Millie Mead had recently had her nose put out of joint. As the village gossip people had their expectations of her. The villagers thought that she should at all times be aware of events before anyone else. Folk depended on Millie to pass information on to all and sundry ASAP.
With Verity Lambush, Ramhard or whatever it was she now called herself, this had not happened. It was the local newspaper, Clive Woodclatter’s rag, that had first alerted them all to their legendary headmistress’s retirement Comments were made about Millie that were less than complimentary..
However, Millie, balloon haired and pale of face, had redeemed herself somewhat with Flora Gusset’s departure and now of course the bank robbery. Not the bank robbery itself but the fact that Terrence Humshaw had, according to the gossip, not only had sight of Belinda Warthatch’s undergarments but had been found in an uncompromising position with the woman. Such was the tendency of gossip to take a seed of truth and grow it into a woodland glade overnight.
With the leaving of the circus, the Frog and Radiator was less packed than usual. There was still a sizeable crowd but nothing like the amount the old pub had seen in recent months. Arthur Bentwhistle was unperturbed though.
“Looks like we are back t’ normal turnover, still, we made a mint the past few weeks.”
Lupini could only agree.
“I for one will be glad of the rest. Serving ale and preparing food is hard work but with the addition of the circus people, of the Roma…vavavoom – too much!”
Arthur smiled in agreement. He was grateful that Lupini no longer seemed cross with him. She always had been the first to forgive. He looked at Lupini now, taking in her dark charm, the way her hair, tied up from her shoulders, was flecked with silver. He noticed the way crow’s feet gathered at the corners of her eyes like fugitives from the laughter she emitted so frequently. She was a fine woman and even though Arthur had strayed on many occasions it was always to her he returned.
The Frog was not as full as it had been but there were still a large body of people sitting supping. In one corner Ralph Ramhard, unusual for him not to either be at his restaurant or with Verity, sat chatting to a pretty Chinese girl.
“Who’s that woman Ralph is with?” asked Arthur.
“She works for him at The Duck.”
“What’s her name?”
“You! Who! What?” stammered Arthur.
Lupini spelt the name out for her husband. “She’s another one of those Chinese runaways who have fled their country to escape the tyranny,” explained Lupini.
“Can’t say I blame ‘em but we can’t keep take them in here; we haven’t the room.”
“You sound just like Seamus Fliphook,” said Lupini crossly.
“I am nothing like him. He don’t like anyone who ain’t white or from Albion. I ‘ave nothin’ against anyone, be they yellow, black or purple. All I am saying is we is only a small country and not big enough to take everyone in.”
“She is a very pretty girl,” said Lupini foolishly, realising as she did what Arthur would say.
“Not ‘alf, a really tasty little thing but then again a lot o’ them Orientals are. I wonder what the two of them are talking about?”
Ralph was listening intently to Yue. She was obviously intelligent but also well-educated for her ability to converse in English was flawless as was her grasp of politics.
“China is a vast country filled with millions upon millions of people. The population of China is the largest in the world. When you consider this then understand that out of all those millions only a handful has the power. Of that handful they are also the wealthiest. They horde the wealth for themselves. China is not like your homeland, nor is it like Albion. China is not a democracy. It is an Imperial dictatorship. The Emperor and his close associates run the country with a fist of iron. This must change for the power should be with the people. It should be shared fairly.”
Ralph, always considered, always slow to answer looked steadily at the Chinese girl.
“And just how do you think that will happen?”
“The people are unhappy with the way things are but they are scared. They fear the military and the police all of whom are in thrall to the Emperor. One day though they will realise how they, the people, out-number the Imperial Guard. One day they will rise up in anger and overthrow the dictatorial regime.”
Ralph sipped his Jack Daniels then put the glass down by his side. He ran a finger around the glass’s rim which made a high pitched whine.
“Is that why you are here in Albion? Making plans for the future?”
Yue Zedong looked startled by the question. Her reaction made Ralph think he had been near the mark.
“I am here to learn and to work, nothing more than that.”
It was a political answer but the response said more by its lack of detail, by its vague evasion, than if she had given a fuller, more comprehensive reply.
Unaware of what the American and Chinese had said to each other, Arthur dried another beer glass. Lupini too had been gazing on the assembled customers who were either standing or sitting drinking their favourite tipples. Upon seeing two females, neither of whom she liked, one of whom she positively disliked, her demeanour changed.
