Saturday, 29 November
Stiff from spending the last three hours hunched over his desk, Alex tilted his chair back and stretched out his arms and legs. He stared out the window. At first glance, the afternoon sun evoked a summery feel. A deception: most of the trees in Verulamium Park that his apartment overlooked were bare. The people walking round the lake were well wrapped in an array of heavy coats, gloves, and scarves.
He rose and went into the kitchen to make a coffee and noticed the shopping list. That reminded him, the housewarming party was tonight. He must get to the supermarket to pick up the stuff Claire wanted, but for now, he had to keep focused, otherwise he wouldn’t get his work done.
Alex pulled out his laptop, sat back at his desk and made a space in the center of the pile of books and handwritten notes. The amount of material he found on the history of Victorian asylums had surprised him. He was amazed at the speed at which these institutions had sprung up in almost every town. Not only in Britain but America too, followed by other parts of the empire such as Canada, Australia, and India. Like medical mass hysteria. Nothing prepared him for the tales of how the mentally ill were treated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even in the twentieth century, when he’d supposed medicine and the treatment of the insane had evolved well beyond the unacceptable practices of earlier times, the horrific photographs and articles vividly showed this hadn’t been the case.
Lost in his reading, the hours flew by. When he completed the preparation he needed for the meeting with Hamish on Monday, Alex straightened the messy piles of notes and cuttings beside his desk. His eye caught the headline of the article where he’d found the information about Belle Vue before it closed. The reference to the nurse reminded him of Marianne and her odd attitude to the place on their first visit. When he’d asked Marianne about her behavior, it hadn’t been about the missing nurse. She had filled him in on the details and he had kept a straight face. Imagining Marianne scared and uneasy after all those years from a run-in with some little old lady was difficult to do. He smiled to himself. Matron versus pensioner. He knew who he’d bet on.
Alex typed some keywords into the search box, located two more articles about the closure of the asylum and started reading.
When he’d finished, he sat back and stared unseeing at the pinboard in front of him. He hadn’t expected anything like this. He shuddered as he imagined what sort of place Belle Vue must have been for such a thing to happen. Thank God, he didn’t have a weak stomach.
Somehow, he didn’t think Claire would appreciate him mentioning this at her party.
Claire pulled out a sheet of cling-wrap and placed it over the plate of lemon slices she’d just cut. Marianne had nearly finished rolling out the pastry on the granite worktop. She mentally ticked off another item on her ‘to do’ list for tonight’s party. As the comforting smell of the cheese straws in the oven wafted through the kitchen, she thought she couldn’t be happier. She’d moved into Belle Vue the weekend before and, with much help from Alex and Marianne, was now comfortably settled in her own little piece of heaven.
She glanced over at Marianne, whose face glowed pink, and smiled. “You look like something out of Good Housekeeping.”
Marianne looked up, wearing a wry expression. “You know, crisps and peanuts would’ve been fine.”
“Ah, but nowhere near as impressive.”
“I assume you’ve invited the Belle Vue crowd then, not just culinary Neanderthals like Gary and Paul?”
Claire nodded and handed her friend the tin of pastry cutters. “I put a notice up on the board in the foyer earlier in the week and spoke to Sally and Jeff Reichenberg, the Americans who live next door, but they’re going to be away.”
She checked the clock on the wall and did a double-take. “That’s weird. I put a new battery in the other day.” Marianne and Claire stared at the clock face. It read 8:00 a.m., though Claire estimated it must be mid-afternoon.
Marianne shrugged. “Forget about it.”
“Yes, boss.” Claire laughed. “We’re nearly done, do you fancy a swim?”
“Ugh. No, thanks.”
Expecting that response, Claire said nothing. After collecting her keys, she disappeared downstairs to the basement and crossed the foyer into the health spa.
In the reception area, she stopped by the large window and gazed at the expanse of blue on the other side. In the pool, two heads bobbed up and down. Mr. and Mrs. Eric Beamish swimming laps. She’d met them the day she moved in and they’d been most helpful telling her about life at Belle Vue and all the other residents. Eric was plowing up the water as he swam, followed about thirty feet behind by his wife who, in goggles and a swim cap, struggled with the dog paddle.
