Authors: Christianna Brand
The Rose in Darkness
Open Road Integrated Media
To all my friends in America, so loving and generous and ever kind; and so much loved in return.
and the ‘Eight Best Friends’ whose number in fact varied considerably—
Among these nine people were found a victim and a murderer. There is no collusion as to this murder.
HE WIND SHRIEKED LIKE
a demon, malignant, driving the rain before it across the sodden countryside through the starless night. Thunder and lightning seemed as one: with a crash like gunfire the heavens split open, flooding the blackness with a white flash that hung for a moment, blinding, to lose itself again in the pitchy dark. In the small Hertfordshire town as the car sped through, flooded streets and pavements gleamed wet beneath the blurred lamp-light; along the margins of the winding lanes the hedges bent all one way, yielding, resilient, to the whip of the gale. But above them, the trees creaked perilously, lashing free their branches of the still clinging leaves of an early autumn; and on the long, straight stretch that lies between Wren’s Hill and the main road to London, a great elm, unsound at root and core, gave up its struggle and, with a splintering roar, toppled and fell—and lay with tossing branches, a giant in its death throes, across the narrow road.
The car came to a juddering halt, its streaming black bonnet half covered by a broken branch. Footbrake driven down almost into the floorboards, hands braced on the driving wheel, face blanched with shock, Sari Morne sat motionless and let the blessed stillness flow over her: stillness, but for the thudding of the rain on her rooftop, the high, shrill moaning of the wind...
And saw through the forest of branches, bright lights approaching, halting, focused on the fallen tree.
Her first thought was one of terror. They’ve realised that they’d got ahead! They’ve turned and come back for me!
Somehow reverse her car, flee back the way she had come?
But what if they hadn’t in fact been ahead? What if, retreating, she ran full tilt into them? And she thought of a white face upturned, peering out from the rain-spattered windscreen of the following car, flick-flick, flick-flicking across its blankness—of bloody hands outflung as though to grasp at her through the impermeable glass... To stay? To go? Oh God, help me! she prayed. What shall I do?
But on the other side of the tree, a car door opened and a figure emerged and came towards her, forcing a way through the branches to the great dark trunk lying heavily across the road; and a voice called out something, words blown away by the wind—and yet with a note in them that, with a heart-stopping reassurance, she recognised.
A note of Englishness, of cool, half-humorous, public school Englishness—exasperated perhaps but still upper lip. Nothing frantic, nothing menacing, certainly nothing foreign about that only half-heard voice. Just a stranger, held helpless as she herself was held helpless, by the falling of the elm across their path.
She switched off the ignition, opened the door, staggered out into the darkness and the driving rain. The wind lifted her hat and she reached up and pulled it down, holding it with two fisted hands, so that the big brim almost met beneath her chin like a great black poke-bonnet. Forced her way as close as possible to him through the branches -on her side of the tree. Words came croaking across to her, shouted, blown away. ‘
‘I must get by!’ she cried and knew that her own voice was inaudible: screamed it out again, desperately, against the howling of the wind. I—
For supposing they had been following behind her after all, were to catch up with her here by the fallen tree?
The voice yelled back, blown away, drowned by the hissing of the rain, the swish of wet leaves, the crackle of snapping twigs as the great elm settled. Silhouetted against his car’s headlamps she could see the tall figure, collar turned up, gloved hands gripping the brim of a dripping wet hat, as she gripped her own. ‘Not a hope! Not—a—hope!’
‘But I must get past,’ she wailed, terrified. ‘I must! I must!’
The voice called back on a note of anxiety also: ‘Me too!’
And of course, all in a moment she knew what to do. Simply change cars. ‘Exchange—cars?’
‘Exchange! Swap cars!’
Swap cars; and turn and go on, she to London, he to Wren’s Hill or wherever he wanted to go. ‘Change back—in the morning?’
She heard only snatches. He seemed to exclaim, first incredulous, then exultant. But he was not so careless, not so reckless, if you liked, as she was. ‘What—make—?’
What the hell does it matter? she thought. We can change back tomorrow. Does he think I crouch all my life waiting for trees to fall, so as to pinch people’s cars? What did it matter who had what kind of car? And if she lost the brand new Halcyon for ever, well, all right, what would that count against her safety, against escape from her pursuers? She shrieked, ‘The new Cadmus. The Halcyon 3000.’
Voice blown away, blown away. But: ‘Good lord! So have I!’
Nothing so very odd about that, it was the new car of the moment, immensely popular. ‘Well, all right then. So neither of us has anything to lose.’ Never mind whether or not he heard her; she struggled back to her own car, blown and buffeted, reeling as she walked, clinging to her hat, the rain sluicing down on each side of it in sheets of silver. It took an effort to yank open the door against the tug of the wind, but she managed to lean in, grab up her handbag from the passenger seat, let the door slam shut. Nothing else in there: a rug, a few odds and ends stuffed into the glove compartment, no doubt, but she couldn’t think what—the car was so new, it had had no time to get filled with the elegant clutter any car of hers usually held. He had evidently done the same, for she saw the blur of a light coat as he leaned in at his own offside front door. He came round and stood in the light of his headlamps, seemed to be hunched over something; she guessed that he was sorting a card from his wallet or writing down his address. I suppose I must do the same, she thought, and scrabbled in her bag for a piece of paper, found only a folded toilet tissue, printed laboriously with a ballpoint pen the name of her block of flats:
in groggy capitals and
She struggled back to the tree. He met her there, bawling into the maelstrom, gesturing to his right. They moved along, one on either side of the great dark bole till she saw that by stooping and crawling, they could in fact fight a way through, under the main body of the tree where a broken branch lifted it three or four feet clear of the surface of the road. He did what he could to help her, forcing aside the smaller branches that bent and whipped back against her progress, and she emerged at last and stood, head bent against the wind to keep her hat from flying off, as she beat and scraped at the tawny leather of her coat, brushing off wet leaves and broken twigs, flicking her hands to shake away the water with a jangle of bracelets inside the cuff of her glove. ‘My God, what a night!’