“I see your lady friend is here along with the vicar’s French lover. You must have served them. I cannot believe that woman’s bare faced effrontery coming in here knowing I may very well have had to serve her.”
Arthur felt an uncomfortable shrinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He felt he had to nip this in the bud before it began to fester.
“She is not my lady friend and yes I served them. What am I meant to do then, turn them away? They have every right to drink here.”
Whatever Arthur said, no matter how reasonable it may sound, it would never pacify Lupini’s opinion of Delores Dewhip who now sat with Susanne Beaufont sipping wine.
“I wonder what they are talking about?” said Arthur wistfully.
Susanne was doing the listening as Delores complained.
“I know I said that I would do it and I really don’t mind what folk think of me. It may be the oldest profession in the world but it is as honest as anything anyone around here does and pulling fellas pays better than pulling pints. What I object to is you offering half price deals t’ punters. I know that business has started slow but I am sure it will pick up once the men folk get to hear about our services but half price? I had to see to that weasel Horace Cupletick today and him with half his teeth gone too. He has more energy than a teenage rabbit. I wouldn’t mind that but he attacked every orifice o’ mine and bent me into more infernal positions than a rubber band could manage. I am sore, aching and tired t’ the bone and he got it all for half price!”
Lupini’s attention had been taken away from the Fekenham Floozies, as she called them, for she had to serve Julie Twist who had entered the pub with her new date. He was a handsome chap from Muckleford, a builder by trade and related to Victor Clapp the second-hand car businessman. Julie ordered a pale sherry and he, Nathan Cockscomb, had a pint of Widows Whiskers. The couple, having paid for their drinks, headed toward the snug which had just been vacated.
“Lovely girl that Julie Twist,” said Arthur, for once without any trace of predatory intent.
“You think every girl with a pulse is lovely Arthur,” riposted Lupini.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I like the woman fer what she has managed t’ do with that lad of hers. Not only has she produced a fine young man but one who has a deal o’ talent at football but she did it all on her own too.”
Lupini received two empty tankards from a couple of men who weren’t regulars. She thanked them and then responded to Arthur.
“I wonder what ever happened to that musician she fell pregnant to? I thought he loved her as much as she loved him. They spent all the summer of ninety one together and they seemed so suited to each other.”
Arthur coughed a cynical sound.
“He was a travelling Jazz player. You should never trust any travellers.”
The couple, unaware of how Julie’s history was being discussed, sat as only those nervous on a new date can, fiddling with their glasses as they tried to find some common ground.
It was now ten of the clock. The evening was wearing on, revealing itself to be relatively early for some but rather late for others. The door to the Frog and Radiator flew open as Shazli and wife Anita rushed in. Their eyes were large with alarm as they scanned the crowded room. Arthur saw them and called out jovially.
“Not sure we can allow the competition free pass in here. You come looking t steal some o’ my custom ‘ave you?”
The look on Anita’s face banished any levity.
“Arthur, Lupini, have either of you seen Sally or Billy?”
Arthur looked at Lupini who looked directly back then both shook their heads.
“No, we haven’t,” said Lupini. “Why, what has happened?”
Shazli continued to stare around, not disbelieving the Bentwhistles but more to confirm his own fears.
“They went out to Muckleford this morning saying they’d be back for lunch. We didn’t think anything of it at first as they often don’t arrive when they say they will. Then at teatime they still hadn’t come home and we started to worry. Shaz closed the pub at nine and we’ve been looking ever since. They have disappeared. We can’t find them anywhere.”
Seeing the looks of concern on Anita and Shazli’s faces, as the room turned silent and the gathered villagers got wind of something being wrong, Julie, without a word to Nathan, leapt up and ran across to the Braganza-Smythe’s.
Anita turned to face the keen, searching eyes of Julie Twist whose reputation as a vigilant mother had even impressed the usually unimpressionable Verity Lambush.
“We can’t find them anywhere, not in Muckleford nor here in Fekenham,” said Anita.
“Have you phoned the police?”
“We thought we should check here and the church first before raising the alarm.”
Julie cared little for formalities or what the world may think of her. She had one love in her life and that was her son. She took her responsibility for him very seriously indeed.
“Lupini, please get on the phone to Cyril. Let him know that Sally and Billy are missing. I will go and check the church. Anita and Shaz should go to Muckleford again and walk up and down every road and path just to make sure they aren’t there.”
