Authors: Richard Salter
THE PATCHWORK HOUSE
The Patchwork House
Copyright © 2014 by Richard Salter
This edition of The Patchwork House
Copyright © 2014 by Nightscape Press, LLP
Edited by Robert S. Wilson
All rights reserved.
First Electronic Edition
Nightscape Press, LLP
for Jene, for ever
The police called
at my apartment about two weeks after I returned from the UK. Two of Chicago PD’s finest stood at my doorway at seven in the evening.
“Mr James Randal?” the taller of the two asked.
“I’m Officer Warrington and this is Officer Hunt. Can we come in please? We’d like to ask you some questions.”
I acted surprised to see them and blustered something about this being out of the blue. Then I let them in. We sat down at my dining room table.
“We’re here to ask you about Miss Bethany Harris,” said the taller cop. Warrington.
“Is she all right?”
“We were hoping you could tell us that, sir. Her parents have reported her missing. Have they been in touch with you at all?”
I injected some alarm into my tone. “Yes, they called me about a week after I came back from England. I told them Beth and I weren’t together anymore, and I came back to the US alone. When did she go missing?”
Warrington didn’t answer my question. Instead he asked, “Has Miss Harris been in touch with you since you returned?”
“No. I made it pretty clear I didn’t want to see her again. I assumed she’d return to the States of her own accord.”
“No, Mr Randal, she never came back.”
I carefully allowed myself to sound frustrated with them that they didn’t know what had happened to her. “Have you talked to the British police?”
“Of course, but they don’t know where she is either.”
“What about Derek Jackson?”
“What about him?”
“Have you spoken to him? Does he know where she is?”
“No, sir. He’s missing too.”
I sat in silence for a moment, pretending to let this sink in. I fidgeted with my hands and then rubbed my chin, trying to look as agitated and concerned as possible.
“So look, we’re not together anymore but I want to help if I can.”
“We appreciate that, Mr Randal,” said the other cop, Officer Hunt. “Can you maybe tell us what business you had in the UK?”
“Er, sure. Well my dad buys properties at auctions all over the world. He buys them, does them up and resells them. He’s usually too busy to see the houses in person so he sends me to do it. I took Beth—she was my girlfriend then—because she’d never been to England. She was so excited. She loves Jane Austen. I think she assumes every house in England comes straight from Sense
“Was this Binsham Park?”
“Yeah that’s the place.”
“How long were you there?”
“Just the weekend. Arrived Saturday morning and returned Sunday evening.”
“And you didn’t return together.”
“No… We had an argument. We broke up and I left on Sunday morning. I went to London to see some relatives and then I took the flight home on Monday evening as planned. I expected to see her at the terminal, thought we might talk about what had happened, but she was a no show. I assumed she’d decided to stay in England longer. I’ve not heard from her since. I kind of expected her to call me, at least to get her stuff back.”
“Was she living here full time?”
“She was planning to. She’d listed her apartment. Most nights she was here with me.”
Warrington asked, “And the other couple who stayed at the house with you?”
“Oh, right. Derek and Chloe. Well Derek is an old friend. I’d not seen him in years. Right before Beth and I flew out, I read Chloe’s status online. She was mad at him because they were meant to go to Vegas for the weekend, their first trip away without the kids in years. At the last minute Derek realized his passport had expired so they couldn’t go. I invited them to stay with us instead, at the house. Not quite the same as Vegas but at least it meant they could get away for the weekend like they planned.”
“Have you had any contact with Mrs Jackson?”
“The British police talked to her and she said she left her husband at the house and returned home alone as well. Am I to infer anything by that?”
There were tears in my eyes now. They weren’t fake tears, though I wasn’t crying for the reason the police thought I was.
“I caught… I saw Derek and Beth…” I trailed off. It wasn’t the truth, not by a long shot. But it was painful even to lie to them about it.
Warrington backed off on that line of questioning. There was no need for me to spell it out, thankfully.
“Did anything else, unusual happen at the house while you were there?”
I chose my next words
“I was only there the one night. There were strange noises and some furniture moved around when we weren’t looking. It’s a creepy place, that’s for sure.”
“And what about the car?”
“The SUV your father rented.”
