© Tony Irvin
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Thanks to YWO critique and feedback, Operation Fruit-Bat has been revised and is now available on Amazon and Kindle.
Archibald Bracegirdle was not good with blood. He was fine, when the vital fluid was coursing through veins, pumping round arteries, trotting about delivering nutrients to distant extremities or doing its gaseous exchange thing in lungs. The problem arose when it escaped. With some people it was spiders, or open spaces, or snakes – ladders, even. With Archie it was blood. He was not troubled by strangulations, drownings or poisonings. Blood: no, particularly if it was slopping, spouting, spurting, or even trickling. Why are these details important? Suffice it to say they are relevant in the context of the circumstances surrounding Operation Fruit-Bat, certain aspects of which must, in the national interests of two countries, remain vague. In the fullness of time, the exploits of Mwangi and Bracegirdle may come to be placed in the public domain; until then one can do no more than lift a corner of the veil and begin with the disturbing events at Mendlesham Hall in the mid-nineteen-sixties.
Lord Mendlesham was not noted for restraint when entertaining his former Kenyan colleagues. The previous night had been no exception and Archie’s head still throbbed from the excesses. He groaned as he burrowed under the bed-covers in a futile attempt to shut out exuberant wood pigeons, squabbling jackdaws and shafts of morning light, which conspired in preventing restful repose.
Archie froze, trying through his befuddled brain, to identify the sound.
It was not sinister or threatening; more questioning – apologetic even, like a courteous Labrador enquiring about dinner – but definitely demanding attention. One couldn’t be too careful, though. His brain over-rode the lingering effects of alcohol. His training slipped into gear. He reached for the pistol under the pillow. He lined it up in the direction of the sound and released a cautious eye to rove from the security of the covers. It alighted on a pair of immaculate safari boots. He allowed the eye to travel upwards, over neatly-pressed fawn trousers to an impeccable pale blue shirt, Old Harrovian tie and navy blazer, surmounted by a black face.
‘Good morning, sir.’
‘What are you doing creeping into my bedroom and ahemming at this hour of the morning; any hour for that matter?’
‘I trust I did not incommode you, sir.’
‘Incommode? Where on earth do you get words like that from?’
‘I fear that is Oxford, sir. Perhaps Harrow. And please put the pistol away.’
‘You know, Mwangi, you should be more circumspect; sneaking in like that. I could have shot you.’
‘Not, I think, with the safety-catch on.’
‘What? Oh well, yes. Anyway, take note, Mwangi. Take note.’
‘Very good, sir.’
Archie studied the intruder reflectively, or was it ponderingly? Adverbs were not his strong point. ‘Mwangi, I don’t know why you still call me “sir”; we’ve been working together now for over five years.’
‘I fear it is a legacy from my subservient days.’
‘When were—? Never mind, but don’t you think we should be on first name terms?’
‘I’m not sure that would be wise.’
‘Oh come now. You call me Archie, and I’ll call you— What should I call you?’
Mwangi gave a slight cough and winced. ‘My first name is Prudence.’
‘Prudence!’ Archie’s lapse of composure would have been detected by only the most percipient of observers.
‘Precisely, sir. My mother was under the misguided conception, if you’ll pardon the pun, that the fruit of her loins would be a girl.’
‘You don’t look like a girl.’
‘Thank you, sir. Even my mother noted that fact, but nonetheless, having persuaded herself of my gender during the gestation, decided, somewhat ill-advisedly, to retain the name since she surmised it could equally well apply to a boy.’
‘What about your father?’
‘He was, er… away at the time. Indeed, my mother has led me to believe, that apart from a brief sojourn during the conception, he has been away all the time. She doesn’t recall his name.’
‘So no dandling on the knee or romps on the hearth rug stuff, then?’
‘That’s a bit rough.’
Archie looked up sharply. ‘Is that Oxford?’
‘I do beg your pardon, sir: the Bronx.’
‘When were you in—? It doesn’t matter.’
One thing Archie learned, in the time that he and Mwangi had known each other, was that the latter tended to be economical when it came to enlightenment. This occasion was no exception and Mwangi clearly saw no reason to amplify the details of his time in the Bronx or of the circumstances surrounding his nativity.
‘So, we stick to Mwangi?’ said Archie.
‘Indeed, sir; not least because the subterfuge may induce in the uninitiated a sense of complacency which may not be wholly disadvantageous.’
‘You think so?’
‘Undoubtedly. Aardvark is perhaps a case in point.’
‘Aardvark? You don’t mean—?’
‘Hmm. You’re right. Mwangi it is; and Mwangi it shall remain.’
‘I assure you, sir, omnibus perpensis, it is in our best interests to retain the status quo.’
‘Rather. Absolutely.’ Archie flung back the covers to reveal to the world – had it been watching – a thirty somethingish Caucasian male with short fair hair, matching eyebrows, dashing moustache, and blue eyes. His bronzed features, honed physique and relaxed demeanour led women to surmise he was in the commandoes and had served in the tropics; and men that he was a scoutmaster. He did nothing to disabuse people of their preconceptions, both of which were wrong.
