The stately home is in fact Shiwa Ngandu, in Zambia. Gives a rough idea of the layout, gallery will be added in sidebar later.
- Sir Richard Maven, longtime owner of Linfield
- Lady Marjorie Maven, wife and co-owner
- Arthur Maven, their elder son
- Johnathan Maven, their younger son
- Pete Daveson, longtime house staff
- Sally Daveson, his wife
- Pippa Marrin, assistant to Lady Maven
- Derek Hatton, investor, venture capital
- Paul Eastbourne, investor, venture capital
- James Ingram, property developer
- Terry Reynolds, landscaper and artist
- Linda West, also landscaper and artist
- Mrs. Thompson, antiques
- Rhonda Lewis, antiques
- Amanda Greaves, opera singer
- Marie, shadowy operator
- Marit, much higher than she made out
‘Sorry, Rachel,’ no can do this weekend’ apologised Derek Hatton. ‘Heading down to the west country, Linfield – you know it?’
‘Idea is that Hatton money and that of a few others will transform it into something quite special. Can’t hurt to have a look anyway. Fancy a spin down that way?’
‘I’ve not been invited and besides, I’ve got deliveries all weekend. Would they be interested in my wares?’
Driving in between the pillars, there’s nothing which grabs the visitor to Linfield at first, just a gravelled road which could become boggy after a prolonged spell of rain, it goes on for maybe a quarter of a mile. The carpark is at the end, on the right, which is just as well, as the land then dips alarmingly further right and can only be tackled on foot.
The unfortunate thing about Linfield is that, being on top of a flattened crest which dips away on all sides after the first lower terrace called Abercrombie, after the car park, is that there’s no presence to it, no stately home right there before your eyes. There’s a damn good view of the far off Cheatham Hills, the mist in the valley can be quite nice, it’s all quite green but it’s a landscaper’s nightmare.
However, it’s not an architect’s nightmare – at least it would not have been had architects been allowed near the place. Historically, it had always been a hotchpotch, an eyesore.
Where it picked up was that in the valley, before the land climbed up to another ridge not their property, it made for a nice lake, with an elongated island roughly in the middle. Throw in a couple of follies here and there, plus a boathouse, and it wasn’t half bad.
The house itself was in the shape of an H, with the two arms of the H laid along the contours of the hill; the high terrace was behind the house, meaning the upper, side, nearest the carpark and it was large, that high terrace – half an acre all up, with the rose garden its crowning glory at the west end.
The path then led down the left, looking from above, first reaching a flat area from where you stepped down to Abercrombie Terrace, abutting the house on the lower side.
Abercrombie was General James Abercrombie, dishonoured in being soundly defeated by the French at the Battle of Carillon, in 1758. The man was apparently a non-comp and his force of superior numbers was soundly defeated, with Wikipedia today recording this:
“American historian Lawrence Henry Gipson wrote of Abercrombie’s campaign that “no military campaign was ever launched on American soil that involved a greater number of errors of judgment on the part of those in positions of responsibility.”
Whoever had named this terrace had had a macabre sense of humour, as the garden at the western end was also called Montcalm.
There were further terraces stepped down from there to the lake but each successive terrace was set a bit further west from the one above, such that the whole curved around the convex contour of the hill, though not as steeply as the house on the crest. It was messy topography they’d built over.
Even up on the crest, the two arms of the H were at different heights, connected by what you could call a very long, shallow stepped staircase, and this part of the whole complex was the grandest. Hatton took all this in, stepping out now onto Abercrombie Terrace from the southern foyer, a lady came out and greeted him, leading him to the white painted wrought iron table and chairs on the lawn.
He knew her from London, she’d worked for Lady Maven, and the poor girl – well, not so much a girl anymore but one doesn’t like to draw attention to that – was named Pippa. Handsome woman he thought.
Richard, or ‘Dick’ Maven to those he allowed to be familiar, now came out to greet him, they took tea and all was chummy, plus it was one of those warmish winter days. After the small talk, they got down to the property.
