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Episode 23: An Interview in Chelsea
Season 1: The World Unseen
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Arthur Lock opened the wrought-iron gate on Cheyne Walk and walked up the garden path to the front door of a house. He had walked along the river after asking the cab driver to drop him at Vauxhall Bridge, wanting to stretch his legs. It was a fine day, no rain and little wind, though the air was hazy and everything at a distance seemed to be slowly dissolving. The house was of brick, four storeys, with large windows and an iron balcony facing the river. A discreet house but a grand one, the plain exterior masking the residence of a wealthy member of parliament.
Albert Saunders was the son of a tea and coffee merchant but had decided early in life that he wished to pursue a political career. He retained a position on the board of the family business, and this, along with the wealth gained through a wise marriage, enabled him to maintain houses in Chelsea, Wiltshire, and Bordeaux. Constance, his wife, was thirteen years younger than the fifty-five-year-old Saunders. They had one child, a boy named Roland.
Roland Saunders was one of the children now in the keeping of the Pickerel Institute. ‘Master Roland’, as Reece referred to him, according to Miss Colston’s report.
As Sir Edward Bradford had told Arthur, Albert Saunders was applying enormous pressure to the Home Secretary and to Sir Edward himself to find his son. That was, so far as Arthur was concerned, was entirely understandable. What man with Saunders’ influence wouldn’t try to use it if he thought it might hasten the rescue of his child?
But Arthur was unsure about the reception he was about to get from Mr and Mrs Saunders now he was calling on them. His status in the investigation was still ambiguous in official terms. He was not an employee of the Metropolitan Police and Sir Edward had gained only grudging approval from the Home Secretary for his present involvement. And he was still hedging his bets with Sir Edward’s proposal that he should head up a new unit at the Met dedicated to the investigation of unusual crimes.
But thanks to the efforts of the intrepid Miss Colston, it seemed that the boy was alive and well. That intelligence had given Arthur a little credit with the Home Secretary, though of course the credit was really Miss Colston’s. But Arthur hoped it would gain him some trust with Mr and Mrs Saunders as well.
He rang the bell, and the door was opened a minute later by a sombre-looking butler.
‘Major Lock?’ he said in a funereal voice. ‘Mr Saunders is expecting you.’
Arthur followed the butler through a marble entrance hall with slender columns at its edges, along a corridor, and into a drawing room at the front of the house. Mr and Mrs Saunders were there waiting for him.
The room was decorated and furnished in what Arthur had learnt since his return to England was the up-to-date style favoured by wealthy aesthetes: geometric forms, monochrome colouring, and, here and there, elements of oriental style. But there was an atmosphere of sadness about the place, underlined by the partly closed curtains and the soft glow of a single gas light.
Albert Saunders rose to shake his hand. Constance Saunders remained where she was, stretched out on a chaise longue, a thin blanket over her lower body. Her blonde hair was on the verge of disorder and her pale face, fine featured and thin lipped, was without make-up. She emitted an aura of despair and exhaustion.
In contrast, her husband seemed alive and full of vitality. His handshake was firm and his expression showed he was appraising Arthur from the moment he entered the room. Saunders looked his age, no more, no less. Most of his hair was gone and what remained was trimmed as neatly as his beard. His features were pudgy and undistinguished, but Arthur could tell a fierce intelligence lay beneath them.
Once they had sat down and Saunders had asked the butler to bring them tea, he got straight to the point.
‘Sir Edward passed your report on this Pickerel Institute to me. That was over three weeks ago. What progress have you made since then?’
‘I have recovered the research notebooks that were stolen from my brother’s house in Ireland at the beginning of the year.’
‘And how did you manage that?’
Ah, this was awkward. Arthur clenched his jaw momentarily. ‘Actually, Dr Reece gave them back to me.’
‘Just like that?’
Arthur decided not to expound on Reece’s Alice in Wonderland fixation. ‘Just like that.’
‘And why would he do that?’
‘Because he has copies of them all and doesn’t need the originals any more — and because he’s challenged me to a competition.’
Saunders raised his eyebrows. ‘A competition? What kind of competition?’
‘A competition to see who can get to the other gifted children first.’
‘Hmmm…deuced odd way to go about things, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, I do. And I think this notion of a competition is a cover for something else. Reece is trying to manipulate me.’
‘Manipulate you? How? Why?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
Arthur glanced across at Constance Saunders. She had said nothing yet but was looking at him with an odd expression on her face. Was that pity he could read on her features?
The butler, returning with the tea, interrupted their conversation.
Mrs Saunders finally spoke. ‘Leave the tray on the table, Cray. I’ll arrange things.’
