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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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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.

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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

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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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005 Orders From Above: Episode 5 ‘Nigel gets a new client’

To read from the first episodes click here: Episode 1

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It was Friday afternoon and Nigel and Amelia were sitting side by side at the pine kitchen table, a replacement for Nigel’s desk that had been taken during the last bailiff’s visit. No new business had come in for either of them and they were wiling away the too-quiet hours with The Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword.

“13-across”, said Amelia, “‘Certainly, I start to notice every innermost thought’. Three words, two, three and ten letters.”

“What letters have we got?”

“First word is something-N, so it could only be ‘in’, ‘an’ or ‘on’. Second word A-something-something. Then in the third word we have C-something-N-something-C-then four blanks and it ends with an E.”

Nigel scribbled this down on a scrap of paper, saying, “What’s the clue again?”

Amelia repeated it and he gnawed the end of his already-chewed biro as he pondered.

“Got it!” He was triumphant, as it was usually Amelia who got cryptic clues more quickly than he did. He was better at general knowledge, though, he had to admit, Amelia was usually better at that too. “It’s ‘In all conscience’.”

“Oh yes, so it is. Right, let’s try 3-down as we have a few letters for that. Er … are you OK?”

Nigel had jumped up, rubbing his shirt-sleeved arms. “Did it suddenly get really cold in here? It’s not the first time and I’ve got chills all over.”

“Someone stepping on your grave?”

Nigel frowned with distaste as he sat back down. “I’ve never understood that expression. How can someone step on your grave when you’re still alive?”

Laughing, Amelia said, “Aha, dear husband, I know the answer to that one! It’s an expression from the Middle Ages meaning that someone has stepped on where your grave is going to be. Rather morbid, but there you go.”

They both froze at the sound of the outer door opening and closing, then they exchanged wide-eyed, hopeful glances as Amelia rose and went to see who had come in.

She entered the tiny reception area as if she had all the time in the world, and was back in a few seconds, quietly announcing that a gentleman had arrived for his 11.30 appointment. Her puzzled expression matched Nigel’s – he was not expecting any appointments today. Or any day in the foreseeable future.

He riffled through the diary, fully expecting that day’s page to be blank, muttering quietly so only Amelia could hear, “But I don’t have an appoi … Oh, wait. There is something …” He turned the diary towards Amelia. “You didn’t put that in there, did you? And I certainly didn’t. How mysterious! Well, you’d better show him in, Amelia.”

Amelia whispered that she would go out so the client could have a private meeting with Nigel, then she squared her shoulders and widened her mouth into her warm, professional smile before returning to the visitor. Nigel heard her say brightly, “Please do go in. Can I get you a drink of anything? Tea, coffee, or would you prefer something cold as it’s so hot today?”

Whoever she was talking to murmured a reply that Nigel couldn’t make out. He just had time to move to Amelia’s desk, do up the top button of his shirt, tighten the knot of his tie and shrug on his navy-blue jacket, which almost but did not quite match his trousers, before the visitor strode in. Tall and imposing, oozing confidence and authority, his presence filled the room. Behind him Amelia made wide eyes and a shrugging motion, miming that she had no idea who this man was.

Nigel swept his eyes over the stranger, easily recognising sharp dressing when he saw it. He’d worn couture clothes himself not so long ago. But he could tell that the garments this man wore were in another league entirely and Nigel’s teeth ached just being in such close proximity. He longed to know the identity of the man’s tailor, clearly a genius with cloth and cut. And, surely, only a master craftsman with a lifelong love and deep understanding of leather could have made those highly polished, soft-as-butter shoes, not to mention the burgundy briefcase?

He thought with a sharp pang about the bespoke suits and shoes he’d once owned. All of them, as well as his cashmere sweaters, silk ties and handmade shirts, had been cruelly and horribly vandalised by his ex-wife with bleach and scarlet nail polish, slashed to ribbons and left in a tragic pile on the thick cream carpet of his walk-in wardrobe. He’d had to recover his shoes, belts and underwear from the ornamental fishpond.

As he rose to greet the visitor, Nigel’s nostrils caught the unmistakable scent of Amouage Gold Pour Homme, the same brand of aftershave Tansy had bought him for their first Christmas together. That had ended up in an explosion of lead crystal, inaccurately aimed at his head. It had smashed against the bathroom wall, showering him with bits of broken glass and the potent amber liquid. The glass he’d been able to wash out of his hair, but the Amouage clung onto his skin for days afterwards.

The visitor smiled and spoke in a deep, melodious voice, “Good morning, Mr. Hellion-Rees. How do you do?” He clasped Nigel’s outstretched hand and shook it, once up and once down, very firmly, but he did not give his name and Nigel’s brain churned trying to phrase the words to ask it. After all, what would the man think if he were to admit he had no recollection of this appointment? He’d lose the job before he even knew what it was, and he couldn’t afford to lose it. Really, he couldn’t. He just had to hope that things would become clear once the meeting was underway.

He beckoned the stranger to be seated on the one decent piece of furniture, and glanced again at the diary, trying but still failing to read the name scribbled there in a bronze-coloured ink he was quite sure came from none of the office pens.

The visitor sat down and Nigel’s eyes caught the gleam of a scarlet silk lining as the man undid the buttons of his exquisite jacket. He was wearing a tie of deepest midnight blue, patterned in various shades of deep orange and red that seemed to flicker like flames in an open fire, and Nigel found himself transfixed by it as the man settled himself. It’s just a trick of the light, he told himself, and tried to concentrate instead on the bright white shirt that would do a washing powder commercial proud. Nigel saw a glint of gold and rubies in the cuffs, and his teeth ached some more.

A deep voice, tinged with amusement, whispered somewhere by his left ear: “Tut, tut, thou art coveting!” Nigel’s skin instantly contracted into a thousand goosebumps, just like it had moments before the stranger arrived, and he shivered and blinked in bewilderment. He had distinctly heard the words, but the visitor’s lips hadn’t moved.

He was the most strikingly handsome man Nigel had ever seen, and he could well imagine how women would swoon and blush and act all silly when they met him. The stranger, a knowing smirk on his face, stroked his fingernails with his index finger one by one, first the left hand then the right. The nails were short and manicured smooth, buffed to a soft sheen, yet the image of long, pointy talons came unbidden to Nigel’s mind and he had to give himself a mental shake. The self-satisfied smirk widened to a grin.

Nigel was immensely relieved when Amelia came in with two cups of coffee, for her arrival seemed to break some kind of spell. Nigel watched to see if she simpered at the visitor when she gave him his cup, but all she did was politely ask him to excuse her and then she left. Nigel thought she’d probably go to the cafe round the corner for an hour.

He felt cool grey eyes on him, and their expression made Nigel’s scalp tighten and prickle. It was as if he knew exactly what Nigel had been thinking, as if, indeed, he’d taken his full measure and found him wanting, in an amusing kind of way. He again desperately tried to remember how this appointment had come about, but all he encountered in his perplexed brain were vacant pockets where the information should be. Maybe, he consoled himself, he was coming down with flu. Or something even nastier.

He pulled a pad towards him and picked up a pen, giving himself some time to gather his scrambled thoughts. He cleared his throat to speak, intending to take the initiative and regain some sense of control, but the potential client beat him to it.

“I am here to hire you to do a job in Wiltshire. We wish to purchase a disused mill there, which you and, I hope, Mrs. Hellion-Rees, will renovate and convert to a top-class restaurant.”

For a moment, just a teeny tiny moment, Nigel felt like jumping up and dancing round the room. A construction job! A chance to get back into the work he loved! But reality hit him with a cold splat and he sputtered, “But, sir, you need an architect, and although I-”.

The words dried in his mouth as the man held up his hand, palm towards Nigel, in a gesture of complete authority.

“I haven’t finished!” The man paused, visibly reigning in his temper, and continued in a more conversational way, “While you are project-managing the work, you will also be using your PI skills for getting to know the locals – their hobbies and talents, likes and dislikes, their relationships, things like that. Easy enough, I would have thought. However, the first thing we need to do is secure the mill. It belongs to a woman called Violet Cattermole. She doesn’t have it on the market, but she’ll sell it to us once you put the proposition to her.”

