Winifred Orteaux Tovell

Winifred Orteaux Tovell.

 


Book One

 

'AN ADVENTURE OF CHOICE'

 

Sample CHAPTER 10... (of 20)

"You see that goose?" my father asked.  I was around ten at the time, and at Welney Marsh where we often walked.  He, an amateur ornithologist escaping from the stress of work.  I, in awe of the world through the eyes of a child.
     "That one?" I pointed to an old bird, stuffing coming out, an air of dignity about her as though she might know about things others could only guess at.
     "Her name's Sheba, a White-front, and she is a heroine among geese."
     "But they all look the same, Dad, how do we even know she's not a gander?" I asked, grasping every word he spoke.
     "The rings on her feet, one purple, one green, one silver.  Letters and numbers - pierced, printed or embossed."
     "Oh..."
     "That's partly how I know."  He paused to sharpen my attention for the rest of 'partly'.  "I also know because I can read her character," another pause thinking, I expect, how to explain 'character' to a ten year-old.  "I see in her the suffering she has endured, her promises kept, her joys, fears, failures and achievements.  In short, I see a wise old bird who has done her duty!  Because..." he stroked his chin, "'Duty done' is obvious even in a goose, for it is independent of species or intelligence."  And he took a deep breath, puffing out his chest clearly satisfied with his answer to a question no one had actually asked.
     "Yes, Dad..." I replied, excited, as I sensed he was about to tell me one of his stories.
     "Years ago, when you were still a baby, Sheba and her mate," he thought for a moment, "Thor, he was called," and gave a little nod, as though the gander had been well named, "...were included in an important international research project.  Lots of geese took part but, of them all, Sheba and Thor became the stars - not literally," he grinned.  "Anyway, it all began one bitterly cold October night on the northern shores of Russia by the edge of the Arctic Ocean."
    Sheba came toward us to take the piece of bread I offered.  She stayed close beside me, not nervous or making a fuss like the other birds.  I found myself believing she wanted to hear the story too.  Her story, I think!
     "The flocks were flying west south west in V-formation.  Ahead, the treacherous White, Baltic and North Seas," father continued, awash with information.  "Their destination?  To over-winter here, in Britain, some to the very spot we're standing on," and he prodded the ground with his stick.  "A journey," he waved the stick skywards, "of over two thousand miles."  Sheba looked up, though she may only have been stretching.
     "Gosh!" and I wondered how so ungainly a creature could fly such distances.
     "And all went well until..." but he was interrupted by Sheba raising her wings and belting out a rasping bark.  No doubt about it, she was listening.
     It never mattered to me that my father's stories might be the product of a wild imagination, they were real enough for me.  I met Sam at about the time father died, and one seemed to carry on where the other left off - both of them yobs when it came to respecting the barrier between fantasy and reality.
     And now it's happening even to me.  More and more I find myself in the stories, and telling rather than listening to them.  Which makes me wonder what my duties might have been and, with my life almost over, how well I did and how my tale will end.
     "Yes," he continued, "all went well until they reached the White Sea."  Sheba, I swear, winced at mention of the name.  Me too!  "The Gulf of the Arctic Ocean, home of the Soviet fleet, an imprisoned population, Beloye More... huh!  A god-forsaken place, and more so that night as there came the first of a spate of terrible storms."
     "What happened, Dad?"
     "Bolts of lightning, blasts of ice, thunder, storm and bitter cold...  but they made it past Finland and over the Baltic Sea.  Then, calamity.  Light fading, no hope of shelter and the moon snuffed out by angry skies, skein upon skein were forced to break formation.  Bodies crashed to the ground.  Lost, terror-struck and frozen, hundreds died.  The flocks were decimated.  A disaster."
     "And Sheba?" I asked, checking she was still with us.
     "She and her gosling - missing.  But Thor, so brave and against all the odds, made it through alone."
     "Oh, dear..." and I felt tears for the proud old creature that stood beside me, as though I might soothe the horror of that dreadful night.
     "Battered, bruised, an almost broken bird, he landed here, Welney Marsh, first week in October," he paused for breath.  "But, that's just half the story!  A week to recover, a break in the weather and Thor, duty-bound, took off from this very spot."  Father drew his stick in an upward arc, like a mad conductor about to signal a great crescendo.  "Course - north north east, best guess to where that wicked storm cut down his family."
     "But, how do you know all this, Dad?"
     "Observation stations, radio tags, meteorology, foot rings - all that," and he continued as though my question had been answered.  "Sheba and her gosling were spotted sheltering with a group of juvenile stragglers by Lake Vanern in southern Sweden.  But time was running out."  Clearly, there was no stopping father now.  "With Arctic frost clawing at their feeding grounds, hour by hour the chances of survival seeped away.  Only Sheba knew the route, but she was exhausted.  They just had to fly south, but needed a strong leader to guide them along the northern shores of Denmark, Holland and, finally, over the North Sea to Welney Marsh."
     "Thor?"
     "Imagine his welcome!"
     "...and they made it - didn't they?"  I looked at Sheba, wanting to cuddle her.
     "They were clocked in here, Welney Marsh, eighteenth October, one adult pair, sixteen juveniles, all in great distress.  Who knows what hardship they endured.  Thor, with a damaged wing, never flew again and Sheba, of course, stayed with him."
     "And their own gosling?"
     "Did OK.  He'll be in northern Russia now.  Due back November," and he shrugged, "all being well..."
     "I see," and I crossed my fingers for them all, for all the geese in all the whole wide World, just as any young boy might do.  And I remember that as if I was ten again, sixty years past and nothing changed.  Muddle beget muddle, most of my father's stories jumbled in my head.  But, I do remember that one.  It keeps coming back at me, nagging, pecking at my conscience, reminding me of duty.

