Conundrum Chapter one, a short story by texrep. Date added: 2010-02-28. Times viewed: 1423.
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- Intro: Matt's wife goes missing under mysterious circumstances
CONUNDRUM CHAPTER ONE A wife vanishes
It was the last minute problems that prevented Matt leaving his office at the usual time. Most days he could be relied upon to be home at six forty-five, to be welcomed by his wife of four years Elizabeth, and a well cooked meal ready to be served usually around seven-thirty, giving him time to wash and change. Tonight he came in at five past seven. There was no aroma of the meal to greet him, nor a wife to meet him. Puzzled, he looked around. Beth, as he usually called her, was nowhere to be found. Looking in the garage revealed that her car was gone. Just as he returned to the kitchen he noticed an envelope stuck to their cork message board. It was addressed to him.
The note inside was short, but explained her absence.
I have had a last minute opportunity to go on a course from work. One of my colleagues had to drop out because of a family crisis. The course will give me a great chance to progress in my job. The course is residential, and is in Herefordshire, but I do not know the exact address, and I will be away for approximately ten days.
I am sorry that I could not give you warning, but I was not anticipating this. I was told of the opportunity at ten forty this morning. I tried to phone you, but couldn't get through.
The freezer has been filled with ready meals. I know. Not what I would want for you, but they will keep you going. I will phone you tonight, and let you know where the course is.
Please take care,
The relatively formal style was typical of her. Beth was the daughter of an elderly couple, Stanley and Elizabeth Pendring. Her mother had been named Elizabeth to honour the Queen of that time, the wife of George the Sixth. Similarly Beth had been named to honour the Queen at the time of her birth, Elizabeth the Second. The family was never cold to him, but always seemed very formal in their approach, even amongst themselves. Beth's parents seemed to view outward shows of love and emotion as a weakness, and Beth had learned from them. Matt was the only one who called her Beth. Her parents had shown their disapproval of this, but could do little about it. Beth came to accept the diminution of her name with equanimity, she seemed to enjoy having Matt call her Beth, but would not allow others to do so. At the same time she would always refer to her husband as Matthew, but at home between the two of them, she would call him Matt.
He had first seen Beth on a very sad occasion. Beth's brother was a lieutenant in the Army, and had been killed in Iraq. They met the day that his body was brought home, and Matt had been detailed to be the family's escort that day. His job was to facilitate, expedite and generally explain things to the family. He was impressed by the family. Stanley dressed in the typical ‘City' suit, a pin-striped charcoal grey. The mother and daughter could almost be in uniform, black veiled hats, black coats both with a red carnation pinned to the lapel, black court shoes. However it has always been accepted that most women looked good in black and the daughter certainly looked very good with her pretty face and dark almost black, hair. She was slim and held herself erect. Matt introduced himself.
"Good morning Mr. & Mrs. Pendring, Miss Pendring. I am Captain Bennett and will be your escort for the day." The Pendring's acknowledged him and immediately asked to be taken to where the aircraft would land. Lieutenant Pendring's body was being flown back from Iraq, and would land at R.A.F. Lyneham. It would be accorded full Military honours, and once the ceremonial was done the body would be released to the family for burial. Throughout that day the family were stoic. Not one word of grief, no tear from either woman, yet it was clear to Matt that they were broken-hearted by their loss. Only Mr. Pendring spoke with Matt, the two women kept quiet at all times. After the burial, which Matt attended as a matter of duty. Mr. Pendring thanked Matt for his attention to them. Mrs. Pendring shook his hand and just nodded, but Miss Pendring gave him a small smile, briefly touched one of the medal ribbons on his chest, the blue and white one.
"D.S.C." She murmured. "From Iraq?"
"No, that came from another incident." She nodded.
"You survived, though." He could not answer, he knew that perhaps she was resenting him for surviving, when her brother hadn't. She went on. "Thank you for being with us today. It cannot have been pleasant for you." She smiled that little smile, touched the medal ribbon again as if it was a good luck charm, and then turned away. He remembered her. A quiet, modest, mannered young lady. She wasn't conventionally beautiful, but she had a symmetrical face, that seemed to be unformed rather than full of character, as if it was waiting to have that character written. He liked her, but accepted that he would probably never meet her again.