‘Extraordinary,’ he mouthed back at her, ‘having—the—same—cars!’
‘Yes, well....’No time for pleasantries, she longed only to be gone. She held out the paper to him, its ink already blurred by the rain. He handed in return a scrap of paper, prodded with a gloved forefinger, tan leather turned to a sludgy blackness. ‘Given you—my ‘phone. Get in touch—tomorrow?’
She almost snatched the paper from him, shoving it carelessly into her pocket. ‘All right, yes, well, I’ve got to go.’ If her enemies had been behind her, now they would be held up by the fallen tree. If they were ahead—if they were waiting for her somewhere... Well, at least, she thought, I’m no worse off than I was before. And it occurred to her with relief that she would still be driving a car whose controls she was used to. But... She shouted into the wind: ‘How do we turn?’
He caught at least the word ‘turn’. He gestured back the way he had come. ‘Farm entrance. Only a short way. Reverse into it.’
‘OK.’ She did not wait to learn how he himself proposed to manage. If we knew about the farm gate, then he must be familiar with this road; in such weather, he could never just casually have observed it. But anyway, she couldn’t care. Get into the car, back it, turn it, step on the gas: get home, get home!
She prayed that Rufie would be in. The whole evening had been hideous; she needed his warmth, his affection, his ever passionate interest in all that might befall her. Dear Rufie, beloved Rufie, the perfect companion, the perfect chum! ‘Oh, my God, my poor dovey darling!’ Rufie would say when he heard about the white face peering out at her from the little black car following, about the fall of the tree, the terror lest her pursuers had shot ahead of her after all while she was in the pub and might be waiting for her somewhere beyond the tree. ‘Oh, my
dovey darling!’ She prayed, she prayed that when she got home at last, Rufie would be there.
she got home.
And he was there. In the vast tarmac’d yard seven storeys below her own window, the planners had arranged a car park for the tenants of the flats—several long rows of open sheds, no walls, just peaked roofs rather dreadfully thatched to match in with the pseudo-Tudo of the rest of the block. You drove in from one open side and parked in any space that happened to be empty, simply driving forward and out when you were ready to go. By custom, many tenants adopted their own places in one or other of the sheds, much as elderly clubmen may appropriate certain chairs. And in his accustomed space—there was Rufie’s car. She drove in next to it, leapt out and made a dash through the rain to the blessed light and warmth of the entrance hall and up to the flat. ‘Oh Rufie, thank God, thank God you’re in!’
Only just that blessed minute and still very cold and shivery from being out in that horrible storm. But he’d got lonely and bored, his sketches had all gone wrong, he’d rung up Etho and gone round. And now he’d had a jolly stiff brandy and she must have the same; and he peeled off her soaking clothes—so relaxing with Rufie who didn’t care whether one had anything on or not—wrapped her in a warm dressing-gown and poured her out a drink. ‘Oh, no darling, you know I never do; and in fact I did have one, on the way home, at a pub.’
‘Well, you must have another, Sari, you look flaked-out, honestly you do. So now, darling, tell from the beginning. You were followed from the cinema?—You should have let one of us come with you.’
‘What, and see me in my one poor fill-um? I couldn’t. It was better to be alone.’
‘And they followed you from there?’
‘Oh Rufie, this dreadful face staring out at me, peering out at me, this horrible white face sort of upturned, as if the—the person was urging on the driver, pointing ahead to my car—!’
‘There were two people then?’
‘I could only see this one face, well, this one white blur—to the left of the driving seat. And the—hands....’ But she could not bring herself to tell him about the blood-stained hands. ‘What’s so frightening is that this is a new lot. I’ve never seen this—this awful white face before. And a different car, a little black mini. They always do use black cars.’
Black cars, very ordinary and inconspicuous. ‘Perhaps it’s just that you’ve never noticed; millions of minis about, you just wouldn’t think of it.’ He said carefully, knowing his own temerity: ‘You’re sure? I mean, driving through a storm, people do press forward, peer ahead at the road....’
‘Oh, Rufie,’ she said wearily, ‘don’t give me that again! Was I really being followed?—yes, I
being followed. How do I know I was being followed?—I know because I’m used to it, they’ve been watching me, following me for all these years, I know every turn and trick. And why am I being followed?—because they want the ring. And they’re ready to kill me, if they don’t get the ring.’
The marriage ring. The huge, splendid, glittering marriage ring that he had given her four years ago—that huge, splendid, glittering young man, Prince Aldo, heir to the dukedom of the tiny republic of San Juan el Pirata, of magnificence and wealth untold.
They were ready to kill her, to get back the ring.