Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Thirteen

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Rose was weeding in the back garden, with Baby sitting on a rug beside her, sunhat firmly in place, when Ryan did something so surprising that she dropped her fork. He came out into the garden carrying an enormous bunch of flowers. Ryan had never given Rose so much as a garage forecourt bunch of wilting crysanths, and yet here he was, approaching her bearing the most enormous and expensive bouquet she had ever seen. As he came closer it she could see from the black expression on his face that the flowers had absolutely nothing to do with him.

  ‘Who the fuck is sending you flowers?’ he demanded, all but throwing them at her. 

  Baby clapped his hands at the sight of so many fabulous colours. Rose gently picked up the bouquet and searched for the card.

  ‘Oh, aren’t they beautiful!’ she said.

  ‘Never mind that. Who are they from? A man has a right to know who’s sending his missus flashy bunches of flowers.’ Ryan stood, hands on hips, attempting to look threatening, but clearly still suffering with stomach trouble. One hand slipped towards his tummy and he bent forward a little.

  Rose read the card. Congrats to you and Baby on a stunningly successful shoot. Warm kisses to your little star, Annabel.

  ‘Oh, they’re from a friend,’ she said.

  ‘What friend?’

  ‘Just someone I met through Baby, you know, mothers and babies and toddlers, that sort of thing.’

  ‘Some other mother sending you flowers? I don’t think so. Give me that,’ he snatched the card from Rose’s hand. There was a brief pause while he read the note. A puzzled frown crossed his face. ‘Annabel? You turned lesbian on me, or what? And what’s she on about, a ‘shoot’ and ‘your little star’ – what’s all that about, for crying out loud?’

  Rose looked at Baby, then back at the flowers, trying to avoid meeting Ryan’s eye. At least the flowers weren’t from Marco. Ryan would have gone mad if they really had been from a man. But did he actually believe she might have an admirer? Could he, when he thought so little of her himself? Rose tried to sound as matter of fact as she could.

  ‘You know Baby won that competition, well, there was an agent, at the finals, and she saw him and liked him and…’

  ‘What sort of agent?’

  ‘From a modelling agency. Anyway, she thought Baby had potential, that’s what she said. So she signed him, and now that he’s on her books we get offered advertising work – pictures for magazines, or TV ads. That sort of thing. Baby’s really very good at it. I think he enjoys all the attention. So, on Wednesday he had to be a bumblebee for a new range of baby food – Honey Pot Organics – it’s for a TV advertisement. Annabel said she’d let us know when it’s going to be on.’

  Ryan held up both hands.

  ‘Stop! Have you gone mad, woman? Agencies? TV? Bumblebees? Is it that post-natal depression thing?’

  ‘No, really, it’s all true. Annabel’s the agent. She sent the flowers. You’ve read the note.’ Rose stroked the silky petals of the tiger lilies and breathed in their perfume.

  ‘You’re telling me you and the kid have been off doing all this stuff? On your own? You? Without telling me?’

  ‘I did tell you about the competition, remember? And we’ve only done the one advert so far. Besides, you’re always so busy, and you haven’t been well. I didn’t want to bother you.’

  Ryan sank painfully onto the rug next to Baby, rubbing his stomach.

  ‘I can’t believe you’ve been doing all this. You never do anything. You never go anywhere. You can’t even drive.’ A thought occurred to him, ‘What about the money?  They must be paying you something, can’t be all sodding vouchers for TV ads.’

  ‘Oh, Annabel will sort all that out at the end of each month. She’s setting up a special account for Baby.’

  ‘Baby? What’s the good of that? Can’t see him signing cheques, somehow.’

  ‘Well, no, I’ll do that sort of thing for him.’ Rose looked down at her pale, sweaty husband, and this time she met and held his gaze.

  ‘You don’t know anything about money,’ he said. ‘You haven’t even got your own bank account. How do you think you’re going to manage all that stuff?’

  ‘I’ll learn. For Baby.’

  Ryan looked at his son as if he had never seen him before.

  ‘How much money are we talking about, then?’ he wanted to know.

  ‘He gets a one-off payment for the bumblebee ad of £800, then £12 every time it’s shown on TV. Then there’s more for the poster campaign, and they’re even thinking of putting him on all the jars. He did look very sweet. Annabel said that would mean thousands, with all the extra photo shoots, and maybe other promotional work. And she says there’s a baby clothes company who’s really interested. And one of the top nappy companies wanted him, but I said no because he doesn’t use disposable nappies. But he might do the bubble bath one. He likes Bertie’s Bubbles. Annabel says there’s lots more stuff coming up. She says he’s going to be the first baby Supermodel. Such a clever boy, aren’t you, Baby?’ Rose turned her attention back to her little boy, passing him a giant daisy to play with and smiling at his delight.

  ‘But,’ Ryan was still struggling to take it all in, ‘you didn’t tell me,’ he said in a small voice.

  Rose looked at him again. He seemed so little and unfrightening sitting next to Baby.

  ‘We didn’t need to tell you,’ she said, ‘we managed on our own.’

  Ryan looked up at her, squinting against the sun.

  ‘But I could help,’ he said, ‘I could take care of the business side of things.’

  ‘No thanks. No need.’

  There was a long silence. Ryan clutched at his stomach and groaned.

  ‘Tummy hurting again?’ Rose asked. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to call the doctor?’

  ‘No. No doctors. Besides,’ he struggled to his feet, ‘I haven’t got time. I’ve got to have another look at the car. If I’m not up to going in to work at least I can try and find out what’s up with the motor.’

  ‘Oh? Another problem?’

  ‘Yes, another sodding problem.’

  Ryan turned for the house, then paused and looked back at Rose. 

  ‘Don’t suppose you met any mechanics while you were off on your secret modelling assignments? No, not likely, all bloody arty farty types. Nobody useful.’

  Rose shrugged and shook her head.

  ‘Just photographers, hairdressers, that sort of thing.’

  ‘Typical of you. You’re off enjoying yourself, having a good time, making friends. You don’t care about me. Oh no. Doesn’t matter that your husband, the man who pays for everything and does all the work around here, doesn’t matter that he’s ill and suffering.’

  ‘But, you won’t go to the doctor…’

  ‘Doesn’t matter that his car, the car he goes to work in, doesn’t matter that it’s falling to bits,’ he took a few quick paces towards Rose so that he was standing in front of her, unnervingly close, his face flushed with pain and anger. ‘You can’t be bothered to help with something important like that!’

  ‘I don’t know anything about cars.’

  ‘Wouldn’t hurt you to find out, would it? Ask your posh friends to recommend a garage, tell us where they get their flash motors fixed. Would never occur to you to do something helpful like that, now, would it?’

  Rose took a small step back, battling with the desire to pick up Baby and run for the house, but determined not to be pushed around again. She kept her voice as level as she could.

  ‘I don’t really talk to people about their cars,’ she said, ‘but, well, I did notice that famous chef, Claude Lambert, you’ve seen him on tele, he’s got a car exactly like yours. Same colour, same spoiler thing on the back, everything.’

