012 Orders From Above: Episode 12 ‘nigel learns who his clients really are’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was mean,” said Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Amelia with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you, dear brother, are a wuss.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Nigel! Wait up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uri was watching him closely.

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

Uri nodded, “Yep. Shall we go over?”

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

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

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

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

This.

Could.

Not.

Be.

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

And Gabe was tripping down it, beaming in welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode: ‘popcorn and a blockbuster movie’

~~~~~

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009 Orders From Above: Episode 9 ‘STARdust’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It said:

“Heads, I stay.”

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

“Tails, I stay.”

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

“Damn and blast!”

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

Before what, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

He let the telephone go through to the answering machine.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Yes, indeed. Is something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lorelei-”

“Have you got any jam, Uncle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorelei looked affronted and Hartley apologised.

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

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

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

Episode 10: the most expensive coffee in the world

~~~~~

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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

the mill.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And waited.

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

“Would you be looking for Miss Violet Cattermole?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode: stardust

~~~~~

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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

digby on the green.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not lost, no. Just looking around.”

“And why would that be?”

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

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

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

“Well, Mr. Trout-”

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

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

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

“Blind? What’s it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

walter's plaque.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the house wasn’t rebuilt?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Earthquakes?” squeaked Nigel with disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 8: Angel Falls Mill

~~~~~

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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

steeple ashton.jpg

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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