Authors: Hannah Dennison
“I'm glad to hear it,” said Valentine, suppressing a grin. “It's a pity you retired, Kat. I never missed an episode. I'm a bit of a collector myself.” He gestured to the walking cane.
“I was admiring that.” The ox bone cane had a distinctive ivory handle fashioned in the head of a French bulldog. “It's unusual.”
“It belonged to my great-grandfather,” said Valentine. “He was a collector of curios. As a matter of fact, I've come to Devon for the Chillingford Court auction. Such a shame.”
It was an all-too-common theme. The Jacobean house had been in the family for centuries and had passed to the son who no longer wantedâor could affordâthe upkeep of a twenty-thousand-square-foot mansion. Every single thing, including the walls, fixtures, floors, and doors was to go under the hammer on Wednesday.
“We're going to the auction, too!” Mum exclaimed. “Perhaps Kat can give you some tips?”
“That would be very nice,” said Valentine.
Our eyes met and I was glad to see his sparkled with amusement.
“Will your wife be joining you?” Mum asked bluntly.
“Mother!” I hissed and mouthed “sorry” to Valentine. “Lovely to meet you. Come on, Mother, we have sloes to pick.”
“To answer your question,” said Valentine. “I'm a widower.”
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said Mum who had the grace to look embarrassed at last. “But I'm sure your children must be a great comfort.”
Right at that moment I would happily have thrown my mother back into Coffin Mire but Valentine seemed unfazed.
“They would be if I had children,” he said.
Mum brightened. “I keep telling Kat, don't wait too long.”
Valentine laughed. At least he seemed to have a sense of humor. “I'll let you ladies continue with your fruit picking. Oh, by the way, I'm staying at the Hare & Hounds.” He withdrew a business card and pushed it into my hands. “In case you feel like a drink this evening, I'd really like to hear your opinion on a couple of lots I've got my eye on. That is, if you aren't too busy.”
“She's not,” said Mum firmly.
I gave Valentine's business card a quick glimpse and gave a start of surprise.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me but I doubted that Mum would see it that wayâ
VALENTINE PRINCE-AVERY. COMPENSATION CONSULTANT: HS
3. There was a mobile phone number and a website address.
Mum looked over my shoulder and gasped. “Why! The nerve of it! Those placards littering the countryside must be your doing!”
“Mum,” I protested, “Mr. Prince-Avery is only doing his job.”
“You deliberately misled us!” she fumed. “Why did you say you were here for the auction?”
here for the auction,” said Valentine calmly. “But I'm also here to talk to property owners who will be affected by the new railway line.”
“You are trespassing!” Mum went on. “I've a good mind to report you to the police!”
Valentine listened placidly to Mum's outburst that went on to include a conspiracy theory, the prime minister, and inexplicably, 9/11. Finally she ran out of steam and ended with, “So there. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
I was mortified. “I apologize, Mr. Prince-Averyâ”
“Valentine, please. And I'm used to it,” he said wryly. “But I do want to explain your options, Mrs. Stanford.”
“I don't want optionsâ”
“Especially regarding the location of the rolling stock depotâ”
“Rolling stock depotÂ â¦ rolling
â¦” Mum sputtered with indignation.
“We'll be in touch,” I said. “I think you'd better go.”
A Klaxon horn startled us all. “Get off this land!” came an angry shout. “You're trespassing!”
We turned to see a four-wheel mobility scooter trundle into view. Plastic shopping bags overflowed from the front wicker basket and others dangled from the handlebars. Perched in the captain's seat was a florid-faced woman in her seventies. She was dressed in a purple-knitted wool coat and matching wool cap embroidered with red flowers. A younger versionâwearing an identical outfit in orangeâwas trailing behind. Over the crook of her arm was a broken twelve-bore shotgun.
“Oh God,” muttered Mum. “It's the Gullys.”
Valentine looked startled. “Who?”
“Joyce and Patty. Mother and daughter.” Mum pointed to a small patch of woodland where a cottage was just visible through the trees. “They live at the end of the bridleway in Bridge Cottage.”
