The door rattled in its jamb and Gloria turned her soulless eyes toward the noise. Maisie walked into the room with a vase of flowers.
'Aren't these lovely, Glo?' she asked, setting the pretty vase on the coffee table. 'They came from Mrs Jones' garden, her boy brought them over this morning. My! How they do cheer up a room!'
Gloria looked at the flowers in the vase, but only saw greys and blacks. She couldn't see the beautiful petals, the vibrant colours and the dark green of the leaves.
She looked again towards the door.
'You know,' Maisie continued on as if holding a conversation. 'Daddy is back in town today. Mr Jenkins at the hotel says Philip has checked out. Daddy is looking for him.'
A slight shadow crossed Gloria's face. Philip? Gone? But she needed him.
Brian Dennis stood in the foyer of the hotel with Mike Jenkins. He was looking at a copy of Philip's bill.
'And he just upped and left, you say?' asked Brian.
'Yes, he gave us about ten minutes notice. We were completing his bill as he carried his bags outside,' said Mike.
'But Mike, he said nothing to us, nothing to Gloria,' persisted Brian. 'Do you have any idea where he went?'
'No, my friend,' replied Jenkins. 'He paid his bill in cash and said goodbye. Said he was moving on to find work.'
'I don't know what Gloria is going to do.' Brian was concerned. 'After all they had been through, it seemed Philip had turned a corner and they might make a go of their marriage.'
'He sure was over at your place regular,' mused Mike. 'His room never needed cleaning and the cleaning girl swears his bed was so tidy she joked he never slept in it!'
'Well, he's always been a tidy man - but a spotless bed? Are you sure he was sleeping there at night?'
'We did have our doubts,' said Jenkins. 'But with Gloria and all, we didn't like to ask. Didn't mention it outside the hotel neither, and swore young Maggie to secrecy. Your girl's got enough on her plate without added gossip from the town. Of course, James knows.'
'Mighty grateful, Mike' said Brian, looking at the bill again. 'You sure he didn't say where he was going? Or if he'd be back?'
'Not a word,' said Jenkins. 'Just upped and off. Gone in about thirty minutes all told. I saw him walking towards the wagon stop, but didn't see which way he went from the corner.'
Brian looked down from the hotel entrance. The hotel was right in the centre of town, looking over the town gardens. The town spread out from the hotel and from the doorway he could see all four roads disappearing into the distance. To his left was the road out of town to his house. Straight across was the road to the church. To the right two roads snaked off into the more built up areas, one leading to the wagon stop. But that road had a nasty corner, and one watched people slip around it and they were gone from sight.
'Cheers, Mike,' he said, handing back the bill. 'I'll have a mosey into town and see if anyone saw anything.'
With that, Brian set off down the road towards the wagon stop. Turning the corner he saw the grocery shop and the haberdashers. He went into each shop and asked the same question.
'Have you seen Philip Mantell today?'
The answer from both harried shopkeepers was no. Brian stood at the wagon stop, and pondered. Whilst he considered his next move the conductor jumped down from the wagon currently awaiting passengers.
'Help you, Sir?' he asked brightly.
'How many wagons have gone from here this morning?' asked Brian.
'Four, Sir,' replied the conductor. 'One to Cleveton, one to Ashton, and two to Littleton.'
'Four.....' mused Brian. He looked up. 'Where is your wagon going?'
'How long do I have before you go?'
'About twenty minutes, Sir. I was just about to get my lunch from the grocer. The driver should be back in about ten minutes.'
'I'll be back,' yelled Brian as he sprinted down the street back towards the hotel.
Mike Jenkins agreed to run a message to the Dennis farm, and also lent Brian enough money for his plan. Brian sat back in the rocking wagon, watching the scenery flow past. Finally, he was doing something. The helpless feeling of this morning had been replaced with a feeling of intention and anticipation.
Brian was going to find Philip. And he was going to bring him home.
The message arrived at the Dennis farm in the shape of Mike Jenkins himself. Mike was a good friend of Brian's and he was close to Beatrice and the girls. His son James, having eschewed the life of a hotelier, worked as one of the Dennis labourers. The family looked at Mike nonplussed as he delivered the message. James stood silently at the kitchen door, wary of intruding, yet needing to show this close-knit family his support.
'Brian's gone? After Philip?' spluttered Beatrice. 'Does he know where he's gone?'
'ah, no,' said Mike 'But he knows that only four wagons left Smyth this morning. One to Ashton, one to Cleveton and two to Littleton. He reckons he can cover all three towns in one day and be back here by suppertime.'
'If you don't think he slept at the hotel,' pursued Ann. 'And he didn't sleep here - where did he sleep for the last three weeks?'
'Now that, as they say, is the golden question,' answered Mike exchanging a quick look with his son James. He was pretty certain Philip had not slept at the hotel, merely keeping his room as a bolthole. He was at the Dennis farm most of the day, then returned, changed and went out in the evening. Originally, the Jenkins' thought he returned late at night, but Maggie seemed insistent that the bed was unused.
Brian returned home late that night. He had no news. No one in Ashton or Cleveton has seen anyone resembling Philip, and Littleton was a very large town where no one paid any attention to anyone other than themselves. He had tramped up and down the streets of Littleton for two hours, visiting shops and stopping passers-by. He had even visited the sheriff's office and left a description of Philip with the officers.
They had reached an impasse. Stephen was still missing, Gloria was in deep depression and now Philip had disappeared.
As Brian was so fond of saying 'when you can go no further down, the only way is up'.
But 'up' seemed an unlikely and bleak prospect to the Dennis family as they prepared for bed that night. Gloria was given her medication and Ann decided to stay at her side through the night.
Brian and Beatrice retired to their room, filled with concern over what the next few days might bring them.
In the bunkhouse, James Jenkins lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling. He was aching for the family, having known Gloria since they were children playing together. He quietly swore that whatever happened in the Dennis family he, James Jenkins, would be there to support and comfort them.