Leaving the tea rooms Parminter had walked to where his car was parked, opened the door and started his vintage model up. The soft purr of the Rolls Royce always made him smile. It was such a divine sound. As the car rolled out of the car park onto Fekenham High Street, Parminter spotted Ruth Crabtree waiting at the bus stop. He pulled over and wound down his window.
‘May I give you a lift?’
Ruth had smiled. It was a pleasant movement of mouth and eyes that lit up her face.
‘I am going to the Arkenfelt to visit a friend.’
‘Hop in then, I am heading that way.’
Ruth opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat.
‘Thanks. Who is this friend of yours then?’
‘A publican I need to speak with, Cheryl Bunkum.’
‘Oh, how ironic. That’s who I am going to see
Parminter had laughed. ‘I’ll be blowed. Very fortuitous.’
‘Funny thing is I had wanted to speak with you on another matter. Well, not you really but Neal’
‘Oh, I see. How can I help?’
The car rolled away from the kerbside and gathered speed.
‘I would like to have your’s and Neal’s support with my campaign. It would mean a great deal to me to have as many of Fekenham’s small businesses voting for me as possible.’
‘I was already going to vote for you. Honest politicians are as rare as good English men.’
The comment about English men had brought a smile to the business man’s face. He drove a while in silence. His window wound down allowing the road sounds, tyres on tarmac to drift in. They passed a field, empty of crops but circled with lavender.
‘What a lovely smell!’ Enthused Parminter.
‘Brings back memories of my mum. She always wore a perfume smelling of lavender.’
‘Really? So did mine. How funny. Two things in common and we haven’t travelled a half mile yet.’
They both laughed enjoy the scent and the warm breeze that blew through Ruth’s hair.
‘How’s your wife? How’s Henrietta?’
‘Hen? Oh, she’s fine. Fusses over me too much but you won’t hear me complain. I think she gets concerned that I have taken on too much what with running the business while standing for election.’
‘I understand how she feels. It is quite a task you’ve set yourself.’
‘I suppose it is but I am enjoying it. I think the real challenge will come if I win.’
‘If? I really don’t think there is any question of you losing. I listen to folks down the Frog and everyone is backing you. Even in Muckleford, I hear the same things being said. No one around here wants Snatch-Kiss as Warden of Wessex, not after what he is doing to local businesses and especially not here after he tore down Fekit Wood.’
Parminter chuckled again, glad to hear the enthusiasm in Ruth’s voice but wanting to believe she was right about his winning the election. He told himself not to get overconfident, too keep working hard. It was hard work and commitment that had kept the business working so well all these years.
They drove for a while in silence observing how the scenery changed as they motored north. Then Ruth asked a question that took Parminter by surprise.
‘Have you heard the gossip being spoken about Arthur Bentwhistle?’
‘Can’t say I have, no. I’m not much a one for gossip, to be honest. I take it the gossip comes from the usual source?’
‘Millie Mead? Yes, yes it does. I agree about gossip but this doesn’t feel right and besides, I really like Lupini and wouldn’t want to see her getting hurt.’
‘What’s being said then, about Arthur I mean.’
‘That he frequents Ruth Beaufont’s Soft Room and is being, er, how can I put it, serviced by Black Betty.’
Parminter’s response was unexpected and not what Ruth had been expecting. Parminter laughed loudly, almost hysterically.
‘Forgive me,’ he choked back a guffaw, ‘but that is so off the mark. You think I am overstretching myself, what with running a business, small by some people’s standards, whilst running for election for Warden of Wessex. Rupert Snatch-Kiss puts me to shame. His empire is massive compared to my business. His ambitions higher too. He has been trying to purchase the Brewery, Rufus Barleycorn’s venture but Rufus hates the sight and sound of Snatch-Kiss so have been trying to offload to any interested party. I have no desire in a brewery nor Ralph Ramhard. However, Arthur, the owner of a public house is very interested. Arthur is not spending his time with the local lady of loose virtue but trying to make a deal.’
Ruth giggled. ‘I thought, or at least wanted to believe, Arthur was a reformed character. Thank you. Sorry to have drawn you into village gossip.’
‘No need to apologise. Not so sure Arthur has reformed but I know he hasn’t the time to be having another affair. Arthur isn’t like you or I. He gets easily tempted whereas you and I are faithful.’
Ruth blanched and then turned her face away looking out the window.
‘I often wonder how people like Arthur sleep with themselves at night. I know I couldn’t.’
