Authors: Peter Helton
âWhat's happening?' Cy demanded.
âNo idea, I've never seen anything like it. And it doesn't sound at all happy.'
âCan you fix it?' Cy asked.
âI doubt it,' Dan admitted.
âUseless,' Guy hissed.
Dan went on the defensive. âI'm not a mechanic, Guy. I'm a field archaeologist who happens to have a digger licence. I can do basic maintenance but I don't do repairs.'
Guy looked disgusted. âIf you had done basic maintenance this probably wouldn't have happened.'
Cy pointed. âGuy? Shut up. Dan? Get a mechanic out here.'
Emms clapped her hands for attention. âRight, listen up! The mini digger is out of action and we don't know how long it'll be before it's repaired or we can find a replacement, so it's good old shovel power now. We can't just sit on our hands. Besides, it makes good telly.' An ironic cheer from the diggers, with trowels raised in salute.
Cy turned to Emms. âMakes good telly for about thirty seconds and takes forever.' To Paul he said: âTry and squeeze some excitement out of that. I don't suppose you got a shot of the smoke?'
Paul turned his back on him to reposition his camera. âOf course I did, what do you take me for?'
Guy slouched past me towards the house. âIt's a bad omen, that. That digger never goes wrong. One-week special? It'll be a three-week special at this rate. I need more coffee or something .Â .Â .' His voice trailed off.
âHoneysett? A word.' Cy waved me aside and Emms joined us away from the trenches where Andrea was now measuring out the dimensions of the new trench.
Cy was about to open his mouth but Emms laid a calming hand on his arm and he subsided. She threw a glance towards the house where Guy was just crossing the terrace. âI'm not sure how else to put it but I think Guy is falling apart on us.'
âSomeone is trying to scare him; he's just worried,' I suggested.
âHe went completely hysterical over a childish drawing! You weren't there; he was shaking all over and howling. Anyway, we need Guy to be calm and able to work. It's bad enough that half of the time he's working through a monumental hangover. But he really has gone downhill recently.'
âHe has been quite impossible for the last three episodes,' Cy said, hugging a clipboard to himself.
âYes, and he's getting quite irrational. First he said he wouldn't stay here another night, then he changed his mind and said he wouldn't feel safe anywhere else. The long and the short of it is, Guy wants you to stay at Tarmford Hall at night as long as we're filming here.'
âWould he like me to sleep on a blanket outside his door or will I be allowed to curl up at the foot of his bed?'
âI know it's an imposition. We've already spoken to Mark and he's found you a lovely room. Just be here, that's all we ask. That's all he wants. It would reassure him immensely knowing that you're around. He trusts you.'
âThis is turning into a twenty-four-hour job â that's not what I signed up for.'
âActually you have,' Cy said with too much glee for my taste. âI sent you a copy of your contract, it's all in there.'
I knew I should have read the damn thing. âWhat else is in that contract? Am I supposed to hand wash his smalls? I can't be a twenty-four-hour guard dog. I do have other things to do and was hoping to have a private life as well.'
This time it was me who was being treated to Emms' calming touch. âBut naturally you'll be able to take time off during the day for your personal affairs. Just help Guy to get through this week, make him feel safe and looked after.'
âAnd try and get him to take more water with it,' Cy said. âI'm sure his drinking has got worse. Why we are lumbering the show with an ageing soak like him is beyond me. Anyway, you won't be needed for a bit while we sort out this bloody digger so perhaps now is a good time to get your jim-jams or whatever.' Cy walked off.
âI know it's quite an ask. And we had hoped it wouldn't come to this, but .Â .Â .' Emms squinted at the house and let out a long breath. âGuy has always been one of those actors who subscribe to every silly superstition going and he brings his own bag of problems too. He sleeps with a nightlight on, you know. Scared of the dark. Scared of this, scared of that. He's always been a gloomy sod but recently he's become, I don't know, a bit paranoid, if you ask me. You can see it in the way he looks at people. Do try and perk him up a bit. He trusts you because you're not one of us.'