He sat up and placed the pistol in the drawer of the bedside-table, conscious of Mwangi’s reproving look.
‘What? I keep all essentials there: pistol, wallet, keys and… and other thingies.’
‘I will not seek further enlightenment, sir, but I fear should someone enter your room with nefarious intent—’
‘There you go, again.’
‘I was merely observing, sir, that the top drawer of the bedside table would be the first place such a miscreant would look.’
Archie scowled. ‘Anyway, Mwangi, what’s the time?’
‘Just after eight, sir. I reiterate my apologies for the clandestine entry but I felt under the circumstances, that it would be unwise to alert other members of the household.’
Archie deepened the scowl, added a touch of censure and put on his slippers.
‘I’ve brought you some tea.’ Mwangi set a tray on the chest of drawers and began fiddling with the teapot. ‘I would not normally impose at such an incommodious hour, sir, but I fear the gravity of the situation renders it to be a matter of some importance.’
‘Is that so?’
Mwangi drew back the curtains. ‘Ah, jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.’
‘I confess, sir, I was moved to hyperbole by the radiance of the day and spoke in metaphors.’
‘Do you mean it’s sunny outside?’
‘You haven’t answered my question, Mwangi.’
‘Which question was that?’
‘About gravity and things.’
‘I thought your utterance was more in the nature of a rhetorical observation rather than a desire for enlightenment.’
‘Come off it, Mwangi. When I say “is that so?” in response to your juxtaposition of “gravity”, “situation” and “importance”, I expect to
‘Very well, sir. It is about the body in the trunk of your car.’
‘Do you mean the boot?’
‘Yes, sir. Do you take milk?’
‘What about the body?’
‘I was wondering if you were aware of its presence.’
‘Certainly. I intend to have it stuffed.’
‘Stuffed, Mwangi, and roasted. I would have thought that was clear enough. Sage and onion with a touch of rosemary should suffice. I’m planning to serve it when Lord Mendlesham comes to a lunch party at my place on Thursday; repay him for his hospitality.’ Archie flinched, as a particularly unpleasant gremlin began hammering his eyeballs. ‘Sort of return fixture.’
‘I regret, sir, Lord Mendlesham will not be able to attend your luncheon.’
‘Why? Does he have a prior engagement?’
‘I fear that his engagement days are over.’
‘Over? Past? Finished?’
‘Yes, sir. It is Lord Mendlesham who is in your car.’
Archie bestowed on Mwangi a look he had learned from his housemaster when at school. ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘A glass of red wine with dinner last night, sir. I find the carminative effect of the pinot noir grapes very soothing on the bowels.’
‘Mwangi, if I wish to be informed about the state of your bowels I will ask. Otherwise please keep the bulletins on their wellbeing to yourself and, yes, I do take milk.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said, operating the milk jug.
‘For your information, Mwangi, the body in the boot of my car is a goose. It was a present from Lord Mendlesham to the Kenyan Foreign Minister in return for his opening the charity fete here yesterday. You know, that thing in aid of the… the…’
‘The Nyumba, sir.’
‘That’s the one. As you know, Mwangi, the Minister was called back to Kenya at short notice and couldn’t take the goose, so he kindly gave it to me.’
‘Most considerate, sir. One lump or two?’
‘One, please.’ Archie slipped into musing mode. ‘Charles Njenga and I were at Bradfield together.’
‘One of the lesser public schools, I believe?’
‘You know it?’
‘No, sir. Teams from Harrow never ventured into the more rustic parts of Berkshire. Eton was the furthest we went. Your tea, sir.’
‘Thank you, Mwangi.’ Archie took the cup and began sipping while he pondered on halcyon days. ‘Best centre-forward we ever had.’
‘I understand he has now turned his hand to polo.’
‘Wriggle his way through anything; that’s why we called him Snake Hips.’
‘The sobriquet would seem to be apt for a politician.’
‘Explain yourself, Mwangi. No, don’t bother.’ Archie sighed. ‘Happy days, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir, but I fear they are now less tranquil.’
‘Presumably SH was summoned back to Kenya over Fruit-Bat.’
‘I assume that was the case, sir.’
‘Anyway, since he left me the goose, I would now like it plucked and stuffed ready for Thursday.’
‘If I am able to locate the bird in question I will arrange personally to have it prepared with all expediency.’
‘Thank you, Mwangi. What wine would you advise; something light to temper the richness of the goose?’
‘You still plan to proceed with the luncheon?’
‘Most certainly. The absence of one guest should not compromise—’
‘May I, therefore, suggest a Beaujolais cru.’
‘Excellent suggestion, Mwangi. Crack on with the goose, then.’
