Main A Thoughtful Woman

A Thoughtful Woman

They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but where's the fun in that? Artist Sally Mellors has planned the perfect revenge, but with two secret agents on her tail, and her best friends running the police investigation, getting away with murder is going to be tricky... Everybody loves Sally. She's a funny, generous, warm hearted friend, without a nasty bone in her body. Isn't she? Unknown to her friends, Sally's discovered another side to herself, cool headed and relentless, as she hunts down the three men who killed her husband. But Sally's not the only one with an interest in the trio. Unknown to her, two agents have arrived in town, urgently hunting a missing man and his diary, which could blow their organisation apart. Their best leads are the very men that Sally's hunting, and she's getting in the way...  The inspiration behind A Thoughtful Woman. The justice system is an intriguing beast. We expect it to be fair, which is why we allow it to resolve our disputes instead of simply taking revenge ourselves, but watch an individual case play out in court and it can seem more like a high stakes game between lawyers than the pursuit of absolute truth. And if you think it's a game, do you still accept the result if you lose? Is that still justice? At what point will a perfectly normal, perfectly decent person snap, and what happens when they do? Is it possible to plunge into the darkness of revenge and remain the normal, decent happy person you were before you started? Sally Mellors is about to find out.
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A Thoughtful Woman



K.T. Findlay





Contents





Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Preface

Maps

1 The limits of forgiveness

2 Baby steps

3 A little knowledge

4 A lunch with spice

5 Preparing the ground

6 Your carriage awaits

7 Miss Helen’s World

8 Prepping the prey

9 Points on the board

10 Here’s looking at you kid

11 Points of view

12 People of interest

13 A slippery customer

14 Two or three?

15 The guts of the matter

16 Now that’s a bit different

17 Last man standing

18 Going over old ground

19 Ground cover

20 Bobbing around

21 Time to go

22 All kitted up

23 View halloa

24 The run for home

25 Tightening the net

26 Reviewing the situation

27 Playing around

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Also By K.T. Findlay

AUTHOR Website





Copyright © 2019 K.T. Findlay

All rights reserved.



This is a work of fiction.

All characters, locations and events are fictitious

products of the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons,

living or dead, is entirely coincidental.





To the fabulous group of people who helped me make this journey.





Preface




This story is set in the late 1980s, when the personal computer was still far too expensive to be on everyone’s desk. Hardly anyone used email, the mobile phone was heavy, bulky and rare, and the smartphone appeared only in science fiction novels. The police computer systems had nothing like the kinds of processing power and databases they have access to today, and while DNA testing was already being used, it was far from the mainstream tool it has become.

Solving crime in the eighties depends on experience, insight and wits to make the most of whatever the police can find. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Peregrin McEwan has all of that in spades. Unfortunately, so does his opponent. The slightest mistake by either, could decide the outcome.





Maps



(More available at www.ktfindlay.com)

Throcking Countryside Map Key

A – Widow Maker track – upper

B – Bleak Road

C – Emma’s House

D – Heaven’s Spur

E.- Widow Maker’s track – lower

F – Drunkard’s Lane

G – Throcking Castle

H – Sally’s house

I – Peregrin’s House

J – Bob Harland’s House

K – Elbow Lane





Throcking Detailed Map Key

a – Helen’s house b – Helen’s dungeon c – Cutty Sark Café d – Emma’s house e – Beck Pool / Widow Maker f – Flying fox

g – Sky road bridge h – Holmes’s house i – Throcking Castle j – Sally’s house k – Thomlinson’s house l – Police Station m – Hospital

n – Felicity’s house o – Peregrin’s house p – Alison’s house





1 The limits of forgiveness




A fireball bursting through the driver’s window was pretty much what she’d expected from half a pint of petrol. That the blast might also be enough to blow open the unlatched door and engulf her in flames at the rear of the car, hadn’t occurred to her at all.

Fortunately for Sally, the flash fire was both brief and slightly off target, leaving her shocked but unscathed. It gave the pursuing policeman a chance to further close the gap, but he was still two hundred yards away when she reached the top of the platform. She retrieved the key from the fine chain around her neck, undid the padlock to the flying fox and slipped it back down her top. The whole platform shook as the officer threw himself up the stairs but she was already hanging from the pulley, drifting out towards the edge of the platform. She wasn’t quite clear of it when she heard him reach the top and leap towards her.

‘Got you!’ he cried, and she cringed, expecting his hand on her coat at any second, but unbelievably she drifted free, his fingers missing her by inches.

‘Blast!’ he swore. ‘You can’t get away! We’ll have you sealed off!’ he shouted after her now rapidly accelerating back. Then he noticed a trail of smoke coming from the bottom right hand corner of her coat as it flapped in the wind. Something from the Mini must have blown onto it when she’d set it alight. As he watched, a lick of flame appeared amidst the smoke, growing larger as she picked up speed.

Sally felt the heat of the flame intensify, but needing both hands to cling to the handset, she faced a stark choice, burn, or let go and fall the fifty feet to the river bed below. It had been two years since she’d first met Emma and convinced her to join her quest for revenge. Was it really going to end like this?

◆◆◆

‘So what happened?’ asked Freddy, taking a sip of his coffee.

‘She fell, smashed to bits on the rocks. February eighth 1984. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years now.’ replied James.

Freddy shook his head sadly. ‘Well, I hope it was quick.’

James added another spoonful of sugar to his tea and thanked the waitress for his freshly made scone. ‘It was. She died instantly apparently.’ He looked pensive for a moment, envisioning the past. ‘What I never figured out is why he did it! I mean I thought they were happy together. She was a nice woman, and a real looker.’

‘You’re certain he killed her? He got off the charge.’ asked Freddy.

James nodded slowly. ‘Oh yes, he told me so himself, after the trial was over. He just never said why.’

‘And you’re certain that he really did arrange a hit on the witness?’ Freddy continued.

‘Graham Mellors? Yeah, he did that too. He arranged it through his lawyer, the one we’re seeing tonight. The poor bugger was just walking on the beach minding his own business and probably didn’t see a thing. I think Terry was just being paranoid.’

Freddy raised his cup to hide the contempt on his face. ‘Sounds like Terry.’

James glared at him. ‘It kept the man alive!’

‘It’s also why he wrote down everything he knew about the agents he was working with, for insurance he said. He was always one for the insurance our Terry. Maybe he just killed Carol for the pay out. Did you ever think of that?’

James glared at him. ‘Terry and Carol Walker were my friends! You didn’t really know him! He’d never have done something like that!’

The rest of the café’s clientele were staring at them now and Freddy raised his hand slightly off the table to calm his colleague. ‘Remember where we are James. We’re supposed to be ramblers, exploring the area, not a pair of conspiracy theorists writing a book. Calm down for goodness sake.’ James scowled at him but Freddy persisted. ‘We need to find out what happened to him, but not because he was your friend. We need to get that document back or more than a dozen agents could be toast, including us. The fact that he’s your friend can help us, or it can hinder us. Your choice.’ He took another sip of coffee before tackling his chocolate cake.

James begrudgingly gave him a nod. ‘Right. Okay, where do you want to start?’

Freddy pointed out the window. ‘At Coveton, where Carol fell off the cliff. It’s a good walk up the coast to the west. I reckon we can get there and back before it gets dark. Mrs Hinchcliffe at the BnB thought it was doable by a couple of fit young lads like us.’

James gave a sardonic laugh. ‘You want to watch that one mate. I reckon she’s got her eye on you. Young? Huh! You’re in your forties!’

They finished their late lunch and left the Cutty Sark café. James was first out and Freddy caught him staring at a car turning into a side road to head up the hill. ‘What’s up?’ he asked.

James removed his tongue from his cheek. ‘It’s a funny old world. That was Graham Mellor’s widow.’

◆◆◆

It was one of those moments when everything in Emma’s garden conspired to create perfection. A luxurious spring sun gently warmed her back, the early flowers perfumed the air, and to accompany the birdsong, the birch leaves shimmered and chattered gently in the sparkling clean sea breeze. The whole world breathed with life, and a quiet determination to get on with things.

Which was for the most part almost completely wasted on her. What really mattered was the furnace of rage roaring inside, consuming mind, body and soul. Her fists opened and clenched, the only visible sign of the tension that rippled up her arms and into her shoulders, before spearing down through her heart and guts. Huge sobs burst from her throat with such force that she struggled to breathe. A vision of her George, smiling and waving goodbye, not knowing it was to be the last time, was replaced by the sight of his killer punching the air in victory, as the not guilty verdict was read out in court that very morning.

She could see the delighted lawyer, grinning broadly as he shook the victor’s hand. Another game won.

‘You bastards!’ she shrieked at the top of her voice, her eyes clenched tight, face turned to the heavens, mouth open so far it hurt.

‘You bastards.’ she gasped more quietly, as the sobs returned and robbed her even of the ability to scream her despair.

The tears burst afresh, and in frustration she collapsed to her knees, her arms clutching herself in a desperate hug, as if George was still there holding her tight. ‘You bloody bastards.’ she whispered to herself, as the spasms in her chest refused to let her refill her lungs.

For a full minute she just rocked gently back and forth on her knees, still hugging herself as hard as she could, silently letting the tears course down her cheeks and onto the grass.

Slowly she became aware of a presence.

A woman’s shoes walked quietly past on her left side, towards the patio table. She heard the clunks and clinks as bottles and glasses were put down, and the gentle scrape of a chair being pulled out to allow the woman to sit.

At last she managed to regain enough control to partly uncurl, look up at her visitor and say ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’

‘My name’s Sally Mellors.’ said the slim, thirty something brunette. ‘I thought you might need a stiff drink.’

Emma’s face added a layer of bewilderment to the cavalcade of emotions already in play. ‘Who? What?’ she spluttered.

Sally reached down into her willow basket and pulled out a lemon, a wooden chopping board, and a small knife. ‘I was in court this morning, specifically to watch your case. Have you tried this new Bombay Sapphire gin? It’s exquisite.’

Emma twitched her head in frustration. ‘Why were you watching George’s case?’

Sally carefully shaved some zest off the lemons and added it to the pair of glasses in front of her. ‘It’s a very personal case of déjà vu. A single to start?’ she asked, breaking the seal on the beautiful blue glass bottle. ‘The father of the drunk who killed your husband killed mine, in a road accident three years ago. He was drunk as well.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ whispered Emma.

Sally nodded her head as she measured out the gin. ‘That’s why I’m here. I’m sorry too.’ There was a loud hiss as Sally unscrewed the lid off the tonic water. ‘And I knew what you’d be going through. Here you are.’ she said, carrying both glasses across the lawn.

Emma took one, and attempting a desperate smile through the tears, clinked it gently against Sally’s.

‘Absent friends.’ she said, and drained it in one.

Sally gently patted her shoulder, took the empty glass and went back to the table to make her another one. She reached down into the basket again.

‘I’ve brought pate, cheese and crackers if you’d like something to eat with it?’ she asked.

Emma nodded again, and heaving a heavy sigh, dragged herself back to her feet. ‘That would be nice.’ she said, as she slumped down into the other garden chair. ‘I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.’

Sally smiled and offered her a cracker with brie. ‘Thought not. Where are your sons? I’m a bit surprised they’ve left you on your own this afternoon.’

Emma nibbled at the cracker. ‘They’re just out for a while, getting us something to drink. It’s okay. I actually wanted a little time away from them, so I didn’t have to…’

‘Keep putting a brave face on it. I know. Well you don’t need to do that with me. Just let rip whenever you feel like it.’ said Sally handing over another couple of crackers.

