LXXV

He knew he was dying. Lying on his low bed, his wife sitting at his side, he watched the servants scurrying silently to and fro with coals for the brazier. He was cold, so very cold even though it was still summer. His eyes strayed to the shadows. They were there, waiting. Nion and Claudia. Her dying curse had after all done its work. The web was spun. Already the sticky threads entangling him reached out to the farthest corners of time. But he would evade her; somehow he would evade her – as long as there was no evidence of his crime no man on earth would censure him and, before the gods, he would take his chance like a Roman warrior, wandering the corridors between worlds where she would never find him.

He felt his lungs falter, the breath labouring suddenly in his chest, and a stab of panic went through him. Not yet. He wasn’t ready yet. The tablets. He had the wax tablets under his pillow. On them the priest had written the words which would protect him and guide him to places where they would never find him. He had given orders that he be buried without cremation; that would anchor his spirit more closely to the earth. The servants had gone now. The room was empty. Hazily, he could see that his wife was dozing, her head resting on her arm. It must be midnight. The loneliest time. The loneliest place. Through the door, open to allow a draught to stir the heat from the brazier he could hear the water from the fountain in the atrium. It had a pleasant, soothing music to it; a music echoed by the stars he could not see, blazing up there in the midnight sky where, before the dawn began to dim their glory, he too would be wandering, lost in the immensity of time. He tried to move his head a little as on the table beside him the lamp flame flickered and dimmed. Suddenly the room was full of the scent of jasmine.

When Kate awoke it was pitch dark outside, but the room was lit by a small lamp on the dressing table. She lay staring round, wondering what had awoken her. Then she realised. It was the engine of a car. She lay listening, trying to summon the strength to stand up and go downstairs to see who it was, but already her eyes were closing again.

When she next opened them it was daylight.

Downstairs the living room was empty. She stared round. It had been tidied. She sniffed. She could smell coffee. Walking over to the pantry door she peered in. Jon was there, rooting around amongst Diana’s jars and boxes.

‘Hi.’

He jumped, then he smiled. Putting his arms around her he kissed her on the forehead. ‘Hi. Did you manage to sleep?’

She nodded. ‘I can’t believe it but I did.’ Yesterday, after he had sat and looked at the picture for what seemed like hours he had retired to the chair by the fire and scarcely spoken again that evening. He had frightened her. Greg, in contrast, had been remarkably cheerful and unthreatening and it was he who had persuaded her at last to go up and get some rest. ‘Did I hear a car last night? Who was it?’ she asked.

He frowned. ‘They came to collect Roger. Greg saw him on his way.’

‘Poor Roger. He was such a nice man. I liked him so much.’ Kate bit her lip. ‘This has all been so terrible, Jon.’ She went back to his arms and stood there, her head resting on his shoulder, drawing strength from him. He was himself again now; completely himself. She could feel it, see it. She glanced over his shoulder into the living room. The picture had gone. ‘Where’s Greg?’ She looked up at Jon’s face.

‘He went out.’

‘Did you sleep down here last night?’

He nodded. ‘In the chair.’

‘And you smelt it: the jasmine.’

He nodded again. ‘Her face. It’s beautiful.’

‘It’s beautiful the way Greg painted it; but it’s frightening too, don’t you think?’ She shuddered.

He nodded thoughtfully. ‘He moved it. Put it away, I think.’ He glanced at her. ‘He’s a very disturbed man, Kate.’

‘Intense; artistic; sad. Not disturbed.’

‘Oh yes, disturbed. He’s jealous of me to the point of madness. I’m not being paranoid, Kate. I’m serious. He’s a threat. A threat to you.’

‘Jon – ’

He shook his head. ‘I know it seems absurd. Perhaps I’m being stupid, but I really believe it. There is something in his eyes – You must come away with me. Today. You know I’ve paid half the money I owe you into your account, Kate.’ He glanced at her. ‘The rest will be there by the end of January. You won’t let this come between us, will you.’

‘Jon, please. Don’t push me too fast.’ She looked up at his face. ‘I’ll come back to London. I’ll have to anyway to get the train over to my parents.’ She grimaced. ‘I will have to see about the car insurance and getting a new one. But about us…’ She wanted to go to him. She loved him, but something held her back. So much had broken in their relationship. It would take time to mend. ‘I don’t know, Jon. Not yet. Let’s take it slowly.’