‘Perhaps, when his lordship is removed, the goose will come to light and I will be able to concur with your wishes. In the meantime, what would you wish me to do with his body?’
Archie frowned. ‘Do you mean body: as in corpse, carcase, cadaver?’
‘Yes, sir, a stiff.’
‘The Bronx, again?’
Mwangi sniffed; presumably in affirmation. ‘In view of his recall to Nairobi, Snake Hip— Mr Njenga, had to make an early departure this morning and when I accompanied him to his car, I noticed a pool of blood beneath—’
‘—a pool of blood beneath—’
Archie shivered again.
‘—a pool of red substance beneath your car which was parked alongside. On opening the trunk, I found—’
‘Mwangi, I do wish you would refrain from this transatlantic vernacular. The term is boot.’
‘Very good, sir. On opening the item in question—’
‘But the boot was locked. I checked before I went to bed.’
Mwangi offered an enigmatic smile, but again no enlightenment.
Archie chose not to wait in vain for illumination but merely registered his disapproval with a glower which he hoped Mwangi would record for future reference. ‘Lord Mendlesham, you say?’
‘The late Lord Mendlesham.’
Archie’s eyebrows shot skywards. ‘Great Scott, Mwangi, you don’t think there could be some connection between Lord M’s demise and Snake Hip’s precipitate departure?’
‘I would not wish to conjecture, sir.’
‘You’re sure it was Lord Mendlesham?’
‘I confess I did not examine the corpse in detail or check for name-tapes on clothing, but if you recall, his lordship’s features are rather distinctive and I do not think I was deceived.’
‘I always thought he looked like a frog.’
‘Although I would not articulate such sentiments myself, the allusion is perhaps apposite.’
‘So, what’s he doing climbing into the boot of my car and croaking?’
‘Very witty, if I may say so.’
‘Your allusion to frogs and croaking.’
Archie repeated the baleful glower. ‘Why couldn’t the confounded fellow go and croak somewhere else? Damned thoughtless, could compromise the whole operation.’
‘I agree that the timing of his demise is most unfortunate but I hardly think his lordship had much say in the matter.’
‘There is a simi sticking out of his chest.’
By now, Archie was getting the hang of shivering. ‘What, one of those dagger things used by the Maasai?’
Mwangi inclined his head. ‘In deference to your haemophobia, sir, I took the precaution of covering the late Lord Mendlesham with a blanket. However, in case you should wish to inspect—’
‘Absolutely not, Mwangi, a cadaver with a dagger sticking out of its chest would be at the top of my aversion scale; blanket or no blanket.’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘Who on earth would do a thing like this?’
‘I thought you might know.’
‘Me! Why me?’
‘It is your car.’
‘You’re surely not thinking—?’
Mwangi drew himself up. ‘It is not my place to think. I merely observe.’
‘And what do your observations lead you to conclude, may I ask?’ said, with asperity.
‘Since you aver you were not implicated —’
‘I do, most emphatically.’
‘Sorry.’ Archie dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief.
‘No, sir. Since you vigorously assert or asseverate you were not implicated, I can only surmise that a person or persons unknown dispatched his lordship and placed his body in the trunk—’
Mwangi sniffed. ‘—the rear luggage compartment of your car, presumably with the intention of implicating you in his death.’
‘Sir, you should know by now that, on principle, I never explain. However, I may amplify, if pressed.’
‘Go on, then; amplify away.’
‘Lord Mendlesham, as you will recall, is of slight build, and I would venture to suggest that a woman of sporty physique and murderous intent would – as well as a man similarly disposed – be perfectly capable of carrying out the deed and then placing his body in the trunk—’
‘Boo— Oh, forget it!’
‘—of your car before you locked it.’
Archie returned to musing mode. ‘Who else knows about Lord Mendlesham?’
‘Apart from the perpetrator, or perpetrators, and ourselves; no one.’
‘Good. We should keep it that way.’
‘Indeed, sir, but I fear her ladyship and Miss Felicity might notice his lordship’s absence, and the staff might begin to talk.’
‘Hmm.’ Archie chewed the lower lip. ‘We can’t leave him in the car. Besides, I need the space for my luggage.’
‘I believe there would be sufficient room alongside his lordship.’
‘Yes, but how long before his disappearance is noticed?’ Archie made a pretty good effort at knitting the brows and Mwangi was clearly impressed. ‘Damn this Fruit-Bat business!’
‘It certainly complicates matters.’
‘None of this must come out, until that’s sorted.’
‘My sentiments entirely, sir. In the meantime, I feel we should move with some alacrity since it is my experience that cadavers tend to decay rather rapidly in tropical climates, and in view of the clement weather we are currently experiencing, I believe—’
‘All right, you don’t have to spell it out. The question is: what do we do?’
‘I think, sir, you should hand the body over to the police.’
‘Me? Why—? All right, I know, my car.’
