Authors: Peter Helton
âNo, no, it's “at the end of the
, beginning of the
century”,' Emms corrected Middleton impatiently. âDo concentrate, Guy, we'll have to do the whole sequence again. Go back to the far end, Guy, and watch for the signal. Paul, that looked good. Let's do it again .Â .Â .' I was delighted that the director really did shout âaction!' and each time she did I had to fight the impulse to hold my breath as I felt nervous for Guy to get it right.
The day's filming and digging stopped at six-thirty. Everyone looked tired but satisfied with the day's work and I could hear mention of the Druid's Arms, the pub in nearby Tarmford. I was no longer needed, with everyone heading for bathrooms, tents or the lake and, in Guy's case, probably a bottle of whisky. Cy pointed at Guy's retreating back and called to me: âSeven o'clock, all right?' It seemed even here I was expected to drag the man out of bed in the morning. I suspected that Cy was trying to make a point: Guy was unreliable and difficult and needed special, expensive attention.
Back home at Mill House I faced a new dilemma.
âWhat do you mean you can't tell me?' Annis challenged my assertion in the kitchen, a vegetable peeler suspended above the carrot she was holding.
âIt's in my contract. I'm not to tell anyone.'
,' she said, pointing at the window with her carrot. âI'm sure they didn't mean me.' She started whittling thin strips of carrot into a salad bowl.
Of course I was dying to tell her where I'd been all day. In fact I already knew I would eventually; I just thought I'd drag it out a bit. âI'm afraid they mean absolutely everyone. If they find out I told you that's breach of contract and they won't pay.'
âI won't tell anyone you told me. I want you to get paid. Very much so.'
I watched the carroty strips fall. âPerhaps. I'll have to think about it.'
âThink fast, you've got five seconds,' Annis said, whittling faster.
âOh, all right. It's a place called Tarmford Hall. It belongs to Mark Stoneking.'
âFrom Karmic Fire?'
âIs he there?'
âYou met him?'
âHad lunch with him on the lawn.'
âOh, no, I think I hate you.' She dropped the peeler on the table and walked out. I heard her stomping up the stairs. âI can't
it! He doesn't even like Karmic Fire!' Two minutes later the sound of Karmic's first album pounded through the ceiling.
It was a karmic kind of evening, with the pounding beats of both albums making conversation difficult. I promised to get the albums signed and eventually quiet returned to Mill House.
Until it was rudely interrupted at five in the morning by the phone ringing beside the bed. I knew with absolute certainty and without opening my eyes that it was too early for conversation, so I ignored it. Annis couldn't. She crawled across me and picked up. âHnn? .Â .Â . Really? .Â .Â . Yes .Â .Â . OK, sure.' She hung up and collapsed on top of me. âThat was Guy Middleton. He wants you there immediately. He's found a horse's head in his bed.'
horse's head? At five in the morning? Was he mad? I dialled one-four-seven-one but got the message âCaller withheld number'. Oh, great.
Five o'clock. In the morning. I'd never get used to that, I decided, no matter how pure the smell of the air or how rosy-fingered the dawn.
got up this early. Except perhaps farmers and nurses. I dropped an egg into boiling water. Truck drivers and postal workers. I shoved my croissant in the oven. Fishermen and bin men. I stirred the coffee in my
. Airport staff and police. And bakers, I supposed. Oh all right, it looked like most people were up by now anyway, so I might as well get over it. I built my breakfast and ate it staring out of the window, blinking once every five minutes like a lizard.
It was twenty past six by the time I pressed the buzzer on the intercom at Tarmford Hall. It seemed to take forever for the gate to be opened remotely without a word from the speaker.
I found Guy pacing up and down in the echoing hall, waiting for me. He was dressed but his hair was wild. âYou took your time; I called over an hour ago.'
âI came as soon as I could.'
âI very much doubt that. It can't take you â what,' he checked his watch, âan hour and a half to get here and if it does then that's simply not good enough.' He was still pacing and hardly looked at me.