“I see,” said Nigel slowly, though he didn’t see at all. His mind raced, knowing how much he needed the job, but knowing, too, that he’d have to turn it down. “Sir, this sounds like a job I would truly love to do, but you see there are problems and, for reasons I do not wish to go into, I am unable to take on work of this nature.”

The man leaned back and regarded Nigel for a long moment. “Mr. Hellion-Rees. Or may I call you Nigel? Good. So, Nigel, let me lay it out for you. You need this job. You were a highly respected and extremely well paid architect and property developer, work you loved and were exceptionally good at. You married the boss’s daughter and she gave you the run-around, but would only grant you a divorce if you took the blame. This you graciously did, so her daddy fired you from his firm believing that you had mistreated his daughter.”

Nigel sputtered, “How do you know all this?”

The man ignored the question and went relentlessly on, “Despite your agreeing to her terms, your ex-wife vowed that she would make your life an utter misery. Her lawyers proceeded to take you to the cleaners and they continue to make it virtually impossible for you to even make ends meet. And on top of all that, her father used his considerable influence to make sure no other architectural practice or construction firm would take you on. How am I doing so far?”

Speechless, he could only stare at the man who seemed to know far too much about his predicament. And he hadn’t finished.

“The divorce agreement – if you can call something so blatantly one-sided an agreement – ensured that not only were you stripped of practically everything you owned at the time of the divorce, you are now locked in to handing over a percentage of your earnings, or any items of value in lieu, until your ex-wife remarries.” He tapped the pine table and said, “Do you know that your fine desk is gathering dust in a warehouse? Your leather chair is there too. As are all the items she has taken instead of money she doesn’t need. Your ex-wife is doing this out of sheer spite.” He grinned, real amusement twinkling now in his grey eyes. “But, hey, Hell hath no fury and all that.”

Nigel felt helpless. His swivelling, reclining leather executive chair had indeed been taken and his case files were now piled in a corner because they had also robbed him of his filing cabinets. But how did this stranger know all this? Stunned by the conversation, he pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “It’s somewhat ironic, but it seems you have had a private detective investigating me.”

“I apologise if I have embarrassed or shocked you, but you must understand that this project is of global importance; we had to be sure we had the right man.”

Global importance? Converting a derelict mill into a restaurant? I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand at this stage, just do as we ask and all will become clear in good time.” He sat back in his chair and brushed a non-existent piece of lint from his thigh, then he leaned forward and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “And I promise you, you will be very well rewarded.”

He named a sum just as Nigel took a sip of coffee to relieve the dryness in his throat. When Nigel, eyes watering and deeply embarrased, had recovered from his choking fit and mopped up the spilt coffee, the man repeated it and slid a bulging brown envelope across the desk.

“And to show our good faith, here’s a little something to get you started. Hard cash, so you can buy all the equipment you need to draw up the plans for the mill without your ex-wife knowing about it.”

Nigel eyed the envelope but didn’t touch it. He would be delighted to go out and buy stuff, but Tansy’s henchmen would simply take it all away again when they came the following month and saw it in his office. The thought was unbearable, and he wished for the thousandth time that some other idiot would take her on and so set him free.

“Ah, yes,” said the man, clearly and disconcertingly reading his thoughts, “You’ll have to keep any new equipment well-hidden, won’t you? We’ll put our minds to the situation and see what we can do about that.”

The way he said it sounded so sinister, Nigel started to object, but he was silenced by the expression in the man’s eyes. His mind danced with images of carnivorous creatures like wolves and hyenas and vampire bats. OK, the man had white, even teeth and charming dimples, but there was definitely something a little … dangerous about him. The wolves and bats disappeared from his fevered brain, only to be replaced with visions of sinister men in fedoras and heavy overcoats, machine guns hidden in violin cases.

Of one thing he was certain: this was someone you didn’t mess with.

The new client took a slim folder from his briefcase and handed it to Nigel. “Everything you need to know is in here.” He rose from his seat and buttoned up his jacket. The tie still flickered. He put his hand out to seal the agreement, and said, “So, Nigel, please apply your finely honed skills to the matter straight away and we will sort something out so you can work in complete privacy. We are most confident that you and your wife will do an excellent job.” He paused as Nigel didn’t speak or move. “I take it you are going to do the job?”

Like a robot, Nigel clasped the hand in his own and so sealed the deal.

“Good man!” The client’s perfect white teeth gleamed. “Here’s my card. You will be so kind as to contact me only when you’ve got something useful to tell me. I shall not expect to hear from you until then.”

Nigel nodded and took the thick white card. At last, he would know the man’s identity and the name of the outfit he worked for! Nigel would have some clue as to what type of business he was about to get involved in. He glanced down. There was certainly something printed on the card in fancy raised copper-coloured lettering, but, try as he might, he couldn’t read it.

When the stranger reached the door, he turned back, his hand resting on the handle, and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Nigel. And your charming wife.” Then he was out of the office and Nigel could hear his and Amelia’s voices as they talked. Amelia must have just returned.

The building renovation sounded simple enough, and it was, he admitted to himself, something he’d be thrilled to do, and Amelia would jump at the chance to do the interior decor. No, it wasn’t that that bothered him. It was the snooping around the people of the village for an unknown reason, and it was also the nature of the man sitting in front of him. Something about him deeply disturbed Nigel, gave him the creeps in fact, though he couldn’t articulate why. Some instinct told him he should have refused the job, but the pound sign and the number written after it on his notepad were circled again and again, and he knew he couldn’t possibly let this opportunity slip away. More importantly, he rather thought that this man simply would not accept a refusal. He pictured himself wearing concrete shoes and being thrown over a bridge. Then an even more horrifying image came to him, of Amelia, bound and gagged, held captive until he agreed to do their bidding.

The air in the office felt supercharged, and Nigel felt … peculiar. Had the meeting lasted half an hour or half a day? His workaday watch, bought to replace the Patek Philippe the bailiffs had taken some time ago, told him it was 12:05. He felt distinctly tired and even a little sick. The business card was still clutched in his hand, but he couldn’t make out the words printed on it no matter how hard he squinted. He held it up to the light, but although he could see what he thought was a series of letters, they seemed to shift and change as he stared, until he could swear that what he was seeing were tiny ants criss-crossing the card.

He most definitely had the flu.

He jumped when Amelia suddenly came angrily stalking in stood in front of him with her hands on her hips, making her displeasure obvious as she demanded, “Whatever possessed you to tell that man that I’m pregnant?”

His mouth moved but nothing came out.

“Before leaving just now he took my hand and congratulated me, he even asked if I knew whether we were having a boy or a girl. How could you, Nigel, we haven’t even told mum and dad yet?”

“I … I didn’t tell him! You didn’t come into the conversation at all!”

“Then how did he know, huh? How?”

Nigel came round the desk and tried to pull Amelia into his arms. She kept herself stiff and unyielding, but Nigel held her firmly and kissed her cheek. “I didn’t tell him, Amelia, I swear I didn’t. But he knows an awful lot about me and the situation with Tansy, so maybe … well, I don’t have an explanation, but he knows far more than I’m comfortable with.”

“OK, so he has supernatural powers, is that how he had an appointment that we knew nothing about?”

“I really don’t know how that happened, either, Amelia, believe me.”

As she opened her mouth to speak, no doubt with more sarcasm, at which she was extremely talented, Nigel showed her the number he’d written on his coffee-stained pad and the envelope stuffed full of ten, twenty and fifty pound notes.

“Amelia, look at this. Whoever they are, they certainly have money to throw around.”

“Wow! Well, we really can’t turn this down, can we?” Her face softened as she looked at him, and she said, “You’re very pale, darling, maybe you should taken some aspirin?”

Relieved that the storm was over, Nigel nodded and sat down again. He noticed that the stranger had not touched his coffee, so he downed it himself, hoping a hit of caffeine, albeit tepid, might help him think. Sweetness hit the back of his throat, making him sputter once again; he didn’t take sugar, and he reckoned he’d just swallowed at least three heaped spoonfuls.

He slowly swung the typist’s chair, salvaged from a roadside skip the day after his executive chair had been taken, and faced the window to gaze through the dirty glass at the wall of the decaying warehouse opposite. The sight of the familiar brick wall was strangely comforting, because somehow, and it was an uncomfortable feeling, Nigel wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the view had changed. A spooky mist hovering over Highgate Cemetery maybe, or moonlight glinting eerily above the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Amelia asked him to fill her in about the man who’d just left. “Sexy chap, I must say. So, I ask again, how did he get an appointment without either of us knowing about it?”