The roads around Fekenham and those leading to Arkenfelt curved and snaked in a manner known only to the English. They passed tall hedgerows which displayed a variety of wild foliage including hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash and oak. Among these weaved the climbing traveller's-joy and honeysuckle. Running parallel was a series of banks and ditches each filled with a multiplicity of flowers like hedge bedstraw and red campion. Butterflies flew in among them seeking nectar or to lay their eggs, the beautiful black and brown hairstreaks or the purple emperor.
The distance from Fekenham village to the northerly Arkenfelt was no more than six miles. The journey had taken the two about twenty minutes. As they wound their way around the lanes they became aware of the countryside blending more and more into a semi-suburban area with occasional homes and houses dotted about. Rapidly the countryside retreated leaving a town, with all that is associated with such, standing in its place. This was Arkenfelt. As they motored through this area they could see a thin line of smoke snaking skyward.
‘That doesn’t look good, does it?’ Suggested Parminter with a tone of fear in his voice.
‘No. It looks as like it might be near to Cheryl’s tavern, the Sinking Sun,’ replied Ruth.
‘That was what I was thinking. I can clearly see fire now. There is a comwand in the glove compartment. Best give the fire brigade a call.’
Ruth did as requested, and as she was speaking to the operator so the car pulled around the corner to reveal the Sinking Sun ablaze.
Parminter parked the car and, with as much speed as a man his age not used to physical activity could muster, dashed from the car to the door of the public-house. The fire had spread rapidly and was not only visible from the outside but generated a heat that was unpleasant to be near.
Parminter kicked at the door which opened but an inch. He kicked at it again. Tongues of flame gushed out with explosive force throwing Parminter onto his back. Luckily Ruth was near and managed to pull him to his feet.
‘Good God! The heat is so fierce.’
Above the crackling of the fire they could hear a voice, muted, panic-stricken, hysterical, calling out for help.
‘That’s Cheryl!’ Cried Parminter.
‘What can we do?’
‘I don’t know. The blaze is too fierce.’
By this time the people of the town had started to gather around.
‘Where’s Cheryl?’ Asked one local.
‘Inside,’ replied Parminter.
‘Oh my God,’ cried a local woman, ‘can’t we get her out?’
‘It’s nigh on impossible to get any closer,’ said Parminter, ‘I already tried and was blown onto my back.’
‘Best call the fire brigade!’ Shouted another man.
‘I have already!’ Screamed Ruth as the fire’s noise grew louder.
In the distance, they all could hear the clanging bell of the fire engine. As the noise from the fire and that of the fire engine grew louder so the sound of Cheryl’s knocking and calling out diminished. As the fire brigade pulled up and as firemen raced to help as the sound of Cheryl’s voice ceased altogether.
‘Oh God, sweet Jesus no. Poor Cheryl,’ said Ruth.
Parminter’s face grew pale. He knew, even though he prayed he was wrong, that it didn’t look good. Quite why or how the fire had started he didn’t know but from first seeing smoke too then seeing flame had been remarkably quick. He was certain Cheryl was dead. He couldn’t see how anyone could have survived that blaze.
The fire crew worked incredibly quickly, more so when informed that someone was still inside the burning building. All attempts they made were defeated by the fierceness of the conflagration.
Parminter and Ruth, along with an ever-growing crowd of townspeople looked on. All of them shared the same thoughts of disbelief at how sudden and how fast the fire's growth had been but also felt a sense of wanting to help but being unable to.
When the police arrived, some twenty minutes after the fire brigade, they had asked who had been first on the scene. Parminter and Ruth said it was they. The police then asked why they were here so Parminter explained. The police officer in charge was a middle-aged PC from Winchester. His name was Hoary Honk.
‘You say you saw signs of smoke as you were approaching the pub?’
‘Oui, we were going on to see Cheryl.’
‘And you say within minutes the fire had taken hold of the building?’
‘Yes, exactly so. It seemed almost impossibly fast the way things happened,’ volunteered Perminter.
‘I see,’ said PC Honk scribbling notes hastily onto his pad. ‘Did you smell anything odd when you approached the building sir?’
Parminter had thought about this and then answered. ‘To be perfectly honest officer my only thoughts were to break down the door and get Cheryl out. I really don’t recall smelling anything at all.’
‘I see. You say you tried to rescue the landlady?’
‘Yes, but the fire exploded from the door and sent me flying onto my back.’
