Present day 2015
WHAT a sorry sight, ye olde thatched house. Yet how glorious in the right hands. Half finished jobs everywhere – the pond long overgrown, mounds of rubble and junk dotted all over the once resplendent Victorian garden. Only foxes flourished here.
Littered in and out of the half-rotting eaves squatted the remains of old starling nests that hadn’t been frequented for quite some time. The only indication that the dwelling itself was occupied was the wide open oak doors in the annex and the blast of Radio 2 from behind the red MGB Roadster.
An iron gate wrought with ornate swirls lay in direct sight of the garage, occupying a gap in the surrounding curtain of yew and fir. Beyond that, on the opposite side of a field of dozing cows, was a midnight blue Range Rover. Linen napkins across their laps, the silver-haired driver and his platinum-haired female passenger washed down a basketful of salmon and cucumber sandwiches with a flask of green tea. The vehicle was immaculate bar the remains of a pink and silver Happy Sixtieth party balloon peeping from under the driver’s seat.
For her age, the passenger had the structure and sun-kissed vitality of a much younger woman. Together with the cashmere jumper, khaki padded jacket and blue jeans, she looked more European than English. As for the designer sunglasses, green wellies and soft brown leather shoulderbag, she sported them as one who had worked bloody hard for them. Genteel bolshiness personified.
The same could not be said of her uptight husband, overcoat buttoned up to his chin, hands in pockets, the pallor in his face as that of a near-corpse. If his wife had any notion of him passing for a dead flasher, she kept it to herself.
“Just like the old days, eh, Martin?” The woman elbowed her companion.
“Not quite,” he replied. “Back in the day, you knew your place.”
“Don’t you start that rubbish.”
“You know I’m only joking, darling.”
“No, you’re not. You never got over my promotion.”
Suddenly, Martin took a sharp breath and his eyes widened. His face crumpled, right hand to his chest.
Without hesitation, Erica reached for the glove compartment and broke open a fresh packet of pills. She pulled out the bottle of still water stuffed under her seat and urged her husband to wash it down.
“That’s it. Now breathe. Slowly and gently. In two three, out two three …” She reached across his lap to recline his seat …
* * * * *
THE OWNER of the house was back in view. He looked purposeful in rearranging his workshop, well equipped for the loving restoration of an old motor, if not for the house. He disappeared behind the polished open boot with a dirty green jerry can.
The lowered window on the passenger side allowed the couple in the Range Rover a clear long view of the comings and goings. At such a distance, surely the man could not know that he was being observed. It was Erica’s turn to hold the binoculars.
“What’s he doing?” asked Martin.
“I don’t know. See for yourself.” Erica handed the binoculars to her husband.
As he held them level with his eyes, the rest of his face screwed up. “It might help if you adjust the focus, darling. I can’t see a thing either.”
“It was fine for me. I could see perfectly clearly, thank you very much. I meant I just can’t tell what he’s up to. Have you ever considered it’s you who needs your eyes tested?”
”He’s been acting oddly for days. The penny must have dropped by now.”
“That’s if it’s still there. Here, let me have another shot.”
Handing Erica the binoculars, Martin was smug. “Oh, it’s still there all right. Listen.”
Silence bar the sway of flora in the summer breeze.
“What am I looking for?” whispered Erica. “I can’t hear anything.”
“THEY THINK it’s most probably Viking,” said the gaunt-looking man in the wheelchair. Some kind of battle reliquary. Like the one they used at Bannockburn but much older …”
Between him and the two wing-backed leather chairs opposite him was a circular coffee table, on it a three by two by two foot wooden crate with a ream of documents taped to its rear. Martin and Erica were transfixed.
“You’ve done your homework, Peter. You’ve become quite the academic.”
Peter shifted his weight. “It was never my thing. But, well, when you dig up something like that in the middle of our own field, it grips you … it changes your life … forever …”
“I’d still love to know how it got there. The Egyptian design, I mean, that just defies the known historical record.” Martin formed his hands into a pyramid, his index fingers flicking the tip of his nose.
Erica laughed. “Martin has always been a sucker for a good mystery. Especially now that we’ve got too much time on our hands.”
Peter cleared his throat. “It’s scheduled for auction at Christies. In four weeks.”
“And the valuation? How much?”