She turned and walked out of the pub with Nathan hot on her heels.
“I’m coming with you,” he cried.
Once they had called on Elvis Linkthorpe who confirmed, following an investigation of the church, that neither Sally or Billy were hidden there and once the Braganza-Smythe’s returned from Muckleford so the search, supervised by Cyril Updike, began. Cyril had first contacted his superior officer, Detective Inspector Lazarus the man who was leading the investigation into the bank robbery, to get his permission.
“Of course, no problem, I hope you find them. I’m sure it’s a bit of hijinks on their part but as they both are underage its best we take this seriously. I can only allow you to be deployed though as I will need PC Strap to assist with the robbery investigation.”
All the villagers gathered in the church where Cybil spoke to them from the pulpit. Gone was the indecisive constable who was the butt of village jokes; in his place stood a sergeant who knew precisely what action to take.
“Neither Sally or Billy had much money with them when they left for Muckleford. They couldn’t have gone very far. We will now draw an imaginary boundary line around the local area within which we shall begin our search. The area is known to all of you and starts at Wick t’ the north, Muckleford which has been checked twice but a third time won’t hurt none, Arkenfelt, then here again in Fekenham and then south a bit t’ Birchtickle. We don’t have the wherewithal to issue you all with comwands so those that have them will have to use their own. I will stay here in Fekenham overseeing operations as it were and yous all can contact me on this ‘ere number.”
Cyril pointed to a large sheet of paper that he had drawn in large figures his number on.
“Now then I suggest we work in groups of four that way we can best re-sauce the area. Miss Lambush, er, I mean Verity, Ralph, Vicar Linkthorpe and the Brigadier will start in Birchtickle. Ethel, Susanne, Ruth and Delores will take Wick. Shaz, Anita, Julie and, sorry what’s his name, Nathan, will go again to Muckleford. Will, Noddy, Elton and Ted Sandpip will search Arkenfelt. The rest of you who all live here in Fekenham will go out and look through every field, hedgerow and ditch, every barn, every farm and every haystack. We will begin our search at the crack o’ sparrow’s t’morrow. I will need one or two of you to assist me back at police HQ. Tonight though I think it best if Neil, assuming he’s willing, along with Primrose, Harvey and Victor all have a poke around in their cars just t’ see if they catch site of them. Is that all clear? If not then speak up now.”
When the proverbial hits the fan in Fekenham the one thing you can bet your last pound on is that the villagers will all pull together. This situation was no different. It was a little after midnight then and even so they were all prepared to begin the search that second. With Cyril’s instructions firmly in their minds they all, apart from the four selected to patrol the area, went home to bed. Some though didn’t sleep for worry. Julie, Anita, Shaz along with Nathan returned to the Old Trout where they sat fretting drinking copious amounts of coffee waiting for the morning to arrive.
There was another who also shared their worries and that was Verity Lambush. She sat in her dressing gown nursing a cup of tea. Forever the thinker she was mulling over recent events in her mind, Ralph, aware of her getting out of bed, now threw the sheets off and walked in to sit beside her. He spoke gently to her.
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“Billy and Julie’s disappearance?”
“Yes, it doesn’t add up. I know Billy is a bit headstrong at times but he is not stupid and even if he were Sally is a year older and has her head firmly screwed on. I had some problems with Billy at school but nothing out of the ordinary, it was just young boy stuff. Anita was a star pupil. Mature with a great deal of common sense. I had marked that girl down as having a bright future. She is not the sort to run off or go missing.”
Ralph stroked his stubble.
“You make it sound ominous hon.”
“That’s because I think it is.”
Ralph blew hard the way he did when he recognised his wife’s intellect whirring for when it did it usually meant trouble ahead.
“So what do you suggest, I thought Cyril’s proposal had merit?”
“It does and we should all follow his instructions to the letter but when we have, only to find Sally and Billy are still missing, then we will take another route.”
Fearing the worst Ralph asked the inevitable question.
“We pursue those dreadful travellers for it is they, I believe, who have not only robbed the Muckleford bank but also kidnapped Sally and Billy.”
Ralph pulled a face.
“Not sure how you got there. We have no evidence to suggest anything of the sort. You don’t normally jump to conclusions. Is there something else bothering you?”
“I feel for Julie Twist. I know what a struggle she had raising that boy on her own. I would like to help her if I could.”