#

Like I should be asking myself what happened to that other guy, the one who's forgotten he's Richard.  Poor sod.  Thank god I'm me!  In fact I'm getting so smug about that I might yet turn my back on him and deny he even exists! 
     Duty?  Shame and cowardice, more like.  So self-obsessed have I become, I lack even the pluck of a goose.  Fear of reverting, that's what turns me into this monster. 
     Knowing all the time that Richard can be taken from me, I become a product of my own uncertainty.  I suspect everything.  And then, become my own suspicion, I suspect nothing.  Ugh!  The prospect is too awful to contemplate.
     We occupy the same body, that's true.  But as prisoners, two to a cell.  One half of a half-wit in denial of the other, back and forth, his turn next and I'll have to face him as we pass.  Briefly sentient of each other's state of mind, what shall I say to him?  What will he think of Richard?
     Blindfold off - I'm Richard.  Blindfold on - him.  Or could it be the other way around?  Who's to say this Richard that I am is not the fantasy, clinging to the delusion that he alone is the true self?  Like the family dog endowed with humanity, until that day it sees itself in a mirror.
     It's not easy to avoid mirrors.  They peep at you from the most unlikely places.  So I must be quick, and put this to paper before I read it back and have no notion of its author, as though someone had stolen me and made merry with my existence.  Moulded me into fiction!
     How cruel that would read, written in my hand, yet from the intellect of another.

#

Hey!  What's this stuff I've written here?  That I'm not me!  That I'm not the 'who I imagine myself to be', and would be better off as someone else.  Is that what it's saying? 
     I'm staying here at Breewood Hall where Bee and I are busy with our project, the thing that's brought us so close together... I almost wrote 'again'.  Strange, that.  It's as though I've been away, but not in distance.  In an adjacent room perhaps.  Near enough that I hear whispering - my own, I think - like I have secrets from myself.  Someone calling me, reminding... no, it's gone!  Later will do.  I'll leave it awhile 'til I remember...
     It seems I have no choice in this.  Blindfold on, peek-a-bo, blindfold off, peek-a-bo, everyone the jester.  But, what's the joke?  Instead of sitting in the audience enjoying the comic misfortunes of theatrical improvisation, I find myself actually there, on stage, amongst the cast and equally susceptible to their demons.  When I hear cries of 'He's behind you!' that's not me shouting.  Oh no!  I've become the object of the warning, the subject too!
     Breewood Hall - oh dear!  I've been reading through her chapters and can't help commenting how partisan the writer sounds.  Does that sound rude?  I don't mean it to.  It's just that she writes about a different sort of me, a wrong-side-of-the-mirror me.  That other guy kept sweet on tablets who exaggerates the good stuff and ignores the bad because, and I don't like this but it has to be said, because here I am, the real me, not someone incarcerated in anursing home or hospice, or some such terminal device.
     It's over, apparently.  The final wave of the last goodbye.  Shit!  If that really is true, I'm bloody terrified.  Oh yes, and what's this?  Couldn't wait, could it!  The Big Question, 'How long have I got'?  How long do I want?
     Soon, I think.  Bound to be soon once 'never' leaves the room.
     All those things I've been enjoying, chats with Bee, the tennis courts, trips with George, meetings with Pastorale, Judd, Michael, my flat, the sheep... all part of the 'treatment' - if I'm to believe what I read!
     Well, thank you tablets.
     And our project?  Ring-fenced from the start, so one of us will see it through.  'The Heroic Account of Richard's Great Adventure'.  My adventure, so I'll have to play along - though it is so lonely being a hero.  Oh, and that reminds me!  Duty.  Wait, I hear a voice calling, a whisper in my head.  Who is this guy, reminding me of murder, betrayal, my good friend Sam, that promise to my father... and there's something else, or someone... 
     Now I have it - it's Bee, isn't it?
     Tell me quickly as we pass - her real name please.  My soul is starved of knowing.  We can share, can't we?  Don't keep her to yourself!
     Emma McQueen.  Of course!  Thank you, Richard.
     Playmates, friends, colleagues, lovers, we've known each other all our lives.
Whoever I am to me, she's our Emma McQueen, always has been.  Our constancy, our passion, our girl, our love, our Emma.  Our Queen Bee.