‘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 this entire south or Abercrombie wing, as it was earlier, torn out and replaced with that conservatory, plus the belvedere above it on the second floor. The north wing though is still as it was in bygone days.’
‘And what of the high terrace behind that, with the choo choo, the children’s climbing frames and slides? You don’t mind the great public trampling over the rose garden?’
‘Afraid we’ve given over the north side to the clink of coin – our agent, Helen, runs it quite efficiently.’
‘And your wife?’
‘She hasn’t quite come to terms with it to the same extent. It was one thing having the annual fair in the 50s and 60s, community obligations and all that but the thought now that half the house is not ours any more and the old half too … well. Still, quite a view from our side here, isn’t it, especially early morning, catches the rising sun before it disappears behind the Cheatham Hills late afternoon.’
‘How far down do you allow the public? The demarcation line?’
‘Well, there’s really just the one path, the steps and so they can visit the lake once in the morning, once in the afternoon, for three hours each, it’s ours apart from that. They don’t come near the south wing, nor Abercrombie.’
‘Tell me about this get-together tomorrow – it’s been a bit hush-hush so far.’
‘We’ve a certain amount riding on the outcome tomorrow to be frank, time to play the family trump card from the vault below the refectory as a matter of fact,’ he added in conspiratorial tones. ‘You’ll have to wait I’m afraid.’
‘All very mysterious.’
‘There’ve been rumblings from down there recently so they may as well be exploited.’
‘Let’s wander down to the boathouse when you’re ready and meet Marjorie and the boys. No hurry.’
The gravel path was damp underfoot, the crazy-paving steps after that slippery, it had rained mid-morning but had now cleared up to the point the sun was out and warming the general area. Hatton took in the old boy on the way down the steps – his height was his redeeming feature, the rest of him now running to seed but the jaunty manner and de rigeur garb, right down to the knee breeches, were very Maven indeed. Theatrically so. Theatrical described the whole damned thing he thought to himself.
‘That a Henry Moore over there?’
‘The middle terrace? An attempt at a replica by a local sculptor I’m afraid,’ said his host, ‘not much left of the old place you could call the genuine article any more. Hard times we live in.’
At the boathouse, Hatton observed two men [the sons?] messing about on the lake in punts and now Marjorie approached in tweeds, white blouse and sensible shoes, all very much in keeping with her hairstyle. Marvellously well preserved, Marjorie Maven, he knew her from her London days.
She extended a scrawny hand. ‘Derek, so good of you to come to see us. We’re planning a little surprise tomorrow, you know.’
‘Derek knows this, Marjorie. Why don’t you call the boys over and 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 now, Pippa’s here with us, as you know.’
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 the modern man though in his polo tee, dark navy denims but cheap Oxfords.
There was little doubt though about the aquiline noses and the elongated, straight sided faces of the Mavens and after they’d made their way up to the dining room, which was the old anteroom converted, the guided tour was in full swing
Hatton reflected on the mish-mash of styles at Linfield. 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 other room.
They climbed the grand shallow staircase to the north wing. It sported the great hall, the aviary and Linfield’s Folly – a most garish room done out to resemble a grotto. The spiral staircase then took visitors to the original bedrooms upstairs and the marble bathroom. A very strange place. Derek wanted to know who’d thought that an 18th century chiffonier would go well with a 1920s replica commode and nobody would notice. This seems to have been the motif throughout the history of Linfield.
They ended back at the dining room in the south wing.
A tallish woman of maybe forty appeared from nowhere, mop of hair and a pleasant face but with a trace of nervousness – she’d serve tea. Hatton wondered why he was wondering so much. He’d been invited down for a meeting to finance some new project and all he’d been doing was wandering and wondering. Patience, patience.
An even taller man of maybe forty-five now came through and helped the woman – chance to confirm a hunch. ‘Married couple?’
‘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, jack of all trades and his lovely wife Sally. 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 both returned to setting the dishes out on the sideboard.
‘You’ll see a lot of Peter and Sally. They’re the only staff we’ve retained for guests so they’re run off their feet. If this venture gets up and running, we’ll add to the staff as and when. Let’s eat and then you might like to see the commercial set up on the north side.’
