A broken life, a rainy day, a sympathetic stranger on a mission … will Claire overcome her instinct to pull away?
The slanting Shropshire rain, pitting against her face, is so cold that Claire lifts her collar and begins a clumsy run through the village. Her rented cottage is at the bottom of the hill, backing onto farmland.
Through the blur of rain, faces pass her like ghosts, sneaking glances, giving a nod or a half smile. They are plainer and seem oddly homogenous in contrast to the multi-ethnic neighbours of her usual life. It is three weeks since she left Los Angeles.
“Good for you to get away,” her friend Julia had said. “You’ll be back for the Deception auditions?”
“But you loved the book!”
The ambition that once energised Claire has faded since Harry’s accident, a year ago now.
That he died on his way back to her, on their first wedding anniversary, that he might have been driving too fast simply to reach her… These thoughts haunt Claire, cause her to wake each morning with tears on her face, the hard weight of grief on her chest. An acting career no longer seems relevant.
But Harry had believed in her. You’re beautiful and talented, he said, often.
And you, she had replied, laughing, are blinded by lust.
Now, on the narrow street, Claire slows. The rain has stopped and she sees a man outside the Women’s Shelter, leaning against a blue car. She wonders, with a stab of fear, if he is stalking someone: a runaway wife, a frightened partner.
The shelter, a shabby Victorian structure, has existed since Claire visited the area with her parents, years ago.
It is supposed to be a secret, though many villagers know about it.
The man is tall, about Harry’s height, slim and fair-haired. He wears a raincoat over a suit. Claire tries to hurry past.
“Excuse me,” he calls. “Can you help? Is this number twenty-nine? Twenty-nine, Church Road? I can’t see a number.”
She sighs. She knows there is no number on the shelter.
“Sorry. No idea,” she says. “I’m just visiting here myself.”
“Hey. Wait,” he says. He is smiling now. “That accent? Are you American?”
“No. English. But I live in LA.”
“Really? I know Santa Barbara. Was there for two months.”
It is impossible not to smile back.
“Nice place, Santa Barbara,” Claire says.
“We liked it,” he says, then adds, “Sorry to bother you. I’m trying to find my sister.”
Sister? Claire feels a softening of the fear, the disbelief that had been edging her consciousness.
He doesn’t look like a wife beater, but then, who does? What does such a man look like?
“Wish I could help.”
“You could maybe tell me where to get a coffee? I’m rather cold. And wet.”
“The pub is your only option.”
“Would you like to join me?” he asks.
She hesitates. She has not spoken to a real person, discounting conversations with shopkeepers, for days. But she is curious about this businessman.
In the pub, he persuades her to have a brandy as the weather demands it and when they are settled with drinks, he holds out his hand.
“Roger Williams,” he says.
“Yes. And you? You mentioned trying to find your sister.”
“Yes. Seems she just upped and left.”
“No idea why?”
“Her husband said they’d had an argument and she walked out. But her friend at work gave me the name of the village. Said she was hiding. In a shelter for women.”
“I’m sorry,” Claire says. “Did her husband abuse her?”
“I’ve never seen evidence of it, but I’m away such a lot. And I’m being flown out to Dubai tomorrow.
“I wanted to be sure she’s OK before I leave. I don’t even know if I had the right house.”
“I suppose those places have to stay secret. To protect the women.”
“Well, I can’t do much more,” he says, then looks hard at her. “So, tell me about you.”
His smile is sudden. She blushes.
“Not much to tell,” she murmurs.
He is a good listener, attentive, and she tells him more than she intended: of her loneliness, of her loss of interest in her career.
They each have another brandy and when he walks her back to the cottage it is easy to ask him in.
He seems heavier and bulky inside the tiny sitting room, stooping to avoid the low beams. They talk about movies as she makes coffee and when he is ready to leave, he reaches for her shoulders. A gentle touch.
For one unguarded moment she wants to lean into him, be held.
She can still recall the comfort of skin on skin, the warmth of another body.
But he is not Harry. He is a stranger.
She jumps back as if burned. She looks at her watch.
“God – is that the time? I need to make a call.”
“Well, so nice to meet you,” he says, as he heads to the door.
“Look, leave me a number,” she suggests, trying to make amends for hurrying him out. “I could ask around for your sister.”
His eyes widen with hope.
“Would you? Her name’s Angela. Angela Harris.”
He gives her his number and is gone.
When Claire passes the shelter the next day she sees that the blinds are open; a woman’s voice can be heard calling to a child.
Roger Williams’ telephone number tight in her hand, Claire knocks on the door.
The woman who answers is white-haired, unsmiling.
“Is it possible to speak with Angela?” Claire asks. “Angela Harris.”
“Don’t know that name,” the woman says. “I’ll check. Come in.”
In the dark hallway the woman asks, “And you are?”
“Claire Eastlake. A friend.”