“I really don’t know. I thought you’d made the appointment until I saw the look on your face. I certainly didn’t.” He turned the diary so she could read it. “Look. That isn’t my writing.”

Amelia leaned forward. “No,” she agreed, “And you know full well that it isn’t mine either. I can’t even read what it says. Who is he?”

“I’ve no idea. Didn’t he give his name when he came into the office?”

Amelia shook her head. “I know this sounds crazy,” she ventured, “but is it possible that someone just walked unnoticed into the office and wrote the appointment in the diary?”

Nigel exhaled noisily, “How could someone possibly manage that? Either you or I are here, or the door is locked. And all it takes to make an appointment is a phone call.”

“But there was no phone call,” Amelia pointed out. “There’s no sign of forced entry or we would have noticed, and neither of us wrote that in the diary. But anyway, putting aside the odd way this came about – and I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation – we have a new client, he’s offering pots of money, so what does he want us to do for it? An investigation into a wayward wife?” She laughed, “Though I can’t imagine any woman playing around if she had him for a husband!”

Nigel scowled and she leaned across his desk with a saucy smile to pat his cheek, “Don’t worry, my darling husband, you know I want no-one else but you.” Then the expression in her hazel eyes changed from flirtatious to thoughtful. “Actually,” she said, “I felt there was something not quite right about him. Something that made me a little … uneasy.”

Nigel was relieved to hear it, as it confirmed his own misgivings, but he didn’t want to mention words like mafia or some other terrifying criminal organisation to Amelia, although he was sure he was on the right track. He outlined the content of the meeting, showed her the dossier – in which there was no mention of any names, company or otherwise, to tell them who they’d been hired by, and finished by asking, “Are you sure we should take this on? We both think there’s something a bit suspect, don’t we?”

Amelia nodded, “Hmm, maybe, but, Nigel, we need the money, especially with the baby coming, and they are offering an awful lot of it. I suggest we at least make a start, and see where it takes us. You go to – what’s the place called again?”

Nigel searched for it in the documents. “Ham-Under-Lymfold.”

“What a pretty name. I wonder if it’s as quaint as it it sounds? Anyway, I suggest you go there on Monday and get things underway. At least you’ll be doing something you love, hmm?” She stood up, then exclaimed, “Oh, Nigel, is that a business card? Why didn’t you say he’d given you one?” She held out her hand for it. “Now we can find out about our new client, and if anything looks at all dodgy or dangerous, then we’ll withdraw.”

It made sense to Nigel, but then Amelia always saw things so clearly. He gave her the card.

“What is this? I can’t read what it says!”

“Neither can I, it’s just like the writing in the diary, same colour and illegible.” He shook his head. “This is really weird, Amelia.”

Amelia brought the card close to her eyes then squealed and threw it on the floor. “Ugh! It’s like tiny ants are crawling all over it. Oh … wait a minute … I think I can read it.” She picked it up again and held it at a distance, squinting until her eyes were almost comically crossed. “Yes, it says … ‘De Angelo Corporation’. There’s more, but I can’t make it out.”

Nigel winced at the Italian name, thinking again about the possibility that they were dealing with the Mob.

Amelia came round and sat on his lap so she could tap out the name on the computer keyboard. The flimsy chair creaked but held their weight.

The search engine found De Angelo Corporation, but ‘website under construction’ was printed in dark blue across a picture of an ultra-modern building. Its frame was silvery steel, it had acres of mirrored glass, and the tall, thin upward-pointing icicle shape reminded Nigel of The Shard, the London building with an amazing 95 floors. But there were marked differences: the building was rounder, the glass appeared to be black, and there was a silvery ring around the building about three quarters of the way up. Nigel was puzzled that he didn’t recognise it because it was the sort of construction that would make the cover of most if not all of the architectural magazines he still read.

“Well, their office is impressive, but this doesn’t help us much, does it? Hardly professional not to have a working website.” He looked up at Amelia.

“You know, I’ve just had a crazy thought,” she said, “It sounds ridiculous, but do you think it could be something to do with espionage? You know, MI5 or MI6! A top secret mission, and they need us to do this thing as a cover for something?”

Although it was alarming, Nigel liked Amelia’s speculation a whole lot better than his own. “It’s a possibility, I suppose. It would certainly explain a few things, wouldn’t it? I’ll go to Wiltshire on Monday. Let’s hope we find some answers there.”