Archie wasn’t sure if Mwangi was capable of cherubic smiles – those Reubens-like things he’d seen in some art gallery or other – but he gave a good impression.
‘However, in the light of his lordship’s associations with FIDO, sir, you should impress on the police, the importance of absolute discretion in this matter. It may also be expedient to inform Bulldog.’
‘As bad as that?’
‘I fear so.’
‘On second thoughts, Mwangi, I’ll cancel the lunch.’
‘Very wise, sir. More tea?’
Most people would welcome a drive through the Wiltshire countryside on a warm spring morning: lambs gambolling in verdant pastures alongside frolicking hares, the scent of bluebells wafting through car windows, and country-folk touching forelocks as one drove past with a cheery wave. Most people, however, would not be transporting a recently-deceased peer of the realm in the boot of their car; hence Archie’s failure to join in pastoral jollity. Nor did most people work for FIDO, the Foreign Intelligence and Defence Organisation – a suitably vague title to disguise the remit of this covert organisation, headed by – the identity must perforce remain confidential.
Thanks to FIDO, Archie was trained in SCUBA diving, surveillance techniques and desert-survival (eating scorpions, drinking his own urine; that sort of thing). He knew how to placate rapacious lions, hypnotise snakes and interpret the flight of vultures. In view of this background – notwithstanding the absence of vultures in this part of England – Mwangi insisted he could manage the Wiltshire constabulary on his own, pointing out that, were he also to go, his complexion might not go unnoticed. A valid point. Archie would simply place the matter in the hands of the police who knew about things like incidents, procedures and body-bags, and if he tipped one of them a couple of quid he’d probably throw in the goose for good measure.
With his strategy in place, Archie drew up outside a pub, once called the Prickled Hedgehog, but following some malicious erasing in the past, the R was missing. This brought the pub a degree of fame, which it would never have attained through its hospitality, and it had become something of a tourist attraction – except for today. But Archie’s mind was elsewhere. Next door was a mock Tudor building which purported to be a police establishment serving Wiltshire’s rural community. He checked front and rear mirrors for signs of surveillance. Satisfied he was unnoticed, he slipped into the building.
‘… and when did you discover she was missing?’ An officer of the law was taking details from a harassed-looking woman dressed in a woollen cardigan, tweed skirt and straw hat with artificial flowers. Despite the unlikelihood of rain this side of Christmas, she was clutching an umbrella and wearing Wellington boots. Archie was trained to notice such detail.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, waving a hand to attract attention. ‘I have a body—’
The officer looked up. ‘One moment, please, sir. Now, madam?’
‘But this concerns—’
‘I’ll attend to you as soon as I can, sir.’
Archie began pacing, which, due to the confines of the building, involved three strides in one direction and three in the other.
The officer supplemented his censorious frown with a baleful expression.
Archie stopped pacing and engaged surveillance mode. While apparently conducting a nonchalant perusal of notices about fowl pest and Colorado beetles, he listened in on their conversation.
‘… got up this morning, officer, I found her bed hadn’t been slept in.’
‘Not slept in,’ – detail dutifully recorded. ‘And what might she have been wearing when she went missing?’
‘She wouldn’t have been wearing anything.’
‘Not wearing… Are you sure?’
‘And this is your daughter?’
‘Oh no. I don’t have children of my own but she’s like a child to me.’
‘I see.’ The officer inhaled deeply. ‘Can you describe her? Let’s start with hair colour.’
‘A beautiful ginger, lovely and silky. And she has these gorgeous long ears.’
The policeman paused, pen in mid-air.
‘And she answers to the name of Toffee.’
‘A rather unusual name for a person, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, it’s not a person; it’s a rabbit. Didn’t I say?’
‘No, you did not.’ The officer set down his pen. ‘Anyway, rest assured, madam, we’ll do all we can to find her. I’ll alert the neighbouring force.’
‘Thank you so much, officer.’
‘In the meantime, can I suggest you look in your garden shed?’
‘What a good idea.’ The lady turned and smiled at Archie. ‘I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting.’
‘Quite all right; it’s only a matter of national security,’ he muttered.
‘Oh well.’ She turned her smile on the policeman. ‘You’ve been most helpful, officer. Thank you so much. Good morning.’
‘Good morning, madam.’
‘The garden shed. The little scallywag.’ She departed into the sunshine.
Archie turned back to the officer. ‘I don’t know; the way some people waste—’
‘I believe you mentioned a body, sir,’ he said, fiddling with incident sheets and carbon paper.
‘It’s in the boot of my car. It’s Lord Mendlesham: the late Lord Mendlesham.’
‘You’re not from round here, are you, sir?’
‘No, but what’s that got to do with the price of carrots?’ Archie gave a cavalier laugh to put the officer at ease and demonstrate his familiarity with matters agricultural in the heart of rural Wiltshire.
‘Carrots?’ He narrowed his eyes.
Archie was ready and narrowed his back. ‘Nothing. Just a figure of speech.’
