Disclaimers: I really don't like long disclaimers, so here's a brief one. There's angst. Maybe sex between persons of the same sex. Maybe violence. Did I mention angst? Semicolons; but blame my beta reader, Barbara Davies for those. That's all.
The Rolls Royce seemed to glide into the small courtyard. It came to a halt outside one of the black glossed doors, and the engine was silenced.
The front door opened and a smartly uniformed man walked around the front of the car and then to the rear passenger door, opening it.
A moment later an exquisitely dressed woman unfolded herself from the rear seat. She stood a moment, straightening her coat, which was, in fairness, still in perfect order.
"Thank you Jonathan," she said, reaching back into the car for her handbag. "I should only be a few minutes."
"Madam," the chauffeur acknowledged, bowing slightly at the waist. He pushed the door closed and went back to his place in the front of the car.
Marianna Holbrook-Sutherland, or to give her title Lady Collingford, keyed in the number she knew would give her access to her daughter's small abode. The dark-haired woman pulled her coat closer about her, warding off the extreme cold of the English December day.
She had called her daughter on the journey to the small town house in Kensington that she and her husband Lord Collingford had bought their daughter. After receiving no more than a grunt from her youngest child, she knew she was in for a struggle to rouse her.
Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland was their youngest child. They expected nothing of her and she didn't disappoint by exceeding their expectations. Joanna had spent the last few years of her life enjoying the privilege of title and wealth, with her parents' approval.
Their son, Jeremy, heir to the family title, ran the huge house that was the family seat in Cumbria. It opened from April to September to the public, and in that time Marianna and her husband lived in London. Their eldest daughter, Olivia, had married the head of a large corporation, and now lived in Seattle.
Joanna had shown no ambition to marry or to make a career for herself. She was content to party, to shop, and to break the record for visiting every alcohol-dispensing establishment in London.
Marianna made her way up the short flight of stairs to the living quarters. The small courtyard had once been home to half a dozen stables. They had been bought some ten years previously and converted to luxury living accommodation. The lower level housed a good-sized garage, with a small laundry room behind. Upstairs were two further levels, with the lounge and large kitchen/diner on one level and two good sized bedrooms and a large bathroom in the roof.
Joanna knew she recognised the voice that was becoming increasingly annoying. She turned onto her back, shielding her eyes as her mother pulled the cord and opened the blind that was across the window in the roof.
Marianna regarded her youngest daughter. The telephone was still held in one hand, resting on the pillow beside the dark head.
Joanna had inherited her father's height and blue eyes and her mother's Greek colouring, which made for an interesting and stunning mix.
"Joanna, dear. There's a strange woman on your futon."
Blue eyes blinked at her from beneath the duvet. "What does she look like?" Marianna strained to hear the muffled voice of her daughter.
"Really, Joanna." Marianna tutted and sat on the edge of the bed. She looked at her daughter and then at her watch.
"Am I forgetting something?" asked the sleepy woman; she eased herself to a sitting position, her back resting against the headboard.
"Really Joanna," she said again, the phrase becoming a favourite. "I told you last week. I'm hosting an exhibition of Charles DeBurgh's photography at 'The Gallery'."
`The Gallery` had been Lord Collingford's gift to his wife when she complained of boredom. She had hosted exhibitions, parties, and fashion shows at the venue, and it had become one of the fashionable places to be seen in.
"And you're telling me this.... why?" asked the younger woman, reaching for the half-finished glass of orange juice on the bedside cabinet.
Marianna stood so quickly, Joanna jumped, spilling some of the juice across her chest.
"Really, Joanna." The phrase actually made the girl wince this time. "You promised you would make an appearance this time." She stood in front of the mirror, taking in her own appearance. Giving a small nod, she turned back to her daughter. "I want to show you off, dear, is that so terrible?"
Joanna sighed and scrubbed at her face. She looked at the clock on the cabinet beside the bed. It showed that it was 8.32am; she'd had four hours sleep.
"I'll wait in the car for you, dear." She opened the door to the bedroom but turned back before leaving the room. Joanna was out of bed now, and her mother took in the lean form of her youngest child. "A little blonde."
Joanna had just pulled a towelling robe on. "What?" she asked.
"The girl on the futon." She gave her daughter a lopsided smile, something the younger woman had inherited from her. "I see your tastes haven't changed."
Half an hour later, Joanna was sitting next to her mother in the back of the Rolls.
"You're twenty-four, Jo." Marianna had been quiet for a good twenty minutes. She'd sighed deeply when it had taken her daughter nearly half an hour to appear through her front door. Though she appreciated that the younger woman looked stunning in a little black dress with a hemline that reached mid thigh. She wore a thick black coat over it, and black stilettos that added to her already imposing height. Her long dark hair fell loose about her shoulders.
Joanna ignored her mother and watched the passing buildings, occasionally catching the gaze of the chauffeur in the rear view mirror. He winked at her.
"Your point is?" Joanna said after another long period of silence.
Marianna patted her daughter on her thigh. "Your father and I have always done everything we can for you. You know that, don't you?"
Joanna turned to face her mother. "Yes, you have. And yes, I know it, and I'm grateful" There was a wariness in her voice.
Marianna pursed her lips. "Who was that girl, Joanna? Another of your conquests?"
Jo shrugged. "I suppose so." She smiled. "Why?"
"Are you happy...... the way you are?"
The laugh that exploded from Jo's throat, startled her mother and caused Jonathan's eyes to switch from the road to the rear view mirror.
