WIP: The Flame – Chapter 4

Back in the apartment I finally began to think properly. Penny’s parents lived in York. I was sure that I had an address for them. I knew how to get hold of a couple of her friends from our time at University that might have her contact details, or at least know someone who did. The landlord from her old flat might have a forwarding address. If all that failed, there were all sorts of public resources and missing persons web sites and tracing services we could use. And if nothing came out of any of those routes, I could always pay someone to find her. 

I tried her best friends from Uni first of all, mainly because I already had their numbers but also because they’re not Penny’s parents. I got through to each of them straight away but draw a blank both times. They lived at opposite ends of the kingdom, Edinburgh and London. We talked about Penny for a few minutes but neither of them had heard anything from her since University and couldn’t help me with my efforts to look up my old girlfriend. Both of them were successful now. One was a lawyer and the other a bigwig of some kind in the Civil Service. I knew they were successful because they spent most of our chat talking about themselves. After their own trumpets had finished blowing, they asked about me, in that barely polite tone of voice that said they didn’t really care, which was fine, because I didn’t tell them the truth anyway. They both probably still had me down as the cheating shit who did the dirty on Penny. I knew that I’d never speak to either of them again. Just at the end, one of them, Sally, the Edinburgh lawyer, said something odd. 

“If you’re ringing round people, you might want to speak to Lorraine,” she said.

Lorraine was a rich bitch on Penny’s course. I remembered her as a catty, selfish little cow. She was part of the crowd at Uni but we were never close to her, either me or Penny. 

“Why?” I asked. “Do you think she might know where Penny is?”

“God, no,” she said. “She’d be the last person to know. She couldn’t stand Penny. But you might want to speak to her anyway.”

“I don’t understand”

“Bye, Mac. Hope you find Penny. Tell her I’m sorry when you do.”

“Sorry?” I said. “About what?”

She’d just hung up then. I had no idea what that was all about.

I called the number I had for the old landlord. His wife answered. She told me that he had passed away a couple of years ago, the victim of his fatal inability to refuse a drink. She didn’t sound too sad for a widow. She sounded quite happy; merry, even. I sensed a shared inability. I heard pages rustling as she looked through his address book, but she didn’t find anything. She couldn’t help me.

I had to call her parents.

I did some digging first, just to check that they were still at the address I’d got, and they were, of course they were. Lovely, steady, dependable Mr and Mrs Harding, Ken and Pam. Why would they have moved? I poured myself a large whisky again, a good one, Aberlour, out of respect for them, and maybe to steady my nerves. I took a big mouthful, punched in the number and waited. I got through after a few rings. Their reaction to my call was not what I expected.

“Hello, Mrs Harding,” I said. “It’s Mac.”

“Mac?” said her mother. “Is it you, Mac? How lovely to hear from you. It’s been such a long time. How are you? What are you up to?”

I was taken aback. This was not the vitriol and anger towards a cheating scumbag that I had expected. “Yes, it’s me, Mrs Harding,” I said. A thought occurred. “John Macintosh.”

“There’s only one Mac,” she said, eliminating the possibility of confusion. “Ooh, I have missed you. You were always such fun. What do we owe this pleasure to, then?” She paused. I heard an intake of breath. “Is it Penny?”

There was something in the tone of that question, something not quite right, as if something has just dawned on her. I realised that I hadn’t planned this properly, hadn’t thought about what to say, what to ask. I couldn’t say that I’m calling because I saw Penny being battered by her husband. I couldn’t just drop that on them. So why was I calling? 

“Mac?” she said.

“The thing is, Mrs Harding,” I said, wondering what the thing was, what possible reason I could have for getting in touch with the parents of a girl I hurt so badly, wondering what I could have to say to them, apart from the most absolute, sincere… 

“I wanted to apologise.”

“Sorry?”
“Yes. I owe you an apology. I wanted to say sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“Yes, sorry. I wanted to apologise for my behaviour. For what I did. At the end.”

She was silent. She was thinking. Maybe she was remembering. That would be bad.

“I was just going through some stuff,” I lied, trying to break her train of thought, “some old University stuff, papers and whatnot, and I started thinking about those days, about Penny and all the good times we had together and I realised that I hadn’t really apologised properly to you, you and Mr Harding. Which is unforgivable of me. So I just thought I would do it now. Say sorry.”

There was that silence again. 

“Mrs Harding?”

More silence, and then she said, “It’s been almost ten years, Mac.”