“Two hundred thou. Usual rules. Maybe more, maybe less. The media circus alone …”
“And you’re only asking ninety.” It was neither a question nor a statement.
Martin scratched his brow. He and his wife exchanged glances. “Peter, I have to ask. You could wait and get a better deal through the auction house …”
“Thing is, Martin, I need the money. I need the money now.”
“Yes, I suppose. I was so very sorry to hear about your herd. On top of everything else …”
Erica reached across to take Peter’s hand. “If there’s anything else we can do to help, you will let us know, won’t you? Don’t be proud.”
“I think he’s past that, don’t you, dear?” sniped Martin.
Just as she whipped her hand away, Erica shot a barbed glance at her husband.
“Right then.” Martin cleared his throat. “If you’re absolutely sure. So how do you want to do this? I’d feel more comfortable doing this through a solicitor.”
“No solicitors, Martin.” A dewy glaze had appeared across his brow. “Under normal circumstances, yes, but I just don’t have the time. There’s nothing illegal here, you know that, don’t you? I have all the paperwork. Carbon dating, full report from the British Museum, the Christies valuation, the lot.”
“I don’t doubt you for one moment, Peter. But I just feel, well, like I’m taking advantage.”
“I appreciate that, Martin, but I know what I’m doing and, believe you me, you are not taking advantage. As long as it’s paid by bank transfer, it’s all traceable and above board. You’re more than welcome to make money on it. In fact, I think you damn well should.”
* * * * *
THE study was more of a museum. Between the two tall Georgian windows and extending into the corners, glazed display cabinets lined every inch of south-facing wall. The room was painted in dark earthy colours to strict Georgian specifications, thus sparing Martin and Erica’s expertly-housed collection of antiquities the glare of the sun’s rays. The grand gilt-framed oil on canvas paintings adorning the other three walls gave the place an ancestral aura.
“Over a bit. Just a tad to the left.”
The man with the white Mickey Mouse gloves teased what most resembled a rustic jewellery box into its new resting place. Despite Martin’s attempts to get him to take his time, the man’s obsessive compulsiveness was tempered by an even more obvious need to return to the auction house sooner rather than later. Still, his placement of the ancient casket in the most central display cabinet was exemplary, its understated yet hypnotic allure only enhanced by the soft backlight.
Tarnished silver, its tetrahedral lid was adorned by bossed rings in the form of serpents coiled around blue gemstones; two winged jackals graced each of the sides. Inscribed into the gold-piped trim around all the edges were eerie hieroglyphs, unintelligible to the uninitiated; the chunky hasp bridging above and below was a crust of green bronze.
The new owner was high with excitement. No sooner had he closed the door behind his visitor, he lingered to admire his prize. A frantic spider scuttled away from the display area and along the inside ledge of the slightly open window. Before Martin could despatch the intruder, it was up, over and gone.
* * * * *
ERICA looked elegant in her Roaring Twenties outfit, while Martin did his best to resemble Cary Grant. In comparison most of the guests were underdressed for such an occasion. Peter and his wife pulling out at the last minute did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm. A cluster had formed around the star of the show.
“We’ve decided not to sell it at auction,” Erica declared. “To keep it as an investment instead. For the future.”
“Fantastic idea,” replied one of the guests. “With your police pension and the income from your yoga classes, you can afford to sit tight. To think this time last year you were fighting through mountains of red tape just to get the bad guys. Do you not miss the Force?”
“No, not really,” Erica replied. “I prefer working for myself.”
The top-up arrived in good time for another champagne toast. The guest raised her glass.
“To good fortune then.”
A collective murmur. “Good fortune.”
Just then a flurry of movement outside the huddle caused them to turn away from the display cabinet. A blingy lady with faded copper hair appeared as if out of nowhere.
“Teresa,” exclaimed Erica, “you made it.”
Two kisses on the cheek – mwah, mwah.
“Eventually. The traffic was terrible. In fact, if I had paid any attention to my daily horoscope, I really shouldn’t have got out of bed.”
More mwahs all round.
“So, where is it then?” Teresa continued. “Let me at it.”
“You can’t touch it, mind,” warned Erica. “You’ll just have to tune in.”
Depositing her glass on a nearby table, Erica placed her hands over her friend’s eyes. Once she had manoeuvered her into position, she dropped her hands. “Tah dah!”
