We’re up to part eight now of the free thriller One Good Deed. If you’ve stumbled upon this page by accident and want to know what it’s all about, head back to the index page, and read the earlier instalments to find out all about poor old Sam Barnes and his misadventures.
Disclaimer – while this is a finished draft, it has not been professionally edited or proof read. There will be typos and possibly continuity errors. Having said which, if you’ve enjoyed it (or if you have any comments at all) you can get in touch using the contact form.
‘I’ve got a giant phallus scrawled across my bonnet and “fuck me up the arse” written on the passenger door. Why’s there no bloody patrol car around when you need one?’
Campbell banged her hands against the steering wheel in frustration as the traffic once more ground to a halt for no obvious reason. They’d made reasonable progress at first, back past Kettering and on to the M6, but then they’d hit rush hour. Stuck in traffic, Campbell had tried phoning Alice Barnes, left a message on her answering machine, even tried her mobile, but that had just gone to voice mail. Frustratingly, the nursing home didn’t know the name of the firm she worked for. If the hitmen had visited Sam’s mother, then chances were they already knew about the sister. They could be waiting there for Sam to turn up, or they might already have broken into her house and killed her just for the spite of it. Who knew what they were capable of, and how much information they were being fed?
Her phone rang, and Campbell stabbed at the screen to answer, praying that it would be Alice Barnes returning her messages. DCI Jonas’ warm tones filled the car.
‘Where the fuck are you, Campbell? Have I got to run this entire investigation on my own?’
Campbell closed her eyes and counted to ten as quickly as she dared. ‘I’m in traffic on the M6, headed for Birmingham. Where are you, sir?’
‘Never mind that. What the fuck’s in Birmingham?’
Is it my fault you never answer your bloody phone? ‘I’m sorry sir. I left a message for you to contact me as soon as possible, but I thought it more important to keep moving. Barnes has a sister in Birmingham. We reckon he’s heading there.’
‘DS Flass is helping me, sir.’
Jonas said something that she couldn’t hear over the tinny hands-free system. Hopefully Flass couldn’t hear it either.
‘Look, she’s not answering either of her phones. If we’ve found out about her, then they will have too. We have to go to her house.’ Campbell edged the car forward another twenty metres, then slowed to a halt again. ‘Find her before anyone else does.’
‘How far away are you now?’
‘Sat-Nav says half an hour, but judging by the traffic it’s going to take twice that.’
A long silence, another ten metres.
‘You called the local plod in on it?’ Jonas asked.
‘That didn’t work too well for Steve Pointer now, did it.’
‘My point exactly.’ There was a muffled pause, the hollow echo of a phone on hands free. What sounded like the muted roar of tyres on tarmac. So he was driving somewhere. ‘OK. Get your new boyfriend to text me that address. Call me as soon as you get there. I’ll be on my way. And Campbell?’
‘Good job.’ He cut the call.
There followed a minute’s stunned silence, during which time they proceeded all of fifteen metres.
‘That was odd,’ Flass said as he tapped away at his phone and sent the address.
‘Very,’ Campbell agreed. ‘I’ve been working for Jonas almost eighteen months now, and that’s the first time he’s ever said anything remotely encouraging. I guess the stress must be getting to him.’
Flass said nothing, stared out the window at the cars stretching into the distance. Campbell studied her hands for a while, looked at the clock on the dashboard. Peak rush hour time.
‘You got a wife at home?’ She asked after a while, then realised that it sounded like the corniest of come-ons. Especially after Jonas’ boyfriend jibe.
‘What? No. Why?’ Flass stumbled through his response.
‘Doesn’t look like we’re going to be back at Bishop’s Stortford nick in time for shift change.’
‘Oh. Right. Well I could do with the overtime.’
‘You OK with this investigation? I mean, the whole thing’s as far from procedure as I think it’s possible to get. Jonas doesn’t care. He’s retiring at the end of the month anyway. Me, well I owe it to Tim, and Constable Pointer. Izzy Connell too if I’m being honest.’
‘Don’t forget Sam.’