A few months after that Matt had resigned his commission. He was unhappy about the way the service was being used by politicians to bolster their image, yet at the same time denied the funds for equipment that would save lives. He was also angry that those same politicians seemed to be happy to persecute good officers, possibly to garner votes from the Muslim sections of the British electorate. He set up a security service. Aimed at large shopping malls, and out of town leisure sites, he employed ex servicemen and coppers who could be relied on to deal with problems sympathetically but firmly, men who could diffuse a situation before it got out of hand. Although asked he would not supply traffic wardens, as he didn't want the name of his business, MB Security, to become tarnished by the public's general antipathy towards wardens.
He met Miss Pendring again by chance, when he was asked to look at supplying security at her work. This was a large office block building which housed amongst others the Department of Works and Pensions. He was leaving the building after reviewing the requirement and was very surprised to see her coming the other way. She recognised him.
"Captain Bennett! How nice to see you again."
"Miss Pendring. It's good to see you. But it's no longer Captain Bennett, just plain Mr. now."
"Oh, are you doing something hush, hush?" He smiled.
"Not at all. I left the Army. So all I do now is supply security staff for places like this. Very mundane, and not at all exciting."
Beth had stayed, seemingly unwilling to let the conversation die. He had to get on, so he simply asked if she would like to meet for Lunch one day. Her smile spread.
"I would like that."
"Can I give you a call then, to arrange?" She nodded, and gave him a card with her extension number here at the DWP.
It was a most unusual courtship. Beth was always happy to see him, whether for Lunch or Dinner, yet never exhibited any signs of physical desire for him. Matt on the other hand did feel desire, even though she seemed not to be a sensual woman. As they got to know each other he found ways to let her know that he did want her. A gentle touch, taking her arm to cross a road, or to guide her through a crowded restaurant but not letting go. With his first attempt to kiss her, she turned her head to present her cheek, but on later occasions when he took command and held her head to kiss her lips she didn't object. His kisses would soon ask for more, and under pressure she would open her mouth for his tongue. Further intimacy like his hand on her breast, at first outside her clothes was never refused, and later when he would unbutton her blouse, and fondle her bare flesh, this was never objectionable to her, and she would lie passively in his arms and allow him the intimacy. Before going home to her parents, she would demurely fasten all the buttons on her blouse, not looking at him because her face was flushed either by embarrassment or arousal. Matt could never tell which. She was a little shorter than him, and even when she wore a higher heel of some three inches she still did not match his height, and Matt was not particularly tall for a man at just an inch under six foot.
He decided that this refined, reserved lady was the one that he wanted in his life, and asked her to marry him.
"Yes, Matthew, I would like to marry you." She replied without hesitation. "But you will have to ask my father." Matt did indeed ask Mr. Pendring, who after asking the questions he himself had been asked all those years ago, about intentions and prospects, gave his approval. He found it strange that Beth at twenty-four was unable to act on her own initiative, and needed her father's consent. The wedding was a somewhat quiet affair, as Matt had little family to support him, and the Pendring's brought some relatives who appeared to be as much strangers to them as Matt.
His and Beth's life together was good. She was in many ways the perfect partner for someone who had to work hard to build his business, uncomplaining about his frequent long days and trips away, and although she worked as well, her hours at the DWP were set and unvarying. Beth was always home at six in the evening, and would ensure that a well-cooked evening meal was on the table at seven-thirty. The house was kept in immaculate condition, and Matt never had a problem in finding anything as Beth seemed obsessed with a place for everything and everything in its place. In bed she would always accept his advances. At first she would shyly lift her nightgown allowing Matt access to her vagina and it took Matt months to persuade her that being naked for making love was not abnormal, and she would lie quiescent for him to explore her body. Yet afterwards the nightgown would always be replaced. To Matt it was a quandary. He knew instinctively that Beth would be a virgin when they married, and taking her virginity had not elicited the cry of pain that he had expected, yet the resistance was there and the show of blood after confirmed his instinct. As in all things Beth accepted the pain stoically. She always assured him that she was satisfied with his love-making, and he was sure that she had orgasms. She didn't vocalise at all, yet her body movements, although restrained, showed her reaction to him. It was a very ‘vanilla' coupling. Oral of any kind was ‘dirty' and was definitely not on her agenda. At times it seemed to Matt that she tried to be the perfect wife, acting like the model wives as portrayed in good housekeeping guides of the nineteen forties and fifties, a woman born too late for the era that would have suited her perfectly.