"'The way I am'. What the hell's that supposed to mean?" She ran a hand through long hair, another habit she shared with her mother.
"This life you lead, dear. It seems so..... empty."
"Jon, stop the car," she called to the driver. He looked for confirmation to the older woman.
"Drive on, Jonathan."
Joanna slumped back in her seat. "Mother, I'm not looking for a permanent relationship right now. I'm quite happy. I have friends, I have my family. I have no ambition to find a good man, which I know is what you're expecting from me."
The older woman was quiet for a moment. "This.... phase you're going through."
"I've told you before, it's not a phase. I'm not going to wake one morning and have an overwhelming desire to find me a husband. I told you when I was eighteen that I preferred the company of women. Lots of women. That isn't going to change anytime soon."
"I only thought...."
"Well don't, Mother, you could be dangerous."
Marianna decided to drop the subject. For now.
The gallery doors opened at 10am, and Joanna was there beside her mother to welcome the invited throng into the fashionable venue.
By noon, the small gallery was heaving with the young, famous, and hangers on.
Joanna turned when she heard her name being called. And her relief was evident when she saw her friend pushing her way towards her through the crowd. She smiled easily, seeing the tousled blonde head and the wide grin of the woman coming towards her.
"Harry, I'm so glad you made it." She bent and embraced her friend.
Harriet James was the daughter of her father's business partner.
"They wouldn't let me in; you didn't leave my name on the door."
Joanna shook her head. "I forgot. Four hours sleep," she explained.
"Yeah, I saw you leave. Good night?" asked Harry, grinning up at her taller friend.
Joanna put an arm across the shorter woman's shoulders. "You know me," she whispered into her ear. "Come on, let's get a drink."
They managed to find a quiet corner with a small sofa, and both collapsed into it with a glass of Bucks fizz each.
"So what's this all about?" Harry asked, indicating the milling crowd with her glass.
"Mother's latest discovery." Jo looked through the crowd. "There." She pointed to a tall willowy man, deep in conversation with two women. "That's Charles DeBurgh; she thinks he's the next David Bailey or something."
"So what does he photograph?"
Jo shook her head. "No idea."
Choking on Bucks fizz is not the most attractive look, as Harry discovered. "You've been here for two hours and you haven't looked at the bloody pictures?" she managed, after she'd recovered.
Jo was leaning back against the arm of the sofa, keeping her drink out of the range of her coughing friend. She shrugged.
"Come on, let's go see." Harry stood and hauled her friend to her feet.
Joanna stood in front of the first set of pictures. "Oh...My...God."
"What?" Harry walked over from the photos she was looking at to see what Joanna was finding so interesting.
"I can't believe my Mother dragged me out of a perfectly good bed on a Saturday morning to look at pictures of..." she leaned closer, peering at the black-and-white pictures, then straightened up and turned to face her friend, "...vagrants."
"I guess it's what they call art," said Harry, and peered at a picture.
"No, art is the body that I left back on my futon."
"That was as far as we got."
"And you left her there?"
"Not my fault if she lost the ability to walk." Joanna looked pleased with herself. "I have a reputation to uphold."
Harry chuckled, and both women enjoyed a moment of silence as they studied the photos.
Jo moved ahead and turned a corner, looking at a set of pictures that were on another wall. Harry caught up with her. "I really don't see the attraction of a picture that shows some guy sitting in a pool of vomit," said the shorter woman.
"Jo?" she said, when she received no reply.
Joanna was staring at a picture, and Harry went to stand beside the taller woman. The picture her friend was looking at was one of the larger ones in the display. The subject was a woman, no more than a girl, from what Harry could make out. Some sort of scarf was about the girl's neck, partially covering her chin. The lips were full, but unsmiling. But it was the eyes that were so striking, even though the picture was a black-and-white portrait. The eyes stared unrelentingly from the picture, almost defiantly. Blonde hair fell haphazardly across the girl's forehead, just reaching her eyelids.
"Makes you realise how lucky we are," said Harry without looking up.
When she received no answer, she looked up at the angular profile of her friend. "Jo?"
The taller woman turned towards her. Joanna saw her friend, saw her lips moving, but couldn't hear the noise that Harry was obviously making. Then Harry's face seemed to grow smaller and smaller, and blackness encroached from the edge of her vision.
Harry tried to grab her friend when she saw Jo's knees buckle, but the taller woman's weight bore them both to the ground.
She watched in horrified fascination as Jo's head fell back against her arm. Harry was aware of people rushing to see what was happening, but she just heard a whisper from her friend as she lost consciousness.
An hour after the incident in the gallery, Jo was sitting in the back of the Rolls next to a very quiet Harry.
"Jonathan, I think I'll go home."
The chauffeur didn't take his eyes off of the road. "Lady Collingford instructed me to take you to Castleton Lodge"
"I know what my mother said, but I want to go home."
Jonathan gave a short nod and immediately took a sharp left.
Jo now had her eyes closed and was pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.
"Jo?" Harry reached across and laid a hand on her friend's shoulder.
"I'm fine, just a bit of a headache."
Jo was remembering coming to awareness and finding herself surrounded by a dozen or more curious faces. "They think I'm either pregnant or drugged up to the eyeballs," she said with a tired sigh.
"Do you know what happened back there?"
Jo shook her head. "No. Just my wild ways catching up with me."
"It scared me a little, Jo," said Harry.
"Scared me too. I'm going to go home and go to bed. I don't think having just four hour's sleep agrees with me." Jo eyed her best friend. "What do you want to do?"