‘Yeah. Poor bastard. Him too. He could’ve had protective custody. But Jonas wanted these guys. Hell, I wanted these guys. And we need to find the leak in our team. We both of us talked Sam into helping us out. We used him as bait.’ Campbell banged her hands against the steering wheel again. ‘We put a civilian in danger. What the fuck were we thinking?’
‘That’s the problem with digging a hole. Sometimes you get so deep the only thing you can do is keep on going down.’
Campbell looked at Flass, then burst out laughing. ‘That’s meant to be profound is it Tommy?’
‘Not really, no.’
Ahead, the traffic started to move again. Campbell dipped the clutch, selected first gear and moved slowly forward, gathering speed as whatever had stuck them dissolved away.
‘Well, if we don’t find Sam by midnight, best case I’m out of a job. I just hope some of that bad karma doesn’t rub off on you.’
A slow flashing light brought me back to the here and now. Blurred by the tears in my eyes, it took me a long while to realise that it was the call indicator on my sister’s answering machine. I blinked a couple of times to clear my eyes and looked around the room. Whatever force of nature had ripped through the rest of the apartment had presumably blown itself out by the time it got here, as the place looked like it hadn’t been touched. Either that or something had disturbed my pursuers before they could finish the job. It didn’t bear thinking what that could have been.
Not quite knowing why, I crossed over to the machine and hit the play button. The first couple of messages were from men whose names I didn’t recognise, one asking my sister if she wanted to go to the pub on Sunday, the other telling her not to forget her passport. As they prattled on, I glanced up at the calendar taped to the wall above the phone. Three weeks had been scored through, with the letters NYC at the beginning. It took me a moment to remember what day it was, but I could see that there was every chance my sister was away in America for at least another week.
‘…Miss Barnes it’s Nurse Evans here at the Abbey. I’m so sorry, this isn’t the kind of message I like leaving. It’s about your mother. Could you give me a call as soon as possible. I’ve tried your brother but his phone seems to be disconnected.’
Ice water in my veins. I knew with perfect certainty that my mother was dead, and that she had been killed by Jonno and Mr Crisp. I should have been stricken with grief then, at least had a lump in my throat, but instead all I felt was a sense of outrage. How dare these people just walk into my life and start taking it apart? Torture me, leave a dead policeman in my bath, make me dig my own grave. Sure, these were terrible things, but I could just about understand them. But kill my mother? A woman so addled she couldn’t have identified them in a line up of two?
The anger started to burn in me then. It’s easy to get angry with someone when they’re not there to scare the shit out of you, and in the calm of my sister’s kitchen there was a lot to get angry about. It boiled up in me, a different kind of shaking that had me reaching for the phone to hurl it across the room. I was stopped in my tracks by the next message.
‘Hello Miss Barnes. You don’t know me. My name is Elinor Campbell. I’m a detective sergeant with SOCA, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. I’ll try and reach you on your mobile, but if you get this message first, please phone me as soon as possible. Call SOCA headquarters and ask for me by name. They’ll put you straight through to me. In the meantime, please don’t answer the door to anyone you don’t know, and if your brother contacts you, please tell him to phone me.’
The message ended with an electronic voice giving a timestamp. I looked at the clock on the microwave; the call had been made just half an hour earlier. I picked up the phone handset, looked to see if it had caller id. The last number was a mobile that had called half an hour earlier. I’d have checked it against the number Campbell had put in my mobile, but that was knackered. So I hit redial and listened to the ring tone.
‘Miss Barnes?’ DS Campbell’s voice came through distant and tinny, overlaid with the rumbling roar of a car interior caught by a cheap microphone.
‘Sam? Thank god you’re alive. You got away.’
‘No thanks to you lot.’
‘Shit. I know what it must look like. But, Christ, we’ve been looking for you. Where have you been?’
‘Digging my own grave, if you must know. Why did you phone my sister?’
‘Because we thought you might get in touch with her, and we thought she might be in danger. Look, you need to get yourself into protective custody.’
‘That didn’t work too well for me the last time, did it. Your friends knew exactly where I was going to be, and there wasn’t much sign of police protection when they killed Izzy.’
There was a pause whilst all I could hear was the rumbling of the car as it ate up miles. Headed in my direction I had no doubt. For a moment I wondered if they would have been able to put a trace on the call, then I realised that Campbell had recognised the phone number as soon as it rang, so she knew perfectly well where I was.