#

But who's this swimming toward us?  We're back at the water's edge and father's pointing with his stick.  It's Thor.  Come to remind me of my duty, no doubt!
     Thor and Sheba side by side.  Ah!  That feels good.

 

BEE'S CHAPTER...

Richard's heart sank.
     Patrol cars skid-marked across the Meadow House forecourt, blue lights flashing, security on red alert...  A distressing scene, added to by police officers leaning NYPD-fashion on their vehicles, curly wires spiralling up through wound-down windows, deep in conversation with their radiophones.
     "Mr Campbell-D'Arcy?" an officer broke off to eye-up Richard.
     Dry-mouthed, Richard confirmed his identity.  The eyes swivelled toward Emma.  "...and this is Emma McQueen, my colleague and manager of The Gallery."
     "It appears that entry was attempted on a window to the rear of the building, Sir.  The window was secured with internal steel shutters and the silent alarm was triggered.  Our arrival disturbed the intruders and they ran off.  Our officers gave chase, but were unable to make an arrest.  We have no evidence, Sir, that the break-in was successful."  His delivery left no gaps for interruption, and finished abruptly.
     "Does the window have leaded glazing?" Richard asked the sudden silence.
     "Yes, Sir, it does.  If you will allow our officers access, we can check inside."
     "And you said intruders.  How many?"  Richard knew it would be two, but may as well ask.
     "Two, Sir.  Both male, and it appears they were dressed in suits."  So struck he looked by such an improbability, the officer let go his dead-pan composure.  "Black lounge suits with business shirts and ties," he shrugged.
     Richard displayed the surprise expected of him, mentioning neither the previous night's break-in - the successful one - nor the new culprits' identities.
     It was the library window.  Leading the 'access' party of policemen, and bristling with indignation, Richard swept through the principal rooms, but saw nothing out of place.  The trunk, in particular, still imperious on its table.  No one commented on it.  Why should they?  And Richard consoled himself that it was empty but for packing paper, so all this drama just for Henderson to make a botch of getting at nothing! 
     The handgun, however, subject to the exaggerations of a guilty conscience, loomed largest in Richard's mind.  Like an expanding phallus pointing at itself, shouting from the cellar, 'look at me, look at me!'  But, no reaction from the police.  Instead, they checked the security system, ticked their clipboard boxes, made some well-intentioned suggestions, and left.
     Evans, bound to be, with Henderson barking out the orders.  Richard imagined them abandoning the 'job' when they spotted the steel shutters.  He gave them a reassuring rattle.  Or heard the police sirens.  He shivered with disgust.  For all the reasons his car was a Ferrari, but black not red, Richard was exquisitely particular about his image.  A hubbub of police activity centred on Meadow House and giving chase to burglars, however they might be dressed, was most distasteful.
     It would have been the trunk they were after.  A house-full of valuable antiquities versus an empty trunk that promised untold wealth?  No contest!  Everyone loves a treasure hunt - which raised the question he'd not got around to asking yet.  How, in the space of a couple of days since Sam first mentioned it, how did Henderson even know about the trunk?  What did he know, or think he knew, and who told him?
     Drawn to it, Richard found himself back in the library.  Emma, still quietly at his side, suggested a drink.  He picked out an expensive-looking malt from a huddle of bottles on a silver salver, half-raising it above the others.  Emma nodded.
     "Sorry to put you through all this, Em.  Rather spoilt our evening."
     "That's OK, but what's that old trunk doing on the table, Richard - and isn't that a rug underneath it?"
     "Oh, that..."  More quick-thinking.  "A set for one of Sam's fantasies," he not-quite lied, remembering Sam did once get them doing a weegie board, and in the library and, good God, it seemed to work.  But he needed to put Emma off her stride, so added, meanly, "Ginny did it."
     "I see..." 
     "I'm just going to check upstairs, Em.  Won't be a minute."  Then asked, because he felt bad about mentioning Ginny, "Are you OK?" and placed the whisky on the table beside her, tapping the top to suggest she should help herself.
     "Am I staying the night, Richard?"
     "Funny, I was about to ask you that."
     "...just that it's late and, given the circumstances, I don't like leaving you on your own."  Glass in her other hand, Emma stood up taking hold of the whisky by its cap, waving it in front of Richard like a pendulum.  "I'll be in the drawing-room, so don't be long," and turned to leave the library ahead of him.
     In part to tidy the disarray from the previous night, Richard made directly for his bedroom.  He rang Ginny.  "Bad news," and, speaking as though he'd become quite used to being burgled, described the latest developments.
     "Poor Richard, that's awful," Ginny sympathised, "and why are you whispering?" she whispered.
     "Well, actually," he hesitated as though expecting to be scolded, "I went for a drive to the coast with Emma, and we had to come straight back here, together, when the police rang."
     "...and she's to be confined to a night alone in that spare room of yours I suppose?"
     "Well, actually..."
     "Really, Richard!  Isn't it time you woke up?"
     "Me?"
     "Yes, you.  It's Emma - your Special Girl!"
     "Oh..." and then it dawned on him.  It was Emma she'd been going on about.  How stupid of him.  How blind.  "Well, thanks, I think..."  Who else could it have been?    
     "Good boy.  Make sure she stays with you, and don't forget to do something about the state of your bedroom - just in case."
     "Yes, Ginny."  Relieved to have her 'permission' so to speak, Richard was struck by an unexpected ground-shift of loyalty toward Emma.
     "Should I let the others know?" she asked, terminating the previous subject, "...about the latest raid, I mean!"
     "If you like, Ginny.  In fact, yes please."  So much had happened in just two days, Richard felt a twinge of panic.  "After yesterday, they must be wondering what's happening."
     "...and Sue.  I'll be seeing her anyway, when she gets back.  Plenty to report!"
     "And tell Sam it's sorted.  We don't want him getting the jitters.  I'm meeting him tomorrow to hear how he got on in London."
     "Oh, and how did he get on?"
     "Very well, by the sound of it.  You know how he immerses himself in these things."
     "Any joy, though?"
     "Lots, I gather.  But he's saving it for tomorrow."
     "OK, darling.  Keep me informed, and don't worry." 
     One goodbye each, and that was it.  Ginny gone!  The end of a one-sided and ever-desperate infatuation.  Not quite as expected, though.  No tears, no lumpy throat, no emotional meltdown, just a sense of something in the air.  Relief?  Release?  No, something 'string-around-the-finger', familiar, favourite, forgotten... got it!  Fish pie.
     The supper Jean left for him.  The oven timer he'd forgotten to cancel, tick-tock, tick-tock, red light flashing...