"I'll stay with you." A pause. "If that's ok."
"Of course it is. I could do with some company."
"I thought you already had some."
Jo shook her head. "I told her I probably wouldn't be back all day. She's probably gone."
They were silent for a moment.
"Jo?" Harry looked across at her friend who was sitting quietly with her eyes closed. The dark-haired woman didn't answer but turned blue eyes on her.
"Doesn't matter," said Harry, just as the Rolls pulled into the courtyard.
As Jo had suspected, the small house was empty, her guest had left. Harry dropped onto the chair and watched as Jo eased her body into the sofa Her back was hurting where she had twisted as she fainted, and her head was thumping.
"Shall I make some tea?" Harry asked, pulling herself up. "And I'll grab you some painkillers." She didn't wait for an answer and made her way to the kitchen.
Some ten minutes later, Harry emerged from the kitchen with a couple of mugs. Jo was sitting on the sofa, her head resting against the back, her eyes closed. "Sorry," Harry said as she placed the mug of tea on the coffee table and put a couple of Nurofen in Jo's hand. "Take these, then see if you can get to sleep."
Harry watched her with worried eyes.
They had been friends for many years, but at no time desired to take their relationship any further. Both acknowledged the other's beauty, but neither found the other physically alluring. True, Harry was blonde, and every woman Jo had ever wooed had been blonde, but Jo always thought of her as just a good friend. And she didn't want to complicate their very close relationship with sex.
After taking the tablets and drinking her tea, Jo quickly made herself comfortable and started to drift off.
"Mmm?" was the sleepy response.
"Did you know the girl in the picture?" Harry sank into the plush armchair, taking in her friend's profile, barely visible in the darkened room. Though only two-thirty in the afternoon, it was a dull day, and, with the blinds pulled closed, it was dark in the lounge.
Jo was quiet for a long time. "No, I don't think so."
"Well, you had a hell of a reaction to it." Harry studied the contents of her mug for a long moment. "You said something. Before you passed out, you said something."
It took quite an effort for Jo to open her eyes and turn them back towards her friend. "What are you talking about?" There was a hint of annoyance in the tired voice.
"You said, `It's her.`"
Harry shrugged. "That's what you said. That's why I wondered if you knew her."
"No, I didn't know her. I'm just tired, Harry." Jo stood abruptly. "Look..." She once again pinched the bridge of her nose. Her face was pale and her eyes scrunched tightly shut. "Look," she said again, only softer. "I'm going to bed." Her eyes opened and she looked at her friend. "You're welcome to stay... you know that."
"Yeah, I know," said Harry, standing and giving her friend a peck on the cheek. "You give me a shout if you need anything."
Jo smiled down at her friend. "I will." She gave her a brief squeeze on her shoulder and disappeared up the short flight of stairs and into her bedroom. She was asleep less than five minutes later.
Harry was dozing on the sofa, the TV remote control hanging precariously from one hand. She flicked through the channels, her tired brain taking in the usual Saturday evening fare of quiz shows and talent shows that terrestrial TV seemed to think its customers preferred. Flicking to satellite, she found American dramas. She came to one particular channel and dwelt a little longer there, admiring the physique of the two leading ladies. Being one who spent most Saturday nights in the bars and nightclubs of London, she wasn't familiar with the usual Saturday night menu of shows. She made a mental note to get out the manual for her VCR and to finally master setting the timer.
Whatever it was that she was watching ended, and she proceeded to flick through the channels. She came across a rerun of some quiz show, and watched in fascination as one of the contestants struggled with what was, to her, a simple question. The quizmaster oozed self-admiration and posed the question again. A few thousand pounds rested on his answer.
"Princess Anne is older than Prince Charles. True or False?... I'm going to have to put the timer on."
"Can I call a friend?" The contestant fidgeted in his seat.
"You can; do you want to?"
The contestant thought for a moment. "No. I'll answer... False."
"Is that your final answer?"
The contestant hesitated, his face draining of all colour.
Harry was caught in the moment. "Come on, dipstick. You're right; everyone knows that."
"You don't want to change your mind?" The quizmaster tapped on his board with his pen.
The contestant looked to the audience, obviously having family out there somewhere. He looked like a man condemned, about to walk the final short distance. "False," he said again, his voice cracking under the strain.
"You had six thousand pounds," the quizmaster said, his face impassive. There was silence ... a long silence ... the tapping of the pen on the board the only sound. "You now have twelve thousand pounds."
The audience erupted; the contestant looked just about ready to faint.
Harry switched channels quickly, unable to stand much more of the torture of the poor man. He was only on six thousand pounds; what would happen when he got to double figures and the more difficult questions? "Who the hell doesn't know that Prince Charles is the oldest of the Royal kids?" Harry asked herself.
She flicked through a few more channels, watching some real life cop show from the States for a while, and then coming across `The World's Scariest Police Videos`, which contrary to the show's description seemed to all take place on American highways.
It was then that she heard Jo. At first she thought she was calling for her, but as she neared the bedroom door she realised that her friend was in some kind of distress.
She burst into the room to find the naked, dark woman thrashing wildly in her sleep, seemingly trying to disentangle herself from the duvet cover, which was coming loose from the quilt. Cries, apparently of pain and anguish, came from her.
"Jo, stop," she said, climbing onto the bed with her friend and trying to get control of the long arms which threatened to deliver a painful blow in their thrashing.