‘I don’t really know what to say, Sam. Sorry seems kind of inadequate. But you’ve got to understand, this isn’t a police-wide conspiracy. My team at SOCA’s been compromised, you know that as well as I do. But we’ve cut most of them out. It’s just me and DI Jonas now. Nobody else knows what’s going on. Well, apart from Tommy Flass from Bishop’s Stortford. He’s here now. You know Tommy socially, don’t you, Sam?’
‘Five a side league, Sam. We beat you in the semis last year. Herts Constabulary Detectives team.’ Flass’s voice was even more distant than Campbell’s, the microphone obviously not set up for passengers.
‘You said you’d got the leak stopped before I went to Izzy’s,’ I said. ‘But they found me there. I met their boss, you know, and he seemed to have a lot of information about me. And they’ve been here already, trashed the place looking for my sister. I wonder who told them about her. Or about my mum. How do I know it’s not Jonas who’s working with these thugs. Or you?’
Another pause, then Campbell spoke so quietly I had to strain to make out her words.
‘How can I prove to you I’m on the level, Sam? I’m trying to help you here, but you’re not making it easy.’
She had a point, but it was hard to think straight after two days on the run, very little sleep and even less to eat. ‘Who’s your boss?’ I asked. ‘More senior than Jonas?’
‘We both report to Superintendent Dane. Marjorie Dane.’
‘And who’s her boss? Who’s in charge of the whole of SOCA?’
‘If you want me to arrange for them to speak to you, I can do that.’
‘Just give me their names. I’ll get in contact with them.’ I looked around for a pen and something to write on, found the former but no useful post-it pads or unopened bills to scribble on. ‘Hang on, I just need to find something to write on.’
Going through my pockets, I pulled out the crumpled envelope I was never going to get around to posting now. Hoped it hadn’t been anything important. Campbell gave me a list of names, including the head of the Police Complaints Commission.
‘Jonas wanted to sort out this mess before it got that far up the tree,’ she added. ‘I think he was worried it would ruin my career. I guess it was too late for that the moment Izzy Connell died.’
I wasn’t really listening. I’d turned the envelope over, looked for the first time at the name and address.
‘The policeman who was killed in the park. What was his name?’ I asked.
‘Was it Prowett? Tim Prowett?’
‘Yes. Don’t you remember? We went over it at the first interview.’
‘Was he Welsh?’
‘Tim? About as Welsh as they come. The other sergeants used to call him Taffy. Why?’
I looked at the envelope again, a glimmer of an idea coalescing in my mind. Said nothing as it started to form.
‘Look Sam. You need to go to the police. For your own safety. Not us, not SOCA. Just the nearest Birmingham nick. They can…’
I never found out what they could do. I hung up before Campbell could finish. Read the address on the envelope once more.
Aberystwyth SY23 4AA
There was only one way it could have got into my pocket. This was what everyone had been looking for all along.
The brown stains on the envelope could have been Tim Prowett’s blood, or mine. Or they might just have been mud splashes. I tried to remember the first time I’d seen it. On the train home from London? Or was it when I’d emptied my pockets at the police station and they’d put everything into a large ziplock bag. It wasn’t important really, but I couldn’t help wondering if things might have been different if I’d paid attention to it earlier. Probably worse; if I’d handed over the envelope to SOCA, they’d have buggered off on their own investigation, leaving me unprotected when Jonno and Mr Crisp came round. Not that I’d been spectacularly well protected anyway.
My hands were shaking as I felt the weight of it, held it up to the light and tried to see what was inside. It was a standard white DL envelope of the kind you see in offices up and down the land, the name and address written on it in neat handwriting with a black pen. I reached for a knife from the block sitting beside the cooker, slipped the point under the flap and gently cut it open.
The envelope was empty.
I squeezed the ends to open it up a bit, stuck a finger in and rattled it around just in case something small was lodged in the seal, tipped the whole thing upside down and flapped it onto the counter. Nothing. For some strange reason I remembered reading a trashy spy novel where the secret code was hidden in a microdot under the stamp of a postcard. Couldn’t remember the name of the book, but it didn’t matter; there was no stamp on the envelope. If there had been, I’d probably have posted it as soon as I’d found it in my pocket. Something the boss had asked me to do and I’d forgotten.
