Jen woke the next day in a strange white room.  She was groggy, and her mind was blank.  She lay and stared at the ceiling for some time, drifting on clouds of nothingness, waiting for her brain to catch up with her body.

Presently, a nurse entered the room.  Jen moved her head slightly in response to the noise and presence.  The nurse came into view and smiled.

“Hello, Jennifer.  You’re awake, I see.”

Jen’s mouth wouldn’t work, it was so dry, so she nodded.

“How are you feeling?”

Jen worked her mouth in an attempt to reply, but still, nothing would come out.

The nurse looked sympathetic.  “Mouth dry?”

Jen nodded again.

“Would you like some water?”

Nod.

The nurse poured some water from a jug by the bed into a plastic cup.  Then, she supported Jen’s head with one hand and held the cup to her mouth with the other, gently tilting it.  Jen sipped slowly, feeling the liquid unsticking her mouth and throat.

“Thank you,” she croaked, as the nurse laid her head back down on to the pillow.

“The doctor will want to see you.  I’ll go and fetch her.  Do you need anything?”

“No thanks,” Jen all but whispered, closing her eyes again.

She heard the nurse leave, and then drifted for a few minutes, until she heard the nurse’s footsteps return, this time accompanied by another pair.  She opened her eyes.

The doctor who’d come back with the nurse smiled brightly.  “Hello, Jennifer.  How are you feeling?”

Once again, Jen rolled her tongue around her still dry mouth and attempted to answer.  Nothing.

“Would you like some more water?” asked the nurse.

Jen nodded again.

The nurse helped her to drink some more.

“Better?” she asked.

“Yes.  Thanks,” said Jen, a little less hoarsely.

“Well good.  Now, I have things to be getting on with, if you’ll both excuse me?”  They both nodded and the nurse disappeared again.

“Well, Jennifer…” said the doctor.

“Jen,” said Jen.

The doctor smiled.  “Jen,” she said.  “I’m Doctor Kath Morgan.”

“Hello, Doctor Morgan.”

“Just Kath will do,” grimaced the doctor.  “Doctor Morgan makes me feel about a million years old.”

Jen smiled and nodded.

“Good.  Now, to reiterate – how are you feeling?”

Jen thought about it.  “Battered.  Tired, achy, confused.”  She thought some more.  “Have I got a hangover?”

Kath laughed.  “No, but you have been in the wars.  Can you remember what happened?”

More thinking.  “Bits.  Not much.  Why is that?”

“Mainly exhaustion, though you have had a nasty knock on the head that’s probably not helping.  Don’t worry, though – it should all come back soon enough.”  Kath smiled reassuringly.

Jen took it at face value.  Besides, the way she was feeling, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

Kath’s face went more serious as she said, “Jen, when you’re feeling a bit stronger, there are some people who would like to see you.  That is, the police would like to talk to you; to take a statement, if possible.”

The alarm that Jen felt showed on her face, but Kath smiled reassuringly and continued, “Don’t worry, we won’t let them in here for a little while – not until you’ve recovered some of your strength and memory.  Ok?”

Jen calmed down a little and nodded.  “Thanks.”  Somehow, she wasn’t surprised that the police wanted to speak to her, but she couldn’t quite remember why.

 

The next time Jen woke, it was a different time of day.  She couldn’t be sure if it was the same day or a different one.  However, given that she remembered where she was immediately and felt a lot more alert, she reasoned that probably another day had passed.

Then everything came back to her in a flood.  She remembered why she was here, now.  Merry, Dave, Mags.  Rick!  Where was Rick?  How were Merry and Mags?  Where was Dave?  She looked around wildly, locating the call button and pressing it frantically.

The nurse who came was different.

“What can I do for you, Jen?  Is everything all right?” she added with concern for the frantic look on Jen’s face.

“Is Doctor Morgan on duty?” Jen croaked.

“Oh listen to you – would you like some water?”

Jen nodded, so whilst the nurse got this for her, and she sipped thirstily, the nurse said, “Doctor Morgan isn’t on shift for another couple of hours yet.  Would you like to see someone else?  Or leave her a message?”

“Yes, please,” she replied.  “Can you help me sit up a bit too, please?  I feel a bit…”  She waved her hands around vaguely.

“Of course, lovey.  Let’s get those pillows sorted for you.”  The nurse helped her into a sitting position and there was some deft rearranging.  When it was done, Jen was comfortably propped up, halfway between sitting and lying.