Did I have a choice? Apparently not. Annis had it right from the outset â I was a babysitter to the star of
, a star that from this angle looked like it might be on the wane. Off I went in search of Stoneking who according to Emms had âfound a room' for me. Nice to have a few lying about in case of emergency.
The drawing room was deserted, so was the dining room. I hesitated in the lower gallery, for a moment wondering where to try next, when I saw a movement in the corner of my eye. There at the shadowy north end of the gallery stood an old woman, motionless. Looking straight at me. Her white hair was held in a French plait and she was dressed in black. She was holding a broom, not the witchy kind but an ordinary one with a green plastic handle. I was about to walk towards her when I heard footsteps coming down the stair behind me. It was Carla, carrying a bulging laundry bag. When I looked back down the gallery the old lady had gone.
âCarla, I'm going to stay here too from tonight. I'm told there's a room for me somewhere?'
âMark told me, I've just got it ready for you. Do you want me to show you?' She dumped the linen bag at the bottom of the stair and led the way up to the height of the upper gallery where she opened an unobtrusive door in the wood panelling. It revealed another, much narrower and ill-lit staircase with much-worn wooden treads. âIt's a bit of a climb, I'm afraid.'
âServants' quarters?' I was beginning to feel just a tiny bit miffed. âThey must have been quite fit in those days.'
Carla briefly paused on the stairs so she could give me a well-timed look for emphasis. âThey still are.'
âI saw an old lady with a broom earlier; don't tell me she climbs these stairs.'
âNo, I'm the only madwoman in the attic.'
âSo who was it I saw earlier?'
âOld woman? No idea, you must have imagined it.'
âI quite clearly sawâ'
Carla snorted with pleasure. âI'm only kidding. That was Mrs Cunningham. Olive to her very few friends.'
âNot a ghost, then, I
âNot Olive. Quite solid, in fact. But the place is definitely haunted. You'll find out if you stay here. The Cunninghams owned the Hall until she was forced to sell it. But she retains the right to live out her life in the granny flat in the north wing, right next to the pool.'
Pool. Of course there was. There would be a helicopter pad somewhere. âShe was staring at me.'
We reached a narrow corridor, largely unadorned and flimsily carpeted with a narrow worn runner. âShe does that a lot. Thinking. Remembering, probably. I'm not sure she sees what we see. You probably won't see much of her, though. She made it quite clear she disapproved of the TV circus, as she described you.'
âI'm not actually part of the circus.'
âReally? That's good. I'm not really a servant, either. Here we are.' She opened the second door along. âI put you in here. I hope you'll be comfortable; it's quite a nice room, no
though. Bathroom's at the end of the corridor and naturally you're welcome to use the pool, where there are showers too.'
âThanks. No, I'm not TV; I'm just here to look after Mr Middleton while he's in Bath.'
âRather you than me, I think.'
âAnd you're here to look after Mark Stoneking. What's that like?'
âDelightful,' she said. It sounded almost as though she meant it. âIf you need anything, give me a shout. Though, please, not literally.'
She left me to get acquainted with my new home. It was a cosy attic room where a queen-size bed left just enough space for a narrow wardrobe and a small writing desk and chair by the little window. There was a tiny fireplace with a grate wide enough for three lumps of coal. From the window I could see the lake, the woodland and the glasshouse roof but had only a partial view of the lawn. Now all I had to do was go and get my jim-jams, as Cy put it.
As I drove out of the front gate, which closed behind me with a gothic groan, I reflected that with twice my usual rates, pool, a baronial breakfast each morning and upmarket TV catering for the rest of the day, staying at Tarmford Hall really was no hardship; though naturally I would have to make sure it sounded like that to Annis.
On the way there I drove through Combe Down and snuck up on Mike Dealey's place. I was just in time to see him park his red Honda in front of his garage. It was my first good look at my prey. He still had the walrus moustache from the picture but had probably put on some weight since then. He was wearing baggy blue jeans and trainers and a faded black tee-shirt. The driver seat swivelled sideways. Out came the wheelchair from where it had been stashed behind the seat. Dealey opened it up and with no doubt well-practised movements swung himself into the seat. It looked like an uncomfortable manoeuvre and I thought I saw him wince. I called Haarbottle at his office. âI'm still patiently staking out Dealey's place,' I told him, as though I'd been doing nothing else all week.