  ‘And how, exactly, is that information of the slightest fucking use to me?’ Sweat trickled down Ryan’s temples as he spoke.

  ‘I saw him up at Withy Hill. He was there for the fundraiser. I’ve seen his car since, going through the village. Perhaps he’s still there. Maybe he’s had the same problems as you. You could talk to him about it.’

  Ryan drew back, frowning, considering the idea. Then his shoulders sagged a little, the tension seeming to go out of his body.

  ‘Maybe I will,’ he said. ‘Maybe I just sodding well will.’ 

   Rose stood, still holding the flowers, and watched him walk unsteadily back to the house. She waited until her pulse had returned to a more normal rhythm before scooping Baby up under her other arm.

  ‘Come along, little one, let’s put these pretty flowers in some water,’ she said, ‘then I think we’ll give that nice Doctor Richards a call again. Just for another little chat.’

  Fliss was just running a brush through her hair when she glanced out of the window and saw Neville approaching the front door.  She picked up her velvet jacket as the doorbell rang, pausing to shout up the stairs.

  ‘I’m off now, Rhi, won’t be late. Don’t forget the quiche is in the oven.’

  ‘Whatever,’ came the reply.

  Fliss opened the door.

  ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘You’re nice and punctual.’

  ‘It’s a curse. Socially unacceptable, I know, but I can’t help myself,’ Neville told her.

  Fliss couldn’t help noticing the state of Neville’s face.

  ‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘I hope that’s not catching.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You have a nasty rash there.’

  ‘Oh, actually it’s not a rash. Don’t worry, you’re quite safe, unless you’re given to snuggling up to holly bushes.’

  She raised her eyebrows.

  ‘Trust me, you don’t want to know,’ said Neville.

  They left the terrace and headed for the stile on the other side of the road.

  ‘This is the shortest route,’ said Neville. ‘We take this footpath across the meadow, then up the bank behind Withy Hill Farm, and cut through the woods. It’ll bring us out onto the main road, in sight of the Farmer’s Lodge.’

  ‘It’s a lovely evening for a walk. Just remind me not to get too drunk. Don’t want to end up nose down in a cowpat on the way home.’

  They walked in silence through the meadow and up the hill. Fliss followed Neville as he strode ahead, and was amused at the way he paused to offer her a hand over each stile. 

  ‘Look,’ she said as they crested the hill, ‘you get an unusual view of Withy Hill from here. I’d never even noticed that old barn in the field behind the chicken sheds.’

  ‘Part of the original farm, by the look of it. Just full of straw now, far as I can tell.’

  ‘I wonder if Claude is still staying there. I can’t see his car. I hope he hasn’t disappeared.’

  ‘Oh?’

  ‘Yes, don’t you see? We’ve got to talk to him,’ she said. ‘I’ve been thinking about it. He knows what’s going on, and he’s clearly in a bad way. I think we should confront him, while he hasn’t got Michael Christian to hide behind.’

  ‘Well if he’s gone, he’s gone,’ said Neville as they reached the woods.

  Fliss looked around, peering into the gloom between the trees.

  ‘I wonder what happened to that rat,’ she said.

  ‘Please, I don’t want to be put off my dinner.’

  ‘Doesn’t it worry you?’

  ‘Of course it does, but there’s not a great deal we can do about it, is there? Look, let’s have something to eat, get this family meal thing over with…’

  ‘Oh, I wasn’t aware it was a “family meal thing”.’

  ‘…yes, well, I mean let’s have dinner, then talk about Withy Hill afterwards. Sandra always rushes home to the twins. We can discuss it when they’ve gone. OK?’

  ‘I take it you’ve said nothing about it to your sister?’

  ‘No. Sandra is well meaning, but would have more success keeping an elephant than a secret. Let’s hope your daughter can be more discreet.’

  ‘I didn’t mean for her to find out. But maybe it’s for the best.’

  ‘Oh yes, taking a teenager into our confidence was a really good idea.’

  Fliss fought her instinct to fly to her daughter’s defence.

  ‘Like you said, let’s discuss it after dinner.’

  The Farmer’s Lodge was exactly what Fliss had expected. It might once have been a coaching inn, but had been stretched and added to in all directions to accommodate as many hungry mouths as possible. The beer garden boasted an enormous wooden climbing frame and a wishing well. The car park was already full.  Inside all was chintz and pretend beams and horse brasses and sheaves of wheat and corn dollies in a perfect example of pseudo rustic décor. 

  ‘There they are,’ Neville pointed to a window seat.

  Fliss tried to forget that the last time they met she had been lying in the mud, tied to Neville by her hair, as Sandra and Brian had rescued them from beneath the marquee. It might be hard to shake off such a novel first impression. 

  ‘Hello!’ Sandra waved cheerily. ‘Thought we’d bag a good table before they all went. Goodness, Neville, have you fallen off your bike again?

  ‘Must we sit in the window?’ Neville asked, ignoring her question.

  ‘Best seat in the house,’ Brian assured him. ‘Always sit here if we get the chance. Now then, let’s do this thing properly. Don’t leave your lovely lady standing about.’

  ‘Yes, Neville, where are your manners?’ Sandra offered a hand. ‘Lovely to see you again, Fliss. I was so pleased when Neville told us he was bringing you. Now, where would you like to sit? By the window? Or on the end? Personally,’ she dropped her voice to a stage whisper, ‘I like to be able to get out to the loo.’

  ‘Window’s fine for me,’ said Fliss.

  ‘Thank God for that,’ said Neville, ‘can’t stand sitting on display. Makes me feel like a tailor’s dummy.’

  ‘Nonsense,’ said Sandra, ‘they’d be better dressed.’

  ‘Right!’ Brian rubbed his hands together, ‘what’s everybody drinking?’

  ‘Ahh,’ Neville brightened visibly, ‘let’s have a squint at the wine list. Here we are. Hmm, not bad. Amazingly.’

  ‘I’d like red,’ Sandra volunteered. ‘What do you prefer, Fliss?’

  She opened her mouth to speak, but Neville beat her too it.

  ‘I expect that rather depends on what she’s eating.’

  ‘She hasn’t decided yet,’ said Brian.

  ‘Who’s “she” – the cat’s mother?’ hissed Sandra.

  ‘”She” is a vegetarian,’ said Fliss, ‘so I just drink what I’m in the mood for.’

  ‘Vegetarian, eh?’ Brian smiled at Neville. ‘That must play merry hell with your cooking frenzies. No red meat to mess about with.’

  ‘I don’t mess about.’

  ‘Actually,’ said Fliss. ‘I don’t eat white meat either, or fish. And Neville’s never cooked for me.’

  Both Brian and Sandra looked shocked.

  ‘What?’ Sandra stared at her brother. ‘You’ve never even cooked the poor girl a meal? Really, Neville, it’s the one thing you do well.’

  ‘Thank you for those kind words, Sandra’ he hid behind the wine list. ‘Can we get on with this. The Chilean Merlot looks OK. Everyone happy with that?’

