Authors: Peter Helton
âThe other one,' Middleton said as he slipped on his jacket, âwas that since it was a thirty-six-year-old Glenfiddich and I'd paid nearly a grand for it ten years ago when I could still afford such things, I was going to try it sooner or later anyway.'
âWhoever is doing this has a fine sense of humour. Because they probably knew you would try it anyway.'
âWhat they wanted was to make me feel stupid. Which they succeeded in doing.'
âAnd they wanted you to miss a morning's filming.'
âWhich they failed to do. I'm ready. Let's go.' Middleton strode from his suite, head held high. I poured the biscuits into my jacket pocket and followed him.
I drove towards the Roman Baths as fast as traffic would allow. âWhat would Cy have to gain by spiking your drink? Surely it would ruin his day as well.'
âHe wants to find a good enough reason to get rid of me. He's not exactly coy about wanting me gone; he thinks the show needs a younger presenter and preferably one with better tits. This stuff goes out in the States and the network over there put that particular flea in his ear. He's got a few fleas of his own, naturally, like all those kids brought up on computer games.'
âCan't he get rid of you in a legitimate way?'
âMy contract is watertight. As long as I continue to deliver there's no way they can replace me.'
âAnyone else who might like to see you gone?'
âNo idea. Finding out is
Was it? I was beginning to wish I had read through the contract before I signed it.
The same monosyllabic guard let us in and I led the way downstairs. âHave you been here before?' I asked Guy.
âOnly as a very small kid. I barely remember it. I've seen it on telly though. Warm in here, isn't it?' The projected Romans still spooked wordlessly on walls and in niches.
It happened just as we approached the spotlit golden head of Sulis Minerva in its narrow glass vitrine. Out went the lights with a distant bang, plunging us into total darkness. Behind me Guy sounded panicked. âShit, what's happened? Oh shit, shit, shit. Honeysett, where are you?' He suddenly sounded very small. His groping hand found me and grabbed my leg.
âI'm here, hang on.' I dug around in my leather jacket and laid my hands on my tiny Maglite. I pointed the feeble beam behind me. Middleton was crouching on the floor against the Plexiglas edging of the walkway. He looked genuinely scared. âYou all right?'
He stood up now, letting out a long breath. âYes. Yes, I'm fine now, just don't go anywhere with that torch. Terrified of dark places, is all. Always have been. Not always easy in this job. Dark outside â fine. Dark inside â panic.'
âYes, I can see that could be a bit tricky.'
âThey shoehorned me into some dark and evil Roman sewers up in York once so I could talk about Roman poo. I had nightmares for days after that. I'll spare you the details.'
Without a fanfare the lights came on again and the ghosts sprang back into their niches.
We made it through the museum without further incident. As the last level came into view Guy laid a hand on my arm. âLook, you won't .Â .Â .'
âI won't,' I promised. âPresumably they all know you're scared of the dark?'
Guy just semaphored with his eyebrows then breezed into the arms of the
crew. âSorry, chaps and chapesses .Â .Â .'
It turned out that one of the technicians had shorted half the museum when they relocated to the east end. Damp plugs, was the verdict.
The atmosphere at the Baths was edgy. The sun had travelled around too far for the planned shot so everything was being moved to the east end of the outdoor area. It looked fussy to me but I supposed they knew their job. I had done mine by delivering Guy, who immediately got into a short sharp argument with Cy which was broken up by Emms who sent Guy off to have his make-up done. Guy had made me swear I would not mention the spiked drink to anyone. Everyone just assumed he had had too much to drink the night before. All except one, perhaps. If one of them was responsible for tampering with his whisky then not mentioning it was a show of defiance on Guy's part that was nearly as admirable as his recuperative powers. But was it wise?
Fifteen minutes later Guy emerged, looking on top form. Despite the bright sunlight the wall-mounted flares were lit for an extra touch of the picturesque. Another five minutes of discussion and he was in front of the cameras, delivering his opening piece, setting the scene and theme for this
episode: Roman invasion, battles, dramatic changes, temples, offerings, new foods, luxurious bathing, under-floor heating and plumbing.