âCalm down, Guy, I'm here now. Tell me all about it. My partner said something about a horse's head. Did she hear right?'
âCome upstairs and I'll show you.'
I followed Middleton through the passage into the downstairs gallery and up the stone staircase. It was cool at the centre of this large house, so isolated from the warm weather outside. The staircase wound gently clockwise and was only dimly lit. It landed us on the first-floor gallery, a long and broad passage, mirroring the one below. An assortment of worn rugs and carpets covered the uneven floorboards. Monstrous pieces of carved furniture stood lugubriously between dark doors. I could hear a radio play upbeat pop music behind one and I thought I could hear someone singing in the shower behind the next.
âStoneking's bedroom suite is that one at the back there, but I'm in here.' Guy pointed at the door as though afraid to open it. It was the last room before the corridor turned sharply towards the north tower. There was no lock, just a medieval-looking grip and latch. I pressed it, released the catch and went inside. It was a good-sized room with a double bed of mahogany, a medieval-looking built-in wardrobe and an armchair by the ample fireplace. The door to the bathroom stood ajar. I checked there was no one in there before turning my attention back to the room. The velvety curtains over the mullioned window were half-drawn or half-open, depending on your temperament. The bedclothes were pulled back and left hanging over the side and there, on the pillow closest to me, was the object that had scared Guy into calling me.
âA drawing? Just a drawing of a horse's head?' It wasn't a bad drawing at that, though quite unlovely, done in thick felt tip pens on a piece of A3 paper. One wild eye appeared to be rolling back into the head in panic and a red serrated edge at the neck indicated that the head had been severed from the body. There were blood red drops falling from its flared nostrils. âYou got me out of bed for that?'
Guy remained standing in the doorway
âWhat difference does it make whether it's real or on paper? The message is the same. And the damn thing wasn't there when I went to bed last night so someone actually came into my bedroom,
while I was asleep
, and put it there.'
Middleton came in and closed the door behind him. He spoke more quietly but with the same urgency. âIf they could do that then they could also have killed me.'
âBut they didn't, Guy. Look, if they really wanted to harm you, would they bother with this kind of .Â .Â . prank? Someone's just trying to scare you. It's a wind-up.'
âWell, if they're trying to scare me then they've managed it, I don't mind admitting. This is just too close for comfort now.'
âAre we keeping this secret again?'
âBit late for that. I'm afraid I made rather a lot of noise when I saw the thing. Emms has the room next door and she came over to see what was going on.'
âWhat did she have to say?'
âShe laughed. Had I upset any children lately, is what she said.'
âShe has a point. As a threat it's a bit cut-price. But then horses' heads don't grow on trees.'
âNo shit. Can you please take this seriously? The fact remains that someone came into my room in the middle of the night
and put that there
âI am taking it seriously. But you're alive and that probably means they have no intention of actually killing you.'
âPerhaps they were simply not ready.'
Middleton had a point. Killing people wasn't that easy. Well, it was, but killing them and getting away with it wasn't.
âBut at least it narrows it down,' he said grimly. âIt must be one of the production company. Someone who is staying in the house. And that narrows it down considerably.'
âSo who is staying here? Let's make a list.'
We made one on the back of an extortionate phone bill I found in my jacket. Cy, the producer; Emms, the director; Paul, the cameraman; the sad-eyed sound man; a computer mensch; that ink-stained graphics chappy â Middleton couldn't remember all their names â were all on this floor. The rest, as far as he knew, were all camping in the woods.
Guy spent two minutes in the bathroom and emerged with his hair tamed into a ponytail but otherwise he looked exactly like a man who hadn't got much sleep and had been badly frightened. It seemed that despite his rugged persona and sonorous voice he was the nervous kind â suspicious, afraid of dark rooms, jumping at shadows. Or perhaps he had reasons to be scared that he wasn't sharing with me.
âThere'll be breakfast in the dining room now,' Guy said as we went downstairs.
âFor the chosen few?'
âYes, but I'll see if we can squeeze you in.'