The resulting anti-climax was a sure sign to Erica that something was amiss. Aside from Teresa’s face taking on a ghastly hue, it was out of character for her friend’s hands to remain inanimate for so long.
“Teresa?” Not a cheep or a flicker. “Teresa?”
Rigid. Then a whisper. “Get me out of here. Now.”
Present day 2015
THE tea was cold but drinkable. Just.
“I still can’t help wondering if we’ve got this all wrong, you know. Maybe this whole thing has just been one big coincidence.” Martin polished off the last drop.
“Yeah right. With odds of like fifty trillion to one.” Erica took the flask only to discover it was empty. “Martin, we were trained to go where the evidence takes us. And this is where it goes. Just because we can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it can’t be. After everything we’ve been through, how can you deny it?”
“I’m not denying it, I just think, well, we might be missing something that might explain it better.”
“Let’s see. Muttley getting run over the day of the auction, the burglary while we were in the Cote d’Azur, even by the time we got swindled by that hole of a financial adviser. All that in six months. Then the –“
“You can stop now.”
“No, I won’t. You’ve heard the word often enough. Your cancer diagnosis, the summer we thought our house was going to disappear down a mineshaft, that freak accident that left Danny paralyzed. Oh, and then that bloody Sean Harrison investigation. And the civil lawsuit. Then both of us getting dropped like a hot brick by every man and his dog. And my dystonia. That’s only what I can remember.”
Long pause. Then “So why did you stay?”
Silence again. “I don’t know.”
“You could have got out. Even when I had to declare bankruptcy and we had to sell the house, you stayed. Why?”
“I said – I don’t know.” Erica wound down the window. “Listen, if we’re barking up the wrong tree, then explain that crank call.”
“I don’t remember any crank call.”
“Yes, you do. You’ve just chosen to forget it. The one in 2010 who kept banging on about Peter stitching us up. The one that got us to start digging.”
2010 – 2014
EVEN WITH the resale of such a famous relic back in the public eye, nobody paid much notice at first to the understated couple at the back, both of them paperlike and in need of a good deodorant, if not a decent meal. And caught up in her own wee world, Erica was oblivious to the collective gasp as the final bid surpassed all expectations.
Martin was the first to snap out of it, if only to get them both out of the path of a swarm of photographers and into the nearest taxi. No wonder the identity of the telephone buyer was so very hush hush.
Martin wrapped his fingers around his wife’s. “That’s us done with antiquities. Last one. We can get our lives back now. I’ll let you break the news to Danny.”
“No, you do it,” Erica replied. “I can’t stop shaking.”
“Where to?” asked the driver.
“The Royal Eastern, please,” replied Martin. “Ward Eighteen. And lose the tail.”
Erica managed a smile. “You always wanted to say that.”
* * * * *
THE FIRST thing Erica noticed when she entered the day room was his aura. Deep in reflection by the bay window, Danny seemed almost gladiatorial in his souped up chariot. But for all his upper body strength, there was no escaping cold hard reality. Despite his great progress these past few weeks, his legs still dangled. Lifeless. Aimless.
Yet today felt different. And his eyes were more alive than they were yesterday. Erica dared not indulge her breaking state of excitement.
When the first thing the physio did on arrival was exchange glances with her patient, Erica knew. The physio tilted her head in an almost imperceptible nod.
Danny took his mother’s hand. “Mum, I have something to show you.”
And then it happened. So surreal that one minute he was pinned to that goddammed wheelchair then the next standing before her. Wobbly yes, but standing nonetheless. Standing. Standing. Erica’s legs buckled.
It was Danny that caught her. Scared she would push him over, it took several seconds for her to realise that her paralysed son was keeping her off the floor then relax into a long tearful hug.
Danny wiped his face. “Well, I guess that’s that then. So much for the Paralympics.”
* * * * *
TWO MEN sat at a bar, one Martin, the other an old school friend, who also happened to be his solicitor. Word on the street was that Sean Harrison had dropped his civil action.
Martin was more bewitched by the reflection in his fifth glass of port than ecstatic. “You know, Harry, I think with the benefit of hindsight, I was in too much of a hurry to retire.”
His friend bristled. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe I did withhold evidence. Maybe I knew the conviction was false.”