"Noo, don't go!" Jo sat bolt upright, her arms reaching for something unseen. Her eyes were wide, scanning the dark of her bedroom, which was lit only by the light from beyond the bedroom door.
The blue gaze fell upon her friend, then Jo's face twisted and she collapsed back onto the bed and curled in on herself. Her arms were crossed across her chest, as if she was in great pain.
"Jo?" It was like the calm after the storm; only the ragged breathing of the tall woman was audible now. Harry reached out and laid a hand on a heaving shoulder. "Are you alright?"
Jo didn't reply for a long moment. "What time is it?" Her voice was hoarse, her breathing just coming under her control.
"Um." Harry turned her watch towards the light filtering through the doorway. "Just after nine-thirty."
Jo eased herself out of bed, wondering how she missed running the London marathon earlier that day. Surely she must have; her body was certainly telling her that it had gone through some sort of traumatic event that day. She pulled on a robe and shuffled out of the room, watched all the time by a bemused Harry.
Harry shook her head and followed her friend down to the lounge.
"What is this?" asked Jo, trying to focus sleepy eyes on the TV, which was showing the view from a police car as it followed a motorcyclist across rough ground.
Harry picked up the remote and silenced the TV.
Jo sat on the sofa, Harry on the armchair.
"You ok?" asked the blonde.
Jo looked as though she'd been awake a week, instead of asleep for the past few hours. "Nightmare. Christ, I haven't had a nightmare since I was at boarding school. Had them all the time there. Bloody nuns."
"You want to tell me what it was about?"
Jo shrugged. "Can't really remember."
"But you know it was a nightmare?"
"I was scared." Jo shook her head gently. "I know I was scared."
"Was someone chasing you?" Harry leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her chin cupped in her hands.
Jo thought for a moment. "No, someone was leaving me." She was remembering the dream, remembering the feeling of pain and helplessness. "There was nothing I could do. No way I could reach her."
"Her?" Harry sat upright; now this was getting interesting.
Jo sighed, a long, knowing sigh. Harry must think she was losing her marbles.
"Was it...?" Harry began.
Another sigh, and Jo nodded her head. "It was the girl in the picture."
"So, you do know her?"
"I'm sure I don't." She leaned her head against the sofa back. "I mean, I don't think so. I've met a lot of women...." She paused hearing Harry's snort.
"Sorry," said the blonde.
"How would I know someone who lives on the street?"
"Maybe she hasn't been on the street long."
Jo ground the heel of her hand into her forehead, trying to ease the pain that was building there. "She just turned away from me and left me."
Harry was quiet, waiting for her friend to continue.
"I couldn't breathe," Jo said. "My legs wouldn't move. I watched her go and did nothing to stop her."
Harry watched Jo carefully; the woman looked distraught. Her hair was stringy and falling in a tangled mess about her shoulders. A sheen of sweat covered her face and chest. Her hands clutched at the material of her robe. "Can you remember how the dream started?"
Jo was silent, and for a while Harry wondered if she was going to answer.
"I was walking through..." she thought for a moment, "... alleyways, I think. It was somewhere dark, and cold."
"And she was there?"
"Not to start with. But then she was."
Harry squirmed on the chair, intrigued. "Did you talk to her?"
One perfectly formed eyebrow rose and blue eyes pinned the blonde. "This is a dream, Harry. I can remember snippets, images, feelings. I can't remember conversations."
"So, what did you feel?"
Jo looked into the artificial flames of the fire. "Cold, I felt cold."
Breathe, just breathe.
Jo bolted upright, once again clutching her chest against the sharp pain that manifested itself right next to her heart.
A sleep-tousled blonde head peeked up from beneath the quilt beside her.
"You dreaming again?" asked Harry, looking up at her friend's dark profile, barely seen in the darkness.
For the first time since she was a child, the darkness had disturbed Jo, resulting in her leaving the landing light on and asking her friend to sleep with her in her bed, rather than in the guestroom.
"Yeah," was all that Jo could manage as she held the flat of her hand against her own wildly beating heart.
"Same thing?" asked Harry, pulling herself to a sitting position and peering around Jo to see the illuminated numbers on the radio alarm. 01.37
"Same woman?" Harry waited while her friend composed herself.
Jo swallowed hard, her eyes tightly shut. "I'm going mad, aren't I?" she said, burying her face in her hands.
"I think maybe you're very tired," Harry said softly, "and the photos in the gallery affected you in some way. The tired mind can play strange tricks on you sometimes."
Jo suddenly threw the quilt back and leaped out of bed. "Where are you going?" Harry asked, pulling the quilt around herself.
"To have a chat with Mother."
"Um. Jo?" Harry began, but Jo was already heading out of the bedroom, pulling on a robe as she went.
By the time Harry reached the lounge, Jo had turned on the gas fire and was arguing with her Mother's chauffeur.
"I really don't care, Jon. I want to talk to her and I want to talk to her now."
Harry reached out a tentative hand and rested it on Jo's shoulder. "It's really late, Jo," she said quietly.
The tall woman ignored her. "What?" she barked into the phone. "Then I'll come over there; which would you prefer?"
Harry moved away from the angry woman, realising she was being ignored, and watched Jo as she sat on the sofa, the phone still hard against her ear.
"Mother?" Jo's eyes were closed, a look of something approaching pain on her face. "Yes, I know." She was obviously fending off an irate woman. "Well, it'll only take a moment. I need a phone number."