“What’s your name?” Jen asked.

“Alice.”

“Thanks, Alice.”

“You’re welcome, love.  Now, I’ll go and leave that message, shall I?  Can I get you anything?”

“No – I’m fine, thanks.”

 

Jen drifted in and out of a doze for the next couple of hours, until there was a voice in the doorway.

“Hello, Jen.  Feeling better?”

“Much, thanks.  I don’t feel nearly so battered, and my memory seems to have mostly returned, though there’s still the odd blank spot.”  She grimaced unhappily.  “I suppose this means I’ll have to talk to the police now, doesn’t it?”

“Only if you feel up to it,” said Kath, firmly.  “You’re recovering from exhaustion.  You’ll tire very easily.”

“Well – might as well get it over with.  I think I can manage.”  Then her stomach gave a growl and she suddenly realised how hungry she was.

Kath laughed.

Jen looked at her pleadingly and said, “Is there any chance…?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Kath, and disappeared.

 

After Kath had rustled her up some food and she had eaten like a horse, Jen felt a great deal better, so the police were allowed in to talk to her for a short while.  They had a great deal of questions.

Jen told them all that she could, with as much coherence that she could manage.

In turn, Jen asked questions of her own; about how Merry and Mags were: “Doing fine,” she was told.

“And Rick?”

“He’s being held for questioning, Miss Alexander.”

“But he didn’t do anything wrong!” she exclaimed.

“Miss Alexander,” said the officer sternly, “He tried to kill you.”

“No he didn’t!  He tried not to kill me!  He was under hypnotic control of his brother, Ambrose!”

“Who is now deceased in suspicious circumstances.  We are pursuing enquiries.”

And with that, she had to be satisfied.

 

That evening, Dave came to see her.  His head popped around the door as it had the first time she’d seen him.

“Hey, girl – how you doing?”

“Dave!” she cried, with relief and pleasure.  He came into the room and gave her a peck on the cheek.

“What are you doing lying around in bed, then?  Lady of leisure now, are we?” he grinned.

“Are you kidding?  They won’t let me go!  I’m starting to go mad lying around all day –and I’ve only been here a day!  I can’t wait to get out.”

“Well, you’d better cool the jets for another day or so – the doctors said they wanted to keep you in for a bit longer – for observation.”

“Oh, bugger that!” she said, crossly.  “I feel fine!  Anyway,” she continued, “Enough of that for now.  How are Merry and Mags?  Have you seen them?”

“They’re doing fine Jen, don’t worry.  Apparently, it was touch and go with Merry for a while, there, but she’s a tough old girl.  They’re still trying to figure out what he drugged them with.”

“Bastard!  I’m glad he’s dead,” said Jen, with feeling.

“Mmm…  You know they’re holding Rick on suspicion of murder, don’t you?” he said, seriously.

“I know,” she said.  “Dave, he didn’t do anything!  Ambrose knocked them both over the edge, and then tried to climb up Rick’s legs.  He lost his grip and fell off.  All the while, he was still threatening to kill us both.  It wasn’t Rick’s fault!” she wailed.

“I know – he told me all about it while we were waiting for the coppers to show up.”

“Everything?”

“Everything,” Dave replied, grimly.  “The room, the hypnotism, the smoke, the…  the… temple thingummy.  The roof.”

“Oh, Dave – what if they don’t believe us?  What if they charge him with murder?  He didn’t do it!”  And she burst into tears.

Dave came and sat on the bed, putting his arms around her.  “Shush, shush Jen.  It’ll be all right.  You’ll see.”

He held her, rocking her gently and making soothing noises until she cried herself out, thinking wryly of how often he seemed to be doing that lately.

“Look, Jen,” he said after her sobs had quietened down a little, “There were a lot of people there that night.  Enough of them should be able to corroborate what he tells them, that things were happening under the influence of hypnotism or drugs or whatever.  It should convince the police.”

“Oh, god, I hope so,” sniffed Jen.  “I couldn’t bear it if Rick went to prison.  We were only just getting to know each other properly…”

“You really like him, don’t you?” he asked softly.

“Yes, Dave, I really do.  He was so shy when I first met him, and then I began to find out what was underneath all that silence, and it was… interesting.  Attractive.  You know…”  She trailed off in embarrassment.

“Yes, I do know, actually.” He chuckled.  “He’s a good bloke.  Totally different from Ambrose.”