‘As you wish, madam,’ said the gloomy Cray.
‘Tell me about these notebooks,’ Saunders said, when the butler had gone.
‘Didn’t Sir Edward —’
‘Yes, but I want to hear it from you.’
Arthur was more surprised than offended by Saunders’ curt tone.
‘The notebooks record Dr Henry Lock’s psychical research notes. He undertook the research when he was a consultant neurologist at Barts Hospital.’
‘And Dr Lock is, or was, your brother?’
‘As I mentioned in our recent correspondence, my wife took part in Dr Lock’s experiments.’
Arthur nodded. ‘I wasn’t aware of that before.’
‘And Roland, our son, inherited that gift from his mother.’
‘I’d deduced that, given Dr Reece’s interest in the boy.’
Saunders’ face twisted with hatred. ‘I’d shot that fiend on the spot if I ever came face to face with him.’
Yes, I think you would, Arthur thought.
‘But Sir Edward has persuaded me we can’t go at this like bulls in china shops,’ Saunders said.
‘Sir Edward is right,’ Arthur said. ‘We don’t know where Reece and his associates are keeping the children. And we don’t know what their end game is.’
Saunders nodded. ‘So these notebooks may hold information about people who may have had gifted children of their own, as my wife did? And these children may be in danger of being taken by Reece and this damned Pickerel Institute?’
‘Yes, I’m certain of it.’
‘And now Reece has given you a challenge: to get to those children before he does.’
‘It seems unnecessarily risky for him to taunt you like that.’
Constance Saunders laughed bitterly.
’Neither of you understands what you’re up against,’ she said. ‘Reece enjoys games like this. He enjoys playing with people. He enjoys demonstrating his superiority.’
‘It sounds like you have some insights into Reece,’ Arthur said. ‘I’d be interested in hearing them.’
Constance Saunders glanced at her husband, as if seeking permission.
‘I was twenty-two years old when I saw your brother’s advertisement in the Evening News. He wanted to find people who thought they possessed psychic abilities. I contacted him because I hoped he might be able to cure my so-called gift. I was worried that my husband-to-be,’ — she glanced at Saunders — ‘might be as unsympathetic about these things as my family was. But it turned out there was no cure. Thankfully, my husband has been kind and tolerant.
‘A week after I told your brother I wouldn’t take part in any more of his experiments, I received a letter from his assistant, Dr Maxwell Reece. His words were flattering, ridiculously so, and he asked to meet with me. Naturally, I refused. Over the next month, there were more letters from him. I burnt all of them, unopened. I was out shopping one day, in Twickenham where my family home was, when Reece approached me in the street. He asked me to take tea with him. I found…I found I couldn’t refuse.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Arthur said. ‘What do you mean, you couldn’t refuse?’
‘He has the gift. Reece has the gift. Though it’s more accurate in his case to talk about powers. In comparison with him, my abilities are nothing more than childish party tricks. He can do more. He can influence people — weak and silly people — he can control them.’
There was silence in the room. Constance Saunders’ expression mingled fear with hatred.
‘He took me to tea. I found him very charming — though I don’t know if that too was some kind of influence over me. He said there were more of us — he called us Superiors — than I knew. By Superiors, he didn’t mean everyone with some form of psychic ability.
‘He believed that while almost all of humanity had some kind of sixth sense, it was mostly primitive. That feeling, for example, almost everyone has of knowing when they are being watched. Reece was dismissive of these rudimentary capabilities. He was only interested in people with highly developed gifts. He believed these few made up a new evolutionary development. The progenitors of a new human species.’
She looked at her husband again. Saunders gave her a reassuring look.
‘To cut a long story short, Reece said I was one of these Superiors. He wanted me to join him. More than that — he wanted me to marry him. He made all sorts of promises…But I resisted him — with a great effort — the greatest effort you cam imagine, I resisted him. And now he’s taken my darling boy.’
She started sobbing, and Saunders went to her side.
‘I should go,’ Arthur said, discomforted by the woman’s distress.
‘No, I have more to say,’ she said through her tears. She took a few moments to compose herself and then continued.
‘One of my fears when I was younger — the main reason I went to see your brother in the hope of a cure — was that if Albert and I had children, they would inherit my abilities. It turned out that Rolly did. I realized this when he was just a baby. Though I didn’t know then that his powers were so much greater than mine. If he was upset about something, he would invade my mind. It was terrifying, it was unbearable. Imagine the inchoate rage and distress of a baby projecting into your mind and not being able to stop it, not being able to reason with the child.