“Bridge Cottage? The place by the river?” Valentine said. “I knocked there earlier today but no one answered.”
“They are a bit odd,” said Mum.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “Is that a real shotgun?”
Joyce sounded the horn again and stopped her mobility scooter just yards away from where the three of us were standing. She turned to her daughter and gave her a curt nod. Patty fumbled in her pocket and withdrew two cartridges.
“What is she doing?” Valentine said with growing alarm. “Is that thing loaded?”
“It is now,” said Mum as Patty expertly popped the cartridges into the barrels and handed the gun to her mother.
We looked at each other in horror.
“Surely she's not going to fire?” said Valentine.
A deafening shot rang out that echoed around the valley, sending startled birds soaring into the sky. Mum grabbed me and screamed.
“The next bullet is for you!” Joyce shouted and pointed the twelve-bore at Valentine.
He didn't hesitate. He turned swiftly on his heel, clambered over the stile, and took off across the field as fast as his limp could take him.
Joyce trained her gun on his retreating figure and fired again. Luckily, it missed him by miles.
“You shot at him!” I exclaimed, unable to believe what had happened.
“He was trespassing,” Joyce exclaimed.
“You shouldn't have done that.” I was appalled. “Yes, he was trespassing, but he wasn't poaching.”
“Mother is very upset,” said Patty. “Muriel from the post office told us that Bridge Cottage isn't eligible for compensation. The cutting will pass just yards from our front door and there is nothing that we can do about it. He'd better not show his face around here again or next time, Mother won't miss.”
mother finally found her voice. “Goodness. Well done. That certainly scared him off, didn't it?” She gave a nervous laugh.
Joyce looked at Mum and muttered something unintelligible under her breath. It didn't sound complimentary.
We all eyed each other warily. There was something unnerving about the four of us standing in the bridlewayâmothers and daughters, all about the same age.
“There is a protest group meeting on Thursday,” said Mum. “You should come.”
Neither Joyce nor Patty answered. Instead, Joyce broke the barrel and handed the shotgun back to her daughter. Joyce started the mobility scooter and the pair returned the way they had come without another word.
“You're so lucky to have me,” said Mum.
“I know. I am.” And I meant it. “Especially since you don't have a deadly weapon. Poor Patty. Fancy having a mother like that.”
“Patty's just as bad as Joyce,” said Mum. “They're like two peas in a pod.”
“Wait a minuteâis that
Patty who worked up at the Hall recently?”
“Lasted all of three weeks,” said Mum. “Apparently she can't hold down a jobâat least, that's what Mrs. Cropper says.”
“Her mother needs her more, apparently,” Mum said. “Joyce has got a weak heart, high blood pressure, some kind of neurological disorderâyou name it, she's got it. Patty is working part-time at the pub to make ends meet but I doubt if that will last long.”
A car engine sputtered into life. Across the other side of the valley, I saw the roof of a metallic-blue SUV move along the hedge line and disappear from view.
“I bet that's Valentine's car,” said Mum. “I've never seen anyone walk so fast with a limp.”
“Well, so much for
budding romance,” I said dryly. “Shall we see if he was right about the sloes on the other side of the hedge?”
Mum and I cut through a gap and into the bridleway. On one side stood a bank of old oak trees. Lying on the ground at the base was a Merrythought Jerry mouse dressed in a hand-knitted red cardigan.
“Mum!” I said with dismay. “Look.” I bent down to pick up the toy. “It's Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Where is that naughty boy?” Mum scanned the area.
“Harry!” I called out. “We know you're hiding. Where are you?” Frankly, I was concerned. Harry and Ella Fitzgerald were inseparable.
Mum and I fell silent, listening for any giveaway sounds. This was the third time he'd run away from boarding school in the past four weeks.
“Harry!” I said. “We're not cross with you, we want to make sure you're alright, that's all. We're not angry. Please come out.”
There was a rustle from above. We looked up to see Harry, standing on a wooden platform high in the oak tree. He was dressed in his Biggles helmet, goggles, and white scarf. A pair of binoculars swung around his neck.
