012: Orders From Above: Episode 12 ‘nigel learns the truth’ part one

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Nigel pulled open the drawers of the pine chest one by one to unload the contents of his travel case, releasing a faint odour of mothballs and old lavender. With his dressing gown hung from the hook on the door, his shoes tucked beneath the bed, and his book and toilet bag placed on the nightstand, he considered himself once again ensconced in the largest of the guest bedrooms at The Blacksmith’s Anvil. His room had a firm double bed, brown faux-leather two-seater sofa with comfy cushions, and a drop-leaf table with two chairs in the bay window, where he could sit and view the green. He had a small television, tea-making facilities and a tiny fridge. There was a warm, clean bathroom next door, which was shared by the room on the other side. Nigel didn’t mind this, and anyway, it had so far turned out on each visit that he was the only guest.

He’d stayed here several times now, to be on hand as the contract for the purchase of Angel Falls Mill was dealt with, to take measurements for his architectural plans, research local building contractors, and also to fulfil the other, more mysterious part of his task, that of getting to know the inhabitants of Ham-Under-Lymfold.

He was to meet the De Angelo brothers in the bar later, and decided that a breath of fresh air first would be a good idea. The brothers had taken ownership of the mill a month ago – at too high a price as far as Nigel was concerned, but they had insisted the sale went through without haggling – and as far as he knew, had arrived early in the morning to start whatever it was they were really in Ham-Under-Lymfold to do. He couldn’t say why exactly, but he had a hunch that not everything was above board.

Autumn was coming and the evenings were beginning to draw in. Nigel strolled along the picturesque High Street, admiring the cottages that lined the opposite edge of the green, remembering how much Amelia had liked them when they’d visited together a fortnight before. The buildings were all different in some way, whether it be a thatched roof or a slate one, a green solid door or a half-glazed red one, leaded windows or modern glazing. At this time of day, the kidney-shaped village green was ringed with cars, as the owners of the houses had no space in their tiny front gardens for driveways. Cooking smells pervaded the air, and Nigel wondered wistfully what meals were being cooked behind the closed curtains.

In the distance, the sky was blackening swiftly, something additional to the oncoming night, and Nigel sniffed the air, sure he could smell rain. A streak of lightning lit up the sky over the hills, making him shiver as he recalled the tales of gloom and doom Stanley Trout had told him on his first visit here, a visit that now seemed to have taken place a very long time ago.

Large, cold raindrops began to splash on his head and spatter the ground around his feet, so he turned up his collar and hurried back to The Blacksmith’s Anvil, going straight up to his room to fetch his plans for the conversion of the mill.

When he entered the bar ten minutes later, he nodded and waved to Stanley, who was nursing a half pint of milk stout at his usual corner table. Digby lay at Stanley’s feet, his eyes closed and body relaxed but his whippy tail thumped up and down in recognition of Nigel’s voice. The fire in the beautiful inglenook fireplace was set but not yet lit, which Nigel thought a pity as it would create atmosphere and warmth in the place. He hoisted himself onto a bar stool and ordered a gin and tonic for himself and another half of milk stout for Stanley.

“Settled in all right?” Cynthia asked as she tonged ice and a sliver of lemon into a glass.

“Yes, I have, thank you. I’m beginning to feel very much at home here.”

“I’m so glad. And I look forward to seeing Amelia here again soon, I’m so sorry she’s suffering from morning sickness.”

Nigel frowned. “It’s been more like all-day sickness, but she is getting better.”

“Oh, I’m happy to hear that. Here you go, then.” She placed the glass, which he knew had a very generous measure of gin in it, and an open bottle of tonic, on the bar. “On the house. To welcome you back as our guest.” She poured the stout and said, “I’ll take this over to Stanley.”

“Thank you, Cynthia, that’s very kind of you.”

With rising anticipation he tipped the tonic into his glass, relishing the sound of the gentle fizz and the sharp whiff of juniper and lemon. He closed his eyes and took an appreciative sip, savouring the sensation and taste on his tongue.

The Capsbys and Fordingbridges arrived in a clamour of voices and claimed one of the larger tables, each calling out hello to Nigel. They were shortly followed by Glen and Gwen Perkins, who pulled up extra chairs and joined them, everyone talking at once. Five minutes later, a clap of thunder boomed right overhead, making Nigel jump and Olive Capsby shriek in fright then giggle with embarrassment. Another boom, even louder, shook the windows and reverberated around the room, just as the door opened and the De Angelo brothers sauntered in. Nigel felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle.

The brothers seated themselves at the table in front of the fireplace, and Cynthia bustled over to light the fire. Soon, orange and yellow flames merrily flickered, instantly raising the ambience, and she asked what they’d like to have. Nick asked for two pints of Speckled Hen and two packets of smoky bacon crisps.

Nigel walked over to their table and said hello. Nick merely inclined his head, but Gabe said warmly, “Nigel! Halloo to you! Have you got a drink? Oh good, have a seat, then.”

Nigel remembered that when he’d first met Gabe, he’d thought he was so like Nick that it would be difficult to tell them apart, but now he had spent a little time with them during the negotiations to buy the mill, it was simple. Gabe was a paler version of his brother. Or Nick was a darker version of Gabe. Personality-wise, it was even easier to tell who was who: Gabe was warm and friendly, Nick wasn’t.

As soon as the crisp packets were opened, Digby rose onto his long legs, shook himself vigorously, and trotted over. He rested his handsome head on Gabe’s thigh and stared fixedly up at him through shaggy grey eyebrows.

“Ooh, lovely doggy! What’s your name, boy, eh?”

“It’s Digby,” supplied Nigel, as Gabe fed the grateful dog some crisps.

Digby, making that strange, gruffling sound that indicated his pleasure, transferred his attention to Nigel. “I haven’t got anything, Digby, sorry.”

The dog turned his head to Nick, who curled his lip and muttered, “What a scruffy animal. That tail looks like a piece of frayed rope.”

As if ashamed of it, Digby tucked his tail between his legs and actually backed away from the table.

“That was mean,” said Gabe.

“You don’t like dogs, then?” said Nigel, feeling sorry for Digby as he pushed himself under Stanley’s table and laid down, his shaggy head on his paws, his golden eyes fixed balefully on Nick. Nick shrugged.

“Hey, Nigel,” said Gabe, “So what’s been happening around here?”

“Well, mostly it’s all talk about the mill. Everyone’s speculating how much Violet Cattermole got for it, and how it will look when we’ve renovated it.”

“Talk of the devil,” grinned Nick, pointing his thumb at Violet, who had just walked in.

She stalked across to the bar and ordered a port and lemon. Nigel had been there on the day the sale was agreed, had heard Glen Perkins say wouldn’t it be a wonder if Violet bought a round of drinks. But she hadn’t. She’d only ordered her usual port and lemon and announced that she had no plans to move to a bigger house or buy a new television or three-piece suite. No, she’d insisted, she was fine where she was and perfectly happy with the things she already had, thank you very much. The money would go in the bank and she’d treat herself to a few luxuries now and then, that was all.

So far, to the obvious disappointment of the locals, Violet had been true to her word, and shown no signs of flashing her money about.

Stanley had turned to Nigel just last week and said, “It’s not right that that woman should have all the money from the mill. ‘Twas her sister’s childhood home, too, y’know’, but I doubt Hilda’s seen or ever will see a single penny, despite being in dire need of help. She’s a fine lady, is Hilda, ’tis hard to believe they be sisters.”

“Have you settled into your room?” Gabe asked politely, bringing Nigel’s attention back from the grumpy old lady, who had seated herself as far away from Stanley as was possible.

“Oh yes, I arrived about two hours ago. It’s basic but very comfortable; I’ve had the same room each time I’ve been here, so it’s getting to feel like a home from home.”

“Is Amelia with you?”

Nigel explained again that she hadn’t been up to the journey, but he’d spoken to her earlier and she was feeling much better.

“Are you two having a bite to eat?” he asked. “I’m going to have ham and chips and a glass of wine.”

“We’ve eaten,” said Nick, draining his glass “but another two pints would go down well.” The way he said it made it clear that he expected Nigel to go fetch.

Like Nigel, the brothers were dressed casually in jeans and sweaters, but unlike Nigel’s, they were expensive jeans and sweaters. Two coats, one chocolate-coloured suede and one biscuit-coloured cashmere, were piled on a chair nearby. They were expecting to see Nigel’s initial plans for the conversion of the mill, so before going up to the bar, he handed the file of drawings to Gabe. Gabe placed it on top of the coats, saying they’d look at them later.

Nigel noticed then that the pub had filled up but was unusually quiet. Word must have spread that the two strangers were the ones who were going to do up the mill and open a grand restaurant. He had talked it up on each of his visits, insisting that the development would bring jobs and visitors, people who would spend their money in the village pub, the café and the general store. It was a Very Good Thing, he assured them, his fingers crossed behind his back in case it turned out to be a disaster, and they said they were looking forward to welcoming the De Angelo brothers and offering any help needed.

Nigel placed his food order, but before he could order the drinks, Arnold Capsby appeared at his side. In a loud voice, no doubt so everyone would be aware of his benevolence, Arnold told Cynthia that whatever the De Angelos were drinking, he was paying.

The brothers inclined their heads in thanks to Arnold, and Arnold self-importantly puffed out his chest. The other men present ignored him and Nigel smiled wryly to himself, thinking that they were probably kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

He picked up his glass and returned to the table, putting the question to the brothers that he’d been dying to ask, “So where are you staying? Did you check into the hotel I recommended?”

“No, Nigel,” answered Nick, speaking as if talking to a halfwit, “We’re staying at the Mill.”

Eyebrows raised in shock, Nigel exclaimed, “But how? How can you possibly manage? There’s no electricity, no hot water…”

“We’re fine, Nigel, really,” assured Gabe, “Come round tomorrow morning and see for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what a little, uh, effort can achieve.”

Baffled, but seeing he would have to wait until tomorrow to see their living arrangements, Nigel asked, “So what happens now?”

Gabe took a long pull from his beer and burped quietly. “Beg pardon,” he said, “Marvellous stuff, this. We’ll fill you in when you come tomorrow.”

Nick chimed in, “Now is not the time and here is not the place.” He leaned forward and tapped the side of his nose as he spoke, his fine grey eyes gleaming with amusement. Or was it malice that Nigel could see?

He shivered at the thought, and turned around to find that everyone’s attention was fixed on them. Most people hastily dropped their eyes, or turned to their neighbour and started chattering. Only Violet didn’t look away. Her port and lemon raised partway to her mouth she seemed mesmerised by the men who had unexpectedly brought her so much wealth. Nick raised his glass in a salute to her, but Nigel sensed it was mocking gesture. Cynthia arrived again, this time bringing Nigel’s ham and chips. Eyelashes fluttering, she looked only at Nick, even as she asked Nigel if he wanted ketchup and mustard.

Hungry, he picked up his knife and fork and tucked in. Digby, ever the hopeful hound, was soon back by his side.

“It’s a nice village, this,” said Gabe, “I’m keen to visit the church, have you been inside, Nigel?”

“Oh, yes, in fact the first day I came here.” He recounted the story of Walter Sidney Hopkins and his unfortunate run-in with a loose organ pipe.

Gabe, visibly upset, exclaimed, “Oh, the poor boy!”

Nick snorted into his Speckled Hen and laughed out loud, making Digby scamper back to Stanley.

Gabe snapped, “You have no feelings whatsoever, Nick!”

“And you, dear brother, are a wuss.”

They bickered like children for a few minutes, much to Nigel’s amazement, then as suddenly as it had flared up, it was over and Gabe’s good humour restored. He turned to Nigel, “We ought to be going. We’ll see you in the morning, Nigel, come about 11 o’clock for coffee.”