Episode 6: Nigel on the case

~~~~~

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004 Orders From Above: Episode 4 ‘The Plan’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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“Oh, look, the watercress in my sandwich is absolutely wilting. Why are we out here in this heat? It’s much more comfortable inside.” Gabe looked at his brother when there was no response. “Nick! I said,-”

“I heard you! Why don’t you go back inside, then?” Nick, irritated, flapped his hand. “Scurry back to your air-conditioning. You’re such a wimp, Gabe! Even in winter you moan that it’s too hot for you.”

“And it’s never hot enough for you, is it? Even the fires of Hell-” Gabe’s whingeing was interrupted by the appearance of a short man in the dark green uniform of a company messenger scurrying towards them.

“You’d think,” Nick grumbled so the little man was sure to hear him, “that they’d at least let us have lunch in peace.”

Gabe tutted at Nick and beckoned the man over. “Hello, Herbert, what’s up?”

Herbert, eyes darting nervously to Nick, removed his cap and smoothed one small hand over the thin ginger strands so carefully combed from ear to ear over his shiny bald pate. He bowed slightly to Gabe and said, “Your presence is required on the top floor.”

“Both of us?”

“Both of you, yes, sir. Um… immediately?”

“OK,” said Gabe, “We’ll be along in two ticks, Herbert, there’s no need to wait.”

Herbert rammed his cap back on and scurried away.

Frowning, Gabe packed up the half-finished sandwiches. “We haven’t been summoned like that for ages. What have you been up to, Nick?”

“Me? Why assume it’s me?”

“Because it always is! It’s what you do!”

“Well, yes, but it’s what I’m supposed to do; trouble is my business. The more trouble I get involved in, the better my performance, you know that. And my figures have been exceptional this month. No, it must be something you’ve done.”

Gabe thought his brother might be right, but couldn’t for the life of him think what transgression he might have made. He said, “My figures are good too. My team has been working flat out, I really can’t think why he wants to see us.”

Nick tutted. “We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we. Let’s go before he gets impatient and sends another of his minions out to fetch us.”

The brothers hurried across the lush grass of the private garden and into their office building, an edifice of glass and steel that was taller and more architecturally magnificent than any other building around it. They strolled through a short, dimly lit corridor and pushed through a pair of heavy doors that led into the rear of a cool, bright, air-conditioned reception area. As they crossed the gleaming floor, Gabe saw Nick give a sly wink to the three beautiful young receptionists who sat behind the vast croissant-shaped desk. To a woman, they all simpered and patted their hair. One even giggled and Gabe rolled his eyes. If he, Gabe, smiled at a woman, she just wanted to pat him affectionately on the cheek and straighten his tie. He couldn’t understand it. He was just as handsome, with the same dark curly hair and grey eyes as his brother, they were the same height and build, they both dressed very smartly indeed. And yet …

The security guard rose from his chair and gave a faultless salute to the peaked brim of his cap then rushed ahead to summon the elevator for them.

The doors slid open with a quiet swoosh. The operator inside clicked his heels and stood to attention by the polished brass panel, chest proudly out and forefinger poised, ready to press the required button. Before entering, Nick muttered quite audibly about the necessity of having quite so many uniformed employees and Gabe, speaking over him, said they were going to the top floor.

As they ascended, Gabe tried to keep his anxiety at bay, but a summons to see the Head of Global Operations, affectionately known as The Boss, was rare, and it usually meant a ticking off about something. He racked his brain, trying to think of anything that he might have done wrong. Next to him, Nick was impassive, giving the outward impression that he wasn’t worried. But Gabe knew his brother, knew that he was afraid of nothing and nobody … except spiders and The Boss.

The doors opened and The Boss, grave-faced, was waiting for them. This was really serious, then.

“Well,” he said, putting one hand on Nick’s shoulder and the other on Gabe’s, “It’s big news, boys. The DISC has been found.”

He led the way through wide, silent corridors to a vast office with floor to ceiling windows, a trembling Gabe and grinning Nick at his heels. His personal assistant rushed to open the door into a private inner room, flicking a switch before withdrawing so that wall and table lamps flickered on as the three men entered, giving the room a soft, creamy glow.

Gabe swallowed hard. Rare as it was to be in The Boss’s office, even more rare was to be shown into this inner sanctum. The rest of the building was sleek and modern, all very 21st century, but this room … well, this was like stepping back into a gentleman’s private library within the walls of a grand house circa the Edwardian era. It was an intimate, windowless space that contained a huge bookcase filled with leather-bound books tooled in gold, an exquisitely carved coffee table, and two large sofas covered in dark red crushed velvet set either side it. In the centre of the table was a tray set with coffee pot, cups and saucers, milk jug and a silver platter of cream cakes, which in a normal situation would have made Gabe’s mouth water. But this situation wasn’t normal and his appetite, usually hearty, had totally deserted him. Suddenly feeling boneless, he sank into the cushions of the sofa nearest the door.

Nick came over and sat close beside him. “Gabe? Come on, bro, you must have been prepared for this?”

Gabe, putting as much distance between himself and Nick as the sofa allowed, replied, “Yes, of course, but it’s … it’s too soon.”

“Too soon? Oh come on now, that’s hardly reasonable, is it?”

The Boss interrupted. “Let’s not get into a quarrel. Gabe, I know you never wanted this day to come, but it has. The DISC has been found and the agreement must be honoured. This is the biggest event in our history since … well, since the very beginning of our history.”

Nick spoke, his voice steady, though Gabe could feel his brother’s body vibrating with excitement, “When was it found? How?”

“It was discovered last week, in a vil-”

Nick interrupted, “Last week! Why are we only hearing about it now?”

“Because my team needed time to investigate and to develop a strategy so that we can set The Plan in motion.”

“So where was it found?” Nick demanded.

The Boss glared at him. “If you’d let me speak I shall tell you! It was dug up in a village churchyard, by the gravedigger preparing for a burial. I had Uri on the spot within minutes and he’s now hidden in plain sight to keep an eye on the proceedings.”

“And where is the DISC now?” Nick, all hyped up, had leapt to his feet and was pacing up and down, filling the small room with his excitement.

“The vicar has it in his safe. No-one has paid much attention to it, they’ve been too busy with the funeral; the deceased was a very popular member of the village. We need to retrieve it, obviously, but for now it’s well protected and they’ll never discover what it is. What’s important now is that The Plan is put into action as soon as possible.”

Gabe looked imploringly at his brother, “I know how long you’ve been waiting for this, longing for this, but … but, Nick … I just don’t think I’m ready!”

Nick spun on his heels to confront Gabe, and his voice was sharp, bitter, when he replied, “I can tell you to a nanosecond how long I’ve been waiting, and we’ll just have to get you ready.” He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, visibly reining in his impatience. When he spoke again, his voice was soft, cajoling, “Now, come on, bro.” He glanced at The Boss, eliciting his support, “Orders from above and all that, eh? You signed up to this, so…”

“Yes, yes,” The Boss agreed, “Let’s get on with it, shall we?” He picked up a remote control and a map of the world appeared on the smooth white wall opposite the door. A few more clicks and it narrowed to one particular country, and then zoomed in further to one particular county.

“Wiltshire,” he said, as he continued to zoom in, “in England. And this is the village where the DISC is.” There were a few photos of typical village scenes – a pub, a green, a row of thatched cottages, a church. “Fortunately for us it’s a real backwater. As I’ve said, Uri is already in position there and reports he’s good to go. My scouts have checked the place out and they’ve come up with a cover to get you in, retrieve the DISC, fulfil your obligations according to the Plan, and get out with no-one the wiser.”

Gabe, dismayed by how far along things already were, could only whisper, “What do Nick and I have to do?”

“You know what we have to do, Gabe!” cried Nick, his eyes blazing with fury and frustration. “We have to implement The Plan!”

With a click the picture changed to an old, very dilapidated building and The Boss continued,  “Nick is right, Gabe. But we have never known when and how the DISC would be found, so you both need a way to actually implement The Plan to suit the time and circumstances we now find ourselves in. Here’s what we’ve come up with. He pointed to the picture on the wall. “You are to buy this old water mill under the pretext of doing it up and turning it into a restaurant. This will allow you to come and go without arousing suspicion.”

He switched off the slide show. “Nick, we’ve been through your list of suggested witnesses, and I believe we have selected the perfect candidate.” He placed a photograph on the coffee table, a headshot of a handsome but worried-looking man in his thirties.

Gabe had known about the requirement for a Witness if the Plan was ever to be executed, but not that Nick had been actively looking for one. He’d been feeling well and truly put out by proceedings already, but now he felt… even more well and truly put out!

Nick rubbed his hands together, very smug. “Oh yes! I like this one, he’s just ripe for the picking! And there’s no need to glower at me like that, Gabe. Unlike you, I’ve always made sure I’d be ready for this day.”

The Boss produced a sheet of paper and scanned the closely typed lines on it, saying “To fill you in, Gabe, Nigel Hellion-Rees is an intelligent, honest, decent man trapped by a punitive divorce settlement. He’s an architect, but thanks to his influential and very rich ex-father-in-law he cannot get work in that field and is currently working as a private investigator, a job he hates. He deeply loves his current wife, is about to become a father, and he desperately needs a helping hand to get his life back on track. That will be his reward for being our Witness.”

Nick interjected, “I’ll go and see him, shall I? Get the ball rolling?”

“Yes, of course, the sooner the better.” He put the typed sheet and the photograph into an orange manilla folder, thick with other sheets of paper, and handed it to Nick. “The full strategy is in here. You will tell Hellion-Rees to purchase the mill on your behalf and draw up the plans for its conversion. He will then project-manage the build, and observe you two as you initiate The Plan.” The Boss, his brows lowered, looked from Nick to Gabe and back again. “I leave it up to you to decide the right time to inform him of what it is he is witnessing and what his role will be when it’s all done. Just be careful how you do it.”

Gabe looked at the folder in Nick’s hands, his eyes blurring as he read the large white label on the front with despair. He couldn’t believe it, but this was really happening and he had no choice but to acquiesce. As Nick had said, he had signed up to The Plan a long time ago, and just like Nick, he knew it inside out and back to front. It’s just that he’d never thought they’d ever actually have to implement it. His whole body slumped and he had to swallow hard as he felt ridiculously near to tears.

Nick, on the other hand, was quivering with joyous expectation. He poured himself a cup of coffee and added milk and three sugars. Then he selected the largest, squashiest éclair and licked the cream from its middle before devouring it in two large bites.

There were times when Gabe really, really disliked his brother, and this was one of them. Thanks to The Plan, Nick was about to get everything he wanted, while he, poor old Gabe, felt like he was going to Hell in a handcart.

Which wasn’t too far from the truth, actually.

Episode 5: Nigel gets a new client

~~~~~

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003 Orders From Above: Episode 3 ‘introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Hartley Cordwell, Vicar of St. Peter’s Church in the village of Ham-Under-Lymfold, passed through the lych gate and strode up the gravelled path with a speed that belied his years. He’d hoped to be safely inside the church before Stanley arrived, but there he was, just outside the porch, his foul odour getting stronger with each step Hartley took. The black and grey shaggy dog by Stanley’s feet rose to his four huge paws, calmly regarding Hartley’s approach with his extraordinary golden eyes. Eyes that Hartley was sure could see right into one’s soul.

Old Stanley respectfully bowed his head and rasped, “’Ow do, Your Reverendship, sir, ’ow do!”

The vicar had given up trying to get Stanley to address him in any other way. He replied, “Good morning, Stanley,” trying not to inhale through his nose. “I see you have a new hat.”

Stanley touched the bobble hanging from the left earflap of his knitted hat. “Aye, Olive Capsby gave it me, said it were to keep me warm come winter.”

Hartley indicated Stanley’s overcoat, worn year-round, and said, “Well, it’s far from winter now, Stanley, aren’t you a bit, er, warm?”

“I’d say I be comfortable, Your Reverendship. Now then, what do you think on this?”

In but a moment, Stanley had pulled his home-made sandwich board over his head and settled it on his shoulders.