  ‘Sounds good to me,’ said Brian.

  ‘You’re driving,’ Sandra reminded him.

  ‘Yes. I know. I can have a glass or two with my meal.’

  ‘As long as that’s all it is. You know what you’re like.’

  ‘You make it sound as if I’m going to stick a straw in the bottle, for heaven’s sake.’

  ‘Here you are, Fliss,’ Sandra handed her a menu. ‘I can recommend the crispy potato skins for a starter. Oh, and the garlic mushrooms are very good. But they are very garlicky.’

  ‘I’ll watch out for that.’

  Neville looked at the menu with ill-disguised horror.

  ‘Good Lord,’ he said, ‘can there be anywhere else on the planet that still considers fruit juice to be a starter? And chicken in a basket. We’re in a culinary time warp.’

  Fliss smiled. ‘In London this place would be marketed as ‘retro’ and booked up for months ahead. Look, there’s even Black Forest Gateaux for pud.’

  ‘Ooh,’ said Sandra, ‘I can’t resist that, can I Brian? Have it every time. Shouldn’t, of course,’ she patted her modest tummy. ‘Have to watch the pounds.’

  ‘Rubbish,’ said Brian. ‘You know I like a bit of flesh on a woman. Something to get hold of.’

  ‘Brian, really!’

  Fliss put down her menu. ‘Well, I’m sold on the garlic mushrooms, then it’s vegetable lasagne for me.’

  Brian gave her an approving look. ‘A woman who knows her own mind. I like that.’

  ‘Just as well, seeing as you’re married to my sister,’ said Neville. ‘Spoilt for choice, but I’ll have the salmon. Whitebait to start, I think.’

  Brian and Neville went to the bar to order and pay for the food, leaving Fliss at the mercy of Sandra’s curiosity. 

  ‘Isn’t this nice?’ Sandra beamed. ‘We don’t often get a chance to meet Neville’s friends. He’s a very private sort of person. How did you meet?’

  ‘Oh, we’re neighbours, you know, small place.’

  ‘Isn’t that nice? And do you share Neville’s interest in cooking?’

  Fliss shrugged, ‘I share his interest in eating.’

  Sandra laughed. ‘Ahh, that’s nice, too,’ she gazed over at the men fondly. ‘He’s a funny old stick, my brother, but he’s really very…’

  ‘Nice?’ 

  ‘…yes, he is. I’d love to have a boyfriend who could cook. Huh, catch Brian with a potato peeler! You must get Neville to do you one of his special meals. He’s really very clever.’

  ‘I’m sure he is, but you know, I wouldn’t call him my boyfriend.’

  ‘Oh I know, it seems silly at our age, doesn’t it? Not that you are quite the same age as me and Neville, but you know what I mean. And partner sounds so, well, business-like, don’t you think?’

  ‘My daughter tells me I’m much too old to have a boyfriend, whatever you call him.’

  ‘Oh? You’ve got children?’

  ‘Just Rhian. She’s fifteen going on forty-two. And she hates me. Well, she hates everyone. I think she feels it’s expected of her.’

  ‘My boys are only seven,’ Sandra rolled her eyes. ‘I daren’t think what it’ll be like having twin teenagers in the house!’ She paused and fiddled with the silk flowers on the table. ‘I always thought Neville would make rather a good father. I know he might seem a bit serious, perhaps, but I think he’d do a good job. He’d be very fair, and very practical. Can you ever see yourself having any more?’ she asked.

  ‘Oh, I don’t know. Thought I might just get a poodle next time I feel broody.’

  Sandra’s face registered complete bewilderment.

  Fliss was relieved to see Neville and Brian returning.

  ‘Has she been giving you the third degree?’ Neville asked.

  ‘No,’ said Fliss, ‘she’s been telling me all your darkest secrets.’

  ‘That can’t have taken long,’ he said.

  ‘Now, now, Nev,’ Brian tapped his nose, ‘we know there’s more to you than meets the eye, eh? Safety in numbers, wouldn’t you say? Cast your net wide…?’

  ‘Brian!’ Sandra was horrified.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ he smirked in Fliss’s direction. ‘I’m sure Fliss is more than up to him. Tell me,’ he leant across the table, ‘is it true what they say about redheads?’ 

  ‘That rather depends who they are and what they are saying.’

  ‘Well, you won’t hear any complaints from me,’ Brian told her. ‘I’ve always had a soft spot for women with red hair,’ he paused for dramatic effect, ‘as long as the collar and cuffs match, eh?’ He laughed heartily at his own joke.

  Sandra looked cross enough to give him a slap. Fliss glanced at Neville and noticed he was trying hard not to laugh. 

  ‘Ah!’ Sandra saw salvation arriving in the shape of the wine, ‘here we are. Mmm, looks lovely. Here you are, Fliss. Now, everybody got some? Let’s drink a toast. To Fliss! Welcome to our little family.’

  ‘To Fliss!’ Brian raised his glass. ‘God bless her and all who…’

  ‘Brian!’ Sandra snapped.

  Neville had stopped laughing and had his head in his hands.

  Fliss leant over to whisper in his ear. ‘OK, I promise not to let on the only date we’ve been on so far was chaperoned by a rat, if you promise to tackle Claude about Withy Hill. Deal?’ She sat back and smiled at him, giving a very good imitation of someone entirely enthralled by her escort.

  Neville mustered a humourless grin and clinked his glass against hers. ‘Deal,’ he said.

  Two uncomfortable hours later, Neville helped Fliss over the stile from the main road onto the footpath. The pub had become unbearably busy, so, after Sandra and Brian had finally left for home, Neville had suggested they escape the smoke and noise and talk while they walk.

  ‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘I did warn you about the food.’

  ‘The food was fine. Really. What was a little unnerving was the way Sandra was practically planning our wedding.’

  ‘I know. She was just being sisterly. And bossy. And ridiculous.’

  ‘Oh? Thanks very much. That’s how little you think of me, is it?’

  ‘No, I didn’t mean…’Neville struggled to explain himself.

  ‘Relax,’ said Fliss. ‘I’m winding you up. Though if you’d told me I was supposed to be playing the part of your girlfriend I’d have been better prepared. Still, I think I did a pretty good job. Though why you had to make such a thing up in the first place I can’t imagine.’

  ‘Look, it’s all really rather embarrassing. Can we just forget about it?’

  ‘Sure. So long as you keep your part of the bargain. Look!’ she pointed through the trees.

  ‘What? Not that bloody rat again?’

  ‘No. Look, there’s someone down at Withy Hill Farm, by the French windows.’

  ‘So? Loads of people work there. Someone doing an evening shift.’

  ‘No, it has to be Claude. Look at him.’

  Neville looked. The farm was some distance away, but he could clearly make out a person standing in the garden just to one side of the house. There was something unmistakeably rangy and scrawny about the figure, even at this distance. And a singular way in which he stood – slightly hunched, leaning forwards, as if about to topple at any moment. It was definitely Claude.

  ‘Now’s our chance,’ Fliss told him.