She sighed. There was an added complication. Greg. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Greg. Not yet. ‘As soon as they let us into the cottage I’ll pack my things and we’ll have to think of a way of collecting them. Then we’ll go, Jon.’

Perhaps Marcus wouldn’t notice that they were leaving. She walked across to the window and stared out with another shiver. ‘Jon! Look! The cats.’ They were sitting side by side on the wall on the far side of the lawn. ‘It must be all right. They’ve come back. Surely, that must mean it’s safe.’

Jon smiled. ‘It means they think it’s safe out there. You and Anne and your cat lore! I’ll have to get used to it again, I can see.’ He stood beside her, looking out. A stray patch of sunshine had touched the wall to a warm red, and the cats, true to their kind, had made themselves comfortable exactly in the middle of it.

A movement caught his eye. Greg had been standing on the sea wall looking out across the marsh towards the now half-submerged car. He had turned and was walking slowly and painfully back towards the house, dragging his injured foot. They saw him stop when he saw the cats. He smiled and walked towards them. They stood up, their tails raised in welcome, then suddenly Jon saw first one, then the other stiffen, fur staring. With one bound, both cats had leapt from the wall and fled. Jon glanced at Kate. She bit her lip.

They could both see the anger on Greg’s face as he approached the house. It cleared as he saw them. ‘Poor old car. It’s had it.’ He walked in and eased off his boots, wincing at the pain. ‘Is there any coffee?’

Kate nodded.

‘I saw the police. They’ve gone on down to the cottage. They’ve advised us to keep clear for the morning. They’re going to take poor Bill away, and when they’ve finished down there the cleaners are going in. The sea’s gone down, apparently.’

‘What was wrong with the cats, Greg?’ Kate glanced at him as she unhooked three coffee mugs from the dresser.

‘They spooked.’ Greg shook his head. ‘God knows who they thought I was. They’ll be back as soon as Ma gets here.’ He had felt it at the same moment they had. The sudden anger; the frustrated rage. And now the fear. Marcus. He sipped the black coffee gratefully. ‘Are you still determined to leave Redall?’

Kate nodded. ‘Today, Greg. I’m going down to my mother’s until after Christmas.’

‘And then?’

She shook her head. ‘Then I’ll see.’ She sat down opposite him at the kitchen table. ‘Who knows, I might come back to write about Boudicca.’

‘After Christmas she’s coming back to me,’ Jon said slowly. ‘If I can convince her what an idiot I was to let her go.’

Greg stared at him. It was there again. The rage. He took a deep breath, trying to control himself. That bastard, Marcus. He was so close. It was jealousy. That was it. He was using the jealousy as a lever. He clenched his fists. Pushing back his chair and standing up he half staggered away from the table.

‘Greg -?’ Kate was looking at him, frightened.

‘It’s all right.’ He swung away to hide his face. It was like pain. It came in spasms; agonising spasms. This was what had happened to Alison; this was how she had killed Bill. ‘You go. Both of you. Go down to the cottage and pack. I’ll be all right.’

He pushed through the door into the study and slammed it behind him. The sight of the empty bed with the three blankets neatly folded, brought him up short. He stood still, letting the wave of misery flow over him. Where are you, Dad? He stared up at the ceiling. Help me. Please. He moved across to his father’s desk and threw himself down in the chair. For a long time he sat looking at the portrait which lay there, where he had left it the night before, on the blotter. Oh, she was so beautiful, the Lady Claudia. So beautiful. So deceitful. So evil. His eyes blurred with tears.

For a long time he sat there, staring at her face. Then he stood up. He picked up the picture and slowly he brought it up to his lips. He could smell the jasmine now. The whole room was full of it; beautiful; exotic. Haunting.

He heard Jon and Kate in the hall. They were putting on their boots and coats. His knuckles whitened on the stretcher of the canvas as he listened to their quiet, almost conspiratorial voices. Then the door banged behind them and the house was silent. He looked into her eyes again. Claudia…

It took no strength at all to smash the canvas across his knee.

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