‘I live over there on the outskirts of Throcking.’ she said pointing east across the Sky river valley. ‘You can see it from here, that renovated farmhouse above the main road. I’m an artist now. I took it up seriously after Graham was killed. It helped me to process things.’

Emma stared at her. ‘How long before the pain stops?’ she pleaded.

Sally kept looking across the valley. ‘No idea. Mine’s still there, and the rage. Everyone’s different. I guess it depends how much you’re prepared to let things go.’

‘Isn’t it better to forgive and forget, if only for your own sake?’ asked Emma.

Sally shrugged. ‘Again, it depends. If you’re just going to fume, but not actually do anything, then yeah, that’s dumb. Better to let it go. But, if you’re really prepared to seek revenge…’

Emma’s face hardened, and she became more focussed. ‘If I ran Bob Harland over then I’d go to jail myself. What’s the use in that? Perhaps I can appeal and take him back to court, but that’s about it.’

Sally shook her head emphatically. ‘The courts are a legal system darling. They don’t do justice. You saw that for yourself this morning. If you want justice, there’s just us.’

‘So what do I do?’ asked Emma.

Sally looked at her thoughtfully. ‘Imagine the courts had handed Bob Harland over to you, trussed like a turkey and said you could do anything you wanted to him. What would you do?’

Emma’s face creased up in fury. ‘I’d ram my carving knife through his chest!’

Sally laughed. ‘That’s a bit quick isn’t it?’

‘What do you mean?’ Emma shot back.

‘You’re hurting, I mean really hurting. I heard the noises you were making when I arrived. Don’t you want him to feel something too?’

Emma leapt to her feet, and started to walk around, aggression pouring out of her. Her right hand shot out, fingers spread, but curved and strong like a claw. ‘Yes! I want to scratch his eyes out!’

‘And…’ Sally said softly.

‘I want to shred him! Cripple him! Throw him down a hole, and watch the bastard rot!’ Emma snarled out the words, dispelling her excess energy through twists and turns on the patio, her fists clenched tight. ‘I want to be there at the end, to watch the life and hope drain from his ugly, useless face, and savour the last, final flicker in his eyes!’

‘There you go,’ said Sally slowly, ‘much more creative!’

She sat up, and pulled a bottle of soda water from the basket. ‘But,’ she said, ‘the court didn’t give him to you, so what can you really do?’

Emma slumped back into her chair. ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ she said sadly.

‘Really?’ asked Sally, handing her a soda and lemon.

Emma glared at her. ‘Not if I want to stay out of jail!’

Sally nodded. ‘Ah, and there it is, the real reason. If you really thought we could get away with it, would you at least consider taking your revenge?’

Emma thought for a moment. ‘Yes.’ she nodded. ‘Yes I would!’

A second thought struck her. ‘What do you mean “we”?’

Sally smiled. ‘Well, we have a lot in common. Husbands killed by father and son drunks, evidence falsified by the same cop, the same smart-arse lying lawyer –’

‘Whoa!’ cried Emma. ‘What are you talking about? What about the cop and the lawyer?’

‘Well Thomlinson, the cop who attended both crashes, is under investigation. My friend in the police thinks he deliberately lost the blood test taken at Graham’s crash to force a later one to replace it, which of course showed a lower reading. He reckons the same stunt might have been pulled this time too. Well, Peregrin couldn’t actually say that out loud, but it’s why he was there today, observing, as he put it.’ Sally took another sip. ‘Oh that’s refreshing! Almost as nice as the gin.’

‘Who’s Peregrin?’

‘Detective Inspector Peregrin McEwan, one of my very best friends.’

‘Your best friend’s a cop?’

Sally laughed. ‘What’s so strange about that? He’s a really great guy! Now, Holmes, the lawyer, he told the judge that George’s accident was simply a matter of oil on the road, hidden by the rain. He didn’t provide any evidence to support it, and conveniently, Thomlinson hadn’t checked, but it convinced the judge enough to let Bob go. Right?’

Emma nodded.

Sally took another sip. ‘What the judge seems to have forgotten is that Holmes and Thomlinson played the exact same trick three years ago to get Dick Harland acquitted of killing Graham.’

Emma gasped. ‘You think they rigged it between them?’

Sally nodded. ‘Absolutely. Throw in the swapped blood samples and it’s way beyond coincidence.’

‘That’s unforgivable!’ cried Emma.

Sally took another sip of her gin. ‘Yep, but it worked. Now, the question is, what do you want to do about it? Do you want to hit back, or do you want to let it slide?’

‘Hit back of course, but I don’t want to go to jail!’ said Emma firmly.

Sally nodded. ‘Me neither, so unless we’re positive we’re going to get away with it, we do nothing. Agreed?’

Emma nodded again.

‘Our second problem,’ Sally continued, ‘is how to catch them.’ She took another sip and smiled at Emma. ‘That’s going to be a lot harder than actually killing them.’

Emma screwed up her face. ‘Do we have to kill them? It sounds awfully extreme.’

‘And throwing Bob’s mangled body down a hole so you can watch it rot isn’t?’ laughed Sally.

‘But that was just fantasy Sally! You’re talking about actually doing it!’ cried Emma.

Sally pursed her lips as if in thought. ‘Well I guess we could leave them alive, but it’ll massively increase the chances of getting caught if they can talk about it afterwards.’

Emma held both her hands up in front of her. ‘You’re moving too fast for me Sally, I can’t commit to this. I need more time to think.’

Sally nodded. ‘That’s no trouble. It’s going to take a while to plan things out anyway, and we need to let a bit of time go by to let everyone else believe that we’ve moved on. We can have loads of fun figuring out how to pull it off, and you can call a halt whenever you want to. Perhaps knowing you could kill them whenever you felt like it might be enough for you, to hold that power but not use it. How does that sound?’

Emma nodded in relief. ‘That sounds much better! So it’ll be like playing a game then?’

Sally laughed. ‘Exactly!’

Emma raised her glass. ‘Sounds great to me! When do we start?’

Sally clinked her own glass against Emma’s. ‘We already have!’

◆◆◆

‘Hello Perry! You’re home early.’ said Hilary. ‘Quiet day?’

Peregrin McEwan slid open the kitchen ranch slider and stepped out onto the deck. ‘Greetings beloved wife. Sort of quiet I guess. Hello Alison, did you two enjoy your golf this afternoon?’

Alison Falconer, friend, neighbour and landlord raised her martini. ‘Well I certainly did. I won for a change!’

‘You deserved it.’ admitted Hilary. ‘You’ve never been so good off the tee before. Do anything interesting today Perry?’ she asked, pouring him a brandy and ginger ale.

Peregrin eased himself down into his deckchair recliner and gratefully accepted his drink. ‘Ta muchly. I spent the morning in court, observing a drunk driver case.’

‘Observing?’ asked Hilary. ‘I thought you lot were short handed as usual? How’d you get the time off to observe a trivial thing like that?’

Peregrin took a long, slow sip. ‘It wasn’t so trivial. It was Bob Harland’s trial.’

‘Was Sally there?’ asked Alison instantly.

‘My, you’re quick! You should be a police officer with a mind like that. Yes, Sally was there.’ He took another thoughtful sip.

‘That’s a pity. I thought she’d managed to let Graham’s death go.’ said Alison sadly.

‘Be fair Alison. Dick Harland is Bob’s father. It’s not surprising she’d be interested.’ said Peregrin. ‘It was a bit surreal to be honest, because Holmes and Thomlinson were both involved as well.’

‘Ah. So that’s who you were observing.’ said Hilary, nodding gently. ‘And?’

‘I think we might have him this time. He’s been a bit careless.’ replied Peregrin.

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Alison.

Peregrin looked at her over the top of his glass. ‘I can’t really say much more than that I’m afraid.’

Alison rolled her eyes. ‘Oh come on! Holmes is my solicitor! I need to know if he’s been up to no good.’

‘It isn’t Holmes I’m talking about.’ said Peregrin quickly, before trying to divert Alison’s focus. ‘After the not guilty verdict, Bob Harland made a couple of smart arse comments to the victim’s widow, and her two sons just went for him. Inside the court!’

Hilary laughed. ‘What! Did they get him?’

‘Nah. Security got between them and calmed it all down. Tell you what though, it shook the Harlands to the core. I reckon they’ll both be checking their doors and windows for a while!’

‘Room for a small one?’ came a woman’s voice from inside the house.

‘We’re out on the deck Fliss! Bring a glass!’ Hilary called back.

‘I’m way ahead of you.’ laughed a pretty redhead as she walked onto the deck with a large glass of Chablis.

Hilary’s eyes widened. ‘I was going to use that in tonight’s dinner!’

Felicity shook her head. ‘No you weren’t. I saw the recipe on the bench so I opened a new bottle.’

Peregrin laughed. ‘Doctor Coutts! How nice to see that your pathologist’s knack for detail remains intact.’

Felicity put her glass down on the table and beckoned him back to the kitchen. ‘Speaking of which, I have news. Sorry ladies, police business, but we’ll only be a second.’

Peregrin slid the door closed behind them. ‘The blood test?’

Felicity nodded. ‘It could be from Bob Harland. It’s his type. Where did you say you found it again?’

‘Jeff Bloom picked it up as part of the Rotary Club’s litter drive along the road to the rubbish dump. He recognised it as a medical sample and asked me if there was anything special he needed to do with it or if he could just chuck it. The label had been removed so I asked him if he’d seen anything where he picked it up that might identify the owner. He said he thought there were some envelopes nearby with Edgar Thomlinson written on them but they’d already been fed into the recycler by the time he approached me.’

‘Well the blood does have a relatively high alcohol level so it could have been a police sample, but we can’t be sure.’

‘Fingerprints?’ asked Peregrin.

Felicity shook her head. ‘None. I take it Jeff was wearing gloves when he found it?’

‘Yep, standard procedure on litter pick up. He gave it to me in a plastic bag too, so mine wouldn’t be there either.’

‘Well I don’t trust those new DNA tests yet, and because you’ve only got Jeff’s word about the envelopes, while you might be able to frighten him, I don’t think you’ll be able to make it stick.’

Peregrin twisted his mouth in frustration. ‘You’re probably right, damn it. This is going to require a bit more thought than I’d hoped. Oh well, if you fill that glass bowl with crisps, I’ll get the cheese and crackers. Dinner’s over an hour away yet.’

◆◆◆

‘We’d like to see Mr Andrew Holmes.’ said Freddy simply when the lawyer’s front door opened.

The man looked past them to the Ford Transit. ‘Mr Holmes doesn’t usually do business with tradesmen at this time of night, but I’ll ask if he’ll see you.’

James gave his most crocodilian of smiles. ‘Just tell him that James Alpers would appreciate a word about the Walker case. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see us.’

The man nodded. ‘Certainly sir. There’s a seat to the left if you’d like to use it in the meantime.’ and without betraying any emotion at all, he closed the door and went in search of his master.

‘Pompous twit!’ growled James under his breath. ‘Somebody should tell him the Edwardian age is well and truly over!’

Freddy laughed. ‘Oh I don’t know, it’s kind of nice seeing a period drama brought to life. My, that was quick!’

There was a rapid tap-tap-tap of leather on wood as the servant hurried back to open the door. ‘Mr Holmes would be delighted to see you Mr Alpers, and your friend. He’s in the lounge, second door on the left. If you’d like to see yourselves in I’ll go and get the drinks.’

‘Mr Alpers, how nice to see you again.’ said Holmes, rising from his chair to greet them.

