Monday, May 25, 2009

The Problem with Linfield


The stately home is in fact Shiwa Ngandu, in Zambia.  This story, in short form here, has been taken as the core of the first novella in the Laura Forrester series, and supercedes this short story.

Cast

Sir Richard Maven
Lady Marjorie Maven
Arthur Maven
Johnathan Maven
Pete Daveson
Sally Daveson
Cheryl Marrin
Derek Hatton
Paul Eastbourne
James Ingram
Terry Reynolds
Linda West
Rhonda Lewis
Mrs. Thompson
Amanda Greaves
Marie
Meagan



I

‘The thing which distinguishes Linfield from other houses within fifty miles, Derek, is the mania for light which possessed the third Lord Bletchley. He basically had the entire east wing torn out and replaced with a conservatory plus the belvedere we’re now occupying on the second floor.’

‘So, essentially a house in two halves these days, Richard. How can you stand the hoi polloi trampling the rose garden and the upper terraces?’

‘I’m afraid we’ve virtually given over the west side to the clink of coin in donations tins. The children’s playground, the west lake and the mini-railway, they’re all over that way and Helen runs it quite efficiently. I’d have soon not had to have put them in but times change, do they not?’

‘And Marjory?’

‘Ah yes, well she hasn’t come to terms with it to quite the same extent. It was one thing having the annual fair in the 50s and 60s – mother delighted in meeting her community obligations and Marjory took over that role but the thought that half the old house is not really ours any more is a bit hard to stick. Still, quite a view from here, isn’t it? Especially early morning, catches the rising of the sun behind the Cheatham Hills, most picture book. You need a top up there.’

‘Thanks. Tell me a little about the get-together tomorrow – it’s all been quite hush-hush so far.’

‘Well,’ said Richard, ‘we’ll have to remain shtum until then, I’m afraid, as we have a certain amount riding on the outcome of this meeting. Since our family took over the old place in ’55, it’s all been steadily downhill, truth be told, so it’s time to play the family trump card, from the vault below the refectory.’

‘All very mysterious.’

‘There’ve been distinct rumblings from that direction recently so they might as well be exploited.’

‘You intrigue me greatly.’

‘Come Derek, when you’re finished, let’s wander down to the boathouse and meet Marjory and the boys. No hurry.’

The gravel path was damp underfoot on this soggy day. It had rained mid-morning but had now cleared up to the point where the sun had made its first venture out from behind a bank of dark clouds. Derek took in Richard Maven – his height was his redeeming feature, the rest of the imposing body now running to seed but the jaunty manner and the anachronistic garb, right down to the knee breeches, were very Maven indeed.

‘Is that a Henry Moore, over there, Richard?’

‘Ersatz, I’m afraid,’ said his host. ‘there’s not much left of the old place which you could call the genuine article any more. These are hard times we live in.’

What was troubling Derek Hatton though was not so much the easy familiarity of his host, the ready acceptance and the immediate descent to first name terms - the local landowners in this corner of the world had clearly learnt the value of good relations with potential punters.

No, it was that he had so readily accepted the ‘Richard’ from one hardly of his station. Derek had tried the ‘Sir Richard’ the once and straight away, it was, ‘Richard please.’ On the other hand, Derek represented the money and money spoke in these circles in 2009.

At the boathouse, Hatton had observed the two sons messing about out on the lake in the clinker dory and now Marjorie was approaching, tweeds, white blouse and sensible shoes all very much in keeping with her hairstyle. Marvellously well preserved, Marjorie Maven, he couldn’t help but think.

She extended a scrawny hand. ‘Derek, so good of you to come down to see us. We’re planning a little surprise tomorrow, you know.’

‘Mr. Hatton knows this, Marjory. Why don’t you call the boys over and then we’ll go up for tea.’

‘Country life suits you, Lady Mavers. Don’t you miss the cut and thrust of Sackville Street?’

‘Of course not. If I had to read one more manuscript I’d go blind. Cheryl runs that side of the operation now.’

The ‘boys’ were not so much boys. Arthur was fifty if he was a day, also immaculately attired as the country squire, a portly man with a reddened nose but Johnathan, a few years younger, let the side down a bit. Also tending to seed, he was very much the modern man in his polo tee, dark navy denims and Ecco shoes. Hatton had three pairs himself back home. It had been Johnathan who’d been rowing the boat.

There was little doubt though about the aquiline noses and the slightly elongated, straight sided faces of the Mavens and as they all made their way up to the dining room, actually the old anteroom converted, Hatton reflected on the mish-mash of styles he’d seen so far.

The belvedere, for example, sported two chintz settees, a well preserved settle, replete with arrow box beneath, a glass topped table with touches of 50s art deco, a Lloyd Loom Armchair, an Edwardian Double Seat and a marble-topped sideboard almost identical to the one in the anteroom they’d just entered.

A tallish woman of maybe forty appeared from nowhere, mop of hair diminishing the lines in the face, a pleasant face but with a trace of nervousness and this was clearly the one who would serve them tea. Hatton wondered why they weren’t taking this in the conservatory and then also wondered why he was wondering so much. He had no reason to wonder, he’d been invited down for a meeting, ostensibly to finance some new project of the local landowner and all he’d spent his time doing since he’d parked in the east side carpark was wondering.

All would unfold, he was sure of that.

An even taller man of maybe forty-five now came through and helped the woman and here was a chance to play one of his hunches. ‘Richard, they almost seem a married couple the way they understand one another.’

‘That’s because they are. Peter, Sally, join us for a few moments, would you.’

The two dutifully came over, hands folded before them and Mavers did the introductions. ‘Derek, this is Peter Daveson, with an ‘e’ don’t forget, former IT project manager and jack of all trades and his lovely wife Sally, as you’ve already heard. Mr. Hatton is currently scouring the great country houses for their commercial potential and has kindly accepted the invitation to look us over.’

The Davesons nodded, she made the slightest of curtseys and they returned to setting the dishes out on the sideboard.

‘You’ll see a lot of Peter and Sally, Derek. They’re the only staff we’ve retained so they’re run off their feet. If this venture gets up and running, we’ll add to the staff as and when it becomes possible. Let’s eat and then you might care to see the commercial set up on the west side.’

II

The main house was essentially in the shape of an H, divided at the crossbar. The more historic side was on the west – the great hall, the aviary, Linfield’s Folly, a most garish room done out to resemble a grotto. The sweeping staircase then took visitors to the original bedrooms upstairs and the marble bathroom.

What had struck Derek from the moment he’d arrived was the clash of styles, almost as if someone had felt that an 18th century chiffonier would go awfully well with a 1920s replica commode and nobody would notice. This seems to have been the motif throughout the history of the place, from the architecture and from the guidebook, the house was apparently post-Agincourt. Someone had either advised the family badly or else the owners had had the most appallingly gauche tastes.

The gardens now.

The terraces, instead of cascading from the high lawn to the anteroom which the contour of the land certainly lent itself to, were instead forcibly made to resemble the steps leading down from some soviet government office and where the contour had not supported the edge of the terrace, red brickwork had.

