From nowhere, it seemed, Michael Seltzer swore.
The green Land Rover bore down upon Michael with a loud rumble. There was no time to understand the events unfolding. Instinct took hold and most likely saved him from an instant, gruesome death.
A moment earlier, Michael had stopped within sight of a favored coffee shop. To remain stationary while he checked for cars before crossing the road, he removed one foot from his bike’s pedals and placed it firmly on the pavement. He could hear the engine revs and tire squeals that caused him to turn his head. With just enough time to register the notion of impending danger, Michael drew in a breath so deep that the bicycle seemed to narrow its width, too. As quickly as the thought had come to Michael, the vehicle passed within a hair’s width of his nose, the most forward part of his anatomy. Michael remained in that frozen state of analytical pondering, seeking an answer to the immediate question, am I dead or alive? His senses were raised by a rush of adrenaline, that magical substance that should be used only sparingly. A shiver brought goose pimples over his entire body. His hair felt as if on end. Michael feared each heartbeat was competing to be the first, the next, the last. The skin at the back of his neck began to heat as if a blow-dryer had found its way to the now-quiet street for just that purpose.
In this heightened awareness, Michael took in every movement, every color, and all the texture of the tableau. Leaves of the trees lining the street moved in slow motion on a slight breeze, each leaf trying but failing to represent a flutter and appearing instead as a stylish princess wave. Shades of green and vein markings were clear in each leaf while tree branches and their barks flexed like mossy ropes gliding on a meandering stream. Falling pollen, disturbed by the speeding vehicle, floated slowly toward earth—more float than fall. Traffic noises from the distant motorway, voices of people rushing to his assistance, a church bell blocks away—all were muted, drawn-out affairs of an unfamiliar pattern. Even the splash of the previous evening’s rainfall thrown from a ditch as the Land Rover sped away took an eternity to return to its proper place.
In that indefinitely short period of time, Michael suddenly fixed his eyes on another vehicle, a red sedan that was directly in his line of sight and across the nearby intersection, and the female passenger inside. Surprised by what had happened in those last few seconds, the woman turned her face toward him in fear, fear for herown life. Michael knew the face, and he knew it well, as it was still fresh in his memory from the evening before.
* * *
Michael Seltzer had met this woman the previous night at the Banes-Flatt Bed and Breakfast, where he was lodging. She was Austrian, blonde (though not naturally so, her darker roots showing ever so slightly), quite attractive, and charming. Michael had been cycling through the English Lake District for much of that day. Then he showered before venturing to the sitting room for afternoon tea. The wonderful old building dated back hundreds of years in a quintessential English village in Lancashire County on the southern edge of Lake District National Park. It was his typical haunt during such adventures. Afternoon tea in traditional settings like these was also a highlight of Michael’s life. Tea leaves grown and processed in former British colonies and brewed in haughty English fashion brought perfect alignment to Michael’s day, especially when the tea was served with genial circumstance. Being a lifelong Anglophile, Michael spent much of his retirement in pursuit of such simple pleasures.
He had retired three years earlier, in 2007, from a position at a prominent law firm in Sacramento, California, where he had focused on political law for nearly thirty years. After retiring, he began to teach, lecture, and consult for friends and close colleagues on a minimum basis. Eventual retirement had been a priority throughout his long career, for he had envisioned many adventurous travels around the globe once he had the necessary resources of time and money at his disposal.
England, though, had been a fascination for Michael ever since learning of the “old country” and his own heritage at an early age. When in college at the University of California, Berkeley, he had minored in English literature, as did many of his generation. But Michael had a true affinity for all things English—from Shakespeare and the Tudors to the royal family, film, and music. The Beatles had as much bearing on his character as the ubiquitous British murder mysteries had.
Arriving back at the Banes-Flatt after that day’s cycling, Michael ran into the Austrian woman three times: once as they both started up the stairs to their respective rooms, again when he went to do a quick bit of bicycle maintenance, and again at the reception counter before he headed to afternoon tea. He jokingly mentioned to her how they should stop meeting so frequently. She smiled graciously, and Michael asked her for her name before his natural guardedness, a prevalent shyness with the opposite sex, could interrupt.
When in a courtroom, Michael felt largely in command of his voice. In other places, he considered himself a recovering introvert. He had found the education required for and the inner workings of the legal profession to be almost child’s play. He was a natural. Michael could not explain how easy the machinations of his vocation came to him, and he seldom discussed this view with others, fearing their lack of understanding for his meaning. In the courtroom and similar surroundings, he felt expert enough in his subject matter to speak on for hours in laying out a case for a jury or in appealing to a judge. In such settings, he always felt at ease, in control. But when in social settings, he felt his graces were woefully lacking. He was well aware of that fact and well versed in how his inner voice would quickly chide him as being unworthy for the attention of others, especially beautiful women. Michael had worked with life coaches and psychologists off and on over the years to quicken his ability to overcome this natural tendency. It still took effort.
* * *
She called herself Elisabeth and was named, she had told him, after Elisabeth of Bavaria, empress of Austria in the late 1800s.