“It be a new message, d’ye see?”

Hartley couldn’t help smiling as he read Stanley’s latest offering, scrawled in garish green paint: Wen you get run over by the buss of life, call for Jesuses ambulunse.

“That’s a very nice sentiment, Stanley.”

“Well, seems ter me everyone these days has summat to worry about, don’t they, Your Reverendship, I’m just offerin’ ’em summat to think on that might help.”

“Oh, yes, indeed, well done, Stanley. Will you be joining us for the service?”

“Nay, sir, nay. I won’t be a-comin’ in. I’ll just pay my respects from out ’ere, and ’ope I don’t cause no offence by it.”

Hartley assured Stanley that no-one would mind if he stayed outside. In fact, he thought to himself, Stanley would cause far more offence by taking his pungent bodily odours inside the church than by keeping them outside in the fresh air. No, better that he stayed by the porch, as he always did before and after every service, be it funeral, wedding, Christening or Sunday Service. He greeted everyone by name and furtively pocketed with hands encased in greasy fingerless gloves any loose change that was offered. Sometimes he was given tins of dog food, too, which he accepted with good grace on Digby’s behalf.

Digby, who clearly thought he’d waited patiently long enough, took a pace forward and pushed his long nose into Hartley’s hand, insisting that his rough head and velvety ears be thoroughly scratched. Hartley, remembering when he’d been a tiny puppy, a scrap of a thing, thought he’d grown yet more since the last time he’d seen him. Where or how Stanley had acquired the dog he’d never said, but it was hard to imagine one without the other now.

Stanley chuckled and rummaged in the pockets of his overcoat – really, how he could wear it in this heat Hartley had no idea – and produced a large, bone-shaped biscuit,  which the dog accepted and ate with the utmost dignity.

“I must get on, Stanley. I’ll see you later.”

It was blessedly cool and peaceful inside the church. Hartley, keen to wipe the smell of Stanley that clung to his nostrils, breathed deeply the familiar aromas of incense and fresh flowers mingled with medieval stone, brass polish, wax candles and damp wool. How he loved his little church, every stone, every gargoyle, every nook and cranny of it. In six centuries it had witnessed so many events, and now it was ready for yet another, the funeral of old Jack Heavysides.

It was time for Hartley to get himself ready, it really wouldn’t do for the mourners to arrive before he was appropriately dressed.

His mind was so entirely absorbed with the imminent funeral, a sudden tap on his shoulder made him jump in fright. Hartley wheeled around, one trembling hand over the region of his thumping heart. “Oh, Topps, I didn’t hear you come in.” His eyes travelled down to the gravedigger’s feet, which were usually encased in muddy steel-capped boots, but he had taken them off and was standing there in his socks. Thick red ones, with holes in both big toes. His flat cap was clasped to his chest with both hands.

“I’m going on holiday.”

Hartley raised his eyebrows in genuine amazement. “A holiday, Topps? You? You haven’t taken a holiday in all the years I’ve known you, despite my begging you to do so.”

“Aye, but I’m taking one now.”

Hartley peered closely at the man; his eyes seemed a little glazed. “Is everything all right, Topps?”

“It’s just a little holiday. Don’t know how long for. My cousin will stand in.”

“Your cousin?” Hartley was having trouble processing this conversation. It was not only astonishing that the handyman was going away, but that he already had a replacement lined up. “Don’t you think I ought to meet him first? I mean, what is his name? And does he have your experience?”

Topps’ expression didn’t change, and he spoke as if he was half asleep. “I will introduce you after the funeral, Reverend. His name’s Uri, and there’s no need to worry about his credentials, I can vouch for him right enough. He’ll stay in my cottage and he’ll do all my jobs just as I would.”

“Right, right.” Hartley’s mind continued to race. These were probably the longest sentences Topps had ever uttered, but Hartley knew from experience that he’d get no answers to his questions. And if he was going to be away for some time, a stand-in would certainly be needed and Topps had saved him the trouble of finding someone. “So when will you be going? And where, if I may ask?”

“I’ll be going today, if you please, to my sister’s in Cornwall. After I’ve seen to Jack’s grave, of course. My cousin is already here.”

He turned on his heel and Hartley could only watch, perplexed and worried that something was amiss, as Topps pulled his boots back on and stomped outside. He certainly didn’t seem like a man going on a jolly holiday, and this was the first time Topps had ever mentioned having a sister. In fact, now he came to think of it, Topps had never mentioned any member of his family.

But moments after Topps left the church, a crowd of people came flowing in, pushing all thoughts of the taciturn handyman out of Hartley’s mind. Soon every pew was packed, about five times as many people than attended regular services these days. Hartley was not surprised, as the late Jack Heavysides had lived all his long life in the village, and had once been the jovial proprietor of The Blacksmith’s Anvil. If only, Hartley thought, he got as many regulars in his church as the Blacksmith’s Anvil did, he would be a very happy vicar indeed.

He couldn’t help but smile as he waited for the colourful congregation to settle. Everything had been arranged according to Jack’s own wishes, which had been written in heavy black biro on pale green beer mats and thrown carelessly into the top drawer of his kitchen dresser. One mat stated that everyone was to dress in their loudest, most colourful clothes, another listed the hymns he wanted, a third gave instruction that every person who attended his funeral be given a pint of ale at the wake, which was, of course, to be held in the Blacksmith’s Anvil.

The slow crunch of car tyres on gravel heralded the arrival of the hearse, and the congregation fell into a respectful silence. Heads turned as the coffin was carried in on the shoulders of four burly, grey-suited, top-hatted undertakers. When it was settled on the bier the four men had bowed their heads before respectfully withdrawing to the back of the church.

Hartley welcomed everyone and announced the first hymn, “We begin with ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Please turn to page 138 in your hymn books.”

There was a loud rustle as pages were hastily turned. A quietly weeping Olive Capsby played the opening notes on the organ, then tremulous voices began to sing, quiet at first but growing louder and surer until the church was filled with glorious sound.

The small coterie of regular worshippers was there, dotted amongst the rest of the mourners, and Hartley sought them out as he sang, thinking how he had seen more than a few of the village’s inhabitants through from Christening to wedding with, sometimes, a funeral or two in between.

The hymn came to a shaky end, with Olive keeping her fingers on the keys a beat too long so Hartley have to repeat the opening words of his carefully prepared sermon.

As he spoke, he gave a gentle smile to Carmen, Jack’s daughter, resplendent and elegant in a fuchsia-pink dress with a dainty matching hat, its little spotted veil covering the top half of her face. She was a sincere and devout worshipper who never missed a service, and, what’s more, arranged the weekly cleaning and took care of the flower arrangements. He would miss her when she and her husband left the village to join their son in Australia, leaving The Blacksmith’s Anvil in the care of their daughter, Cynthia.

Cynthia sat pale-faced beside her mother in a sleeveless dress of emerald-green and sea-blue swirls with a necklace of large green and gold beads and matching earrings like chandeliers. In her thirties, she had never shown any signs of leaving home, and certainly wouldn’t go anywhere now that she had charge of the Anvil. Hartley knew that the villagers had some misgivings about this, because they loved their traditional, family-owned pub and Cynthia seemed determined to ‘Introduce New Things’.

In the pew behind Jack Heavysides’ immediate family sat the very unpopular Violet Cattermole, a woman who had never been heard to say a good word about anyone. She had plenty of money, but she was mean with it, and wouldn’t even pay for a set of dentures that fitted her mouth. When she spoke her false teeth clattered like Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag. She was glowering at Carmen’s back, who she had more than once referred to spitefully as ‘Amen Carmen’. Sour as she was, though, she had perhaps the finest singing voice in the village.

He searched the sea of faces for Hilda Merryvale, Violet’s kind and gentle younger sister – the very opposite of Violet in every way imaginable – and found her several rows back. She was gazing up at Hartley with her big friendly smile, which he acknowledged with a gentle incline of his head. Whenever he read a sermon he would see her lips moving as she repeated his words a split second after he’d uttered them. Hartley was flattered to know it was because she simply relished every word. She loved all the hymns too, and sang them loudly and jubilantly, having no need to glance at her hymn book for she knew them all. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf.