‘I see.’ The policeman narrowed his further. ‘Can I ask you to stand on one foot?’
‘Please do as requested.’ He added: ‘sir,’ as an afterthought.
‘You’re surely not implying that—?’
‘Certainly not! If you don’t believe me, come and see for yourself.’ Archie strode out of the building, the officer close behind, and—
‘Is that the vehicle, sir?’ asked the policeman with heavy sarcasm.
A plumber’s van, offering to unblock Archie’s drains, was parked where he had left his car.
‘No it’s not,’ he snapped. ‘Someone’s taken it.’
‘So it would seem, sir.’ The policeman raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
‘Now listen, officer, I parked here not ten minutes ago. It is clear that someone has stolen the car and Lord Mendlesham’s body with it.’
‘Perhaps his lordship awoke and drove off.’
‘He couldn’t have done; I have the keys in my… in my…’
‘You didn’t leave them in the ignition, sir?’
‘Do I look stupid, officer?’
‘Now you mention it, sir.’
‘Pah! It was that… that rabbit-woman. She—’
‘Miss Marple, sir?’
‘Miss Marple! I cannot believe you were taken in by such a blatant falsehood. As for that nonsense about toffee and garden sheds. It was part of a plan.’
‘Yes. I see it all now.’ Archie couldn’t expect the likes of PC Plod to match his speed of thinking. He took a deep breath. ‘So what are you going to do about it, may I ask?’
The officer regarded him more in the manner of an undertaker calculating relevant measurements, than a respecter of someone who worked for FIDO. ‘I am cautioning you, sir, for wasting police time.’
Archie glowered incredulity.
‘And I could add, refusing a sobriety test. Now shove off!’ He turned back inside.
Archie was not prepared to challenge the man’s bovine intelligence by invoking FIDO, or demean himself further by parleying words with the Wiltshire constabulary who probably couldn’t even spell “sobriety,” let alone know its meaning. He squared his shoulders and was about to stalk off when—
Someone was watching him.
It was his sixth sense: a sort of tingling of the spleen, which has saved his life on more than one occasion. He slipped into the Pickled Hedgehog which, according to a notice outside, was under the proprietorship of Vera someone-or-other and currently serving coffee. He moved to a seat in the furthest and darkest corner: the wall to his left and his right hand free; sound basic training. The only other occupant, rabbit-woman, looked up from her Guinness and gave him a vague wave. He gave her an I-know-your-game sort of wave and cased the joint. Damn, Mwangi and his vernacular! … and studied the layout. No other customers, exits front and rear, toilets to the side offering possible third exit, plumber’s van still in the same place. Hmm. He studied a leaflet about a competition for the largest marrow in the village.
‘I can recommend the muffins, sir.’
Damn! He should have been more alert. He whirled round.
The startled waitress recoiled with a squeak. ‘The muffins, sir. With coffee.’
‘With coffee, eh?’ He narrowed his eyes – he’d had recent practice – and studied her for giveaway signs.
She gave a nervous smile. ‘They’re… they’re lovely and fresh.’
She was either genuine or very good.
‘The wildebeest migration is early this year,’ he murmured.
‘I’m sorry, sir, something about a feast?’
Not bad; but a living agent is a cautious agent. He leaned back in his chair and resisted the temptation to order a safari sizzler or bundu bracer. He doubted the folk of rural Wiltshire would be sufficiently broad-minded. ‘I’ll have a muffin, please, na lete kahawa.’
‘One muffin, but I didn’t get the wawa bit.’
‘Very good, sir.’ She scuttled off to talk to an older woman – presumably Vera – who was peering round the edge of a door and frowning. Perhaps the waitress had understood his Swahili after all.
He allowed an affable gaze to wander round the hunting prints, the stags’ heads and a startled-looking stuffed hedgehog – doubtless the origin of the pub’s name. He smiled at Vera, who slipped behind the door. He relaxed, confident he had matters in hand, and tapped his fingers with nonchalant abandonment. To the outside world, Archie was the archetypal country gentleman taking a relaxed morning nose-bag in a homely environment. To those familiar with the ways of FIDO, he was the epitome of the professional operative giving nothing away, while evaluating every detail around him: the layout, the people, the position of the sun and the behaviour of sparrows in the dust outside the open doorway. The van was still there. He filed away particulars of make, model, colour, registration, contact details of the purported plumbing services – they needed to be checked – and the sticker in the back window which read: “Coarse fishermen do it on the river bank.” A coded message, perhaps?
Someone was approaching.
One eye wandered back to the marrow leaflet, the other roved: a technique he’d perfected after months of studying chameleons. Except for the independently-moving eyes, it was impossible to detect any change in his relaxed demeanour. The roving eye alighted first on plimsolls shuffling towards him, then a gingham apron, then a tray which trembled slightly, and finally a terrified expression.
He brought both eyes back in focus and conjured up his most winsome – the correct adjective for the occasion, he felt – smile.