And in minutes they’d donned their coats and were gone.

Nigel declined Cynthia’s offer of dessert and went upstairs to his room, not wishing to get drawn into conversation with any of the people in the bar, who were clearly bursting with curiosity.

He was curious himself: how could those two men possibly be staying at the mill? How could they offer him coffee in a place that had no kitchen and no power?

Then it came to him. Of course! They were in a caravan, a luxury caravan, parked somewhere near the mill, probably in the village hall car park. Yes, that would explain it. Happy he’d thought of it, he turned on the television to watch the news.

***

The next morning, because Cynthia was busy with a delivery from the brewery, Nigel treated himself to a full English breakfast in the café. Gwen Perkins took his order, Glen Perkins fried the eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and two thick slices of bread fresh baked that morning, and Debbie Perkins brought it to his table, with a large brown pot of tea that had a small chip on the spout.

“There’s enough to feed a small army here!” Nigel declared.

Debbie giggled and said in one breath, “Well you just eat what you can and leave the rest nothing goes to waste all our leftovers go to West Haven pig farm as pigs eat absolutely anything now do you need tomato or brown sauce we have both or mustard maybe we have three different kinds?”

She brought a red plastic squeezy bottle over and Nigel liberally poured ketchup over everything on his plate, before picking up his knife and fork and tucking in with relish. Chips last night and full English this morning, not good for his waistline, but oh so tasty. He didn’t think he’d manage half of it, but it was all so delicious and he was so hungry, he found himself asking for another slice of Arnold’s scrumptious bread to mop up the remains of yolk, ketchup and fat. After draining the pot of tea, he put his napkin on the table and sat back with a happy sigh.

The three Perkins stood in a line behind the counter and grinned at him. “Another happy customer,” trilled Mrs. Perkins, wiping her hands on a blue tea towel.

The only customer, Nigel thought to himself, as he left the steamy warmth of the café. They could do so much with the café, give it a lick of paint and replace some of the tables and chairs, make it more enticing. Then more people would come and discover a place that served excellent home-cooked food.

He planned to spend an hour in his room going over his copy of the plans again before his appointment at the mill. But the prospect of coffee on top of all that tea and breakfast made him feel slightly ill, so he hoped they hadn’t gone to any trouble.

Out on the pavement, he pulled his collar up. It was a chilly day, but at least it was dry. As he passed the Post Office, Arnold Capsby waved at him through the window and he waved back. It gave Nigel a warm glow to think that he’d been in the village just a few times and already he was accepted with warm smiles. So different to life in London, where the pace of life was so fast, too fast for a cheery hello from anyone. Here, people had time for a chat, and he loved it. In fact, it hadn’t been at all difficult finding things out about people, because everybody talked so openly about themselves and each other.

“Hey, Nigel! Wait up!”

Nigel turned to see who was calling him. “Uri! Hello. How are you?”

“Just dandy, Nigel, just dandy. Are you on your way to the mill? Mind if I walk with you?”

Nigel glanced at his unexpected companion. He and Uri had talked a few times on his previous visits and he found him very interesting. He was knowledgeable about so many things, and made such superb things with wood, Nigel wondered why he chose to be a gravedigger and handyman in an insignificant little village.

“I’m surprised to find you’re still here, Uri. I thought your cousin was only taking a short holiday?”

“Originally, yes, but .. well, some family business came up, and I’m happy to stay on as long as needed, so here I am!”

They reached the Turnaround, Nigel expecting to see a huge gleaming caravan, maybe something like an American Winnebago, parked there. But there was no caravan, luxury or otherwise. He scanned the area around the mill in case they’d somehow managed to get something over the narrow stone bridge, but there was no sign of anything habitable beside, behind or anywhere near the crumbling building.

Uri was watching him closely.

“Are you …?” Nigel pointed to the Mill, not at all sure why Uri would be going there.

Uri nodded, “Yep. Shall we go over?”

They crossed the bridge and walked up to the door of the decrepit mill. Like the church door, it was made of thick oak planks studded with black, dome-topped nails. It was severely warped by time and weather and hung loose on its rusting hinges. Nigel heard voices inside, so he called out to let them know that they were there.

A face appeared at the unglazed window above his head, and Gabe cried, “Good morning, Nigel! And there’s Uri with you, excellent! Come on in.”

Nigel knew there was no staircase inside and couldn’t imagine how Gabe had got up there. He pushed the door open very carefully in case he dislodged him from a ladder or something, but what he saw when he stepped over the threshold made his blood freeze then go hot, as if he’d been dipped in an Arctic ice-hole and then a vat of boiling oil.

Feeling dizzy he clutched the doorframe to keep himself upright, aware that the muscles in his jaw could not hold his mouth closed. His eyes darted madly about, right to left, left to right, up and down, down and up.

This.

Could.

Not.

Be.

There was a staircase. A very wide staircase with a beautiful banister painted the colour of clotted cream. A burgundy wool runner covered three quarters of the width of the steps, held in place on the shallow steps with shiny brass stair rods.

And Gabe was tripping down it, beaming in welcome.

Nigel gingerly let go of the doorframe and stepped forward onto a polished parquet floor. His stunned brain registered the very large open-plan space, which should have been exposed to the elements, but there was a smooth white-painted ceiling above his head hung with crystal chandeliers. On his left was an area tastefully furnished with two large multi-cushioned sofas, one cream, one red, two armchairs likewise, a glass-topped coffee table, a walnut bookcase and, on another low glass-topped table, a very high-spec music centre. On the wall was a flat-screen television, the biggest he’d ever seen.

To his right was a carpeted dining area, with a huge oval table and twelve high-backed chairs made of a gleaming honey-coloured wood, and a gorgeous matching dresser with gold-rimmed white china arranged on its shelves. Beyond that he could see a kitchen with all the latest gadgets, including a rotisserie and a coffee maker Starbucks would be proud of. Somewhere at the back, he just knew, there would be several large bedrooms, each exquisitely decorated and furnished. Each with an en suite bathroom. That had piles of fluffy white towels on warming rails. And gold taps.

His ears buzzed as if full of bees and he thought he was going to pass out, but then he felt Uri’s steadying hand on his elbow.

Even with a vast army of workmen, how could they possibly have done this in the short time Nigel had been away from the village?

Gabe stood before him and patted him on the shoulder. “A shock, I know old bean. Take some deep breaths and come on into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I know you don’t care for the most expensive coffee in the world, so instead so I’ve got some of our special Italian blend on the go, and a slice or two of Battenburg cake fresh from the splendid Perkins’ bakery. I trust your breakfast has gone down enough now to allow room? The delightful Debbie told me you had the full fry-up.”

Dazed and still unsteady on his feet, Nigel allowed himself to be led by Uri to the breakfast bar and placed on a swivelling chrome chair with a red leather seat. Nick appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and took the seat next to Nigel without saying a word. Gabe, having prepared mugs of fragrant hot coffee for all of them and cut large slices of the yellow and pink sponge, sat on the other side, so Nigel was between them, like the filling in a sandwich. Uri stood opposite, leaning against the sink.

“I suppose,” said Nick, “now you’ve seen this, we’d better give you an explanation?”

Nigel could only nod. He was feeling quite nauseous now, and it wasn’t because of the black pudding. No, it was because he knew that if he were to step back outside and look at the mill, he’d see an old, wrecked, empty building. He knew too that if anyone else should come to the mill for any reason, they too would only see an old, wrecked, empty building. And even if someone were to venture inside, they wouldn’t see all this. Oh no. Only Nigel was allowed to see this. He didn’t know how he knew, but he was absolutely certain that he was right. And obviously Uri was connected to the De Angelo brothers, was clearly here in place of Topps, as part of the plot. But what was the plot? Maybe, at last, he was going to find out.

He looked at Gabe.

Gabe grinned. “We’re angels,” he said, cheerfully and with immense pride, “Archangels actually. Gabriel – that’s me, obviously – and Lucifer. Only we call him Nick as no-one is called Lucifer and Luke would confuse him with Luke the Evangelist. Maybe you’d worked that out?”

The brothers waited for a reaction. Worked it out? Were they mad? Nigel could only able shake his head, opening and closing his mouth like a fish that had unwittingly leapt out of its bowl.

“And this,” said Gabe, pointing to Uri, “is Uriel. He’s here at the Boss’s behest as an observer.”

Uri removed his blue-tinted glasses and Nigel could see that his eyes were exactly the same unusual grey as Nick’s and Gabe’s, framed with the same thick, long, very black lashes. “If I didn’t wear these,” explained Uri, tucking them in his shirt pocket, “people would soon notice the similarities between us, and that could raise awkward questions.”

“Yep,” said Nick, taking up the explanation, “Angels really do walk among you mere mortals. Thought we were spies, didn’t you? The Boss was thrilled at that, let me tell you.”

“And the Boss is…?” stuttered Nigel, looking beseechingly at Gabe.

“Why, Michael of course! He of the flaming sword.”

“And I’m the villain. The bad guy. Old Nick. Satan. The Dark Lord. Tempter of Humankind.” Nick shrugged. “But it was somewhat forced upon me, and a Promise was made at the beginning of your – by that I mean Humankind’s – time that one day I would get my turn to be the good guy again. That day is now.”

Gabriel leaned forward and touched Nigel’s arm. “It would be impossible for us to explain it to you, so we thought we’d show you.”

“Show me?” It came out as a croak. “Show me what?”

“How it came about. How Lucifer came to Fall into Hell, and The Promise that was made at the time.”

Nick took up the story. “What you’ll see and hear will just be like watching a film at the cinema. It’s what happened to us and it will explain things far better than we could if we were to just tell it to you. The human imagination is rather limited, I find.”

As he listened incredulously to this nonsense, Nigel realised he was now feeling woozy as well as nauseous. Dimly, he wondered if they’d put something in his coffee.

“Don’t worry,” said Gabe, patting his arm, “you’re perfectly safe. Come and sit in this armchair over here. That’s right. Now just watch and listen and then we’ll talk some more.”

Next episode coming soon: ‘popcorn and a blockbuster movie’

011 Orders From Above: Episode 11 ‘a fateful meeting’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and the high-spirited group of schoolchildren were being herded by their teachers to the coach waiting outside. In an upstairs room historian and archaeologist Dr. Stephen George heard them leave in a cacophony of scuffling feet, shouts and laughter, then all was blissfully quiet. For the past two hours he’d been scribbling notes for his forthcoming lecture on excavation techniques to university students and it wasn’t coming together. Several A4 sheets were scattered across his desk, covered with his untidy writing. The scrawl was scribbled-out here and there and double-headed arrows shot from one paragraph to another where he couldn’t decide whether to swap them round. When the intercom buzzed he gladly threw down his pen, grateful for the interruption.

“Yes, Stella?”

“Miss Dove is here to see you.”

“Oh, yes, the coin found in the churchyard at Ham-Under-Lymfold. I’ll be right down.”

The first thing that caught his attention as he entered from the stairwell was a cloud of shiny, dark red curls. The second thing was a very trim figure. The third, fourth and fifth things were the dazzling smile, creamy skin and pair of luminous eyes the colour of cinnamon. By the time she spoke, softly introducing herself, Dr. Stephen George was utterly lost. It even seemed, in the moment that he took her outstretched hand and didn’t want to let it go, that the usually dim, cool interior of the Heritage Centre reception was suddenly very bright and very warm.

“Miss Dove.” Had there ever been such a beautiful name? “I’m Stephen George. Won’t you come up to the lab?” It all came out in a rush, and Stephen didn’t miss Stella’s raised eyebrows and knowing smirk as he led the way back upstairs to his office.

“Here we are, please do go in.”

She preceded him with another dazzling smile that made his heart pound like it was being pummeled by a pile driver. Why had he never met her before this? Where had she been all his life?