  ‘I was rather afraid of that,’ said Neville.

  ‘Come on.’

  He followed her out of the woods and over a gate and along the hedge of the meadow behind the farmhouse. 

  ‘Now what?’ he asked. ‘We can hardly expect him to answer the front door, given the way he’s been avoiding everybody lately.’

  ‘You’re right. And anyway, there’s Eric and Vinnie to consider.’

  ‘And they would be…?

  ‘Michael Christian’s extremely unpleasant Dobermans. Or should that be Dobermen? Anyway, we don’t want to meet them.’

  ‘Ah.’

  As if on cue a frenzied barking began inside the house.

  ‘Oh well,’ said Neville, ‘nice idea, but there it is.  Best laid plans of mutant mice and men…let’s get out of here before they find us.’

  ‘No way. We’re going to question Claude while he hasn’t got Michael Christian to hide behind. This is the perfect opportunity.’

  ‘Perfect, for me, rarely involves large dogs with sharp teeth.’

  ‘Don’t be such a wimp, Neville.’

  ‘You have been spending too much time with my sister.’ 

  ‘We can get in through the French windows – they lead into the small sitting room, which is probably where Claude is anyway. And the dogs aren’t allowed in there.’

  ‘And they are both sticklers for house rules, no doubt.’

  They crept around the side of the house. The French windows were still open, light from inside falling onto the flagstone patio. 

  Neville was on the point of arguing the case once more for abandoning the whole idea, when Fliss grabbed his hand and pulled him into the house. The sitting room was cosy and comfortably furnished, with squishy sofas, expensive rugs, shapely table lamps and a large television. In an armchair, facing the TV and apparently deaf to both dogs and intruders, Claude Lambert sat, staring at the screen, eerily still.

  For want of a better idea, Neville cleared his throat loudly.  The effect was remarkable. Claude leapt up from his seat as if stung by a hornet. He turned to face them, clinging to a dangerously flimsy occasional table. His eyes were even more bulging and reddened than usual. He looked years older than when last Neville had seen him, at the fundraiser. His skin, even in the warm light of the little room, was unmissably blue.

  ‘Who are you?’ he demanded in his bizarre accent. ‘What is it you want from me? Why do you come here?’

  Neville stepped forward.

  ‘You may remember me from the fundraising committee. Name’s Neville Meatcher.’

  Claude stared harder, running a sweaty palm through his unwashed hair. ‘Oh. Yes. You are the man with the bicycle,’ he said at last.

  ‘I suppose there are worse ways to be remembered,’ said Neville. ‘This is Fliss Horton. She lives in the village too.’

  ‘What do you want? Mr Christian, he is gone away now.’

  ‘We know that,’ Fliss told him. ‘It’s you we want to talk to.’

  ‘For what reason?’ he asked, sniffing heavily.

  ‘Look,’ Neville flopped onto one of the inviting sofas, ‘do you mind if we sit down, now that we’re here? No? Good. This may take some time.’

  Fliss sat next to him. Claude looked as if he might bolt from the room at any moment. Neville took a breath and tried to calm the nervous chef.

  ‘The thing is, we, that is Fliss and myself, have some…concerns, about what is being planned, development-wise, up here at Withy Hill. It has come to our notice that certain projects are being undertaken which, while quite possibly legal, may not be entirely ethical. That is not to suppose, of course, that…’

  ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ Fliss could stand it no longer. ‘Claude, I’ve been in that locked room out there. I found one of the rats. I showed it to Neville. And the planning application has been rushed through. What do you know?’

  Neville looked hard at Fliss. ‘I was coming to all that,’ he said.

   Fliss returned his stare. ‘This man’s life expectancy is not good,’ she told him. 

  Their attention was wrenched back to Claude by the sound of sobbing. He staggered to the other sofa and sank onto it, weeping loudly.

  ‘I am a man who is ruined completement!’ he wailed. ‘All my years of travail, all that I have done, my books, my restaurant – all is for nothing!’ He turned his face into a silk cushion, sharp shoulder blades shaking beneath his shirt.

  Neville and Fliss exchanged glances as the muffled sobs continued.

  ‘Mr Lambert,’ Neville tried, ‘Claude, it might help if you talked about it, don’t you think? Perhaps you would like to tell us…everything?’

  There was no answer, save for the continued crying.

  ‘This is hopeless,’ Neville said to Fliss.

  ‘You’ve met him before, he almost knows you,’ she pointed out. ‘Win his confidence. Comfort him, or something.’

  ‘Me? Why me? You’re a woman.’

  ‘What’s that got to do with it? He’s hardly in a fit state for seduction. Go on,’ Fliss pushed him firmly off the sofa.

  Neville sat gingerly next to Claude.  He reached out and lightly squeezed the snivelling man’s arm.

  ‘Now then,’ he said, ‘I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.’

  Claude’s reaction was to turn and throw himself, weeping all the more, onto Neville’s shoulder.

  ‘I am finished!’ he howled, tears splashing onto Neville’s jacket.

  Neville looked beseechingly at Fliss, who merely shrugged.  He looked desperately round the room.

  ‘Brandy,’ he said at last. ‘See if you can muster up three large ones, Fliss.’

  Twenty minutes later a considerably calmer Frenchman sat at a respectable distance from Neville, explaining the what, the how, and the why of his situation. 

  ‘You have to understand me,’ he said in a voice still choked with emotion, ‘the pressures of a famous life, they are great. You have to do so much, to be so much for so many people. And so, I began to need help. And I found that help,’ he swallowed more brandy. ‘Oh my God, what poison! You think the drug she is your friend, that she will set you free…’

  ‘Cocaine?’ asked Fliss.

  ‘Yes, very good, very expensive cocaine. Soon I could not pay for what I needed. Soon I owed money to the devil who sold the stuff to me. Now I owe him more than ever I can give back,’ Claude started to tremble. ‘And now he sends his heavy men to find me. Oh my God, if they find me…’ he shook his head.

  ‘Ah,’ said Neville, ‘those will be the two well-dressed gentlemen I saw on the day of the fundraiser. Checking out your car, I seem to remember.’

  ‘You saw them too? Yes, they look for me, and they find my car. Now I have to hide her in the woods, or they will see I am here still.’

  Neville was confused.

  ‘But they obviously know you’re connected with this place. Did they know about the partnership with Withy Hill?’

  ‘Yes, I have told their filthy boss that when the partnership is agreed and launched I will be able to pay him. I have been promised the money from Michael Christian. It is for this reason I agree to the partnership.’

  ‘I thought it was odd, you associating yourself with a place like this,’ said Neville. ‘I know it’s not battery chickens, but it’s hardly organic produce either, is it?’

  Fliss shook her head.

  ‘Not to mention the experiments,’ she said.

  ‘I knew nothing of these!’ Claude protested. ‘When I said yes to the partnership I knew nothing of the experiments, of the laboratory, of what it is they want to do to the chickens. I would never have agreed. Never! But now,’ he sniffed again, rubbing at his eyes, ‘now I have no choice.’