All in all, it was dissatisfying.

Well, that wasn’t his concern. He’d seen the last coachload depart before five-thirty so the punters were obviously attracted but to have installed scarlet and yellow tubular climbing frames on the high lawn, plastic representations of Disney characters and a commando ropes course was surely beyond the pale and had Derek wondering – that word again – where were Health & Safety, let alone Heritage, in all of this?

His four poster was more than comfortable though, the ensuite was modern and the plumbing adequate. Sleep overtook him.

It was the sound from below his floor, a dull but repetitive sound, which woke Derek about 4 a.m. That would have been the conservatory, no, the room immediately this side of it, he surmised. The central heating?

Now came the quite distinct sound of the clink of chain on floorboard and lo, at the foot of his bed had materialized the most pathetic of creatures, a gothic-attired old woman, hands manacled and presumably feet also; she gave out the most deliciously low, spooky moan and stared straight through him.

He wasn’t going to miss this for the world, he jumped out of bed onto the tigerskin rug and saw that her eyes had followed him. Striding up to the apparition, he went to pass his arm straight through her but his hand struck metal, she shrieked, spun away a couple of metres towards the wardrobe and dematerialized. He stood, staring, went back to the bed and sat down heavily.

However Maven had managed that, Derek had to concede, he’d done it rather well, it would have knocked the stuffing out of the most ardent of sceptics. His first thought, that it was a hologram, had to be shelved to account for the manacle he’d touched and that had seemed very real indeed.

He’d ask Maven for an explanation on the morrow.

III

Richard Maven did not greet the news with incredulity, nor with conspiratorial silence; he seemed genuinely thoughtful, as if this part of the big secret had been revealed ahead of its time.

The other guests arrived through the morning - Mrs. Thompson of Gillingham Antiques and Furniture, Rhonda Lewis of Appleby and Lewis, architects, James Ingram of nowhere in particular as far as Derek could see, someone he knew – Paul Eastbourne, another of an entrepeneurial bent and then a car arrived with two passengers – she of the true gothic Morticia Adams and he of the Uncle Fester.

Eventually, these latter two were introduced as Linda West and Terry Reynolds of Essex. Uncle Fester sported three earrings in one ear and a bone through the nose, well actually a ring. Derek wanted to ask if she had his leash about her but thought better of it. It appears they were landscape gardeners.

This time lunch was taken in the Boiserie dining room on the west side and it was an impressive room indeed. No expense appeared to have been spared, the long table and chairs were in keeping and the drapes went with the whole. They’d had decorators in for this, of this Derek was in no doubt. Even lunch had been cranked up a notch and the married staff had been supplemented by what was most likely a catering firm.

After a delightful hour of small talk, the reasonable Wolf Blass having been drained to the last drop, they went out onto the hideous western terraces and Rhonda Lewis nodded. This was going to take some doing and the first to go would be the red and yellow plastic children’s climbing frames. The opera house-come-theatre would fit in the space released by the correct arrangement of the cascading terraces – in fact it would be stunning in its multi-tiered effect. Rhonda, Morticia, Fester and Richard Maven were deep in conference for some considerable time, Marjory taking the rest of them up to the lake.

When they reconvened, there was an elevated spirit of high expectations which Derek caught and that boded well for a start. Maven asked if everyone would wait until they returned to the house – would they like to go out on the lake in the meantime for the gates would have to be opened to the public at 2 p.m.

Fester and Derek remained on the bank with Marjory but the rest went out and paddled about. Derek asked Reynolds, ‘So, where are you based, Terry?’ and the reply was extraordinary: ‘Why do you want to know?’

Marjory immediately stepped in. ‘Terry and Linda move about a lot, up and down the country. Up to your necks in work, aren’t you, Terry?’

He nodded but Derek, a bit put out, decided to press this point. ‘No, I mean, where’s your home base?’

Fester was now nonplussed how to respond. ‘I think Marjory’s just told you.’

Something in the tone aggravated Derek who now asked, ‘Do you know who I am or why I’m here?’

The other shrugged, also deeply annoying and Marjory saw a situation developing. She anxiously looked out to the lake, saw her husband and James Ingram tying up at the bank and wished her husband over immediately, he, catching something amiss in the atmosphere, obliging and hurrying to them.

Derek got up and addressed Richard Maven. ‘I find this man,’ he indicated with his head, ‘unnecessarily mysterious over quite basic details and offensive in manner. I don’t propose to invest in your project under these circumstances as I have little confidence in the contractors you’ve brought in. Good day to you, Sir Richard.’

With that, he turned and made for the house, Richard Maven immediately following him, catching up but not attempting to speak until they got to the last terrace. ‘Before you go, Derek, please come round to the dining room, let’s have a farewell drink but allow me ten minutes only to try to persuade you not to do this. Ten minutes is all I ask.’

Derek grunted but acquiesced and thus they found themselves back in the converted anteroom. It was he who opened. ‘Too many mysteries, Sir Richard. A ghost last night unsatisfactorily explained, anomalies in my reception here – not complaints, just anomalies – and now this man being mysterious when there was absolutely no need for him to be so if he’s to be one of the syndicate.’

Maven wasn’t exactly wringing his hands but he wasn’t far off it and his manner was deeply apologetic. ‘I do apologize profusely for Terry. He’s highly eccentric but brilliant too. Frankly, he can do the landscaping for a fraction of the cost of the …’

‘Reputable firms?’

‘No, not a bit of it. They have no central office, work from home and via mobile. I can show you the projects they’ve completed and there’ve been no complaints, quite the opposite. Each owner can be contacted and you can hear it with your own ears. They know the game backwards, he and Linda.’

‘He has an appalling manner.’ What Derek did not ask was how Sir Richard knew Reynolds ‘knew the game backwards’ and on whose authority he’d formed this opinion.

‘He can be difficult, brusque in fact but he gets the job done and on time. That should be a plus for whoever is investing in the project.’

‘You can be sure I’ll be checking on this man and his partner to the nth degree, Sir Richard, before even one penny is transferred.’

‘Of course you will. This has all been a most unfortunate set of misunderstandings which we’ll straighten out. You haven’t allowed me to outline the full plan yet, surely you wish to at least know that. Then you’ll sup with us and if you’re still not satisfied, you’ll go back tomorrow morning. Will you stay your hand that long?’

The man was near to desperate now and Derek asked himself why it was that his particular money was required. Surely a hard-headed businessman would have just said, ‘Sorry you feel that way,’ let him go and got another source of finance up to Linfield.

Sir Richard continued, ‘The others are assembling in the Blue Room if you’d care to join us and the plan will be put.’

IV

The Blue Room was the second fine piece of decoration seen today, the friezes in particular having been delicately inlaid with a number of hues from cobalt to sky. Wainscoting had been used but that could be excused due to the use to which it was put; it was essentially a meeting room.