“The last discovery was brought in by your uncle, I hope he is well?” he said with a voice half an octave higher than usual.

“Uncle Hartley is fine, thank you. It was easier for me to come this time as I work just up the road, at the Art College.”

Just up the road! And he had never seen her.

“Have you worked there long, Miss Dove?”

“Please call me Lorelei.”

Her name sang in his brain. Lorelei. Lorelei Dove. A perfect name for a perfect woman. Would she one day be Lorelei George?

She was answering his question, forcing him to wrestle his mind back from his ridiculous reverie and give his full attention to this vision of loveliness.

“It’s been just over a year, actually,” she said, “I moved from Reading when my aunt died; she left me her cottage in Ham-Under-Lymfold and I was lucky enough to get a teaching job here.”

Maybe it could be lucky for me, too, Stephen thought, coming over all daydreamy again.

Lorelei said, “I saw a group of schoolchildren leaving as I came in, and it reminded me of a school trip to London, a long time ago. We went to look at a Bronze Age collection, but I was fascinated by a display of crystals in the foyer, and a huge amethyst geode in particular. I really loved that, probably because purple is my favourite colour,” she laughed and swept a hand over her t-shirt, fringed scarf and long skirt in various shaded of purple then waggled her fingers to show off glittery lilac varnish. “I had to save up for it, but I have a super geode at home almost as tall as me.”

Stephen cleared his throat so he could speak properly. “Oh, we have geodes here, too. You must have a look at them before you go. But let’s have a look at this coin, shall we?”

Lorelei pulled a small, bubble-wrapped lump from her shoulder bag and placed it on the table. The bubble-wrap unravelled to reveal another lump, this time of cotton wool. Inside that, the coin gleamed under the overhead lights.

Stephen fetched a magnifying glass from a drawer and leaned on his elbows to study the uppermost face of the coin, a crowned king sitting on a throne. But he was distracted by the nearness of Lorelei, by the scent of her, her unwavering gaze and air of curiosity and anticipation. He didn’t want to bother with the artifact, he wanted to talk to her. To find out everything about her. To find out if she would have dinner with him. Soon.

She smiled at him, frightening Stephen into believing she could read his mind, but she said, “Uncle Hartley has a book about coins, and he thought this resembled a gold florin. It was called a Double Leopard, if I remember rightly.”

Inwardly giving himself a firm shake to make himself concentrate, he traced with a fingertip one of the two leopard heads near the kings elbow and felt excitement stir. “It could be that your uncle is right. If this is a Double Leopard it will be pretty valuable. Let’s have a look on the internet.”

He went to a dusty laptop and typed in ‘Double Leopard coin’. Within seconds, he had a picture of one on the screen, and Lorelei leaned in close as they both studied the actual coin and the large, clear picture in front of them. He breathed in the apple-scent of her, and longed to reach out and touch her hand, her hair, her face.

“It looks just like it, doesn’t it?” she breathed. “And look, it says it could be worth more than a hundred thousand pounds!”

“Yes, indeed. But let’s not make assumptions. I’m not an expert in coins, ancient pottery is more my line, so I’d like to suggest that we send this to an expert I know in London. Would that be all right, do you think?”

“Of course! Please feel free to do whatever you think necessary. Oh, Uncle Hartley will be over the moon.”

She was picking up her bag. She was going to leave. Desperately, he rooted about in his brain to find something to say that would really impress her, something intelligent, scintillating and witty. He blurted, “Oh please, don’t go!”

Lorelei looked a little startled, and he inwardly groaned that he was behaving like an idiot. Taking a deep breath, he started again, “I’m sorry, what I meant was, please stay while I photograph and document this. And I need to give you a receipt for it.”

She smiled put her bag down again, and as he looked into her golden-brown eyes he felt the floor tilt beneath his feet.

For the next quarter of an hour, Lorelei stood patiently by while Stephen photographed the coin and made notes about it. The high-windowed room started to heat up, and Stephen couldn’t help but stare at her as she removed the fringed scarf from around her soft, white neck. Her fingers were long and slender, the lilac nails quite short. Stephen, wanting to kiss those fingers very badly indeed – noted the absence of a wedding or engagement ring – but surely such a lovely woman was already taken? How could he find out? He shook himself before she caught him gazing at her, wrote out a receipt and handed it to her, saying, “That’s as much as I can do right now. It could be a week or two before the expert I have in mind is available to take a look at it, so may I, that is, may I take your, er, your telephone number to let you know when we have the, the, er, the results?”

Good grief, he thought, now I’m stuttering like a lovesick teenager!

Lorelei stated her home number, twice, very slowly, and leaned over to watch him write it down. Her incredible hair smelled of apples. Or was it her skin? “If you, er, need to, um, ask me anything, Miss Dove … Lorelei … then do call. I’ll be here most days, that is when I’m not lecturing at the university. But anyway, I shall telephone you the moment I have any news. Or before if I need to ask you something. About the coin, I mean.”

“Right. Yes. Fine. Well, I’m sure you’re busy and I have to get going, so …” Lorelei wound the purple scarf round her neck and picked up her handbag.

“I’ll show you out-”

“Oh, there’s no need. Really. I can find my way.”

And she was gone. Too late, Stephen remembered that he’d offered to show her the geodes downstairs. Bereft at the missed opportunity to spend more time with the enchanting Miss Dove, he stared at the doorway until Stella appeared there, her sleek blond bob blotting out his memory of Lorelei’s auburn curls tumbling down her slender back. Stella was looking at him with a knowing expression.

“Lovely young woman,” she said, barely able to contain her laughter at Stephen’s dumbstruck expression, “I hope you got her telephone number.”

“I did, as a matter of fact. But don’t you go getting any ideas, Stella. She might be married, or engaged, or-”

“Nope. I happen to know that she’s free as a bird and looking for her soulmate.”

“How?” he croaked, “I mean, how could you know that?”

“Because I know her Uncle, and I saw him just a couple of weeks ago. He told me that she’d just come out of another disastrous relationship and he wished with all his heart that she could meet a nice man.” Her face full of mischief, she said, “You’re a nice man, Stephen. A very nice man.”

“Now, Stella, I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves …”

“Stephen, you are nice. You’re kind, intelligent, you have a great sense of humour and on top of all that you’re very good-looking, a veritable Indiana Jones. And from the rapturous look on her face as she left here, I would say she was rather smitten too.” She turned on her heel, “I’ll make some tea.”

Stephen wanted to punch the air for joy at even the possibility he might be of interest to the wondrous0 Lorelei Dove, and debated with himself how soon he should call her. What would be the right amount of time to wait? Two weeks… no, far too long. One week? Yes, he thought that would be about right.

He lasted three days.

Next episode: Nigel learns the truth

 

010 Orders From Above: Episode 10 ‘the most expensive coffee in the world’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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“All done, sir. We’ll be off now.”

Bemused, Nigel watched the team of workmen troop out of his office. They had been sent by his still-mysterious client to make a space where he could work on the mill project in total secrecy.

The main office looked just the same as before, as the workmen had knocked through into a void behind the wall that was big enough for the equipment he needed. The dividing wall was now covered by paper patterned with thin, multi-coloured vertical stripes that made his eyes water. Stuck up with drawing pins at each corner was a poster of a Caribbean beach scene, it’s cerulean blue sky and saffron sand clashing with the stripes behind. Nigel tentatively touched a small white seashell at the bottom left-hand corner of the poster, and a door slid soundlessly open.

Lights automatically flickered on as Nigel stepped in and looked around his secret room with a mixture of wonder and disbelief. He ran his fingers over the top of the large monitor of his new computer, excited to know that the very latest software had been installed. In the corner was a state of the art printer atop a low, steel filing cabinet suitable for storing large plans and blueprints. With all this in the tiny area, there was barely enough room for Nigel to squeeze in and sit down at the desk, but he loved it all the same.

Amelia hadn’t seen the secret room yet, but any moment she’d arrive with a bag of warm croissants and a carton of fresh milk for their morning coffee. Nigel stepped back into the main office and closed the door with another touch of the seashell.

When Amelia breezed in, her cheeks rosy from her walk in the sunshine, it wasn’t only milk she carried, for she had bought a glossy magazine. As she handed it to him, Nigel saw it was called Haut Monde. Curious, he remarked, “Not the kind of thing you usually read.”

“I saw it on the newsstand and just had to buy it. Look at the centre pages!”

Before opening it, Nigel glanced at the front cover to see what had caught Amelia’s eye. His ex-wife stared out at him from a colour photograph, beneath which, in bold, white type, was the line, Inside Exclusive: Tansy Hellion-Rees, daughter of construction magnate Hugh Wutherington-Parker, explains why she is happy to be alone again.

“Not good news for us, is it?” said Amelia. “This must be the third millionaire Tansy’s driven away.”

Nigel sighed as he opened the magazine. “I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever be able to get her out of our lives.”

Resisting the urge to scribble a bushy moustache and round spectacles on Tansy’s surgery-perfect face, he quickly scanned the article. The accompanying photograph showed her sitting on a huge dark green sofa, two glossy black Labradors at her feet. Nigel recognised the room as the largest and grandest of the four reception rooms in her father’s glorious country retreat.

In fact, Tansy was sitting on the very settee where he had sat, waiting to ask her father for her hand in marriage. He found it hard to believe now that he had been so bewitched by her and unable to believe his luck that such a beautiful woman was his. If only he’d known what a cold and deceitful heart lay beneath that beautiful exterior! But of course he’d no inkling, he’d thought she was the perfect woman, and he’d downed two large tumblers of whiskey in quick succession for courage. His boss, soon to be his father-in-law, had laughed at Nigel’s slurred speech as he’d stammered how very much he loved Tansy and wanted to marry her.

Consent had been given with a hearty slap on the back, but, shortly after the wedding, it had all gone horribly wrong and Nigel had very quickly begun to wish that Tansy’s father had marched him off the premises for being a drunk. Tansy morphed practically overnight from a sweet, adoring woman into a demanding and unreasonable harpy. Too late, Nigel had discovered just how she operated, and he was but one of many men to have their fingers burned by her.

Thoroughly fed up at the unhappy memories, he threw the magazine in the waste bin. “Oh, let’s forget about her! Come and see this.”

Amelia gasped as he opened the secret door. Peering inside, she looked around and said, “This whole thing is amazing. I would never have guessed there was so much space behind this wall. It’s all very peculiar though and, I think, rather scary. Who are these people, Nigel?”

He shrugged, “My guess would be something like the British Secret Service, like you suggested, operating in the guise of a business corporation. I hope we’re doing the right thing, taking on this job.”

They hadn’t heard from the client since his visit, and when Nigel had tried to get information from the workmen while they created this new workspace for him, they’d neatly brushed him off and he’d learned nothing at all.

The phone rang then and Nigel, who was nearest, pressed the loudspeaker button.

A woman’s voice, smooth and soft as warm caramel, purred, “Good morning, Mr. Hellion-Rees, this is the de Angelo Corporation calling.”

Nigel raised an eyebrow at Amelia, who made a face at him and mouthed, “Spooky!”

“A car is on its way to collect you and Mrs Hellion-Rees, sir.”

“I- what? I mean, sorry, did you say a car? On its way?”

“Yes, sir. To bring you to your meeting here with Mr. de Angelo. We will see you soon.”

“But we don’t have a mee-”

The call was disconnected, leaving them staring at the silent phone in disbelief.

“Can you believe that?” Nigel said to Amelia. “Didn’t even bother to ask if it was convenient… Wait a minute!” He scurried to the desk diary. “Look, Amelia!”

She leaned over him and read the copper coloured writing detailing the forthcoming meeting. Just like the first mysterious appointment, this one had magically appeared in the diary.