  ‘You always have a choice,’ Neville told him. ‘You could go to the police, tell them about the villains.’

  Claude looked at him as if he were an idiot. ‘To the police it is I who am the villain, do you not see? And, there is more. Not just the money. Withy Hill helps me now that I can no longer afford to buy cocaine. There is a medicament, something they use in their experiments, and this substance, it has effects to the side. It was seen in the rats. Effects very like amphetamines, perhaps a little like cocaine, also.’

  ‘The powder you took from the locked room,’ said Fliss. ‘That was some of this drug?’

  ‘Bah! Yes, but I do not have the key. And the idiot who keeps the room while Michael is away, he locks me out, so I must beg for what I need.’

  Neville picked up the brandy bottle from the coffee table and topped up all three glasses.

  ‘Strikes me,’ he said, ‘your Mr Christian could make more money flogging this drug than doing anything with chickens. The man clearly has no morals, so what’s to stop him?’

  ‘Look at me!’ said Claude. ‘Do you think I have this colour from your weak English sun? No, the drug, she is called Blustaine. You can look at me and see why.’

  ‘Yes, I take your point.’

  ‘But what about the chickens?’ Fliss wanted to know. ‘You still haven’t told us what the point of those terrible experiments is.’

  Claude sighed, his enfeebled shoulders sagging even further than usual.

  ‘The most important part of the chicken, for making money, this is the legs. Many people grow the bigger chickens for the bigger legs. Here, they will do more. They will grow the chickens with four legs.’

  ‘Oh my God,’ said Fliss, downing the rest of her drink.

  ‘That’s completely disgusting,’ said Neville. ‘And what is more, the British public would never swallow it. I mean, stomach it. Put up with it, for pity’s sake.’

  ‘Who would see these chickens?’ Claude stared into his glass. ‘They would be in the chicken houses. The workers, they would be paid plenty of money to keep shut their mouths. It can work.’

  ‘We have to stop them,’ said Fliss. ‘And you have to help us.’

  ‘But I cannot!  I am emasculated! I can only wait until Michael gives the money to the dealer, and then hope to escape with my life. Back to France. It is all I can do. If I attempt anything different…’ he made a graphic gesture indicating his throat being slit.

  Neville and Fliss left the broken chef sleeping fitfully on the sofa and headed back to the village.  As they walked away from the farm Neville examined the soggy state of his shoulder.

  ‘Why do so many people see fit to use me as a handkerchief?’ he wondered.

  ‘Rhian might tell you it’s because of your squareness,’ said Fliss.

  ‘A comment worthy of a teenager.’

  ‘Actually, I think she’d be wrong.’

  ‘You mean after such an original and stimulating evening, you have come to realise what an exciting and wholly unsquare life I lead.’

  He fell into step beside her as they crossed the meadows, a slightly waning moon still strong enough to light their way.

  ‘I think it’s a front,’ said Fliss. ‘All this uptightness and being so proper and stuffy about everything.’

  ‘Flatterer.’

  ‘I believe, deep down, you’re like me.’

  Neville stopped and looked at Fliss, with her colourful velvet clothes, her Indian jewellery, her fabulous long hair, and her overall impression of health and serenity.

  ‘How so?’ he asked.

  She smiled at him.

  ‘You care,’ she said. ‘You don’t really want to, but you can’t stop yourself. It concerns you deeply, what’s going on up at the farm. And the rat – you said you had nightmares, and I believe you. You and me, we want to get on with our own quiet little lives, but we can’t just look the other way and do nothing.’

  ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’

  ‘Oh, you won’t bother about the small stuff, but things that really matter – you have a conscience. You have to act.’

  ‘No, you’re definitely confusing me with someone else. Che Guevara, perhaps. Or Bob Geldof. Easily done.’ He began to walk on again.

  Fliss trotted after him.

  ‘Don’t be embarrassed. Are you so unused to being paid a compliment?’

  ‘Is that what you were doing?’ He gave her his hand as she climbed the stile. ‘I thought you were trying to talk me into doing something probably dangerous, almost certainly illegal, and not a little ridiculous.’

  When they reached the front door of number three Brook Terrace Neville watched her as she put her key in the lock. Considerable amounts of alcohol, followed by mild fright and adventure, rounded off with gentle exercise had had a mellowing effect on him. He found he could have gone on watching Fliss for a very long time.

  ‘Sleep on it all,’ Fliss told him. ‘Tomorrow we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do. And then do it. OK?’

  ‘I still think you’ve got the wrong man,’ he said. ‘But, well, thank you, for tonight.’

  ‘Pleasure.’

  ‘Don’t exaggerate. I saw you force down that slice of Blackforest Gateaux.’

  ‘Your sister is a hard woman to say no to.’ She stepped inside, then changed her mind, leant forwards, and planted a whisper of a kiss on Neville’s cheek. ‘I hope I am, too,’ she said, before shutting the door.

  Neville stood on the doorstep for a full minute, enjoying the warm fuzziness of the moment, then turned and headed back to his little flat.

    CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Neville sat in his pyjamas and gazed out of his kitchen window at another beautiful morning, as he waited for his coffee to brew. He had slept badly, following the events of the previous night. His every instinct told him not to get any more deeply involved in the whole sorry Withy Hill affair than he already was, and that way just maybe he might hold onto his job. But what of his integrity? His self-respect? The village? And Fliss? Especially Fliss. He poured his coffee and dropped in a necessarily heavy dose of sugar crystals. Cilla sprang onto his lap, purring.

  ‘It’s all right for you,’ he told her,’ your life couldn’t be simpler. Mine suddenly seems ridiculously complicated.’ He stirred aimlessly, the teaspoon tinkling hypnotically against the fine china. The fumes from the cup reached his nostrils. He sipped slowly. At last, he made a decision. Pushing Cilla off he went to the phone and dialled Fliss’s number. The line was busy. He hung up, drank more coffee, and tried again. Still busy.

  ‘Sod it,’ he said to Cilla. ‘Why is it all women spend hours on the phone?’

  He picked up his cup and headed for the shower.  Twenty minutes later he dialled Fliss’s number once more. Still engaged. 

  ‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ he paced the kitchen for a few moments, then looked at the clock. It was nearly ten thirty. ‘I can’t stand this,’ he explained to the now sleeping cat. ‘I need fresh air to clear my head.’ 

  He took a notepad from beside the telephone and wrote quickly.

   I think you might have got the right man after all, mad as it seems. You have a point about us being alike, and about things that matter. We mustn’t lose any more time. Meet me at the old barn behind Withy Hill Farm tonight. Ten o’clock. Bring a torch.

 He signed the note, folded it, and stuffed it in the pocket of his tracksuit top. Once outside he was on the point of swinging his leg over his bicycle when he was knocked off his feet. As he lay face down on the pavement it was the smell that gave his assailant away.

  ‘Hamlet! For pity’s sake, get off me, you wretched hound!’ 

  Hamlet’s lack of response suggested deafness had been added to his list of ailments. Neville struggled in vain to escape from the dog’s embrace.  For once he was glad to hear Cynthia’s voice.

