The auctioneer’s voice resonated around the auction hall: “Sold for £11,600.”
I’d just purchased a car at auction for the first time in my life. I’d netted a good one, too, I reckoned as I stepped outside to text Alice the good news. Lot 157 was a 2016 Renault Megane hatchback with a great specification (Flame Red metallic paint, leather seats, built-in Sat-Nav, top-end stereo etc.), a mere 26,000 miles on the clock, and a full service history. Best of all, I’d saved about £1500 of Alice’s money on the price a dealer would have asked for it, even allowing for the buyer’s premium.
Alice was delighted when I parked it on our driveway a couple of hours later. So much so that she wasted no time in taking it out for a spin while I got on with the serious task of converting our summer house into a home bar.
Her joy was short-lived. “I’m lost,” she wailed into her mobile phone.
I chuckled. It was the wrong thing to do.
“I don’t see what’s funny about it. I was trying out the Sat-Nav and now I don’t know where I am.” The wail was gone, replaced by a glacial tone that brooked no debate.
Time to put my sensible head on. “Okay, it’s not a problem. Pull over when you can and re-set the Sat-Nav. That should sort it out.”
Her voice dropped half an octave. “I’ve already done all that. The Sat-Nav disc must be corrupted or something. No matter what destination I insert, it always takes me the wrong way.”
“It merits more than an ‘ah’. I’m scared, Tom. I’m in the middle of nowhere and don’t know which way to go. I thought it was taking me a short cut but it’s just led me deeper and deeper into the countryside.”
Come on, Tom, think of something. Ah yes, that’s it. “Your phone’s got a GPS app, hasn’t it? Try using that instead.”
Alice cursed quietly.
“I’d forgotten about that. I’ll try it and call you back.” And with that she was gone.
She rolled into the driveway about an hour later, a sour expression on her face. I knew what was coming.
“Didn’t you test the Sat-Nav before bidding on the car?”
“Nope. You don’t get to take auction cars for a test drive.” I decided not to remind her that we’d discussed that before I went to the auction; no point in inflaming the situation.
“Hmmph. And may I take it you didn’t test it on the way home?”
“You may. I thought you’d want to be the first to try it out.”
Another hmmph. “Well, try it out now.”
Most days, Alice is the sweetest, most generous person you could wish to meet. This wasn’t one of those days.
“Okay, but you’re coming too.”
I set the Sat-Nav to direct us to Racklington, a small village about 20 minutes away. And twenty minutes later, we arrived there.
I pulled into the car park of The George and tossed the keyfob to Alice.
“You can drive back, but right now I’m going to have a pint.”
Alice grumbled constantly during the half-hour we spent at the pub. Her exact words are now lost to me, but suffice it to say they weren’t overly complimentary about either me or the Sat-Nav.
She was full of apologies the next morning. I smiled, nodded and put my arm around her. What else was there to do? I was well aware that she was a bit highly-strung long before our marriage. Besides, she could probably write a book about some of my less endearing character traits.
Apologies tendered and accepted, she popped out to the shops to pick up some fresh veg. She returned home 10 minutes later. She wasn’t happy.
“That bloody Sat-Nav is doing it again. I asked it for directions to Champney’s market and it wanted to take me in the opposite direction.”
Ah, bugger. There went my plans for a restful Sunday.
“Okay. Jump in. Let’s try it again.”
You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yup, it worked flawlessly. Time, then, to experiment a little.
“Don’t bite my head off, Alice, but can you set it to take us to, oh, Crinton Castle?”
I could hear my parentage being mutely questioned as Alice set the Sat-Nav for Crinton Castle. And there it took us. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Can’t you take the car back to the auction house?”
“Sorry, no can do. Them’s the rules. But I can take it to the Renault specialist in Wilverton. They should be able to get to the bottom of it. Tell you what, I’ll do it tomorrow. You can use my car.”
I took the Megane to Jellicoe’s, the local Renault specialists, the next day. A pony-tailed technician named Steve spent an hour running tests on it, only to come up empty.
“I can’t find anything wrong with it,” he reported, “but I’ve installed a new SD card with the latest maps on it, just in case there was a corrupted file.”
Thanks, Steve. You did everything you could, but it didn’t make any difference.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. The new maps, with updated speed safety camera location details, were great and the Sat-Nav seemed to update quicker than before. It even took me home without fuss. Everything seemed perfect. Until Alice took the car to work next day.
She didn’t use the Sat-Nav on her way to work, but she did call upon it later in the day when she had to attend a meeting forty miles away in Sawley, a town with which she wasn’t overly familiar. Suffice it to say that she ended up on a remote country road, miles away from the road to Sawley.
She made her meeting thanks to the GPS on her mobile phone, but it was a very cheesed-off Alice who arrived home that evening. She was even more cheesed-off when I suggested that we try to retrace her steps using the Sat-Nav. To her credit, she went along with it. She drove and set the Sat-Nav, and I rode shotgun. And yet again the Sat-Nav worked flawlessly.
By now, it was clear to me that the only times the Sat-Nav was playing up was when Alice was in the car on her own. This worried me. Could the faulty Sat-Nav be a figment of her imagination? If so, what could be the cause of that? Stress? Fatigue? Something worse? The possibilities scared me.
I suggested that Alice stop using the Sat-Nav and use the GPS app on her phone instead. Much to my relief, she agreed without fuss. I ordered a replacement Sat-Nav unit from Renault and meantime fitted a phone cradle to the Megane’s dashboard.
Two weeks passed and my worries gradually eased. The new Sat-Nav unit hadn’t arrived but there was no rush: Alice hadn’t got lost again and was back in good spirits.