‘And you Mr Holmes. This is my colleague Freddy Sommers.’

‘Pleased to meet you Mr Sommers, please, both of you, take a seat.’ bowed Holmes. ‘Now, what can I do for you?’

James plopped himself down into the plush leather chair. ‘It’s about the Walker case.’

‘Ah yes.’ said Holmes, clasping his hands. ‘Do you mean his disappearance, the unfortunate business with his wife, or both?’

‘Both.’ said Freddy, earning himself a look from his colleague.

‘It’s recently come to light,’ began James, ‘that Terry Walker wrote certain things down that ought not to have been written down…’ he paused to let it sink in. ‘Things that could affect all of us in this room.’

Holmes’s face betrayed nothing. ‘Indeed? Do you know the specifics of this, document?’

‘Some of it. Enough to know how dangerous it could be were it to be found.’ continued James.

‘And its whereabouts are unknown at this juncture?’

‘Precisely. And we’d like to find them. You had a rather special relationship with him, so we thought we’d start by asking if he gave you anything to look after?’

Holmes noted that while James’s voice was polite and matter of fact, there was something in the eyes that brooked no nonsense. He shook his head solemnly. ‘No, I’m afraid not. I represented him at the time of his trial, but my firm did not look after his will nor his affairs. You’re welcome to look over the trial materials. I can have them here tomorrow if you wish?’

James shook his head. ‘Not unless they contain anything written by Terry himself. Perhaps you could tell Freddy here exactly what arrangements you and Terry made for his trial?’

Holmes raised his eyebrows. ‘Are you seeking just the salient facts, or all the special details?’ he fixed James with a meaningful eye.

‘Particularly the special details.’ said James.

‘Very well.’ Holmes cupped his hand to his ear and listened. ‘Algy’s still making the tea and coffee, so we have a few moments I think. Well, Mr Walker came to me, now when was it, oh yes, the ninth of February 1984, the day after his wife so sadly fell down that cliff.’ He looked serious. ‘Mr Walker explained to me the situation, and intimated there was a witness who might have got the wrong end of the stick and that it would be unfortunate should the man come forward during the trial. Mr Walker asked me if it were possible to take steps that would ensure this other person’s nonappearance in court. I replied that most things were possible should the appropriate rewards be offered in exchange and we came to terms.’

‘What specifically did you do?’ asked Freddy.

James spotted the expression on Holmes’s face. ‘It’s okay Mr Holmes, Freddy really is one of my colleagues, someone who worked with Terry occasionally.’

Holmes nodded gravely. ‘Very well, I discussed matters with a police fixer friend of mine, Sergeant Edgar Thomlinson, a man who can usually be relied upon to see things the way they should be seen.’

‘For an appropriate reward?’ asked James.

‘Quite. Beautifully put if I may say so. In this case he undertook to take whatever steps became necessary to smooth the investigative waters, after the deed had been done. I then talked with an old customer of mine, Dick Harland. He’s neither particularly bright, nor particularly stupid, but he does get things done and he keeps his mouth shut. Two admirable qualities I always find. He thought a car accident might be the best way of fixing matters and I was able to inform him that the gentleman concerned had a regular Sunday evening Dungeons and Dragons session, whatever that is, in Little Dimpton. That enabled Dick to work out exactly where and when he could arrange the crash.’

‘But it didn’t go quite right did it?’ asked Freddy.

Holmes frowned. ‘No, it didn’t. Dick hadn’t ever done anything like that before and he got a bit flustered and took a few swigs of brandy while he was waiting for the witness’s car to appear. His breath reeked of the stuff when the police arrived. Fortunately for him, Thomlinson used it to his advantage. He supervised Dick’s blood test and put the sample with the rest of the evidence. He then conveniently mislaid it overnight, which required Dick to have another test the following morning after the loss was discovered. By then of course he was back under the legal limit so there was no actual evidence to convict him. In fact the drink thing actually distracted everyone else away from the possibility that it might have been a deliberate crash. I encouraged the judge to think that it was oil on the wet road and he accepted that. Job done, happy clients all round! Ah, welcome Algy, that’s first class timing. Just pop the tray down here will you? Excellent. Why don’t you have the rest of the night off? I don’t think I’ll need you anymore tonight.’

‘Very good Mr Holmes. I’ll see you in the morning.’ bowed Algy.

Holmes leant over the table. ‘If you gentlemen would like to pour your own tea or coffee, I’ll see to the stronger stuff. A single malt perhaps? I have an excellent Highland Park if you’d care to try it?’

While Holmes busied himself pouring the glasses, James asked a further question. ‘So how did you get Terry off his own charge?’

There was a loud squeak as Holmes punched the cork back onto the bottle. ‘Young Thomlinson was very useful there too. He managed to “lose” all the photographs of the footprints at the top of the cliff, and then went one better by losing two key affidavits from an expert who died just before the trial.’

‘Another one of your arrangements?’ asked Freddy.

‘No,’ laughed Holmes, handing over the glass, ‘Terry could thank the good lord for that one. The man died in his sleep.’

‘Didn’t the police get a bit upset with your careless cop?’ asked James.

‘Oh yes, oh yes indeed. It quite put a dent in Thomlinson’s promotion prospects, but then he was amply compensated for it. I think he was happy with his end of the deal.’

‘He can’t be too worried about it because you two have just pulled exactly the same stunt with Bob Harland today. Surely that’s going to raise even more suspicions?’ asked James.

Holmes twisted his face in annoyance. ‘It very well might. I’m most displeased about that. When Bob Harland crashed, killing the other driver, Thomlinson saw an opportunity to make some money. He oversaw the blood sample being taken and then went that night to have a chat with daddy Dick. He suggested that if Dick paid him a certain sum, then that sample could be “lost” as well. Given the seriousness of the charges Bob was likely to face, Dick paid up and Thomlinson “mislaid” the phial as promised. Only then did he come to see me! It was a stupid idea that put both of us in danger but I didn’t have a choice by that stage.’

‘How high’s the risk do you think?’ asked James.

‘To Thomlinson, pretty high I suspect, which is why he asked Dick for almost the same amount I paid Dick to kill Mellors in the first place. There was a Detective Inspector in court today who had no reason to be there. I assume he was watching Thomlinson to see how things played out. It could make things a little warm for me too of course, but there’s absolutely no paper trail to link me to anything. It would all be circumstantial, their word against mine.’

‘So if Thomlinson’s a bit too impulsive, do you think he had anything to do with Terry’s disappearance?’ asked Freddy.

‘What? Oh dear me no. He had no motivation along those lines at all. And in any case, he was in the police station the whole day when Terry vanished.’

‘How about Dick Harland?’ Freddy continued.

Holmes shook his head. ‘No. He never knew why he was killing Mellors. He doesn’t know to this day that it had anything to do with the Walker case. As far as I know Mellors never even mentioned Carol’s accident to anyone except to say he was at the beach when it happened. If he’d tried blackmail I’m sure that Terry would have mentioned it.’

‘So what actually happened to Terry?’ James asked.

Holmes sipped his drink. ‘Nobody knows, not me, not the police, nobody. All we know is that he was last seen going for a ride on his bicycle and he simply vanished. The police did an extensive check and nothing was ever found of either him or the bike.’ He looked up. ‘I don’t know exactly what your line of work is gentlemen, but it strikes me as one that’s likely to make you a few enemies from time to time. Perhaps one of them made an appearance?’

James maintained a neutral expression. ‘It’s possible, but if so, where’s the document? We’d expect to be seeing some consequences by now if its fallen into someone’s hands.’

◆◆◆

At that very moment Ted Malcolm and Mark Evans were slipping in through a lounge window in Beattie Close.

‘Man!’ giggled Ted. ‘It feels so cool to burgle a place just three blocks from the Throcking police station!’

‘Keep your voice down you muppet.’ hissed Mark. ‘Boy, look at all the dust in here. Anyone would think there’d been nobody living here for years.’

‘That’s because they haven’t.’ grinned Ted. ‘This is old man Walker’s place, you know, the guy who did a bunk a few years back? This is one time we’re not going to be worried about the owners coming home early!’

The teenagers went through each room thoroughly, bagging the jewellery, the CDs and the television.

‘Leave the videos and the player.’ said Mark. ‘Nobody’ll want that old rubbish.’

‘How about the painting?’ asked Ted, pointing to a large oil painting of a woman in a bikini sitting on the beach.

‘Nice!’ said Mark.

‘Not to keep you idiot, to sell!’ snapped Ted. ‘It’s an original, of the wife. I remember her photo in the papers. Nah, on second thoughts, let’s leave it. It’s too easily traced.’

‘Seems a pity.’ murmured Mark. ‘I wonder how heavy it is.’

He took hold of the bottom corners of the frame and lifted. The painting came away easily from the wall and rested lightly in his hands. Ted shook his head in dismay at his friend’s stupidity but in doing so spotted a flaw on the wall where the picture had been. The street light coming in the window highlighted a number of very shallow shadows in the plaster.

‘Here, put that down for a minute. I reckon there’s something hidden here.’ he said.

Mark followed the pointing finger and looked at the wall. ‘I can’t see anything.’ he said.

‘Come over here then, maybe you need to have the light just right.’

Mark joined Ted and looked along the wall. ‘Okay, I see it. Maybe it’s just a bad repair?’

Ted shrugged. ‘Then we should give someone the opportunity to fix it, eh?’ And so saying, he whacked his jemmy bar into the wall. There was a loud metallic clang as the end of the tool smashed through the plaster. Ted changed tack and started to use the jemmy as an adze to strip away the wall.

‘Stone me! It’s a safe!’ gasped Mark.

Ted worked the jemmy down the sides of the steel box. ‘It’s bolted into place, and it’s a good one. We’ll never get it opened in here. We’ll have to get it out.’

‘How?’ complained his friend.

‘Like this.’

It took them a good three hours and Terry Walker’s own saw to pry the safe free and even then it came with great lumps of wood attached.

‘Cripes, I hope it’s worth it.’ whispered Mark as he helped Ted lug the safe across the lawn to their grey Ford Transit.

‘I’m sure we’ll get our just desserts.’ said Ted confidently.





2 Baby steps




The following morning, Freddy parked the blue Transit van in the Throcking Square car park across the road from the police station, and he and James went for a stroll around the town. They bought some soft drink in the supermarket and headed east, around the edge of the school grounds.

‘Why don’t we climb the hill to get a better view?’ asked James within the hearing of a teacher on playground duty.

‘Good idea, shall I get the map out?’ replied Freddy, playing his role of rambler to the full.

‘Nah, we’ll get it out if we get lost but I’d rather explore without it.’ answered James. The teacher, who knew full well that Throcking proper only had six roads leading up the hill, shook her head at the idea of anyone needing a map. She shook it even more a few minutes later as she watched the two men start the steep climb up Beattie Close. It was a dead end, and the only one of the six roads that didn’t reach the top.

James glanced back over his shoulder. ‘Good. She thinks we’re a couple of twits, but memorable twits. She’ll tell this story to the other teachers and we’ll be just a couple of silly ramblers by nightfall.’

‘How far up is Walker’s place?’ asked Freddy, beginning to puff with the exertion.

‘Almost at the top, on the left, just before the turning circle.’

‘You mean the one with the police car outside it?’

‘Oh bugger.’ groaned James. ‘What are the chances?’

The two plugged on until they arrived outside the house. ‘Nothing serious I hope.’ said Freddy to an officer walking down the path towards them.

‘Burglary.’ said the cop.

‘What? Here?’ asked James. ‘But it seems such a nice community.’

