• Sue Short

CHAOS

At three o’clock, Sharon Foster sent a text to Paul, her publisher, confirming that she wanted her fourth novel to go to a third reprint. This particular novel had been very successful. Her readers loved the twists and turns in the plot. Detective Anthony Westover, who appeared in all her novels, was brilliant at solving the mysteries that weaved their way through her stories.

She sat at her desk in front of an enormous window. The study was her sanctuary, her retreat, her favourite place in the house; maybe in the whole world. She could view her beautiful garden while thinking up a new plot or the answer to some burning question.

She shuffled some papers into a neater pile.

Three fifteen.

The window could do with a wash. She’d call the window- cleaner tomorrow.

At three-thirty, she decided to check the arrival time of David’s flight. Just in case there had been a last minute change. There hadn’t. He would be calling her soon. The arrangement was that she would drive to Gatwick to pick him up as soon as he called. The drive would take thirty minutes; she knew the route blindfolded.

Three forty-five. Those pencils could do with sharpening. She found her trusty mouse pencil sharpener that David had given her. She loved his little surprises.

Four o’clock.

She looked at the surface of her desk, everything in its place. She decided to empty the waste- paper bin. She took the bin downstairs and out to the shed, and pushed all the paper into the incinerator. David could deal with the next stage when he got back.

Ten past four.

Back at her desk, she examined her hands. They were dusty from touching the shed doors.

Just time to have a quick shower and change into her favourite tracksuit.

Three long months of being apart; she missed him. She hated being on her own and valued the fact that she had lots of friends who checked on her when David was away. He was a free-lance photographer; this time attached to some journalists who worked for the BBC. They had been covering a Middle Eastern issue. She worried about David’s safety, but found writing her novel took her mind off things; even if it was for just an hour or two.

“It’s my job honey. Don’t worry so much. I know how to look after myself. I’ll be home for good in April,” he’d assured her in early January.

Freshly showered, she looked at the clock on the bedside table.

Four thirty. She was ready to get in the car and go and pick him up but she hadn’t had that call. Maybe she’d missed it when she was in the shower.

Four thirty two. She checked the answer phone for messages: nothing. Fear began to grip the pit of her stomach. Maybe she should telephone Rory, David’s agent, to check on the flight details. She decided not to do that in case she missed the call from her husband.

Four forty- five. Sharon went downstairs and sat in the front room. She checked the phone for dialling tone. All okay. She checked her mobile. All okay.

She went into the kitchen for some tap water but found she couldn’t swallow. She paced about tidying mugs and the spoons.

Five o’clock. She sat in the hall waiting, waiting for David’s call. But it didn’t come.

Five fifteen. She went back into the front room and checked the phone for dialling again. All okay.

Five thirty.

At six o’clock she phoned Gatwick but failed to get the answer she needed.

Yes, the flight had landed on time. There’d been no delays. No midair collisions.

David was in Gatwick somewhere, but he hadn’t called her. Why?

Six fifteen. She heard the reassuring sound of the door bell. He must have taken a cab instead of ringing her. He must have mislaid his key. She couldn’t wait to get to the door.

But instead of David being on the front door step it was Rory wearing a serious expression that made Sharon tremble.

“May I come in?”

“Have you heard from David? I’m getting worried that he hasn’t called.”

“May I come in?”

Twelve months later.

She didn’t hear her alarm go off at eight o’clock. Waking up at nine-thirty, she needed to get her skates on, as her long- suffering mum used to say. She phoned Paul at: Jones and Blackwater Publishing to warn him that she would be late and would be arriving at ten thirty not ten o’clock. Thankfully, he was used to her lack of punctuality. He told her not to worry and to take-care driving into Truro.

A quick shower and dressing in yesterday’s clothes there was no time to look in the wardrobe for something more suitable. It was already a blisteringly hot day so, a flimsy cotton dress was all she needed. No time for breakfast or even a coffee. She hadn’t stocked-up on food anyway, so her meal would have consisted of out- of-date muesli.

She grabbed the manuscript from the hall table and placed it on the front seat of her dusty car. As it was so hot, she decided to put the top down. She intended to hand the long-awaited final draft over to Paul. But this latest one hadn’t been easy to write. Somehow, she didn’t have the same enthusiasm for writing or the ability to concentrate. She had ditched the usual detective and had gone for a female sleuth. It had taken a gruelling year to get to this point. Would her loyal readers like it?

Staring at the steering wheel, her hands shook. She turned the key in the ignition, the car was ready to go, but was she? Her peripheral vision sensed movement. Lately, her nerves had been so on edge that she wondered whether she was going crazy. She worried that she was being watched; but by whom? Maybe Rory was lurking about. In her heart of hearts, she knew he meant well. He was just keeping an eye on her. She knew David would have wanted him to do that. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?

She put the car into first gear and moved forward. So much heat, her under- arms felt sweaty. Had she showered? Of course she had. She still felt uncomfortable, as if she needed to plunge into a cold bath. Was that Mini following her? No, it was parked.

It had been a painful year, agonising, gut wrenching. Too many false- starts and interruptions from people who wanted a piece of her. Rory was the most annoying of this group. He had a tendency to turn up at any time of the day or night.

“Come out for a drink. You need a change of scene.” Rory liked to talk about David to keep his memory alive. Sharon couldn’t take that.