‘Yo-yo-your co-co-coffee, s-s-sir. And mu-mu-mu-mu—’
He wasn’t sure how long she would keep up the mu-mumming, so changed the smile to a grin. ‘Stirred not shaken, I trust.’
‘Aah!’ She plonked the tray down; then scuttled away to retreat to rural anonymity and the less demanding task of raising children.
People who brushed with FIDO had to accept the consequences.
Archie went back to the marrow leaflet – by now, he knew it by heart – and munched muffins.
The van was still there.
He had a second cup of coffee and munched more muffins.
The entrance door opened. A well-built – in terms of muscle, rather than bust, although the latter was not unimpressive – lady with striking blonde hair entered. She wore a tracksuit and trainers.
Time to check out the Gents.
Archie rose. Externally: urbane and relaxed. Internally: coiled spring. Saunter across the room. Reach the door to the toilets. Slip inside.
The newcomer had obviously seen him but had she noticed him? He couldn’t be sure.
The Gents. Damn, no window. He crossed to the Ladies. Unoccupied. It was the work of seconds to fling open the window, climb onto the toilet seat, wriggle out and drop onto a dustbin below. The door opened. He reached up to close the window. A glimpse of blonde hair. The dustbin wobbled and collapsed. He was on his feet before the sound of the crash died away. Over the adjacent fence in a single bound. Across the newly-planted vegetable patch; ignoring the cries of “Oi! Gerorf!” Under the washing-line. Over the end wall and into an alleyway.
Left: a dead-end. He turned right. No hounds, angry gardeners or muscular women in pursuit. He switched off coiled-spring mode and strolled out into the street, hands in pockets and whistling Mozart: The Magic Flute he seemed to recall. His spleen no longer tingled.
‘Archie, fancy seeing you!’
It was but a millisecond to suppress evasive action as he recognised the mellifluous tones. He turned with a nonchalant air. ‘Felicity, what a surprise!’
The apple of Lord Mendlesham’s eye, dressed in jodhpurs, turquoise sweater and riding boots, and her hair tied back in a ponytail, was exuding spring sunshine, youthful joie de vivre and femininity as she came strolling down the pavement without a care in the world. She couldn’t have heard about her father. How the hell was he going to break the news?
‘What brings you here?’ she asked.
‘If you don’t mind my saying so, you seem somewhat… somewhat déshabillé.’
It was moments like this when Archie was at his best: the rapier mind, the incisive intuition three steps ahead of the next man – or woman. He did not, therefore, as American detective novels of the more sensationalist bent tend to purport, spill the beans. Instead, he waved a carefree hand and spoke in neutral, light-hearted tones. ‘Ce n’est rien.’ He gave her the benefit of his devil-may-care smile: the one where his eyes narrow and the left side of his mouth turns down.
‘Are you all right?’
He flicked some imaginary dust off his sleeve.
‘I thought you were going to be sick just then.’
‘Er… Thing is my car’s been stolen. I’ve just been reporting it to the police.’
‘You poor darling. Which one?’
‘The Aston Martin.’
‘Oh no! How will you get back?’
‘I’ll find a way.’ He didn’t add: I’m trained to handle this sort of thing, but she probably knew.
‘Let me give you a lift.’
‘I say, would you?’
‘But of course.’ She kissed his cheek. He immediately recognised Chanel Coco Mademoiselle eau de parfum spray and filed the information.
‘Lovely day,’ he murmured to set her at her ease.
She linked his arm and led him to her Austin-Healey convertible parked on the opposite side of the street. A lugubrious bloodhound was squeezed in behind the front seats. It regarded Archie with a baleful stare which conveyed mixed messages: can I have a slice of cake, sniff your butt, who the hell are you? Archie, who wasn’t strong on canine psychology, couldn’t decide.
‘You love your little outings, don’t you poppet?’ Felicity kissed the top of the dog’s head and it wobbled its chops as though wrestling an oversize doughnut.
‘Hop in.’ She opened the door.
Archie squeezed into the seat. The dog rested its head on his shoulder.
‘Don’t mind Holmes,’ she said. ‘As it’s such a lovely day, I thought I’d take him for a spin through the country. Get some wind through his hair, as it were.’ She fitted the dog with flying goggles and tickled its ears.
It muttered something like: ‘Sure thing, baby.’
But Archie probably imagined the last bit. The recent hours had been quite stressful.
The dog rested its head on his shoulder and proceeded to drool.
Felicity started the engine, revved up and swung out into the traffic, ignoring the blast from the irate plumber behind, who was forced to slam on his brakes.
She turned and blew him a kiss.
‘Atta, girl,’ murmured Archie.
They drove in silence for the next few miles savouring ambience, companionship and fresh air, with Holmes’s ears streaming in the wind.