It was therefore quite out of character for her to suddenly go off on this course as such short notice. Matt accepted the note at its face value. Never once that first evening did it cross his mind that Beth would be doing anything else but attending a course. It was also quite out of character that the anticipated phone call from her didn't come. Out of character, yes, but Matt whilst surprised, rationalised that the course may well have extended into the evening.
When on the second evening there was no call. Matt became worried. At about half past ten he decided that he would ring her. Beth had not owned a mobile phone until after they were married, when Matt insisted that she should have one. He used his mobile as Beth's number was programmed in to it. Her phone rang, and rang, the ringing hollow in his ears, mocking him with the empty sound. She didn't have the message service on so it continued. Gradually Matt came to realise that there was a dull vibrating sound from upstairs. With the ringing still going on in his ear he went up. The vibrations were coming from her drawer in the bureau. He pulled it open, and immediately the ring of her phone was apparent. It was there, tucked away at the back of the drawer under some sweaters.
Damn the woman, what's the point of having a phone if you didn't carry it with you! God! And she didn't even switch it off. Matt broke the connection, and took Beth's phone downstairs with him. He felt guilty about doing it, but went through her recently dialled numbers, hoping that the number of wherever the course was being held would show up. There were no numbers, except his, or rather what should have been his. There was one wrong digit! No wonder she couldn't contact him. He went in to the memory and corrected the error. There was nothing he could do at this time, he would phone her office in the morning and get some information.
Matt slept soundly. He wasn't worried about Beth, exasperated with her, yes. The next day he first phoned her parents and spoke to her mother. They hadn't heard from Beth. Later he phoned her office from work. He used the extension number that Beth had given him, but when some woman answered she told him that Beth had been transferred four months ago. Same building, different department. Matt tried to recall if Beth had said something about that. He thought she may have, but he, mired in a problem at his work may not have listened to her properly. The woman patched him through to the new department. Beth hadn't been there long enough for too many people to know her, so it took some time before he could speak to someone who would answer his questions.
"Mrs. Bennett? Yes, I don't think she's in today. Training course, did you say? Well I don't know anything about that. Perhaps you should speak to Human Resources." Another transfer. Eventually the ringing tone was answered. Matt explained what he was calling for. The woman on the phone listened then interrupted him.
"I am sorry, Mr. Bennett, but I can give you no personal information about any of our employees."
"But this is my wife!"
"All I can tell you is that if you would make an appointment, and produce evidence of who you are, then we can speak to you." Matt sighed heavily.
"Can you see me this afternoon?"
"Would three-thirty be convenient?"
"I shall be there."
"Please bring proof. A passport, and marriage certificate, if you can."
"I will have them. Who shall I ask for?"
"Mrs. Coulsden. That's me."
Matt had been getting angry, but his logical brain stepped in and he calmed down. Of course they were right. He could be anyone calling trying to get personal information.
At three-thirty, Matt presented himself at the desk and asked for Mrs. Coulsden. She kept him waiting for fifteen minutes and did she bother to apologise when she came out to see him. She took him into an interview room, and Matt showed her his passport and marriage certificate. She nodded grudgingly.
"How can I help you, Mr. Bennett?" Matt explained again, that his wife was on this course, but had forgotten to take her mobile phone with her, and as he hadn't heard from her was beginning to get worried. Mrs. Coulsden had a file with her, and read it slowly before answering him.
"I am sorry, Mr. Bennett, but what makes you think that your wife is on a works course?"
"She left me a note explaining it." Matt produced the note and handed it to the woman. She read it just as slowly as she had the file.