They got straight down to it and James Ingram introduced himself. ‘My function is that of syndicate coordinator or business manager, if you like. Sir Richard has received you all but his focus is primarily Linfield. My focus is the completion of the task and the coordination of the various parties. You’ll now be given the ways I can be contacted at any hour on any day,’ he waited till Johnathan had distributed the papers, ‘and I bear responsibility for the task being completed. In other words, the buck stops here.’

He smiled a not unpleasant smile. ‘Rhonda, Terry and Linda have mocked up a rough of the proposed outline and I think you might see the reason we’re quite excited about it. Take a look please.’

They perused the plan on the A0 paper and it didn’t look half bad. From the outer gates, the guests would move down the terraces with the house on the right in the distance, the opera/theatre on the left and would be met on the lower terrace in the vestibule, from where they’d move to the foyer and thence to their quarters. There’d be little need to rebuild as the existing walls could be converted to their new purpose. In this, the landscapers and architect had done cunningly well.

Paul Eastbourne asked where the antiques came into it and what was the bait to lure people from London and the coast.

‘It’s a multi-pronged thing,’ explained Ingram. ‘They can come for the weekend or for a few days and there’ll be boating and a small wildlife park at hand during the day. Each night there’ll be some form of entertainment of quality at no charge to guests and at a reasonable rate for visitors. Part of the attraction for guests will be a tour of the mysteries of the house. Lady Maven has done extensive research into the history of the property and one of the delights she uncovered, you’re about to see. Would you all look towards the arched entrance.’

The lights were doused; with the covers drawn and the afternoon sun not quite over the western wall as yet, it was dark enough for the thing to happen. There was a scraping of chains on the floor and then appeared the most pathetic of creatures, a gothic-attired old woman, hands manacled and presumably feet also; she gave out the most deliciously low, spooky moan, everyone was taken aback except for Derek who now strode over to her and put his hand out, straight through the body. Puzzled, he returned to his place, just as the vision dematerialized.

Ingram was delighted with the effect. ‘Now allow me to introduce you to the designer – Pete Daveson. He and his wife have been serving you with refreshments but Pete has this other string to his bow – he can design programmes such as this. Let me get in before you ask – yes, it will be made clear that this is merely a representation of a legend, not the legend itself, the idea being that people will attend, knowing there’s no real danger but enjoying the fright nonetheless. The lure is for the type of people who enjoy murder mystery weekends.

Paul spoke. ‘It’s good but doesn’t it mix the clientele somewhat? The people coming up for the opera are hardly likely to be the same people interested in a mock poltergeist.’

‘We cater for families, of course. If we can offer something for the whole family, some family members might take up this offer and some might concentrate on the house and grounds only in there spare time. Naturally, a guided tour is provided at 10:00, 1:30 and 3:00. We’ve found it an effective strategy at our other three houses so far.’

‘Who’s we?’ asked Derek.

‘Fern Tours, of which I’m the principal. Here is our literature from other projects.’ Johnathan distributed these.

‘May I ask,’ said Derek, ‘whether the homeless Fester here and his charming partner landscaped any of your other projects?’

Reynolds’ eyes narrowed but Ingram replied, with equanimity, ‘See for yourself, Mr. Hatton.’

He could see for himself but all in that room knew that the bad blood between those two and presumably, by extension, between those three could represent a threat to the project. It was Sir Richard who took up the torch. ‘Terry regrets the misunderstanding, Derek and we’d all like to get back to the task in hand, a project which excites both Marjory and myself and one which we’re hopeful you’ll also find rewarding.’

‘I’d like to hear that from Uncle Fester’s lips.’

Reynolds had immense difficulty not springing up and going for Derek Hatton, which had been what he’d wished to find out anyway – just how far the man would eat humble pie and therefore, how integral he was to the project management.

‘I regret any misunderstanding … Mr. Hatton,’ was all Derek was going to get from that quarter, a puzzling climb down after the outrageous Addams Family cracks. It was all getting more interesting.

Paul Eastbourne had been watching the whole thing and knew Derek Hatton to be one of the more protocol-minded people he’d met. He put it to one side for the nonce and asked instead, ‘How do the antiques come into it?’

James Ingram explained, ‘This will be a sideline. The conservatory will become a garden centre for exotic blooms and next door, the old refectory, will be for the selling of antique pieces also used throughout the house. This will be Mrs. Thompson’s side of the venture.

That’s just about the whole project in a nutshell. It will be costed on the estimates of the various parties and put to you two gentlemen by next Thursday afternoon at the place of business you leave the contact details for tomorrow. Will that be satisfactory for now?’

Both men nodded and appreciated the businesslike approach of Ingram. Both would have the man checked out, of course. Richard Maven breathed a sigh of relief and invited them to spend some time by themselves on the east side, if they would and then supper would be served at 7 p.m. A gong would summon them.

Paul and Derek went for a stroll towards the boathouse and each waited for the other to begin. Finally, Paul said, ‘You really went for Reynolds, Derek.’

‘We’ll need to check him out.’ He explained the whole saga to the other and Eastbourne whistled.

‘I see him as largely innocent, that one. An A1 prat, maybe but Ingram’s the one who worries me, he and Daveson.’

‘Brains of the outfit, you think?’

‘It’s a nice plan and it would definitely make money but there’ve been one or two rumblings about the other houses, nothing that’s come to anything as yet but it’s just a bit too slick for mine. The antiques for a start, coming up from London – I’d like to explore that one.’

‘I knew of the other houses. They’re turning over a substantial amount but not nearly enough to pay for the whole kaboodle. Ask to examine the accounts and you’ll see what I mean.’

‘Someone, not us, injecting funds or else making money some other way, maybe o/s?’

‘Maybe. Let’s work together on this one. Here’s my card.’

‘And mine. Don’t look up but we’re being watched from the window. Let’s walk over to the Henry Moore.’

‘It’s not a Moore, by the way, it’s a fake but yes, let’s go.’

Paul Eastbourne positioned himself in such a way that he was not looking at the house directly but could observe all the same. ‘Our watcher is still watching. Who do you think it is?’

‘Fester?’

‘Morticia … oh … and now Ingram.’

‘Ah, so you saw the resemblance too?’

‘When you mentioned Fester. Now what are they so interested in? Let’s examine the Moore and see if that piques their curiosity.’

They made as if to scrutinize the work closely and then went the far side of the piece from the house. ‘Derek, this really is a Henry Moore. It’s genuine and it currently resides in the garden of a villa in Le Touquet. It’s actually here of course but you understand what I mean.’

‘So either Maven lied to me or the wool has been pulled over his eyes too.’

‘I can’t see it as being any too clandestine. A Henry Moore is not a small piece to cart around. People tend to notice things like this.’

‘It may be time to bring in the artillery on this. Let’s do nothing suspicious, let’s not leave our rooms tonight and let’s go up to town separately tomorrow, as we would have done. By the way, did you notice me leap for the apparition today? The one today was different to the lady of last night who appeared in my bedroom; that one was tactile. My hand hit her manacled hand and it hurt.’