Harry wordlessly handed Jo a pad of notepaper; the tall woman took it and the pen that was also handed to her.
"Charles DeBurgh. Never mind that; do you have the number?"
Jo scribbled something down and put the phone down without wishing her mother a good night.
She punched in the numbers her mother had given her and waited while the phone rang. It was answered.
"Charles, Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland. I need to see you......... Yes, I do know what the time is.......... No, not in the morning. Now. I need an address.... " Jo took a deep breath. "Charles, how long did my mother promise you in the gallery?" Another pause, and the faintest of smiles graced the beautiful face. "Did she now? That long? I could have you out of there on Monday. Now then, give me an address." Jo once again scribbled something on the notepad. "I'll be there shortly."
After slamming the phone down, she passed a dumbstruck Harry and went back to her bedroom. She pulled on some underwear and jeans and a sweater, and then sat on the bed pulling a pair of sturdy ankle boots on.
"D'you want me to come with you?" asked Harry, amazed at how quickly her friend could dress.
"It's up to you. If you want to come, you had better be quick. I'll get the car out. Meet you downstairs."
Harry quickly dressed and ran down the stairs. Jo was waiting outside the front door in the Merc.
Harry shivered in the cold winter night. She eased into the passenger side of the convertible, reaching forward as she did so to make sure the heat was turned up to its highest setting.
Jo had pulled out of the courtyard and onto the main road before Harry had a chance to secure her seatbelt.
The streets were mostly quiet. The exceptionally cold weather and the late hour combined to keep most people in. A few cars were about, taking people home from nightclubs and maybe workers home after a long day.
The occasional police car passed them as they made their way through the damp and freezing streets.
Harry marvelled at Jo's knowledge of the streets, not knowing the part of London they were entering at all.
Before long they arrived in a long street and Jo drove down it slowly, leaning over the steering wheel to see the numbers on the doors.
"There it is," she said and pulled up against the kerb.
She was out of the car and scanning the names below the six or so bells for the correct name. She rang one of them and waited.
"Yes?" the mechanical voice said.
She leaned close to the intercom. "Joanna," was all she said.
There was a buzz, and she pushed the door open. Harry trudged along behind her, beginning to doubt her desire to follow her friend on this ridiculous chase across London.
Charles DeBurgh was waiting by the open door of his apartment. He was wearing only a pair of red pyjama bottoms, and holding a glass with an unidentifiable substance in.
He stood aside and allowed the two women to enter.
"I don't know why I agreed to this," he said, gesturing towards the lounge. "Has this got anything to do with the exhibition?"
Harry looked towards Jo when no answer was forthcoming. The tall woman was standing just inside the doorway, looking around her as if wondering where she was and how she got there.
The blonde woman took hold of Jo's arm, "Jo, are you ok?"
"What the hell am I doing?" she asked, turning away from Harry and facing a bemused photographer.
"Shit! I hope you haven't dragged me out of bed because you're fucking well PMSing." Charles turned away from the two women and stalked into his lounge, slumping down on the sofa and taking a long draught of the drink he held in his hand.
The two women followed him into the room, Harry sitting in one of the plump armchairs and Jo wandering aimlessly around the room.
"One of the pictures in the exhibition..." Jo began, but faltered.
"Well?" said Charles, his patience obviously waning.
Jo closed her eyes. "I can't get her face out of my mind." There it was. Simple. To the point.
Charles was quiet for a long moment, taking in the pale face of the woman standing before him. Then he stood abruptly. "Come with me."
He led them to what they assumed was his office. There was a computer and a number of filing cabinets. From one he took a number of folders. He handed them to Jo. "That's all the photographs I had at the gallery."
Jo sat on the small sofa that was in the room and placed the folders on the cushion next to her. With shaking hands she took out the photos. All were 6x4 colour prints.. There were three folders, and Jo carefully looked at each photo before placing it back in the folder.
Charles waggled his empty glass at them and left the room. Harry sat on the chair in front of the computer table.
The blonde watched Jo as she went through the pictures, one by one. Then her attention shifted. She surveyed the rest of the small room, then her gaze fell on the small clock sitting beside the computer. 02.47. Was she really sitting in a virtual stranger's flat, in the small hours of the morning, chasing after.... a what? What were they doing here? Chasing a dream? And not even her dream. The dream of this woman, who she loved. Like a sister? No, no sister would do the things to a sibling that she had in mind for Jo. But Jo didn't want that with her, and she would abide by her friend's decision.
A gasp brought her out of her musings.
Jo was looking at a photo, holding it in shaking hands. "They're green," she whispered.
Harry moved the folders away from Jo's side and sat next to her friend, peering at the picture still held carefully in her hands.
Jo turned towards Harry. "Her eyes are green, the same as in my dream. How did I know that?"
Harry took the photograph from Jo, and looked long and hard at the face staring back at her. "I thought you didn't see much of her in the dream."
"I didn't." Jo took a handful of her own hair in both hands and pulled sharply. She took in a deep breath. "This is crazy. What am I going to say to Charles? He's going to think I'm some crazy woman."
There was no answer from her friend who was studying the photo with quiet deliberation.
"You think I'm crazy, don't you?"
Harry didn't look up. For a start, she didn't know how to answer Jo. Yes, she had, on the drive to Charles' flat, decided that her best friend had finally lost her marbles. All the nights of partying, enjoying the attentions of beautiful women, had finally taken their toll. But it was the broken sound of Jo's voice that silenced her.
She handed the photo back. "I'm going to talk to Charles. Take a moment to think."
