Welcome to the home of the books of Christopher Bowden, author of elegant literary mysteries. Christopher lives in south London and The Amber Maze is his latest book. His previous ones are The Purple Shadow, The Green Door, The Red House, The Yellow Room and The Blue Book.
From The Red House
“You have one new message. Message received today at four-fifteen pm.”
Blast. Less than ten minutes ago. He pressed one.
“It’s me, Col.” Bryony! But where, how…? “I tried to see you but they’ve taken me
back.” Her voice was strained and shrill. “They don’t like people leaving. Sir says
it’s disloyal.” She started talking faster. “I wasn’t good enough. That’s what they
told me. They said I had to work harder until I got it right.” Then calmly she said,
“I deserve to be punished. I know that. Tonight they will tell me in front of the
others. I…” A squeal and the line went dead.
He listened to the message again and again and then once more. That voice, her voice,
after all these years. Achingly familiar, disturbingly different. He pressed zero
to return the call. It rang but there was no reply. He tried 1471. It was a mobile
phone number. Nothing to indicate where she was. He wrote down the number and pressed
three to return the call by that route. A gentle hiss, then silence.
His thoughts were racing: elated, concerned, confused. She was being held against
her will. That much was clear. Why else had she tried to escape? But from what or
whom? Some kind of group or sect, with this ‘Sir’ as its leader? How on earth had
she got caught up in that? Her distress was all too evident. Yet there was an underlying
matter-of-factness, an acceptance of whatever was in store for her that he found
even more unsettling.
The Limelight entry gave her agent’s name and contact details. A bit old but worth
a try. He rang the number.
“Bryony Hughes? Well may you ask. We’d very much like to know where she is ourselves.
Never answers calls or correspondence. We’ve decided to take her off the books.”
The agent parted with Bryony’s own contact details without too much fuss but they
plainly related to her old Peckham flat. She could hardly expect work to be put her
way if she did not keep them up-to-date. Maybe that was the point: she was being
held captive somewhere and could not keep her agent in touch. And yet she had been
able to phone him, Colin, even if the call had been cut short.
He dredged from his memory a clutch of contemporaries from St George’s and struggled
to recall where they had lived. The phone book yielded numbers but calls were no
more productive. One had moved, one was abroad, a third had just got back from work
but knew nothing of Bryony’s current whereabouts.
There was only one option left.
They sat at a table in the garden of the Sailor’s Retreat, a quiet pub on the corner
of Victoria Road and Albert Terrace. Ken’s pint of Curate’s Winkle glowed amber in
the late afternoon sun. Colin thought it prudent to stick to coffee. It was a long
way back to Oxbourne in any case.
“He was never an actor of the first rank,” said Ken. “But he was a good second division
player. A stalwart of weekly rep. Took over from Stamford Brook at Hornchurch for
a while. That’s where I saw first saw him, as Abanazer in Aladdin, sometime in the
early ‘sixties. Frightened the life out of me.”
“You were still at school?”
“I certainly was. Hadn’t yet taken my eleven plus.”
Colin looked blank.
“Anyway, he and Celerity B had a string of successes in the West End in totally forgettable
plays. I used to see their pictures in Curtain Up! It was one of the theatre mags.
Hasn’t existed for years.”
“He wangled a job as director at the late lamented Sanderling Rep. Tried to redeem
his reputation as a serious actor with forays into the classics. Mostly vehicles
for him and his good lady wife, if you ask me. Eventually, the Rep folded and it
was downhill all the way. A few character parts. The odd bit of telly. Eventually,
the phone stops ringing for good. Comes to us all, in the end.”
“So they retired round here?”
“Not a clue,” said Ken, with an affected shrug. “I expect they were passing through,
like thousands of others with a craving for a shovelful of shellfish before their
cream teas. They’re probably tucked up in a nursing home somewhere. I haven’t seen
He woke early the following day. A soft peach-tinted glow had replaced the darkness
of the night. Through the nearer dormer he surveyed the empty beach, shimmering orange-brown
in the early morning sun. A Friday colour, he thought. In the sky, a scribble of
cloud and a handful of seagulls, their raucous and insistent cries muted in deference
to the hour.
He creaked downstairs after an invigorating shower. He felt almost human, despite
the enforced recycling of yesterday’s clothes. A visit to an all-night chemist after
his escape from the beige embrace of Ray and Flo had yielded toothpaste and other
There was no sign of life on the ground floor. The all-pervasive stench of stale
beer made him feel slightly sick as he scrawled a note saying he was coming back
for breakfast. He slipped it under the right arm of the bear he propped against the
till in the public bar.
He let himself out carefully. The air was cold and clear. He took the board walk
past quiet cottages, pink and white and forget-me-not blue. Tamarisk and rosemary
spilled over paling at the front. Further on, larger houses with verandas, empty
chairs, looking towards the sea. The board walk stopped abruptly. He crunched on
through the shingle, not the uniform brown he had seen from the window of his room
but resolved, close-at-hand, into its constituent parts. Rust and ochre, cream, charcoal
A regiment of beach huts, ranged on stilts, shuttered and still. Mobile homes huddled
behind newly-planted holly hedges. Shingle gave way to coarse-grained sand. There,
the traces of a fire in a gentle hollow, surrounded by lumps of blackened stone.
It was still warm. He crouched and picked at the charred remains. A pencil, some
cloth-covered buttons, scraps of lined yellow paper, as if torn from the sort of
American legal pad he used to use himself. And a mask, blistered and scorched in
places but otherwise free from damage. Made of papier mâché, and dotted with sequins,
it sparkled purple and gold as he turned it in the sun. It would not have looked
out of place at a Venetian masked ball. Pretty incongruous lying on an English beach,
though. No doubt it was left over from a fancy dress party but why try to destroy
A track emerged from a field in which horses were grazing. It curved away from the
beach and climbed towards an area of trees by which it was absorbed. Colin followed
the sharp, flinty path past banks of bramble and thick grass until he came to a high
wall topped by straggling pines. Patches of render had fallen to the ground here
and there to reveal the orange-red brick beneath. He was too close to the wall to
see what lay behind it.
The studded door set tightly between two piers had no handle or other visible means
of opening. Yet the worn stone step spoke of years of coming and going. He pushed
against the door. A harsh metallic click, then nothing. The door did not move at
The track wound through a small copse of oak and ash, the wall a constant presence
between the trees. He caught glimpses of the ridge of a roof, a weather vane in the
shape of a dragon, tall chimneys, some single, some grouped. He emerged by a pair
of wide wooden gates, much the same height as the wall and crowned with spikes. To
one side, a block of limestone with letters incised and picked out in reddish gold:
KEMBLE PLACE. As he backed away from the gates, other features came into view: the
top of a tower, a half-timbered gable, part of a window, tile-hung walls: components
of a big house above the beach. This, surely, was the home of Howard Desmond and
Celerity Box. No sign of life, no obvious way of slipping in quietly, but at least
he knew where it was now. He would have to come back.
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