And then she gave the Sat-Nav another chance, this time on the way home from a conference in Harrogate. And yet again, she ended up on a remote rural road.
This time she was intrigued rather than annoyed.
“I think I know what’s wrong with the Sat-Nav.”
“Really? Do tell.”
“It always directs me out into the countryside beyond Moresham. Maybe the previous keeper lived out that way and their address has somehow become hard-wired into the Sat-Nav’s memory?”
“Could be. I don’t know where the last keeper lived, but we can check it out once the V5 comes through from Swansea.”
“Okay. Meantime, how about I let the Sat-Nav lead me to its destination? It might be fun.”
I didn’t really see the point of it, but I kept that to myself. Don’t disturb the equilibrium, said a voice in my head. Good advice, to be heeded. Usually.
Next day Alice and I formed a two-car convoy. She led the way in the Megane and I followed in my (t)rusty Alfa. Our destination: unknown to all but the Megane’s Sat-Nav.
It didn’t disappoint, leading us out of town and deep into an area bereft of houses, traffic and people. Even wildlife seemed thin on the ground, No wonder Alice had freaked out on that first drive.
Alice pulled over after a little over forty minutes. This, she said, was the destination according to the Sat-Nav. Some destination, I thought: a narrow track flanked by dense, silent woodlands with nary a house in sight. Truth be told, the place gave me the creeps.
I smiled to Alice. “Okay. Let’s beat it. My turn to lead.”
Alice was in a pensive mood over dinner, and I had a pretty fair idea about what was on her mind – I was, after all, thinking much the same thing.
“That was weird today, don’t you think,” she said, running her finger around the rim of her wine glass.
I kept my reply short, not wanting to interfere with her train of thought.
“So I was thinking…” I knew where this was going. “…I was thinking that we should repeat the experiment tomorrow, only this time we should drive somewhere else before turning on the Sat-Nav.”
“Sure. It would be interesting to see if we end up in the same place.”
Strange, but not in itself worrying. Mind you, I did momentarily wonder if Alice was playing some sort of evil trick on me, the one in which the magician reaches into the top hat and pulls out an Uzi rather than a rabbit.
That notion had already been dispelled from my mind when the V5 for the Megane arrived in the post. As it hadn’t been available when I bought the car, it made sense to check it now.
As expected, it all checked out: make, type, colour, VIN, number of keepers. But there was one thing that stood out a little. The sole previous keeper was a Mr. John Larkham of Sunbury Road, Aldercott.
I’d heard that name before somewhere, but where?
It was Alice who supplied the answer. And it was an answer that compelled us to make another trip out to the middle of nowhere, only this time a couple of friends accompanied me in the Alfa.
True to form, the Sat-Nav in the Megane led us to the same desolate spot. There, we split into two teams: Alice and I combed the woods on one side of the road, and my two chums took the other.
It was Alice who spotted it: an area of disturbed ground situated about twenty yards from the road. An animal had been scratching at the earth and in doing so had uncovered a small area of patterned fabric. Clothing.
Alice perused a sheet of paper she’d removed from her handbag. Her face turned ashen. “Oh my god,” she said slowly, her voice trembling, “it’s her.”
We had found the shallow grave of Sara Larkham.
You probably all know the story, but I’ll summarise it just in case you don’t: Sara Larkham was a midwife at the local maternity hospital who’d gone missing almost exactly ten months ago. She was last seen in the kitchen of their home by her husband, John Larkham, at about 7.30 a.m. on the day she vanished. When John Larkham returned home from work that evening, his wife’s car was in the driveway. This surprised him as she was supposed to be working the afternoon shift. He therefore assumed that she’d felt unwell and stayed at home. The only problem was that she wasn’t there. In fact, she was nowhere to be found.
John Larkham called the police, who questioned him at length and conducted a search of the house, gardens and cars. When that failed to bear fruit, they widened the search to the nearby woods, the river that flowed through the town and the waste ground near the old theatre. They checked CCTV footage from cameras in the town, the bus and railway stations and the ANPR cameras on the dual carriageway. They put up posters and broadcast appeals on the TV, radio and internet.
Their efforts were rewarded by a single minor breakthrough: Sara Larkham’s purse turned up in the lost property office at Leamington Spa railway station, it having been handed in by a passenger who found it in a carriage on the Oxford to Birmingham train. But it was a breakthrough that led only to a brick wall. Nothing further turned up and the case went cold. The fingers of suspicion pointed at John Larkham, but he was steadfast in maintaining his innocence. And there the matter rested – a disappearance without a body, a suspect without evidence of guilt.
But now there was a body. And four possible suspects.
Our presence in the woods took a little explaining to the police, especially in light of the fact that one of the cars we’d taken had been registered to John Larkham (it turned out to have been Sara’s car although it had been registered in her husband’s name). To use a well-worn phrase, we spent some time ‘helping the police with their enquiries’ at Cramlington police station. They kept us there for a few hours before letting us go with the equally cliched admonition not to leave the area without telling them.
They made an arrest a few days later: John Larkham. According to what was reported in the papers, he caved in under questioning and told the police everything. He’d drugged Sara, knocking her out. He then wrapped her in a blanket, laid her on the back seat of her car and drove to the woods. There, he met an accomplice and…well, I’ll spare you the grisly details.
Both Larkham and his accomplice, Jason Reddinton, went down for life.
The story about how Sara’s body was found was kept under wraps. No point in muddying the waters when you’ve got an open and shut case.
We took my car when we went to Sara’s funeral. If anyone asked, we just said that Alice had known Sara through work.
Lest you be wondering, we kept the Megane. Alice was adamant about that. We kept the Sat-Nav unit too. It now works perfectly when Alice uses it. Perhaps it always did…
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