“I’m fine sitting at my desk. Just leave me to get on with my writing.”

At least three times a week, Rory would arrive with bags of food. He’d stock up her fridge and food cupboard. She took all of it to the charity food box. He would arrange fresh flowers about the house. When he’d gone, she put the flowers in the bin. She didn’t want them. They made her sad, especially coming from Rory. He’d been the one to tell her the devastating news about David.

Paul phoned at least twice a week.

“How are you feeling today?”

How was she feeling? She had no feelings, or maybe she had too many.

“Have you done any writing today?”

“I wrote a chapter,” she lied.

“Thought of a title yet?” Paul asked a few too many times.

“Chaos, that’s the title.” That summed up her life.

She was driving to town to see Paul and answer more of his questions. Her forehead was dripping wet; salty perspiration was making her vision blurry. She was unprepared for showing him the manuscript; unprepared to let it go. It had taken so much effort to write.

Writing reminded her of a different life; her life with David.

She joined a queue of traffic, moving tortoise-like to Truro. Sharon grabbed some tissue from the side-pocket and blotted her forehead and dabbed her eyes. Not a lot better. Her hair still looked damp, as if she had thrown a bucket of water over her head.

She hadn’t checked that she’d got enough petrol. Glancing at the fuel gauge, she realised that she was running on fumes. Luckily, Playing Place garage was close by. She filled the convertible’s tank to the brim, so much so, that petrol spilled onto the ground and onto her sandals. Her hands were covered with the stuff, and so was everything she touched. Sharon went into the shop to pay. Afterwards, she went into the ladies to wash her hands. Paul wouldn’t thank her for arriving late and smelling of petrol.

Back in her car again, she tuned the radio to Classic FM. Maybe music would calm her nerves. She glanced towards her passenger seat to check she’d put her handbag in the car.

No manuscript.

She looked again.

There was still no manuscript on the front seat.

The driver in front moved forward. She braked. The driver behind sounded his horn.

She was holding up the traffic but she didn’t care.

“I can’t think straight.” She shouted.

Maybe somebody had taken it off the front seat when she was paying for her petrol?

Or perhaps she put it in the boot absentmindedly.

She took her foot off the brake and drove further down the hill. She turned into the lane leading to the All Hallows in Kea. She got out of the car and opened the boot. Nothing there, except a pair of muddy wellingtons and a pack of mouldy cheese, that she forgotten to take into the house weeks ago.

She got back into the car and drove back up the hill towards Playing Place garage. She jumped out of the car and rushed into the shop, “Anybody handed in a manuscript?” she shouted. Customers and staff turned to stare at her in puzzlement.

She hurried towards the counter and lowered her voice, “Has anybody handed in a manuscript; it’s a sort of folder with lots of paperwork inside?”

“When did you lose it, my lover?”

“Could you look on your video screen? Maybe, somebody took the manuscript out of my car. Please could you look?”

“Sorry, my lover, against the rules, I’m afraid. I can only look when there’s been an accident or incident on the forecourt or in the shop.”

“There has been an incident. Please, it’s very important.”

He dismissed her with a wave and signalled to the man behind to move forward. She walked out of the shop and headed towards her car. She’d left the car door open with her handbag on the front seat.

Driving back home, tears dripping down her cheeks. She tried to think.

Nothing made any sense, anymore. Yes, she’d got up late. Yes, she’d been in a hurry. Yes, her life was chaotic. The heat surrounding her body had intensified. Sharon entered her house and moved from room to room; she searched and searched.

No manuscript, not even a notebook or scrap of paper in the waste bin.

Sharon finally ended up in her study. She squeezed her way through boxes of printing paper and ink-cartridges; pushed her way through the chaos of her life.

The manuscript was lying in the middle of the desk. It had been there all the time.

She picked it up and flicked through the pages.

Her heart almost jolted to a stop.

All the pages were completely blank, not a word written on any of them.

Ten o’clock. She seemed to have been sitting at the desk for hours. Had the morning’s events been in her imagination? Maybe it had been part of one of her elaborate plots? Not much of a plot, if so.

Four minutes past ten.

She heard the doorbell. The ringing invaded her silence. She couldn’t move. She just wanted to stay at her desk, looking out at the garden. But everything seemed to be closing in on her. More high-pitched ringing sounds.

Five minutes past ten.

She heard banging on the front door. Persistent banging that caused her head to throb.

Six minutes past ten.

She covered her ears. Maybe she should go downstairs and answer the door. Maybe, it was one of those people who had been watching her. She didn’t want to answer the door to them. More banging, penetrating the very walls of her existence.

She covered her head with her arms. The sound of the banging didn’t go away. She couldn’t move. The usual terrible thoughts came back into her head. She couldn’t stop them.

Feeling of intense pain was pounding into her brain.

She heard footsteps on the stairs.

David? He’d come back at last.

Then silence.

Rory and Paul rushed into the study.

“It’s okay Sharon. We’ve got you.”


SYNOPSIS

In the past Sharon Foster had written four crime novels. Widely read and enjoyed, she usually wrote best sellers.

But things haven’t been going well for Sharon, in the last three years.

One hot, summer’s day, Sharon is on her way to her publisher, Jones and Blackwater. She suddenly realises that her manuscript has disappeared from the front seat of her car. The question is, was it ever there? Was she ever there?

What happens next mirrors the title of her missing manuscript: “Chaos”.

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