 

Two days later, Dave came to pick her up.  He brought some clothes that he’d picked up in a charity shop, since the fire had spread along the corridor before the fire brigade had managed to bring it under control, and most of Jen’s stuff had been damaged or destroyed.  She looked at the clothes he had piled on to the bed.

“My god, Dave, you’ve got terrible taste!  No wonder you always look such a scruff,” Jen teased, picking up first one garment then another in her fingertips.  She was almost feeling her old self, but still desperately worried about Rick.  There still hadn’t been any word from or about him.

“Hey, I did my best!” he protested.  You’re such a bloody munchkin that I had all on finding stuff that wasn’t for kids!”

Jen rolled her eyes.  “I know.  I have the same problem.  But really Dave, pink?  With red hair?”

He looked a bit sheepish.  “Yeah – maybe that one was a mistake.  You’re right – I’m not much cop at clothes shopping at the best of times.  I didn’t half get some funny looks.”

Jen giggled.  “I’ll just bet you did.  Anyway, I think there’s enough here that I can use.  If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a bit of privacy now.”

“Aaaaw, don’t I get to watch?”

“No!  You bloody well do not!” she said, throwing the offending pink item at him.  “Out!”

Dave grinned and retreated.

Then he stuck his head back around the door.

“Out, I said!”

“Just thought you might be needing these.” He said, grinning evilly and waving a packet of knickers at her.

“Hey!  Give those here!” she said, snatching them out of his hand.  “Thanks.” She muttered with a blush.  “Now go!”

She managed to find jeans and a t-shirt that just about fit, along with a jumper.  The trainers he’d brought for her, however, were children’s.  Jen didn’t mind that too much, though, and she even quite liked the neon lights that flashed along the sole whenever she took a step.

She packed up everything else into the carrier bag that Dave had brought them in and went out to join him.

On their way past the nurses’ station, Jen stopped to say goodbye and thanks to all of the smiling ladies who’d looked after her so well.  Dave flirted with them all outrageously, managing to make each and every one of them blush before Jen was able to drag him away.

“God, you’re a liability!” she told him.  “I can’t believe you’re ever allowed out on your own!”

He grinned unrepentantly.  “It’s just a gift, girl.  Either you got it, or you ain’t.  And if you got it, it’s your duty to share it with the world.  Spread the love.  You gotta spread the love!”

Jen laughed and took a swipe at him as they left the hospital.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he continued as they walked across the car park, “I had to borrow your car to come and fetch you.  Mine’s kaput.”

“Of course not.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll drive back.  Since I’m insured, you understand.”

“No problem,” he said, handing the keys over.  “Drive on.”

“You’ll have to direct me, though.  I’ve no idea how to get back.”

“Well, I’ll do my best.” He said, dubiously, “But I got lost three times on the way here.  Ah, well.  We’ll take the scenic route.”

 

They did, eventually make it back to Harrington Hall, after three wrong turns and a six-mile detour, their combined sense of direction not adding up to one good one.  Jen didn’t mind, though.  Dave was good company, after all.  They bantered the miles away, arguing good-naturedly over the map, until Harrington Hall finally came into view, nestled in amongst the trees.  As they passed through the electric gates, the full extent of the fire damage came into view.  One side of the building was blackened, ivy shriveled and fallen away, like leprous skin.  Broken glass was swept into piles underneath the windows it had fallen out of.  It looked very sad.  Jen thought of all of those ancient books destroyed and felt even sadder.  And guilty.  She knew it wasn’t really her fault, as she had been running for her life at the time.  But she felt guilty, nonetheless.  She was also chagrined at the weeks of hard work gone up in smoke.  All in all, she was feeling pretty low by the time they pulled up in the courtyard, not far from where Ambrose had met his end.  Someone had been hard at work scrubbing the flagstones, but Jen didn’t think the bloodstain would ever truly come out – there was still a faint mark.  She wondered if the flagstones would eventually be replaced.  She shuddered.

“You all right?” asked Dave.

Jen drew a deep breath and pulled herself together.  “I will be.  It might take a while, but yes – I think I will be.”

He looked at her with a mixture of pity and compassion.  “You’re a tough cookie, Jen.  I think you’re right.  I think you will be ok.  Now,” he continued, “To that end, how about a cup of tea?”

“Marvelous idea, Dave.” She smiled.