  ‘Ah, Neville!  How lovely to see you.’

  ‘Good morning, Cynthia. Oof!’ he gasped as Hamlet shifted his weight the better to lick Neville’s ears.

  ‘Such a splendid day, I thought I’d take Hamlet out for a little walk. The fresh air and sunshine is so helpful for his poor skin, and the vet told me gentle exercise will help combat the effects of arthritis,’ said Cynthia.

  ‘Fascinating information, I’m sure, but right now my main concern is being able to breathe. Do you think you could see your way to getting him off me?’

  ‘Oh, of course, how silly of me. Hamlet, come along, let Neville get up now, he doesn’t want to play any more.’

  Neville scrambled to his feet, brushing gravel from his clothes. He picked up his bike from where it had fallen. He glanced at Cynthia and noticed she looked older, paler, and altogether sadder than usual. 

  ‘So,’ he said, ‘how have you been?’

  She smiled at him weakly.

  ‘Oh, one battles on. Though I have missed seeing you. You know how I enjoyed working with you on NHEC, and now…’

  ‘Yes, I’m sorry. I have been very busy,’ he said uncomfortably. 

  Cynthia nodded.

  ‘I understand,’ she said quietly. 

  Neville was finding this new meek Cynthia a little worrying. 

  ‘Actually,’ he went on, ‘I had planned to call in, on my way past the Vicarage this morning. Just to see how you were.’

  ‘Oh? How kind,’ she brightened visibly.

  ‘Yes, so bumping into you, or rather Hamlet bumping into me, has saved me a detour.’ Neville’s concern for Cynthia didn’t extend as far as actually spending any time with her if he could avoid it.

  ‘Oh, do say you’ll still come. For coffee, perhaps?’ she pleaded.

  ‘Well,’ he looked at his watch and shook his head, ‘as a matter of fact I really am running behind schedule.’

  ‘On a Sunday?’

  ‘I’m expected. At my sister’s. For lunch,’ he did his best to sound convincing.

  ‘But it’s barely ten-thirty.’

  ‘Ah yes, but I’m the one cooking lunch,’ he explained, stepping onto his bicycle. ‘You take care now. We’ll meet again soon.’ He managed a wave as he pedalled off in entirely the opposite direction to the one he had planned, his note still undelivered. Somehow being seen by Cynthia posting missives through Fliss’s door did not strike him as a good idea.

  ‘A bientôt!’ Cynthia called after him. 

  Neville peddled for two invigorating, mind-clearing hours, and returned home re-energised. He took another shower, ate a light lunch of salade nicoise, then dialled Fliss’s number again.  This time she answered.

  ‘Ah-ha,’ she said. ‘I was hoping it might be you.’

  ‘It would have been me considerably earlier if you hadn’t been chattering on the phone endlessly.’

  ‘Not me, that’s Rhian – tying up the telephone for hours at a time is in every teenager’s job description.’

  ‘Oh, yes. I see.’

  ‘Anyway, I’m all ears now. Tell me what you’ve come up with.’

  ‘It still amazes me that I seem to have been appointed Commander in Chief of this business,’ he said.

  ‘If the cap fits…’

  ‘Alright, you don’t have to persuade me any further, my mind is already made up.’

  ‘You have a plan?’

  ‘Of sorts. More a vague notion and an over-optimistic belief that things will just happen in the necessary way.’

  ‘Sorry?’

  ‘Look, just meet me up at the old barn behind Withy Hill Farm tonight. We’ll take it from there.’

  ‘What time?’

  ‘What time does it get dark?’

  ‘About nine-thirty, I think,’ said Fliss.

  ‘Nine-thirty it is, then. And bring a torch. And a bag of some sort. And anything that might be useful for breaking a lock.’

  ‘Sounds exciting.’

  ‘Frankly, I could use a little less excitement in my Sunday evening,’ Neville said. ‘A relaxing hour or two with my feet up listening to something sublime and drinking a large glass of Claret sounds far more attractive.’

  ‘You know you can’t relax until we’ve sorted this horror story,’ Fliss pointed out. ‘Tell you what, we get this mission out of the way, I’ll supply the wine, and you can show me what sort of music you consider sublime. I’ll even throw in a free crystal healing session to calm you down. Deal?’

  ‘You’re very keen on making deals, Fliss.’

  ‘I come up with good ones, though, don’t I?’

   Neville had to admit that she did.  

  The twilight air was warm and still as Fliss waited impatiently behind the barn. She was early, and she was pretty sure Neville would be on time, but even so she couldn’t stop herself checking her watch every minute. The small stream beside the barn trickled sweetly but provided an unwelcome supply of hungry midges.  By the time      Neville appeared Fliss was scratching her head.

  ‘Don’t suppose you brought any mozzie repellent with you?’ she asked.

  He frowned at her.

  ‘I have a torch, a shoebox, some parcel tape, and a pair of pliers. Deet I do not have.’

  ‘Pliers? Are we going to pull somebody’s teeth out?’

  ‘Forgive me for not possessing a regulation burglar’s toolbox. I thought they might prove useful. What did you come up with?’

  Fliss pulled things from her backpack and laid them out on the grass.

  ‘A torch, a jemmy, a hammer, a rechargeable screwdriver, a Swiss army knife, a can of pepper spray, oh, and these,’ she dangled an impressive bunch of keys under his nose. ‘Had them years. Can’t remember what doors they fitted, or even what house.’

  ‘Funny, I hadn’t got you down as someone with squirrelling tendencies. Still, we may just strike lucky with these. Not so sure about the pepper spray,’ he peered at the small can in the gloom.

  ‘If nothing else we could use it on the dogs,’ said Fliss.

  ‘How does that sort of behaviour fit with the fluffy vegetarian side of you, I wonder?’

  ‘Better than being bitten. So, what now?’

  ‘We have to get into that locked room and steal another rat, or something equally hideous. And something on paper, if we can find anything.’

  ‘How about some of Claude’s magic powder, too?’

  ‘Why not? Right, stuff that lot back in your bag. We can stay more or less out of sight of the house if we head round the back of the big chicken sheds.

  They crept away from the barn and made for the main part of the farm. Vinnie and Eric could be heard barking inside the house. Fliss slipped the pepper spray into her pocket, just in case. They had nearly reached their destination when Neville signalled frantically for her to keep still. He pointed towards the side of the house. Two large, dark figures were trying doors and windows.

  ‘Real burglars?’ Fliss hissed at Neville.

  ‘No, I’ve seen those two before. They’re the hoods looking for Claude. Come on, let’s get on with this.’

  They hurried round the last shed and scuttled over to the small laboratory. Neville crouched at the door, while Fliss handed him different things to try on the lock. 

  ‘Nothing’s budging it,’ he said after a while. ‘Let’s try those keys of yours,’ he held out a hand.

  Fliss dug in her bag.

  ‘Oh shit! They’re not here.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘We must have left them up at the old barn.’

  ‘We?’

  ‘I’ll go back for them,’ she stood up.