‘Do you fancy a bit of boating before dusk?’

‘Why not?’

They spoke of this and that and Derek outined his whole experience from their first approach to him to the discovery of the Henry Moore. Paul was puzzled. ‘Too many errors, Derek. Far too many. Why? Either they’re incredibly incompetent or they want you suspicious. Don’t take this the wrong way but perhaps we should be analysing you to see the reason you were chosen. I know of your recent loss in Bulgaria. One would assume they would too. I seriously hope you’re not being set up here for a fall.’

Sir Richard was waiting for them at the lakeside.

IV

The plans had been approved, the money had been forthcoming from both of them, Derek having had to interest a number of other parties in the project, the landscaping and building had got underway.

Three months later, as winter approached, the two men met up one more time and made their eighth visit to Linfield, not for the official re-opening which had taken place one week earlier but for the first real weekend after the hullabaloo had died down and business really got underway.

Their cars were met at the park and they were escorted past the superb playhouse, down the terraces and into reception. Derek had asked for his old room and Paul was to be placed adjacent to this, at the end of the short hallway. Both had been invited for dinner in the Boiserie at 8 p.m. sharp.

After both had given their things the once over, Paul did not bother knocking but came straight into Derek’s room and put a finger to his lips. He immediately took the curtain puller thingy, put something form his pocket on the end of it, leapt up on the dresser and poked the curtain-closer into the corner. Jumping down and going to two other points on the ceiling, he repeated the process and putting his finger to his lips once more, jumped down and pointed to the candelabras.

Derek got the idea, went over to one of the pair and following Paul’s lead, ran his fingers round, over down, disconnnected the plug and took the bulb out. Paul found what he was looking for, came over to Derek’s, did not find anything, stroked his chin and went to the bedhead. This produced another result and Paul now indicated for Derek to help him remove all the bedding, piece by piece.

They examined the mattress for the slightest sign of invisible mending and came up with the tiniest of marks by the underside far corner. Derek brought over a collapsible blade from his case, made a slit, rummaged about with one finger and found it.

Both grinned at each other. Paul pulled out paper and pencil and wrote, ‘We could have let it go but warning them seemed better. They’ll be awaiting our move. Mr. Daveson begins to interest me greatly.’

Derek nodded and said, audibly, ‘This is where the apparition appeared.’ Paul examined the access and egress, had it been a holographic construction or a real creature. This came up with nothing. He struck his wrist and gave Derek a questioning look, to which the latter said, ‘Most definitely,’ play-acting a hurt wrist.

Paul stood in the middle of the floor and thought it out, then wrote, ‘1 a.m. I’ll come to you. Now for supper.’

Derek nodded and they went downstairs but not before the wetted hair had been placed across strategic points.

Supper in the Boiserie was superb, the caterers having released the Davesons, he to concentrate on the IT side of the project and she to take over the supervising of the domestic side.

Over port, Sir Richard spoke. ‘Gentlemen, I trust you’re settled in and will join us after supper for a short recital by Amanda Greaves, violinist, who’s agreed to stop by on her current tour to take in our playhouse. It’s a one-off this evening and we’re very lucky to have secured her. Most patrons will stay overnight as guests … so you won’t be alone.’

It was their first real look at the finished playhouse and they had to admit it would hold its own, even by comparison to some of the metropolitan rivals. This side of the business was only going to keep on keeping on, even if the rest took a downturn. There was no doubt it had been money well spent.

Waiting for Ms Greaves to begin, even in the dimmed light, Paul noticed two or three people of note, up from the big smoke and murmured close to Derek’s ear not to make too big an issue of it but to look over when he got the chance.

The lights dimmed the rest of the way and Amanda Greaves began with 'Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt', which set the tone for the rest of the evening. Derek supposed the chamber orchestra would be accommodated in the performers’ suites above and behind the main hall.

The recital came to a pleasing close, all the bravos had been shouted and they went back to their rooms. Derek took a look at the hairs and noticed they were all still in place but not precisely – he’d even noticed the marks in the texture of the case and woodwork on the drawer when he’d put them there. Clever people though. Opening the drawer, he saw the slight bulge, reached under his shirts and his hand closed around the pistol.

He’d brought one himself and checked his pack. The Glock 26 was gone, plus the parabellum rounds. He pulled out the shirts and saw a Glock 27 in its place, with a pack of .40 rounds. Putting on the cotton gloves and pulling the soft brush and powder from his shaving kit, he dusted the weapon – nothing.

After a few minutes of deliberation over this, he felt the best thing was to front Paul about it immediately. Of course Paul might lie, if only to protect himself from prosecution for illegal possession of a firearm but there was a chance he’d not lie. if Derek waited until 1 a.m., then both might go into this together highly suspicious of the other.

Better the secret came out now.

He knocked on Paul’s door and in answer to the quiet challenge, equally quietly answered, ‘Me,’ and asked Paul to come and look. The chain was unlatched, Paul came out and locked the room behind him. In Derek’s room, seeing the Glock lying there, he registered no surprise but pulled out paper and pencil again and wrote, ‘So? We agreed to come armed.’

Derek took the paper and wrote, ‘I had a Glock 26, 9mm. This is a 27, point-four-o. Someone’s changed the weapon, someone who removed the hair I left and then replaced it.’

Paul nodded and beckoned Derek through to his room, the latter locking his own door behind him. The instant they were in his room, Derek saw his Glock 26 on the bed, with the packet of rounds and it had been dusted too. He grinned and wrote: ‘Did you find my prints?’

‘I found no prints whatsoever. Also, I didn’t bring a pistol. I brought four polymer throwing knives, which I kept on me at the recital. Either someone fears for our lives or someone is setting us up.’

‘Why take mine and give it to you? Why not just give you the 27?’

‘Right, so we have a ‘we know that they know that we know’ situation. All the parties who were to be informed have been informed and our egress from our rooms after the household has gone to bed is going to be seen as fair game. Let’s say we’re challenged by superior firepower. The reason for and legality of our weapons comes into question and why we’d feel it necessary to carry them on this trip. They have our initial money but not the ongoing.

They might view us as intruders and on seeing the weapons, gun us down. Oh dear, officer, they came at us with the Glocks. Again, their ongoing money dries up. Do they care though? If this thing has come down to guns, then there is a secret to protect and as like as not, that secret is a source of money at least equal to our input in these early stages, which is substantial.

The last reason I can see is that they blackmail us into further funds.’

‘Perhaps they’re happy for things to stay as is, for the status quo to be and this Glock is a sign that if we wish for a shootout, they’ll oblige us but would much prefer we remain good little guests and let them get on with it.’

‘Get on with what?’

Derek sighed and wrote, ‘We went into that in London, I suppose. Hence Marie.’

V

Around 3 a.m., the aforementioned Marie, on padded feet, found her way to the converted gunroom and went through the process of identifying and disconnecting the alarm, an interactive Livermore system system but came up against the secondary password for the green room and conservatory. She pressed her pager and waited for the power disconnect from nearby Cheatham.