After they were done, they went up the stairs once more, out onto the high terrace. Derek had seen the last coachload depart just after three, the punters were obviously attracted but to have installed scarlet and yellow tubular climbing frames on that high lawn, plus plastic representations of Disney characters and a commando ropes course was … well that would be discussed, hotly he suspected, on tomorrow.
Night fell, dinner was eaten in the dining room, the talk had petered out and it was lampshade time. His four poster was more than comfortable, 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 him about 4 a.m. That would not have been from the conservatory but the room immediately to the west of it. The central heating maybe?
Now came the quite distinct 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 and saw that her eyes had followed him. Striding up to the apparition, he passed his arm straight through her, she shrieked, spun away a couple of yards 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 well, it would have knocked the stuffing out of the most ardent of sceptics. He’d ask his host for the explanation on the morrow.
Richard Maven did not greet the news with incredulity at breakfast, nor with conspiratorial silence, he seemed genuinely thoughtful, as if this part of the big secret had been revealed ahead of its time and shouldn’t have.
The other guests arrived throughout 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, then someone he did know – Paul Eastbourne, another of an entrepreneurial bent … and then a car arrived with two passengers they saw coming through – she of the true gothic Morticia Addams variety 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 a leash for him but thought better of it. It appears they were landscape gardeners.
This time, lunch was taken in the Boiserie on the north side, 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 all went out onto that hideous high terrace and Fester nodded.
This was going to take some doing, first to go would be the red and yellow plastic children’s climbing frames. The opera house-come-theatre would fit into the space across the path, the cascading terraces would remain stunning in their multi-tiered effect. Rhonda, Morticia, Fester and Maven were deep in conference for some considerable time, Marjorie now took the rest of them down to the lake.
When they eventually reconvened on Abercrombie – they had to meet here as the gates would be opened to the public at 2 p.m. – there was a more elevated spirit of expectation.
Derek asked Reynolds, ‘So, where are you based, Terry?’ and the reply was extraordinary: ‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Because I asked you civilly, you arsehole.’ Zero expression on Hatton’s face but it had been Fester’s tone, not the reply which had triggered him.
Marjorie immediately stepped in, flustered. ‘Terry and Linda move about a lot, up and down the country. Up to your necks in work, aren’t you, Terry?’
He nodded moodily but Derek decided to press this point. ‘No, I mean, where’s your home base?’
Fester was now nonplussed how to respond. ‘I think Marjorie’s just told you.’
Hatton now asked, ‘Do you know why I’m here?’
The other shrugged, also deeply annoying and Marjorie saw a situation developing. She anxiously looked out for her husband, who came over quickly.
Derek addressed him. ‘I find this man,’ he indicated with his head, ‘unnecessarily mysterious over quite basic details and offensive in manner. Under these circumstances, I can’t see how I could invest in this project. Good day to you, Sir Richard, Lady Maven and thank you for the hospitality.’
With that, he turned and made for his room to get his things, he’d not brought all that much inside, Maven immediately followed him, then called, ‘Derek, please wait one moment.’
Hatton of course did, Maven caught up, puffing, ‘Allow me ten minutes, that’s all I ask, let’s go to your room and sit there.’
Hatton grunted but obviously acquiesced, presented with manners once more.
It was he who opened. ‘Too many mysteries, Sir Richard. A ghost last night unsatisfactorily explained this morning, this man being mysterious and also downright rude, plus anomalies in the whole set-up.’
Maven wasn’t exactly wringing his hands but he wasn’t far off it, his manner deeply apologetic. ‘I do apologize profusely for Terry. He’s highly eccentric but he’s brilliant too. Frankly, he can do the landscaping for a fraction of the cost of …’
‘No, not a bit of it. They have no central office, they 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 whomever 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 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 desperate now and Derek asked himself why his particular money was required. Surely a hard-headed businessman would have just said, ‘Sorry you feel that way,’ let him go and brought another source of finance in.