Dealey pulled a Co-op carrier from inside the car. âNot so far; he hasn't slipped up once. But don't worry, I'm sticking to him like glue.'
âI'm glad you're on the case and keeping in touch. Naturally, as a company, we have to justify the expense of a private investigator and weigh this up against the very realâ'
âOh, there's movement,' I lied, âgot to go.' I watched Dealey lock his car, propel himself to the house, up the ramp and into the house. The blinds were down and there was nothing more to see. I drove home. Dealey would keep. Naturally I would look stupid if the next time I checked he had moved to Brazil, so I'd swing by from time to time just to make sure. But my priority today was telling Annis in no uncertain terms just how much I hated having to stay at Mark Stoneking's mansion all week, eating free food and rubbing shoulders with the stars.
I found her in the studio by following the noise. Annis was staring at a blank canvas on her easel, loaded brush in hand. The paint looked suspiciously like the
I had left unused on my palette. On the floor our little ghetto blaster â designed for the smaller ghetto â strained to do justice to Karmic Fire's megalomanical soundscapes.
âI downloaded the rest of their albums!' she shouted.
. âGreat!' I shouted back.
âHorse's head all cleaned up?'
âIt was just a drawing!' I bellowed.
âWhat?' She relented and turned down the din.
âIt was just a drawing but it shook him nevertheless. Mainly because it meant someone had been in his room while he was asleep. Now he wants round-the-clock protection.'
âWill he get it?'
âYou're looking at it.'
âI'm afraid not. They want me to stay the nights there. I said no but apparently it's in my contract that I'm obliged to if it's deemed necessary. And they're busy deeming. They found me a dingy little attic room to sleep in.'
âBum. Does that mean I won't see you all week?'
âNo, I'll get time off for good behaviour. Right now they're trying to fix the digger which broke earlier so I've come to pack a few things. I'll leave you to your first stroke.'
âSod that,' she said and dropped the brush on to her palette. âI've been staring at it for an hour and nothing's happening. Maybe this canvas is too small.'
âErm .Â .Â .' As I looked at the six-by-eight foot canvas my face must have betrayed a flicker of doubt.
âYeah, I know, but I feel I want to spread my wings.' She stepped outside into the sun and windmilled her arms to demonstrate. âI want to break out of the confines of the canvas and
.' She illustrated her feelings by running down the meadow, arms spread wide. âAnd I need more coffee!' she shouted.
Leaning in the bedroom door frame with a fresh mug of Blue Mountain in her hand she talked about the importance of scale in relation to movement in her paintings while she watched me throw what I considered a few essentials into my holdall: trousers, shirts, tee-shirts, socks, underwear, sweater, painkillers, toothpaste, electric toothbrush, charger for electric toothbrush, mobile phone charger, clockwork radio and last â because I had hoped Annis might take her eyes off the bag for a moment only she didn't â but not least: my swimming shorts.
Annis spluttered into her coffee. âSwimming shorts? Oh, right, you poor downtrodden overworked and put-upon shamus! Of course, there's a pool, isn't there? You managed to wangle a week at a luxury manor, waited on hand and foot, free gourmet nosh and hanging out by the pool all day. Leaving me in this bleak hovel with a blank canvas and a cupboard full of pinto beans! With nothing but sheep for company.
Bleak hovel? Since when? âIt's not quite like that. And I'll be popping round here whenever I can.'
âForget the popping. I want you to get me invited to Stoneking's manor. I'm part of Aqua Investigations too, you know? And I bought a new cozzie in Corfu that needs airing.'
I took the mug out of her hand, put it on a shelf and pulled her into my arms. âYes, I remember it well, what there was of it. I'll do what I can to get you into the Stone King's castle and make you part of the quest. In the meantime, would you like to say goodbye properly? Let me get this bag off the bed.'