‘It is.’ replied the officer. ‘It won’t be locals. Have you seen a Transit in your travels?’

‘Just our own.’ said Freddy.

‘Colour?’ demanded the cop, suddenly a lot more interested.

‘Blue.’ said Freddy. ‘It’s parked across the road from your station.’

‘Were you out and about last night?’ persisted the cop.

‘Yep. We’re staying in Little Throcking, at the BnB. We had dinner in the café next door, then visited a friend in Ornamental Estate. We never came to Throcking though.’

The officer took down their details and the number of their van before a thought struck him. ‘Why have you come up here then?’

James gave him a smile. ‘To get to the top of the village so we could see the view.’

The cop laughed. ‘You’ve taken the only wrong road in the place! Better use a map next time! Look, go back to the bottom, turn left or right, it doesn’t matter which, and then take the next road uphill and you’ll be at Messines Road at the top of the village. You can’t miss.’

They thanked him for his advice and ambled back down to the school where the teacher was rounding up the last of the kids at the end of the break. Freddy gave her a friendly wave, which she pretended not to see. When they finally made it to Messines Road, they made a point of looking long and hard at the view, comparing various landmarks with their map. A couple of curtains twitched, further cementing the ramblers story in the locals’ minds. Finally they strolled slowly west, admiring the view and the neat, well kept gardens until James stopped outside a small house, white, with blue windows and doors.

‘This is Thomlinson’s place.’ he said.

There was no reply when they knocked.

‘He’s probably at work.’ suggested Freddy.

Edgar Thomlinson was indeed at work, or at least in the police station. He, Peregrin, an HR representative and Thomlinson’s direct superior spent all morning cloistered in a meeting room, going over a number of his questionable actions in the previous years. As the day went on, the individual incidents, which had all been properly dealt with at the time, morphed into a distinct pattern of incompetence at the very least.

Thomlinson had waved the offer of having a support person or lawyer present, but was already beginning to seriously regret his decision before Peregrin pulled out a plastic phial in a see through bag. He recognised it instantly as a blood sample, and when Peregrin explained where it had been found, Thomlinson’s heart skipped a beat. Mention of the envelopes, and that strenuous efforts were being made to recover them, gave it another belt.

The only saving grace was that at no point had anyone suggested that he’d been anything other than incompetent. Nothing criminal was being inferred, but it didn’t need to be. The HR rep pointed out how it would look in the papers if it was suggested that not just one, but three men had walked free from very serious charges purely because of his negligence. He was given an out and he took it.

‘If you resign,’ the HR rep had suggested, ‘we’ll give you two month’s pay, plus your holiday pay, and you won’t have to work out your notice. It’ll give you three months on full pay if you resign and leave today.’

That afternoon he made a phone call, packed his bags and headed north, which was why there was no reply when James and Freddy tried again that evening.

The following morning, Friday, James popped into the public phone box outside the café and called their base. ‘He’s probably taken off somewhere to lick his wounds.’ he said to Freddy later, as he sat down to his full English breakfast in the café.

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Freddy.

‘He’s been given the heave, left the force, buggered off.’

‘Oh great, how’re we going to find him?’

James sipped his tea. ‘Base tells me his parents live in Huddersfield. I’ve got the network looking for his car, and asked base to check if he phoned anyone yesterday. Got to start somewhere. Are you going to eat that tomato?’

After breakfast the pair drove to Dalton, checking out some of the walking tracks along the way, and arrived at Dick Harland’s place just as he was leaving home after lunch. He blanched when they told him who they were and what they wanted, but once they’d convinced him they were who they said they were and weren’t there to arrest him, he was frank and truthful.

‘Well that was a waste of time.’ said James sourly, as Dick drove off back to work.

‘Oh I don’t know,’ mused his colleague, ‘at least we know he lacks the initiative or brains to do anything on his own, and everything he said matches what Holmes told us. Come on, let’s get me a hire car and I’ll take off to Huddersfield. You can find out what those burglars took, and heavy the fences.’

That evening as Freddy was dealing with the traffic heading north, James was on the phone to base to find out what had been stolen. He was deeply perturbed when they told him about the damage to the wall and that the police were certain that a safe or something very similar had been pried from the woodwork. He also took note of the descriptions of the jewellery that was known to have been taken, based on the police inventory done after Walker’s disappearance. He didn’t really care about it, but it might prove useful in tracking down whoever had stolen the safe. He confirmed the names and addresses of all the known and suspected fences of stolen property within a fifty mile radius, then went for a walk along the beach.

On Saturday morning he set to work ploughing through his list, sorting out the ones in Ipington first, then Little Dimpton before knocking off those in Dalton before lunch. First on his Dalton list was Saver Pete’s.

‘I don’t nark mate.’ said Saver Pete in response to James’s request.

‘Then I suggest you update your will.’ smiled James. ‘Tonight would be good.’

Saver Pete paled. ‘Come on man, I’ve got a business to run. People need to trust me, or they won’t sell.’

‘Ah, trust, the oil that makes the criminal world go round. A very precious commodity. Well trust me on this my friend, I want something that these people took and that jewellery is our best way of finding them. If I hear that you found out about the stuff and didn’t tell me, I shall get very cross indeed.’ growled James.

‘How cross?’ sneered Saver Pete.

James cast an eye over the row of second hand volumes to his left and pulled out a history book. He thumbed through it until he found the right page, and handed it, open at the spot, to Saver Pete. ‘How about an Edward the Second special?’

Saver Pete’s jaw dropped and James leaned in close. ‘Got any pokers in your stock Pete? I’m looking for a big one.’

Saver Pete threw up his hands. ‘Okay, okay, you got it, I believe you! Just don’t tell anyone, okay? Sheesh, there’s no need to get uppity!’

In the far corner of the shop, Mark Evans, burglar, stayed on his knees, apparently fascinated by a late model video player, as James left the shop. He gave him a two minute head start before he too walked out, as nonchalantly as possible. He kept it together for half a block before he broke into a run back to the grey Transit.

‘We’ve got to get rid of the stuff we nicked last Wednesday in Throcking!’ he gasped as he arrived in the third floor flat he shared with his mate.

‘Yeah, well that’s why you went out, dummy!’ laughed Ted.

Mark shook his head violently. ‘No! There’s this really dangerous bloke looking for the gear, I mean a guy who’s threatening to kill the fences if they don’t snitch.’

Ted’s eyebrows rose. ‘They wouldn’t! He’s got no hope.’

‘You didn’t see him Ted! Saver Pete was terrified. The guy threatened to do an Edward the Second on him, whatever that means. Pete gave in straight away.’

Ted paled. ‘Well if Pete gave in, so will everyone else. He’s the toughest of all of them. We’d better bury the stuff.’

Mark glanced over to the corner where the safe sat, still attached to the bits of wood it had been screwed into. ‘We’re on the third floor man! Where are we going to bury it? We don’t even have a spade for crying out loud!’

‘All right, all right, keep your hair on. Okay, nobody ever comes up here, so just bury it with other stuff in the corner for now. We’ll have to figure something out later on.’

◆◆◆

Freddy glared at the sign welcoming him to Summer Wine Land. The photograph promised glorious vistas of hills bathed in sunshine, not the blustery blasts of rain currently seeking out the weak points in his wet weather gear. Sighing heavily, he set off through the murk in pursuit of his quarry.

Thomlinson’s parents had told him that he’d taken himself off into the Pennines for a “bit of a walk” as they’d put it. What that actually meant was that they’d dropped him off and he was currently walking the various paths on his own. Freddy had been surprised to find that even in this weather there seemed to be an interminable number of nutters happily hiking from place to place, but he was glad they were there. From them he was able to gather enough snippets of information to keep him on Thomlinson’s trail, but it still took him eleven days and numerous false leads before he finally caught him up, replenishing his supplies in Holmfirth.

‘Nope, he just vanished. We looked everywhere, and I mean everywhere for the guy, but never found so much as a torn shirt.’ Thomlinson said, finishing his second pint. ‘Yes please.’ he smiled to Freddy, who hadn’t actually offered.

‘Why were you looking for a torn shirt?’ Freddy asked when he returned from the bar with fresh glasses.

‘It’s just an expression.’ replied Thomlinson. ‘Usually when folks go missing around Throcking, it’s because they’ve fallen into one of the rivers or something, and they almost always damage their clothes. So we look for bits of ripped cloth as much as we do for the person. I’ve found three like that.’ he grinned happily.

‘But you never found anything of Walker’s?’

Thomlinson took another sup. ‘Nope. And there’s never been a sign of him since. His bank accounts haven’t been touched, and his stuff’s still sitting there in the house because he can’t be declared legally dead yet.’

‘Well most of it maybe, but somebody swiped some jewellery and ripped a safe out of the wall the day before you left the police.’

Thomlinson shook his head. ‘Technically, I still work for the police.’

It was Freddy’s turn to laugh. ‘Fair enough Mr policeman. So tell me, why did you folks not open the safe in his house.’

‘We didn’t know he had one, that’s why!’ explained Thomlinson. “I was part of the team that searched the house for clues and there wasn’t a safe.’

‘It was plastered into the wall, behind the painting of his wife.’

Thomlinson paused to take another sup. ‘Really? I remember that painting. Very nice… I took it off the wall myself. There was no sign of anything behind it though, just a painted wall.’

‘You didn’t think the wall was unusually thick?’ Freddy probed.

Thomlinson shook his head. ‘It was the kitchen on the other side, yeah? With large cupboards I seem to remember. It must have backed into one of those somehow, and we didn’t spot it. We were looking for a body, not a safe walled up so not even its owner could get at it. Be fair!’

◆◆◆

Two dinners, four lunches, three bottles of gin, and two weeks after their first meeting, Sally arrived outside Emma’s house in Little Throcking, with a huge wooden pole on a hired trailer.

‘How are you going today?’ Sally asked.

Emma rubbed her eyes. ‘Still not sleeping very well. I keep reaching for George on the other side of the bed, and that’s another box of tissues gone. Other than that I’m just dandy! What’s with the log?’

‘I’ve brought you a flag pole!’ Sally cried.

‘A what?’ laughed Emma. ‘What do I need a flag pole for?’

Sally touched a finger to the side of her nose. ‘For when we want to send a message without using the phone, or driving round. The police can search call records, and there’s going to come a point where we need to communicate but leave no record.’

‘Oh, I get it!’ laughed Emma. ‘ Like in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.’

‘Bang on.’ said Sally. ‘Like they did in Winter Holiday.’

‘I loved those books.’ said Emma sadly. ‘I haven’t read them for years.’

‘Why ever not darling?’ asked Sally. ‘What’s wrong with reading a kid’s book if you want to? Look, there’s a simple rule of life that we’re going to break. Men get to play their entire lives, leaving the women to be the grown ups. Well to hell with that! It’s about time you and I got in touch with our inner girls and had some fun! Here. Grab that end.’

Together they carried the pole down the side of the house to the east facing back garden. Sally put her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun, and pointed across the Sky river valley towards Throcking. ‘It’s great that you’re up here on the edge of town. We’ll have no trouble seeing each other’s flags. Come on, let’s get this thing in the ground.’ she said.

Two hours later, a very dirty Sally was showing a just as grubby Emma how to raise and lower the flags on her newly erected pole. Then she handed over two small volumes.

‘You’ve got two code books. This one’s the safe one for when we’re having fun, and you can leave it lying around. This on the other hand,’ she said, flourishing the slightly thicker of the two, ‘is for hunting. It’s got a few extras in it so put it away when you’re not actually using it.’