Maven continued, ‘The others are assembling in the Blue Room if you’d care to join us and the plan will be put to all.’
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 project manager, if you like. Sir Richard has received you all but his focus is primarily Linfield. My focus is the coordination of various projects going on concurrently.
You’ll now be given ways I can be contacted at any hour on any day,’ he waited till Johnathan had distributed the cards, ‘and I bear responsibility for the task being completed. In other words, I’m handing out business cards. 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 carpark, the guests would move down past the opera house/theatre which would occupy that area on the left and would be met on Abercrombie in a new vestibule, from where they’d move to a foyer and thence to their quarters. There’d be little need to rebuild as the existing walls could be converted to their new purpose.
Paul Eastbourne asked where the antiques came into it and what the bait was 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 covers were drawn, the lights were doused, 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. 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 charmless 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, among those three could present a threat to the project. It was Maven 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 Marjorie 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 Hatton had wished to find out anyway – just how far the man would eat humble pie and therefore, how integral he was to the project.
‘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 becoming 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- this was way out of character for him. He put it to one side for now 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. Maven breathed a sigh of relief and invited them to spend some time by themselves on the south 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, then drifting onto the middle terrace, each waited for the other to begin. Finally, Paul said, ‘You really went for Reynolds, Derek.’
‘We need to check him out.’
‘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 all right and 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, a bit too fawning. The antiques for a start, coming up from London – I’d like to explore that one.’
‘I have a ladyfriend who’d like to contribute to that side of it. What’s your main beef, Paul?’
‘I know 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 besides us is injecting extra funds or else making money some other way?’
‘Perhaps. Let’s work together on this one. Here’s my card.’
‘And mine, Paul. Also, something else has been puzzling me – are Sir Richard and Lady Maven something direct from antiquity or is their dress and manner something which vaguely reminds me of Bertram’s Hotel?’
‘Ah yes, you saw that too. A little too country squire. And the others are bizarre as well. Derek, don’t look up but we’re being watched from the window. Walk over to the fake Moore.’
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?’
‘No, Morticia … oh … and now Ingram. 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 to the far side of the piece from the house. ‘Derek, this really is a Henry Moore. It’s genuine, I happen to know it should currently be residing in the garden of a villa in Le Touquet.’
‘Fancy a bit of boating before dusk?’
They spoke of this and that and Derek outlined his whole experience from their first approach to the night time apparition.
Paul was puzzled. ‘Too many errors, Derek. Far too many. 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. You’d assume they would too. I seriously hope you’re not being set up here for a fall.’
Sir Richard was waiting for them lakeside.
The plans had been approved, the money had been forthcoming from both, 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 made their eighth visit to Linfield, their cars were met at the park and they were escorted past the superb playhouse, down the steps and into reception. There was the ever-present Pippa, a good sort and perfect for this role.
‘Paul.’ He nodded. ‘Derek,’ she added with the slightest hint of irony which made Paul quickly scrutinise her.
Derek had asked for his old room and Paul was to have his as well, adjacent to Derek’s, at the end of the short hallway. Both had been invited for dinner in the Boiserie at 8 p.m. sharp.
The cuisine had lifted to a level which would cater for quite fastidious tastes from the Metrop.
Over port, Sir Richard spoke. ‘I trust you’ve 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 … 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 metropolitan rivals. This side of the business was only going to keep on keeping on, even if the rest took a downturn. It was clear Pippa had had a huge input in its design and décor, everyone was impressed.
They took their places.
Waiting for Ms Greaves to begin, even in the dimmed light, Paul noticed two or three people 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 a 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.
One person they did both notice was a diminutive figure from the smoke, into music but not of this kind, one of the strings to her bow being promotions of artists who were a bit left field for most. It was mentioned at some parties that this lady, Marie, had a hand in other activities as well, though no one came clean and named them directly.
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 but came up against the secondary password for the green room and conservatory. She pressed her pager and waited for the power disconnect.
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 out quickly. The room was close to the east end so a rapid hike through the undergrowth would bring her out onto the gravel road.