‘There were times when I wanted to smother him in his cot. But as he got older, I could speak to him, reason with him, explain to him. He was quick to understand. He learned to keep it to himself. Not to share it with friends, with visitors, with the servants.
‘I wanted to spare him the unhappiness I had experienced as a child and as a young woman. I wanted to spare him the asylum. But under my influence, he went too far the other way. He became secretive. He wouldn’t discuss it with Albert, only with me. And even with me, he hid things.
‘Oh, he still loved us both, looked to us for security and affection. But as soon as he realized that both of us wanted him to suppress his abilities, he retreated into his own clandestine world. He learned to control himself.
‘I began to worry when we got the first reports from his prep school. He went there at eight. He knew better than to try and use his abilities at home. But now he was in a new environment, strange and unsettling. Perhaps it was about protecting himself at first — from the bullies and the over-attention of his masters.’
She glanced at her husband again.
‘There were some — incidents. All Rolly wanted was to be left alone. There was one boy, a vicious bully, a boy who was making his life a miser. Rolly couldn’t endure it any more. He read some of the boy’s thoughts. He found out the boy had been stealing from the school’s charity box and informed the headmaster. They expelled the boy.
‘But this turned some of the other children against Rolly. They didn’t know exactly how he’d found out about the thieving. They thought he’d been spying on the boy. One evening, they ganged up on him, tied his hands behind his back, filled a bath, and began ducking him. Rolly’s always had a fear of water, of the sea, of drowning. Fear can be a great intensifier of psychic powers. Rolly had to protect himself in the only way he could at that moment. He attacked the boy’s minds.’
‘He directed the fear he was feeling towards them. So that they felt the terror and panic he was experiencing. It was chaos in that bathroom. The shouts and screams alerted the masters. The boys could not understand what Rolly had actually done. But they knew he’d done something. And from that day on, they feared him.
‘Rolly had gained a new understanding of what he was capable of. There was one master he particularly loathed. Another bully, a big man, a games master and rugby player. He would taunt Rolly about his lack of sporting ability, about his physical frailty. He called him a girl — and worse. Rolly decided to take his revenge.
‘He persuaded — call it what you will — the master to go up the bell tower of the school chapel and throw himself from it. Of course, nobody could prove it was Rolly, but there was a lot of chatter and rumour. And I knew he did it.’
‘He told you so?’
‘Yes, he told me the night he did it.’
‘You were at the school when this happened?’
‘No. Rolly told me with his thoughts. We can exchange thoughts, you see. I forbade him from doing it when he was younger. But as he grew up he took no notice of me. I couldn’t stop him.’
‘And now? Can you communicate with him now?’
‘No, he’s blocked me.’
‘He’s able to do that?’
‘Roland can do things I can’t even imagine.’
‘The last sighting of your son was at Liverpool Street station. He was with a girl called Ruth Walcott.’
‘Yes, we know,’ Saunders said.
‘Did Roland tell you anything about this girl?’
Both of them shook their heads.
‘Or why they were at Liverpool Street station?’
‘No. Now, listen, Lock,’ Saunders said. ‘Sir Edward told me you’re a good man and a good soldier. He told me that if anyone can hunt these people down, you can. And I promised Sir Edward I’d be patient. But my patience isn’t endless. Now let’s hear your plan?’
Arthur rubbed the scar on his face absentmindedly. ‘We need to decode the other names in the codebook, the people that my brother tested after he had parted ways with Reece. These are the ones that Reece never met and has no information about. We can use the resources of Scotland Yard to trace them, if they can, and find out which of them has had children. Then we need to make a judgment, based on their parent’s abilities, about which of the children Reece will think worthy of his attention. Then we need to watch them and wait for him to make his move.’
‘There are a lot of links in that chain of reasoning. Any of them might fail.’
‘So you’re going to use these other children as bait?’
‘I wouldn’t put it quite like that.’
‘However you put it, that’s a bit cold-blooded, isn’t it?’
‘I’d call it realistic. We have to find out where he’s keeping the children. The only way is to see where he takes them when he has another one.’
‘I don’t like it, Lock.’
‘Sir Edward has the Cambridgeshire constabulary watching Reece, following him when they can, but he’s crafty. I think he may be keeping them closer to the coast. Perhaps Norfolk or Suffolk.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘A hunch. He must have a plan of what to do if we track the children down. That might be to take them abroad. Being close to the sea would make that much easier.’
Saunders looked unhappy and unconvinced. Arthur wondered when his patience would snap.
As he departed the Saunders’ house, one thought nagged at him. If Roland had cut off this special communication he previously had with his mother, was it possible that he didn’t want to be rescued?
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