I took the silent turn. I was amazed by what she said but then I realised the truth of it. Where did that go, I wonder? Where did all that time go?

“Yes, Mrs Harding. It has.” I paused again. “I was saying, Mrs Harding, the thing is, I’d like to apologise to Penny, too. Do you think that would be okay? Do you think she’d mind me getting in touch with her?” She said nothing. I could hear that odd sound at the end of the phone, the sound of somewhere else, distant. “It’s a selfish thing, really, I know it is, something more for me than for her but I’d really like to call her and apologise for… letting her down, I suppose.” One last pause, one final attempt to control the sound of my voice, to stop it from sounding too pleading, too desperate. “I seem to have lost her number, though. I don’t suppose you could let me have it, could you? Mrs Harding?”

When she spoke, she spoke in a soft, low tone. It was as if she wasn’t just replying. She was speaking out loud, to herself as much as to me.

“I don’t know, Mac.”

“I understand,” I said. “I don’t blame you, Mrs H. If I were you I don’t think I’d want someone like me bothering someone like Pen either. It’s just…”

“No, Mac,” she said. “It’s not that. I mean I don’t know how to contact her.”

Penny and her mother were more like sisters. She was always talking about her, and when she wasn’t talking about her she was talking to her. The idea that she didn’t know how to get hold of Penny was jarring, a non sequitur. It didn’t make sense. I wondered if she was being protective.

“Okay, Mrs H, I get the message. You don’t want to put your daughter in a difficult position. That’s fine. Completely understandable. Admirable, even. It’s just…”

“I don’t know where she is, Mac. When you called, I was so glad. So glad. I was sure it would be about her. I was sure that you’d know, that you’d be able to tell me how to find her. But you can’t, can you, Mac? You don’t know either, do you?”

I could hear the half-hope in that final question. I could hear a quaver in her voice, the sound of oncoming tears. 

“No, Mrs Harding. I wish I did.”

“No, you don’t know, do you? Nobody does. Nobody knows where she is. Not even me, her own mother. How would you know if her own mother doesn’t?”

I could hear the truth. She didn’t know where Penny was. Mrs Harding was beginning to sound like she was lost, too. 

“I’ve lost her, you see. Lost her completely. I just let her go one day, and she hasn’t come back.” Her voice was trilling by now, hitting the upper registers with the vibrato of unhandled emotion. “Bastard!” she spat.

“Mrs Harding?” I replied. I was shocked by her emotion, by her use of a profanity, but most of all I was shocked to hear what she appeared to think of me.

“The bastard!” It was less of a spit this time, more of a howl. 

“Mrs Harding?”

She was sobbing. It was the sort of sob that came from the heart, up through a throat squeezed by hurt, past teeth clenched in rage. There was a voice and a scrabbling sound.

“Hello? Who is this? Hello?”

It was Mr Harding, and I had just reduced his wife to tears.

“Hello, Mr Harding,” I sad. “It’s Mac. Sorry about this.”

“About what?” he said. “What have you said to her? What is it? Is it Penny?”

“No, Mr Harding. I mean yes. Yes, it is about Penny.”

“Wait there,” he said. “Wait there. Don’t hang up, Mac. Do you hear me? Don’t hang up.”

“Yes, sir.”

I could hear him talking to his wife, soothing words: steady, love; a cup of tea; you sit there and wait, the sounds diminishing until there was only the silence of distance again.

There was a rustle and he was back.

“What the hell did you say to her?”

“I’m sorry, Mr Harding,” I began, “I really didn’t mean to upset her. Mrs Harding, that is. I just called to apologise for, well, you know, for what I did, and I was just asking about Penny and…”

“Right,” he said. “Right. Okay. So, what do you know?”

“What do I know?”

“About Penny. What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything, Mr Harding,” I replied. Something was not right here. I was missing something. “I don’t know any more about Penny now than I did ten years ago. Apart from one thing, that is. Maybe two.”

“One thing? Two?”

“I know she’s married now. And I know her husband doesn’t like me very much.”

“Married,” he said, after a while. Like he didn’t know.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

“You didn’t know?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“Shit,” I said. “That’s bad, Mr Harding – Ken. I don’t know what to say.” I felt we needed an awkward silence so I made one.

“So you’ve met – her husband?” he said.

“Not met, exactly.”

“But you know him?” 

“I’ve seen him. Today. With Penny.”

“You’ve seen Penny?”

“Yes. Today, in a cafe in town.”

“Where? In Sheffield?”