“Well, darling, maybe we’re about to find out at last who we’re really dealing with.”

The outer door opened and closed and two seconds later a short man in the traditional uniform of a chauffeur appeared in the doorway of the office. Nigel took in the shiny-peaked hat, the navy jacket with its double row of brass buttons and the jodhpur-style trousers tucked into leather black boots and wondered – unless the de Angelo office was right round the corner, he must have been well on his way even before the phone call.  It just got weirder and weirder.

*

The long, sleek limousine, gleaming silver-grey, looked terribly out of place in the narrow, litter-strewn street. The driver held the door open for Amelia and then walked round to open the other side for Nigel to climb into the immaculate interior and watched impassively as they made themselves comfortable and put on their seatbelts. They were soon underway, gliding smoothly into the busy London traffic. Nigel glanced at his watch and murmured to Amelia that he wondered where they were going.

The soft leather seat seemed to wrap itself round him like a comfy armchair, bringing back memories of the days he’d sometimes been chauffeured around by his mega-rich clients. The windows were so dark he could hardly see the passing sights. He recognised that they were driving slowly in heavy traffic along Bond Street, then New Bond Street with Tiffany’s, Cartier, Chanel. They turned into Conduit Street, and there, on the right, was Saville Row. He’d once thought nothing of spending a day in these streets, spending money he’d worked so hard to earn, though mostly on Tansy rather than himself. The thought depressed him, so he sat back and closed his eyes.

When he felt that the limousine was going down a steep incline a few minutes later, he peered out of the window again. They were driving down a ramp to an underground parking garage, which he assumed was beneath the icicle-like building of the website.

He grabbed his briefcase and stepped out of the car. The garage, low ceilinged and dimly lit, was vast, but this was the only vehicle in it.

“If you take the elevator over there, sir, the operator will take you to Reception.”

Nigel and Amelia did as they were told, and were soon wondering which of the two stunningly beautiful receptionists and one extremely handsome man they should approach. But the man had already noticed them and greeted them with a wide smile.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hellion-Rees, welcome to the de Angelo Corporation. If you would be good enough to take a seat over there, someone will come and collect you shortly.”

Nigel followed Amelia to one of the large red settees that were placed in clusters around the airy space, sat down and looked around with his architect’s eye: the reception area was as clean as an operating theatre, all gleaming white marble and travertine, with steel fixtures and fittings. The ceiling soared above him, criss-crossed with heavy steel beams held together by giant bolts. Spiralling light wells ensured the ultra-modern, ultra-smooth, ultra-expensive space was well lit and ventilated, and he loved it.

Expecting to have to wait a little while, Nigel looked over Amelia’s shoulder at a magazine she’d picked up, but he’d barely had time to register the title of the publication when a polite ‘Ahem’ alerted him to a man in very shiny shoes standing in front of him.

“Good morning, Mr. Hellion-Rees, Mrs. Hellion-Rees. Would you please allow me to take you to Mr. De Angelo’s office?”

Right, thought Nigel, helping Amelia up and following the man, I wonder if this will turn out to be the man I’ve already met?

He, Amelia and Shiny Shoes rode up in a silent elevator with the same silent operator, and when the doors pinged open on the 108th floor, his companion indicated that they should follow him. They walked down a very long, thickly carpeted corridor, its walls covered with huge canvasses of modern art. They turned a corner, and ahead of them was a glass wall through which he could see a very, very large and very, very smart office.

Shiny Shoes opened the door, announced Nigel and Amelia’s names, and handed them over to an elegant personal assistant even more beautiful than the receptionists. She told them her name was Sarah and asked if they wanted coffee, tea, or anything else.

“Um, coffee would be lovely, thank you,” replied Amelia, and Nigel said he’d have the same.

“Filter? Or do your prefer cappuccino, latte, machiatto, espresso? We even have Kopi Luwak, if you’d like that?”

When they both looked blank Sarah laughed and explained, “It’s also known as civet coffee. It comes from partially digested coffee cherries that are eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world and if you’d like to try it…?”

Nigel shook his head. “Oh, I think filter would be just fine for me, thank you.”

Amelia agreed.

“Excellent! We have our own blend, which I’m sure you will find most enjoyable. If you’d like to go through to Mr. De Angelo’s office I shall bring it through.” She pointed to where they should go.

This space was even bigger than the one they’d just left, and was beautifully decorated in pleasing shades of blue and green. The wall facing them was floor to ceiling glass, and the stunning view, so incredibly high above London, made Nigel feel almost dizzy. But he still couldn’t get his bearings because the view was all wrong – surely he shouldn’t be able to see The Gherkin and The London Eye and The Tower Bridge? Oh yes, and over there to his left was The Shard. Impossible.

He was totally distracted by this conundrum until he noticed the outstretched hand of a man who was so like the one who had visited him in his own premises, but wasn’t.

“How do you do? I am very pleased you could both come today.”

“Um. Mr. de Angelo?” Feeling somewhat wrong-footed because of the confusing view, Nigel shook the proffered hand, and looked closely at the man’s face. Very, very similar indeed to the man who had visited his office.

“I’m Gabe. It was my brother, Nick, who came to see you at your office. He hopes to join us later. Ah, here’s the coffee. Thank you, Sarah, we’ll see to the cream and sugar ourselves.”

When Sarah had closed the door behind her Gabe grinned at Nigel and Amelia and laughed at Nigel’s grimace when asked if he’d opted for the Kopi Luwak. “We have a running bet that no-one will ever choose it.” He lifted his cup and said, “I have to tell you, it’s delicious, but I do appreciate that a drink made from beans that have passed through an animal’s intestines isn’t to everyone’s taste.” He looked from Nigel to Amelia, his eyebrows raised, “So, can I tempt you? Either of you?”

Nigel shook his head then swivelled in surprise to Amelia as she said, “I’d be willing to try it.”

“Oh, excellent! Well done you! I’ll just tell Sarah to bring you a cup.”

Gabe waited while Nigel added cream to his ordinary coffee then helped himself to a generous amount before picking up the sugar bowl and the tiny silver tongs.

“Not good for you, I know,” he said, dropping four crumbly cubes of brown sugar into his cup. “So, what do you have for us? May I call you Nigel and Amelia?”

“Oh yes, please do, Mr. de Angelo,” said Amelia.

“Excellent. And you must call me Gabe. So how’s our little project going?”

There was a short interruption as Sarah came in and handed Amelia her cup of Kopi Luwak. Gabe suggested she add cream and sugar if that was what she normally did, and he and Nigel watched carefully as she took her first sip.

“Oh!” she exclaimed after she’d smelled it and taken her first sip. “It’s delicious! It’s kind of… nutty and caramelly… chocolately. I like it!”

“Good. I shall ask Sarah to ensure you receive a bag of beans so you can make it yourself at home.” He spoke over Amelia’s protestations, “Now where were we? Ah yes, Nigel, an update if you please.”

“Ah, um. Well, um … Gabe. I believe everything is going to plan.” Nigel lined up the photographs on the table so they were facing Gabe. “The mill has been abandoned for many years, as I’m sure you know, but I think it could be restored into something quite stunning.” He pulled some plans out of his briefcase, “Here are some ideas we’ve been working on, exterior and interior.”

Gabe picked up the first couple of drawings, pencil sketches of a renovated façade, and then a colour palette for the restaurant prepared by Amelia, but Nigel had the impression he wasn’t really interested. Maybe the brother was the driving force, but there was as yet no sign of his arrival.

“These look excellent. Now, have you arranged accommodation for yourselves while you’re working there?”

“There are very comfortable rooms above the local pub. And there is a nice hotel for you in nearby Monkton Ridge, for when you come to visit.” He sipped his coffee – the most delicious he had ever tasted – and waited for a reaction. Gabe seemed to be deep in thought for a moment, then he shrugged his shoulders as if coming to some sort of private decision, and leaned forward.

“Okay, so tell me about the village. Is it very small? Remote? Is it the sort of place that gets tourists pouring in to snap thatched cottages with pretty streams running through the gardens?”

“Well, no. It’s a very pretty village and it’s close to some historic places, but any tourists would just pass through really, as there’s nothing there to encourage them to stay. The pub offers basic food, as does the café, and I think both are in need of updating and refurbishment. I think the opening of the mill as a restaurant would encourage them to do that.”

Nigel paused, waiting for Gabe to make some comment. When he didn’t speak, Amelia said, “I wonder, sir, if you can tell us what this is all about? I mean, we appreciate the work, we really do, but, well, your brother said there was a larger agenda, of global importance, and there are so many strange things going on…”

Gabe smiled at last, and his clear grey eyes sparkled with genuine amusement. “Of course you find this whole thing strange, and I don’t blame you.” He leaned back in his chair and shook his head in apology as he said, “But I can’t tell you anything more at this time, I’m sorry.”

“I see,” said Nigel, picking up his paper-thin, gold-rimmed china cup and putting it down again, “So are we ever to know what it is you are hoping to achieve there?” And, he thought to himself, please don’t let it be anything illegal.

The grin flashed again, but was quickly gone and Nigel thought, not for the first time, that Gabe De Angelo was troubled about something. It showed in his eyes. But he replied amiably enough, “You will be told, I promise you, and soon, once my brother and I have got things organised. I’m sure Nick will have told you, and so I will reiterate, you will do very well out of this. And you can rest assured that you will not be asked to do anything that is against the law.”

Nigel wondered if this man was a mind reader, but he was relieved to hear that everything was above board.

Gabe glanced at his watch. “Well, I think we’ve covered everything. Unfortunately, it seems that Nick won’t be able to join us, as he’d planned, or he’d be here by now; he’ll be sorry to have missed you. I just wanted to meet you, really, so I hope you don’t mind being dragged across London for such a short – and probably unsatisfactory – meeting, as I’m unable to enlighten you at this time.”

“Oh, well, we’re glad to have met you, and very grateful for your trust in us.”

“Good, good! Now, here’s our authorisation for you to act on our behalf. Get whatever and whomever you need. You’ll have fun with the mill, I know, and there will be no difficulties with its renovation.” He turned to Amelia. “You’re just the team we need, Amelia, your husband’s a private investigator and architect and you’re an interior designer. I hope you both enjoy yourselves.”

Amelia graciously smiled and said how thrilled they both were for the opportunity to work on such a prestigious project.

When she finished speaking Gabe rose, looking very serious as he said, “Make no mistake, please, this is a very important undertaking, and your part in it is very important. Now then, I suggest you get yourselves well established in Ham-Under-Lymfold. I think the pub is an excellent place for you to be, actually, as it’s central to the village and you’re sure to meet a lot of the locals there. When we come, my brother and I will stay at the mill.”

“But you can’t!” exclaimed Nigel, urgently pointing to the photographs again, “The mill is a complete wreck!”

“Oh, we’ll manage, don’t you worry. We’ll pitch camp there and be perfectly comfortable. You’ll see.”

He offered his hand first to Amelia and then to Nigel. The resemblance between the de Angelo brothers was remarkable, Nigel thought, but whereas one sensed that Nick had a dark and somewhat sinister side to him you would want to be careful of, Gabe seemed open and really, genuinely very pleasant.

The elegant secretary escorted Nigel and Amelia to the elevator, and told them the car was waiting in the basement garage to take them back to their office.

But Nigel wanted to see the remarkable building from the outside, so he asked the operator to stop and let them out at Reception. The little man looked uncertain, but he pressed the button when Nigel firmly asked him again. He wanted to see for himself this upside-down icicle and to know where, exactly, he was. There was a revolving door to the right as they came out of the elevator, and he guided Amelia towards it, intending to go outside.