It came but the system went onto auxilliary as she’d expected. Now she was on safe ground as she’d been the one to install the Livermore and had to hope the code had not been changed. If it had, all hell would break loose and she’d have to get through the run-off duct and run hell for leather for the north-east gate where her car awaited.

She took a deep breath, ran the code and the power disconnected, which gave her the few minutes necessary, as the main door to the west of the house was now jammed. The only way she could be circumvented would be for them to come round and through the conservatory but that would take a minimum of eight or nine minutes.

There was time and she went straight through to the green room, which gave out onto the conservatory. Her pencil torch showed it was currently sporting an 18th century skeleton table, an antique Bavarian marriage chest, a Queen Anne chair, an Edwardian Pembroke table, an Edwardian double seat, a 20th century French settee and a George III side table. Mrs. Thompson had been hard at work.

She took a quick look at the workshop, got the general idea, went back to the double chair and yes, the glue still had not set on the rear right leg, which she now tore off, slipped over her shoulder into her back tube bag and now came the tricky bit, the egress from the conservatory. She hoped the hell the boys had made it to the belvedere.

She rapidly scanned the rows of flora by the three-quarter moon light, judged that the vault was accessible from the north end, most likely under a movable earthen pot, it was, she only had time to almost leap down the ladder, shine the pencil torch, see the inventory and take the top three sheets, then came a stroke of luck. There were traces of some spillage on the bench which had been cleared off but she saw a bin below and if they’d been lazy …?

Her holdall tube came off, the bin contents were poured in, that was enough for now, the next danger point was upon her – the egress up the ladder – she was now up, paused, exited the hatch, made for the far row, saw the figure step out and put a dart into it before it could fire, heard the one behind her before he’d even got a clear shot and put a dart into him, went for the door and now her life was in someone else’s hands.

Keeping, as arranged, to the hedgerow, she only had coverage from the belvedere for the first ten metres, after which she was on her own, nothing impeded her and the boys would be returning to their rooms, now she ran hell for leather for that sidegate, scaled it, saw the three unhooded faces she knew, made the car which was already idling, paged the boys, climbed in the trunk as she was and away they went.

There was a heavy knock on Derek’s door not one minute later, he sat crouched by the far wall, the lights were switched on and Pete Daveson and wife stood scanning the room – it was now 3:32 a.m. - caught sight of him, apparently unarmed, as apparently they were and all parties decided on the bluff. Of course they had to maintain form and apologize but they wanted to give Derek the once over all the same.

‘We’ve just had a break-in downstairs in the green room, they disabled the alarms and cut off all power to Linfield for thirty minutes.’

‘I know,’ said Derek. ‘We’ve just been to the belvedere -’

‘Ah, so it was you after all?’

‘Yep. Time to come clean. We were tipped off, both Paul and I, in London that an attempt was to be made on our lives tonight. Strictly between you and me, we’re armed, quite legally,’ Daveson smiled at this, ‘and when we heard a dull noise and saw car lights over by the east gate,’ Daveson looked over and conceded that that was possible, ‘we were puzzled. We thought the danger would come from inside the house, not form out there and we couldn’t see why they’d be stupid enough to show their lights.’

‘A point which immediately crossed my mind, Mr. Hatton.’

Paul had now come through and joined the discussion. Daveson turned round and addressed him. ‘You didn’t go down to the gunroom?’

‘How?’

The point had been well made and Daveson knew it. There was no way down from here because of the temporary device he’d installed for the night, on its own power supply, to give the alarm, should they have attempted it and it certainly hadn’t be triggered. These boys had not been down that way so who had?

He asked just that and both gave it some thought. Paul said, ‘It had to be someone who knew what he was going to find and knew something of the security system.’

‘Hell of a risk if we’d changed it.’ All parties knew this was a bluff but couldn’t admit that, of course.

‘Not unless they had up to date knowledge,’ Paul put the cat among the pigeons and it did stop Daveson for a moment. ‘OK, unless you two are going to kill us, I’m going to try to get a few hours sleep now. I imagine the fun and games is over for the night.’

Begrudgingly, the Davesons left and were heard to go downstairs. Paul played it straight, said, ‘Goodnight, Derek,’ to which the other replied and they both took a few hours rest.

VI

They met at the Hare and Hounds, ordered and bought ales.

‘A new variation of MDMA, Derek. In the furniture. Thompson has a clear run on the antiques side, she files accounts but the rest is up to her, particularly at her end. The vault was a lab. Whoever’s running the show and I still pin it on Daveson, he did err in even having the trapdoor under the pot. If it had just been the garden office, well …’

‘One can be too clever. So they know it’s known and are waiting for someone to make a move.’

‘It’ll have been scoured by now and the duff furniture removed. They can’t keep that up forever and it’ll have to start up again but any presence by us down there will send alarm signals from here on in.’

‘We still have a few people we could send but they’ll be like hawks on the phone or web reservations now. My feeling is that they’ll run some of the houses legit for some time, switch for a short time to Linfield, move it out again to another house and so on.’

‘Did you take both the Glocks?’

‘No, I left the 27, more’s the pity. It’s the better weapon. So … what next?’

‘Well, we really must discuss this. We could take a cut from the operation, which I’m fairly certain would shorten our shelf life, we could call the boys in blue, we could play the saint and demand they go legit, at least at Linfield or … what else?’

Derek took a sip and thought for a while. ‘What do you think, Paul?’

‘I suggest we play the saint for some time, the returns on that operation are miniscule compared to what could be made at source. If we were going to do it, we’d need to think big and cut into the main operation, better justifying the risks. Or else we take our returns as agreed way back when.’

‘Hard to know how much plod knows.’

‘That’s the key issue. Better we let it rest for now, see if there are any raids but if we do nothing at all, it also carries its dangers. At a minimum, it will intrigue Daveson who can think like us and would know the quandary we’re in. That strengthens his hand somewhat.’

‘Why don’t we do a bit more homework, set up a meet on the Osprey and invite key players, with an ostensible view to cutting in.’

‘Can you get the Osprey?’

‘Not a problem. Mike’s a mate of mine. I’m pretty sure they’ll send the deputy dawg first up, the principal won’t isolate himself on a boat but even that should tell us something. We’d arrange a second meet to tie up the details down the track and insist it’s the top man that time.’

‘We’re sitting targets. If we’re dealing with Europe or even with a more serious echelon here, we’ll be out of our league.’

‘Perhaps. We go in resourced. Is the game worth the candle though with these boys? I’m not unhappy with the proceeds as they’re currently trickling in. I still sleep at night. Seems we need to be sure how much we want it. We also need to run it so one of us can cut free, should he so choose.’

‘What we could do though is broker a new line that might interest them. That way we’re not dirty little men muscling in but are expanding their operations. They might go for that better.’

‘What new line?’

‘Cruises. Gets plod off all of our backs.’

‘I know some people.’

‘I know you do. The cruise idea dovetails nicely with the rest of their set up.’