Harry gripped his friend’s wrist. “Martin, let’s get you home.”
“Not consciously, but deep down.”
“It’s a bit late in the day for that now. Come on, home.”
* * * * *
THE PRESS conference was to be televised on the regional news. Although his reinstatement as Federation Chairman was already old news by about two days, until the formal public apology was forthcoming, Martin would not put it past the buggers to stitch him up again. Erica was sick of him saying as much.
All morning, Martin busied himself trying to fix the lawnmower, Erica all the while phoning everybody she could think of just to stop dwelling. The final vindication, when it came, was over and done with almost in the blink of an eye.
Even before they had a chance to digest the climax of the news report, Martin and Erica heard a loud familiar clunk from the front door. Deefer, the dandy fox terrier, got there first and snapped at the brown envelope peeking through the letterbox. By the time Martin rescued the letter, it was soggy and chewed to pieces. Only after drying it out and painstakingly sellotaping it together were they able to register its contents. Test results negative, it said. Full remission confirmed.
For the first time in nearly three days, Erica heaved a battery of racking wet sobs. Martin drew her to his chest in a fumbling attempt to console her.
“Hush now,” he whispered. “It’s finished. All over. We can get on with the rest of our lives now.”
* * * * *
“GET the door, dear, will you. I’m covered in paint.”
“Yes, dear.” Erica rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say. Dear.”
Another frantic ring just as Erica opened the front door. It was Teresa, white as a sheet. Into the living room she charged, cursing that the days when they had a personal bar were long gone. Erica eased her friend onto the settee and took her hand.
“I knew it,” Teresa babbled. “I just knew it. Should have flung it in the ocean like I said. Another one ruined.”
“You’re making no sense, Teresa. Slow down. Breathe.”
“Okay, okay …” Deep breath. And another. And another. “Yesterday I got a phone call from a guy called Harrison Miles … A friend of mine knows him … He wanted me to do a feng shui audit of his house … the one on Ravenden Hill with the big swirly gates … Urgently, he said … And he was willing to pay extra if I could do it today … So I did.”
Another deep breath, more of a near choke.
“And then what?”
“Well, that’s when I saw it.”
“Why, the box, of course. You remember, don’t you? The one you sold him.”
Present day 2015
“I THINK this might be the wrong house.”
“No, this is definitely the right one.”
“Then where the hell is it?”
“I don’t know, I can’t see a thing in the dark. He must have moved it.”
“That’s all we need. Let’s get out of here. I have a bad feeling about this.”
“What was that?”
“It sounded like …”
On the about turn, Martin and Erica found themselves staring as rabbits into the flashlit barrel of a sawn-off shotgun.
* * * * *
Martin woke with a loud snort. For a moment he forgot where he was but it was fleeting – he would have realised yet again that he was unable to move. From the angle of the rising sun, it must have been about eight thirty. Whoever had tied them to the two wooden dining chairs had done a thorough job; the stink of brand new duct tape and diesel hung in the air. From their position relative to the window, they both caught sight of the owner, still lugging that damned jerry can. Even with the window tight shut, the Rolling Stones reverberated from the garage. Rough Justice …
Just as the ramifications sunk in, a door slammed. Within seconds, the two prisoners were face to face with their captor. With his left hand he pulled from behind his back a garden variety kitchen knife; the other wielded a professional grade meat cleaver.
Knowing that any physical exertion would be in vain and that their screams would never be heard above the beat, Martin and Erica still made one more futile attempt to free themselves. But the knifeman was in no hurry to finish them off just yet – he disappeared through an arch into the neighbouring study. The sound of dragging … a luggage zipper … silence … more dragging … then the hideous grate of titanium on stainless steel, slow and excruciating …
“… We all need someone we can feel on, yeah …” sang Jagger. “. And if you want it, you can feel on me, hey … take my arm, take my leg … oh baby, don’t you take my head …”
* * * * *
“SO THIS is it then,” whispered Erica.
“What do you mean?” her husband whispered back.
“Don’t be so dense.” Scrape. “We’re going to die.”
“No-one’s going to die.”
“You never change. Always in denial.” Erica’s tone was acidic. “Tell me, Martin, if you had known that I wasn’t going to leave the Force to start a family, would you ever have married me in the first place?”
