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Authors: Trisha Ashley

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BOOK: Singled Out
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Not that it is a novelty to go to the King’s Arms, since we eat dinner there together most nights like some sad singles club, but one has to mark these twice-yearly occasions in some manner other than the obligatory bouquet of rather pleasantly funereal lilies from my publisher.

Orla and I got there first, giving us an opportunity to air our more personal preoccupations before Jason arrived.

‘I’ve got an American antique collector staying,’ she confided. ‘He’s a bit old, but he’s not bad-looking. He’s gone out to dinner with local friends, or I’d have offered to cook him a little something.’

This was desperation indeed, for Orla absolutely hates cooking.

One of her phones jangled, and she snatched it up. ‘Hello, Song Language? Can I help you?’

‘Wrong phone,’ I hissed, because the leopard-print one is the B&B.

‘No, no, I didn’t say strong language,’ Orla was saying soothingly. ‘You must have misheard me. This is Haunted Well B&B speaking. Can I help you?’

The phone quacked.

‘Certainly. From Friday? Yes, Bed and Continental Breakfast. No, only Continental. Yes, do let me know by tomorrow – I only have one vacancy for that weekend. Yes, goodbye.’

She put the phone down on the table next to the pink Barbie Glitter one and sighed. ‘Honestly, do they think I’ve nothing better to do than run around cooking cholesterol in the mornings?’

The Barbie phone rang before I could answer that, as far as I was aware, nothing better
had
offered lately.

‘Song Language. Tonight? Tarzanogram? I’m afraid all my operatives are fully booked this evening. Yes, it is late notice. So sorry. Bye.’


You
could have gone,’ I pointed out.

‘Not to a hen party. Same applies to you. And anyway, we’re celebrating!’

She raised her glass: ‘Here’s to
Nocturnally Yours, and
to finding someone nocturnally mine!’

‘You will,’ I assured her. ‘There must be interesting unattached men out there somewhere.’

‘Well hidden,’ she said gloomily. ‘How about you? It’s nearly six months since Max left, and you must be missing the sex, if nothing else.’

‘Well, not really,’ I confessed. ‘It hasn’t been terribly memorable for a while, and sometimes I think Max goes through the motions out of habit now, and only gets excited thinking about a particularly good round of golf.’

‘I don’t know how you can live like that,
or
like a nun now that he’s away.’

‘To tell the truth I don’t mind most of the time … but every so often I get the urge so badly I feel like jumping on the postman. Do you ever feel like that?’

She looked at me, astonished: ‘All the time! Why don’t you do something about it? Not the postman, because poor old George isn’t up to it, and anyway, Agnes wouldn’t like it. But you could look for another man.’

‘I have looked
at
other men, and I’ve discovered that I don’t find many of them attractive. Hardly any in fact, even when I was younger and lots showed some interest in me. I must be too choosy.’

‘Pity they didn’t catch you in one of your brief mad-for-sex times then.’

‘But until recently I was only mad for sex with Max, and if I’d gone with anyone else I would have felt horrible, and unfaithful, and all the rest of it.’

‘You’re such a Puritan! Why don’t you lighten up a bit?
I
certainly don’t feel like that.’

‘But you were faithful to Mike while you were married, weren’t you?’ I said, because it’s always seemed to me that she has only gone off the sexual rails since the divorce. She and Jason used to flirt quite a lot before Tanya vanished but it was just harmless fun.

Orla went faintly pink. ‘Sort of. Now I don’t have to be faithful to anyone.’

‘I’m conditioned by my upbringing and it’s too late to change now, even if I found a man I fancied, I think,’ I pondered doubtfully, for who knows where desperation will lead us? ‘And after charting my ovulation cycle I’ve come to the conclusion that my sex drive switches on only around the time I might get pregnant – assuming my eggs aren’t cracked, addled, or blown – so presumably when I stop getting the urge at all it’ll mean I’ve run out for ever.’

‘Jump on Jason at the right time then, Cass. You like Jason.’

‘Of course I like Jason: he’s big, cuddly, attractive – and a
friend.

‘He’s not cuddly when he’s in a rage,’ she pointed out. Though that’s when
I
find him sexiest.’

‘You have him, then. He always seemed to fancy you more than me, until he saw me dressed as a vampire. Worryingly kinky.’

