Authors: Peter Helton
âWhat has he got on you?'
He looked away for a moment, then gave a curt shake of the head. âI can't tell you that.'
âI'm probably the only one you
safely tell. Client confidentiality,' I lied.
âYou promise? It's .Â .Â . it's kind of embarrassing.'
âYou're willing to pay a blackmailer until the end of your days to avoid embarrassment?'
âI'm paying him to stay out of prison,' he said impatiently. âIt would be the end of my career, what's left of it. I'll have to keep on paying him or else find him and kill him.'
âSteady on. Tell me what he's got on you. Perhaps we can sort something out.'
Guy looked doubtfully at me, then went and recharged his glass. He avoided my eyes, shrugged deeper into his clothes, pinched his nose, sniffed. âHe .Â .Â . he's got photographs. Of me with a girl.'
âSo? Oh, I think I get it.'
âWe did a dig two autumns ago in Gloucestershire. She was from the local school; they came out to help with field walking. And later again washing the finds.'
âShe was under age?'
âChris, I swear I thought she was sixteen. She was
sixteen, a couple of months and she would have been.'
âEven if she had been sixteen that could have spelled the end of your career if the papers wanted to make something of it. But if she was fifteen that's statutory rape. “
I thought she was sixteen, Your Honour
” won't cut any ice.'
He sat down heavily on the bed. âI know that. I know that now.' He sighed.
âAnd someone's got pictures of you with this girl? How?'
He made a helpless hand gesture, palms upwards. âMust have followed us. By the river. She thought it was romantic .Â .Â .'
âSo what happened to the girl?'
âNot sure. She kept writing to me for a while then it fizzled out. I think she found a real boyfriend.'
âYou've no idea who is blackmailing you?'
âNot the foggiest. Someone on the production team, one of the diggers, could be anyone who owns a camera. I've suspected everyone in turn.'
âThe cameraman, Paul?' I suggested.
âObvious choice, of course. But everyone round here takes pictures, videos, stills, for the production, for the archaeology, for their Facebook pages, for their mum and dad! It could be anyone connected with
and actually, Paul is the one person who never complains when I get things wrong or forget my lines.'
âThat's probably because he sells the out-takes. How is the money handed over?'
âDifferent ways. First time it was under a rock near the dig, once I had to leave it in a lift, once in a pub toilet.'
âYou've never been tempted to hang around and see who it is?'
âI tried once. I was spotted. That's when the amount went up. As a punishment for trying. The vindictive bastard.'
âWhat would you have done if you had found out who is behind it?'
âI don't know. Talked to them. Begged them? Thumped them? Hard to say.'
It sounded genuine to me. If you were being blackmailed by someone you worked with closely day in, day out you would be so consumed with curiosity as to who it was you might not think much beyond finding out. But that would soon change, I was certain. You would want to fight back. Unless you were completely spineless, of course. âCan you afford to pay? Have you got the money?'
âAll in tens and twenties.' He puffed out his cheeks. âI've written cheques for some pretty big amounts in my life but two grand in notes somehow feels a lot more painful to give away.'
âYes, blackmailers don't usually take cheques. And you don't get much in return that you didn't already have. Do you want me to follow you discreetly, see if I can spot who picks it up?'
He frowned at that. âIf they find out they'll up the money and I still won't be able to go to the police. I'm not sure it's a good idea.'
âI'm pretty good at not being spotted.' Often because I'm not there, I thought guiltily. Michael Dealey and his wheelchair were leaving narrow tyre marks on my conscience.
âI'll think about it.'
âBut let me know in good time.' Since Guy wasn't offering me any I found a glass and poured myself a measure of malt. âAre these incidents connected? Did they push the urn off the roof as a reminder or something? And your sweat lodge moment?'
âI don't think so. I've always paid up, haven't I? That's other people. Everyone's after me. They're trying to kill me for one reason or another.'
Guy was beginning to sound paranoid but I found it hard to blame him. âYou're saying it as though people don't need much of a reason to kill.'