“Oh, yeah. Derek totaled it.”
I nodded. “Yeah my Dad called me, all mad that the car got wrecked and he had to pay the deductible. Derek and Beth went off in it. I didn’t see it again before I left. Dad said nobody was hurt so I didn’t worry about it.”
“That’s true, there’s no evidence that anyone was hurt.” Warrington paused. He seemed about to show me something, but decided not to. I knew what it was – a picture of the car. I knew exactly what had happened to it. I wondered why he didn’t show it to me. Instead he stood up. Hunt and I followed suit.
“All right then, Mr Randal,” said Warrington. “We won’t take any more of your time. If you hear anything, please let us know.”
He handed me a card. As I took it I noticed my hand was shaking. Was it from grief? Or perhaps it was guilt because of the lies I told. I hoped they would believe the former.
“Thank you, officers, and if I can help in any way just call me. Oh and also…”
“Yes, Mr Randal?” said Hunt.
“If you find her, please let me know. Despite what happened, I’d hate for anything bad to happen to her.”
“Of course. We’ll call you as soon as we hear anything.”
I showed the officers out. When they were gone I collapsed against the back of the door and sighed. The sigh quickly turned into sobs. I must have sat there crying for at least half an hour. Just that past week I had finally managed to get some sleep at night, and now it seemed I was in for more insomnia.
I hated the flight
but Beth was too excited to care. By the time we landed at Heathrow, my legs were stiff and my bum cheeks were asleep. Beth just called me an old man and spent the entire time in the airport giggling like a schoolgirl whenever there was an announcement.
Had I been away that long? The accent sounded so odd. Not just the announcements. Overhearing folks walking by, they sounded exaggerated.
“Do I sound like that?” I asked.
“Yes you do.”
Amazing what you get used to.
Traffic was mercifully light and it wasn’t long before we were leaving London and heading out west. Since neither of us had slept much on the plane, we dozed off.
I woke up with a stiff neck and quickly roused Beth. I knew she wouldn’t want to miss this.
Hedgerows bordered narrow roads with occasional breaks to allow access to fields. Beth was groggy for a moment and then wide awake, staring out the window. We passed through a village with its black and white Tudor houses, stone bridges over tiny rivers and a medieval stone church. Save for the smattering of cars, some road signs and a couple of shops selling modern conveniences, the village looked as though it had not changed in centuries.
Beth gasped at every sight, from the market square with its thatched roof to the kids playing Pooh-sticks on the bridge. She squeezed my hand whenever she saw something quaint or olde-worlde and pointed things out to ensure I saw them too.
The house was a fair drive from the village, along twisty-turny single-track roads. The driver slowed down often, struggling to see around every blind corner as the high banks obscured what lay ahead. Every time we rounded a bend, I expected to see a local hurtling towards us in a beat-up old Land Rover, moving too fast to avoid a collision. Beth loved all of it.
We passed the occasional farmhouse but after a while there was nothing but the odd tumbledown barn or rusted-out tractor. We must have gone a good few miles before we reached Binsham Park. The car pulled up outside a large white gate about ten feet high. We got out and the driver unloaded our bags. I tipped generously and sent him back to London.
The gate and railings were a little taller than us, painted immaculate white. Once beyond the gate, a gravel driveway led a few hundred metres before disappearing around a wide corner, flanked on either side by freshly mown lawn. Giant evergreens flanked the driveway beyond the grass.
“Do you think your dad will sell it to us?”
“Sure, if you have a few million pounds lying around.”
“The house is a bit small though.” Beth nodded towards a small cottage to the right of the path, standing behind the railings to the right of the gate.
“That’s the lodge, dummy,” I said. “I think the groundskeeper once lived there.” Beyond the lodge was a tiny garden, not too big but beautifully kept. A high stone wall marked the edge of the property, mostly obscured by the giant firs.
“We have to walk,” I said, nodding in the direction of the path. “I know that will be hard on your poor American feet.”
She flashed me a sardonic smile and set off up the lane at a run, her shoes crunching on the gravel.
“Last one there has to go see a British dentist!” Beth said.
I took my time following her, partly because I’m a lazy bastard but mostly because she left me with both bags to carry.