Archie let the joys of spring waft over him while he admired the way Felicity eased the Austin-Healey through the bends and narrows of rural Wiltshire, one hand caressing the steering-wheel, the other stroking the gear-lever.
‘What will you do about your car?’ she asked.
‘You were miles away, Archie. I was watching you.’
‘I was watching you.’
‘I was watching you watching me. What were you thinking about?’
‘Oh, er, nothing.’
‘Fibber. I asked about your car.’
The joys of spring evaporated. ‘Jolly sporting of you to give me a lift,’ he said. Girls like Felicity expected one to talk like that.
She squeezed through the gap between an errant cow and the hedge without slackening speed. ‘Just repaying you for saving my life.’
‘Saving your life?’
‘From that beastly Layton.’
‘Layton from the coast.’
‘Wasn’t his father something in bananas?’
‘That’s the one. I was all set to marry him but that skiing holiday you arranged for us showed me his true colours.’
‘A man who cannot ski is not worthy to be your husband,’ he intoned.
‘How true,’ she murmured. ‘The rat kept the ring, though – the one I bought in Mombasa with the mermaid on it.’
‘I thought it was a grampus.’
‘On the ring.’
‘Oh. You’re probably right, Archie, now I think about it.’
There was a lapse in the conversation as she drifted through a series of rural chicanes; then she asked: ‘Do you ski, Archie?’
He shrugged. ‘I did slalom for Kenya, the year the world championships were held in Chamonix.’
‘It was nothing.’
‘Anyway, you were right about Layton. Daddy doesn’t like bananas; he would never have approved.’
Archie was whisked from his musing on the slopes of Chamonix and dumped back in the lanes of Wiltshire. ‘Felicity…’
She turned; her eyes radiant and her lips parted. ‘Yes?’
‘Watch the bloody road!’
‘Oops. Sorry.’ She swerved off the verge and back onto the tarmac just as Mendlesham Hall came into view. ‘What were you going to say?’
‘It’s about your father.’
‘What about him?’
‘I’m afraid the news isn’t—’
‘Ooh, look! Isn’t that Mwangi on Trooper?’ A figure on a horse was lining up to tackle the surrounding wall of the park.
She pulled up to watch.
‘Hurrah!’ she cried, as rider and horse sailed over the wall and gave a cheery wave – Mwangi, not the horse which was concentrating on the job in-hand.
‘Bravo!’ boomed a voice – the kind that is used for summoning recalcitrant hounds to heel. And there was Lady Mendlesham applauding from the terrace in front of the stately home.
Archie wondered how Mwangi, now galloping off towards the stables at the back, could apparently be so care-free in the light of the oppressive cloud hanging over them.
‘We’re here,’ cried Felicity, switching off the engine. ‘What were you saying, Archie?’
‘It’s about your—’
‘Tell me later. Come and say jambo to Mummy.’ She gave the steering wheel a last lingering caress. ‘There you are, Holmes. Wasn’t that fun?’ She removed the flying goggles and smoothed the dog’s ears. ‘Good boy.’
It clambered out, harrumphed and lolloped off in search of tiffin.
‘My ears also feel a bit wind-swept,’ said Archie.
‘Oh, you are a hoot!’ She ruffled his ears and kissed his cheek.
He could get used to that sort of thing. Chanel Coco Mademoiselle registered once again.
Felicity scrambled out of the car. ‘Race you,’ she cried, kicking up her fetlocks and cantering across the lawn towards her mother who was taking elevenses on the terrace, Holmes now in attendance at her feet.
Archie followed at a more leisurely pace trying to wipe the drool from his jacket.
‘Come and join us, Archie,’ boomed Lady Mendlesham.
‘Thanks,’ he called, as he followed Felicity across the lawn. He liked Lady Mendlesham. Despite the lungs of brass, she had a heart of gold. A good egg.
He arrived on the terrace to see a sumptuous breakfast-cum-elevenses-cum-luncheon laid out before her.
‘Just having a little snack,’ she explained through a mouthful of crumpet.
‘Jolly good,’ he said, or something equally banal.
‘Mummy, Archie’s car’s been stolen,’ said Felicity. ‘The Aston Martin.’
‘How tiresome. Darling, go and ask Jenkins to bring more crumpets.’ This to Felicity; then turning to Archie. ‘One can’t have too many crumpets on a day like this.’
‘No, rather. So good of you to invite us to stay.’
‘Nonsense. We Kenyans must stick together.’
Felicity laid a hand on his arm. ‘Just going to slip into something loose,’ she said, tossing her ponytail and running off. ‘I’ll tell Jenkins,’ she called over her shoulder.
‘Sit down, Archie. Sit down. Help yourself.’ Her ladyship waved a crumpet over the spread then passed it to Holmes who swallowed it whole and made gruffling noises followed by intermittent flatulence.
‘Good boy,’ said Lady Mendlesham.
Now was Archie’s chance. ‘Lady Mendlesham—’
‘Oh, do call me Lavinia.’