Her husband’s reply was sombre as well as muted. “Of course I would.”
“Liar,” she hissed. “You resented my achievements. I was never submissive enough for you.”
Silence. Then a dam of tears, overlaid with a loud high-pitched jar. Racking sobs. Martin struggled – hell, both could not break.
“I know I don’t always show it … but I am proud of you, you know.”
Another grinding sound and more sobs.
“I thought at first your teaching yoga was a waste of time … But I think without it, neither of us would have got through these last years … And I couldn’t have made it this far at all without you.”
“I suppose if I’m honest, I envy you just a little.”
More sniffles. Another grate of blade on blade.
“But I don’t resent it. Maybe back then but not now.”
“I said, love me, hold me, love me, hold me ..” Erica hummed along to the track playing outside.
“Oh, what the hell?” uttered Martin.
Now both. “Cos I’m free to do what I want, any old time …”
* * * * *
HE WAS back. Any pretense of positivity evaporated in an instant. The man flicked the cleaver blade into a burgeon of sunlight before carrying on where he left off. Only this time he planted himself in full view astride a rickety dining room chair.
Erica blurted “We were only trying to make things right.”
Martin piled in. “We wanted to make sure you got your money back on the insurance.”
The grinding came to an abrupt halt.
“Run that past me again.”
The break in the man’s silence startled Erica. “The reliquary you bought from us, we wanted to make amends.”
The man’s shock looked genuine; he took several moments to regain his composure. “So that’s the only reason you’re here …” More statement than question.
“Well, yes,” she said, “I mean, what other reason could there be?”
“So you don’t know who I am?”
“Of course I do. You’re a writer. Harrison Miles.”
“Yes and no. If you’d done your research properly, you’d know that I changed my name.”
Erica and Martin exchanged recriminating glances.
“In 2000 I was sent to prison for something I didn’t do. My wife left me and my construction business went bust …”
Satisfied that realisation was sinking in, Harrison took his time to savour the revelation. “In 2006 I got a generous compensation package … and for a while I managed to get my life back … I started a new career as a writer …“
Every ounce of colour drained from Martin’s face.
“Then four years later I bought your damned godforsaken box …” Harrison’s face hardened. “I only dropped the lawsuit because with all the stress I was under, I was too ill to pursue it. And nearly broke. Again.”
Erica was already fixated on her husband, who looked like he had been punched in the gut. An inbreath stuck in the back of his throat.
“I beg you,” pleaded Erica. “He needs his medication.”
“Where?” was the gruff reply.
“Inside my jacket. Top pocket.”
Harrison rummaged for the pills then fetched a glass of water, which he administered to Martin like a pro. Then he took a Stanley knife from his back pocket and leaned over Erica with intent so menacing that she squeezed her eyes tight and gasped “No. Please. I beg you.”
Harrison could contain himself no longer. As he sheared through the duct tape around the helpless duo, he wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t laugh. You two are just too funny.”
Straightening his facial expression, he pulled Martin’s arm around the back of his neck to ease him into a more comfortable chair in the adjoining room.
To Erica he said “You sort him out while I stick the kettle on.”
* * * * *
“SO WHAT is it you write about?” asked Martin, sufficiently recovered from his episode to converse. “Fiction? Non-fiction?”
“Nah, mostly self-help books,” Harrison replied.
“Oh, that figures. Self-help books about what?”
“I’m a life doctor, Sherlock. Not much of a detective, are you?”
Harrison tapped 111 into his mobile keypad and waited for the answer.
“Now shut up, will you.”
Minutes later, “… Yup … yup. We’re on our way …”
* * * * *
JUST as the little red Roadster spun the stones off the driveway, Martin and Erica giggling in the back seat, only Harrison paid any attention to the rear view mirror. There was someone by the garage. The surly young man with the hooded sweatshirt threw a cigarette butt to the ground.
“Good lad,” Harrison mouthed. “Now run.”
From the rear speakers, the Rolling Stones’ Hand of Fate … “I hear the hounds, my luck is up, my chips are down … so goodbye baby, so long now, wish me luck …”
Once past the gate, knuckles tight to the wheel, not even Harrison could see the house through the bare trees without taking his eyes off the road. Instead, he would have had to console himself with the mere imagining of the sudden fireball where once had stood a shed.