‘I see. So, from seeing the smoke to feeling the flames, how many minutes passed?’
‘Oh, I’d say no more than three.’
‘I see,’ said Hoary Honk scribbling more notes. Before he could ask his next question, an almighty explosion sent firefighters, town’s folk, along with Ruth, Parminter and PC Honk, scurrying for cover. The barrels in the basement had exploded. Windows blew out sending shards of glass hurtling through the air. Miraculously no one was struck. As the windows shattered so too did the doors. The fire, briefly, ballooned outwardly before re-engaging with the already burning structure.
‘Everyone okay?’ Shouted PC Hoary Honk gingerly getting to his feet. The crowd, one by one, answered in the affirmative. Hoary, Ruth and Parminter were all stood near each other.
‘Have you not got to see someone? An appointment with a V.I.P?’ Asked Ruth of Parminter.
‘I have but don’t feel I should leave. Not with this going on,’ replied Parminter.
PC Honk raised his hand in conciliatory fashion.
‘Two minutes more, sir. My boss, Inspector Lazarus is on his way. He may want a quick word. It shouldn’t delay you by much.’
‘Okay. Not to worry. I can spare a little time under the circumstances.’
The two minutes stretched to twelve and then a car was heard, a shudder of breaks, a door opening then shutting, and then a tall blonde-haired man walked toward PC Honk. Parminter observed this calmly although wanting matters to speed-up so that he could crack on. Not just to make his next appointment but because he had to make the flight for his holiday. The two police officer spoke for a while often looking his way yet sometimes looking toward the fire which was now being doused by the fire brigade. The conversation over, Adam Lazarus walked over toward Fullcock.
‘I know who you are sir. I think we all do. I have spoken with my sergeant who has given me all the pertinent detail. There is nothing more to be gained by you staying here. If we need to talk to you again we know where to find you.’
Parminter had held out his hand for the policeman to shake. ‘Thank you,’ he said. He then turned to Ruth. ‘Will you be okay getting home?’
Lazarus answered for her. ‘We’ll drive the young lady home, sir. Now off you go and make sure you win that election.’
Parminter had left still feeling a sense of bewilderment and a loss he found hard to comprehend. He hadn’t known Cheryl Bunkum that well. They had only met, at the most, twice before. Yet her death, for he was positive she was dead, had touched him deeply. He didn’t understand why it had but nonetheless, it had. Rather than stop for lunch, he had driven on arriving a little earlier than required. It was now just after noon.
He took hold of his comwand and called his wife.
‘Hen, it’s me. Something awful has happened. You remember Cheryl Bunkum of the Sinking Sun, the woman I was meant to meet today? Well, as I arrived the pub was on fire. Cheryl was inside. There is no way anyone could have survived. Listen, Hen, there is nothing I can do. I am going to let the police know about our holiday and how to contact us and then I am going to cancel my last appointment. Pack our stuff for the holiday into your car and meet me at the Port in Poole. We can grab something to eat and drink before we take the air balloon to Turkey.’
Hen agreed to the plan and went away to pack. Parminter drove off still thinking about Cheryl Bunkum, feeling sick to his stomach but aware there was nothing to be done. He drove steadily never being one to accede the speed limit. Not because he was particularly diligent but rather because he disliked going fast preferring to take his time, to enjoy the feeling of being in such a car as a Rolls Royce.
Having driven into the Port of Poole’s car lot, he had parked next to a hire vehicle. He knew it was such for the number plates bore that distinctive emblem that denoted the vehicles status. The car’s engine was still running even though the driver was absent. There was something familiar about the hire car, something that had him wondering where he’d seen it before. Just then two men turned the corner. One was obviously the manager of the car hire company whilst the other was a shabbily dressed Regus Nasaltwist.
It had seemed odd seeing the once powerful senior Tory member dressed in such a fashion. It was upon seeing the former chief whip of the Tory party that Parminter recollected where he’d seen the car before. He had seen it overtake him on his journey from Arkenfelt to Poole. It seemed even odder to think of his being here having travelled a similar route as Parminter. What on earth was Regus Nasaltwist doing in Poole?
Having watched Parminter drive off, Adam Lazarus heard the insect buzz of his comwand.
‘Hello? Hi, Cyril. What can I do for you? I see. What state is the corpse in? Very decomposed eh? That means it’s been buried a long time, years maybe. You found what? A note. What kind of a note. Right, okay. I’ll be right over. Give me half-an-hour.’.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.