She took a deep breath, ran the code and the power disconnected a second time, 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 or via Abercrombie but that would take a minimum of six or seven minutes.
There was time and she went straight through to the green room, which gave out onto the conservatory. Her pencil torch showed the room 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 had still not set on the rear right leg, which she now tore off, slipped over her shoulder into her Red Indian style quiver and now came the tricky bit.
Rapidly scanning the rows of flora by the three-quarter moon through the window, she judged that the vault was accessible from the north end, most likely under that movable earthen pot over there.
It was, she almost leapt down the ladder, shone the pencil torch around, then came a stroke of luck – there were traces of some spillage on the bench which had been cleared up but there was a bin below.
She took off the quiver, the bin contents were poured in after the chair leg, that was enough for now, the next danger was upon her – up the ladder – she stepped out of the hatch, made for the outer door and safety, the tension ceased.
Someone tried Derek Hatton’s door about the same time, he sat crouched by the far wall, Pete Daveson and wife stood scanning the room – it was now 3:32 a.m., they didn’t see him, concluded he was out roaming and went out silently.
Eastbourne and Hatton met at the Hare and Hounds, Wimbledon, some days later, ordered food and bought ales.
‘A new variation of MDMA, Derek. Phials in the furniture. Thompson has a clear run on the antiques side, the vault is a lab. Whoever’s running the show and I still pin it on Daveson, they didn’t count on Marie. It’ll have been scoured by now and the duff furniture removed.’
‘You got Marie up there?’
‘Set a thief …’
‘Hell of a risk.’
‘I wanted to know what the game was. Now the bad news – it was an amateur operation, someone branching out. Linfield’s a good cover.’
Derek took a sip and looked across. ‘And?’
‘There’s a complication. Marie said there was an ingredient cut in which didn’t come from these shores as far as she knew – she’d seen it in Germany though. That changes the game.’
‘Sorry to be obtuse.’
‘Marie nicked some of their product, didn’t she. If it’s a continental player – do you know how naughty people are over there, Derek?’
‘You don’t branch out on your own. You either get found or there is another way. Be bold, set up a meeting with them.’
‘Whoever Marie finds out it is.’
‘To be cut in, for a modest amount. We’d have to hire some boys with shooters.’
‘Hang on, what have I to do with it?’
‘Word was you and I were in this together. Doesn’t matter if it’s not so, that’s the word in certain quarters. We either beg for mercy or play it bold. Cruises was one of your lines. Can you get a boat for a night?’
‘It would do.’
‘If we’re dealing with Europe, a serious crowd, then we’re out of our league.’
‘Perhaps. We could broker a new line that might interest them.’
‘What new line?’
‘Cruises. Also gets Plod off our backs. The cruise idea dovetails nicely with the rest of their set up.’
‘We’ll reconvene at the Tavern in Kilburn a week today. All right?’
The first meeting of interested parties was this night on the Osprey, they’d been ferried to the side and had come up ladders.
The ‘guests’ had checked in their weapons, boat security was ever present, the caterers had served the fish and the conversation began.
Present were Paul and Derek, Fester, plus one with whom Fester seemed particularly miffed – a dark-haired lady called Marit, 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 return from these weekends and so our ask of 12% on top of the running costs would seem not unreasonable, would you say?’
‘The electronics would be handled by us?’
‘Catering?’ asked Marit.
‘Your call, lady. We’re not in that game. These were brought in tonight.’
There were nods around the table. Fester spoke. ‘For reasons I think are fairly obvious, we stand to risk most, so on top of 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.’
Fester asked in return, ‘Why only the 12%?’
‘We’d like a longer shelf life. Our backers have stipulated 12% so that’s non-negotiable.’
‘We’re going for a stroll for twenty minutes. You can speak freely during that time. Your people can check for any devices as well.’
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?’
‘We need to to speak with our people,’ answered Fester.
‘Meaning you’re not the principal. Now listen, when we reconvene in one week, we want the principals here. That means, Terry, the supplier for South-West, not your own girl and Johnathan – whoever is the decision maker at your end. Everyone plays by the book and all will be well.’