  ‘No, wait,’ Neville pulled her back down, ‘you stay here, I’ll go. My knees are seizing up sitting like this. Keep in the shadows.’ He looked at her for a moment. ‘Got your pepper spray?’

   She held it up.

  ‘Good. Don’t hesitate to use it. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

  Fliss watched him go. The place felt eerily silent all of a sudden. Even the dogs had stopped barking. The reason for this quickly became obvious – they had been let out. Horrified, Fliss watched as the dogs trotted purposefully about, sniffing with expert and infallible noses. It could only be a matter of minutes before they found her. She made the decision to move. Slowly she raised herself to a half standing position, then scampered along the side of the building and made for the safety of the chicken sheds. The huge galvanised door was unlocked. She opened it a little, wincing at the sharp squeak it made, then slipped inside and shut it again. Perhaps the strong pong of several hundred hens would mask out her own scent. She went over to one of the small windows and scanned the yard. The dogs were still there. There was nothing else for it, she would just have to stay put until they moved off, or, better still, went back inside the house.

  Up at the old barn Neville searched for the keys. After a fruitless minute on his hands and knees he risked switching on his torch, keeping the beam low. The last thing he wanted to do was attract the attention of the scary-looking men who were after Claude. Suddenly, there was a rustling noise from inside the barn. Neville held his breath. He heard the noise again – more rustling, then, unbelievably, humming. He lifted his head. The sound was flat, unmelodic, and grating, but just recognisable as Carmen’s Amour. Slowly he stood up and peeked through one of the arrow-slit windows. A sight far more terrifying than any muscle-bound henchman greeted his eyes. Amongst a gap in the straw bales two large rugs were laid out, the area illuminated by a number of tea-lights. In the centre of the space danced Cynthia, clad only in the most see-through and froufrou of negligees which revealed the exact size and quality of her every curve. In his haste to escape the nightmare vision, Neville’s foot found the bunch of keys. The jangling was loud enough to reach Cynthia.

  ‘Hello?’ she called out. ‘Neville, mon cher, is that you?’

  Neville grabbed the keys and was about to flee when Cynthia threw open a small door and stepped out in front of him.

  ‘Here you are!’ she cried upon seeing him. ‘I knew you wouldn’t keep me waiting long.’

  ‘Cynthia…?’

  ‘Of course, it should have been little me exercising my lady’s prerogative and making you wait, but I wanted to get things ready. I so want everything to be perfect,’ she said as she took his hands and led him into the barn.

  ‘Cynthia, what’s going on? The candles…’

  ‘Oh I know you asked me to bring a torch in your billet doux, but candles are so much more romantic, don’t you think? And give a more flattering light.’ She laughed lightly. ‘We women of a certain age have to consider these things. But, oh, just to know that you want me! It makes me feel I am the most beautiful woman alive.’ 

  She spun away from him, executing some surprisingly light steps, which had the effect of making her short, floaty garment lift to expose pasty buttocks.  Neville forced himself to speak.

  ‘Cynthia, what are you doing here?’

  ‘Forgive me,’ she giggled, ‘just une petite dance for joy. Come, step into my cosy little nest,’ she beckoned.

  Neville narrowed his eyes, trying to make sense of it all.  Then it came to him. The note. Bumping into Cynthia outside his flat had prevented him from delivering it to Fliss, and he had telephoned her instead, never giving the note another thought. It must have fallen out of his pocket when Hamlet knocked him over. And Cynthia found it, and assumed it was meant for her. He remembered telling her he was on his way to call in at the Vicarage.

  ‘Cynthia, that note, the things I wrote, you have to understand…’

  ‘Oh but I do, my darling boy, I do. Such beautiful words. “the right man”, “you were right about us being alike”, “things that matter”. And I understand your need to write to me first, to break the ice, as it were. It takes courage to reveal one’s feelings, and you found a way. Of course you were reticent, it cannot be easy coming to realise that your true one is a more mature woman. And people can be so cruel.’ 

  She suddenly rushed to him, stopping close enough for him to be staring down at her generous cleavage. Although the night was warm, Neville was all too aware that Cynthia’s nipples were registering their excitement, protruding through the flimsy fabric that covered them as hard and as huge as Scania wheel-nuts. 

  She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her head against his chest.  Neville reeled from the impact of both the woman herself and her powerful perfume. He noticed not a single mosquito dared come near her. 

  ‘Wait!’ he said, ‘I’ve forgotten something.’ He pulled her hands from his neck and attempted to hold her at arm’s length. ‘I have to nip back. To my flat.’

  ‘Now? Is it so important?’ she asked.

  ‘Oh yes. Definitely,’ he tried hard to sound convincing. ‘Just like you, I want everything to be perfect. You understand, don’t you?’

  ‘Of course, my sweet,’ she stepped back from him and lay down, draping herself over one of the rugs, gazing up at him with dreamy eyes. ‘I will wait for you,’ she told him.

  ‘Great. Back soon,’ said Neville as he fled, shaking from his head the image of a semi-naked Cynthia gazing at him with a come-hither expression.

  In the garage of Honeysuckle Cottage Ryan lay beneath his car, cursing, while Rose looked on.

  ‘Nothing!’ he snapped. ‘Not a single sodding sign of what’s wrong with the bastard thing!’ He crawled out and struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on the car. His clothes were covered in oil and large patches of sweat spread out from his armpits and down his back. 

  ‘Can’t you take it back to the garage?’ Rose asked.

  ‘What for, for Christ’s sake? They’re all fucking useless, all of them. They can’t fix it, so they just stick together and pretend there’s nothing wrong. One of them even told me I was imaging things,’ he wiped his brow with his sleeve. ‘Can you believe it? What do they think I am, some sort of nutter?’

  ‘Are you coming in for some supper?’

  ‘I can’t sodding eat, woman. My guts are on fire, and so is my arse. Anyway, I’m not stopping until I sort this pile of crap out!’ He kicked the wheel of the Subaru.

  ‘Oh dear,’ said Rose.

   There was a silence broken only by Ryan’s uneven breathing and the hum of the fluorescent light.

  ‘I’m not going to let it beat me,’ he said through clenched teeth. ‘I’ll show those idiots. Imagining it, for crying out loud.’ He picked up the manual and began turning pages angrily.

  Rose gave a start as she saw a small piece of paper flutter from the book. It was one of her little drawings – the ones she had made to help her work on the car. She had been so careful, destroying all the evidence, but there it was, a small piece of paper lying on the floor next to Ryan’s foot. She stepped forward so that she could cover it with her own fluffy slipper. She forced herself to put her hand on his arm. Ryan looked up, surprised.

  ‘It’s only an idea,’ said Rose quietly, ‘but you could go up to Withy Hill and ask that chef. You remember? He’s got the same sort of car. He might be able to help.’

  Ryan rubbed the back of his neck with a grubby hand.