“Oh, Mr. Hellion-Rees.” It was the receptionist who had greeted them when they arrived. He was hurrying towards them, an anxious expression on his handsome face, and Nigel had the feeling that he was trying to head him off. “I do apologise, Mr. Hellion-Rees, but the car is waiting to take you back, and it’s needed back here immediately. So, if you wouldn’t mind …” He had his hand on Nigel’s arm now, gently but firmly guiding him away from the revolving door, so Amelia had no choice but to follow.

The security guard, his mouth set in a straight, disapproving line, was standing by the elevator, holding the doors open. The little operator was cowering at the back, and once Nigel and Amelia were inside, it was the guard who leaned in and pressed the button for the basement. They had no choice but to go down to the garage.

The silver-grey limousine was no longer alone in the vast underground space, for there was a black one of the same make and model parked next to it. Nigel just knew that this was Nick De Angelo’s car, and wondered how long he had been back and why he had not made an appearance at their meeting.

They were soon settled on the soft leather seats again and on their way, but he and Amelia were even even more baffled about the whole thing than they had been before. They’d been to an office he hadn’t known existed that had an impossible view. They’d learned nothing new about the job, so still didn’t know what they were getting themselves involved in. But they had a gorgeous old mill to renovate and enough money in the bank to pay the alimony due to his ex-wife for several months to come, and that, at least, gave Nigel something to be happy about.

He patted the large bag of beans that sat on the seat between him and Amelia and she sighed, “I didn’t have the heart to tell Gabe that all we have to make coffee with is a kettle! I suppose we could always sell them!”

Next episode: ‘a fateful meeting’

~~~~~

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009 Orders From Above: Episode 9 ‘STARdust’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Reverend Hartley Cordwell turned up the volume so the music and words of Linden Lea, one of his favourite Vaughan Williams songs, surged into the small vicarage study and filled the room with beauty. Hartley filled his lungs, opened his chest, and sang along in his rich baritone voice, relishing every word:

Within the woodlands flow’ry gladed / by oak trees mossy root / the shining grass blade timber shaded / now do quiver on the foot

He was sitting at his leather-topped bureau, polishing with a soft, damp cloth the coin Topps had found in the churchyard. It was a very fine piece of work, and as he scraped and buffed the grime away he was getting more and more certain and more and more excited that what he held in his hands was gold. The one side he’d already cleaned was exquisitely patterned with a fantastic bird of paradise perched on a branch of a blossom tree, wings outspread, long tail plumed with curling feathers. Now he was working on the other side.

The dirt on this surface was well ingrained, so he had to use his thumbnail through the cloth to loosen it. Eventually the image emerged of another bird … no … not a bird at all, more like a … yes, it was like a pterodactyl, with a horned head and bat-like wings outstretched, ending in sharp talons. Not a pleasant thing, thought Hartley, singing louder as he turned the coin to polish its smooth edge.

Let other folk make money faster / in the air of dark roomed towns / I do not dread a peevish master / though no man may heed my frowns / for I be free to-

The words abruptly caught in his throat as the coin suddenly started to vibrate, sending a startling sensation swiftly from his thumb to his hand then through his whole arm and into his chest. Hartley cried out and the coin fell, bouncing off his desk and onto the floor. Eyes wide and shaking and flexing his still-tingling hand in an effort to get rid of the pins and needles, Hartley followed its progress as it rolled across the floorboards until it came to rest in front of the filing cabinet.

Gingerly, he rose from his chair and walked the three paces to the cabinet. Hands on hips he stared down at the coin, the gargoyle creature upwards, as still as an inanimate object should be, then bent down and touched it with his fingertip. A low humming sound started to emanate from it as soon as Hartley’s skin made contact and Radio 3 crackled with static which was painful to the ears. Terrified, Hartley dashed to switch the radio off, hardly daring to take his eyes from the gold piece that now seemed to be talking to itself.

It said:

“Heads, I stay.”

in one voice, and at the exact same time, a different, lighter voice said:

“Tails, I stay.”

There was a long silence, then a gentle tingling sound followed by a short silence. Then first voice peevishly exclaimed:

“Damn and blast!”

Hartley stood with his finger still pressed on the off button of his radio. After a few seconds of silence, he carefully lifted his hand and cocked his head. Nothing. He looked around the room, but all was as it had been before.

Before what, exactly?

He lowered himself onto the chair, all the while staring at the golden disc. It lay on the carpet like a … well, like it was an ordinary coin that had fallen from a pocket, not at all like something that hummed and talked and hurt when you touched it.

It clearly was not a valuable artifact, like he had hoped, but a modern and sophisticated device. Some kind of electronic toy perhaps. Yes, that made sense. A toy that when you played with it vibrated and hummed and said ‘heads’ and ‘tails’. Remarkable technology, really.

Disappointed that it wasn’t gold and probably worth very little, he bent to pick it up again. It scorched his fingertips and he snatched his hand back. It started to vibrate again. Fascinated and wondering what else it could do, Hartley waited to see what would happen next. A continuation of the heads and tails game perhaps?

But the coin seemed to grow bigger and bigger and blacker and blacker, until the… the… creature burst from it with an ear-splitting screech, making Hartley yelp in terror and throw his arms over his head in protection.

Like a cat-sized, horn-headed bat it flew around the room, coming so close to Hartley that he felt the breeze from its leathery, rustling wings ruffle his hair. Heart pounding, he grabbed the back of his chair to keep himself from fainting.

At that moment the telephone rang. The noise seemed to distract the creature, and it flew down towards the coin. Hartley watched in disbelief as the creature was sucked back into the coin, feet first.

He let the telephone go through to the answering machine.

*

“Gentlemen, we have a problem.” The Boss regarded his two top agents, one fat, one thin. They stood to attention, hands behinds their backs, their booted feet apart and firmly planted on the deep-pile carpet of his office.

“The DISC has been exposed. This is completely unexpected; we thought there would be time for Nick and Gabe to retrieve and replace it, but somehow the vicar managed to break the protective seal while cleaning it. Fortunately for us, only he has seen it so far, so we need to go in fast and undo the damage.”

“Isn’t Uri on site?” asked the thin man, “Couldn’t he get it back?”

“Yes, he’s there, but he can’t risk doing this in case his position is compromised.”

He pushed an envelope and a burgundy velvet box across the surface of his desk. “Fortunately we have a valid excuse to gain access to the vicar’s house. This is the plan for the DISC’s retrieval and the replacement coin. Sort it out, please, gentlemen, and sort it out now.”

The fat man picked up the box and both men bowed low as they backed out of the office.

*

Hartley’s first thought when the knocker sounded along the hall to where he was still frozen in place in his study, was how he was going to get past the coin to go and answer it. His second thought was to wonder if he was going mad.

Another knock, louder and longer, galvanised him into action. He scooped his leather-bound Bible from the desk drawer and, holding it up in his right hand, he swept the coin up with his left hand and threw it clear across the room and into the open door of the safe. Any other day he would have missed at such a distance.

Two men were on his doorstep, one fat, one thin, wearing blue sweatshirts that carried a gas company logo. The thin man thrust a laminated identity card in front of Hartley’s face.

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but can you confirm that you are Reverend Cordwell and your boiler was recently serviced?”

“Yes, indeed. Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid, sir, that we’ve been informed by the manufacturer that a faulty part may have been used. We need to check it out and, if necessary, change it. No charge, of course.”

The thin man put his foot on the threshold, “I’m sure you don’t need telling, sir, that gas boiler faults can be deadly.”

Hartley let them in, showing them into the kitchen. “The boiler’s behind that cupboard door. Would you both like a cup of tea?”

The thin man started to say no, but the fat one intervened. “That would be very nice, sir, thank you. Milk and two sugars for us both.”

Hartley set about making a pot of tea, while the thin man removed the cover from his boiler. He hummed and ha-ed for a bit, then said, “Yep, you’ve got one of the faulty valves all right.”

The fat man announced he needed to fetch the replacement part from the van, excused himself, and left the room.

“Well, that’s a relief, I must say.” said Hartley, pouring out the tea. “It’s very good that such a thing can be put right so quickly.”

“Oh, there’s no time wasted when it comes to gas, sir.”

His colleague returned and the two men set to work. Hartley’s telephone rang, and although there was a handset in the kitchen, he didn’t want to take the call there in case it was a private parish matter. He hurried to his study to take it there.

He paused when he saw that the safe was slightly open, for he was certain that he’d closed it. His scalp prickled and, feeling shocked to the core yet again, Hartley spun round to find the two men coming slowly into the study, looking like menacing burglars now instead of cheerful boiler repairmen.  He exclaimed, “You’re not from the gas company! Who are you? How dare you-”

The thin man darted forward and grabbed Hartley, pinning his arms to his sides. He demanded of his colleague in an urgent whisper, “How could you be so careless?”

The fat man, clearly rattled, whispered back, “I wasn’t! The safe mustn’t have locked properly.”

“The Boss is going to be furious. We’ll have to use the Dust, it’s the only way to salvage the situation. Quickly.”

The telephone stopped ringing at last, and Hartley’s answering machine clicked on.

The fat man, looking extremely unhappy now, sprinkled something resembling a shiny blue pepper pot onto a large white handkerchief. When the cloth was clamped over Hartley’s nose and mouth, he was forced to inhale a sweet smell he couldn’t put a name to and the last thing he heard before everything went black was, “I’m so sorry about this, sir, but it’s only STARdust. It creates an alternative reality and is really quite harmless in small doses. You’ll wake up and not remember that any of this happened.”

*

Hartley sat up in bed and opened his eyes to utter darkness. His bedside clock glowed 3 am.

He had a dull headache and a strange, perfumey smell in his nostrils. He sneezed twice. Then again. He had no memory of going to bed. Or of having any dinner before going to bed. He searched his memory and was dismayed not to be able to remember much about the previous day at all. There were fragments, vague foggy images, of what he had done, who he had spoken to, but nothing concrete.

He fought it, but sleep took him back into oblivion, and when he woke up again at his usual time of 6.30, he leapt out of bed full of vitality, his earlier confusion forgotten.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, Hartley settled down in his study. There was one message on his answering machine from yesterday afternoon, which surprised him as he’d been home so how could he have missed it, but it wasn’t of great importance. Once it had been dealt with, Hartley switched on the radio, and set about cleaning the coin that Topps had found with a soft, damp cloth. The grime came off easily and as he buffed away he became more and more certain and more and more excited that the coin was gold. He fetched his Antique & Collectible Coins and Medals from bookshelf and flipped through it until he spotted a picture that very much resembled the coin in his hand, Double Florin from the reign of Edward III. It was exceptionally rare, he read, and could be worth a lot of money. He could barely breathe with excitement, thinking what he could do with the windfall the coin might bring.

He heard the back door open and close, followed by footsteps on the tiled kitchen floor. He smiled at the sounds of the kettle being filled at the tap, then moments later Lorelei popped her pretty head round the door.

“Hello, Uncle. Kettle’s on and I’ve brought some scones and clotted cream.”

“Wonderful,” answered Hartley. “I’ll be right there.” He put the coin back in the safe.

By the time he entered the kitchen, Lorelei had placed a pot of tea, jug of milk, plates, knives and spoons on the table with the scones, and was pulling off the lid of the cream carton.

“Lorelei-”

“Have you got any jam, Uncle?”

“Um, no, only marmalade, I’m afraid. Look, Lorelei, there’s somethi-”

“Oh, marmalade’s no good. Let me have a look in the fridge.” Lorelei crossed the kitchen to the huge, ultra-modern American-style fridge, so out of place in the old-fashioned kitchen with its mismatched drawers and cabinets. She moved a few jars about, muttering, “Ploughman’s relish… pesto … tomato puree … mustard … ah, this’ll do!” She pulled out a jar of cranberry sauce and peered at the label. “This isn’t from Christmas, is it?”

He decided he’d have to wait until she was less distracted to tell her about the coin. “No, no, it’s quite fresh. I like it with ham.”

“Ah, well, it’s sweet so I can’t see why it won’t go with scones and butter too. Tuck in, Uncle, I’ll pour the tea.”

Hartley took a scone. He didn’t think he’d have an appetite after the sausage, eggs and bacon he’d had, but found he was ravenous and devoured one of the scones in short order. He drank some tea, then reached for another scone and liberally coated it with butter and a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “I must say, this makes an excellent substitute for strawberry jam.”

Lorelei was still nibbling at her first scone. She was always popping round with cakes and goodies, but she barely ate any of them herself. Lorelei interrupted his thoughts as she said, “Something’s up, Uncle, I can see it in your aura.”

“My aura? Oh, Lorelei, really!” Hartley frowned as he always did at Lorelei’s new age notions.

“Well it’s true! I can see auras, you know.” She narrowed her eyes and traced the outline of his head, “And yours is most definitely excited. I’m right, aren’t I?”

He grinned. “As it happens, I am rather excited about something, but you don’t need to see auras to know that, Lorelei, I’ve been trying to tell you since I came in here.”

She laughed. “Sorry, Uncle, you have my full attention now. Tell me what it is that has your aura glowing so beautifully?”

She fixed him with her beautiful green eyes, and Hartley decided not to get into one of their debates. They had opposing ideas, and sometimes it was easier to each let the other believe what they believed. “I think the coin that Topps dug up may be gold – and very valuable, if my book is anything to go by.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I do hope you’re right, Uncle, it would please Topps no end, and give you some money for church repairs.”

Hartley replied. “Oh, yes, he would be delighted. Well, I think he would be, I’ve never actually seen him display a happy emotion. Remember those bits of pottery he found last year? He hovered over me while I cleaned them, and then I found a maker’s mark, which clearly said, ‘Made in China’. I couldn’t help laughing, but he just stomped off in a huff.”

Lorelei giggled. “I can just imagine it. Can I see the coin, Uncle?”

“Of course, my dear. Let me fetch it from the safe.”

He returned with it and the book and handed them to Lorelei, holding his breath as she compared the coin to the photograph he pointed to.

“Gosh, yes, it might be. Oh, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? Such a shame there’s only the one, though.”

“Topps explored all around the area where he found it in case it turned out to be a hoard of buried treasure, but this was it. The Heritage Centre will be able to tell us what it is and what it’s worth. When will you be going?”

“Thursday afternoon.” Her eyes gleamed with humour as she held the coin up to the light and said, “Hey, do you think I’ll need an armed guard?”

“Heavens, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that valuable? We could get something done about the damp in the vestry. Now, how about another cup of tea, is there enough in the pot?”

While Lorelei poured, she asked, “How’s the replacement Topps getting on? He seems very friendly – I saw him outside digging up the rose bed and he called out hello.”

Hartley smiled, “I must say, I rather like him. He plays chess, for a start, and very well at that; I haven’t been able to beat him yet. He has his own set – a beautiful thing of all kinds of wood that he said he’d made himself. And he talks.”

“Ah, well, that’s certainly different to old taciturn Topps.” She sipped her tea. “What’s his name again?”

Hartley chuckled. “Uri. Sounds Russian, doesn’t it? I’ve asked him about himself, but he’s rather adept at not give much away, so I don’t know where he’s from or if he has family other than Topps. He wears these blue-tinted glasses that make it difficult to see his eyes – that makes a person very hard to read, don’t you think, if you can’t see their eyes?”

“I’ll have a close look at his aura – you can’t disguise that, Uncle.”

Hartley ignored her. “But he’s very well read. I was talking about Sunday’s sermon with him last week, and it turns out he knows as much about the Bible as I do. And he has some fascinating ideas on all sorts of subjects – history, science, art. I must say, I’ll miss him when Topps comes back from his holiday.”

“I’m glad it’s worked out, then; I know you were worried about losing Topps even for a short while.” Lorelei glanced at her watch. “Oh no, look at the time! I really must be going. I’ve got someone coming about a pet portrait – an eighteen-foot python, of all things – and I want to get to the shops first.”

“A python? Good heavens, Lorelei, mind you don’t get too close!”

“I’ll make sure it’s been fed before I go anywhere near it! Now then, what about the coin?”

“Just let me wrap it up. Mind you keep it safe, now, it could be worth a lot of money.”

Lorelei looked affronted and Hartley apologised.

She kissed him on the cheek, and he watched her while she walked the short distance to her cottage by the green.

Hartley’s attention was then caught by the arrival of dozens of colourful and noisy birds landing on the beautiful feeders that Uri had brought with him. He’d told Hartley that woodwork was his hobby, and, if the vicar didn’t mind, he’d like to set up a workshop behind Topps’s cottage. Having seen the bird-feeders and the garden bench fashioned from a single piece of burr oak, Hartley had had no hesitation in agreeing.

Uri was still out there, at the bottom of the long garden, his back to the vicarage, digging the borders with a large fork. Birds were cheekily hopping on the newly turned soil, pulling up worms. As if he knew Hartley was looking, he turned and touched his forefinger to the flat cap perched on his thatch of black curly hair. For no reason he could discern, Hartley shivered.

Episode 10: the most expensive coffee in the world