‘I don’t think they’re that large in the first place.’

‘You’re right – they’re just an outlet and their papa might not appreciate the freelancing. The thing is, Derek, we need to know first with whom we’re dealing.’

‘We’ll reconvene at the Tavern a week today. All right?’

VII

The ‘guests’ had all checked in their weapons and had been scanned and dewired, the boat security detail consisted of ten torpedoes who’d be rotated next time round, the transit punt had returned to land, the guests were invited to scan for bugs and the latter did, coming up with a blank, the caterers had served the fish and the conversation began.

Present were Paul and Derek, Fester, one with whom Fester seemed particularly miffed - a lady called Meagan plus Johnathan Maven.

‘The question,’ opened Paul, ‘is whether we want to run the cruises legit or do a little extra. We have our hands on three boats for now and as you’ve already discovered, those boys aren’t playing ball with you. It’s through us or nowhere. I think you’d understand the nature of the return from these weekends and so our ask of 12% on top of the running costs would seem not unreasonable, would you say? Any dissenting voices?’

‘The electronics would be handled by us?’

‘Yes. From your cut.’

‘Catering?’ asked Meagan.

‘Your call, lady. We’re not in that game.’

There were nods around the table. Fester spoke. ‘For reasons I think are fairly obvious, we stand to risk most so on top of the distribution costs, we’d like 20%. If a cabin could be made over to us, we’d drop that to 15%.’

Paul spoke. ‘No cabin in the first year of operation. Your percentage is between you and the others.’

There were nods and murmurs of approval. Fester asked, ‘Why only the 12%?’

‘We’d like a longer shelf life. This is a business arrangement, that’s all. Our backers have stipulated 12% so that’s non-negotiable. I’m hoping none of us will get too greedy in this arrangement.’

‘Fine, fine.’

‘We’re going with two of your boys to the rear of the craft for twenty-five minutes. You can speak freely during that time.’

There was earnest discussion while Paul and Derek took a stroll on the rear deck; at the end of the stipulated time they returned and sat down.

‘So,’ said Derek, ‘how’s it to be split?’

‘We need to to speak with our people,’ answered Fester.

‘Meaning you’re not the principal. Now listen, people, when we reconvene in two weeks, we want the principals here. That means, Terry, the supplier for South-West, not your own girl and Johnathan, that means whoever is the decision maker. We’re not compromising on this and we’d be happy to accede to most checks and filters you care to run. We can moor where you like. On the other hand, you do realize that the Osprey will not be unattended. Peter has already seen some of the scramble defences. Everyone plays by the book and all will be well.’

Fifteen minutes after the last of the guests had been ferried ashore, a small runabout pulled up astern and the occupant was winched onto the landing deck. Two minutes later, they were in the communications room and listening to the conversations.

First the ferry in, then the dinner table and finally the ferry back.

‘Neat little unit that mike,’ grinned Paul and Dean Ferris smiled back. ‘So, none of them knew of the lovely Meagan except Terry who was cut up about her. Fester plans to double-cross us, did you read it that way, Derek?’

He nodded and Paul went on, ‘Johnathan’s presence was a mystery, no James Ingram and many unanswered questions. I think we came out evens on the first round. It wouldn’t have done to win too many too early.’

‘Perhaps we should have gone for 18-20%?’

‘No, my source says that’s the right price. It’ll have them guessing but not overly. It suggests we don’t need the cash.’

‘Paul, do you think Meagan was there to keep Fester honest?’

‘Oh I’m sure of it or else to prevent him branching out.’

‘Who’s she reporting to?’

‘Maybe she’s not reporting to anyone.’

‘Ah. You know, it seems to me we had a real mix onboard tonight. Rank amateurs like Fester who are no doubt expendable, through to the demure Meagan who might even be running Europe for all we know.’

‘This was what they projected. You can’t tell, without some sort of break, who’s lying in which bed. Let’s meet again in one week but not here. Can we use the Emma Hamilton?’

‘Good name, isn’t it. I can’t see why not.’

VIII

Derek had sent his secretary to lunch and was just tucking into his own turkey and cranberry sandwiches when the buzzer went in reception.

Typical.

Through the screen he saw it was Meagan, alone.

Within a minute she was seated in his office and he was making the coffee. ‘You saw her go out then?’

‘Yes. How long do we have?’

‘About twenty-five minutes.’ He served the coffee and the bits and pieces on a plate. Meagan glanced down at the arrangement and smiled, Derek shrugged apologetically. ‘Speak, Meagan.’

‘Are you certain that all your friends are friends?’

He laughed aloud. ‘That’s precisely what we were expecting – the divide and rule.’

She didn’t answer but reached inside her satchel and extracted a folder which she laid in front of him. He flicked through it and nearly concealed his shock but not quite. ‘That puts a different slant on it, doesn’t it?’

‘I thought you might see it that way. You do see they’re authentic, don’t you? Let your secretary run down after this and double check.’

‘Thanks, I shall.’

‘Here’s a photocopy of what I laid in front of him.’

She pulled the folder out and handed it over, he glanced at it and asked, ‘Why?’

‘So all players are in the open and accounted for.’

‘And the bottom line?’

She reached in and produced a third folder. He looked at the top sheet, the letterhead and the little mark in the lower right corner, closed the folder and said, ‘I had no idea we were playing in this league. Don’t you people allow the little man to have just a bit of fun?’

‘How could you in this caper? Offshore’s all tied up. Brussels is watching You should have stuck to stately homes.’

‘So we pull out, yes?’

‘No. Here’s what I’d like you to do.’

IX

The evening was unsettled, the sea was building up a fraction too much for comfort yet the Emma Hamilton was a large craft.

Derek felt the world and his dog must know about this meeting but here they all were anyway, Paul, Meagan, James Ingram, Johnathan and to his immense shock and Paul’s too – little Marie.

Meagan chaired the meeting and opened. ‘During the past two weeks, you’ve each seen what one of the others is really playing at. On the grounds that at least one other person knows about you, please now state who you are and how you see yourself contributing to this project. Marie please.’

‘I’m not the sole supplier to the south-west. There are others, especially out of London but most of it comes through Plymouth, as you know. We had a feeling Terry Reynolds might have been branching out and so it turned out, using Linfield as a lab and paying heavily for the privilege. Terry’s no longer with us, nor the lovely Linda but that wasn’t our doing. I suspect Meagan put one or two documents Pete Davison’s way but I can’t be sure.’

‘Johnathan?’

‘Linfield’s in my name. Pater signed it over when he passed his 80th and my interest is in the commercial possibilities of that and my other property, The Elms. I can’t say I didn’t know what Terry was up to but we needed him for the landscaping, the architects and the antiques people. We were always ready to hang it round his neck if the worst came to the worst. I took no cut from that side of the operation.’

‘Then why are you here tonight?’ asked Derek.

‘I keep plod at bay.’

‘Ah. That rather depends on Meagan’s people, doesn’t it?’

‘Yes and no. I have the contacts within the country. For now.’