It took a good ten minutes to reach the top of the driveway. As I rounded the last bend, the trees cleared, the path opened up into a wide gravel space, and Binsham House came into view. Even from here I could see that mishmash of architecture in its disparate parts.
Ahead was our vehicle, a four-by-four, rented by my dad and sitting waiting for us. It gleamed white in the afternoon sunlight. Beside that was a pickup truck, carrying a ride-on mower and various other pieces of gardening equipment on its trailer.
For Peat’s Sake
was written on the side of the truck. Arthur the groundskeeper was around somewhere then. That was good news because he had the keys to the house and our car.
On the right of the driveway was a meticulously maintained herb garden bordered by low hedgerows. The garden was as large as it was fragrant, an astonishing mix of heady odors from an array of plants, dancing with insect life. Beyond that was a stone wall, which wrapped around the house before disappearing behind trees.
The house itself was like someone had thrown together every significant period of British architecture into one gestalt. Part Gothic, part Tudor, part Victorian, part several other styles, it was obvious the house had been built in stages, decades apart. I read that one part had burned down and been rebuilt many years ago, but the place was already such a mish-mash of styles it was hard to tell what was new and what was original. The front door was unassuming, as if it belonged on an urban townhouse. The windows ranged dramatically in size and shape, as if the architect’s young kid had ripped up a bunch of plans and stuck random bits together on one page.
I watched the expressions on Beth’s face. Even though Mr Darcy might never have lived in a house like this, I could tell its age and size impressed her. I’d seen my fill of English country houses in my time, but I too found this was something unique. The few photos on the web hadn’t done it justice.
At the far end of the house stood a separate building with two sets of wide doors. This was obviously a garage. Later I’d check to see if Dad had unknowingly purchased a couple of classic sports cars.
Beth was drinking it in. “It’s so odd. Beautiful, but… odd!”
“The grounds are supposed to be amazing.”
She was already off around the near side of the house. I dropped the bags and made to follow her, but something caught my eye in the near ground floor window. I approached it slowly, watching my reflection approach at the same rate. Jeez I looked awful! Had the flight really taken such a toll on me? I looked so beaten up! I blinked and the reflection was gone. I was up against the window now, staring inside at a small room with a fireplace and several pieces of furniture covered in dust sheets.
I took a step back, but now could only see the vaguest of reflections in the glass.
Weird. I needed a shower clearly.
I hurried after Beth and joined her in a paved courtyard behind the house, enclosed by low walls, spanning the length of the building all the way up to the garage. The courtyard had benches and flower beds at regular intervals, and an ornate stone fountain in the centre, not running.
Behind the low courtyard walls lay a huge lawn, maybe a couple of acres in size. The right side of the lawn was bordered by trees, and on the left was a wooden fence beyond which were rolling hills and meadows, and not a single building as far as the eye could see. Ahead of us, at the end of the lawn, was the lake, broad and stunning.
“I feel the urgent need to wear an empire waist,” Beth said. She ran out onto the lawn and started spinning like a little kid, taking it all in. I smiled but I was still feeling a bit off after the weird reflection I’d seen. A cough from behind me made me jump. I turned to find a grey-haired man with angular features and a slight stoop. He shook my hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Arthur Baker, the groundskeeper. You must be James?”
“That’s right. Great to meet you.”
“Welcome to Binsham Park. I hope you had a good flight.”
“Not bad,” I lied. “This place is truly amazing.”
“Thank you, most kind. Worked here all my life, I have, since I was a little lad helping out my dad. We’ve been groundskeepers for the Logan family for as long as they’ve owned the house.”
“What happened to them?”
Arthur scratched his nose. “Oh, old Percy passed away a month or so ago, left no heirs. Very sad. He’s buried in the little cemetery down by the lakeside. The last five generations of the Logan family are there. It’s consecrated ground, you know? Wouldn’t mind being buried there myself someday. Lovely spot.”
Arthur stared wistfully towards the lake for a moment and then seemed to return to the present. He looked me in the eye. “So now your father owns the place?”
“Yes, he’s asked me to check the state of the building and the grounds. No complaints on the latter.”
“Well that’s good to hear. I take it he plans to resell?”
“Probably, though he’s been known to keep houses he falls in love with.”