Behind Hilda sat the Fordingbridge family. Freddie, the son, was a very clever, cheerful, extremely polite, skinny, spotty, 21-year old who looked more like 14. He had an amazing memory, never forgetting anything he saw or read. Ask Freddie what day of the week a certain date was and Freddie would tell you without hesitation. His dream was to become a television celebrity, so he applied for all the game shows on all the channels. While he waited for the call that he was certain would one day come, he worked stacking shelves in the out of town supermarket.

Hartley’s eyes continued to roam, and he was pleased to see his lovely niece, Lorelei Dove smiling back at him. Despite the family connection, Lorelei was not, sadly, one of his flock. Indeed, he would classify her as a bit of a New-Ager, and they’d had fierce debates about their respective beliefs. But Hartley forgave her her quirks because she was a wonderful human being. The only thing he wished for her was that she would meet and fall in love with a decent man – her last two romances had been short-lived and disastrous and she’d been left utterly broken-hearted both times.

Next to Lorelei sat Glen Perkins, owner of the bakery and café, resplendent in an orange and sky-blue Hawaiian shirt. His wife Gwen was gripping the hand of their pretty, very shapely, 18-year-old daughter, Debbie.

It was time for Hartley to call Jack’s best friend, big-hearted Arnold Capsby, husband of Olive and owner of the Post Office and General Store, to come up and deliver his eulogy. He’d been sobbing uncontrollably into a large white handkerchief from the time he’d entered the church, and now he stumbled to his feet and staggered forward like a man going to the gallows. Olive rose from her seat at the organ to stand behind him, her hand rubbing his back, whispering that he could do this. But Jack couldn’t do it. For twenty minutes he howled, hiccuped, snivelled and stuttered and through his speech in a manner that made it impossible for anyone to understand a thing he said. By the time he’d finished, practically the whole congregation was sobbing with him. Violet, Hartley noticed, was openly sniggering.

When Arnold finished with “J-J-Jack was m-my best frieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeend,” the last word ending in an anguished wail that seemed to echo round the stone walls, Olive led Arnold back and sat him down, providing him with a fresh handkerchief, before she returned to her place at the organ to play for the last hymn, ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’.

It seemed odd to be singing a Christmas hymn at a funeral and in the middle of one of the hottest summer’s on record, but it must have been one of Jack’s favourites because it was listed on the beer mat.  It was certainly one of Hartley’s favourites, but most of the members of the congregation were now too choked up to sing it well, so he belted out the words in his fine baritone to encourage them. Carmen to give him a grateful, if watery, smile.

At last, the service was over, and the four burly men in top hats, their grey suits making them look like pigeons in a crowd of peacocks, reappeared to heft the coffin onto their shoulders and carry it out to its final resting place.

Hartley spotted Topps over by the yew tree, well away from the grave, leaning on his spade and staring, slack-mouthed, into space. Beside him stood a tall, well-built man, wearing blue-lensed glasses and looking like a model in a fieldsports magazine. Seeing Hartley looking at him, he raised a finger to the brim of his flat cap.