But this envelope was empty. Apart from the scribbled names I’d written on the back, and the brown stains I didn’t want to think too hard about, the only thing on it was the name and address. There had to be a reason why Prowett had written it down, and it didn’t take a genius to work out why. There was something at the address in Wales. Perhaps he’d posted whatever evidence he’d stolen, maybe even the identity of the police mole. Whatever it was, if I could get my hands on it then I could go public somehow. It might not get the bastards off my back, but it would make life a hell of a lot more difficult for them.
I lost half an hour searching the trashed apartment before I found my sister’s car keys, lying in a pile of books and the broken remains of a shallow china bowl I’d given her for her birthday about ten years earlier. The car park in the basement was laid out with a space for each apartment and then a free-for-all visitor parking area. Finding my sister’s car was a simple matter of walking along the line of empty bays and reading off the numbers until I came to the right one.
I drive an elderly Vauxhall Astra. It’s only a Vauxhall because that’s what the local garage had in my budget when I went looking. I don’t know much about cars, really, and don’t use them much since I live within walking distance of the station and the train that takes me to work every day. But I do know enough about cars to know that big four by fours are expensive, and Range Rovers are even more expensive than most. For a moment I worried that my sister had let someone else use her parking space whilst she was away, but the keyring in my hand had a Land Rover logo on it, and when I pushed the unlock button the lights flashed on the red behemoth in front of me. I guess the lawyering was going OK, then.
Tan leather and wood dominated the inside, that new car smell still very evident. It was spotlessly clean, with buttons everywhere. All too aware of how much trouble I was going to be in, and how much explaining I’d have to do to my sister if I got so much as a scratch on her new toy, I settled myself into the driver’s seat, started the engine and very slowly drove out of the parking bay to the garage doors. They opened automatically at my approach, and I piloted the huge beast up the ramp that led to the main road. A glance at the fuel gauge showed that it was almost full, and if I was reading the numbers right I had at least four hundred miles in the tank. Now all I had to do was work out how to set the Sat-Nav and I’d be gone.
‘What the hell was that about?’
Five miles from their destination, still fighting a battle with the endless Birmingham traffic, Campbell stared at the phone, mounted in its cradle on the dashboard. The screen still showed the last caller number and the length of the call. It was only when the car behind blasted its horn at her that she realised the road ahead was clear.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Flass said.
‘Why’d he suddenly ask about Tim?’
Campbell explained about DS Prowett’s undercover operation as they drove the last few miles to Alice Barnes’ apartment.
‘So Barnes met him in the park in London?’ Flass asked. ‘Did he give him something? Tell him something important?’
‘Not according to Sam. He said Tim just kind of bumped into him, whispered something incomprehensible, then staggered away into the traffic. Got hit by a bus.’ Campbell winced at the memory. Had it really happened just two days ago?
They parked across the street from the grey stone building, entered through a front door that had been wedged open, and took the lift to the top floor. Alice Barnes’ apartment door hung open, and an elderly lady was standing in the hallway in front of it. Campbell held up her warrant card as she approached.
‘Oh, thank goodness you’re here. Someone’s broken into poor Alice’s home.’
‘And you are…?’ Campbell let the question hang.
‘Eh?’ The old lady fiddled with something tucked around the back of her ear, nestling in the coils of her blue rinse. There was a high-pitched whistle and then the hearing aid settled down.
‘I’m Iris, Iris Wesley.’ The old lady spoke in a far too loud voice. ‘I live next door. Alice gave me a key ages ago. Asked me to keep an eye on the place. She’s such a lovely girl. Always has time for a cup of tea and a blether.’
‘Is Miss Barnes away, then?’ Flass raised his voice and spoke slowly. Iris gave him withering stare before answering.
‘I’m a bit deaf. Not stupid. And yes, Alice went away a few days back. Very excited she was about it too. Off to America for three weeks, and her work paying for it all.’
Campbell breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Have you phoned the police?’ She asked.
Iris gave her a confused look. ‘You’re here, en’t you?’
‘Ah, yes. We were coming here for something else. We didn’t know about this.’ Campbell pointed at the open door and the mess in the hall beyond.
