow, they make a noise,’ Rosie offered. ‘They sound like huge bees! Not exactly subtle, is it?’
Kate waved the objection aside. ‘The thing is, if it were just three girls on the beach playing around with a drone that just happened to fly over Summerland, no-one would take much notice—‘
‘No!’ Claire and Rosie chorused.
‘Oh, I’ll pay you for your time.’
‘No.’ Claire rose and picked up her rucksack. ‘Sorry, but we came here just to relax and we’re not getting involved. It seems to me you’ve spied on this man, stalked him and now—‘
‘Claire’s right,’ Rosie said. ‘It really is really not on. Anyhow, can’t you just find out who owns Summerland? There’s a record of that, surely.’
Kate flung out her hands. ‘I’ve tried.’
‘Well, I’m sorry we can’t help,’ Claire said firmly. ‘Goodbye.’
They walked away, rather quickly. Claire was angry at the casual assumption her time could be bought, the sheer presumption of the woman (clearly used to getting what she wanted) and was conscious of the feeling that if she had known anything, she would not have helped Kate Barrington. Not that Van Apollyon whatever-his-name-really-was had looked in need of protection; rather he had the dangerous, lacquered look of a young James Bond. But still...
‘I don’t honestly think his name’s Apollyon,’ Rosie commented as they wandered up the lane. ‘That was just a name that poor cleaner got off his iPad, an email address or something, or even just a note. No wonder she can’t find anything about him. A thousand euros, though. She must be rolling in it!’
‘More than likely,’ Claire murmured. ‘But what I think is that she insinuated that I was almost abducted by a possible murderer, and sent some poor cleaner into his room.’
‘Too much money,’ Rosie nodded. ‘I almost don’t blame her, though. For her rampant curiosity, I mean. And I bet she’d have accepted the offer you turned down. She was just warning off the possible competition.’ She winked.
‘Oh, please! And it’s not curiosity. She’s obsessed. Stalking him— I was definitely uncomfortable.’ Claire slanted her friend a weak smile. ‘When I first met Mark, I was tempted, you know, I was intrigued...okay, more than intrigued. And when he vanished those weeks before Christmas, I did look for him.’
‘But you didn’t stalk him. Being concerned about someone, even interested, isn’t the same,’ Rosie said reassuringly, putting an arm around her shoulders. ‘Now me, and Harrison and Theo, we all stalked Mark electronically. Or tried to.’ She paused. ‘Isn’t it weird that they look quite alike, Mark Lowry and this guy, and are both electronic ghosts?’
Yes, Claire thought. She said, ‘Hmm,’ noncommittally.
The caravan seemed like a haven against strangeness. The scent of hay from the cut fields inland was heavy, dreamlike, grounding her to the good, rich earth. Claire made herself not look at Summerland for at least half-an-hour, while Rosie tapped on her iPad. At last she sat back and said, ‘I could find out anything she talked about in ten minutes. And did. Blogger my arse.’
‘I thought the same, but then few people think you’re an astrophysicist,’ Claire said wryly. ‘so it felt rather hypocritical to jump to conclusions.’
Rosie smiled. ‘Sometimes intuition is right. I’ll tell you one thing though: The only Kate Barrington’s I can find are definitely not her! This Van guy’s not the only person using a false name.’
* Porton Down in Wiltshire (UK) is a research facility. It also deals with chemical and biological research and testing.