The Neal James Website

Subtitle

Monthly Short Story

Layers of Innocence

“Emergency, which service do you require please?” The standard reply to a ‘999’ call

rang out with a hollow tone in Lesley’s ear.

“Ambulance! Quickly! I think I may have killed someone!”

With the emergency service vehicle now on its way, and certain to be accompanied by the local police, Lesley Farrington slumped down into the leather chair from which she had risen with the drinks only a few short moments before. The still form lying just to the right of the glass coffee table showed no signs of life, and a growing pool of blood was spreading out around the head. The fall which had followed the struggle had been swift and precise across the unforgiving corner of the table’s 10 millimetre plate glass surface.

Her mother had always said she was too innocent. Like an onion she had said Lesley was. Peel away one layer only to find another identical one just beneath – ‘Layers of Innocence’ she called them, and they ran deep.

 

**********************************

 

It had all begun around three months ago, with the discovery of a card amidst the chaos of her shopping trolley. She had been unloading on to the belt at the Tesco supermarket in Nottingham’s Victoria Shopping Centre, when she came across an item which she didn’t remember selecting. Standing at the checkout with a queue building up behind her, there was no time to investigate further and she dropped it into her pocket until later. Once outside the shop, further examination revealed an envelope with no writing on either side, but which contained a greeting card with a single ‘kiss’ mark at the bottom of the inside leaf. Lesley smiled and shrugged it off at the time, thinking that another shopper had dropped it into her trolley by mistake. There was no chance of returning it now, and she threw it into the first available waste bin.

At 29, and once more single after the death of her husband Mark, Lesley Farrington lived alone in one of the newly refurbished warehouses in the Lace Market district of Nottingham city centre; on a clear day the view from the balcony of the River Trent some two miles away was stunning. They had bought the two bedroom luxury apartment in late 1999 before the price boom which would have taken the property out of their reach. With Mark working as an architect for one of the city’s big firms, and her own position as a senior with Brown Golding Solicitors, they were easily able to afford the high rise penthouse section of the block. Mark’s untimely death at the hands of a hit and run driver in 2006 left her with an insurance policy payout which meant that she would never worry financially again.

Theirs had been a fairy tale romance after he swept her off her feet, and although still maintaining contact with all of their friends, they were very much a married couple in all but name. Now that would never be. She had never really come out of her period of grieving for his loss, and became more and more reclusive as time passed. With no money worries, her life outside of work took on a simple routine of books, music and all of the other entertainment features which the two of them had built into their retreat. Lesley had resigned herself, for the short term at least, to a life of comfortable solitude.

 

The matter of the card had been completely forgotten until the flowers arrived at her desk at work two weeks later. It was a Tuesday morning, and the reception area hushed noticeably as she entered through the main door. She looked around to see who, walking behind her, could have been responsible for such a respectful silence. There was no-one, and as she turned back to the front desk, it was the smiling face of Emily, the receptionist, which gave her the first clue.

“Morning Lesley, been on the pull?” Emily was not one for mincing her words, and they had both been at the firm for sufficient time that the comment could be treated in jest.

“Pardon?”

“Take a look inside your office, crafty devil. Fancy not letting us know.”

Lesley made her way through the smiling phalanx of staff lining her route like some guard of honour, to an open door where David Golding, the senior partner, stood awaiting her. He smiled and stood to one side to reveal the biggest bouquet of flowers which she had ever seen. She stopped in her tracks, transfixed by the myriad of blooms which threatened to overwhelm the surface of her desk.

“Go on, open the card.” He said “We’re all dying to know what you’ve been up to.”

Lesley’s traumatic recovery following the death of Mark had been considerably eased by the sympathetic responses from all of her colleagues, who had formed a kind of protective shell around her. They were almost like family, and she now felt she should share the unexpected occasion with them. Putting down her briefcase, she removed the small envelope from the bouquet and pulled out the card. The message was simple and to the point:

 

‘Please don’t make me wait too long’

 

It was followed, like the card at the supermarket, by a single ‘kiss’, and with all of her friends watching, Lesley could feel the colour rising from her throat to cover the whole of her face. Smiling at the gathered crowd, she made some innocuous remark in an attempt to dispel all the attention, and picked up her files for the start of the day’s work. The gathering dispersed, and the moment passed without further comment. David Golding however remained briefly, still smiling.

“You alright Lesley? You look a little flushed.”

“Yes, yes fine thank you, David.”

“Well if you need anything, anything at all, you know where I am.” With that he left, but Lesley’s entire focus for the day had completely changed.

That evening, back at the apartment, she mulled over the events of the recent past with a glass of Shiraz and the strains of Beniamino Gigli singing the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s ‘La Bohême’. She now regretted her impulsive action in disposing of the earlier card, and was certain that the writing was identical to that of today’s gift. It was not until more unexpected items began arriving that she started to consider the possibility that she was the victim of a stalker.

With the withering of the beautiful mass of flowers in the bouquet, there came more expressions of someone’s interest in her lonesome existence. She became wary of unfamiliar faces, and began to react nervously to all but the briefest glance in her direction. When the case of wine arrived at her door the following week she decided to report her suspicions to the police. The bottles, twelve of them, were of her favourite brand of Shiraz, but the detective assigned to her case did not appear to attribute too much of a threat to her situation.

 

“Have you noticed anyone following you, or hanging around near your apartment?”

“No, I can’t say that I have, but then again who checks?”

“Alright, has anyone at work been paying more then the usual level of attention?”