Sally ran through all the flags until she was sure that Emma was comfortable using the codes, and working the flags. Then she pointed across the valley again. ‘Okay. So what do the flags say at my place?’

Emma searched through the hunting code book.

‘The top one has two horizontal arrows pointing towards each other. That means “Meet me”. The second one has a white square on a blue background. That means “Emma’s place”, I mean my place.’

She looked across the valley again. ‘The last one has four arrows, pointing up, down, left and right. That means “Go out” So all together it means “Meet me at your place so we can go out”, right?’

Sally grinned. ‘Perfect!’

‘So where are we going?’ asked Emma, smiling back.

Sally looked at her still dirty hands. ‘Let’s get ourselves cleaned up first, have some morning tea, and then we’ll go to Dalton after you’ve got dressed in a pair of shorts or loose pants. Oh, and you’ll need sneakers.’

‘Dalton!’ stuttered Emma. ‘But I always get dressed up to go to the big smoke!’

‘Trust me. Sneakers and shorts will be just perfect for where we’re going.’ said Sally.

An hour later they were admiring the panoramic vista from Throcking Castle, an Iron Age hill fort at the head of the Sky valley.

‘I hate to break it to you Sally, but this isn’t Dalton.’ said Emma.

Sally laughed. ‘True enough, but I wanted to show you why we’re going to Dalton. Just look at that view!’

There was a light haze off the sea to the south which restricted visibility, but they could easily see Little Throcking to the west, its smattering of pretty houses cascading down the long green slope to the sea.

Above it the hills grew steeper, and trees and scrub fought for the most sheltered spots as the land rose up to the moors above. The whole of this section of the coast was like that, a rising half mile wide ribbon of green fields and villages running between the sea and the hills. Throcking Castle itself was on the leading edge of these hills, looking south down the Sky river valley to the sea.

While the Sky river claimed the western edge of the valley, the rest of the valley floor was a patchwork of small, oddly shaped fields, marked out by narrow hedge lined lanes.

‘Okay, from up here we can see most of our play area, how much of it do you really know?’ Sally asked Emma.

Emma gave her a quizzical look. ‘What are you talking about?’

Sally smiled and began to point out a number of locations. ‘That hill in the middle of the valley, down by the beach is Ornamental Estate. Holmes lives there, in the top street of course! There’s my place to the east, on the edge of Throcking. If you carry on in a straight line beyond it but a little to the left, you’ll hit Thomlinson’s house. All the way on the other side of town is the golf course and in the haze beyond that is Wesser Bech. Bob Harland lives there somewhere. Dick’s in Dalton so that’s a bit different, but the other three targets are right here. So, like I asked before, how well do you actually know the area?’

Emma frowned. ‘Not well at all really. I mean I can follow a map to get somewhere if I have to, but apart from shopping I’ve got no reason to come east of the river.’

Sally clapped her hands. ‘Exactly, but if you’re going to help me catch these buggers, you’re going to have to know. Now,’ she said, turning her back to the sea, ‘how about the hills? What do you know about them?’

Emma shrugged her shoulders again. ‘Absolutely nothing, except the main roads to Ipington, Little Dimpton and Dalton. The rest of it’s just a great swathe of green to me.’

Sally fixed her with a look. ‘Well, we need to learn all of it, especially the walking tracks.’

‘What the hell for?’ asked a bemused Emma.

‘Four reasons.’ said Sally, raising four fingers and ticking them off. ‘First off, rambling is a legitimate hobby these days so it gives us an excuse to explore. Secondly, we’re less likely to be seen as we move around the place than if we’re on the roads. Thirdly, I’ve already laid a false trail on the moors if we need a diversion, but I have to be able to get the police up there to find it, when I want them to find it! I can’t do it by road, so I’ll need to use the tracks. Lastly, if it all goes belly up and we need to do a runner, with so few roads out of here we need to know if we can use the trails instead.’

Emma, who’d been struggling to keep her mouth closed during all this, finally burst into laughter.

‘Sally! I’m too old to do a runner on foot! And in any case, even if we got away, what would we do next? I’m not sleeping in ditches and baking hedgehogs for my dinner!’

‘That’s a pity…’ said Sally, making a sad face. ‘I’ve got a great recipe…’

Then she raised her right index finger and grinned. ‘But, if you’re going to be all boring and defeatist about it all, we’ll just have to make sure you don’t have to do a runner! Come on, let’s go to Dalton!’

Half an hour later, after dropping the trailer back at the hire centre, they were in downtown Dalton, standing in The Spoke and Pedal bike shop.

Sally greeted the assistant as an old friend. ‘Hi Jean. This is Emma. You said they’d arrived?’

Jean grinned, her eyes sparkling. ‘Last night, as we were about to close. There they are over there. They’re gorgeous! Just as good as I imagined they’d be!’

Sally clapped her hands in delight. ‘Wonderful! Come and look at your new toy Emma!’

Bemused, Emma followed her over to look at a pair of identical, strange looking bicycles. ‘These are handmade Overbury Wildcat mountain bikes. We’re going to go exploring!’ said Sally.

Emma gasped. ‘I can’t afford one of these Sally. Not without George’s salary. I’ve only got his insurance and the investments to live off.’

Sally’s grin almost split her head in two. ‘My treat silly! Graham left me very well provided for. It’s a gift.’

Emma started to object again.

Sally held up her hand. ‘You’re having it. In any case, I’ve already bought them. We want to explore the trails around us, and it’s too slow to do it on foot.’

Emma laughed. ‘I’m fifty five dear. I haven’t ridden a bike in decades! And never one as odd looking as this. Why’s it got those silly tyres on it?’

At this point Jean moved tactfully away before she laughed and ruined the sale.

Sally exploded into passion, as if she was gunning for a commission. ‘They’re mountain bikes, the latest thing! No more boring racing bikes that get a puncture as soon as you show them a pebble!’

She then launched into a speech, redolent in detail about the coming age of the mountain bike and why the Wildcat was best. It was over three minutes before Emma found find a gap to break into the conversation.

‘How on earth do you know all that?’ she asked in astonishment

Sally smiled. ‘Haven’t you heard darling? Girls can do anything! Well, I can anyway!’ she laughed heartily.

Emma looked at it dubiously. ‘It seems complicated.’

Sally laughed. ‘It’s no more complicated than your car, silly. Now, what else will you need? Gloves? A helmet?’

‘A helmet?’ squeaked Emma. ‘Is it going to be dangerous?’

‘Not if you don’t want it to be.’ replied Sally. ‘But if you’re nervous, a helmet might help you relax a little. Your call.’

By the time they’d left the shop, they had the two bikes on a rack hanging off the back of the Range Rover, a spare bike rack for Emma’s car, and for each of them a helmet, padded gloves, cycle clips, a strong rear carrier and a pack to sit on it.

‘That way we don’t have to wear a sweaty back pack all the time.’ explained Sally, as Jean waved them away, happy with a full day’s profit secure in the till.

On the way home, they stopped at the Throcking golf club for lunch. A man stood up and beckoned them over when they walked in. ‘Sally! We’re over here! Come and join us. There’s room for two more.’

Sally bounced over and gave him a hug.

‘Emma, this is Peregrin McEwan, Hilary McEwan, Alison Falconer, and Felicity Coutts. Four of my very best friends in the whole world. And this everyone, is Emma Nixon, a new friend.’ said Sally.

‘What have you been up to Sally?’ asked Alison as they all shuffled round the table to make space.

‘We’ve been buying bikes to explore the trails and lanes. There’s so much of this place I’ve never seen, and it’s just too much effort on foot. Too slow too!’

Hilary laughed. ‘I hope it can carry an easel and paints.’

Sally nodded. ‘Of course! We got carriers and bags that can carry all kinds of stuff. I’m not using Emma as a Sherpa!’

Emma smiled shyly. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’

‘So where did you two meet?’ asked Alison.

There was a short silence.

‘In court.’ said Peregrin.

‘That was in very poor taste darling.’ chided Hilary gently.

‘It’s true though.’ said Sally. ‘Emma had the misfortune to lose her husband just like I lost Graham.’

‘Almost identical.’ said Peregrin. ‘It may interest you to know Sally, that Edgar Thomlinson is no longer on the force.’

Sally stared at him. “On grounds of…?’

‘He resigned.’

‘Why?’ asked Sally.

‘He seemed to think it best.’ smiled Peregrin.

‘What did you do to make him do that?’ she persisted.

‘Me?’ Peregrin protested. ‘I can’t think what you mean!’

Felicity smiled and rested her index finger gently on her lips. Sally took the hint. ‘Well at least he won’t screw up anything else, that’s at least something. What’ll you have Emma?’

Emma, despite bursting with questions of her own, took her lead from Sally and stuck to the menu. ‘I’d like the fish and chips please, and a glass of Chablis.’

‘And I’d like the chicken pie please Adam.’ said Sally to the waiter. ‘And a Beaujolais Village please.’

‘Shouldn’t you have be having white with chicken?’ asked Emma.

Sally laughed. ‘Remember I said that girls can do anything? That includes having the wine I want with the food I want. I like Beaujolais. It goes with pretty much with anything, I think.’

‘That’s my girl.’ said Alison. ‘Nice to see you’re as stroppy as ever.’

Sally shook her head to make her hair fly around. ‘I’m a free spirited sort of a gal I guess.’ she grinned happily. ‘Anyway, what have you lot been up to?’

◆◆◆

It was about three o’clock when Sally pulled up outside Emma’s house.

‘Why didn’t you press him more about Thomlinson?’ asked Emma. ‘I wanted to know more about the bastard!’

‘Understood,’ said Sally, ‘but we’re supposed to be letting it go, remember? Probably not the best idea to let Peregrin know we’re still deeply interested in Thomlinson if we’re going to kill him later. And besides, Felicity was warning me to stop asking questions in public. Peregrin probably shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

‘Oh.’ said Emma. ‘I’d forgotten about us letting it go, what with planning to kill him and all.’

‘All good,’ smiled Sally, ‘now, let’s give you something else to think about and go for a ride. You said you couldn’t do a runner on foot, and with the Wildcat you won’t have to!’

Ten minutes later, Emma was coasting slowly down Chandler Street towards the beach, both brakes on, face tense.

‘What are you scared of?’ asked Sally.

‘Going over the eff-ing handlebars!’ fired back Emma through gritted teeth.

‘The only way you’ll do that is if you don’t stop at the end, so try and stop now. Just gently increase the pressure on both hands.’

Emma did as she was told and brought the bike calmly to a stop.

‘See?’ said Sally. ‘Now, let’s do it again, and again, and again, before we hit the bottom.’

“I wish you hadn’t said hit!’ spat back Emma, but did as she’d been told and by the time they finally reached Beach Road she’d gained a degree of confidence.

Emma began to turn her bike to the right, to head down the final slope to the village but Sally shook her head. ‘Nope. We’re going down there.’ She pointed across the road to a track that swept across the fifty or so yards of turf before turning east and disappearing into space.

Emma’s eyes bulged. ‘It’s dirt! On a cliff face! Are you quite mad Sally?’

Sally laughed. ‘The track runs on a terrace down there. It’s about thirty yards wide and most of it’s flat. There’s just a gentle slope for the first bit, gentler than what we’ve just come down.’

‘But it’s dirt Sally! I’ll fall off!’

‘No you won’t. We’ll not be going fast, you’ve got great tyres, good brakes, and one of the best bikes you could possibly have. You’ll be fine.’

‘If I grab the brakes, I’ll skid and go over the cliff!’ snapped Emma crossly.