‘Interestingly kinky,’ she amended. ‘And it’s me he only sees as a friend these days. Marilyn Monroe obviously doesn’t do it for him…’

She sighed and I looked at her sharply, because there had been a certain tension between them just after Tanya disappeared that I’d never quite understood, and although they were the best of friends again now there was no more flirting.

‘Wonder where Tanya went?’ she said, obviously pursuing a similar train of thought.

‘You know, I was just thinking that a few days ago, and how odd it was that she’s never contacted Tom, at least. And although we know Jason argued with her the night she disappeared, before he came down to the pub, he’s never said what about. You don’t think he did anything to her in one of his rages, do you?’

‘There was that witness who saw her car on the Kedge Hall road out of Westery in the early hours of the morning,’ she reminded me.

‘They might have seen the car, but maybe it was Jason driving it with the body in the back,’ I suggested.

He drove fast along the road, conscious of the limp, bloody thing in the back that had lived and laughed and loved – once too often.

Then he heard a soft scuffling noise, the scratching of long fingernails on fabric, as some travesty of Lara began to drag itself between the rear seats …

Orla gave me a sharp nudge with her elbow. ‘Come on, Cass! If Jason had hurt her, it would have been accidentally in the heat of an argument, and he’d have been ringing the police and ambulance two seconds later!’

‘Yes, you’re right,’ I said. ‘And he did report her missing to the police.’

‘There you are, then. And he walked me home from the pub that night because Mike was away, and when we passed his house Tanya’s car was still there,’ she reminded me. ‘And he stayed for coffee and a chat, so that by the time he got home not only had she vanished but her car had been seen. She took a load of her things, too.’

‘Jason could have done that, though,’ I pointed out stubbornly. Not that I wanted poor old Jason to be guilty, it just made for a more interesting story. ‘He might have—’

‘Shhh!’ she warned. ‘There he is!’ She waved, and Jason, looking very bear-like in a hairy brown jumper, ambled over.

‘There might have been an argument and an accident,’ she whispered hastily before he reached us, ‘but you don’t think he’d ever hurt someone on purpose, even in a temper?’

‘No, of course not,’ I assured her.

‘What are you two looking so furtive about?’ Jason asked, sitting down in the chair opposite.

‘Cass wants a baby,’ Orla said quickly. ‘Before it’s too late.’

‘Orla!’ I protested, going pink.

‘Anything I can do to help, you can count on me,’ Jason said, eyeing me speculatively from his deep-set brown eyes, and my heart sank.

Thanks to Orla, I was going to find him even harder to handle than before. It was easier when we were all just friends: Mike and Orla, Jason and Tanya, and odd-girl-out me. (Max never mingled on his visits.)

Though come to think of it, there always were undercurrents, like Tanya and Jason’s arguing over her flirting with other men, especially Jack Craig, the lodgekeeper at the Hall. And as I said, Jason and Orla had this long-running, seemingly lighthearted flirtation going, that hit a blip after Tanya vanished. Orla’s ex, Mike, tried flirting with me soon after I moved to Westery, I
think,
but I didn’t seem to pick up the signals very well: perhaps they were on the wrong frequency. Or perhaps I am permanently on the wrong frequency?

I’ve always been the odd one out: I don’t date, I don’t flirt, and I don’t have a social life.

And maybe now I don’t even have a lover any more?

*   *   *

Proudly read my
Times
review out to Max when he next called, only to find he was quite shocked by it.

‘My God – how dare they! Darling, are you terribly upset?’

‘Upset? Are you mad? I’m absolutely delighted! A
Times
review could boost my sales no end.’

‘Yes, a good review, but this is so—’

‘Max, it’s
The Times.
And they do say that bad publicity is better than no publicity.’

‘Not this bad, surely?’

‘Oh, it’s not much worse than I’ve had before, and I think it will make lots of people go and look for the book from sheer curiosity, don’t you? My agent says they ought to quote it on the next cover.’

‘He was joking.’

‘No, he wasn’t. And my publishers were pleased, too, even though I might become a sort of minority cult, so they’d have to give me bigger advances. Then I could stop doing Crypt-ograms whenever some unexpected bill comes in. The Batmobile is making clunky sounds on corners again, and I think the alternator’s getting dodgy.’

‘Aren’t cult writers usually
literary?

‘No, of course not, you highbrow snob. And there’s nothing wrong with my writing anyway.’