Once changed, Claire dived into the deep end and set off with a relaxed breaststroke. She swam about thirty lengths before thinking about going back to get ready. Reaching the far end, Claire flipped over for the final lap. Each time she came up for air, she noticed a po-faced woman watching her from the reception area window. A tall thin woman in a black dress with a white cap. Claire didn’t think she’d seen her before, but she didn’t look like the party-going type. If she did turn up tonight, it would probably be to complain about the noise.
Clearing the water with her next stroke, Claire looked toward the glass again. Her mouth opened in shock as she felt something grab her ankle. She sucked in the chlorinated water, spluttered, then splashed wildly to stay afloat. Not cramp. More like bony fingers tugging with inhuman strength.
She cried out as she went under, flailing like a woman possessed. Eyes wide open, she struggled to see who was holding her. Still the skeletal grip, but no sign of an assailant. Claire grunted deep in her throat, fought to reach the surface. Still the fingers. Panicking, she gulped more water.
Dear God. Help!
Just as she thought she would pass out, firmer, fleshier fingers grasped her arms and propelled her upward. Her face rose above the waterline. She greedily sucked in a mouthful of air, then another.
Never in her life had she been so glad to see anybody. Eric’s bushy eyebrows furrowed with concern as he kept reassuring her, with an almost hypnotic effect, she was safe.
He guided her toward the edge of the pool and a muscular attendant, who leaned over, his arms outstretched.
As he lifted her out of the water, Claire tried to make sense of her jumbled thoughts. The last thing she could tell anyone was someone had pulled her under because nobody was there. Even she could see that.
Eric led her limping to the attendant’s empty seat. She’d started shaking and as she sat, she relived in her mind the fright of almost drowning, her teeth chattered uncontrollably. Eric slipped the track top from the back of the chair and placed it about her shoulders.
“Thank you so much. It’s nothing. Must be a cramp,” she said.
That, or more mind games. The ones the doctors said she must stop. They were making her worse, or so she’d been counselled nearly four years ago. She had to agree to a point. The doctors always came back with a rational explanation for the examples she’d given them and she still did the exercises, both mental and physical, they recommended.
Emma Beamish, whose eyes still bore the outline of her goggles, squeezed her hand. Claire thanked the couple again, but the words came out by rote. Inside, she desperately focused on the pins and needles in her foot. Anything to avoid facing the alternative explanation.
It was almost seven-thirty by the time Alex drove up to the main entrance of Belle Vue. Gary had returned early and talked him into a drink and a few joints before he left the flat. He felt mellow and looked forward to a great party. For now, though, Claire’s shopping weighed him down. “Just a few bits so we won’t run out of anything,” she’d said. Misleading words, to put it mildly. The quickest place to unload all the stuff was through the front entrance.
Balancing half a dozen bags on one arm, he took out the keys Claire had given him and stepped up to the huge oak doors. As he entered, he almost collided with a figure standing directly in his path.
He jerked back. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
The woman appraised him with cold eyes, one eyebrow raised and a smirk on her lips. She didn’t speak. Alex felt she was going to, but perhaps she wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what she’d have to say. If she lived here and had read Claire’s invitation, she’d probably start complaining about the likely noise. Old and sour, summed up his first impression. Her clothes looked expensive, but they didn’t quite work. The brightly patterned scarf of gold and purple around her neck clashed with the red of her jumper and hair.
“Your girl’s having a party tonight,” she stated, in a severe tone.
“Er, that’s right. I’m Alex by the way. How did you know Claire was ‘my girl’?” he asked.
The smirk dropped, but she said nothing. To fill the void, he continued, “We hope we don’t disturb you. It shouldn’t end too late.”
A faint smile now hovered on her thin lips, as though she had weighed up her approach and decided to be affable. “My name’s Moira Bradigan, Miss Moira Bradigan. Do you like Belle Vue, Mr. Palmer?”