‘No you won’t. Come on. Follow me slowly.’

Emma watched Sally cross the road and ride onto the track. Sally looked back over her shoulder. ‘Come on! Better crashed than duffers. If not duffers won’t crash! With apologies to Arthur Ransome!’

Emma shook her head in defeat, and pedalled slowly across the road. The dirt track was initially every bit as smooth as the tarseal had been, but as she began to descend the gentle slope to the cliff terrace, she could feel the wheels begin to chatter gently over the odd rock and lump. As her anxiety rose, her hands and arms began to tense up, followed by her shoulders.

‘Keep your body relaxed Emma!’ Sally called back. ‘Gently squeeze the brakes if you start to get scared. Once you know you’re in control, and can stop if you want to, you’ll be fine.’

Emma swore softly under her breath, and called Sally a few choice names, but did as she was told. She carefully brought her bike to a halt again, pushed off, stopped, pushed off, stopped, and then in a flush of hope, gave her steed its head to the bottom of the slope where her friend was waiting.

‘Wheeeeeeee!’ laughed Emma as she shot past a grinning Sally. ‘You were right! This is fun!’

Sally stood on the pedals and raced to catch up. Emma didn’t look back. She’d got her confidence now, but not so much that she was going to stop looking where she was going. The bike continued to chatter and shimmy over the slightly uneven ground, the bumps thumping up through the handlebars, and slightly less comfortably through the saddle. But there was a serenity somehow, about gliding over the ground at well over walking pace, the ever changing view, the cool breeze in her face, and feeling her long blonde hair whipping out behind her. She hadn’t felt this free in years.

She pedalled on, sometimes coasting, sometimes accelerating hard, slowly learning how to work with the bike. She forgot all about Sally behind her. They hadn’t spoken a word for over five minutes. At one point the cliff and the terrace turned left, then right around a small bay, where she could hear the gentle sound of the waves breaking against the shore below.

She accelerated again, and the noise of the surf faded away under the increasing rush of the air past her ears. She stood on the pedals as hard as she could. The rear wheel chittered occasionally as it struggled for grip in the dirt, but by now she was relaxed. She trusted the Wildcat to look after her, and it did, but all good things come to an end and eventually her lungs and legs couldn’t keep up with her spirit.

Emma coasted to a halt, her chest heaving. She hunched over the handle bars for a minute, sucking the air deep into her lungs, waiting for her heart to settle back to something close to normal. Finally she looked back at Sally, and just grinned, and grinned, and grinned. It was a huge grin, one that spread across every part of her face. Life had re-entered the soul of Emma Nixon and set up home once more.

Sally didn’t say a word. She just beamed back at her friend.

Emma jerked her head towards the river mouth, Sally nodded, and they set off once more.

The terrace angled down again as they approached the mouth of the Sky river, until there was just a shallow sloping beach of river sediment between the water and the grass, which itself had opened out to be about fifty yards wide.

They cycled up the river bank, with the cliff to their left and the river on the right. Soon they came to a cluster of trees completely filling the gap between river and cliff. The track weaved its way amongst the trunks, and here and there the odd low branch threatened to sweep them from their bikes.

About a third of the way into the trees they entered a clearing, with its eastern side open to the river. From a concrete block set into the ground in the middle of the clearing, a stout steel cable stretched up across the river to the top of a high platform, perched at the edge of a fifty foot cliff.

‘It’s a flying fox!’ Sally said excitedly. ‘How cool is that?’

Emma smiled. ‘I remember those. Great fun. Not sure I’d be willing to have a go on it these days.’ She looked at Sally’s amused grin. ‘But, you never know. After all,’ she said, waving her hand like a conductor, ‘girls can do anything!’

The phrase finished with their two voices in harmony, which threw them into fits of laughter.

Emma really wanted to go on, but Sally suggested that they should call it quits for the day. The afternoon was marching on, and the April sun was sinking fast. In fact it was already dark enough for neither of them to notice James and Freddy watching them silently from the trees on other side of the clearing.

‘That’s interesting.’ murmured James.

‘Agreed.’ responded his colleague. ‘Why did you get us these old fashioned boneshakers when you could have got us bikes like that?’

‘I wasn’t talking about the bikes, I meant it’s interesting that those two have hooked up like that.’

‘I guess they have things in common.’ said Freddy.

‘That’s exactly why it’s interesting,’ James replied, ‘and the reason you aren’t on a mountain bike is because the boss wouldn’t pay for one. Just be glad it’s not a ten speed. You’d have had to fix five punctures by now. Let’s give them a few minutes head start shall we?’

Sally and Emma’s ride home was slower, partly because they were now a bit tired, but mainly because there were three climbs to do. That’s the thing about a bicycle. It’s a lot more work going up than it is going down. By the time they reached Emma’s house, she’d had enough for the day and was glad she’d listened to Sally.

‘You’ll probably be a bit sore tomorrow.’ said Sally. ‘It takes time to get the muscles back again.’

‘There are certain lady’s parts that are a bit sore right now!’ said Emma. ‘Surely there’s a better saddle to be found than that?’ she asked.

‘The pros call it butt ache.’ said Sally.

‘Hah!’ spat Emma. ‘It’s not the butt I’m talking about!’

Sally laughed. ‘Well, these are female saddles, and they’re Brooks, the best we can get. But they do take time to bed in.’

‘Good God! These are the best? Then I don’t want to know what the rest of them are like!’

They went inside, showered, and had dinner. Afterwards, they pored over an Ordinance Survey map that Sally had bought. It showed all the roads, lanes and trails in the area. It even showed the flying fox.

They were happily planning a series of explorations when there was a knock on the door. Emma’s sons Tim and Alan burst in full of excitement.

‘We got the bastard mum!’ said Tim.

‘Who did you get Tim?’ asked his mother calmly. ‘And what do you mean “got”?’

Alan interjected. ‘We found Bob Harland’s pub! The little sod lives in Wesser Bech and goes to the Anchor pub on the beach. We went in this evening and beat the crap out of him!’

Emma’s hands flew to her mouth. ‘Oh you silly boys! You’ll get arrested!’

‘Nah!’ said Tim. ‘We marched in, grabbed him under each arm and frogmarched him to the beach where we gave him a good kicking. A couple of his mates tried to stop us, but when I booted one of them in the crotch he went down like a sack of spuds, and the other took off like a rabbit! We didn’t break any bones. We just gave them some really deep bruises, and maybe Harland’ll be able to have kids, and maybe he won’t!’

Alan jumped in. ‘And we made sure the mongrel knew that if we got any grief for it, we’d be back to do a whole lot worse! We told him he was bloody lucky he was getting off so lightly.’

‘Yeah,’ Tim laughed, ‘then we went back into the pub and bought rounds of drinks for everyone there for the next two hours! The publican’s sweet, and so are the patrons. Harland’s not exactly well liked. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble.’

‘I even bought a bottle of Cointreau, dad’s favourite. We can celebrate a little bit of justice for once.’ said Alan firmly.

Sally laughed. ‘Well, brawling in a pub is a bit juvenile for two lads in their twenties, but good for you! I’ll have a glass.’

Emma still looked very worried, but soon joined in the laughter and went to get the glasses.

By midnight they’d consumed a lot more than just the one bottle of Cointreau, and merry wasn’t the word to describe their condition. Too tipsy to drive, Sally stayed the night.





3 A little knowledge




On Thursday and Friday while Sally and Emma were getting on with their individual lives, James and Freddy cycled out to Swelton, walking into the moors and checking the valley streams for any signs of Terry Walker. The closest they came was a dead sheep, badly buried under a bush. It had been hard work and they were still fast asleep on Saturday morning when Sally and Emma renewed their explorations and headed back to the flying fox.

Sally led the way past it, continuing their explorations through the trees, up the west side of the river to the main road, across the bridge and back downstream on the Throcking side. At first the track followed the river closely, but as they approached the flying fox, the ground rose where the river had cut through the low hill. At the top, they got off their bikes and climbed up onto the platform above the bluff.

Hanging from the wire running to the concrete block on the other side of the river was a pulley with two carabiners. A handset for the rider hung from one of them, and Sally worked out that the other must be for a rope to haul the pulley back up again. She looked closely at the padlock that currently secured the pulley to the mast. It was relatively cheap, and there was a small code number by the keyhole, which she noted down.

‘Surely people don’t just hang from it?’ asked Emma.

‘I think they clip a safety harness to one of these two carabiners. It’s just not here now, like the rope to pull it back up. I guess the people that use it bring the rest of their equipment with them.’ said Sally.

She looked around. The flying fox was set in a large rectangular field bounded by dry stone walls. Apart from the trail there was only one other visible way into the field, a gate onto the road at the diagonally opposite corner. They rode over to look at it.

‘Gosh it’s a bit narrow for a vehicle gate.’ said Emma.

‘Very.’ agreed Sally. ‘I’d certainly not get the Range Rover through here. But, on the other hand…’ She scratched her ear in thought.

‘What are you thinking?’ asked Emma.

Sally grinned. ‘This has potential, on the escape side anyway.’

Emma shook her head. ‘It’s a wire to nowhere. There are only two ways out of the other side. They’d cut you off easily.’

Sally nodded. ‘Probably, but let’s keep it in the back of our minds. Anyway, time for lunch I think. Let’s go to my place.’

They rode through the lanes to the coast and cycled across the front of Ornamental Estate to Throcking. There, Sally took the first left and led Emma heaving and straining up Farthing Street to the top of the hill and a beautiful, modern house surrounded by well kept fields. After parking their bikes in the left hand side of the double garage, Sally led Emma through the internal door into a large kitchen family room. The entire west wall was a single sheet of glass, providing a stunning view over the Sky river valley and out to sea, flooding the room with light.

‘Glorious.’ breathed Emma.

‘There’s your place.’ said Sally, pointing across the valley.

‘Gosh.’ said Emma, ‘You can see my flags so clearly!’

‘Good isn’t it? Now, walk this way. I want you to see something special.’

Sally turned left and walked across the wooden floorboards into a large lounge dining room. There, in pride of place, sat a beautiful greenwood chair. It was almost throne like, with wide flat arms and a strong, high back.

Emma stared. ‘It’s gorgeous. It must have cost a fortune!’

Sally nodded. ‘Yes it did. It’s handmade, from greenwood. No nails, screws or glue. It’s held together by the way the wood dries. It takes a huge amount of skill to make. I commissioned it after Graham’s court case.’

Emma looked at her. ‘Why? Did he always want one?’

Sally shook her head. ‘It’s a very special design. Here, bend down and look at this.’ Sally pointed to seemingly decorative pieces of wood underneath the arms, close to the front. In the bottom of each one, was an indentation about an inch wide. ‘You can secure somebody’s wrists with a simple leather strap. That slot stops it sliding about. Do it tight enough and it won’t move.’

She walked to the back of the room, and pulled a cloth from what Emma had assumed was a standard lamp. Underneath was a strongly built steel frame with a long thick screw at the top. Sally placed it behind the throne, and threaded coach bolts through four countersunk holes in the chair’s back. Then she went to another corner of the room, and brought back a strange looking clamp which she attached to the screw on the top of the frame.

‘And this,’ she said, ‘is a rather special kind of headrest. I built it myself with Graham’s tools. Here, try it. Come on, I won’t hurt you.’

Gingerly, Emma sat down. Behind her Sally spun the screw, lowering the clamp onto Emma’s head. She felt a firmly stuffed cushion pressing gently onto her scalp.

‘Now, imagine you have a strap around your chest, One around each wrist, and one around each ankle.’