I took a breath to give him my âreasons for committing murder', a short list that has Greed and Stupidity vying for top spot, but I didn't want to give Guy ideas. If someone was really trying to bump him off he probably knew the reason, even if he wasn't conscious of it. âThink about it, Guy. Who, in this group of people, did you cross enough to make them want to kill you? You must know.'
âLook, Sherlock, don't you think I've wracked my brains about it? Don't you think I'd have said if I knew? I've thought of pretty much nothing else for months.'
I finished my drink and set the glass on the mantelpiece next to a vase of silk flowers. âOkay. Then perhaps you could give some thought to this: what kind of behaviour has brought you to a point where the only person you haven't pissed off enough to feel murderous towards you is me?
. No one likes you much, Guy Middleton. You're not giving people much reason to.' I made for the door.
âThe public love me,' he protested.
âI get fan mail from all over the world!' He was nearly shouting now as I left his room and closed the door behind me.
âBecause they never met you,' I said to the empty gallery.
Downstairs I walked into the pool house to check on progress there. I found Annis on the right side of the pool staring at the empty wall with a mug of coffee in her hand and I found Stoneking on the opposite side of the pool, sitting in a cane armchair, watching Annis staring at the wall. I joined him first. âI've been banished,' he said in a cathedral whisper. âThis is as close as I'm allowed.'
âI'm surprised she's allowed you in at all.'
âShe's been standing there for ages. Is she going to do some painting any time soon?'
âCould be hours yet. Then she might explode all over that wall or she might put three dabs of pink on it and call it a day's work. You're not paying her by the hour, are you?' I walked round the pool to check with Annis.
âIt's got potential,' she said.
âCourse it has, it's a white wall.'
âPerhaps it has too much potential. I mean where do you start? Over there? Or over there? How wide? How high? Long and narrow? Tall and wide? Where's it going to end? I think I'll need more coffee, hon.'
Nothing had changed there then. Back on the lawn the team had just waved the helicopter goodbye and another cooking sketch was being prepared. For this a few Roman soldiers were fetched to go about their business in the background, walking, chatting in pairs or carrying things to and fro while in the foreground Hilda Carson cooked and talked food. Hilda knew her stuff and could talk straight to camera without a script.
âI won't bother you with stuffed dormouse or similar delights. A lot has been said about the elaborate feasts that the Roman elite enjoyed, but even ordinary Romans, unless they were very poor indeed, enjoyed a diet far superior to that of the Britons at the time. Many of the ingredients we now take for granted and use regularly in our own cooking arrived with the Romans. Before the invasion we didn't have parsley, spearmint, rosemary or sage, marjoram, thyme or watercress. The Romans brought with them apples and pears, medlars, mulberries, sweet chestnuts, damsons, plums and cherries and probably the walnut. And of course they brought their beloved grapes.' She pointed to an earthenware dish laden with out-of-season plastic grapes. âYet even more surprising is the long list of vegetables they introduced into this country, many of which we tend to think of as typically British: onions, leeks, cabbages and carrots, but also endives, globe artichokes, cucumbers, courgettes, asparagus, parsnips, turnips, radishes, celery and lettuce. Of course neither the potato nor the tomato would arrive in Europe for close to another fifteen hundred years, so you may well ask: what was British food like before the Romans arrived? The answer is of course .Â .Â .'
It was populist but interesting enough to keep me hanging around, though the sight of Hilda wrapping a huge salmon in chard leaves and heaving it on to the barbecue would on its own have been enough to keep me there. She was preparing several other dishes, stuffing herbs into offal, making flat breads and even a kind of fruity custard.
Many of the dishes, which sadly included the custard I had eyed with intent, contained large doses of that most Roman of ingredients:
. In order to make it, take a large amount of mangled fish intestines â oily fish only, please â stick them in a big glass jar, pour over a couple of inches of salt and some herbs â as though that made much difference â add a dash of water and leave to fester in strong sunshine for a few months. If you drop the jar it will wipe half the value off your house faster than you can say negative equity.