“Squadron Leader Bigglesworth, I presume,” I exclaimed, addressing Harry's alter ego.
“I wonder if Lady Lavinia even knows he's missing?” said Mum in a low voice.
“What on earth are you doing up there, sir?” I said.
“I'm on surveillance, Flying Officer Stanford,” said Harry. “I'm afraid the enemy is afoot. The Germans are trying to build a runway but we soon saw 'em off, made 'em run.”
“He must have seen Joyce shoot that gun,” Mum said anxiously.
“Have you got Flying Officer Fitzgerald down there?” Harry demanded.
“Yes, sir,” I said and lifted up the velveteen mouse. “Fortunately, she's fineâjust a little shocked from falling out of that tree.”
“She didn't fall! She was shot down,” said Harry grimly. “We need better defenses.”
“Why don't you come down and give us a full report, sir.”
Mum rolled her eyes at me and whispered, “Stop encouraging him.”
“It's just a game, Mum,” I said.
“Our first casualty,” Harry went on. “And there'll be more. We've got the Honeychurch dormice to protect. Are you with me, Stanford?”
“Yes, sir,” I said giving a snappy salute.
“Good. Because we're now officially at war.”
“Do you think the bag ladies are double agents?” said Harry as he joined Mum and me at the bottom of the tree.
“Bag ladies?” Mum exclaimed.
“Mummy calls them the bag ladies,” Harry went on. “Because they always have tons of bags everywhere. She says they live in a rubbish dump.”
“Ohâyou mean Joyce and Patty Gully,” said Mum, stifling a grin.
“I didn't think much of their tank,” Harry declared. “And the purple bag lady was a terrible shot. She missed that German by miles.”
“The gun went off by accident,” I said quickly. “Joyce didn't know it was loaded.”
“That was silly,” said Harry. “Father's told me everything about guns. Ours are kept in a locked gun cabinet in the gun room.”
“Here is the wounded warrior.” I handed him the Jerry mouse, anxious to steer the subject away from guns. “Flying Officer Fitzgerald will survive.”
“But what will happen to the other miceâthe real ones?” Harry bit his bottom lip and suddenly, Biggles was forgotten. Standing before us now was a very worried little boy.
“I remember those mice as a child,” said Mum.
“William told me it was important I protected them but I can't if I'm at that horrible school.”
“I'm sure they'll be safe,” I said.
“Not if these woods are cut down,” Mum said.
“Shh,” I hissed.
“When is William back from the Himalayas?” Harry demanded.
“The Himalayas?” Mum and I were both taken off guard at the mention of the stable manager's name. We exchanged looks of confusion. I knew that the family had kept William's true reason for his absenceânamely a charge of manslaughter and prison sentenceâa secret from Harry, but I hadn't thought to ask what it might be.
“Mummy says that William and Vera have gone on a mountaineering expedition to the Himalayas and that they'll be gone for a very,
long time,” said Harry solemnly.
Yet again, when it came to Harry, I was at a loss as to what to say. Often he would come out with brilliant comments that showed him to be extremely bright. Other timesâsuch as nowâhe seemed so gullible. Boarding school must be sheer torment for someone so sensitive and with such a vivid imagination. I was fond of Harry and it troubled me.
“Well, enough of that now,” said Mum briskly. “Let's take you home. Your parents must be worried sick.”
Harry dug in his toes. “I'm not going back to the front and you can't make me!”
“Don't be silly,” Mum scolded. “You're a grown boy now.”
“I'm sure we can work out whatever's worrying you,” I said, glaring at Mum.
“Yes,” I said. “Let's go”
“You're asking for trouble, Kat,” Mum muttered.
“NowÂ â¦ where's your school uniform?”
.” Harry slipped behind the tree. More rustling followed and a few minutes later, he reappeared dressed in his school uniform of blazer, gray trousers, striped tie, and cap.
“I'm afraid that Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth has left the building,” Harry said gloomily.
I laughed. “Of course he hasn't,” I said. “He's disguised as Harry Honeychurch.”
Harry brightened. “Yes! He is! I mean, yes! I am!”