~~~~~

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008 Orders From Above: Episode 8 ‘Angel Falls Mill’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

the mill.jpg

The mill had more holes than tiles in its roof and nature had all but taken over its interior, but Nigel fell instantly in love with it. As he photographed the old building, noting that the water wheel still looked pretty sound, plans for its renovation and eventual resurrection as a restaurant set his mind spinning with possibilities. He could hardly believe that he’d landed the job of buying and restoring it! But he told himself he mustn’t jump ahead, he had yet to make the purchase, and there was a long way to go before he’d have the joy of drawing up plans and hiring builders.

He knew from his mysterious client the name of the woman who owned it, but thought it would be imprudent to say so to his sharp-eyed, self-appointed tour guide. Still clicking away with his camera, he said, “Stanley, do you know who owns this?”

“Oh, aye, sir, that be Miss Violet Cattermole.”

Nigel didn’t miss the disdainful curl in the old man’s lip as he said the name, but it didn’t dim his excitement.

“Could you tell me where she lives, is she in the village?”

“Aye, she still be ’ere. I’ll take you back to the green and show you ’er ’ouse, if you like?”

Hardly able to believe his luck, Nigel grinned and replied, “That would be excellent, Stanley, thank you.”

The old man whistled for his dog and the trio retraced their steps to the village green. Stanley strolled over to the bench and swiftly strapped his sandwich boards back on. When they were settled on his shoulders he said, “I’ll leave you ’ere, sir, if I may. That there be Miss Cattermole’s place, the one with the green door.”

Nigel, his mind bent on what Violet Cattermole might have to say to his proposal, put out his hand to offer a friendly shake but remembered in time the unhygienic state of Stanley and hastily shoved both hands in his pockets. “I’m so glad we met, and I’m sure we will meet again as I’m certain to be back again soon.”

The old man, making no move to bid Nigel farewell and walk away, pursed his lips and fixed his beady eyes on Nigel’s face. Digby daintily stepped forward and pushed his long nose into Nigel’s thigh, as if reminding Nigel of something important.

“Oh! Oh, I do apologise, my mind was … well, sorry …” Nigel pulled out his wallet, not sure how much to give his guide. He had very little change and only £10 and £20 notes, so it would have to be a tenner. It would go on his expenses, anyway. “Perhaps you could get a tin of something nice for Digby?” Nigel said, leaning down to stroke the dog’s ears. The dark black coat flecked with grey and ginger was rough, but the ears, almost black in colour, were like velvet. Digby gruffled with pleasure as Nigel scratched, then as if hearing an unspoken word from Stanley, he ran to his master and Nigel walked them amble in the direction of the church.

Before going to see if Violet Cattermole was at home Nigel decided a large glass of something cold would be just the thing after his long walk round the village. But when he got to the Blacksmith’s Anvil, a fine old building with two bay windows either side of the half-glazed double doors, he was disappointed to find it closed. He read the black-edged sign on the door announcing the pub would re-open the next day, and remembered that the recent funeral had had some connection to the landlord.

It would have been a pleasant place to while away an hour or so before seeing Miss Cattermole, and also a great place to meet a few of the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold, but clearly that would have to wait for another time. In the window were several notices, one of them saying that they had rooms to rent, shared bathroom, meals extra. Nigel made a note of the telephone number then read the printed menu: chicken and chips, ham and chips, pie and chips, sausage and chips, ploughman’s lunch with Stilton or cheddar cheese, chips an optional extra. Such simple fare certainly wouldn’t offer any competition to the high class restaurant Nigel envisaged his client would offer at the Mill.

With a sigh, Nigel decided not to return to the cafe and more of Debbie’s breathless and unpunctuated speech so he trudged to Violet’s cottage. Maybe she would invite him in and offer him a cup of tea.

It was a handsome cottage, slate-roofed where it must once have been thatched, original diamond-paned windows, oak-timbered, the planes and surfaces of the walls charmingly uneven. Just the sort of cottage Amelia would love, Nigel thought, as he rapped sharply on the dark green door and waited.

And waited.

Deeply disappointed, he glanced around, but there was no-one to ask where Violet might be. He rooted in his pockets for pen and paper to write her a note.

“Would you be looking for Miss Violet Cattermole?”

Startled, for how could someone have appeared so suddenly, Nigel fumbled and dropped his pen. “Er, yes. Yes, I am.” He retrieved the pen and smiled sheepishly back at the grinning man in the sharply creased red trousers and plaid shirt who had addressed him. There was something familiar about him, something in his stature and bearing, the curly dark hair and perfect teeth… only Nigel couldn’t place it. The eyes were hidden behind blue lenses, but Nigel could tell that the man was amused by something. By him? Gosh, that expression, that feeling, was so familiar, but try as he might, Nigel couldn’t remember where he’d experienced it before.

“She’s in the shop,” the man informed him. “She’ll be gossiping, knowing Violet, so you might want to go and meet her rather than wait on her doorstep. I’m on my way there myself.”

Nigel thought the little village store and Post Office would be a good place to go, not only in the hope of meeting Miss Violet Cattermole, but he could also buy a local newspaper and some sweets for the journey home. He fell into step beside the man.

When they entered the shop the woman behind the counter glanced with curiosity at Nigel, then beamed at the other man and cheerily greeted him, “Hello, Uri! How are you?”

Nigel watched Uri stroll to the back of the shop to get whatever he’d come in for, still racking his brain as to why he found him so familiar. It was like a brain-itch he just couldn’t scratch.

A poke in the ribs brought his attention back and a gravelly voice wrapped out, with strange clicking noises that reminded him of Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag, “You’re not from around here. I saw you walking about with that tramp Trout. Where you from, eh?”

Nigel looked a considerable way down onto a black straw hat with a large pink flower on one side. Beneath the brim two eyes, as small and black as currants, glared up at him. He smiled and gave his rehearsed speech that he was searching the locality for a property to develop, and he’d just seen the old ruined mill.

The woman pursed her thin lips, as if she’d just sucked a lemon. “Is that right?”

Nigel had an uncanny feeling that this was the woman he sought. “You wouldn’t be Miss Cattermole by any chance, would you?”

In the face of an implacable stare, much like Stanley’s, Nigel waffled on, “Only I was told that the mill belonged to a lady called Violet Cattermole.”

“Well, some would question that she’s a lady,” the woman cackled. “Interested in my mill, then, are you?”

“Well, I’d certainly like to discuss the possibilities.”

By now two more women had come into the shop and they and the shop owners behind the counter were listening with interest to this exchange.