“Yep. We just bumped into each other. I bought her a coffee. We didn’t really have time to talk, though. Her husband turned up and she just got up and left.” I left it there. I decided he didn’t need to know anything about how the big twat flattened me and then bounced his baby girl’s head off a car window.

“So he didn’t say anything to you? Her husband?”

“No,” I said, because it was the truth.

“Think yourself lucky,” he said. “That man is the only person I’ve ever met who I would describe as being evil. Really, badly, truly evil.”

Now, Ken was down to earth, steady, unflappable, a round little man with a dry and sharp sense of humour when I knew him. For him to describe a man in words that sounded like they belonged in a Stephen King story, well, this man had to be bad. I was even more worried about Penny now. The skin on the back of my neck was tingling.

“So you know him, then?”

“Not really,” said Ken. “I know what he’s done to my family, and for that I hate him. But I don’t really know him. I don’t know anything about him, apart from his name. He says his name is Mario Lucca and that he’s Italian, from Trieste. But I very much doubt that. I don’t believe anything he says. Not anything.”

As I listened to him I knew he was right. I could feel it. I remembered those eyes, the dark, blank shutters that were fastened tight against any attempt to see into them, to see what was in his mind. That man had secrets. I had to find out what they were.

“It sounds like he’s caused you some problems in the past, Ken. Tell me about him. Let’s see if I can help.”

Ken sighed. “I’ll tell you about him, Mac, but only for your own good, so that you know what he is, what he’s like. What he’s capable of. I’ll tell you what I know so that you understand that trying to get to him, to beat him, would be dangerous. And not just for you.”

“Okay, Ken. I get the picture. But I need to know. The more you can tell me about him, the better I can understand him. I have a feeling that is exactly what he doesn’t want, this mysterious Mario. I have a feeling that he has secrets.”

“I’m sure he has, Mac. Dirty, nasty little secrets, I would imagine.” He sighed again. “Where do I start?”

“How did they meet?”

“I don’t know.” He laughed. “I’ve just realised that I’m trying to tell you about someone I don’t know at all. Maybe he isn’t even real. Maybe I’ve had a breakdown and he’s something I’ve made up, like a bad dream or something. Perhaps he’s a ghost. A curse. Yes, that’s the way to think of him. A curse.”

“He’s real, Ken. He’s solid. I know that for a fact. He’s just a man, like any other man, though. He can be beaten. Come on. When did you first meet him?”

He sighed again. I heard him take a breath as if he was about to speak and then he let it go. After a few moments he began.

“You really hurt her, you know. At the end, when you – let her down. It’s a real shame, because we both liked you, me and Pam, we both did. We’d already started imagining you two as a married couple with a nice home and kids. Grandkids.” He pauses, thinks for a while. I can tell this is hurting him. It’s hurting me, too. He sniffs. I hope he isn’t crying. “These things happen, I suppose. Anyway, she was in bits, Penny. It was after the end of University and I think she’d already had in mind that she was going to do a bit of travelling but she comes down to breakfast one morning and says that she’s decided to take a gap year and go travelling. Bit of a surprise but we both thought it would do her good so we gave her our blessing and off she went. This was in the August, I think, about a month after you’d split up. She said she was going to see how it felt to be European. The last we heard from her was a letter at the end of January. Said she was going to be working as an au pair for a family she’d met in Italy; Milan, I think. And that was it. Nothing. No letters or calls or emails or anything, not for weeks. Her phone number wasn’t working, it didn’t even go to voice mail. We were getting really worried, started to find out what we could do, you know, the Foreign Office and Interpol and that kind of thing. We decided that the first thing to do was to go and look for her ourselves. This was in April. We’d just booked flights to Milan when there’s a knock at the door and she’s there. With him.”

“So she came back with him?”

“I think so. She didn’t actually say. She just walked in and he walked in behind her and she says this is Mario and that she’s with him now. Says they have a house together and could she get some of her things to take with her. It’s like she’s in a mad rush for some reason. She stands there, dithering, like a greyhound on a leash, until we say yes, and then she shoots upstairs and starts to shovel stuff into a suitcase. He’s standing there, waiting for her, not saying a word. I held out my hand to shake his but he just looked at me. Have you seen his eyes? Of course you have. Black as coal, aren’t they? Anyway, he doesn’t shake my hand. I ask him how they met. He doesn’t answer. Where’s he from, what’s he do, where are they living? No answer again. Penny comes back down, dragging this huge suitcase behind her. She’s just about emptied her whole room into it. When she comes back into the room, she doesn’t look at us. She looks at him. And he looks at us. I ask her if everything’s all right and she smiles and says she’s absolutely fine. He picks up the suitcase and walks out of the house and Penny just follows him. He puts the case in the boot of their car and she gets in and she pokes her head out of the window and says “Bye!” and “See you!” like they’ve just been for Sunday tea. And then they’re gone.”

