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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was mean,” said Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Amelia with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you, dear brother, are a wuss.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Nigel! Wait up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uri was watching him closely.

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

Uri nodded, “Yep. Shall we go over?”

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

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

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

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

This.

Could.

Not.

Be.

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

And Gabe was tripping down it, beaming in welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Gabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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

“Yes, Stella?”

“Miss Dove is here to see you.”

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

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

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

“Here we are, please do go in.”

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

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

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

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

“Have you worked there long, Miss Dove?”

“Please call me Lorelei.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll show you out-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He lasted three days.

Next episode: Nigel learns the truth

 

009 Orders From Above: Episode 9 ‘STARdust’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

stardust pic.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not lost, no. Just looking around.”

“And why would that be?”

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

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

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

“Well, Mr. Trout-”

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

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

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

“Blind? What’s it for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the house wasn’t rebuilt?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Earthquakes?” squeaked Nigel with disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 8: Angel Falls Mill

~~~~~

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

To read from the first episodes click here: Episode 1

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

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

“What letters have we got?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone stepping on your grave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He most definitely had the flu.

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

His mouth moved but nothing came out.

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

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

“Then how did he know, huh? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 6: Nigel on the case

~~~~~

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004 Orders From Above: Episode 4 ‘The Plan’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

the plan file.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both of us?”

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

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

Herbert rammed his cap back on and scurried away.

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

“Me? Why assume it’s me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So where was it found?” Nick demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 5: Nigel gets a new client

~~~~~

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