Jo nodded, her shoulders slumped.
Harry found Charles sitting in his lounge, nursing another glass of whatever he was drinking.
"Can I?" Harry said, pointing towards the small bar.
"Be my guest," said Charles, but there was a touch of sarcasm in his voice.
Harry poured herself a whisky and sat back down on the sofa, facing Charles.
"This isn't like Jo at all." Harry watched him, waiting for the caustic reply she was sure was coming.
"Yeah, really." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "I've never seen her like this before. Jo is the youngest of Lord and Lady Collingford's children. They have never pushed her. And she has no ambition." Harry searched for the right words. "She's a ..... free spirit. That's the best way I know to describe her. She's never had a worry in her life. Anything she's ever wanted, her parents have bought her. The biggest decision she makes is which restaurant to visit on which night."
Charles looked at her vacantly. "And you're telling me this..... for some reason?"
"I'm trying to explain how out of character this is for her. Something has shaken her so badly she feels she needs to chase around London, in the small hours, just to try to get to the bottom of it." Harry looked at the man, feeling she was battering her head against a brick wall. However strange her friend's actions were to her, she would still defend Jo to the last.
Charles looked up, and Harry followed his gaze, finding Jo standing in the doorway.
She walked across the room towards Charles, the picture in her hands. "Can you tell me who this is?" she asked
Charles couldn't take his eyes from the troubled, blue gaze. He reached out and took the photo. Tearing his eyes from Jo's, he looked down at the face on the photo.
"Rocky," he said.
A muted chuckle from Harry was quickly arrested when the blonde saw the confusion on Jo's face.
"Rocky?" the tall woman said.
"I should imagine that wasn't her real name."
"Rocky." Jo said again, feeling the name, deciding something was wrong. "You've spoken to her?"
Charles shrugged. "Briefly. She's not terribly talkative. Very nervous of strangers."
"How did you manage to get her to pose for this then?" asked Jo, taking the picture from Charles. She stared at it. `Rocky'? Even though she didn't know the girl's name, she instinctively knew that wasn't it.
Charles laughed; not a nice laugh, Jo decided. "She didn't pose. I got that after waiting for hours for her. It became something of a challenge."
"She didn't want her picture taken then?" Harry asked.
"Not likely." Charles drained his glass and rose to get a refill.
"But you took it anyway," said Jo.
Charles turned from the bar, his glass now full. "Look at that face, Jo. I had to capture that. "
"So it was like some kind of game for you. A hunt?"
Another shrug from the photographer. "You could call it that, I suppose. I waited for three days before I got that shot."
"Where?" Jo asked, her stomach clenching; she was getting close.
"Where what?" Charles was looking smug now, remembering outwitting the girl who had been so elusive.
"Where did you finally... shoot her?" Jo now had her eyes closed, the events of the past few hours catching up with her.
"Oh, it was around Whitechapel somewhere. There's a regular soup run down there most evenings. I just waited for her to make an appearance."
Jo nodded and turned troubled blue eyes on her friend. "Harry?"
Harry stood and moved to Jo's side.
"Can I keep this?" Jo asked, waving the photo at the man.
"Be my guest." Charles put his empty glass on the bar and ushered the women out of the lounge. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going back to bed."
Just as he was about to close the door to his apartment after seeing them out, Jo stopped him. "Charles, I'm sorry, I don't..."
"Whatever," said Charles, and shut the door.
As they got to the Merc gleaming dully in the streetlight, Harry put her hand out. "I'm driving."
"Harry, there's no need." Jo protested.
"I think I'd feel better." Harry was unmoving, holding her hand out until Jo placed in it the keys with the small remote control for the alarm attached. After disarming the alarm, the two women climbed in, Jo still clutching the photograph in her hands. "Home then?" asked Harry quietly.
Jo nodded. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't understand this."
"Who do you think she is?" Jo was looking at the picture, squinting at it in the artificial light. Jo gave a brief chuckle as a thought occurred to her, "And why do I care?"
Jo sat on the floor in front of the gas fire in her lounge, staring at the photograph.
The girl's hair was blonde, naturally highlighted by the sun. It looked clean. She remembered seeing footage of homeless people on the news once, and the fact that their hair always looked as though it hadn't seen a drop of water or shampoo in years had struck her. This girl was different. The blonde hair fell across her forehead, the very tips tangling with the dark eyelashes that framed her eyes. Jo took long moments looking into those eyes. If she looked closely she could see other colours mixed with the green. Hazel and gold. The eyes of the girl stared out at her, unflinching, and Jo found herself having to look away from them. She lowered her gaze to the lips, and now Jo could see that they were slightly parted and the very edge of even white teeth could just be seen. Again, Jo was surprised. She expected a person living on the streets to find the everyday toiletries that she took for granted hard to come by. Jo smiled to herself, amazed at the absurdity of the thought that sprang into her mind. It would make kissing her a more pleasurable experience if she'd brushed her teeth in the previous 12 hours or so.
Jo started to laugh. What was she thinking?
Her laughing brought Harry from the kitchen where she was watching the milk that was boiling in a saucepan.
"What's funny?" Harry asked.
Jo shrugged. "Just thinking stupid thoughts."
Harry watched her for a moment, and then returned to the kitchen.
"Stupid, stupid thoughts," Jo whispered to herself. "Who are you, Rocky?"
Harry returned some moments later with two mugs of steaming coffee.
"What are you going to do now?" Harry sipped her coffee, curling herself into the armchair.