Five minutes after the last of the guests had been ferried ashore, the two of them were in the communications room, listening to the conversation.
‘None of them knew of the lovely Marit except Terry who was cut up about her. Fester plans to double-cross us, did you read it that way, Derek?’
‘Perhaps we should have gone for 18-20%?’
‘No, my source says that’s the right price. It suggests we don’t need the cash.’
‘Do you think Marit was there to keep Fester honest?’
‘I’m sure of it, or else to prevent him branching out.’
‘Who’s she reporting to?’
‘Maybe she’s not reporting to anyone.’
‘We had a real mix onboard tonight. Rank amateurs like Fester who are no doubt expendable, through to the demure Marit 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. Can we use the Emma Hamilton for the next one?’
‘Can’t see why not.’
Derek had sent his PA Amy to lunch and was just tucking into the turkey and cranberry sandwiches when the buzzer went in reception.
Typical. Through the screen he saw it was Marit, 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. ‘Speak, Marit.’
‘Are you certain all your friends are friends?’
He laughed. ‘That’s precisely what we were expecting – the divide and rule.’
She didn’t answer but reached inside her satchel and extracted a large envelope which she laid in front of him. He took out the notes, flicked through them and nearly concealed his shock but not quite. ‘That … er … puts a different slant on it.’
‘Thought it might. You do see they’re authentic, don’t you? Let your secretary double check this afternoon.’
‘Thanks, I shall.’
She reached in and produced a second envelope. He looked at the top sheet, the letterhead and the little mark in the lower right corner, put it back in the envelope and said, ‘I had no idea we were playing in this league. Can’t you people allow the little man just a bit of fun?’
‘How could you in this caper? Offshore’s all tied up, Derek, 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.’
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, Marit, James Ingram, Johnathan and to his immense shock and Paul’s too – little Marie.
Marit chaired the meeting and opened. ‘Please state what you are. Marie first 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, 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.’
‘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 the constabulary at bay. I have contacts within the county.’
‘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 turns a profit, excluding porn and drugs.’
‘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.’
‘I deal with people. Staff supply, jobs, immigration advice, security.’
‘So,’ concluded Marit, ‘apart from Marie, all of you are veritable saints, except that you all lied by omission. Let me fill in the blanks. ‘Johnathan, you’ve euphemized your role – you do keep official eyes from prying – 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 young 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 new citizens was it you lost at Zeebrugge a month back? One hundred and five from a total payload of one hundred and seventy seven, was it not? 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 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.’
‘Really?’ She snapped her fingers, five of the security detail, Eastbourne’s own detail that was, 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 Marit. ‘He’s 0.9 kilometres offshore, he’s not yet 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 business, does it not?’
They trooped out to the waiting punt but Marit indicated she wanted to talk to Derek. ‘Right, Mr. Hatton, that’s the payback for Melissa Barnes, your niece, who called you for help 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 was at Linfield.’
‘Mr. Eastbourne had a twenty minute talk on his mobile that night with this person, the person supplied the drugs. It was not Marie. She deals in soft stuff. Neither are with us now. Mr. Ingram is straight, he had no idea Marie was doing as she was, as far as we know, I had a chat with her. I take it you plan to retire from this line of work,’ she indicated the boat. Derek nodded. ‘Stick to what you know,’ she suggested, with a kindly gesture. ‘I’d suggest properties – James Ingram is on the level, you’ll have to decide with Marie.’
‘Both the Mavens? How will they take this? They were shown the same evidence you were this evening. They knew part of it, they’ll be in mourning and yet it was I suggested that you and James Ingram should be approached, that the passing over of elder son Arthur was a highly unusual move. They came clean so I’m told by phone – Johnathan was blackmailing them over her bona fides – a little matter of her showgirl past, they certainly play the lord and lady very well, no? With you and James, they would stay in their rightful home, it would pass to Arthur after that, he agreed that after that it goes to the Linfield Trust. Not the James Ingram Trust – the Linfield Trust. Much of that is still in the future if you choose to go this way. Now let’s go ashore.’
