Authors: Marty Wingate
“Kenneth Kersey,” I repeated.
director for Power to the Peopleâthe wind-farm company. He's their mouthpieceâ¦” At that word and the image of what had happened to him, the crackers made good on their threat. I got to the loo just in time.
I took two deep breaths before I stepped back into the kitchen. Michael stood up when he saw me. “Everything all right?”
“Oh yes, everything is ducky.” Ravenous all over again, I sat down and set in on the crackers and beerâcrunching covered the worry that had started nibbling away at me. Michael sat, too. “I've seen him, of courseâKersey. But I didn't recognize him, not the way we found him. Rupert's had arguments with Kersey,” I said. “Public arguments. Rupert called him an insufferable ass.”
“Well deserved, I'd say.”
“You knew him?”
“I know enough.”
“Kersey was an ace at double-talk,” I said. “He would say how much the company cares about the environment, while at the same time they were planning to run roughshod over hundreds of acres of important habitat.” I took another cracker and began breaking it into pieces. “But why was Kersey hereâso close to Marshy End?”
Michael kept his eyes on the table as he replied. “Kersey could've been on his way up to the wind-farm site, don't you think? We're not too far off the road.”
“Maybe he was meeting Oscar
director for Power to the People. They could've been spying on Dadâtrying to find something to discredit him.”
“I don't see Woodcock as the spy type,” Michael said.
“Are you defending him?”
“I am not,” Michael said, his eyes flashing. “But we can't jump to conclusionsâat least not publicly. Woodcock will use any misstep to his own advantage.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How do you know so much about him?”
“It's my job to know as much as possible.”
His job, my job. “The thing is,” I said, “this could be a sticky situation for Dad, and he doesn't need that. Word will get round, and when they realize just who Kersey is, the police may want to talk with Rupert.”
“Most likely. It'll be a routine matter, of course, but still, he needs to be aware of what's happened before they speak to him.” Michael looked round us. “Was Rupert here?”
I took in our
counters neat and tidy, plates in a line on the rack. I got up and opened the fridge. A small carton of milkâexpiry date two weeks outâand half a block of Dad's special indulgence, double Gloucester cheese, were its only contents. I stepped on the pedal of the rubbish bin and the lid flipped open. I lifted out an empty Jaffa Cakes wrapperâthose soft biscuits with a dab of marmalade and covered in chocolate were the best tracking device possible when it came to my dad's whereabouts. I nodded miserably. “Yes.”
“Here's what must've happened,” Michael said, sitting up and brushing crumbs off his lap. “Rupert stopped by Marshy End on his way to Cumbria. Kersey came by looking for himâbut Rupert had already gone. Kersey left Marshy End and met with someone else along the river. Whoever did that to him.”
I liked thatâit made good sense.
“First order of business,” Michael said, “is to find Rupert.”
His words had buoyed me. Perhaps he was rightâwe could sort this out together and keep the spotlight off Dad. But I remembered there was more than just the two of us concerned. “No,” I said, pulling my phone out. “Not the first.” I studied the screen, getting up my nerve before ringing.
“Julia?” Beryl answered, her voice full of anticipation. “Have you heard from Rupert?”
“No, Beryl, I haven't. I just thought I wouldâ¦see how you are.”
Michael shot me a questioning look. I shook my head at him. I was a cowardâI couldn't tell her about Kersey. But whether it was to spare her worry or to protect my dad, I didn't know.
“Oh. Thank you,” she said politely. “I'm fine, really. After all, we know how your father is. Just off on a project.”
I balked at being swept up in her familial “we”âI wanted no part of her. And yet, I heard a thinness to her voice, as if she was a millimeter away from cracking.
“Yes, well. You'll let me know when he rings?”
“Of course, Julia. And you will, tooâyou'll give me any news?”
“Yes,” I said, the word fairly choking in my throat.
I dropped the phone on the table and stared into nothing. After a moment, Michael said, “So, Beryl's had no word from Rupert?”
“It was probably better you didn't tell her about Kersey.”
I frowned. “Was it? I suppose. Yesâno sense in worrying her.”