‘Oh, right. Well. Yes. I did phone. About ten minutes ago. It’s Thursday, see, and Thursday’s Bingo afternoon at the social. Me and Jenny Barlow from downstairs go every week. Never win anything, mind, but it’s nice to get out. We just got back now and I found the door open like this.’
The sounds of the city wafted in through a window open at the end of the corridor, but Campbell couldn’t hear any sirens approaching. She wondered how long it would take a local patrol to respond to the call, and whether it would be easier if she and Flass were gone before then.
‘Thank you, Mrs Wesley,’ she said. ‘You’ve been very helpful. We’ll take it from here.’
The old lady looked rather crestfallen, the most exciting episode of her year, possibly even decade, over so soon. But she nodded once, then slowly turned and shuffled off to her own front door on the other side of the corridor. Campbell waited for her to go in before entering Alice Barnes’ apartment.
Campbell doubted forensics would get much from the place, but she was careful where she put her feet anyway. She peered through doors until she found the kitchen and the phone. This was where Sam had been just what, half an hour ago? Forty-five minutes, tops. So where had he gone?
‘Get onto traffic will you Tommy. See if Alice Barnes has a car.’ Campbell pulled out her own phone and hit the speed-dial for Jonas. It went straight to voicemail, so she left a message telling him they’d arrived.
‘Bloody man’s beginning to really piss me off,’ she said as she ended the call. ‘Legend in the Met, my arse. He’s done sweet fuck all to clear up this mess, and it was his bloody idea in the first place. And he never answers his bloody phone.’
‘What?’ Flass looked up from his notebook where he had been scribbling madly. Campbell almost jumped; she’d forgotten about him, lost in her annoyance.
‘Oh, nothing. Just Jonas out of communication again.’
‘I guess we wait for him then.’
‘That’s what he said before.’
‘You don’t think that’s a good idea?’ It was only half a question
Campbell raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘Bloody waste of time, since you ask. Sam’s gone. We need to know where and how, not piss around here looking for clues like some amateur sleuths. You get anywhere with traffic?’
Flass smiled a little triumphant grin. ‘Alice Barnes owns an almost brand new Range Rover Sport. ANPR has it driving north on the M6 five minutes ago. Just past Wednesbury. Since she’s in America, it’s either been stolen or Sam’s borrowed it. I was about to put out an All Points.’
‘Wednesbury? That’s just before the M56 junction isn’t it?’
Flass shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a soft southern Jessie. Never been north of Watford Gap. Until today, that is.’
Campbell held up her hand for silence. There was a connection going back through all the recent events, she just needed to put her finger on it. Something Sam had said when he was on the phone earlier, when she’d started giving him the details of senior police officers to contact.
‘He was looking for something to write on.’ She stepped through the detritus of the flat until she found the phone in the kitchen. Flass followed her like an obedient but confused puppy. A quick look at the shelves around the phone revealed an old mug, handle broken, stuffed with pens. One lay on the counter nearby, but there was no pad, no corner of an old newspaper, no handy envelopes to write on the back of. Unless he’d taken the only one away with him, of course.
‘You were there when they arrested Sam,’ Campbell said to Flass after a moment. He nodded.
‘Processed him in. He was a bit surprised, but he didn’t kick up too much of a fuss.’
‘So you searched him. Took his phone and stuff.’ She recalled the slim, police-issue plastic bag Barnes had been clutching to his chest just before he’d gone off to his friend’s for the night. They hadn’t really paid it much attention. He’d not been a suspect, after all. Not by then. And it hadn’t occurred to her that Tim might have given him something without Sam realising. Something easily overlooked. Like an envelope.
‘That was the duty sergeant, but I was there. Why?’ Flass asked.
‘Did he have a piece of paper, or and envelope or something in all his other stuff.’
‘I’ve no idea. But I can find out.’ Flass pulled out his phone and called up the station. Campbell looked around the kitchen whilst he spoke, wondered why it hadn’t been trashed like the rest of the place. As if whoever had been turning it over had been interrupted in the middle of the job. But they hadn’t been discovered, and Sam hadn’t turned up whilst they were there, or he’d never have been able to make his call. Unless they’d been given new instructions. Not to catch him, but to follow him. But why now?
