‘Hot and Cold’ – short story by Lesley Atherton

Perfection. That’s what she was, and I was sure that today would work out just the way I’d planned.

I first saw her on the castle walls and our eyes met, just for a second.  I yearned to catch up and not to lose sight, but her tour party was turning the corner, and mine was five minutes behind and still being forced to listen to the John Major impersonator who masqueraded as a tour guide.  I knew the history of the King’s Tower as well as he did.  When you live in a tourist location and have a season pass, you tend to come every day, just for somewhere funky to eat your lunch. This is my place, and I knew she’d come today.

But I stayed with my group of misfits for a little longer: the elderly and the bored, the kids who wanted to be on the beach, and the mums who wondered if incorporating education into their annual vacation was necessarily a good idea.  As if to answer, a boy of about six elbowed his mother in the thigh. She turned to glare as he moaned ‘This is boring’ at the top of his little voice. Donald, the tour guide pretended not to hear, but I knew how often such things happened, especially to Donald.

It didn’t matter. She was the one, and today was the day. My shoulders hunched as the tour guide droned on about the monks who had built the castle’s brewery and had supported their order with the proceeds. I followed each word, and mouthed them along with him.

I adjusted the hoody around my face, then smoothed it down around my waist. It was of a snorkel style that wasn’t at all appropriate for a summertime holiday destination, but it suited my needs.

Pushing a black curl behind my ear I tried to disregard the heat emanating from beneath the matching fleecy black fabric of my hoodie. It was too bad that the day of her visit was also the warmest day of this Welsh summer, but I had coped with worse in my life, and for worse reason. 

Walking like a drunken crab, I followed the tour party, while poking my head round each gate and turret and wall to catch a glimpse of the girl and ensure I didn’t lose her.  I thought I’d been mistaken and she’d gone already, but no. We arrived at the second west-facing tower as the girl’s tour party was just leaving. She lingered, just a little, at the rear, and I took advantage of the crowds to change my tour group allegiance. It went without a hitch.

There were only two more stops to go on the tour. We’d just been to the north tower with views over the kelp-covered rocks of the defended coastline, and our group were passing in and out of the gatehouse dungeon, before being directed to the inevitable gift shop and tea shop. Never a café.  Always a tea shop.  I moved closer to the young lady, and we stood alongside each other at the entrance to the dungeon. I nudged her Indian-cotton-clad arm with intention.

She turned, expectant, and smiled at the face inside my hood.

‘You’re Tarim.’ More a statement than a question.

‘Marta,’ I said. ‘Shall we do it?’

She nodded with vigour. ‘I’ve built myself up to this for weeks and can’t change my mind now. It’s the right time.’

The tour party had already begun to move off, and I could see my original party leaving the north tower to walk over to join us at the dungeon. We didn’t have long but I was ready. My camera was ready. Marta was also ready.  Allowing the remainder of the earlier party to leave ahead of us, I stood with my back against the now-closed heavy wood door and sighed deeply. We’d be lucky if we got a couple of minutes. As agreed, Marta moved to the far end of the underground room – the end with the wonderful sunlit rays emerging through the skylights – and speedily arranged herself on the straw-covered stone slabs. She placed the chains next to her arms and legs.  With just a little Photoshopping, I could make it look just as it should.  I took photograph after photograph, as I walked over to Marta and gently pushed up her skirt.

‘Tasteful, Tarim,’ she said, posing as I clicked.

Suddenly, the dungeon’s door creaked open and a Scottish couple giggled about finding us alone in there.

Marta raised herself from the straw bed, brushed down her skirt, and in a calm, unflustered voice announced to the couple ‘Sex pics. For an art magazine. We pose somewhere different every day. You should try it’. She winked, and the bearded, anoraked man watched with clear admiration as she left the dungeon. ‘Lucky sod’ he said to me as I followed Marta out. For that he earned a slap on the head from his lady.

But I was not lucky. Things weren’t as Marta had said.

In 1998, precisely twenty years earlier, the body of Marta’s mother had been discovered in the dungeon, bloodied and beaten. Marta had been five then, and a little girl, but now, as a young woman, she was the spitting image of her lost parent. We’d met on a cold crime web forum and it didn’t take long before we got talking properly. Eventually I persuaded her to meet me, and she agreed to come to the castle on this special day. She’d wear her mother’s clothes, and style her hair just as her mother had. I’d dress myself in a black hoody because, on the murder day, there had been a man creeping about in one just the same.

The murder had quickly sunk to the realms of forgotten and unsolved, and not even into infamy – as not once had any of the tour guides mentioned the fate of Marta’s mother or responded to questions asked by the tour parties. A woman’s death had been forgotten and a little girl was forced to live her life without her mother. No cold case team had ever been assigned to discovering more. So it was down to us. The pair of us would make things right.

For the first time in years, I was putting my journalistic skills to good use. My article was written and scheduled for publishing the following day, and the reconstruction photos would be a perfect accompaniment to the headline: ‘Who Can Solve This Twenty Year Old Mystery?’

Marta and I walked together towards the exit, flushed with excitement at our recent activity and with anticipation of tomorrow’s headline . ‘Fancy joining me for tea and a scone?’ I asked. ‘A tribute to your mum?’ She nodded with enthusiasm. ‘I’ll pay,’ she said.