"Mr. Bennett. Mrs. Bennett has not been selected to attend any course. There is no current course. I can tell you that your wife applied for two weeks leave, a week ago, and her leave started the day before yesterday." Mrs. Coulsden now had a more sympathetic manner. Matt sat there dumbstruck.
"On leave?" She nodded.
"Yes. She said that there was illness in the family." Matt shook his head.
"I have spoken with her mother, she said nothing about an illness and she is not aware of where my wife is, anymore than I do at this moment."
Matt left the DWP, with questions bouncing around his head like dozens of rubber balls. Somehow the wife he thought he knew had thrown a curve ball at him. As he drove back to his office the army training gradually came back to him, displacing the anger and confusion in his mind. Whatever she was up to, he reasoned, she had to have left a clue somewhere. He changed his mind about going back to the office, and drove home. Immediately he contacted his secretary, Janet, and told her that something had come up, and he wouldn't be back today. She was very competent and could easily handle anything routine.
He opened the drawer in the kitchen where they stacked all the household bills, and found the phone bills. The home phone showed no unusual numbers. Next her mobile phone account, and discovered that the contract had been cancelled a month ago. Beth usually took care of all their household expenses, so this was the first that he knew about it. Getting her mobile he turned it on, after keying in the security code, it connected to the server, and immediately showed a balance. Of course! He should have realised yesterday when he checked her phone. Beth had changed to a ‘pay as you go' service. Why had she kept the same security code? Matt smiled as he realised that Beth would not have known how to change the code. He had checked her dialled numbers yesterday, but he hadn't checked her received numbers. He did so now. There had been calls from him, her mother, a number he recognised as her work number, and then another mobile number he didn't know at all.
He had no way of finding out whose number it was, but he knew a man who could. He made the call.
"Agger Consultancies." Matt grinned, Gary never used his real name when answering the phone.
"Who are you trying to kid, Gary? It's Matt. And who the hell are Agger Consultancies?"
"Matt, how are you Mate? Long time!" Matt could hear him chuckle. "Agger is my smoke and mirrors name for this week. Business good?"
"I keep busy, business is picking up well. How about you?"
"Usual. You know what it's like, always someone out there that needs some expertise. You need some, perhaps?" There was no point trying to fool Gary, so Matt levelled with him, and explained the situation.
"Shit! You must be worried."
"Yes a bit, but I need some investigating done."
"What can I do?"
"I've got a mobile number here. May be nothing, may be something. Do you think you could check it out?"
"Hang on, I'll get a pen...right, fire away." Matt read off the number to him.
"Leave it with me, Matt. I'll get back to you tomorrow."
"Wait a moment, Matt. Do you have a home computer?"
"Yes, but I never use it. Beth does occasionally, but she's not that computer literate."
"Maybe worth looking to see if here are any emails on the file."
"Good idea, I'll do that now."
"If you don't find anything, it doesn't mean there's nothing there. Get back to me, I'll take a look if you like."
"Ok, I'll talk to you soon, Gary. Cheers."
Matt immediately switched on the computer. It loaded Windows, then paused, and a box came up asking for the password. As far as Matt knew there had never been a password. He phoned Gary again.
"Gary. There's a password, I can't get into the thing."
"Oh yeh, sounds like there could be something to hide, Mate. Did you say she was not that computer savvy? That doesn't sound like a beginner. Look, I'll come over tomorrow and have a look for you. Will you be in?"
"I'll be here."
At one time in his stint in the army, Matt had been involved in a few operations that were never publicised, They weren‘t cloak and dagger stuff, just quick ops, that the army didn‘t feel needed the light of day. He had met Gary, amongst others, on one of these adventures. Gary was a civilian, an expert in electronic intelligence. Contrary to most regulars, who disliked working with civilian personnel, Matt had not had a problem with him, as they needed his skills and he was good. They had got on well, and had kept in touch from time to time. Now Matt seemed to need his skills again.
Gary arrived early, in time to eat a huge fry-up for breakfast. Knowing the man Matt had anticipated this. From his experience it would seem to be all he ever ate.
"I've had no joy with that number, but I will keep trying."
"How can you do that?"