‘It’s not your style, it’s the content, Cassy. If you didn’t write about things ordinary people don’t even admit to
thinking
about, you’d probably be a respected author by now.’

‘What, like Jane? And starve to death? No thanks.’

‘Her work is certainly respected and she doesn’t seem to have starved.’

‘No, but only because she’s been supported by Gerald since she left university. Besides, I wouldn’t call someone who’s had two slim volumes of pared-down poetry published a real writer, even if she has got every literary grant going on the strength of them.’

‘Her haiku are generally considered to be brilliant.’

‘Yeah, she must have sold
dozens
of copies of “Red Sun, Falling Leaves”.’

‘Is that a bit of sour grapes?’

‘Come on, Max – if there’s any jealousy it’s the other way round. I’ve always known my gift lay in curdling the blood and making the hair stand on end, not writing twisty little sushi gobbets.’

‘How are you, anyway?’ he asked, abruptly abandoning the subject as a lost cause. ‘Missing me? Still got that no-hoper from the antique shop sniffing after you?’

‘Jason isn’t sniffing after me, he’s a friend,’ I said shortly and quite untruthfully. He isn’t quite a no-hoper either, considering he’s the only man currently on the horizon who actually fancies me, and who knows where desperation will lead me?

‘How is Rosemary?’ I enquired politely on that thought: I mean, just pretend I care.

‘Fine. California suits her. I haven’t seen her this lively and cheerful for years, and Kyra’s been working with her to build her upper body strength. It’s really lovely here – you’d like it, Cassy.’

… the power of his voice poured over her like warm honey, and she felt herself grow weak with desire …

‘I expect I would,’ I agreed. California, sunny California, sounded very enticing, with everything warm, and green and fertile. Even me, perhaps, were I to go there?

‘Max,’ I said persuasively, ‘if I did a couple more Crypt-ograms and ignored the Batmobile repairs, I could afford to fly out for a holiday somewhere near you and we could—’

‘No,’ he interrupted firmly. ‘You know we agreed that it wouldn’t be practical to try and see each other while I’m here. Besides, it would hardly be worth it for a couple of weeks, would it?’

‘Wouldn’t it?’ I asked wistfully. ‘Don’t you miss me, Max?’

‘Of course I do, but I’m also working hard, you know, this isn’t a holiday for me. Anyway, I’ll be back before you know it.’

‘Yes, but Max—’

I stopped, realising that whatever I said wouldn’t change his mind once he’d made it up, and most of the things I find myself wanting to tell him lately are unsayable anyway, like: Max, I get so lonely without even your weekend visits.

Max, I’m forty-four and my reproductive possibilities are melting faster than the snow in California.

Max, didn’t you once assure me that Rosemary’s doctors didn’t give her more than a very few years to live, and that one day we would marry and have a family?

Max, were you a liar?

*   *   *

I’ve been treating the Predictova kit with the watchful reverence that you might accord to a ticking time bomb in your bathroom: I mean, are my internal organs pace-egging to extinction, or what? (Not that the damn thing actually
tells
you, it just points out the probabilities.) But outwardly at least my life has resumed its normal (or maybe abnormal) rhythm.

Nature intended me to be nocturnal, so by night I write
Lover, Come Back To Me,
wander for inspiration in the village graveyard and nearby reputedly haunted places (though not the Haunted Well, because Orla and I made that one up), before finally retiring to my virtuous couch in the very early hours of the morning.

There I’m awoken at dawn by Birdsong, the new baby in the adjoining cottage, until I finally rise in late morning to research, visit haunted venues, take naps, do Crypt-ograms (but
not
as Wonder Woman!), go to the pub with Orla and Jason, and start all over again.

The life-cycle of the Sombre-Plumaged Horror Writer.

And my publishers have brought forward the publication date of my next novel to April, due to sudden demand for my books, so at this rate they will soon be publishing them before I’ve written them.

I am also working at weakening the defenses of Jack Craig, upon whom I have serious designs, though unlike Jason’s missing wife Tanya mine are not of a sexual or romantic nature.

No, his sole attraction lies in the fact that he’s the caretaker of the local haunted house, reputedly the most haunted manor in the country. But then, aren’t they all? It has stood empty since the death of its reclusive owner, and I was desperate to get in there. The heir had apparently taken a quick look round when he inherited before leaving the country for foreign climes: but who knows when the fancy might take him to return, or put the property on the market?

BOOK: Singled Out
5.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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