“Of course it is,” he said.  “It was one of mine, and I’m a pretty marvelous kind of guy, after all.”

 

They spent the rest of the day chatting, wandering around the garden, and enjoying the bite of approaching autumn in the breeze.

Jen had been signed off sick from work to allow her to recover fully from her ordeal.  She was grateful.  She doubted her ability to deal with Brian in her present state of mind.  She still got tired easily though, but she was getting better every day.  She decided, at Dave’s invitation, to stay for a week or so, just to try and get her head back together.  Also to wait for news of Rick.  That night, she slept in Rick’s apartment.  The sheets still smelled of him, and the rooms still held his warm and welcoming presence, despite his continuing unexplained absence.

The next morning, she got up and made herself some breakfast.  Whilst she was eating, she looked around and decided the place, though clean, was untidy, and needed a good sorting out.  So after breakfast, still wearing one of Rick’s shirts that she’d borrowed to sleep in, she set about her task.  First, she sorted out all the kitchen cupboards, and then she picked up all of the clothes from the bedroom floor, putting the clean ones away and the dirty ones in the washing machine.  Next, she moved on to the living room.  After a bit of a hunt, she located the vacuum cleaner, and busily began to vacuum the huge rug in the centre of the room.  She didn’t hear the door open behind her.

As she turned off the appliance, an amused voice said, “Well – that shirt never looked so good on me.”

“Rick!” squealed Jen in delight, running to him and throwing her arms around his neck.  He picked her up in a bear hug that nearly squeezed all of the breath from her body.  Jen didn’t care, she was just so happy to see him.

“Oh Rick!  Where have you been?  We’ve been so worried!” she exclaimed.  “Did the police let you go?  What happened?  What did they say?”

“Hey, hey, hey!  One question at a time!” he laughed.  “Yes, the police let me go.  There was enough corroboration of the drugged smoke and hypnotism, so they couldn’t make the charges stick.  Also, I’m not entirely positive, but I think one of the guys on the roof was a detective superintendant or some such.  At any rate, all of the charges were dropped, and they let me go a couple of days ago.”

“A couple of days?!  Then where have you been, you great oaf?!” Jen said angrily.  “Didn’t you think to let us know where you were or what happened?”  She thumped him in exasperation.

“Ow!  Hey!  Look, I’m really sorry I didn’t let you know what was going on – it’s been kind of a weird few days all around.  I’m not sure where my head’s been, but I had some things to sort out.  Some head things and some legal things.  I’m the thirtieth earl now, you know.”

Jen’s eyes widened.  “Oh my god – you are, aren’t you?  I’d completely forgotten about that!”

Rick feigned hurt.  “Jen, I’m deeply wounded.  What’s the point of being nobility if everyone goes around forgetting about it?” he said, reproachfully.

Jen curtsied then giggled.  “I’m awful sorry, your lordship.  I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

Rick smiled, and then his look turned serious.  “Jen, I really am truly sorry – will you forgive me?”

Jen smiled and said gently, “Rick, of course I forgive you.  You had things to sort out – I understand.”

Rick sighed in relief.  “Thank you.  Now,” he continued, his eyes beginning to sparkle, “I think it’s about time we had that talk we mentioned, don’t you?”

Jen’s stomach flipped at the devilish smile that was beginning to creep across his face.  She looked at him for a moment, unsure what to say.  Then, “Oh bugger talking!” she said, grabbing his face in both hands and pulling it down to hers so she could kiss him deeply.  It went on for some time until both of them had to come up for air.  They looked at each other for a moment, then Rick said, “You’re right – bugger talking!” and scooped her up in his arms, making her squeak with delight.

Then he carried her into his bedroom and kicked the door shut behind him.

 

 

~~~fin~~~

 

 

Acknowledgements

The seed of this story was sown when I encountered a beautiful and haunting piece of sculpture in a Derby art gallery.  The piece was titled “Minotaur Reading”.  He was a stunningly beautiful boy, and he settled into my subconscious like he’d never been anywhere else.  His creator, Beth Carter, makes art that gives me bliss, and I would like to thank her.  (you can find her at www.bethcarter.co.uk)

Bottom-of-my-heart thanks must also go to my friends and family who, when I told them I was going to write a novel in 30 days, did not tell me to stop being ridiculous, but broke out the pom-poms and cheered me all the way.  Also to those who read it once it was written and told me how much they enjoyed it.  I hope you did, too.