“Well yes, quite a few, but my partner died two years ago, so I suppose they’re all just being very kind.”

“But have any of them been overly attentive, or has their behaviour changed in any way?”

“Possibly. David Golding, the senior partner” she smiled “is a real charmer, but he’s like that with everyone. There’s also Mark Chambers, one of the junior staff, who’s normally got his head in some legal book or other, but recently when I’ve passed his desk he’s stopped whatever it was he was doing. Now I think about it, I got a creepy feeling about that.”

“That all?”

“I think so. Look, do you think I’m being paranoid? I mean there must be a rational answer for this.”

 

Steve Rogers, the young detective, frowned as he closed his notebook and picked up his coat. He drained the coffee which Lesley had made for him and stood up to leave.

“Miss Farrington, there are some quirky people out there. Not all of them are dangerous, but you shouldn’t be expected to tolerate any level of stalking. We’ll make very discreet enquiries amongst your work colleagues, and in the meantime I should take a few days off. Keep your door locked and make sure you have a friend with you when you’re out – just in case, you know.”

Although not entirely reassured, Lesley felt much better for having spoken to the police, but rang David Golding to inform him of Steve Rogers’ advice. The senior partner was very understanding in his usual smooth and charming way, asking her if there was anything that she needed, as he would be only too happy to bring it along personally.

“No, no David that’s quite alright. I’ll be fine; it’s just precautionary at the moment, but thank you anyway.”

Now convinced that the call had been a mistake, all of her earlier feelings of unease began to resurface. Could David have been the mystery stalker all along? He’d certainly been extremely comforting and sympathetic after Mark’s death, and more than attentive to all of her requirements at work. No, he was a happily married man with a daughter only three years her junior. Shaking her head and smiling at the ridiculous idea, Lesley was nevertheless startled by the ringing of the telephone.

“Lesley, it’s me Wendy. I just heard about your stalker. You alright?”

Wendy Gilbert was one of Lesley’s oldest friends, and they had spent many hours together down the years whilst growing up. Three years apart whilst both pursued university studies served only to strengthen the bond between them, and the air of concern in her voice was unmistakable.

“Oh, hi Wendy. You startled me that’s all. I’ll be fine. I’m taking a week off while the whole thing is sorted out, but if you want to come over this evening we’ll have a meal and a bottle together while I tell you all about it.”

“Ok, Geoff’s away on business for a couple of days and I was at a loose end anyway. Be there in half an hour.”

 

Wendy and Geoff had been together for five years, and Lesley had quickly absorbed him into her close circle of friends. He was another of life’s charmers but without the panache of David Golding. At ease in his company, she had made up a foursome on a number of occasions as he and Wendy attempted to play ‘Cupid’ to end her, as they saw it, lonely and lovelorn existence. That they had failed so spectacularly so far was a source of some amusement for all three of them.

That evening in Wendy’s company, and subsequent excursions with both her and Geoff, seemed to take the sting out of the entire situation. Over the next three months, and probably due to the police enquiries, Lesley received no more unexplained gifts, and all of her old confidence returned. It was almost as if a recurring dream had come to a close, and her daily mood lightened considerably. All was back to normal until one evening as she and Wendy finished the dishes after what had become a regular fortnightly dinner for two in Geoff’s absence. Leaving her friend to put away the crockery, Lesley returned to the lounge with the remains of the bottle of Shiraz and their two glasses.

Placing the drinks on the table, she flopped down into one of leather chairs, leaned back and closed her eyes. Wendy’s arrival in the room had her back on her feet and picking up the glasses which she had filled. She was about to turn around, when the touch of hands caressing her shoulders caused her to drop the items and she whirl around to face her friend.

“What…?”

“Lesley, it’s alright, I just wanted to…”

“Oh my God, you! Get away from me!”

“Lesley, calm down. You don’t understand…”

“Yes I do! It was you all along. Let go of me!”

Grabbing both of Wendy’s shoulders, Lesley pushed as hard as she could in order to escape her friend’s unwanted attentions as a precursor to making for the door. The shove took Wendy spinning sideways, and she lost her footing. The impact with the edge of the coffee table was violent and sickening. The blood stain on its corner told Lesley a tale which she would never forget. Coming to rest face up, and with glazed eyes staring at the ceiling, Wendy was quite obviously dead.

Steve Rogers, the young detective who handled the initial enquiry, carried out the formal investigation into the death, but with the circumstance of Lesley’s stalker still fresh in everyone’s mind, the incident was attributed to a matter of self defence against an unwelcome assailant. No formal charges were brought in the case.

Three months after the funeral, and with the whole matter now officially put down to a freak accident, Lesley and Geoff were alone after an evening with work colleagues from Brown Golding. He had insisted upon remaining to help with the tidying up which, now done, left them to the final bottle of wine. He smiled as he poured out two generous measures and came to sit beside her on the leather sofa. Lesley had come to feel very comfortable in his company since the ‘accident’, and took the glass from him without any concern. He held on to her fingers as she transferred it to the table.

“You know, Lesley, that was a great favour you did me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wendy. Now that she’s no longer around we can carry on from where we left off.”

“Left off? Left off what, Geoff?”

 

He pulled her gently towards him, and rested her head against his chest as strong arms circled around her back, caressing in an almost paternal fashion.

“We’re going to be fine Lesley, just fine. I’ll look after you now. Everyone will understand, and you won’t have a single thing to worry about ever again.”