As Alex wondered again how she knew his identity, he felt like a little boy in short trousers facing a stern teacher. “Yes, Miss Bradigan, I do.”
She gave him a calculating look and moved forward. “Hmm. I hope no uninvited guests show up. Today of all days.”
Alex caught an earthy scent as she brushed past him, too close for comfort.
As the door closed, he passed half the bags to his other arm and moved toward the stairs. Moira Bradigan hadn’t answered his question. Angela the agent had described her as ‘forceful’. He’d agree and add ‘strange’ too. Strange, but oddly compelling.
Marianne let him in. Barefaced, she wore her usual black ensemble, slightly crumpled for effect. He wasn’t sure if she was ready for the party, so he maintained a tactful silence. He returned to his car and made another trip upstairs before taking two boxes down to Claire’s lockup.
Task completed, he drove round to the main car park and pulled into one of the visitor spots. In contrast to the illuminated front of the property, he got out in near darkness. He remembered Claire telling him the car park lights weren’t working.
Relieved of his delivery duties, Alex looked up at the lit windows beckoning from Belle Vue’s rear façade and was struck again by its schizophrenic nature as an asylum. The external grandeur hiding its penal underbelly. The dome at the top was half-lit. An outline of someone standing at the window. He waved but the figure didn’t move.
The headlights of an approaching car caught Alex in their glare. Its horn beeped loudly. He recognized the number plate. Claire’s bitchy friend, Sophie. Everything he disliked in a woman; fake, grasping, and manipulative.
Sophie, dressed to kill, unfolded herself from the car. Her current lapdog, Jay who got out the other side, didn’t stand a chance, he thought. She walked over to Alex, her heels clicking on the tarmac. Drawing in a sizeable breath, she said with a loud sigh, “Playing Peeping Tom, are we? You’re lucky I didn’t run you over.”
“Hello to you, too. No, just admiring the architecture. Fabulous place, don’t you think?” he said, keen to needle her.
“An old loony bin? Who’d want to live in a nuthouse, however fancy they dress up the name? Not me, that’s for sure.” Sophie turned to her boyfriend. “Come on. Let’s get inside. It’s freezing. Jay, quickly. Give me your arm, I can’t see where I’m going. Don’t the lights work in this crappy place?”
Alex followed Sophie who, clutching Jay with a vice-like grip, tapped her progress toward the building. Bottles clinking in a large bag, carried by her personal attendant, provided her backing track. As they reached the path, the lights came on.
Once inside, Alex took them along the corridor, past the first hall and set of stairs, to the main foyer. Jay gazed around him. “Wow. This is some place.” He looked at Alex with something approaching envy. “Your girlfriend must be loaded.”
Sophie snorted and headed for the stairs.
As the group reached the first floor, music came from above. By the time they reached the next level, Alex hoped Claire’s neighbors were either joining the party, not at home, or deaf. As they walked toward her apartment, Sophie stopped and pointed to a pile of wood shavings on the floor. “I thought professional people lived here, not carpenters and the like. Very down market.”
Ignoring the lack of comment, she now wore a smile as he opened the door. Once inside, Sophie gave her coat to Jay and flounced off.
Alex saw Marianne emerge from the guest room, dressed exactly the same as she had when he first came in. Claire, on the other hand, with her hair up and slinky dress, looked stunning. She slid into his arms to greet him.
The hours passed in a blur. More guests, gifts, and bottles arrived, and the party got into its swing. The DJ, a pal of Gary’s, had set up in the sitting room. This became the default dance floor with the dining room and kitchen the places for talking and eating. He opened some of the windows to allow the cigarette smoke to escape. More of the Belle Vue residents than expected had turned up, much to Claire’s delight. She was thrilled with the party, and his attentiveness. Marianne remarked he was laying it on with a trowel, but he suspected deep down she would love to be in a relationship like theirs. He took a deep drink of whiskey.