Episode 4: the plan

~~~~~

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002 Orders From Above: Episode 2 ‘be careful what you wish for’

To read the previous episodes click here: Episode 1

nigel's office door

Perched at his desk, hands busy straightening steel paperclips for the sake of having something to do, Nigel grew irritated by the buzzing of a couple of fat bluebottles beating themselves to death against the grimy window. “You got in, so why can’t you get out the same way?” he grumbled. “I can’t open the window for you.” He wished he could, both to rid the office of flies and to let in some fresh air, but they had long been sealed shut by grime and layers of sloppily applied gloss paint.

The printer continued to spit out copies of the photographs he’d taken during the previous night’s surveillance. There was a ‘ping’ and Nigel groaned to see a warning flash up on the laptop screen informing him that the printer was running out of ink. He just had to hope and pray that there would be enough to finish this job, because he didn’t have any more cartridges.

He loosened his tie, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and wiped his face with a tissue. It shredded into tiny flecks on a patch of stubble on his left cheek, and, not for the first time, he wished he’d remembered to put a proper handkerchief in his pocket. Would this heatwave never end?

He uncapped a black felt-tipped pen to write the name ‘Bingley’ across the front of a grey folder. The pen had dried up. Less than half an hour into the day and he wondered if things could get any worse. A new felt pen he could just about afford, but print cartridges, essential for his job, were so blasted expensive. The water and electricity bills would arrive any day, as would the rent demand. His credit card was racking up ridiculous interest fees, and, worst of all, the monthly maintenance payment to his ex-wife was a week overdue.

“Damn it,” he said out loud to the room, “So much for a new start. I hate this heat, I hate this job, I hate not having any money-”

“But you love me, I hope.”

Nigel gave a rueful grin as his wife of one glorious year and one month strolled in, a vision of fresh loveliness in her strappy lime-green summer dress and white sandals, her dark-chocolate hair swept back in a glossy, swinging ponytail. Her flawless skin positively glowed, and if he weren’t so horribly sweaty he would cheer himself up by taking her slender body in his arms and kissing her oh-so-kissable lips.

“I bring iced lemonade to cool your fevered brow.”

“Are you going to throw it in my face, then?”

“Ah, wry humour! That’s good. You were looking so gloomy I was worried you were beyond help.” Amelia set the glass of lemonade down and watched Nigel spread out the newly printed photographs. The last one was a bit stripy.

“Mr. Bingley, I presume?”

Nigel nodded. “You know, it’s one thing having to take pictures like these, at least then I’m concentrating on getting the light and the camera angles right rather than on the subject, but it’s quite another having to study them in full-blown colour. This poor chap’s soon going to be in very deep doo-doo with the terrifying Mrs. Bingley.”

He shuddered as the image of Mrs. Bingley wormed its way into his head, her flabby face a deep, mottled red, chins wobbling with indignation, her mean, mud-brown eyes piggy with righteous rage.

“Still,” said Amelia, picking up one of the pictures, “it looks like he had a good time last night. She’s a stunning woman, I must say; goodness knows how she can even move in those heels and, and … goodness, what is that she’s wearing? I bet she charges quite a bit for her services.”

“She does. And that’s how Mrs. Bingley got suspicious, because she checks the bank statements and noticed how much cash was being taken out every Tuesday.”

Truth was, Nigel felt rather sorry for Mr. Bingley, because his wife truly was a frightful woman, with no social graces whatsoever. However, it was Mrs. Bingley who was paying him and he desperately needed the money, so he gathered up the evidence of Mr. Bingley’s adulterous escapade, scribbled a quick note about hours worked on the case, and put everything in the file.

The phone warbled and Amelia, who thought it helped Nigel if it sounded like he had a secretary, reached across him to answer it, pressing the loudspeaker button so Nigel could hear both sides of the conversation.

In a bright, musical voice that made him smile, she said, “Good morning, Nigel Hellion-Rees Detective Agency, how can we help you?”

A woman answered with equal brightness, “Good morning, dear, it’s Dora Dash. I’m just calling to tell you that you can stop following my husband. This time I caught him red-handed myself!”

“Oh, Dora, what happened?”

She chuckled, “The silly sod had too much to drink at the Hunt Ball and bragged to everyone about his latest conquest. I had to save face, of course, so I hit him over the head with a champagne bottle – vintage Dom Perignon, naturally. He promised never to stray again and to replace the practically priceless Aubusson rug that was covered in blood from the gash on his forehead, and I get a brand spanking new Mercedes.”

Nigel rolled his eyes as Amelia replied, “Um, well, we’re glad that’s all sorted out, Dora.”

“Now be sure and send me your bill, and I’ll be in touch the next time some daft floozy catches the ever-roving eye of Mr. Dash. I hope it won’t be too long, because I need to replace my entire wardrobe. Goodbye now, dear, and do please give my warmest regards to your husband.”

Nigel leaned forward, wincing as his shirt stuck to the back of his chair then peeled away to damply and unpleasantly reaffix itself to his skin. “We really needed more money from that one, Amelia, we’ve got nothing else coming in. It’s just getting worse and worse.”

“I know. But Dora will settle up quickly, she always does, and she’ll probably include a small retainer for next time, so it’s not a complete loss.”

Nigel pushed both hands through his hair, and blinked with irritation as it flopped forward again into his eyes. “Do you remember when we first met Dora? She swept in here, swathed in furs and jewellery, that tiny little dog peeking out of her handbag, stopping dead in her tracks because she hadn’t known we’d taken over the business.”

“I’ll never forget it. You know, I asked her why she didn’t divorce her husband if he couldn’t be faithful for longer than a week.”

“Oh? You didn’t tell me. What did she say?”

“She said that she had no intention of leaving him, only of enjoying herself with his money. I was appalled at her mercenary attitude, but she said-” Amelia paused while she puffed out her chest and raised her chin before continuing in a voice that was a perfect rendering of Dora’s breathy, little-girl voice, “It may sound callous, my dear, but it’s all a game with me. When I was young love broke my heart and poverty almost broke my spirit, so I decided that it’s easier not to be in love and to have lots and lots of money. You know that song that says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Well, believe me, sweet girl, they certainly are, and I’ve got lots of them!”

Nigel laughed, but he couldn’t stop himself giving a wistful glance at his wife’s engagement ring, its tiny diamond chip the one and only precious stone she owned. It couldn’t even begin to compare with the lowliest of the many rings that adorned Dora’s fingers, nor with the enormous square-cut emerald chosen by his first wife even before he had proposed. His shoulders drooped and he said, “Perhaps you should divorce me and marry someone who earns at least as much as you do.”

“Oh, Nigel, really! I won’t even grace that stupid comment with an answer.” She marched to her own desk and shuffled some papers around.

Nigel knew he’d have to apologise. Amelia hated it when he went on about how he couldn’t give her the things he’d been able to give Tansy. He knew absolutely that she loved him regardless, and he was damned lucky to have her. But just for a minute, maybe two, he wanted to wallow in self-pity. He pictured Dora Dash swanning around the showroom picking out her new car, the salesman fawning over her, as she demanded every extra gadget and gewgaws available. Maybe even gold cup holders and a mink-lined bed for her puffball of a dog.

He’d had a Mercedes once. Silver. With dark grey leather seats, walnut dashboard, rain-sensitive headlight wipers, a roof that folded majestically up and down at the touch of a button …

He stopped the thoughts in their tracks. What was the point in going over what he no longer had? What was the loss of a mere car compared to the gain of the most wonderful woman in the world, who in about seven and a half months time would be the mother of his first child?

Shame-faced, he went over to Amelia and said he was sorry.

She smiled and his heart skipped a beat as she laced her slender fingers with his. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each finger and the underside of her wrist. Her skin smelled of vanilla.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

She nodded. “Yes, Nigel, I do. And you know I love you too. More than anything. But you really hate this business, don’t you? I know you thought it would be more about searching for missing persons than chasing after cheaters and thieves. If there’s anything else you’d rather do, you know I’ll always support you.”

“But what else can I do? The only career I want is closed to me, at least until Tansy remarries and her father stops using his money and influence to keep me out of property development. I’m an architect, Amelia, I want to design buildings and then see them get built.”

Amelia wiped the bits of tissue from Nigel’s cheek and affectionately brushed his floppy fringe out of his eyes. “Well, according to the gossip columns, your ex-wife has someone very firmly in mind, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, but we’ve been there twice before, remember? No, I’ll believe I’m rid of her when she actually has another man’s wedding ring on her finger. Just think, Amelia, I’d be able to get a job that would actually pay the bills. And there would be no more maintenance payments!”

As if on cue, the door crashed open and there was a cheerful “Hellooooooooo there!” as a large man barrelled into the office, followed by two even larger men in brown overalls.

“Greetings from the ex-wife, Nige, me old mate! You’re a week overdue; I don’t suppose you have the money?”

This was a monthly ritual that always played out the same way. Nigel shrugged and the big man shook his head in mock sadness. “Dear oh dear! So what shall we take in lieu this time, eh?” He strolled back out to the tiny reception area, announced there was nothing there of interest, then returned, followed by his cohorts.

Nigel and Amelia stood in the reception area until the men trooped out again, the burly man wishing them a cheery goodbye until same time next month, the other two grunting under the weight of Nigel’s desk. They knew they could touch nothing in Amelia’s half of the office, so the shelves of interior decorating books, wallpaper and fabric samples she needed for her own design business were safe.

Amelia said, “We could always bring in the kitchen table for you to work on.”

“And, what, eat off the floor at home?” With a resigned sigh, Nigel dropped to his knees and started to gather up the files, papers and general detritus from his desk drawers that the men had strewn all over the grubby, worn carpet. The laptop had been unplugged and lay in one corner with the printer next to it, the digital camera perched on top. Nigel supposed he should be grateful that they could take nothing that would prevent him doing his job.

“This is ridiculous! I can’t keep on like this, we’ll soon have nothing left. She only takes it out of spite. And it’s high time we had a bit of cash to spend on ourselves. Everything you earn goes into rent and food.” He stood up and took Amelia in his arms. “I want us to have a decent house, Amelia, with a garden for our children and the dog we’ll have one day.” He raised her left hand “I want to give you a proper engagement ring.”

Amelia laughed and said brightly, “Oh Nigel, all that will come in time, you know it will. And don’t you dare try and replace my precious ring, do you hear me?”

She covered it up well, but Nigel knew that she was dreadfully disappointed that the aftershocks of his short, disastrous marriage to Tansy just kept on rumbling, affecting her as much as it did him. Her commissions were definitely fewer since she’d become his wife due, he was sure, to the far-reaching influence of his vengeful ex-father-in-law. And soon she would have to stop work, at least for a while, and then they would be a family of three.

He sighed. “We won’t be free of her until she finds herself another husband, and she seems in no hurry to find one, does she? Two broken engagements in less than a year! How many more, I wonder?” Nigel pushed his fringe out of his eyes; it flopped straight back down.

His ex-wife was ruthless and her father even more so. Nigel had begged for a clean break settlement, but he could not afford to hire a lawyer savvy enough to take on his father-in-law’s legal team and win. When they’d been married, Nigel had had to work longer and longer hours designing exclusive health complexes and mansions for multi-millionaires to earn the money to pay for his wife’s extravagant spending. When he’d discovered that Tansy had been unfaithful to him with her personal trainer, their gardener and the young chap who mucked out the stables where she kept her horse, he had, with some relief, demanded a divorce. She’d agreed on the condition that Nigel allowed her to divorce him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour so that her reputation would be untainted. If he’d only known what giving Tansy her own way meant for his future, he would have fought her tooth and nail, and told her doting daddy the truth. He would still have lost his job, most likely, but his integrity would have been intact.

The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was Amelia. She had happened to be there discussing a project the day Nigel had been fired, and they’d ended up together in the nearest pub, two cardboard boxes of Nigel’s personal effects from his office on the floor at their feet. She’d offered emotional support to Nigel as he’d struggled along in short-term and unsatisfactory jobs, and in a matter of weeks they had fallen in love with each other. A short while after their low-key but utterly delightful wedding a cousin of Amelia’s had offered to sell Nigel his PI business, assuring him that he’d make pots of money. But however the cousin had made his money, Nigel soon learned it definitely hadn’t been through honest means. Not long after he’d taken over and had his name painted on the door, he had had to turn away some very shady people. The cousin, meanwhile, had fled to a country that didn’t have extradition arrangements.

Amelia continued with her own business, happy to run it from Nigel’s office as she always went to a client’s premises rather than have them visit her, so she’d been there when Nigel had had some very frightening moments with characters that could have been straight out of a gangster movie.

Nigel forced his mind back to the present and looked at his gorgeous wife. “I’m so sorry, Amelia, I seem to have made rather a mess of things.”

“Oh, don’t go all maudlin on me.” She kissed him and stroked his fringe out of his eyes. “We’ll get there, you’ll see. Now, I’m going to get the scissors and cut that blasted fringe of yours.”

Nigel picked up a paper clip to unbend while Amelia rummaged in her desk drawers for a pair of scissors. Truth was, in career terms, he was broke, trapped, bored and terrified. He loathed having to follow adulterous husbands and wives with his camera and recording equipment at the ready, writing reports about their seedy goings-on. This rundown office and his second-hand suits and worn out shoes depressed him. Not being able to buy for Amelia all the things he’d so easily and thoughtlessly bought for Tansy depressed him even more. And now there was a baby on way, and he was terrified that he’d fall short as a father just as he had in everything else. Tansy had taken everything from him, everything, and even though she didn’t need a bean from him she was still determined to bleed him dry.

Amelia told Nigel to look up at her and keep really still. As she snipped at his fringe, he closed his eyes tight and said, “I just wish something would happen to change our fortunes.”

As he spoke the sentence, there was a sudden chill in the room and he shivered.

Episode 3: introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold

~~~~~

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001 Orders From Above: Episode 1 ‘discovery’

graveyard-stencil

The pre-dawn light still washed the headstones in charcoal and dove-grey hues when Topps arrived to begin his first job of the day. Many people, he knew, would find it spooky, but he’d never been frightened by anything in his life. He hooked his canvas satchel over the wing of a small, sad-faced stone angel and strolled over to the shed, looking behind it to check if the vixen had eaten the nightly feast he left for her. She had cubs to raise, and Topps had been lucky to see them, just once, playing rough and tumble until the vixen had smelled his scent and ushered them through the hedge and away. The dish was empty, licked clean.