‘You’re right.’ Flass broke her train of thought. ‘He had his phone, his wallet, a cotton handkerchief and one pound thirty-six pence in change. And a white envelope. Standard DL size.’
‘Any idea who it was addressed to?’
‘Sarge said he’d written it down, but the admin staff have got the form. He remembers it was somewhere in Wales though. Too many consonants and not enough vowels.’
That cold sensation, like a pint of ice water in the pit of her stomach. Wales. Sam suddenly asking about Tim Prowett. Writing names on the back of an envelope, then turning it over and finally realising what was written on the front. ‘Why have the admin staff got the form?’ she asked.
‘They got a call from your boss about two hours ago, wanting to know the same thing,’ Flass said. ‘He asked us to text him the address.’
The novelty of driving a car that probably cost more than I’d earn in three years soon wore off. It was comfortable, and the high up driving position was everything that people rave about, but it was also highly conspicuous. Or at least I felt that way every time I saw a police car. I nearly drove into the back of other cars more than once, too, as I constantly checked the rear view mirror for following black BMWs. There’s a hell of a lot of them about, as it happens. Common as muck.
Birmingham was a nightmare of slow-moving rush hour traffic, but eventually I made it to the M6 and then the M56. Past Shrewsbury and the Sat-Nav started to send me down ever narrower country lanes, cutting back on itself time and again. Darkness had fallen by now, making it impossible to get my bearings, and the few road signs I did see appeared to be written in a language with no vowels.
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, but was really about four and a half hours, I turned up a single-track lane with tufts of grass growing up through the centre of the tarmac. Close-packed trees lined both sides of the road, looming over the car and merging into the blackness of a cloudy, starless night to make it look like I was travelling down a tunnel.
I missed the opening the first time, and had to turn around in a field entrance. Getting out to open a rusty metal gate with a half-rotten wooden sign on it that read ‘Ysgubor Lan’, I was surprised at how cold it had become. My grubby jacket and filthy shirt gave me little protection against a keen wind that whistled down the track. Climbing back into the Range Rover, I cranked up the heat and drove on, then remembered the countryside code. Always leave gates the way you find them, that’s what our sports teacher had told us when he’d taken us on long rambles through the Essex countryside. So I got out and closed the gate.
The cottage was another half mile up a track that was more pothole than surface. I was glad of the big Range Rover; my own car would have bottomed out in the first fifty yards and left its exhaust behind. There were no lights on, no sign that anyone had been near the place in weeks. I parked in a wide, flat, gravelled area in front of a low stone building set into the hill that rose up behind it. Leaving the headlights on, I switched off the engine and climbed out.
Silence surrounded me, so deep that I thought for a moment I’d gone deaf. Then slowly I began to notice the unusual sounds. The distant roar of wind through the trees further down the hill; the soft gurgling of water over rocks; and every so often the quiet scream of some nocturnal animal. Shivering as much at the unnatural stillness as the cold, I trudged up to the front door and turned the handle. Locked, well at least it was worth a try. I looked around the front of the house for upturned flower pots, strategically placed stones or anywhere else someone might hide a spare key. There were a few likely places, but all were empty. Then I remembered that the man who’d owned this place was a policeman, hardly the type to leave a spare key anywhere obvious.
A stone barn with a corrugated iron roof stood at right angles to the house, forming one side of a small courtyard. It had heavy wooden doors, fixed with a hasp, but the rusty padlock hung open. I stepped inside, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness enough to find a light switch, and flicked it on.
Fluorescent light strobed for long minutes, the tired old tubes banging on and off with a sound that must have echoed right across the valley. Finally they settled down to a steady, loud hum, casting light over a workshop of sorts. There was space for a large car, currently empty, then along the back wall a long workbench with tools neatly hung on a rack. Shelves of boxes held more tools, bits and bobs and the usual rubbish that collects over time if you suffer from too much storage space. A door led through to the other half of the barn, which had been kitted out with an exercise bike, rowing machine and weights. A couple of mountain bikes leant against the far wall. Obviously Tim Prowett had been fit; not that it had done him much good.