Gary nudged him as the opening chords of the next song blared out, and his eyes followed Gary’s gaze. Seemingly oblivious to any onlookers, Marianne swung to the music and jigged up and down. From their position by the open window, Gary puffed on his cigarette and composed wisecracks mostly at her expense.
At the end of the song, still smiling, Alex escaped to the dining room where he’d last seen Claire. She stood by one of the tables laden with food, talking to an older couple. They were regarding her with a somewhat protective fondness, and he wondered what that was all about. He picked up a prawn brochette, ate it and then refilled his glass before joining them. She introduced him to Eric and Emma Beamish, who lived on the floor below and, he was surprised to learn, had ‘saved’ her life a few hours earlier. They rose in his estimation.
Eric, a lean fifty-something with an obvious penchant for bow ties, informed Alex he was the Chairman of the Belle Vue Residents’ Association. His wife, Emma, plump, fortyish, with ‘mother’ written all over her, was the Treasurer. Like matching bookends on either side of Claire, they listened almost as if taking notes to her potted tale of moving into Belle Vue.
“I only know Marianne, the one who greeted you at the door, was thrilled to get her own space back again.”
The Beamishes nodded vigorously. Alex murmured a vague sound of agreement then switched the topic. “I met one of the other residents earlier. A Moira Bradigan? She’s quite something, isn’t she? She seemed to know a lot about us.”
Eric and Emma blushed in unison, before Eric admitted. “I told Miss Bradigan who you were. She was very interested about Claire buying this apartment. Normally she’s aloof and standoffish. Maybe she’s beginning to thaw.”
“From my one conversation, I’d say that’s a long way off,” Alex said, smiling.
“Er, yes. Anyway, she seems to know a lot about the history of Belle Vue. Right back to its days as an asylum, and later a hospital. I think she worked there once or knew someone who worked there. I vaguely remember her mentioning something similar when we were telling her about Claire,” Eric said.
Before he could comment, Claire tugged his sleeve. “Alex, I need to check something. Can you help me?”
He took the offered escape route but made a mental note to speak to Miss Bradigan again and see if he could learn anything useful for his research. “Sure. Hey, Eric, why don’t you two get on the dance floor? I bet you’re a real mover.”
Eric beamed again, his spotted bow tie almost spinning with delight. “Oh, I have my moments. Good idea, Alex. Come on, Emma. Let’s show them how it’s done.”
Emma smiled back adoringly. Hand-in-hand, they headed toward the music pulsating from the other room. Alex grinned at Claire and leaned over to kiss her. “Very clever. I thought we’d never be alone. Let’s go somewhere dark.”
He led her out into the dimly lit hall. The music was blasting out and he could see the temporary dance floor packed with cavorting shadows.
“So, what are we checking? Something for the party, or for me?” He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
“Ha, ha. Do you think Eric’s going to check up on us?”
“Having met him, I’d say yes.” He kissed her deeply, his passion growing as she responded. Time and the party faded away. It was just him and Claire. Later was definitely going to be great.
Alex felt her pull away. Jay hovered, a resigned look on display.
“Sorry, but we’re going now. Sophie says she’s had enough.”
Claire flashed him a look that said, ‘don’t even go there’. “Sure. I’ll get your coats.”
As she crossed to the guest bedroom, Jay told her how much he liked the apartment. Alex looked across at Claire, who half-faced Jay. She opened the door. In the unlit room, Alex was sure he could see a shape looming behind her. A pungent odor wafted into the hall. Before he could say anything, Claire, her eyebrows now furrowed, turned and reached for the light switch.
A crackle and a flash. The lights and music died instantly, leaving the apartment pitch black. A big cheer went up, followed by an awkward silence. A voice yelled, “Which sex maniac turned off the lights?”
The sound of laughter echoed through the rooms.
“Claire, are you okay?” he asked.
“Shocked more like. Alex, what are we going to do?”
Cutting off his reply, Gary’s falsetto pierced the darkness, “Oh, Paul, you’re so rough, but I like it.”