‘James?’

‘Seems I’m the most transparent here tonight. I run the houses and head up Fern, which has fingers in many pies - wind turbines, nightclubs, whatever currently turns a profit, excluding porn and drugs.’

‘Derek?’

‘A bit like James, I dabble in a broad portfolio and make a little on every deal. I’m not known for trying the main chance. Some go pear-shaped and the rest pay my way out.’

‘Paul?’

‘I deal with people. Staff supply, jobs agencies in specialized fields, immigration advice, security.’

‘So,’ concluded Meagan, ‘apart from Marie, all of you are veritable saints, except that you all lied by omission. Let me fill in the blanks so that we all know with whom we’re dealing. ‘Johnathan, you’ve euphemized your role and you do keep official eyes from prying but at a price. Shall you tell them or shall I? As you wish. Johnathan is also involved in the male escort business and passes Marie’s contact number to discreet clients as well, am I right?

Let’s continue. James, what’s your wife’s name? So shy? Marie, what’s your husband’s name? This is coming up to your eighth anniversary, is it not, the pair of you?

Derek, what was the name of that woman found on Bodmin Moor by the Fowey? She’d asphyxiated on her own vomit, I believe. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Paul, dear Paul. How many was it you lost from Zeebrugge a month back? One hundred and five from a total payload of one hundred and seventy seven, was it not? How much did each of them pay? Not a penny? That would be right because when they arrived, they had a nasty surprise awaiting them, did they not?

But who am I to sit in moral judgement? Now, if you’re all happy to proceed with this business, by all means, be my guest.’

‘Who the fuck are you, lady?’ demanded Paul Eastbourne.

‘I represent interests within greater Europe who’d like to simplify the distribution channels in and out of member countries. We are not without resources.’

‘You’re sailing close to the wind, lady with your True Confessions. One more crack from you and you’re over the side.’

‘Indeed?’ She snapped her fingers, five of the security detail, Eastbourne’s detail, came at him, lifted him bodily, took him, shouting, from the bar area, out of the port door, heaved him over the side and returned to their places.

‘He has a sporting chance,’ explained Meagan. ‘He’s 0.9 kilometres offshore, he’s not drunk and the water temperature this evening should give him a good thirty to forty minutes before hypothermia sets in. If he tries to board, he’ll be shot.’

To their enquiring glances, she added, ‘Money talks, sadly. Now, back to business. Anyone wish to open negotiations?’

Johnathan Maven was stupid enough to try, the five security came at him, lifted him bodily, screaming far more than Eastbourne had, took him out and heaved him over, then returned to their places.

‘I think that concludes the evening’s discussion, does it not?’

They trooped out to the waiting punt but Meagan indicated she wanted to talk to Derek. ‘Right, Mr. Hatton, that’s the payback for Melissa Barnes, your niece who called you from one of Eastbourne’s riverbank parties and whom you found choking on her own vomit when you arrived. Were you aware it was one of his parties?’

‘Not a clue. If I had -’

‘Yes, what would you have done?’

‘I’d have shot him.’

‘Then you would have shot the wrong person. It was Eastbourne’s party all right but the one who supplied her with the cut drug is well known at Linfield. I suspect that’s your next task.’

‘Do you know who it is? Are you playing games?’

‘I can tell you I’m not playing games and I don’t even know if it’s male or female. I do know that Eastbourne paid out a substantial amount for that person not to talk. He had a twenty minute call on his mobile that night, followed by the fund withdrawal some thirty minutes later and that appeared in the house account the following day. You can’t conclude from that that it was her. For a start, the idea of her being at one of those parties is ludicrous. Secondly, she would have taken it as a downpayment by Eastbourne on the development project. She may have known the true story though. I think a fruitful line of enquiry would be for you to explore to where the money went after that.

I take it that you’ve now retired from this line of work,’ she indicated the boat and the reason for the meeting this night. Derek nodded and felt he’d got out of it relatively unscathed … so far. ‘Stick to what you know,’ she urged, with a kindly gesture. ‘Now let’s go ashore.’

X

Derek booked in to see Amanda Greaves, violinist, on the return visit on her way to the north and decided to stay two nights.

The operation had become quite slick and the experience enjoyable from access to egress. The staff had increased in proportion to the profits and the attention was assiduous. In fact, Linfield was building a name around Britain and abroad for a delightful weekend away. There was a seedier side for those of that bent but it was under the control of Meagan’s people and as they didn’t appear to be greedy enough to buy up the whole kaboodle, there was a form of tolerance in operation. Perhaps they hadn’t wanted to internationalize the experience too much, the lure of the English stately home still a clarion call.

There were three pieces of unfinished business. One was the unmasking of the person who had fed Derek’s niece those drugs and left her to die, the finding of the source of the cut drugs and one more little task entrusted to him by Marjorie Maven herself from a public box in the town – to track down, if he could, who was skimming off the profits. Marjorie still did all the accounts and they’d been sure they’d got it past her, on the grounds that she’d not kicked up a fuss.

Why she’d picked on Derek to solve the riddle was a puzzle to him. She obviously liked him and had seen his name on the list. Perhaps that had been it but he wondered if she’d tumbled to his own little Linfield secret. These forty-eight hours might be instructive.

He was a bit late arriving and barely had time to have his things taken up to ‘his’ room, the same one he always used now, to freshen up and dress before it was time to skip down to the foyer, vestibule and concert hall. The lights went down and Amanda Greaves began with 'Schlechtes Wetter; Ach, Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden and
Lied der Frauen'.

There was a slight weariness to her voice this time about – it had been a long tour of the south and Derek was surprised she could even find a note. as the repertoire went on, most felt she was good, of that there was no doubt but she hadn’t been great.

In fact, before the final number, she even apologized amid deprecating reactions from the audience for her not to trouble herself over that.

Cheryl, the entertainments officer, had arranged for Derek to slip backstage to see the soprano and that’s where he observed not only her weariness but her agitation. There was something not altogether right about Amanda and ever the opportunist, Derek suggested they step out into the night. At first that seemed the last thing she’d wanted to do but then she’d agreed and they took the walkway over to the high terrace and sat on the high-sided bench, looking down over the house, floodlit from the ground, an impressive sight.

‘Care to talk about it?’ invited Derek.

‘Not really. Just a personal worry.’

‘You’re being blackmailed. That was the only reason you sang this evening.’

She jumped up as if to flee but he ordered her to stay and it might have been the change in tone, it might have been that he seemed to know, it might have been that she really had nowhere to flee. She was dying to tell him.

‘There was a recital in Cornwall and a party afterwards. The whole thing took place on Bodmin Moor. Near the front I saw a woman slipping something to some girls at the front. I wouldn’t have seen it except that the lights flashed on stage at that particular moment and it lit up the front three rows. The reason I noticed was because the girls weren’t looking at me, not that it was necessary of course but it was still unusual at a recital; at least that’s what I thought.