“And this was, what, nine years ago?”

“Yes. Sixth of June. I remember it because it was her grandfather’s birthday.”

“What happened after that?”

“Oh, we knew something wasn’t right. We went to the police, told them what had happened. They said it sounded like a family disagreement, a domestic matter, so they couldn’t do anything. They offered to go and have a word with Penny, check that she was okay. When we told her we didn’t know where she lived, they looked at each other, these young coppers, man and woman they were, they looked at each other. I knew what they were thinking. The daughter’s made a break for it, run away from her overbearing parents. Except she hasn’t. We aren’t. We love her. Always will.”

“We all do, Ken.”

“Do you, Mac?” I heard the surprise in his voice. 

“I do, Ken. I never stopped. I was, I am, a stupid man and I will never deserve her but I will always love her. How can you not love a girl like Penny?”

“How can you not?” he repeated. “I suppose that’s what puzzles me most of all.”

“What?”

“That man doesn’t love her. He doesn’t. He owns her. He possesses her. He doesn’t love her. I don’t understand that, how he can not love her. And I don’t understand how she’s allowed this to happen. He’s got something over her, he must have. She’s scared of him. Terrified. And it breaks my heart to know that we can’t help her.”

“Have you tried?”

“Of course we’ve tried!” he spat. “Sorry, Mac. Yes, we’ve tried. We hired a private investigator. He managed to track them down, I don’t know how. They were living in a big old detached house in a little village in Derbyshire. He must have got money, this man, to afford somewhere like that. Anyway, we turned up unannounced, pretended someone passing through the village had recognised her and told us where she was. He wasn’t in but Penny was. As soon as she saw us she started dithering again, trembling like whipped dog. We tried talking to her, asking questions about herself, about him, about the house, but she just got more and more nervous until he turned up. He almost carried us to the door and put us outside and locked up. We stood there, pleading with Penny to come and talk to us, shouting the odds at him, threatening him. That was a big mistake. He called the police, accused us of harassment, and they took us down to the station. Us! By the time we got out, they were gone. We tried again a few weeks later, used private detectives to find them again, but it was just a repeat of what happened the first time. After that, he used the police records of harassment and threats to get a restraining order on us. We can’t go anywhere near them now. We can’t even try to find them.”

Ken’s voice was becoming strained now. I was beginning to realise how much my call had hurt him and Pam. My head was beginning to hurt too, I think because it kept hitting dead ends. I took a mouthful of the Aberlour and rolled it around my mouth for a moment while I thought.

“The private detectives,” I said. “They found them before. I could pay them to find her this time. There’s no restraining order on me. Not yet, anyway.”

“Well…” said Ken.

“Well, what, Ken?”

“Well – we did go back to them ourselves. After the injunction. We couldn’t just leave it like that, could we? We had to know where she was. So we rang the agency up and we told them what the situation was. He was very understanding was Pat, the senior partner, said he’d do something for us but that it’d have to be off the books, you know, unofficial. And it would be more expensive because of the risk, he said. No problem, I said. So off he goes and starts digging again. Then one night there’s a knock at the door and it’s him, Pat. He looks terrible. He says he’s come to tell us that he can’t find anything, that the trail’s gone cold or he’s just lost them or something. There’s not a trace of them anywhere. He says he’s sorry but he’s going to have to pull out. No charge, he says. He turns to leave and I ask him if he’s okay and he looks at me for a minute and then shakes his head. Says Les is dead. Les is the other partner, the one we’d never met. Turns out Les is a woman, Lesley. She was his wife.”

“Shit,” I say. “Poor bloke. What happened?”

“He said it was an accident. She was standing at a tram stop and she tripped or fell or something. Landed right in front of a tram. She had no chance, he said. You could see that it had really shaken him up. He said he wasn’t sure what to do now, that he might pack it all in. I’ll get you the number anyway but I doubt that he’ll be much help.”

“Okay, Ken. Give me the number. I’ll see what we can do.”

The back of my neck was really tingling by now. Something was making my skin crawl.

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