More laughter. Alex raised his voice before the chatter started again. “Can someone open the blinds in the other rooms?”
He eased past Jay, feeling his way along the wall toward the window at the end of the hall. He pulled up the shade and peered into an inky void. Bugger. A blackout. He blinked. In the instant he opened his eyes, he saw everything outside was lit as it should be. The glow of St. Albans, the lights round the grounds, a car’s headlights moving up the drive. Must have been a trick of the eye but the important thing was to get the flat sorted. Most likely, a couple of fuses had tripped. As he breathed in, the dreadful smell hit him again. Stronger this time.
Before he could react, a loud shriek behind him silenced the chatting in the other rooms.
He instantly swiveled round, calling Claire’s name. He could barely make her out in the gloom. He dashed forward, his hands pulling her to him. He felt her body trembling against his.
“Are you all right? What happened?”
“I think I’m okay. Get the lights on now. Please?”
“It’ll soon be sorted. I’m going to check the breaker,” he called out with more confidence than he felt.
Gary yelled, “Be quick about it.” This elicited a murmur of agreement that ceased as he added, “I’m dying for a slash.”
Claire’s fingers gripped him like pincers of steel as he shuffled toward the hall cupboard. He opened the door and was just able to distinguish the switches of the fuse box to his left. They had all been tripped. Not good, he thought. Claire would need to watch that. He remembered she’d mentioned Eric Beamish telling her there’d been problems with both the gas and electricity supplies, the car park being a case in point.
He flicked them all back on. The first loud cheers led by Gary and Paul morphed into louder groans as the sounds of cheesy disco music flooded through the apartment. Alex, intending to replace the burned-out lightbulb in the guest room, turned to Claire. She was rubbing her neck. Her frightened eyes met his. “Someone grabbed me.”
He breathed out. Was that all? It was pitch black for Christ’s sake. He was about to make a joke about it when she removed her hand from her throat. He did a double-take as he took in the red mark around her neck. Alex recalled the shadow behind Claire. The guy, whoever he was, must have taken hold of her in the dark, but he was positive no one had come out of the room. It didn’t make sense. With Claire still clutching his arm, they went in and searched. No one. Alex noticed the smell had gone, too, as had the mark around her neck. Like he’d imagined it.
When Jay came in to collect his and Sophie’s coats, he left Claire with him. Still wondering about the man, he searched the flat.
The music, like the party buzz, fizzled out. Only a few diehards were still dancing but to a more muted beat. Most people had migrated to the dining room and kitchen where they were chatting quietly in small groups. While he didn’t spot anyone remotely resembling the brawny shape he’d seen behind Claire, he did locate the spare light bulbs and another drink. When he’d restored light in the guest room, he found a queue of partygoers in the hall waiting to retrieve their coats.
After another half hour or so, he and Claire closed the door on the last guests, Eric and Emma Beamish. He chuckled. “To think you’ve found the only other people to leave after Gary and the DJ. Unbelievable.”
Claire yawned, her slim fingers quivering as she held them in front of her mouth. She looked tired, he thought, as though her experience tonight—or whatever you’d call it—had sucked some of the liveliness out of her. He wondered if a night of passion was now out of the question.
“Shall we tidy up tomorrow?” he asked, ever hopeful. If he didn’t hurry, she’d be sound asleep. Seeing her nod, he put his arms round her and they walked to the bedroom.
“Alex, I’m frightened.”
He almost told her not to be silly then checked himself. She was still so fragile. When he and Claire had started going out, Marianne had told him what she’d been through with the horrific deaths of both her parents; murdered at their home in Hong Kong—and after. Not just the grief, but her breakdown and guilt at surviving. He needed to understand her fears not mock them.
He had seen a man in the spare room.
Moira Bradigan’s comment about unwanted guests and what day it was, came to mind. He also remembered Eric’s words about her knowledge of Belle Vue’s past. Before those thoughts had a chance to retreat, Alex decided she was definitely worth speaking to again.
Maybe this time he’d get some straight answers.