“Hello,” said Beth. She had approached quietly and now stood with her hand outstretched.
Arthur shook it. “Hello, my dear,” he said kindly.
“Arthur is the groundskeeper,” I said.
“Oh, well, what can I say? This place takes my breath away.”
Arthur seemed pleased. “Well that’s lovely to hear. Your accent is quite charming. Whereabouts in the States are you from?”
“Oh really? I’ve always wanted to visit. Before I forget, here are your car keys. The man who delivered your car left them with me. Also, the keys to the house—don’t lose them, they’re my only complete set. The lodge key is on that ring too. It’s the one with the blue cover at the top.”
“You don’t live in the lodge then?” Beth asked as I took the keys from Arthur.
“Oh goodness me no! My father lived there for a time but it’s not really big enough for a family. I have two daughters, you see, although they’re pretty much grown up now. My youngest, Amelia, she works for me. We live in Colmsford village a few miles down the road. I think my wife would have left me long ago if we’d been cooped up in that little lodge all this time!”
“Well thanks for everything,” I said. “There’s no electricity, right?”
“That’s right. Cut off two weeks ago along with the gas and the phones. Luckily it’s not too cold at night or the pipes would freeze! I’m hoping someone will move in before winter so the bills will be paid again.”
“Oh right, sorry for the delay. There was a snafu at the bank and the utilities haven’t set up the new accounts yet. But don’t worry, my dad will be paying all the bills including your wages, Arthur.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Well I appreciate that. I was a little concerned, I’ll be honest.”
“I don’t blame you. Thanks for carrying on looking after the place. We’ll make sure you keep getting paid while my dad owns the house, and we’ll let interested buyers know your services are part of the deal.”
Arthur brightened considerably at this news. “Oh thank you, I appreciate that. I’ve put many years into this garden and I’d hate to see it neglected.”
“It does look wonderful.”
“Thank you, kind of you to say.”
“Dad understands it’s best not to try to fix what isn’t broken.”
“A fine philosophy. I’ll be off now then. Oh, speaking of broken things. Couple of nights ago we had some vandals. They broke a window but didn’t do any damage inside the house except to move some stuff around. I didn’t see anything taken. The police weren’t much interested. Anyway, window’s fixed now so I’m just warning you in case you hear anything.”
“Just one more thing before you go, Arthur,” Beth said.
“Of course, my dear.”
“Tell me about the ghosts.”
I scoffed at that, I must be honest. I wasn’t expecting her to be so blunt.
“Which one?” Arthur replied. His smile was pleasant, not mocking.
“All of them,” she said. I groaned inwardly. Beth didn’t often embarrass me, likely not half as much as I embarrassed her, but now was one of those times.
Arthur didn’t seem to mind at all. “Well, very quickly,” he said, “because I’m sure you’ll meet them yourself at some point. They’re all very friendly, so there’s really nothing to worry about. There’s the ghost of Percy’s grandfather. He got the clap, so they say, and died in the master bedroom. He’s been known to make quite a racket at night but he’s harmless. Then there’s the lavender lady. Nobody knows who she is, but she’s seen walking down the staircase now and again, and flitting about the kitchen. You can smell the lavender wherever she’s been. Of course it could just be fragrances from the herb garden carried by the breeze, but I think she’s real. Lastly there’s the little drummer boy. My, he can only be about seven or eight, but he walks around the grounds banging his little tin drum. You can hear him from inside the house on some nights. He moves fast though, you likely won’t see him if you look outside. At least, I’ve never seen him.”
“You’ve seen the others?”
“I’ve heard Percy’s grandfather, and I’ve seen the lady several times.”
Beth clapped her hands together. “Thank you so much for your time, Arthur.”
“No problem at all, my dear. A delight to meet you both. If you need anything, you can call me on this number.” He handed Beth his business card. "If you can get a signal out here. I rarely can. I’ll be back on Wednesday so I won’t see you before you leave, but maybe next time, yes?”
We thanked him and he walked away. A little while later we heard his truck start up and the wheels crunch on the gravel path and then fade away.
Beth and I looked at each other and then ran for the house. I slowed down and let her go ahead. She wasn’t getting inside without me; I had the key!