‘Er, yes. The thing is, Lavinia, I want to say how sorry I am about his lordship’s d—’ He nearly said “demise”, but wanted to soften the blow. ‘— about his disappearance.’
Lady Mendlesham, Lavinia, that is, frowned. ‘Where’s he gorn orf to this time?’
‘He hasn’t exactly gorn orf – I mean, gone off – anywhere; it’s a bit more permanent than that.’
‘Nonsense. He’ll be back for the twelfth.’
‘The glorious twelfth. Start of the grouse season in August. He’d never miss that.’
‘He will this year.’ Archie took a deep breath. ‘He’s dead.’
‘He can’t be.’
‘I’m afraid he is.’ The conversation began to degenerate into pantomime: Oh yes, he is. Oh no, he isn’t. ‘Oh yes, he is,’ he said.
‘How do you know? Have you seen his body?’
‘Well, no not exactly, but it was in the boot of my car.’
‘What was it doing there?’
‘The one that was stolen. Mwangi saw it: the body, that is.’
‘I really am most—’
‘Ah, here’s Mwangi now. He can explain.’
Mwangi, having just stepped out of a Regency film-set, was resplendent in highly-buffed riding boots, cream breeches, matching shirt and a blue silk bandana round his neck. He came onto the terrace tapping his boots with a riding crop. ‘Lavinia, my condolences,’ he cried, taking her ladyship’s hand and kissing it.
‘Oh, Mwangi, you and your Oxford ways,’ she simpered. ‘I say it was rather splendid the way you handled Trooper over that wall. Do have a crumpet.’
He accepted the offering. ‘One likes to keep one’s hand in,’ he said modestly.
‘Tell me, Mwangi, is it true you rowed for Oxford?’
He gave a self-deprecating chuckle. ‘Rode as in riding, Lavinia; not rowed, as in rowing. My riverine pursuits were limited to punting down the charming backwaters of the English language.’
‘Oh, Mwangi, how deliciously pretentious!’
‘I do apologise, Lavinia. But to answer your question, I played polo for Oxford.’ He gave Archie a condescending smile. ‘We beat Cambridge three years on the trot – as it were.’
Archie pretended not to hear and scowled in the direction of a peacock which was sidling towards them muttering under its breath.
‘Bravo!’ she boomed. ‘Rupert was at Oxford.’
‘Bully for him.’
‘What was that, Archie?’
She puckered the noble eyebrows then tossed a crumpet in the direction of the peacock. ‘There you are, Lord Percy.’
The peacock pounced and proceeded to rip the thing apart, presumably having been trained by the local hunt.
‘Isn’t he a dear?’
‘Looks more like a vulture than a deer,’ murmured Archie, but she wasn’t listening.
‘Now, what’s all this nonsense about Rupert being in the back of some car or other?’
Mwangi gave Archie a pained look then turned to Lady Mendlesham. ‘I fear it’s true, Lavinia.’
‘Well, I refuse to believe it until I’ve seen the body.’ She stiffened the upper lip and sank her formidable incisors into another crumpet.
It is on such occasions that one can truly appreciate the unyielding spirit of the English nobility, the way they cope with tragedy and misfortune. How staunch. How resolute. Archie squared his shoulders with Churchillian pride at the steadfastness of the nation’s aristocracy. Rooks cawed in distant oaks, the scent of hawthorn blossom filled the air, the first swallows of spring twittered overhead and a lowing herd wound slowly o’er the lea. He was proud to be British. Britannia ruled the waves. God was in his heaven. Maybe; but Lord Mendlesham was in the boot of his car; wherever that was.
He plummeted to earth just as Lavinia leaned forward and lowered her voice to a horse (adjective used advisedly) whisper. ‘Have you informed Bulldog?’
Mwangi and Archie exchanged glances. The latter quickly looked away and noticed the peacock scoffing the last of the crumpet and giving them the evil eye. He glared back. It outstared him then strutted off to inspect its reflection in the French windows.
‘Your crumpets, madam.’ The butler arrived, placed a silver dish on the table and removed the cover.
‘Thank you, Jenkins.’
‘Excuse me, madam, a gentleman from—’
Jenkins’s words were cut short by a piercing scream from Lord Percy who was tearing at the glass of the French windows trying to rip out the throat of his reflection.
‘Oh, Lord Percy, you and your little ways,’ chuckled Lavinia. ‘Jenkins, if you wouldn’t mind.’
‘Yes, madam.’ Jenkins seized a broom, clearly placed nearby for such occurrences, fitted a metaphorical bayonet and charged.
The peacock turned, bared its teeth, thought better of it and fled with its tail between its legs – a not unimpressive feat.
Jenkins hurled a number of fruity imprecations in its wake. Lord Percy countered in rhyming couplets, then slunk off to the rhododendrons casting malevolent glances over its shoulder and muttering expletives it had learned when serving as a naval mascot with HMS Peacock.