“And just what would you do with it?” The old lady rummaged in the large brown bag looped over her elbow and pulled out a wrapped toffee. She removed the paper, popped the sweet into her mouth and started ferociously chewing and sucking on it with a lot of unpleasant noises.

Nigel baulked at doing business with this formidable old biddy, but, just like dealing with the dreadful Mrs. Bingley, it was something he would have to do. He said, “Well, as I said, I’m a developer. I’ve been hired to locate a suitable building for a top-class restaurant with a few luxury bedrooms. I’d need to do some surveys, of course, but from what I’ve seen so far the mill has lots of potential and is in a magnificent location.”

“A restaurant!” the old lady barked, as if he’d said he was going to open a brothel. She swallowed the remains of the toffee, but there were remnants of it stuck around her front teeth.

“Naturally, it would be sympathetically restored and renovated by local craftsmen. The water wheel looks as if it could easily be restored to working order. It would offer employment, and bring visitors to the village who might also spend their money in the shops here.” Nigel found himself getting excited just talking about it.

A man introducing himself as Arnold Capsby, owner of the store, spoke up, “The café does food, and so does the pub, as well as bed and breakfast. You’d be taking business away from them.”

“Well, I’ve eaten in the café and I’ve seen from the pub menu that it provides good, basic food, which I’m sure is wonderful, and which many people will continue to want. But the restaurant would offer a very different kind of menu. And the café is closed in the evenings, so there would be no loss of customers to them. There’d be just a few rooms, which would suit tourists who want to visit all the wonderful places around here – after all, Bath isn’t very far away, or Salisbury – but there will still be those who’d prefer bed and breakfast in a pub.”

There was a murmur of agreement, then Arnold said, “Violet, why don’t you tell this nice gentleman what he needs to know.”

Violet folded her arms across her chest in an adversarial posture, which didn’t quite come off because of her tiny stature, and declared. “I am indeed Violet Cattermole, young man, and I own the mill. A restaurant, eh? Well it won’t come cheap, I can tell you that.”

Nigel, trying to ignore the over-large, toffee-covered dentures, bowed his head slightly. “Well, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance Miss Cattermole.”

She said nothing, and Nigel tried not to feel rattled by her black, rather calculating gaze. She didn’t even blink.

“Er… right, then. My name is Nigel Hellion-Rees. I have to get back to my office in London now and consult with my client, but perhaps you would be kind enough to give me your telephone number so I can telephone you to discuss things further?”

“Well, you’re polite, I’ll give you that.” Violet turned to the plump woman standing next to Arnold at the counter, “Olive, write down my address and phone number.” She did not say please or thank you, that clearly wasn’t her way, but Olive did as she was asked. Everyone followed the piece of paper as it was handed to Nigel and stowed in his wallet, then Violet harrumphed and stalked out of the shop. It seemed to Nigel that the atmosphere immediately lifted with her departure. Nigel selected a local newspaper, a bar of chocolate and a small bag of pink and yellow pear drops and took them to the counter. Olive took his money and counted out his change.

“A restaurant?” she said, with a friendly smile. “It would certainly be nice to see that old mill brought back to life, wouldn’t it Arnold?”

Her husband nodded, “Aye, that it would.” He turned to Nigel. “It’s one of the oldest buildings in the village, apart from the church. Violet and her sister were born and raised there. Violet never married, and when Hilda moved to Merryvale’s Farm, it was agreed that Violet should have the mill.”

Olive finished the story: “Unfortunately its upkeep was beyond her, and Violet felt isolated on that side of the river, especially when the bridge all but collapsed. Then the mill was so badly damaged in the hurricane of 1987, Violet had to move out, and she bought a cottage in the centre of the village. Since then the mill’s been left to nature, sorry to say.”

Arnold took up the story. “I don’t think she’s ever been back there since she moved out. We’ve all said at one time or another what a shame it is that a piece of history should be allowed to decay, but no-one’s actually done anything about it. Too expensive, I suppose.”

Olive leaned forward on the counter. “And you really think you could make something of it?”

“Oh yes,” said Nigel, making a mental note to check out the hurricane and all the other strange disasters that had befallen this little village, “Something wonderful could most definitely be done with it. So I’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.”

As he left the shop, someone grabbed the door before Nigel could close it and Uri stepped out into the street close behind him. He was so close Nigel could just about see his eyes through the blue lenses, and knew for certain that the man found something – probably Nigel himself – rather amusing. If only he could remember where he’d encountered something like this before!