"Well, I thought we'd take a drive around when it gets light, see what we can see. Charles said something about Whitechapel. We'll take a look around down there, maybe ask some questions. If we've found nothing by the evening, we'll see if we can latch on to one of those soup wagons. I think they travel to more than one place. I'll take the photo; someone must have seen her."
Jo looked up to see Harry regarding her, open-mouthed. "What?" Jo asked.
"Would you listen to yourself, Jo. What the hell is going on?"
Jo's mouth opened and closed a couple of times; no sound was forthcoming, however.
"You're really going to scour London looking for what is obviously a vagrant." Harry placed her mug on the low table and leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "And then what? Have you thought about that?"
The colour was draining from Jo's face, confusion now in the blue eyes.
"Didn't think so." Harry continued. "So when you find her you say: 'Oh hi. I'm Jo, and I've been dreaming about you. I'm not crazy, but I want you to come home with me.'" Harry sat back, crossing her arms across her chest, waiting for her friend's response.
"I have to do something," Jo said quietly. "I feel I have to. Need to."
"You're chasing after some kind of fantasy, Jo."
"No. She's real, I'm sure she is."
"I'm real, Jo. I'm here. I don't understand you." Harry's head fell forward, her eyes squeezed shut.
"What are you saying?"
"You really don't know, do you."
"No I don't." Jo watched her friend with concern, taking in the silent tears that tracked down her cheeks.
Harry let out a long, hitching breath. "I think I should go," she said, standing.
Jo was on her feet quickly, stepping in front of Harry as she made for the door. She placed her hands on the shorter woman's shoulders, forcing Harry to look up. "I'm sorry if I've hurt you. You're the best friend I've ever had."
"Exactly," said the blonde, and shrugged out of Jo's grasp, collected her coat and left quickly.
Ten minutes later, Harry was walking purposefully along the street when a car pulled alongside her. She recognised the silver Merc immediately. She opened the door and got in without question. "I forgot it was only 4 o'clock," she said, looking down at her hands.
"Me too," said Jo, her voice little more than a whisper. "I didn't realise; I'm sorry."
Harry shook her head gently and ran her fingers through her own dishevelled hair. "I value your friendship, Jo. And I know we've always said there would never be anything... else, between us. But I couldn't help myself."
Jo reached over and took her hand. "I love you, Harry. You know that right?"
Harry nodded, and sniffed. "Yeah, it's just been really hard watching you the last day or so. Getting crazy over a photo."
"I don't understand it any more than you do."
There was silence for a moment in the car, the glass fogging up. "We'd better go before we attract the attention of the police." Jo reached over and turned Harry's face towards her. "Where do you want to go?"
"Home," she said simply. "I'm sorry, Jo. You're going to have to do this on your own."
Jo nodded. "Yeah, I know."
Joanna had never felt lonely in her small house before. Now, as she walked into her lounge, the hairs on the back of her head stood on end, and she suppressed a shiver.
She'd watched Harry walk away from her and disappear behind the large door of her house. She'd never really considered the fact that her friend had wanted more from her than friendship. They'd discussed that on more than one occasion. Had talked about Jo's cavalier way with women, and how many hearts she'd broken. And now she realised she'd broken her best friend's heart too. But that was exactly what Harry was, her best friend. And as hard as she tried, Jo just couldn't contemplate their relationship being any more than that.
She slumped down into the armchair. It was 5.30am on a Sunday morning. It was an hour that Jo was not unfamiliar with. Though the other times she had experienced it, she had usually been just arriving home after a particularly excessive night out.
Still clutched in her right hand was the photograph, and once again her attention was drawn to the face of the woman she'd never met, but who was, strangely, becoming a part of her life.
She fought the urge to leave immediately, knowing she was exhausted and would probably crash the car straight into the Thames before she got anywhere. So she closed her eyes, her thumb moving unnoticed across the lips of the blonde girl in the photo.
Jo woke, with a pain in her shoulder where she'd slumped against the arm of the chair. Also her neck refused to obey her brain's instructions to support her head, a head which seemed to have acquired its own bass drum. The drum in question had struck up a monotonous rhythm, which intensified as Jo straightened up in the chair.
She'd left the fire on low, and now her mouth felt as if someone had forced a wad of cotton into it. She raised herself slowly, looking more like her mother's mother than her mother's daughter, and made her way to the kitchen.
After draining two large glasses of orange juice, she went back into the lounge, glancing at her watch as she did. It was a little before 8am. She picked up the picture from beside the chair. It had fallen face down from her hand as she slept.
She felt the flutter in her chest and the clenching of her abdomen as she looked upon the face again. As she left the house, she briefly wondered how she would cope with meeting the girl herself - the picture alone was giving her palpitations.
Charles had mentioned Whitechapel, and so that was where she'd start.
She'd studied the photograph in great deal, and, once she'd managed to tear her eyes away from the face of the girl, she realised there was a shop of some kind in the background of the shot. She saw only the first three letters on the sign: Chi. That was all she could see.
So there she was, on a bleak December morning, searching the foggy streets of Whitechapel, looking for a lost soul. Though at that moment Jo didn't realise just how lost the girl in the picture and in her dreams was.
A church clock was chiming the hour of nine as Jo parked the Merc. She'd seen homeless people before, huddling around fires that they'd lit in some dark damp corner. But now there were none to be found.
Glancing occasionally at the photo, she started walking the streets.