Michael would remember her name not only because of a high school history lesson but also because it was similar to his sister’s name, Elizabeth. When Michael mentioned that his sister went by Beth within their family, the Austrian woman gave a gesture of displeasure at the prospect of his calling her by the common nickname, her crossed index fingers figuratively nixing the apparently distasteful concept. Thus, Michael suggested he would like to call her Lilibet, mostly joking about doing so, or maybe flirting a little. However, Elisabeth raised her chin and looked off at nothing in the distance before smiling and giving him a nod of approval. So it would be Lilibet—at least for the evening.
While Michael enjoyed his tea and scanned emails on his smartphone, Elisabeth and her smiling face entered the small sitting room, a room busy with other patrons. Occupying a table by himself, since many of the others were quite full, he requested—through a display of body language instead of the spoken word—that she join him. Elisabeth made the few steps to the small round table and sat beside him rather than across from him. Michael took quick notice of her apparent coziness.
The two chatted intermittently as they each engaged in checking emails, getting updates on world news, and cleaning out disliked photos from the day—all manner of duties to which one usually adheres while using a smartphone.
The sun slowly set behind a neighboring and similarly aged building, and Michael suddenly realized that nearly two hours had slipped by, as time rapidly does when one is occupied with such mindless endeavors. Having decided that it was late enough, he ordered a glass of wine and offered one to his new friend, Lilibet. She happily accepted, and they put their electronic devices aside to talk properly with each other at their little table with its simple handmade tablecloth. They talked of the English countryside, the centuries-old villages and their quaint cultures, the breathtaking lakes and mountains of the region, and more to the point, their individual experiences as they had played tourists that day—she, from Austria, in the countryside of England presumably for the first time, and he, from America, possibly there for the tenth.
Michael, not accustomed to pursuing any woman who showed him the slightest attention, did consider Elisabeth’s natural beauty and felt an attraction emerging as they conversed. Michael was heterosexual, but he seldom ran across women who piqued his interest. He did not seek them out or troll the bar scene—or more to the locale, the pub scene—in pursuit of a quick fling. Although he had struggled with a flawed personality for a lifetime, Michael had come to his own understanding of relations with the opposite sex: let nature take its course.
Their conversation came easily as they explored common experiences, provided tidbits about themselves, and asked questions of each other. Michael was enthralled with Elisabeth’s accent, which was a mishmash of well-educated English, her home country’s German, Austro-Bavarian undertones, and American slang.
Michael had long been an enthusiast of linguistics and sometimes explored the accents of acquaintances, usually by simple observation or (when he could overcome his anxieties) by outright asking about their upbringing. In his travels around the globe, Michael had met others who used American slang, a result of their having been exchange students in America. When Michael inquired about her past, Elisabeth was a bit evasive in her answers and quickly accepted his assumption that she had spent a high school year in America. He registered her odd response but asked no more about it. From years in the courtroom, he could sense something amiss there, but he quickly dropped it. He was interested in the beautiful woman beside him at the table and did not want to ruin things with Elisabeth before anything could start.
As pressing errands arose, the two politely said their goodbyes. Michael intended to find a different place to have dinner that evening and headed out of the door of the B and B and off toward a pub he had seen the previous day down by the River Kent—the Oarsman Inn, he believed it was called.
Though the day had been stunningly picturesque and bright with clear blue skies and hardly a breeze, the evening air had cooled, and a soft drizzle was threatening to become a proper rain. Pubs tend to have obvious operating hours and less consistent days when they are closed. Michael found it difficult to shame those establishments that took a day off to recharge their batteries. But he made the walk in the steady drizzle, along the winding streets, and in impending darkness to discover that the pub of his choice was closed for that Wednesday evening. Irked, yes, he was irked but only until he became aware of the negative emotion and dropped it for the pleasant hope that the proprietors were enjoying their time off and perhaps their families, too.
Michael walked purposefully past moss-covered rock walls and back up the gentle slope on the winding narrow streets in a drizzle now definitely changing to rain. He eventually returned to the Banes-Flatt, where he knew for certain that a good meal; a warm, dry dining room; and a decent-enough wine selection would be waiting for him.
Michael entered the B and B, shook off his sodden coat, and hung it on an ornate hall tree just inside the doorway of a long hall. He made his way to the dining room. No sooner had he sat and ordered a glass of Bordeaux when in walked Elisabeth looking for a place to sit, as well. It was still a little early. Many of the establishment’s patrons had not yet come down for dinner, and many of the tables were available. But Elisabeth walked up to his and asked, “Can I join you, Michael?”
“Of course,” he said with delight and a feeling that destiny had been realized. Their conversation began right where it had ended in the late afternoon, a conversation that came with a surprising ease for two people who had just met and knew so very little about each other, Michael thought. No competition for the floor, no talking over one another, no flirtatious tension—just pure, simple companionship, at least on the surface, he considered.