Michael watched me for a moment. “What's between you and Beryl?”
I sat up straight but wouldn't meet his eye. I pushed the packet of crackers away as I spoke. “Nothing. She's my dad's wife. What could there be between us?”
Michael bent his head to catch my gaze, and when I at last looked up at him, he said, “Your mum died last year, didn't she?”
I crossed my arms. “Last summer.”
“My dad died more than twenty years ago, and my mum has never found anyone else. I always hoped she wouldâyou know, so she wouldn't be so lonely.”
“If you're telling me to be thankful my dad remarried before we were even finished mourning my mum, then you canâ¦” The steam was building up in me, and my voice shot up an octave before I could catch it, but I caught myself in time, taking a sharp breath. “Is your mumâ¦does she live round here?”
Michael smiled. “She lives with one of my sisters in Glen Parva near Leicester. Works
you know. Parish council, garden club, Women's Institute.”
He said it proudly, and I responded in kind. “WIâmy mum tried to get me to join, but I never did.”
“Still could,” Michael said.
I rolled my eyes. “All that jam, I don't know.”
We lapsed into a pleasant silence, a small break in the harsh reality pressing on us. But my mind drifted back to the subject at hand, and I searched for something that would help.
“I may not know where Dad is, but I know someone who might.”
Michael frowned. “Who?”
“A family friend,” I said. “Tomorrow, I'll go have a chat.”
“I'll go with you.”
He fairly jumped at the opportunity, and for some reason I didn't try to identify, it made me back away. “No, it would be better if I went alone. But I'll be sure to ring you later if I hear anything,” I said.
“And how will you get there?” Michael asked. “You've no car.”
Yes, how would I get to Cambridge the next day? Again, I'd forgotten about my nicked Fiat. Must ring the police. Must ring insurance. And again, a niggling thought tried to work its way to the surface. I pushed it back down in order to stay in control. Must not give in to MichaelâI'm the one to sort out any difficulty Dad may be in. “I'll manage.”
When we left Marshy End, Michael drove slowly past the spot where the footpath took off from the road. Two unmarked cars were parked on the verge, but we could see nothing else.
We continued in silence, except for the noises my stomach madeâcrackers had not been enough. Almost to Mildenhall, I said, “We could stop for a sandwich. The Wheaten Cairn is coming up.”
The headlights illuminated the sign as we pulled inâa terrier standing on a bench as if being judged at a show, and the pub's name above in Old English lettering. We dashed from car to door through splattering rain.
The Cairn sat at the edge of one of the few hills thereabouts and looked south. It was a long building, but not deep. Inside the door, the lounge went off to the right, but I turned left into the tiny bar, beyond which one further room held an old upright piano, shelves of dusty books, and four little tables.
A small man in a dark suit huddled at a tiny table near the window. Michael and I approached the bar, which was barely long enough for us and the two fellows at the other end. They were watching the television on the wall as the minister of food gave a speech, and seemed to be in the middle of a mild disagreement. “No,” one of the fellows said, “I'm sure he blinked twenty-seven times in the first minuteâI counted. That's a pint you owe me.”
“It was nineteen,” the other replied. “I'd swear to it. We'll have to watch again.”
Michael nodded to a sign that read “Kitchen Closed Sunday Evenings.” “Will they do sandwiches?” he asked.
The barman, Valentine Sporeâa round fellow with a Friar Tuck fringe of hair and small eyesâappeared from the adjoining room with a tray of glasses. He broke out in a toothy smile. “Julia! Haven't seen you in here for ages.”
“Hello, Val. How're things?”
“We're going great guns here,” he said as he began to pull a pint. “I'm
a hotel right next to the pub. Just waiting for the local authority to grant approval. Sure to get that nowâthe way is clear. You need more than just a pub these days, you know.” He looked over my shoulder. “Is Rupert with you? Rupert Lanchester,” he said to the room in general, puffing out his chest. “He's a great friend of mine, you know. Drops in quite often.”
Val had always been a bit of a boaster. “Have you seen Rupert?” I asked.