The Romans â where would we be without them?
What on TV would look like one seamless speech, delivered with confidence and apparent depth of knowledge, was a painstaking and slow process, constantly interrupted by adjustments, small changes in the wording, change of camera angle, pace of delivery. One minute Guy was standing, being framed against the backdrop of the green waters, the next filmed from across the other side, seen walking, talking and gesticulating.
Emms stood by the monitor, rehearsing, checking, changing. She had the kind of authoritative voice I always imagined directors to have. âThat was good, Guy, but can you do that again, only a tad faster this time so you finish on “lead plumbing” before you get to the next column or you'll disappear from view at the critical moment .Â .Â .' To me it seemed a maddening procedure but everyone appeared to have endless patience with the process. With only minutes to spare before crocodiles of tourists descended on the place the shoot was wrapped up and everyone was nods and smiles again. The moment he was released Guy strode out of the colonnade and disappeared up the stairs towards the exit â his first day's work done. Cy took me aside.
âThat was another typically unnecessary, typical Guy Middleton delay. This show would be a lot easier to produce without a prima donna at the centre. Tomorrow morning we'll start later, around eight, at the site of the dig. The archaeologists have to make up their minds about things before Guy is needed. It's a week-long shoot so it's nice and relaxed. Looks like we're going to get some rain during the week but we should be fine. We rarely stop for rain unless it's a real deluge. Make sure Guy makes it there by eight. It's only four, five miles outside Bath; you can leave just after seven from his hotel. He'll have his own car and he knows the way. You'll follow him there.'
âStill keeping it a secret?'
âNo offence. Not that I don't trust you, but you could be talking in your sleep for all I know and the owner of the place would give us a mountain of grief if he found himself beleaguered by sightseers in the morning. He hates the great unwashed even more than Guy does.'
âOh, by the way, is there a Mrs Middleton at all?' I asked. I had been wondering.
Cy smiled as he walked away. âThere've been a few. But the last one walked out on him a few years back. Because he can't keep it in his pants!' he called loudly across the pool as though hoping Middleton might still be able to hear him.
On the other side of the pool Paul the cameraman was taking last-minute stills shots with an SLR camera, his long lens pointing directly at me. He waggled one hand in acknowledgement, of what I wasn't sure. I waggled a hand back and left the Roman Baths complex through the gift shop. It was time for a bit of wheelchair watch.
ou're thinking of setting up as a private eye? Learn to make interesting sandwiches. Invest in the right technology, too: your most exciting gadget will be your Thermos flask. Ah, the glamour of it.
You'll be sitting in your car a lot or standing around waiting and watching the people someone suspects of doing this, that or the other. Especially the other. Because mostly it's infidelity, sometimes runaways, and often insurance work. If your insurance premiums have gone up relentlessly then I can offer you two reasons. One is the boundless greed of insurance companies, the other is the army of so-called injury lawyers advertising on TV, encouraging chancers to make false claims for injuries that never happened, or happened elsewhere. Crack your ankle playing football in the park? We can help. Find a bit of uneven pavement and sue the council. Faking a life in a wheelchair however was in a different league altogether. It was in a different league not simply where the prize money was concerned but because it required a life-long commitment to deception.
Because you never know who's watching. As I was staring at Mike Dealey's bungalow from the incomplete shelter of a substation at the top of his street I wondered whether Dealey â always considering he was in fact faking it â was planning at some point to have a miraculous recovery. Presumably though, the size of the payout had been tailored to a projected lifetime on wheels, with all the pain and frustration that brought. Would he have to give back part of the money if he was suddenly capable of walking again? I didn't know. Forgot to ask.
, as Annis would say.
There was the other possibility of quietly slipping away unnoticed, to Spain perhaps, or somewhere else where you are whoever you say you are. Change addresses a few times, then lose the wheelchair, settle down under a different name, a few hundred grand richer. It was an elaborate scheme and strewn with possible pitfalls. Not the least of which was someone grassing you up to the insurance company by sending them a picture of you, taken while you absentmindedly stepped out of your wheelchair to stretch your legs.