Sally twisted the knobs on either side, and two more of the cushions squeezed into Emma’s left and right temple. Another twist and a final cushion secured her forehead.

‘Without the straps around the chest, wrists, and ankles, you can just duck down and get out, but you couldn’t if they were in place. Your head would be locked in position.’

Emma wriggled free. ‘Dear God, how on earth did you think of this?’

Sally shrugged. ‘Sleepless nights I guess. Lots of time to let the imagination flow. Rage.’

‘So you really meant it. You’re actually going to kill them!’ gasped Emma.

Sally just smiled.

Nervously, Emma looked around the room, trying to decide if she should flee or ask more questions. She firmed on the latter. ‘But you’re surely not going to kill them here? You’d never get the blood out of the floor.’

Sally laughed. ‘There won’t be any blood.’

Emma’s eyes narrowed. ‘Then how…’

Sally went back to the corner of the room, and returned with a curved piece of thin, transparent plastic. She held the two ends and looped them around so they touched. It now formed a cone with its point cut-off, leaving a narrow open circle at that end.

‘It’s like a vet collar for a large dog. You know, the ones they use to stop them tearing out their stitches. I’m going to stick this around their neck with medical tape, and I can put a strap through these slots in the top of the plastic, up over their head to the head brace to keep it in place.’

Emma gesticulated with her right hand, encouraging Sally to go on.

‘Then, I take my lead from the Mikado, and make the punishment fit the crime. They killed through drink, they’ll die through drink. With a water tight seal at the bottom, I can add any liquid I want, at whatever speed I want. At a certain point they have a binary choice, they can swallow, or they can drown. Just how pissed they get before they die, is at least partly up to them.’

Emma looked at her in astonishment, and then putting her hand in front of her mouth, had a fit of the giggles.

‘Oh I love it! That’s just beautiful.’ she gasped when she came back up for air.

Sally smiled. ‘Like I said darling, the killing is the easy bit. The hard parts are getting them here, and not getting caught.’

‘Well,’ said Emma, ‘you’ve certainly brought it to life. Seeing this, it doesn’t seem like a game anymore.’

Sally laughed. ‘It’ll be fun, but it’s not a game, unless of course we change our minds later. Anyway, this is just my idea. You feel free to come up with your own. They don’t all have to go the same way! Come on, let’s eat.’

Emma nodded uncertainly. ‘I don’t think I’m as creative as you, at least not in ways that we can actually do.’

Sally wagged her finger. ‘You don’t know unless you try!’

After a good lunch, Sally led Emma out onto the road again, but to Emma’s surprise Sally took her left to the end of the road, and opened the gate into the field. They carefully took the dirt and stone path that zigzagged down the west facing slope to the bottom of the hill.

Once there, Emma could see that the hedge that separated the field from the main road wasn’t the straight line it had seemed from above. In the middle, it had been extended into a square, like the world’s simplest maze. On the north side of the square was a gate, which Sally opened to allow them through, and then to their right was a gap in the hedge onto the main road between the two villages.

‘You see? By having the gate set so far back, and the hedges planted this way, cars don’t even notice there’s a gate here. It’s my secret entrance, but there’s another trick to it, look across the road there.’

Directly opposite the gap in the hedge was a very small lane, almost a driveway. ‘That’s called The Narrows,’ said Sally, ‘for obvious reasons! It’s absolutely one-way traffic for cars. If you meet somebody, one of you has to backup, plus of course it’s a very tight left or right corner onto the main road, which is why almost nobody uses it. So on a bike I can pretty much come and go as I please, and nobody knows.’

Sally made sure there were no cars in sight before leading Emma across the road and back into the twisting lanes. They were just a few hundred yards from the Sky river bridge when a beautiful blue Jaguar came around the corner towards them. Sally pulled in behind Emma to make room for it and nearly crashed into her when Emma hit the brakes.

‘What the hell…’ complained Sally.

‘That was Holmes!’ cried Emma, twisting around to watch the car disappear towards the sea. She launched herself into a stream of invective lasting a full sixty seconds without pause or repetition.

Sally looked at her in wonder. ‘My God! You’d be great on Just a Minute! Where’d you learn to swear like that?’

Emma grinned sheepishly. ‘You can’t raise two boys without learning a thing or two!’

Sally nodded. ‘Impressive! However, it might pay to remember we’re trying to make people believe we’re getting over it. You never know where witnesses might be lurking.’

‘Witnesses?’ asked Emma.

Sally pointed to a nearby gate. More than a dozen cows were pressed up hard against it, staring at them in wonder.

Emma burst out laughing. ‘Okay! Point taken. Let’s carry on.’

◆◆◆

‘That was even more interesting than last time.’ said James, watching them through his binoculars. He and Freddy had bought the makings of a nice lunch from the café in Little Throcking and cycled up to Throcking Castle to plan the next stage of their explorations. Freddy had spotted Sally and Emma wheezing their way up the hill to Sally’s place, and since then they’d been taking it in turns to watch them.

‘Mrs Nixon did seem to be pretty upset when our lawyer appeared. There’s a grudge there I think.’ said Freddy.

‘The question is, how big?’ concurred James.

‘And does Mrs Mellors share it?’ Freddy wondered. ‘I certainly like her rear entrance. Very clever. You and I never spotted that on Wednesday when we went past it.’

‘Hmmm.’ agreed James. ‘I think these two are worthy of further attention. You keep an eye on them and I’ll pour you another tea.’

◆◆◆

Emma led Sally up to the main road and across the Sky river bridge. About a fifth of a mile on the other side, she came to another unscheduled halt.

‘Look at that!’ she said. ‘How’s that for a name?’

A trail ran off on both sides of the road. The signs called it The Widow Maker.

Sally grinned. ‘Well, we’re both widows. Let’s do the southern end first.’ and so saying, took the lead.

There was nothing to indicate why the track had such a strange name, until it shot suddenly out of the scrub and turned hard left across an almost vertical slope. Sally managed to shout a warning to Emma as she hit the brakes and skittered her bike around the corner, her tyres dancing on the very edge of the track. Fighting not to panic, she gently scrubbed off her remaining speed as she followed the sweeping path down to the stream below. Emma, who’d had enough warning to be able to stop before the corner, followed her down at a more comfortable rate to the beautiful, wide pool at the bottom.

‘Well, now we know why it’s called the Widow Maker!’ she said when she joined Sally.

They laid their bikes on the ground and explored around the pool. The stream wasn’t very wide, but it was vigorous and had cut this narrow, twisting gorge through the land on its way to join the Sky river.

‘Why didn’t we notice this when we were riding up the river bank?’ asked Sally.

‘Because it must be that little stream the wooden bridge goes over, and look how the gorge twists and turns. You can’t see through it. I don’t think we saw it through the trees, that’s all.’ Emma postulated. ‘One thing’s for sure. I’m not going up the other side of this pond!’

Sally looked. The track wound its way up another bluff, but it was even narrower than the bit they’d come down and there was a horseshoe shaped curve at its highest point. An incredibly brave person might just be able to cycle it, but the slightest mistake and they’d fall all the way down to the rocks around the pool. Pushing the bike wasn’t an option either, because there just wasn’t the room.

Sally nodded. ‘Okay, I agree. It’s too dangerous. But,’ she stroked her chin, ‘I wonder where it comes out?’

Emma rolled her eyes. ‘Hah! That means you still think it’s possible!’

‘I just want to see where it goes, that’s all.’ Sally was smiling, but Emma didn’t believe her for a second.

They retraced their tracks to the road. It wasn’t easy going back up the bluff, but it was doable. When they reached the main road they cycled back to the Sky bridge, then south down the riverbank. They spotted the stream this time, but despite actively looking for the other end of the Widow Maker, they saw nothing.

Sally called a halt when they reached the flying fox. ‘We must’ve missed it.’ she said. ‘Let’s look from the other direction.’

Emma sighed, but turned to follow. Slowly they made their way back north and this time Sally just managed to spot a very narrow valley, hidden by the scrub. Now she knew what to look for, she could just make out the trail. She pushed through the bushes.

‘This is it! We’ve found it!’

Emma laid down her bike and joined her. ‘It’s a bit tight for a bike.’ she said.

‘There’s room enough to hide them on this side of the bushes. Let’s go for a walk.’

The trail was even narrower than they’d expected, very twisty, and not at all ideal for cycling. However, just five minutes later they were at the top of the bluff, looking into the pool from the southern side. The path down looked no less frightening than it had before.

Sally twisted her mouth in thought. ‘You know, we might just –’

‘No.’ said Emma firmly. ‘This time there is no we. If you want to be crazy, this one you do on your own.’

‘Fraidy cat.’ said Sally smiling.

‘Grown up.’ countered Emma. And on that responsible note, they walked back to their bikes, and rode home to Emma’s.

‘You know,’ said Sally as Emma handed her her gin, ‘if I can get my bike down to the Beck pool, that flying fox is absolutely in play, because then there is a third way out, and nobody would expect it.’

‘Yes dear.’ said Emma primly, as if pretending to indulge a husband’s latest prognostication.

◆◆◆

Back at the castle, Freddy and James had packed up once Sally and Emma had reached the trees surrounding the flying fox, and ridden down to see where they’d been. In the lead, James received the same surprise as Sally. He managed to save himself by grabbing hold of a stout branch as the track disappeared in front of him, but he couldn’t save the bike, which tumbled down to the stream below.

‘Well, look on the bright side,’ said Freddy looking at the tangle of twisted metal in the water below, ‘perhaps now the boss will fork out for mountain bikes. He’s going to have to cough up for a new one in any case, might as well get a good one.’

They walked down to the pool to retrieve the ruined machine, and then fossicked around, looking for anything that might point to Terry Walker. In the end they gave up and carried the wreckage back to the top and walked back to the BnB.

‘There’s more to those two women than meets the eye.’ said James as he opened the front door. ‘They’ve got a sense of purpose that goes way beyond a bit of exercise.’

◆◆◆

May and June passed swiftly, with Sally and Emma fitting their explorations around Sally’s painting. Then, in early July they got their first big break, just a few hundred yards from Sally’s own front door.

Wick Lane was a strange little road that ran across the top of Throcking from her place at the north western corner of the village, to Peregrin’s house at the north east, before winding downhill to the golf course and the sea. Originally a drover’s track, it went around the rest of the village without intersecting it and as such got very little traffic. Sally was used to having it to herself, so she was more than a little surprised that day when someone wheeled a bicycle through a gap in the hedge. An even bigger surprise was who it was. She knew that Thomlinson lived on Messines Road of course, but she hadn’t realised that he had a back entrance onto the lane. None of the other properties along there did! Why him of all people?!

Thinking quickly, she cycled past without giving any signs of recognition, before risking a look over her shoulder. He was cycling back towards her place, so she turned and followed. Initially the plan was to hang back so he wouldn’t spot her, but very quickly she realised that hanging on to him at all was going to be a much bigger challenge. His ten speed racing bike was much quicker than her mountain bike and he effortlessly pulled away. By standing on her pedals as hard as she could, she managed to keep him in sight until he reached the end of Wick Lane, but then he vanished as he turned south down the hill. Completely out of breath, Sally got to the end of the road just in time to see him exit the bottom of the public access zigzag path, cross the main road into the Sky river valley lanes and disappear amongst the hedgerows.

Thoughtfully, she turned and resumed her original ride. When she got to his gap in the hedge, she pulled over and had a good look. It was definitely his place. She could see the nose of his car down the side of the house. Well, well, well…

She abandoned her planned visit to the McEwans, and instead spent a happy few hours exploring the trails in the hills above Thomlinson’s place, looking for good vantage points to see into his property. For the next three weeks, Sally and Emma spent whole days up there, ostensibly photographing butterflies.