Derek phone booked from London to see Amanda Greaves, violinist, on her return from her tour of eastern Europe.
Linfield was building a name around Britain and abroad as a delightful weekend away. Marit’s people did take a cut – 12% – they weren’t greedy.
They were met at the Playhouse, as it was now known, by the ever-present Pippa who shook his hand, in they went and took their seats, 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 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. It was a delightfully intimate theatre.
Pippa, the entertainments officer, had arranged for Derek to slip backstage to see the soprano afterwards and that’s where he observed not only her weariness but also her agitation. There was something not altogether right about Amanda this evening and ever the opportunist, Derek suggested they step out into the night.
At first that seemed the last thing she wanted to do but then Pippa materialized from nowhere and nodded, Amanda agreed, they took the walkway over to the high terrace and sat on that low wall, looking down at the floodlit northern wing, now an impressive sight.
‘Care to talk?’ 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. 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, 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 that that 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 did 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 this trouble. You’re quite safe, 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 goth.’
‘Yes, yes that’s how I’d describe her. The man who blackmailed me was different. 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.’
‘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 the mind to know that though,’ Amanda murmured. ‘Are you sure that man is not coming back, the one who blackmailed me?’
‘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. We’d best be getting back.’
They wandered back to the playhouse, she collected her things, he walked her to her car, chatting about this and that and promised to look out for her on her next tour.
Derek lay there in bed, hands behind head, thinking.
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 a hologram, but 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 to the bed, lifted the covers and climbed in beside him.
She moved across, 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?’
‘Pippa,’ he whispered and kissed her. They fell into thirty minutes of intense negotiation and didn’t at first see the presence in the room of another person but they then heard the clump of the chain, pulled away from each other and stared in shock.
Over by the wardrobe had materialized that most pathetic of creatures, the 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. Pippa 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 yard from their pillow, she spoke in a low voice, ‘Help me.’
‘Help me. Help my daughter.’
Pippa tumbled to it immediately. ‘The box room.’
‘Yes,’ said the old lady and dematerialised.
‘Did we just see that?’ he asked.
‘We did and I know the legend. The hologram was created by James to cover 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 she’d love the music and gaiety once more after the years of gloom but we’ll still have to help her. Can we?’
‘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.’
‘We’ll go down tomorrow, find the girl’s bones, get the local minister in and bury her properly. And Derek, it looks as if James did this out of some malice, so let’s get one thing clear. I carry no candle for him but I think, with him, he just didn’t want the appearance to ruin the -’
‘Well yes, I confess it – from Sir Richard to the Davesons, I’ve a reason, James has a reason, you have a reason for things to continue. I een think the old lady has a reason. So we must do this, not just for business reasons.’
‘Does anyone know you’re here in this room?’ he asked. 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. ‘One more thing, Pippa – is either Pete Daveson or his wife criminal?’
‘Who knows but I think not. 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’s attached to the place and wouldn’t go anywhere else, nor 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.’
‘I’m listening if there’s any more.’
‘I stopped buying Paul Eastbourne,’ she said, ‘the moment he assumed you’d be part of his game. The way you just opened up to me – I know it was for knowledge at ground level here but I also felt you had possible plans for the future. Did they include me?’ He admitted it with a smile, she continued. ‘And now I’ve been asked to take on Linfield, now that Johnathan has … departed and Arthur doesn’t want. He asked me in fact. But I don’t want either.’
‘The Playhouse is your thing, plus attending to Lady Maven?’
‘In a nutshell. You know I want you here. Who’d run London though? Amy?’
‘Yes, I’ve broached it with her, she knows the ropes, she makes many of the decisions anyway. She needs some sort of boost now, to keep her interested.’
‘Derek, Lady Maven is delighted, she knows you’ll honour the agreements, they’ll stay on until their dying days – their naturally dying days, Derek,’ she hastily added, ‘Arthur’s fine with it, he owns the property now. The only question now is if you’re fine with me?’
‘Let’s find out, shall we?’