It was cold, and Jo pulled the collar of her coat up against the biting wind, which howled gently around the corners and into the alleys that made up much of that part of London. Ahead of her, out of what looked like an old church building, a number of people were filing into the cold morning dampness.
She looked at the faded blue-and-yellow sign above the ancient door. `St Augustus hostel for the Homeless.`
A number of men shuffled towards her, their belongings clutched in a few tattered bags. Each one eyed her as she stood, letting them pass, unable to ask any of them the question that burned in her throat.
She looked over at the door as it was being pulled closed.
"Wait a minute!" she called, and the young man opened the door a little.
The man had a pleasant face, his hair cut fashionably short with a small tuft just above his forehead. He wore a plain white tee-shirt and faded jeans. "Can I help you?"
"Maybe," said Jo. "I'm looking for someone."
He didn't try to hide the incredulous look on his face. A woman of her obvious standing wasn't usually the kind to be seeking one of his guests.
Jo pulled out the picture. "Have you ever seen her?" she asked, as he took the picture from her.
He shook his head. "We don't take women in here. They cause too much trouble with the guys. There's another hostel in Whitechapel Road; they have facilities for women there."
Jo experienced her first failure, and it must have shown on her face. The man sighed. "Is she family?" he asked.
Jo hesitated. The answer that screamed in her head was `yes`.
"No, she isn't," said Jo as she took the picture from him. "I just... I need to find her." Jo shook her head, unable to explain even to herself the reason for her quest.
"The Salvation Army run a hostel for homeless women. It's on Argyll Street. Maybe someone there can help you." The young man smiled, closing the door quietly and leaving the tall woman standing on the doorstep.
Jo turned back to the street. Most of the men that had exited from the hostel had left the area, but one or two had only made it as far as a couple of benches.
She approached them cautiously, trying to discern which one might be amenable to a few questions.
A younger man caught her attention. His hair was dirty, as were his clothes. He appeared to have anything that could be pierced on his face adorned with some kind of jewellery.
He was rummaging through a large bag when she appeared in front of him.
He looked up quickly and dismissed her just as quickly.
"Excuse me," she said, waiting for him to look up again. He didn't. Jo cleared her throat.
"You wanna give me money?" he asked, his voice slurred.
"Well, I don't..." Jo took a step back as he stood suddenly.
"So what do you want?" He reached out a hand, feeling the edge of her leather collar.
"I... I'm looking for someone."
"Baby sister run away from home?" He walked around her, before appearing in front of her once again. "Or maybe your old man preferred the streets to you." He turned away from her and collected his belongings from the bench. "A lot of people out here don't want to be found. Go back to your tv and your washing machine; leave us alone."
Jo watched the man walk away from her without a backward glance. She was shocked. Shouldn't she be the one disgusted? Yet it was she who felt dirty, felt as if she were imposing on someone else's privacy. This was their world. The same city, but a different world entirely. And if she were to survive here and learn about these people, she would have to be more careful.
She made her way along the street in the direction that the young helper at the hostel had pointed her. Argyll Street appeared out of the mist, and, as at the men's hostel, a number of women were milling aimlessly around the entrance.
She regarded them carefully. Shuffling away slowly was an elderly woman pushing a shopping trolley ahead of her. Quickening her pace, Jo caught up with the woman and fell into step beside her.
"Hello," said Jo when the woman cast her a sideways glance, not really taking in her face.
The woman dismissed her and carried on shuffling along.
"I was wondering if you could help me?" said Jo, trying to ignore the fact that the woman was making a good job of ignoring her.
"Public loo is round the corner, cop shop two streets away." The woman waved her arm dismissively.
"I'm looking for someone."
"Then you want the cop shop."
"Would you look at this picture please?"
The elderly woman stopped, turning aggressively towards her. "Look..." she began, then her eyes found Jo's and she faltered, grabbing onto the younger woman as her world tilted.
"Are you alright?" asked Jo, as the colour drained from the woman's face. She took her arm and led her to a low wall, not letting go until the woman was settled on the cold damp stone. "Should I call someone?"
The woman shook her head. "Takes me like that sometimes," she said as she watched Jo retrieve her trolley and bring it to her.
"You're looking for someone?"
Jo sat beside her on the wall and pulled out the photo, silently handing it to the woman. "Do you know her?"
The grey head nodded, and Jo noticed tears filling the old grey eyes. Unmindful of the damp grass, Jo knelt in front of the woman, gently pulling the photo from her hands. "What? You know her?"
"What do you mean? Was she here?" Jo's heart was thundering in her chest. "D'you know where she is now?"
The old woman nodded, the tears now dripping from her chin. "Rocky died, about three weeks ago."
Jo couldn't remember driving home, but that's where she found herself. She felt out of breath, as though she'd run home rather than driven a top of the range Merc.
She staggered out of the car after leaving it in the garage, and made her way up the stairs into her house.
She went into the lounge and poured herself a large whiskey. And then another. Cradling the glass in her hands, she slumped onto the sofa and reached into her pocket for the picture that had become her most treasured possession. It wasn't there.
The glass slipped from her fingers, its contents staining the carpet. She sobbed as the realisation hit her. She'd lost everything. Not just the picture, but the dream. This woman had invaded her dreams, her soul. And she'd not even been given the chance to know her. She had felt her calling to her. Why? Had she died alone, in pain?
"I don't believe in ghosts," Jo said out loud, as if to convince herself. She closed her eyes, picturing the gentle face. "And I don't believe you're dead."
Continued - Part 5
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