After the performance, I saw one of those girls in a bit of trouble and I took her away from the compound area and we walked a bit. At least I walked but she stumbled. I wanted to get her medical attention but she gripped my arm and showed me it was the last thing she wanted. She feared it for some reason. This was my crime. I should have insisted but I didn’t and she began to convulse. I panicked, ran back to the stage area and screamed for someone, anyone, to get medical help. I think someone was called but by this time a man came to me and told me I’d left a dying girl, that the police would think I had given her the drugs and that he’d stay quiet if I gave him a portion of my takings and agreed to give three concerts at venues of his choosing. Tonight was the last of those.’

‘You say ‘a man’. You mean it wasn’t the organizer of the event, Paul Eastbourne?’

‘How do you know his name?’ she asked in alarm.

‘Softly, softly. I just do. All will be revealed in a few minutes.’ She stood up to go once more. ‘No, Amanda, if you go now there’ll be no end to the trouble. I shan’t hurt you and if you stay and clear this up, then that’s an end of it. The blackmailer no longer has a secret to use.’

She sat down again but was wary. He loosened his bowtie and went on. ‘The woman you saw give the drugs – was she small, dark-haired, pretty and moved quickly?’

Amanda thought about it. ‘Not really. She was dark-haired but taller, very pale.’

‘A bit like Morticia Addams in the comedy show?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘No matter. She looked gothic.’

‘Yes, yes that’s how I’d describe her. It’s how I’d describe the man who blackmailed me too.’

‘Thanks, Amanda. I’m sorry not to address you as Ms Greaves but this matter is personal to me and I forgot my manners.’

‘It doesn’t worry me in the slightest. But how? How is it personal to you?’

‘Firstly, I’ll clear two storm clouds for you. both those people are dead. They were killed by people in the trade. This information came to me via a long route. So some sort of justice has been done. And yet you were still being blackmailed until when?’

‘Until two Thursdays ago. I haven’t heard since.’

‘Ah, then that does not clear my friend at all. He drowned, from what I can gather.’

She looked at him curiously. ‘You seem to lose a lot of friends.’

‘The first two were the opposite of friends. That girl, Amanda, happened to be my niece.’

‘Ohmgd, I’m so terribly sorry.’ She took his hand and they sat for some two minutes.

‘It’s a weight off my mind to know that though.’

‘Are you sure that man is not coming back, the one who blackmailed me recently?’

‘If he’s the one I think he is, I have it on good authority that he drowned, trying to swim from a boat to the shore. I heard this some days after it happened. We’d better be getting back.’

They wandered down the path, chatting about this and that, parted sweetly and he promised to look out for her next tour.

It was probably time for bed.

XI

So here he was again, in bed, bedclothes up to his chin, alone, reflecting on life and a girl’s life snuffed out by uncaring, unfeeling people. He felt they’d relinquished their right to be called human, having done something like that.

The moon bathing the room in its gentle light was just over half full and he half imagined the old woman would appear again, never having accepted she was the holographic version but had been the genuine article.

That’s when he saw his bedroom door handle dip, saw the door slowly open, saw the foot before he saw the woman behind it, she slipped into the room and adjusted her eyes. Then her eyes saw him and she advanced steadily towards the bed. As he moved further towards the window side of the bed, she came round to the other side, lifted the covers and climbed in beside him.

She moved across to him, her cold hand reached out and went around his waist. She hissed, ‘Well, are you going to hold me, Derek or are you going to lie there like a dummy all night?’

‘Cheryl,’ he whispered and kissed her. They fell into thirty minutes of intensity and didn’t notice the presence in the room of another person but they sure heard the clump of the chain, pulled away from each other and stared in shock.

Over by the wardrobe had materialized the most pathetic of creatures, a gothic-attired old woman, hands manacled and presumably feet also; she gave out the most deliciously low, spooky moan and stared straight through the two of them. Cheryl gasped and clutched him as the woman slowly, evenly, advanced towards the bed and then half of her seemed to be moving through the bed, the other half above.

A metre from their pillow, she spoke in a low voice, ‘Help me.’

‘How?’

‘Help me. My daughter.’

Cheryl tumbled to it immediately. ‘The box room.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said the old lady and dematerialized.

‘Did we just see that?’ he asked her.

‘We did and I know the legend. The hologram was created by Pete Daveson to cover up for any appearances this poor dear might make. What she thinks of what’s happened to the old place I’ll never know.’

‘I should think that she’d love to hear music and gaiety once more after the years of gloom. But we’ll have to help her. Can we?’

‘Derek, we’re not even questioning what we saw.’

‘Well, we saw her, didn’t we? She spoke to us and besides, you probably heard I’d seen her before.’

‘Ah, that explains their behaviour. Sally was talking about it. We’ll go down tomorrow, find the girl’s bones, get the local minister in and bury her properly.’

They were sure the old lady had heard that.

‘Now,’ said Derek, ‘does anyone know you’re here?’ She shook her head. ‘Does anyone know of our plans?’ She shook her head. ‘Have you changed your mind?’ She smiled and shook her head. ‘Well, thank heavens for that. It must be the best kept courtship in the history of this place. Thanks for the tip about the alarms.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘There’s one more thing and we can tie this thing off. It seems someone is raking off some money from Marjory’s accounts. She noticed it. Now look, if you know about it, good. If you don’t, then also good.’

‘Silly. Marjory split the accounts when the playhouse was built but the bank didn’t do their end until a week ago. That can be straightened out tomorrow. The income now goes to a central account, from where it’s split three ways. So it was a substantial amount being ‘raked off’. There’s two hundred and fifty thousand in the playhouse account alone.’

‘One more thing – is Pete Daveson or his wife criminal?’

‘One never really knows about someone, Derek but no. Pete certainly suspected Paul and you of being here for nefarious purposes. Said the two of you were going about whispering, acting most suspiciously. He put in extra security which I told you about. He’s attached to the place and wouldn’t go anywhere else, neither would she. You see, Sally’s mother was the governess for the children of the late Lord of the Manor and Pete was given his position by Sir Richard two decades ago, when he’d been distinctly on his uppers. He’s never forgotten that.’

‘Did you think I was suspicious?’

‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, especially at first. But the story of Morticia and Fester broke everyone up and I had few doubts after that. It just seemed to me a comedy of misunderstandings from then on.’

‘It was a bit more than that and people died as a result but yes, it was a bit silly really. Who knows but maybe Paul Eastbourne picked up on that in me and used it to continue the divide and rule. We’ll never know now. We really must help the old lady tomorrow morning.’

‘That’s the first thing we’ll do after breakfast. When do you want to marry?’

‘In a few weeks. Any good singers coming up? Any chamber orchestras?’

‘We’ll look at that tomorrow too. I’ll have to put through some calls. The current ones are in the next week so that’s a bit soon for me, if it’s all the same to you.’

‘Fine. Do you mind if I stay over for a few more days? I’m shifting my operations up this way in the next month. The bulk of my business is online or by phone anyway.’

‘Enough shop for one night. Let’s do something else.’

‘Chat?’

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