It was a very quiet neighbourhood and simply standing here would eventually attract someone's attention. I couldn't park in the cul-de-sac itself; I'd get rumbled even more quickly there if this surveillance went on for a while. Once Dealey knew someone was after him he would be too careful to make any mistakes and short of using illegal means I'd probably never prove he was faking it. The proof I obtained had to stand up in court as well as being admissible in the first place, which meant I couldn't exactly set fire to his house and see if he came running out. Tempting though it was; one per cent of three-quarters of a million buys a lot of firelighters.
I withdrew to the car I had left around the corner. He'd never make a mistake round his own house; the neighbours would instantly notice. I would have to wait until he went out. Since it was a cul-de-sac I'd definitely spot him when he came out in his car. If he came out.
I snaffled a smoked salmon and cress sandwich. Drank another cup of tea from the flask. Nibbled broken hotel biscuits from my jacket. Fiddled with the radio. Stopped fiddling with the radio. Always kept a sharp eye on the top of his street so I could follow him the moment his red Honda appeared.
I woke up with a start at the noise of school kids calling to each other from opposite pavements. Damn it, school was out. How long had I snored behind the wheel? I had slept at an awkward angle, too; it hurt to straighten my neck. I sat up, checked my watch: half past three. I had slept for two hours. Dealey could have been out and come back for all I knew, doing cartwheels past my car each way. I went and checked on his Honda. It was still there, and it didn't look like it had moved. Of course, just because his car was there didn't mean
was. For all I knew he could be on the Costa del Sol, sitting by the pool and painting his toenails. I slouched back against the tide of chattering school kids and sat behind the wheel, brooding on the tediousness of the job. I shook my flask; there was enough left for a cupful and I'd need it to wake up properly. I had poured a brimful cup, shaking the last drops from the flask, when the red Honda appeared and turned left into the main street. Bum. I was facing the wrong way, too. And had a brimful cup of hot tea in my hand. I sipped some of it, too hot still, poured some of it back into the flask, some of it over my trousers. Started the car. I had to do a U-turn first, trying not to squash dopey kids wandering into the road.
Now where had he gone? I drove down the road until I came to a double roundabout choked with school-run traffic and no red Honda. I briefly considered another U-turn to explore some of the side roads I had passed but the tea was cooling in the wet patch on my trousers, making me feel more than a bit stupid and anyway, I couldn't possibly leave the car in public looking like I had just copiously wet myself. Well, there was no hurry. I was sure to catch Dealey some other time.
The sun rose on the first day of the dig and I was awake to watch it creep over the edge of our valley. At first, leaving from the Royal Crescent Hotel just after seven had sounded quite civilized but in reality it meant I had to be up before six, not something Mill House was used to. Last night Annis had decamped to her own room, unwilling to share my early alarm misery for a second time, so I groaned and harrumphed all alone into the shower and grumbled on my lonesome downstairs to the kitchen.
Another culinary addition from my sojourn in Corfu was Greek coffee, which is just what you need to wake you up at unholy hours. I had brought back a
, a long-handled little pot, and now brewed cups of strong sweet coffee at the slightest provocation. Accompanied by a five-minute egg, croissants and quince jam it made the early start almost bearable.
In front of Middleton's door at one minute to seven I took a deep breath before I knocked. I had a moment's doubt, wondering what state he might be in, but I worried unnecessarily. He yanked the door open wide, still in his dressing gown and towelling his hair, and left me to close the door while he went back into the bathroom.
âShan't be a moment; plenty of time, though,' he called back. He kept on talking but his voice was drowned out by the whine of the hairdryer. There were the remnants of a continental breakfast on a tray. A different bottle of Scotch had kept Guy company on the sofa last night, not a thousand-pound Glenfiddich this time but a more modest ten-year-old Laphroaig. I held it up to the light â he had made quite a dent in it, nearly halfway down the label, and by the looks of it he had drunk alone. Yet when the dryer stopped and he came back into the room he looked fine, certainly a lot better than the day before, and his mood was more upbeat.