A few minutes later, a young woman, a toddler on her hip, comes towards Claire. She has long fair hair, blue eyes, and soft pink skin that is yellow and blue on her cheekbones where the bruises are fading. Her mouth is crusted with healing cuts.
“Oh,” Claire says, shocked.
“Do I know you?” the woman asks.
“You’re Angela Harris?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Your brother asked me to come. He was here yesterday.”
The girl steps backwards, both arms circling the toddler, creating a protective shield. Claire has never seen such fear on anyone’s face.
“I don’t have a brother,” the girl says.
Claire feels a shift, a strange falling sensation.
“It was – your husband? What does he look like?”
Claire follows Angela along a corridor to a room at the back of the house with four bunk beds and a baby’s cot in the corner.
She is shown pictures of a fair-haired man with a warm smile. It is the same man who just a day ago stood in her cottage.
She shivers as she recalls the touch of his hands on her shoulders.
“I’m so sorry,” Claire says. “He said he was your brother. He said he was worried about you.”
“Bloody liar. How did he know to say Harris? My maiden name.”
“How did he find this place?”
“Something about a friend at work?”
Angela frowns, then lowers her voice.
“Linda. I asked her not to tell anybody.”
Claire looks at the young woman’s battered, frightened face and feels her heart squeeze with pity.
“I’m sorry. He seemed so – normal.”
“Yeah. They don’t come with horns. Shame.” She bites her lip, thinking. “If I can just stay out of sight. He’s supposed to leave for Dubai tonight.”
“Ah, so that bit was true.”
Claire takes the long way back to the cottage, crossing over the wooded dell to take the hillside path. A weak sun is barely visible. It is early afternoon and yet the sullen light makes it feel like evening.
She sees the blue car as she turns into the lane. Roger Williams is waiting outside her cottage.
Claire stops, her heart leaping in her chest.
The car window is open. Claire backs slowly, intent on getting out of sight but, at that moment, he turns his head.
“Hello there,” he calls.
She takes a long breath, tries to smile.
“Hi. Thought you’d left.”
“Just wanted to see if you’d found out anything about Angela.”
He watches her carefully. The blue eyes are opaque glass.
“No. Sorry.” Her voice is bright. “I found a place that used to be a shelter. It’s closed now. Might be one in Shrewsbury. It’s possible she’s using a false name, too, you know.”
He sighs, disappointed.
“Well, thanks for trying.”
“Sorry. You’re all set to go?”
“Yes. Maybe time for a coffee, though, before I hit the road?”
Claire swallows hard. For Angela’s sake, she must act as if she has no idea, she must not treat him differently from the way she treated him yesterday.
Act! she tells herself sternly. Play the damn part.
“Of course,” she says. “Come on in.”
She puts the kettle on, clanging the mugs together clumsily as he leans against the counter watching her. A fine trembling begins at her fingertips.
“So, you’re off to Dubai tonight?” she asks. As the words leave her lips she feels a moment of blind panic. Had he told her about Dubai? Or had Angela?
She grips the counter tightly, waiting for his response.
He takes a long time to reply.
“On my way to the airport now.”
Relieved, she moves the cups forward and they rattle noisily in her hands.
He is standing beside her. He is too close.
She moves back so swiftly that her elbow bangs the counter.
“Hey, there, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She laughs, lifts her hands in mock despair.
“Always clumsy,” she says. “And I have a lot on my mind. Plans to make.”’
“Back to Los Angeles?”
“Yes,” she says with such conviction that she surprises herself. “There’s a part I’ve decided I want to audition for.”
“Good for you.”
“And,” she hands him coffee, “I’m afraid I must call California in a few minutes’ time.”
“Of course. Look I’m grateful to you for trying to help,” he says.
His voice is soft and warm and she is thrown off balance for a moment. If you did not know – you would never know. He seems like a gentle character.
“No problem. But I’ll have to hurry you, I’m afraid,” she says.
He remains in place, his eyes still on her face.
“You want me to go?”
At the door, she smiles and waves as he drives away, watching until he reaches the end of the street. To join the motorway that leads to the airport he must turn left; if he intends to go to the shelter again, he will turn right.
She waits, rigid with fear, as the car slows at the crossroads.
Finally, the indicator light flashes. He turns left.
Claire lets out a long breath, relief swamping her. Angela is safe.
She closes the door, leans back against it. Roger Williams was entirely convinced by her bravura performance. Harry would have been so proud of her.
She reaches for the phone to call the airline. She has four days before the audition and she feels, for the first time in a long time, the tingle of nerves, of anticipation, of hope.
We’re sharing a varied collection of crime-themed short stories from our archives. Look out for them every Monday and Thursday during September. And don’t forget, there’s exciting brand new fiction – including some from big name authors – in My Weekly magazine every week! Check out our great money-saving subscription offer.