The very thought of the stuff made me want to heave so I noted carefully which recipes were
-free. Another two hours went by before all the dishes were ready and lined up in a photogenic display on the tables. I had fetched Annis from the pool to make sure she got more than coffee into her system; she had at last managed to get some paint on the wall, to the delight of Mark who came poodling after her at a respectful distance. Guy made an appearance too. He had been persuaded to stop sulking long enough to speak a few lines for the camera at the opening of the feast before the VIPs, which â off-camera â included Annis, me and Stoneking, started demolishing the display. What began as tentative sampling soon turned to serious scoffing; Hilda's Roman cookery was exceptional. Even so I stuck to the
-free rabbit stew, of which there was plenty, and the salmon wrapped in chard over which fierce battles were fought. Mark contributed a few bottles of wine and also sent a couple to the poor diggers. They had been excluded from the feast to keep the numbers down and would soon be queuing at the catering van for more conventional suppers as another session of the dig came to a close.
When the feast broke up the Romans, of whom only Brian had been invited to partake, began to pack up their camp in order to return to the twenty-first century. Annis went back to her mural while I took a stroll around Tarmford Hall in the evening light. When I came to the place where the urn had crashed to the ground I saw that the extreme left door of the coach house stood open. I stuck my head around the door jamb. Then I stuck the rest of me around it as well. Immediately in front of me were the wooden stairs that led up to the floor above where the technicians had set up their computers. Down here the coach house was now a six-bay garage, four bays of which were occupied. As I had expected from an old-school rock star, there was a Rolls Royce; it was a blue 1980s model dripping with chrome. Next to it stood a racing-green Morgan, a two-seater convertible that had seen a lot of use and was covered in mud. The next car up was a Ford van â Sam the gardener's, I decided â and the one closest to me was the tiniest Mercedes imaginable, which was probably what Carla the housekeeper used to get around.
I was just about to leave when from upstairs came a sound that made me stop in my tracks. It was the noise I had recently heard inside the helicopter, now played through a tinny loudspeaker. Then Guy's voice as he started effing and blinding. âLook what the bastards did. Down there. There, you dickhead! There! In five-foot bloody letters! You can hardly miss it, can you? Pilot, go back, fly back, get us down there this instant!'
The recording stopped and there was laughter. âWhat a shame it won't be broadcast, it's my favourite bit,' said one voice.
âWhoever did that got his money's worth, it was inspired,' said another. I recognized the voices as belonging to the technicians who walked around joined at the hip.
âDo you think they'll ever catch whoever fired the bolt?' said the first voice.
âI doubt it, unless they left fingerprints on the apparatus. My money is still on Cy; why else would he have asked us to say he was chatting to us when the screaming started?'
âBecause he was wandering around by himself and would have been an obvious suspect? Everyone knows he hates Guy. And it's obvious the bolt was meant for him. Want to watch it again?'
âGo on, then.'
The recording played for a second time. âThere, you dickhead! There .Â .Â .!' More laughter.
I slipped out of the garage and sauntered back to the house. Two suspects eliminated and one incriminated; it always pays to be nosey. Satisfied with my day's work so far I climbed up to the attic room, which now had all of Annis's luggage in it, climbed over her bags and flopped on the bed for a post-prandial doze which would help me to be awake and sober by the time darkness fell. I was still hoping Guy might relent and ask me to follow him to the landing stage when he paid his blackmailer later tonight but it wouldn't matter if he didn't.
Because I would follow him anyway.
I must have drifted off soon afterwards because I woke with a start when Annis fell into the room. She looked dreadful and sounded worse.
âMake room on the bed,' she croaked, âI want to die.'
I shot off the bed to make space for the invalid. âWhat happened? You look bad.'
âFood poisoning,' she groaned. âI threw up in the pool house, the downstairs toilet and would have thrown up again in the bathroom up here but someone was already chucking up in it.'