  ‘It could be worth a try,’ he said, eyes wide at the thought of a solution. ‘Maybe that frog cook’s had his fixed. If he’d talk to me – might think he’s too high and mighty to help a ‘nobody’. That’s what they’re like, those celebrities. We put them where they are, but do they thank us? Do they hell! Well this one’s gonna do something for the little man for a change. The man in the sodding street. The one who earns his living from hard graft, not poncing about on tele chopping up bloody garlic.’ He wiped his hands on his trousers and climbed into the car. ‘Well don’t just stand there, open the doors, will you?’ 

  He revved up the engine as Rose hurried to do as she was told. She watched the dirty, sweaty, dishevelled, desperate man her husband had become as he drove past her and roared off up the hill towards the farm.  She closed the garage doors and went into the kitchen.  She picked up the telephone and pressed one of the memory dial buttons. 

  ‘Hello? Ah, sorry to bother you on a Sunday night, Doctor, but it’s my husband…yes, the same sort of things we talked about before. Only this time he’s worse. The thing is, he’s gone off in the car, driving much too fast, and he’s really not well at all. To be honest with you, I am very worried about his state of mind. Yes, that’s right…he’s still convinced he can hear things in the car. And now he thinks people are ganging up against him. What?(….) Oh, he said he was going up to Withy Hill Farm. He seems to think someone up there has exactly the same car.(…) I know, it is a bit unlikely, isn’t it? And anyway, what will they think? Him turning up all upset and ill at this time of night? And he does have such a temper.(…) Oh. I see. Well, of course, if you think that’s best. They won’t hurt him, will they?(…) Oh yes, I’d feel much better about it if I knew you were going to be there too. He might listen to you. Thank you, Doctor. Goodbye.’ She put down the receiver and sat looking at the phone for a moment or two. Then she stood up, went to the cupboard and removed the jar of special herbs, consigning them to the bin, before switching off the light and heading for bed.

  Back in the chicken shed, Fliss was on the point of opening the door when she heard footsteps. She dived behind a row of chicken coops, keeping as low and as still as she could, silently cursing for not positioning herself with a view of the door.  She heard the sharp squeak of the sliding metal, and two flashlight beams strobed over the chickens. The door closed again, removing the option of a quick dash for freedom.  Fliss waited. She couldn’t tell how many people had entered the building, but it was definitely more than one. Were they looking for her? She stiffened as the footsteps drew closer. One of them was walking directly towards her hiding place. In seconds, she would be trodden on. Heart pounding, Fliss waited until the last possible moment, then uttered her best frightening scream, leapt to her feet, and gave the intruder a face-full of pepper spray.

  ‘Out of my way!’ Fliss shouted as she squirted. ‘Let me go!’

  ‘Argh!’ The figure in front of her clutched at his eyes and staggered back. 

  His dropped torch shone up from the floor, illuminating his face. The stricken man had a ski mask on, but clearly the spray had temporarily blinded him. Fliss gave him a hefty shove as she went past, breaking into a run, as the man’s accomplices turned their lights on her. A shrill cry caused Fliss to stop mid flight.

  ‘Mum!’

  She turned, shielding her eyes against the beam in her face.

  ‘Rhian?’ Fliss squinted into the darkness. ‘Rhian, what in God’s name are you doing here?’

  Rhian was dressed all in black with a ski mask of her own. A smaller figure stood beside her.  Fliss pulled herself together.

  ‘Well, I assume that’s Sam with you, but who on earth…?’ She turned to the man still kneeling on the floor. 

  He wrenched off his mask, rubbing at his eyes.

  ‘Daniel!’ Fliss hurried over to him. ‘Oh my God, Dan, are you all right? I’m so sorry.’

  Daniel was still too busy gasping and cursing to answer. 

  Fliss looked up at her daughter, a mixture of anger and anxiety making her voice sharp.

  ‘Right, young lady, you’ve got some explaining to do.’

  ‘I’ve got some explaining! I like that! What about you? I don’t remember you telling me you were going out to spend the night in a chicken shed.’

  ‘Never mind that now. What do you think you are doing? And as for you, Dan. The minute you’ve recovered sufficiently I’m going to murder you. What were you thinking of, bringing the girls up here on some mad escapade?’

  ‘He was helping us,’ Rhian told her.

  ‘Helping you do what, exactly?’

  ‘Rescue the chickens, of course.’

  ‘Have you gone completely bonkers?’ Fliss asked. ‘There are over three thousand birds on this farm. What were you planning to do, keep them in your bedroom?’

  Sam stepped out of the shadows.

  ‘Obviously, Mrs Horton,’ she mumbled through her ill-fitting mask, ‘this was to be a symbolic action. We would liberate a token number of fowl, to make our point.’

  ‘Which is?’

  ‘Look, Mum, we warned you. We said we would take matters into our own hands if you and your new boyfriend didn’t stop going on cosy dates and do something. You might be able to sit by while animals are being tortured, but we couldn’t.’

  ‘Our aim,’ Sam explained, ‘was to go to the press with the rescued birds, and give them the information about the use of the horrific and entirely unethical genetic engineering in pursuit of commercial gain that is taking place on this farm.’

  ‘Oh, brilliant, girls. You really think anyone is going to believe a single word coming from two teenage chicken rustlers? Where’s your proof? There’s nothing wrong with these chickens.’

  The girls were quiet for a minute, contemplating the blinking birds around them.    Daniel struggled to his feet. 

  ‘Before you have a go at me,’ he said to Fliss, ‘I did this for you, you know.’

  ‘Me?’

  He shrugged. ‘Things haven’t been so good between us lately, Babe. I wanted to do something to show you I care.’

  ‘Oh, and you thought assisting my daughter in a bit of breaking and entering would win me round? That makes perfect sense.’

  ‘We needed someone with a car,’ Rhian said. ‘I phoned Daniel. I asked him to drive us up here. I told him you’d been going out with that Neville bloke. I said he’d have to do something dramatic to impress you.’ 

  Daniel put a hand on Fliss’s shoulder.

  ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ he said. ‘I really thought I was losing you, and I knew how much this stuff mattered to you. Sorry if I made a balls-up of things.’

  Fliss shook her head and sighed.

  ‘This is not the time or place for a discussion. We’ve got to get out of here. Neville must be back from the barn by now. He’ll be wondering what’s happened to me.’

  ‘Neville?’ asked Dan, dropping his hand.

  ‘I said we’d do something, and we are. Right now. It just might work, too, if you lot haven’t blown it.’

  ‘Listen!’ said Sam. ‘I can hear a car.’

  They hurried to the small windows and looked out.

  ‘That’s Ryan whatsisname,’ said Fliss, ‘the creepy little estate agent. What’s he doing here?’ 

  They watched as he parked his car and then started hammering on the front door.

  ‘Oh well,’ said Fliss, ‘at least he’ll be a distraction for Eric and Vinnie. Come on, let’s get out of here.’

  Rhian stood firm.

  ‘Not without some chickens,’ she said.

  Even in the gloom Fliss could see the determined expression on Rhian’s face. She knew that look.

  ‘OK,’ she said, ‘just get a couple. And be quick. I’ve got to see a man about a rat.’

to be continued…

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