I searched around through the various tins and storage boxes on the workbench, looking for a key to the house, but the only useful thing I found was a torch. Opening both doors, I drove my sister’s Range Rover into the barn, then switched off the lights and closed everything up.
Every torch I’ve ever bought has promised much and delivered little. A million candle power might sound a lot, but I’ve usually found that it’s barely enough to see to the end of the garden, and after a couple of minutes the batteries have gone flat. The police must have access to some much better technology. The torch I’d taken from the barn lit up the house and the surrounding land like a lighthouse. Close by, a low round wall encircled a well, the whole thing covered over by a slate roofed frame, complete with bucket and handle. A smaller stone shed, possibly some kind of housing for livestock, I guessed, stood a few yards off to the other side of the track. No fences marked the boundary between garden and the rough grassland beyond, and just at the edge of the torch’s far range I could make out ranks of conifers down hill towards the road. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. No other houses visible, not even a sheep.
A low extension had been built around the back of the house, the narrow gap between it and the steep hillside filled with half a dozen tall orange gas canisters. I peered through a half-glazed back door at a small utility room, tried the handle but it was locked. I was about to pick up a rock and break the window when I noticed a reflection in the glass, looked up and saw a key hanging from a nail in the eaves. It fitted the door, and with a well-oiled twist I was in.
I crept through the kitchen and out into a large open hallway with an inglenook fireplace and bread oven. Presumably this had been the kitchen before the extension had been added. Stairs led up to two bedrooms, one with a large four poster bed in it, the other with two singles. A tiny bathroom sandwiched between them, its ceiling angled into the roof to make standing at the toilet difficult for anyone more than about five feet high. Back downstairs, I found a cosy living room through a rough wooden plank door, and in the far corner beside a cast iron wood-burning stove, sat an antique desk with an elderly computer on it. Alongside that, a small filing cabinet and several boxes of folders looked like the place to start my search for clues, but first I needed to warm myself up.
I switched off the torch as I went back to the kitchen, figuring that there was nobody around for miles, and even if there were, they’d be more concerned by the sight of a torch flickering in the windows than by the solid light that meant someone was at home. I flicked on the kitchen lights and was half way into the room before I noticed a man sitting at the table. One hand at his face, he had just put on a pair of dark glasses, no doubt to shield his eyes from the sudden glare.
My heart stopped. It was Jonno.
‘You’re a hard man to find, Mr Barnes.’
I tried to run, but my feet got tangled around themselves. In my panic, I pushed at the door I’d just moments earlier let swing shut behind me. And the big man was quick, for all his bulk. I felt a hand on my shoulder, ducked and twisted to get away from him. The torch was still in my hand, so I swung it round at him. He caught it, snatched it away from me, threw it across the kitchen. I launched a desperate punch in his direction, catching him on the chin more by chance than any design. I think it probably hurt my hand more than his face, and only pissed him off even more. Idiot that I am, I’d forgotten his reaction to being hit with a spade.
‘I’ve had enough of you,’ he yelled, grabbed my jacket with both hands and threw me after the torch. I must have cleared the kitchen table completely, but my foot caught on the back of one of the chairs. I tried to catch myself, control the fall so that I didn’t break my neck. All I managed to do was wind myself as the chair-back drove itself into my stomach, and pitched me headfirst into the cooker. Dazed and gasping, I barely noticed the back door opening, or the hand on the back of my jacket until it hauled me upwards.
‘Well fuck me. The Old Man was right. He really is as stupid as he looks.’ Mr Crisp stood in the doorway. I had just enough time to see that he was wearing a pair of black leather driving gloves and that he was smiling in an oddly humourless way. Then Jonno spun me around. He wasn’t smiling at all. There was nothing in his face but murder.
‘Don’t kill him just yet, Jonno.’ Mr Crisp pulled off his gloves, folded them neatly and put them in his pocket. ‘We still need to ask him some questions, remember.’
The hatred and murder drained away from the big man’s face, replaced by a look of deepest annoyance. He let go of the front of my jacket and I dropped a few inches to the floor, wincing as something in my back clicked the wrong way. I had just about enough time to take a deep breath before Jonno said: ‘ah, fuck it.’ And then he swung his ham-sized fist into my face.
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