He picked up a glass and studied it in the light before he began polishing. “I haveâhe was in just the other day. Let me see nowâI believe it was yesterday. Rupert's always stopping,” Val said again to the unresponsive room, “just one of my usual customers.” He turned back to us. “I had barely unlocked the door at eleven o'clock, and there was Rupert.” Val leaned over the bar. “I say, Julia, he looked a bit weary. I know it's been a tough time for him and you, with your mum and all.”
“Was he here today?” I asked. “Did he go to Marshy End?”
Val's eyes flickered past my shoulder to the door, as if he expected Rupert to walk in at that moment. “No, I didn't see him today.”
“Are you sure? He could've stopped while you were away from the bar.”
Val barked a laugh. “I'm never away from the bar. Now, what can I get for you?”
I sighed, and Michael, who had stood still beside me, stirred. “We'll have two pints of Broadside,” I said, “and could you do us a couple of toasted cheese sandwiches?”
“I will indeed,” Val replied.
It was a while before the evening crowd arrived, and we were spoilt for seating choices. I headed to a small round table in the further room.
“You've the magic touch,” Michael said.
I shrugged off the compliment. “They're only toasted cheese sandwiches. Too bad we weren't here earlierâthe Sunday roast is not to be missed. Val keeps his own pigs in the field below, and that's what he serves here.” The Cairn was our local pub from Marshy End, for both the production team on the show and our family. It felt a bit like home.
“Locally sourced food and drink are selling points these days. Not many publicans can boast that,” Michael said. “He should add a veg patchâhe'd draw in the real-ale crowd as well as the slow-food customers.”
“And it's popular with birders,” I said, seeing the Cairn in the new light of my life as a tourism manager. “Below the pub is the pig field, and then a small wood, and on the other side of that is a fen. There've been a few rare sightings there.”
Michael raised his eyebrows in response. “Your friend Val shouldn't miss such a great marketing opportunity.”
Val called out when our sandwiches were ready, and Michael collected them from the bar. The fine dining occupied us until, halfway through his sandwich, Michael said, “We've a start. Rupert was here and at Marshy End.”
A bit of cheese had oozed out onto my plate, and I worked at scraping it up as I said, “But did he see anyone while he was there?”
Michael picked up his sandwich and cocked his head. “He's mentioned Kersey a couple of times lately,” Michael said. “Kersey's asked him about specific birdsâI don't know if they were rare ones or not. Rupert thought it was a start, that maybe Kersey was beginning to understand what was important.”
I smiled proudly. “That's Rupertâhe can bring round the hardest heart.” Except mine, of courseâhis own
of stone. “He'll be horrified when he hears about Kersey.”
“Worseâhe could be a suspect.”
Michael spoke my fear, and I didn't like hearing it. “No, not a suspect. What even makes you say that?”
“It seems likely, and that's why we must get to Rupert one way or another.” He tossed his napkin onto his empty plate. “I didn't know about this placeâgood thing you did. It would be better if we worked together. This family friend will know something?”
I preferred to keep an ace up my sleeveâtime for diversionary tactics. “Have you and Dad talked about the new season? How far out have you scheduled his lectures?”
Michael regarded me for a moment without answering, but he took the bait, and for a few minutes I offered advice on handling Rupert and the television staff. Details were my strength, and I was happy to share my expertise.
“Do you know Colin Happer?” Michael asked.
“Daffy Happer, you mean?”
Michael grinned. “Where did Daffy come from?”
I shrugged. “I didn't do itâhe brought that with him. Don't tell me he's been hanging about again.”
“He's angling for a second filming location for the showâquite near his own place down near Exeter.”
“He tries this once or twice a yearâthe bounder. Thinks he can muscle in on Dad's success. You should keep an eye on him.”
I looked up to see Michael's eyes flashing and a suppressed smile. I arched an eyebrow in response and continued my instruction. “Take no guff from Basil Blandy,” I said. “He's a slacker and will whinge about the least little bit of work you give him.”
“That much I've learned,” Michael said. “Every time I see him, he's carrying on about building miniature ponds for a kids' segment, but I've not seen a pond yet.”