Next episode: stardust

~~~~~

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007 Orders From Above: Episode 7 ‘Nigel gets the Grand Tour’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

digby on the green.jpg

A loud snort startled Nigel awake and his back and neck muscles groaned as he sat up on the bench. He was embarrassed to realise that, with his belly full and his face warmed by the sun, he’d dozed off and he was the snorter. He rubbed his face to get himself fully awake and was in the middle of a good, long stretch when he heard a voice with a thick country burr call out, “Digby! You’m come ’ere, boy, and not be botherin’ the gen’leman.”

A very large, very shaggy dog came from behind him and sniffed around his feet. Nigel put out a hand and the dog sniffed that too before licking his fingers and then sitting down and placing his handsome head on Nigel’s knee. He scratched the friendly dog’s soft ears and caught a surprising waft of lemons coming from its fur.

“Hello there, Digby” he said, “Where have you come from?”

An old man strapped into a hand-painted sandwich board ambled over and touched his fingers to the peak of his cloth cap in greeting. “Apologies, sir. Digby likes people, y’see. And mebbe you’m got some food about you?”

Trying not to laugh at the image conjured up by the words painted on the board of Jesus driving an ‘ambulunse’ to aid those ‘run over by the buss of life’, Nigel replied, “Er, no, I’m afraid I haven’t. Maybe he can smell the tuna sandwich I had a little while ago in the café?”

“Oh aye, mebbe that’s it.” He narrowed his eyes. “Not seen ye afore, not lost are ye?”

“Not lost, no. Just looking around.”

“And why would that be?”

Taken aback by the directness of the question, Nigel wasn’t sure how to answer. Two curious pairs of eyes were pinned on his face, the dark, appealing and rather wise ones of the dog and the pale, miss-nothing ones of the old man. The odour emanating from the man was eye-wateringly pungent, like raw garlic and onions and something else he didn’t want to put a name to. Wanting to bury his nose in Digby’s lemony fur, Nigel wondered when was the last time his owner had washed his body or his clothes, and thought it must be like a sauna inside the shabby winter coat and the wooden boards. After extensive rummaging in his pocket, the man produced a pouch of tobacco and a blackened clay pipe. He pointed the stem at Nigel and said, “Be ’appy to show ye round, for a small consideration, like.”

It was a good and useful offer, but Nigel wasn’t sure he could stand the various smells that were fighting each other to be the strongest and the worst, especially now a far from aromatic smoke from the pipe curled and wafted towards him. On the other hand, though, he needed information quickly, and this might be a good and efficient way of getting it. But what, he wondered, was meant by ‘a small consideration’?

As if Nigel had spoken his question out loud, the man gestured to the pub and said, “The price of a pint o’ mild over in the Anvil, now, that’d do me just fine.” He unstrapped the boards and set them against the back of the bench. Now more of the filthy overcoat was revealed, Nigel saw that most of its buttons were missing, and the belt was no more than a frayed piece of string knotted round the man’s middle. He smiled as the man whipped off his flat cap and bowed from the waist, announcing, “Stanley Hubertus Invincible Trout at your service, sir. Lived ’ere all my life, as did my forefathers goin’ many generations back.”

“Well, Mr. Trout-”

“Stanley, if you please, sir. Now, ye see that there?”

Nigel followed the man’s grimy finger to a small, round, stone building on the far edge of the green; he’d noticed it already and wondered what it was. It had a domed roof, a tiny barred glassless window, and a rough wooden door studded with large, rusty nail heads. He reckoned maybe five or six people would be able to squeeze in and stand up inside it.

“That be the Blind. You be seein’ the like all over the area, sir.”

“Blind? What’s it for?”

“Not used any more, sir, and there be some diff’rences of opinion as to their original purpose, but this’n was used fer chuckin’ the drunks in to let ’em sleep off the booze and their foul tempers. My grandpappy used to spend a lot of time in there, that ’e did.”

Not knowing how he should react to that bit of news, Nigel could only mutter, “Really?”

Stanley chuckled and there was pride in his voice, “Oh, aye. Grandpappy Trout were a ton of trouble.” He indicated the centre of the green with a sweep of his arm. “Used to be a duck pond right there. But Grandpappy, now, ’e fell in it one night after a mighty long drinkin’ session at the Anvil and bloody-well near drownded ’isself. Most Saturday nights ’e was, as I said, thrown into the Blind, because my Granma didn’t want ’im ’ome till ’e was good ’n sober ’cos she said ’e snored like a pig when ’e wus drunk. But on this day, seems ’e left earlier than usual, and nobody noticed. Weren’t till next mornin’ ’e was found lyin’ in the pond, with a bloomin’ duck perched on ’is face. Lucky fer ‘im he hadn’t landed face down or ’e would’ve been a goner, that ’e would.”

Stanley chortled, clearly enjoying the telling of the story. “Mind you, everyone said it would’ve been the perfect way for ’im to go, soakin’ drunk and oblivious, like, but the scare made ’im gave up the drink and so ’e lived a good few more years. But they filled in the pond anyway, so there’d be no chance of someone stumbling in and gettin’ drownded, and only us old-uns remember it were ever there. Shall we move on to the church, then, sir?”

Nigel walked alongside Stanley and Digby led the way. When they reached the Church of St. Peter, Stanley told Nigel to go on in and look around. “Take yer time, sir. Digby and me’ll wait out ’ere.”

It was comfortably cool inside. The stained glass windows were rather fine, the silver candlesticks on the altar gleamed with polish and tapestry-covered kneelers hung neatly from hooks on the back of the pews. All around the walls were plaques, dedications to village inhabitants who had passed on a hundred years ago or more. The same name appeared a few times, probably, thought Nigel, the members of some old squire’s family, for there was bound to be a manor house attached to a village like this.

He strolled over to the church organ and paused to read a beautifully etched brass plaque placed on the wall to the left of the great grey pipes.

walter's plaque.jpg

Nigel read it twice to make sure it really said what he thought it said, then photographed it. There had certainly been some extraordinary accidents and deaths in this place.

When he re-emerged into the daylight, prepared to breathe through his mouth again when in close proximity to Stanley, he was led around the churchyard. It was impossible to miss the signs of a new grave, and while Stanley whipped off his cap to show his respects, Nigel quickly scanned the cards on the wreaths that still covered the freshly turfed mound. How many of those names, he wondered, would he get to know in the coming months… and for what purpose?

Back out on the road again, Nigel tried to get his bearings. The green was behind them and out of sight, to his left the road continued round a sharp bend, and in the distance ahead of him were steep rolling green hills dotted with black and white cows. The cattle, Stanley informed him, belonged to Merryvale’s, a farm which ran in a long strip almost bordering the entire east side of the village. He pointed up at the high and brooding hill that loomed over the place, its surface creased and contorted in places by geological folds.

“That be the Lym, and as you can see, sir, this village bein’ at its feet explains where the name Ham-Under-Lymfold come from.”

Nigel, aware that time was getting on, nodded and said, “Debbie, the young waitress in the café, she mentioned an old water mill? Is it possible to see it.”

“Oh, aye,” chuckled Stanley, refilling and lighting his pipe. “That just ‘appens to be where I was a-takin’ ye next.”

They walked along at a steady pace, following the line of a very high, probably ancient stone wall.

“Is there a manor house behind there?” asked Nigel.

“No, sir, not any more. Burned down years back. Lightnin’ strike ye see, and the fire spread so quick the whole darned property was lost. There be nothin’ to see nowadays, just a few stones scattered ’ere and there. Used to ‘ave magnificent gardens but Hilda Merryvale puts ’er animals in to graze sometimes, so there’s nuthin’ left o’ them.”

“And the house wasn’t rebuilt?”

“No-one left to see to it. Owner was the last of the line, so it passed to some distant cousin twice removed who lives abroad. He ain’t never even been to see it, far as I know, and people do say it will never be rebuilt cos o’ the curse.”

Nigel pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. “Curse?”

“Well now, silly superstition more like, but this place do get hit by lightnin’ rather reg’lar. Did ye note them fuel pumps on the way in to the village?”

Nigel remembered them well. Just past the white ‘Welcome to Ham-Under-Lymfold’ sign, right at the very edge of the road, three old-fashioned petrol pumps stood like old sentinels, rusty and of no use except as a museum exhibit, or something convenient for passing dogs to pee on. Behind them was a wreck of a single-storey brick building with boarded up windows, its roofline jagged and open to the skies.

“Well,” Stanley continued, that be old Sid Blackstock’s garage. Struck by lightnin’ in 1965. Old Sid got out with nothing but the nightshirt he was wearin’ and left the village never to be ’eard of again. Miracle, it was, that Blackstock was a-waitin’ a fuel delivery otherwise them pumps would’ve gone up and taken out half the village, I reckon. Church’s been struck a few times, too, but it’s got one o’ them lightnin’ rods, so there’s been no harm done. But then, o’ course, the earthquakes do loosen the masonry.”

“Earthquakes?” squeaked Nigel with disbelief.

Stanley chuckled. “Well, not earthquakes exactly, more like tremors. We get more than a few o’ them. There were tremors the night my grandpappy fell into the pond, so seems ter me it weren’t just that ’e were too drunk to stop hisself from topplin’ in. And they’re still ’appening, and it be said that’s what did for old Jack Heavysides at the Anvil too.”

Unable to credit that this little village really suffered from regular lightning strikes, floods and earthquakes, Nigel said, “But Debbie told me that the shelving had been affected by a flood?”

“Oh aye, there’s truth in that. But I think it were the tremors that caused the whole darned thing to collapse.”

Having nothing to say to that extraordinary story, Nigel walked on, his eyes on Digby as the shaggy dog stopped to investigate a smell of particular interest in the grass verge. But Stanley wasn’t quite finished with the lightning stories yet.

“And all them thatched cottages along the green? Can’t tell you ’ow many fires we’ve ’ad along there. Seems to me that them things are to blame for what’s become of this village.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, well now. Used to be so much goin’ on all the time: events on the green and craft fairs in the village hall. The hall was also used as a nursery, but now there aren’t enough little’uns, and they ’ave to go along all the way to Monkton Ridge. The church ’ad a wonderful choir, my great aunt ran the Women’s Institute, there was a Book Club, a Writin’ Group.” Stanley sucked on his pipe. “All gone now. Oh aye, it were plenty different. But then, if you ask me, the floods, the fires, the tremors, talk of a curse, all that put the wind up people and so whole families upped and left and the life got sucked out of the place.” Stanley shook his head in sorrow.

Digby continued trotting a little way ahead of them, his nose to the ground, occasionally cocking his leg against the wall. When the wall took a sharp turn to the left, Stanley led them on until the road ended in a car park in front of the village hall. Even as they approached, Nigel could see that the hall was in a neglected state. It wasn’t falling down, far from it, but the peeling paint, weeds and uncut grass to the sides gave it an air of disuse, which was a shame because it was a charming building. He walked around it, noting with his architect’s eye the fine arched windows and the attractive red and cream brickwork, then he studied the surroundings.

He could see that unwary tourists who entered the village in the hope of finding Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or some such, would quickly find they had come to a dead end and had no choice but to turn around here. Not to do so, as Debbie had so eloquently explained, meant ending up in the fast-flowing river.

“This be called the Turnaround,” explained Stanley. He pointed his now empty pipe at the building on the opposite bank, “And that there be Angel Falls Mill, so called ’cos of the waterfall there.”

Nigel watched Digby lope over the narrow stone bridge that linked the two riverbanks. The dog disappeared inside the old, dilapidated and long-disused building, the very mill that Nigel had been sent to buy.

Episode 8: Angel Falls Mill

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006 Orders From Above: Episode 6 ‘Nigel on the case’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

HUL road sign.jpg

Nigel left London early so he could get onto the M4 well ahead of rush hour. Dipping into a bag of boiled sweets until they were all crunched up and swallowed he’d contentedly driven along, allowing the satnav to guide him. After miles of dual carriageway, he’d made a turn onto a B road, driven through several pretty little villages of mellow stone and mullioned windows, and then taken a spur onto a very narrow, winding, twisting road. Sunlight flickered and strobed through the high hedges, forcing Nigel to blink and screw up his eyes.

At last he saw a ‘Welcome to Ham-Under-Lymfold’ welcome sign, some of the words and the little image of a church above them badly in need of repainting, and he drew the car to a stop alongside the village green. He and Amelia had tried to find some information about the village, but they’d only come across one small paragraph on The Wiltshire Tourist Board website that mentioned a 12th century church, a pub and a cafe.

Deciding it was too early to go to the pub, Nigel pushed open the door of Perkins’ Bakery & Cafe and set a small brass bell tinkling above his head, startling the young waitress behind the counter. She hastily put whatever she was reading out of sight and sashayed out from behind the counter. Beaming at Nigel, she adjusted her tight, low-cut leopard-print top and breezed, “Hello I’m Debbie what can I get you?”

Nigel chose to sit by the window, pleased to see the checked tablecloth was fresh and clean, and sat down. “Hello, Debbie. Can I see a menu, please?” He was hungry and rather hoping for a full English breakfast to fill his stomach before beginning his exploration of Ham-Under-Lymfold.

“Oh I’m sorry,” said Debbie, taking a pad and pen from her frilled apron pocket, “but there’s no point in giving you a menu as we’re very limited today ’cos of it being Sunday yesterday and there was a power cut early this morning so my dad only got one batch of bread done.” She adjusted her top again, revealing a tiny bit of scalloped black lace. “They’re out shopping now and things will be back to normal tomorrow though they’re both still sad after the funeral and our microwave’s on the blink so I may as well just tell you what I can do.”

Nigel could only gape up at her as she reeled off the choices with minimum punctuation: “Sandwich roll tuna ham or cheese or any combination of those white brown or granary bread coffee and walnut cake or Victoria sponge.” She paused for a moment, eyes raised to the ceiling and tapping her pad with a pencil, “Of course you could have a baguette or a toasted sandwich if you’d prefer or a buttered crumpet or tea cake because we use the grill thingy for them and that’s working OK.”

She talked so fast that Nigel, keeping his eyes firmly on her face, had to concentrate hard to follow what she was saying. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t be getting much of a meal, but he was hopeful that this young, chatty girl would give him valuable information about the place and its inhabitants. He said politely, “Funeral?”

“Oh yes old Mr. Heavysides he is or rather I should say he was the father of the landlady of The Blacksmith’s Anvil he was squashed by a load of old beer barrels because of the great flood.” She paused for breath. “The flood was years ago of course and lots of people were drowned in their beds can you believe it but people said the water got into the wood of the cellar shelves and rotted them over the years until they couldn’t hold the weight and poor Mr. Heavysides was in the wrong place at the wrong time he was nearly a hundred which is really old but it was very sad just the same.”

Nigel, who’d been holding his own breath in wonder at Debbie’s ability to speak so fast and without much intonation or pause, gratefully exhaled.

But Debbie wasn’t quite finished. “I heard people say that he’d only need a flat coffin on account of being squashed which would save some money but I saw the coffin in the church and it looked normal size to me.”

Nigel peered at Debbie’s pretty but heavily made-up face to assure himself that it was an attempt at a rather poor joke, but she looked perfectly serious. Either she was extremely good at leg pulling, or she was the type that took everything she heard literally.

She waved her pad. “Have you decided what you’d like to eat?”

Nigel ordered a pot of tea and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, brown bread. She carefully wrote it down  and bounced away, calling brightly over her shoulder, “It comes with salad and homemade coleslaw it’ll just be a tick there are newspapers in the rack by the door if you want one it can be awkward eating by yourself can’t it.”

Nigel glanced briefly around the clean but rather dull interior of the cafe. In the far corner was a bakery counter, all the shelves lined with paper but containing just two round loaves and half a dozen baps. He stared out of the window, clean on the inside but dusty on the outside, not quite seeing the row of cottages on the other side of the green because his mind was busy. He wished Amelia was with him now, but she was suffering a little from morning sickness and had decided to stay behind in the office, so he was on his own with not much idea of how to go about doing what he’d been hired to do.

Debbie appeared with his food, and he was gratified to see that the plate was piled high with a long and thickly filled sandwich, and what appeared to be homemade crisps as well as the promised salad and a glass dish of coleslaw. He could smell that the bread was freshly baked. While Debbie placed the plate, cutlery, teapot, milk jug and cup and saucer in front of him, Nigel asked, “Perhaps you could tell me what places of interest are around here?”

She crossed her arms under her magnificent chest, “Oh well not much actually.” She gave it some thought. “I suppose the church is nice enough it’s very old.” She considered some more, her head on one side. “And Merryvale Farm is quite nice too if you can stand the smell you can buy eggs there and manure for your garden and you used to be able to get vegetables too until poor Mr. Merryvale had a heart attack and fell into the grain silo took ages for anyone to find him now that was a lovely funeral so I’m told with Bluebell following the coffin right into the church.”

Nigel swallowed quickly, almost choking on a chunk of bread, so he could ask the burning question, “Was Bluebell his daughter?”

“No silly!” Debbie laughed and flapped her hand at him, “She was Mr. Merryvale’s favourite cow. Anyway Mrs. Merryvale runs the place now with the help of an old chap who should’ve retired years ago and sometimes agricultural students from the college they don’t stay long though.” A breath. “She can’t pay them enough and the farmhouse roof leaks and there’s no central heating neither and she stopped growing vegetables she’s ever so nice is old Mrs. Merryvale and I’m sure she must be lonely since her husband died and her sister hasn’t had anything to do with her for years and years now.” Breath. “Oh and you must go up to the old water mill just drive until you reach the river you can’t go any further or you’ll be in the water and that wouldn’t do your car any good now would it?” Breath. “You can cross the river to the mill there’s a stone bridge at the back of the village hall it’s a bit of a wreck now but it’s still safe enough to walk over and it’s a lovely spot for picnics.”

Nigel had only stopped himself from bursting out laughing by taking small bites and chewing furiously as he listened to all this. When he had to, he swallowed very carefully, not daring to take a sip of tea to wash it down in case she said something that made him spit it out all over the red and white checked tablecloth. He wished again that Amelia were with him, because she would have enjoyed it enormously.

When the food had been eaten and the pot of tea drunk dry, and the offer of a slice of cake regretfully turned down, he paid the bill and left a generous tip on the table. Debbie called out a cheery goodbye.

Fetching his camera from its hiding place under the rear seat of the car, Nigel strolled to a solitary bench at the furthest edge of the green so he could take a good look at the place. It was the quintessential little English village, a mix of charming cottages and houses, some thatched, some tiled with grey slate or moss-covered red tiles. A few were rendered white or cream, the rest were yellow and grey stone with dark brown window frames. All very chocolate-box pretty. He knew he needed to get up and walk beyond the green, perhaps visit the church, certainly locate the mill, but the long drive, the warmth of the sun and the weight of the food in his stomach was making him drowsy. He decided to just sit awhile longer and enjoy the peace.

Episode 7: Nigel gets the grand tour

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