"Ways and means, Matt. Ways and means." In other words, don't ask. He rubbed his hands together, and licked his lips to get the last remnant of fried egg into his mouth. "Right. Let's have a look at your computer." Matt showed him where it was, and stood looking over Gary's shoulder. Gary looked up.
"Sorry, Mate. But I am going to have quite a bit to do, and, well some of it is trade secrets. You don't mind, do you?"
"Oh no. I have some phone calls to make anyway. I'll leave it to you."
Two hours later, Gary came to find him.
"I thought you said your wife was not computer literate?"
"No she isn't."
"Matt. I have news for you. Either she is, or someone else has been on this machine. I have found out some stuff, which doesn't mean much, but there is something there, which someone has gone to a lot of trouble to hide." Matt was bemused.
"For God's sake. She couldn't even change the security code on her mobile phone! There's no way she could be that sophisticated on the computer."
"Well someone is. Look! I am going to have to take the machine away. I can download it all onto my equipment, and sort it out. O.K.?"
"No problem. Did you find out anything?" Gary didn't say anything for a moment. Matt could almost read what his hesitation was about. "Gary. I want to know. If it's something that will upset me, I still want to know." Gary shrugged his shoulders.
"Whoever has used that computer has been accessing a lot of pornography."
"You mean Beth has been accessing pornography."
"Yes. But it is a particular kind."
"Bondage and stuff like that." Matt sat down.
"Gary. There is a bottle of Laphraoig in that cupboard. Would you get it, and a couple of glasses. I think I need a drink."
With amply filled glasses in front of them, Matt looked at Gary.
"O.K. Give it to me."
"It's strange, Matt. She has been looking at sites with stories on. I wouldn't say they were sex stories exactly, although sex is involved, but they seem to be about dominance and submission to a Master. There are stories about people being in Bondage, and some where punishment is involved. Now I can follow her trail quite easily, she hasn't tried to hide any of this. She started at one site then clicked on links to take her to others. But she has accessed one site where the evidence has been deleted, and the recycle bin has been cleared as well. Now! Either she has done that or someone has done it for her. But if that was deleted, why not the other sites? It doesn‘t make sense." Matt gave that some thought. He didn't voice his thoughts but it was opening a window into Beth's mind, which would also explain some of her passive behaviour, especially where sex was concerned. He got back to the task in hand.
"So we can never know what this site was?" Gary shook his head.
"We can try, Mate. You can delete as much as you like, but the hard drive never, never wipes itself. It will be there somewhere, we just need to find it, that's all."
"You can find it?"
"I expect so, but that's why I need to take your computer away. I have to drop the complete contents of the drive onto some equipment I have. Then I can dissect everything bit by bit."
"How long?" Gary shrugged his shoulders, and spread his arms palms upwards.
"How long is a piece of string? I could drop on it within a couple of minutes, or it could take four or five days. It just depends on how much is on the drive. I can try and guess keywords. But that could waste a lot of time, so slow and methodical is the way. Sorry."
After Gary's departure, Matt sat with a cup of coffee and gave this some thought. There seemed a number of contradictions here. Beth seemed to have tried to cover her tracks, but left gaping loopholes in the plan. Did she not think that when her promised phone call never happened that Matt would not start searching for answers? Was it deliberate that she left her mobile phone at home, switched on! Matt was sure that she wouldn't have been able to defend her computer with a password, unless someone told her how to do it. Then didn't she think that the very fact that she had set up a password would give Matt reason for suspicion. It almost seemed to Matt that she had deliberately encouraged him to investigate, but the woman's general naivety would argue against that. He was coming to the conclusion that someone else was encouraging Beth to cover her tracks, but she was not competent enough in the technology to carry it out properly. Matt wanted to find that someone else, and ask some very pointed questions. He was preparing to go to work, when another thought came like a thunder flash. Beth had arranged her leave from work a week before! This wasn't a last minute opportunity as her note said. As thoughts do, one thing led to another, and an insidious worm crept into his head. Was Beth ever going to come back to him? If she did return, and he discovered that she had deliberately betrayed him then she wouldn't stay for long, she would be history as far as he was concerned. He pushed that thought aside, but like lots of these worms, it kept returning over the next few days.
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