Adam Lazarus couldn’t sleep either. Not that he was worried about anything overly. The bank robbery was a mystery but not one beyond solving. All one had to do was collect all the information, all the clues, sieve through what was relevant and what wasn’t to discover the thing that had been facing you all along. Nor was it the missing teenagers that were keeping him awake. He sympathised with the parents and whole heartedly supported the local police in their search but he thought that two young lovers taking off for the night wasn’t that much to worry about. He was confident they would return first thing in the morning a little sheepishly perhaps and reluctant to confess to their parents where they had spent the night and what they had spent the night doing. The thing that was keeping the police inspector awake was Debbie Sundae.
Her drive had at first been an exciting prospect to the detective but now, following three delicious couplings, was proving to push Adam’s stamina to the limits. She had her mouth on his now, her tongue pushing gently against his. She held his erection firmly in her hand as she threw her leg over his hips. Placing one hand on his chest she pushed her self-upright whilst with the other hand she slid onto him. Her gasp of pleasure aroused Lazarus and he felt her squeeze him as she started to ride up and down.
When they had finished she rolled off him and curled into a foetal ball by his side. He moved against her and held her left breast in his hand. They went to sleep like that and whatever dreams they had were their own.
They had met during the course of their duties. Being fellow police officers didn’t equate to having a relationship but their proximity to each other coupled with their obvious attraction for each other had proven irresistible. Their working together had started only a short time ago and followed the leaving of Detective Chief Inspector Simpering. Lazarus had been working out of Bournemouth. His career had been quite meteoric so the relocating to Winchester with the promise of promotion had excited him as had the first sight he had of Debbie Sundae.
She was auburn, sallow skinned but beautiful in every way. She had a curious retroussé nose that reflected upon a sultry mouth. She was very professional at all times and like Lazarus was showing incredible promise in her chosen career. In many ways they seemed ideally suited: ambitious, focused and driven.
The promise of promotion hadn’t arrived with Lazarus, not yet at least, but it had with Debbie. She was now a Detective Sergeant. They slept now as Neil, Primrose, Harvey and Victor were driving around the countryside looking for Sally and Billy.
Ernie Stallworthy had been one of those who had been asked to remain in Fekenham. Personally, he thought the idea daft as he believed it would have been better had he been employed in the search, still, no point in making a fuss. If he was going to have stay behind then it would be best if he used his talents to their optimum.
Life of late had been good to Ernie. His sister had got used to the idea of Ernie living with Martha Horncluff, work had been steady and his relationship with former lawyer turned restaurateur, Ralph Ramhard had blossomed.
This was chiefly due to the passionate dislike both men had for right wing organisations. The secret society of the Brethren had given them both a single focus and Ralph had employed Ernie on a couple of occasions to do some digging. Things seemed to have grown quiet on that front but still a solid relationship had been forged between ex-New Yorker and ex- Eastender.
It was late now, well past two, and Ernie had been mooching around in all manner of odd corners just in case something tragic had happened to the teenagers. There had been nothing. Now Ernie was retracing his steps across the village green. He was standing now exactly where the circus had been only a short time ago. Like most folks he had enjoyed the coming of the circus and had been sad to see it go.
He stared now at the silver disc of the moon that wandered the night sky remembering the days when men would hunt by her pale glow. The only one who did any sort of hunting now was Ernie and the only thing he caught was rabbit or the occasional pheasant. The grass beneath Ernie’s feet cracked as he walked over it. The frost was thick and the night was cold. He could feel the approach of winter.
Suddenly he stopped as he had spotted something black upon the crisp white. It was a wallet. He stooped to pick it up then opened it. Inside there was nothing, no money, no library card, nothing: nothing except a photograph of Sally and Billy. The wallet was Billy’s.
Not sure what to make of his find Ernie thought about going directly to Verity and Ralph’s. He found, as did most people in Fekenham, Verity to be a bit of a snob but she had heart and one hell of a brain. Ralph was no slouch either. You didn’t get top flight lawyers who were stupid even if Ernie had come across one or two daft as dodo judges. He decided to hold off from going to the Ramhard’s, they were probably asleep at this hour anyway. Instead he made his mind up to call on them first thing just before they went off searching.
Ernie pulled out a Woodbine from his pocket, placed it into the corner of his mouth then lit it. The sulphurous glow of a match briefly ignited like a miniature star. He shoved the wallet inside his jacket pocket and went home..
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.