The innkeeper came to tell the two about the menu for that evening and suggested she could bring the recently opened bottle of Bordeaux to the table. Michael happily accepted, thinking of the practicality of the woman’s idea. But Elisabeth preferred white wine and quickly ordered a bottle of the Galician godello on the wine list. Michael was reminiscing about his introduction to that varietal when he had travelled on the Camino de Santiago in Spain some years before, and he gave little thought of their orders until suddenly they had two bottles of wine at their very small table.
The two bottles, the rather hearty meal, and their long, comfortable conversation continued well into the late evening hours, outlasting the meals of other patrons as they came for dinner and went back to the tiny bar in the sitting room or to their own rooms.
After she and Michael had finished their desserts and consumed the last drops from their respective beverages, Elisabeth stiffened, something taking her attention away. Michael sensed the urgency caused by something on her phone or by a remembered obligation. She politely thanked him for the evening of conversation, and they both rose to leave the dining room. As they entered the sitting room, which was then very quiet with only a few folks sipping on cognacs and whiskeys, Elisabeth indicated that she had to reply to additional emails. Michael was tired from the day’s cycling and the long evening. They hugged each other and said their goodbyes. Michael wandered back up the stairs to his room, suddenly feeling the wine and consequently thinking about how the next day’s cycling could be off to a rough start. He quickly dropped the matter, not caring at all at that moment. It had been a wonderful meal and a delightful evening conversing with Elisabeth. Coffee could soften the difficulties the next day. He knew of an excellent commuter’s coffee shop near where the relatively new highway passed by the outskirts of the old village.
* * *
The constable and inspector asked many of the same questions, first the officer and then the inspector. Again from the inspector. And again. Michael assumed, as he stood there telling his story, that the only reason the inspector had responded to the call was that it was a slow day. Why had both of them even come to the scene at all? No crime had occurred, best they could discern. The constable had come at Michael’s insistence, and the inspector had overheard the call. Slow day, no doubt. He sensed a burgeoning interest on her part as she started through the process one more time. The inspector had clearly set aside the trivialities of the Land Rover that nearly halted Michael’s story altogether. At least she had stopped acting as if he were a villain of some sort. He could only imagine that the inspector thought he was being less than truthful about how things had ended for him and Elisabeth the previous evening, probably because Michael kept referring to her as Lilibet rather than Elisabeth. It could not be helped. To him, that was her name.
“Again, why do you think this woman was in fear for her life?” asked the inspector.
Michael did not even remember the inspector’s name, trying not to do so because he feared that he would refer to her only by name and seem disrespectful. Thus, he was sticking strictly to the word Inspector.
“It was all in her face, in the way she looked and her body language, which seemed to indict the man who was driving the car.” Again, it was just by her body movements, however minute. Not saying that last microthought, Michael knew it was his mind trying to change, to soften what he had witnessed. He was sure of the look, the message, and how he had interpreted it in that instance of hyperawareness. Michael was determined to retain that understanding, that conviction, and not to let his mind—or the inspector—wash it away, however implausible or inconvenient the story was to either of them.
The trees casting shade on their street-side discussions began to rustle as the late-morning sun warmed the valley floor. An earlier suggestion by the constable that they cross to the nearby coffee shop and have a “sit-down” was ignored. Michael was still riding high enough on an adrenaline buzz.
The inspector continued her line of questioning. “How much of the woman could you actually see? I mean, from what part of her body upwards could you see of her through the automobile’s windscreen? And what was the condition of the windscreen? Was it clean, reflecting sunlight, or clear?”
Looking up into the tree branches, more for effect than for the need to contemplate, Michael told the inspector what was burned into his internal vision. “I could see her from her shoulders up, I suppose. She’s not a tall woman; like I said earlier, average height. Her body was turned about a quarter of the way toward me. Her face squared to mine, neck muscles tight. The window was clean and quite clear. I’m sure of that.”
“And for how long did you and this woman have eye contact? Was it part of a second, or was it seconds, or minutes?” She asked this question for the fourth time, again with different wording.
“As I said before,” Michael replied, sounding more agitated than he would have liked, “it was only a few seconds. The driver of the car pulled away quickly. Maybe he sensed Elisabeth’s response to seeing me and needed to get her away from there quickly.” Still not clear why, Michael wanted desperately to keep the inspector engaged, to keep her engrossed in the event. Something was terribly wrong for Elisabeth, and he needed the constabulary to stay with it until they discovered what it was.
“And you are sure the driver was male?”
“Yes, quite sure. He was only slightly taller than she was and had a head of greasy dark hair. And very pale skin. He was almost a beacon, so light in color, with bad skin and a blotchy, pockmarked complexion,” Michael answered. He was aware that he had already said those things to the woman before and that he was adding words as the interview with the officers went along. Michael knew all too well that this interest in detail was their intent in those endless questions. He had played that game from their side of the clichéd table more than once in his career.
The more he went over the details with the police officers, the more he knew clearly what he saw. That clarity, the confidence in what he believed he had witnessed and the malice he felt was present in the man who was holding Elisabeth against her will, was all consuming. Michael was certain his vacation plans were on hold indefinitely. He had one priority: the safety of his new friend, Lilibet.
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