The dining room was adjacent to the large drawing room and about two-thirds of the size, which still left room for a table that could seat fourteen in comfort. Stoneking sat at the head of it, working through a full English while a respectful two places away from him sat Emms who was making do with scrambled egg on toast. Along the wall opposite the French windows stood a monstrous sideboard which held the kind of breakfast buffet in silver dishes I had only ever seen in period movies. Good mornings all round.
Stoneking was wide awake and in an irrepressibly good mood. âGuy, Emms just told me someone tried to spook you with a drawing on your pillow. Stupid prank. My apologies. None of the rooms here lock. Some don't have locks and those that do don't seem to have keys.'
Guy checked out the breakfast dishes on offer. âYes, well, I'm not amused.'
âDon't let it get to you,' Emms said. âRemember when they filled my wellies with toads? That's archaeologists for you.'
Guy made no answer and I went to check out the buffet myself. I dropped sliced bread into the toaster, then loaded up with scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms and grilled tomatoes.
Soon the rest of the production team dribbled into the room: Paul, the cameraman who had restless eyes even in the morning; the bald-headed sound man who speared four sausages for his breakfast; Cy, already gluing his mobile to his ear, and the computer and graphics blokes who looked like they were joined at the hip and who talked to each other in clicks and murmurs. Carla came in to check all was in order and we all murmured our contentment and compliments. I sat down next to Emms and thought that, like Poirot, I had all the suspects gathered in one room when the housekeeper burst my bubble. It appeared Stoneking had entertained the crew in the drawing room last night and the French windows had been left wide open. This morning Carla had found two diggers comfortably asleep on the sofa. âThey hadn't even taken their boots off,' she complained.
âMy fault,' said Mark, âI forgot to check the doors. Plain forgot. Probably had one too many last night.'
The discussion soon turned to the shoot ahead and to the changing weather. It had clouded over during the night and today rain was a possibility. As I snaffled my free breakfast and poured myself more orange juice I wondered if I was not enjoying myself too much. Was it just that someone was determined to wind up the less-than-loveable Middleton, a man who couldn't even be bothered to remember the names of half the people he had worked with for years? Or was someone here, in this room or out there in the woods, determined to first thoroughly scare Middleton and then do him real harm? I would have to find out before anything happened to my charge that would make these questions academic.
The field archaeologists had breakfasted around the catering van and were ready and willing at eight. Soon after they had returned to the trenches there was genuine excitement. Adam in trench one, the smaller one furthest from the house, had uncovered what was without doubt a floor mosaic.
was in business. Lines were written for Guy and with the happy diggers in the background he revealed the discovery to camera.
âWhat we had hardly dared hope for this early on in the dig has just appeared at the bottom of trench one. Just look at the delicacy of that work. Andrea, am I right in saying that this is high-quality workmanship?'
The camera moved in. Water was sprayed on the small area so far revealed. The colours were pinks and blues and did look amazingly fresh after so many centuries underground.
âWe seem to have come down on the edge of the mosaic,' Andrea explained. âYou can see the bands running parallel here so we'll expand the trench in that direction,' she pointed towards the house, âas well as lengthening it to where Julie is standing.'
âIt's going to be big,' Guy marvelled.
âIt's going to be big,' Andrea confirmed. âBring in the digger.'
The mini digger was driven by Dan, one of the field archaeologists with a licence for heavy machinery. While he walked off to get the machine Paul repositioned the main camera and Cy zoomed in the camera on the cherry picker from his laptop. The digger was parked on the edge of the lawn. It seemed an age before its engine came to life and when the noise reached our ears it sounded odd. Seconds later the whole machine disappeared in an enormous cloud of thick grey smoke which didn't clear. Soon we could hear that Dan had cut the engine.
âWhat the hell?' Cy clapped his hand to his forehead. âNot the digger. Not that.'
There were ironic cheers from the diggers in the trenches. Windmilling his arms Dan emerged from the smoke, coughing. He jogged towards us, several times looking over his shoulder at the now clearing smoke cloud.