He unlocked the shed and quickly loaded up the wheelbarrow with all the tools and paraphernalia he would need. Whistling tunelessly, he bumped the barrow over the uneven grass to the opposite end of the churchyard, eager to get started. With a short break for breakfast he could be done by lunch time. Never mind that the job would take a tenth of the time with an excavator, Topps preferred hard, manual labour to taking the easy way with power tools. And he liked to work alone.

Flat cap pushed to the back of his head and shirt sleeves rolled to above his elbows, he spat into the palms of his huge, calloused hands and flexed his muscles. Raising the spade high, he brought it down hard so the the sharpened edge sliced cleanly through the grass into the top few inches of packed soil. Then with booted foot, the veins and sinews of his arms bulging, Topps worked it all way in and so began the task of digging a new grave.

It wasn’t long before his entire body dripped with sweat, but Topps, lost in the steady rhythm of digging, didn’t pause even to wipe his brow. He dug deeper and wider, only becoming mindful of his surroundings again when the sun broke over the crenelated church roof in a blaze of scarlet and gold. It was going to be another scorching day.

Figuring he was about halfway done, Topps decided to take a break and eat. He rinsed his hands at the standpipe, gasping as the cold water hit the heated skin of his face and the back of his neck. He retrieved his satchel from the angel and carried it over to the cooler shade of the yew tree. With a sigh of pleasure he dropped to the ground and quickly made himself comfortable, leaning his back against the old stone wall, propping his feet on the grave of Gladys Edwina Ashburton. According to the lichen-covered headstone she had been born in 1817, died in 1901, and had ‘dedicated her life to Nature’. Topps felt some affinity with Gladys because he also liked the natural order of things. The only downside to Nature, he thought, was people. He didn’t like people.

Ravenous after his labours, he made short work of two thick slabs of white bread smeared liberally with lard and wrapped round two mustard-covered cold pork sausages, washed down with swigs of dark, sweet tea. He contemplated eating the two blackened bananas he’d brought along, but decided to save them for later and get back to work.

In another four hours the digging was done and the mound of freshly-dug earth had been covered with artificial grass. Topps was preparing to lay out the webbing straps that would support the coffin as it was lowered by the pall-bearers, and something caught his eye. It was a mere glimmer in the packed, dark soil in the floor of the hole, but he wondered how he’d missed it when he’d smoothed the surfaces.

Curious, he jumped nimbly down to investigate, and used his old penknife to prise the encrusted object free. He spat on it and cleaned away the dirt with the ball of his thumb, revealing a smooth-edged coin, a raised pattern on each of its faces. It was surprisingly heavy and he wondered if it could be gold. But no, probably not. It was more likely to be something worthless, if his previous finds were anything to go by. He’d once uncovered a beaded necklace, which had caused a lot of excitement, until the Heritage Museum in the city said it was modern and not at all valuable.

Topps slid the coin and his penknife into the back pocket of his shabby moleskin trousers and grabbed the spade to dig around a bit, but there were no more coins to be found. Disappointed that he hadn’t discovered a treasure trove, he once again smoothed out the sides and floor of the grave. It took another hour to finish preparing the grave, clean and put away his tools, lock up the shed and grab his satchel. He was headed for the vicarage as the clock struck two.

~~~

Reverend Hartley Cordwell answered his knock, his white hair like a dandelion clock atop his long, thin, jovial face.

“Good afternoon, Topps! Another fine day, isn’t it?”

“Aye, sir, that it is. Just came to tell you that Jack’s grave be ready, and I found this.” He retrieved the coin from his pocket and held it out. “Couldn’t find no more, though.”

“Thank you, Topps. We’re not destined to find riches in our churchyard, are we?” Hartley peered at the coin. “I’ll put it in the safe until I’ve got time to have a proper look at it. Now, would you like a cup of tea? I’ve half an hour before I have to go out.”

“No thank you, Reverend Cordwell, sir. I’d like to get the green watered, right parched the grass is.”

“Well, if you’re sure?”

“Aye, thanks all the same. I’ll be getting back to work.”

Topps wondered if the vicar would ever stop offering him refreshments. They must have been through this ritual hundreds of times, and, although he actually liked the vicar, never once had he accepted an invitation to tea. He simply loathed small talk or chitchat. The solitary nature of his job as village handyman suited him well; he did a good job for whoever paid him a fair wage and neither offered nor expected any conversation in return. After all his years doing odd jobs around the village everyone had learned this and so left him well alone.

He touched a forefinger to his flat cap and walked down the vicarage driveway, his mind on the village green and the grass turning brown and unsightly in the relentless heat. He caught a flash of something red ahead of him and narrowed his eyes at what he thought was someone half-hidden among the rhododendrons. It was someone! A man, wearing bright red trousers, staring hard back at him. Topps assumed he was on his way to see the vicar, but the figure suddenly vanished and by the time Topps reached the spot, there was no trace of anyone. Puzzled, he could only wonder if he was suffering from too much sun.

For the rest of the day he tried to put the red-trousered man out of his mind, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was being observed. Time and again he couldn’t stop himself looking over his shoulder, but there were no more flashes of red, no mysterious figures diving into shrubs or behind garden sheds.

His last task was to put food out for the vixen and it was still light as he headed home, but during the short walk to his cottage the feeling of being watched grew ever stronger and he looked back over his shoulder four times before telling himself off for having fanciful notions. Who would want to spy on the likes of him? But the uneasy feeling persisted while he prepared and ate his dinner of rabbit casserole with peas and tiny new potatoes grown in his own vegetable patch, and he kept glancing at the window, half expecting to see a face peering in at him.

He passed the rest of the evening hand-washing his shirt and underwear in the sink and polishing his boots and then, at almost midnight, he put a pan of milk on the stove to heat it for his bedtime mug of cocoa. A tawny owl hooted, and Topps, spooning cocoa powder into the milk, listened for its mate to reply; they were probably hunting and Topps wished them luck.

A sudden and loud thumping on his front door took him so completely by surprise that he jarred the pan and a stream of hot cocoa spewed out onto the back of his hand. He turned off the burner beneath the pan and went to see who could possibly be bothering him at this time of night; it was unlikely to be the vicar as he only ever knocked very gently while calling Topps’ name. Besides, he always went to bed early.

Feeling very angry at being disturbed, not to mention scalded, Topps yanked the door open, to find a tall man, wearing bright red trousers, grinning at him.

“You!” he barked, curling his fists at his sides. “I saw you skulking around earlier. Who are you and what do you want?”

With a cheeky wink, the stranger replied, “You would not believe me if I told you who I am. But what I want, my dear chap, is for you to take a little holiday.”

“What? What are you talking about, you stupid man? Go away!”

Topps went to slam the door, but the stranger swiftly pushed his way into the cottage with surprising strength. Topps, rooted to the spot, could only utter a strangled protest as the stranger walked around the tiny room, his eyes roving from the stained armchair to the scratched pine table to the single bed in the far corner. The man studied the damp clothes hung to dry, then pulled on the rope that worked the pulleys to raise and lower the airer from the ceiling, seeming to find it amusing. Then he picked up Topps’ very shiny boots, and laughed out loud at the rounded reflection of his face in the toecaps. Finally, the stranger swung his gaze to the stove and exclaimed, “Oh, is that cocoa I smell! Wonderful!”

He turned the full force of his grin on a paralysed Topps and said, “I’ll make some for both of us, shall I?  Nice and sweet? Then we’ll talk about your little holiday.”

Episode 2: be careful what you wish for

~~~~~

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