‘Have we seen enough of his comings and goings yet?’ asked Emma, in the bored tones of a child asking when they could go home.

Sally nodded. ‘I think we’ve nailed his routine now. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon, he pushes through the hedge just after one, regular as clockwork. The question now is, where does he go? We can’t really follow him into the lanes without raising his suspicions.’

Emma pursed her lips in thought. ‘Why don’t we go up to Throcking Castle and watch from there? It’s the highest hill around, and looks right down the valley. We should be able to see him often enough between the hedgerows that we can work out his route.’

Sally beamed. ‘Great idea! Let’s do that.’

At the end of the following week, Sally was happy. He always followed the same route, and did three laps on each run.

◆◆◆

Freddy and James had been busy too of course. Their boss had coughed up for a pair of mountain bikes after the accident and they’d used them to good effect, splitting up to cover the ground quicker. By the end of June though, they hadn’t found a trace of Walker anywhere. With a similar lack of progress on finding the stolen safe, their boss called it a day and pulled them off onto other jobs.

For James in particular though, it was unfinished business. ‘He’s here somewhere, I can feel it.’ he said as he and Freddy drove through Throcking for the last time. ‘And those two women have something to do with it. I don’t know how but they do.’

Freddy mused. ‘Well they were certainly watching Thomlinson when I came across them last week at Throcking Castle. Could have been a coincidence though.’

James shook his head. ‘Nope. They’re up to something.’

‘Oh well,’ sighed Freddy, ‘no sense in stressing about it. We’re off to sunny Italy tomorrow, so Thomlinson will just have to look after himself.’

◆◆◆

On the second Wednesday in August, Sally pulled out the Ordinance Survey map and laid it on the kitchen table.

‘You’re remembering I’m going to France next week, to study oils technique with Michelle Lelong and won’t be back until the end of October?’ she asked.

Emma frowned. ‘I remember. But why do you have to do it now when the weather’s so nice for exploring?’

Sally sighed. ‘I know, I know. It isn’t the best timing for sure, but Michelle tends to make these offers just the once.’ Then she smiled. ‘How about I bring back a case of champagne to say sorry?’

Emma laughed. ‘Okay, fair enough. What’s the plan while you’re gone?’

Sally pointed on the map to the hills and trails north of Little Throcking and Throcking Castle. ‘We haven’t explored any of these yet, so I’d like you to give them a good scouring. We need to know which trails can take bikes, and even the ones where the Range Rover might be able to go.’

‘That’s no problem.’ said Emma. ‘I’m fit enough now to do that in the next ten weeks.’

‘Excellent!’ said Sally. ‘Now, the one I want us to do before I go to France is to look at Wesser Bech. Today.’

Emma paled. ‘I don’t really want to go there! What if we meet Bob Harland?’

Sally shook her head. ‘On a week day? Unlikely, but even if we do, so what? We’ve a perfect right to be there! However, I thought you’d be uncomfortable about it, so I have a plan.’

She pointed to the map again. ‘There’s just the one road into the western end of the village, so there’s no choice there. But you can take the road down along the beach past the Anchor where your boys did their thing, while I take Larkin Road, above the pub, to scope out Harland’s house. I’ll come down the steps at the eastern end and meet you on the beach. Then we’ll head east along the coast to the mouth of the Gelt, and up the river to the main road. You’ll only be in the village itself for about three minutes.’

Emma still looked deeply unhappy, but nodded her agreement.

Two hours later she was cycling past the Anchor as slowly as possible so she wouldn’t have to wait by the steps at the other end, but she needn’t have worried. Sally was already remounting her bike when Emma drew level.

‘It was easy to spot.’ said Sally. ‘Not exactly loved! The garden’s overgrown, the paint’s peeling, the windows are filthy, and the roof has a few slates missing. Just what you’d expect! Come on, let’s get out of here.’

At the mouth of the Gelt river, there were no cliffs like those at the Sky, but the hills were still quite steep and close to the beach. Nevertheless, right where the river met the sea was a lovely area of short grass where people could sit, play, or picnic.

‘Lots of dog walkers here! The evidence is everywhere!’ laughed Emma, steering carefully around the many piles.

A short distance up river, they found a little used four-wheel-drive track twisting up the steep hill to their left. It was a tough pull on a bike, the steepness exacerbated by the loose surface, but after a few hundred yards they found themselves back on the main road.

‘Well,’ said Sally ‘this gives us possibilities!’

Emma looked at her quizzically. ‘To do what exactly?’

Sally grinned. ‘To dump a body!’





4 A lunch with spice




Sally celebrated her return on the third of November by taking Emma to lunch at the Cutty Sark café. They sat at the bench table by the window, looking out across the road to the sea, and pored over the map as they ate their pies, sandwiches and cakes. Emma was giving Sally chapter and verse on what she’d discovered in the hills, when they heard a familiar voice behind them.

‘Hello mum. Enjoying your lunch?’

Emma looked up. ‘Alan! What a nice surprise. Do you want to join us?’

Alan looked at the number of cakes still left on the table and smiled. ‘I don’t see why not. There seems to be more than enough left!’ He sat down and leaned in confidentially. ‘What I really wanted to tell you though, is that Holmes is in Miss Helen’s place again! I reckon he goes to see her every week! Must cost him a fortune.’

Sally stared at him. ‘Who, or what, is Miss Helen?’

Alan grinned. ‘I understand she offers specialised services to gentlemen who like strong women.’

‘Ooooooh!’ said Sally. ‘Now that is interesting!’

Emma rolled her eyes.

Sally ignored her, and asked. ‘Which place is hers?’

‘Just across the street, a little way up, the dark wooden door with the iron knocker.’ said Alan, selecting a piece of chocolate cake.

Sally examined the door keenly.

‘Blackmail’s illegal you know.’ said Emma quietly.

‘And so is slander.’ added Alan, tucking into a nice piece of fudge.

Sally sipped her tea. ‘I never said a word!’ But her mind was in overdrive about the intriguing possibilities Miss Helen might offer.

The following day, Sally drove to Soho in London because the information she needed was not to be found in the tiny worlds of Throcking or Dalton. She worked her way through half a dozen adult stores, coming away with a large collection of magazines and a few videos.

Emma arrived the following morning in response to Sally’s flags and sat down to a fresh pot of coffee at the kitchen table.

'I did a lot of thinking yesterday.' said Sally. ‘Beyond mapping out Thomlinson’s routine we haven’t discussed how we’re going to go about catching these guys. I think we have to get Holmes first.’

‘Why?’ asked Emma.

‘Because he’s the smartest of the bunch, smart enough to infer a possible threat to himself if one of the others is killed, and definitely after a second. So he needs to go first and this Miss Helen business might just give us what we need to do it.’

Emma opened her hands, silently asking, ‘Explain.’

'I was wondering if Miss Helen might like an assistant from time to time.' continued Sally.

'Oh that would do wonders for your reputation!' laughed Emma. 'And in any case, Holmes would recognise you.'

'Not as myself silly.' giggled Sally. 'I’ll need an alter ego, and transport, a cover story, and to know at least something about what I'm doing. I made a trip to London yesterday, and brought back a few things that will help us learn a little bit about Miss Helen's world.'

She retrieved the magazines and videos and spread them on the table. Emma's eyes bulged as she flipped through the first of the magazines.

'Oh my word! Do we really have to?' she said looking at a welted bottom.

'Think of it as furthering your education.' laughed Sally. 'But I tell you what, I'm the one that's going to have to know this stuff, not you. So why don't you look through these magazines and see if you can find Miss Helen? There's bound to be an ad in here for her. We need a phone number, and a rough idea of what she's into.'

'I can see quite enough of what she's into!' grimaced Emma.

'No you can't.' said Sally. 'This is a huge world, with almost infinite variation. She won't do all of it. She will have some specialist areas. We need to find out what they are.'

For the next hour the two women worked their way through the pile of magazines. Just when Sally was about to suggest a break for morning tea, Emma quietly announced. 'I've found her.'

And there she was, a three line advertisement in the back of one of the magazines.

'So,' said Sally, 'she’s a form of governess. She’s into discipline, corporal punishment, control and feminisation.'

'What the hell does that mean?' asked Emma.

'It means she's into boys doing what she tells them to, hitting them with things, and dressing them up as girls.’

She pushed her chair back from the table, and went to make a pot of tea. ‘Which is great to know, because it means I don't have to learn about nurses, rubber freaks, leather freaks, pony boys, or any of the rest of it. I just need to focus on these few areas.'

'Thank heaven for small mercies!' said Emma.

Sally returned with the tea. 'Well for a start, we can winnow this little lot down to a much smaller pile.' She rapidly went through the mound of magazines and videos, flicking the irrelevant ones back into the box. She was left with half a dozen magazines, and three films.

'Right, that's my alter ego research area defined, but there’s one more thing you and I need to firm up today. Who are our confirmed targets, and who’s going to kill who?’

'I thought we'd already agreed who the targets are?' asked Emma. 'Holmes, Thomlinson, Richard and Bob Harland.'

Sally nodded. ‘Yes, but it could be a problem if we do all of them. Partly it’s going to depend on who kills who.’

Emma hung her head. ‘I’ve been losing sleep over this. I’m fine just imagining chucking someone down a hole like I told you the day we met, but I know I won’t be able to actually do it. I just don’t have it in me.’

She looked up sorrowfully. ‘I’ve made it all a complete waste of time. I’m so sorry!’

Sally patted her hand. ‘No you haven’t. Lots of conscripted soldiers never fire their weapons at the enemy because they can’t bear the thought of killing anyone. So you’re in good company, and I’m fine with that. But would you be okay playing a supporting role? If all you needed to do was scout things out, run errands and act as a decoy sometimes, would you be okay doing that?’

Emma thought deeply.

‘Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear Emma. You need to tell me the truth. Are you okay riding shotgun for me if I do the killing?’ asked Sally gently. ‘If I start this Miss Helen thing, I don’t want to abandon it six months down the track because you get cold feet. So be honest with me now. I promise I won’t be cross. We agreed that it might turn out to be just a game. This is the moment we decide.’

Emma took another minute to think things through. 'I guess that's fair. You'd be taking a hell of a lot of risk, and doing most of the work. I guess I can take a little heat, but only if we have the alibis all solid for me and the boys.'

Sally held her hand. ‘Are you really certain? I want you to be sure.’

Emma’s grief was still raw at times, and she’d had another bad night thinking of George. She narrowed her eyes. ‘I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.’

Sally nodded. ‘Okay then, we’re agreed. Now, here’s the problem. If we do both Harlands then things are going to point back to us as a partnership. Peregrin knows we’re friends so the chances of getting away with that are almost nil. If we just do Dick Harland then it points to me, and as I'm the one doing the killing, that won't fly either.’

‘But if we leave Richard alive and just kill Bob, that will point things towards you and the boys, giving me a free hand to wipe out the evidence. But you three would have to have bullet proof alibis, as you just said.'

Emma smiled properly for the first time in the discussion. ‘Then here’s to alibis!” and held up her teacup.

Sally smiled back. ‘Here’s to alibis, and to progress.'

The cups clinked gently, and they resumed their studies.





5 Preparing the ground




It had been nine months since Sally and Emma had met and they had to wait at least twelve more to put enough time between George's death and their planned revenge. It was also essential that the outside world continued to believe that both of them were moving on with their