#

"I've only got an hour, Richard, so no prevaricating."  Sam had a meeting at one o'clock.  He knew how impossible it was to hurry Richard, so made a resolution - keep to their agreed agenda!
     "Is that all you're having, Sam?"  It was a few minutes before noon, and the ArtsCafé servery had just opened.  Still part-covered in clingfilm, a pristine plate of hand-cut flapjack had taken Sam's attention.
     "What I'm having for lunch has nothing to do with anything."  Not quite true.   Temptation aside, he'd chosen what was least likely to distract from the matter in hand, and sat down with just a mug of coffee and his best guess at the biggest slice of flapjack.  Richard laid out his quiche, side salad, roll, butter, and cup of hot water for tea - then returned to the dumb waiter for salt, pepper, cutlery, napkin and some sachets of sauce.
     "Oh - do start, Sam." 
     Sam kept reminding himself not to react to Richard's lack of urgency.  "I shall tell you what I have on Stubbons and you, Richard, are going to tell me what the hell's going on."  Sam pursed his lips and tapped the table a couple of times.  Richard gave a good impression of not listening, but Sam knew him better than that.  "Not that it's any of our business, but given what happened yesterday and on Saturday night, you clearly could do with our help."  Sam frowned.  "Or should that read, 'need'?"
     "An hour's not long enough, Sam."
     "It's a start.  So, you first - any more to add to what Ginny told me last night?"
     "Break-in number two?  The botched work of Henderson and Evans, meaning number one was..." Richard hesitated.
     "...someone else!  But, who, for god's sake?  What are these break-ins that are not break-ins, keys for trunks that have no key, and so on, and so on?"
     "Search me, Sam."  Appearing to accept defeat in his struggle to open a sachet of dressing, Richard put the stage-setting of his lunch on pause.  The sigh Sam detected behind his friend's veneer of nonchalance sounded more pitiful than impatient.  He wasn't used to seeing Richard dejected.  Time to rally round and come up with a practical strategy.  What Richard might call, a 'plan'.
     "Although I know that you can trust me," Sam began, offering his qualified support, "what I don't know is whether or not you believe that."
     "I believe you, Sam."
     "Good!"  But for the mess Richard must be in, Sam knew the conversation would never have even started.  Richard didn't 'do' emotion.  He braced himself.  "You have no family, Richard, but plenty of friends - any one of whom could just conceivably be operating a secret agenda."  Sam looked him eye to eye, nervous of what he was about to suggest.  "You, for example, that could even include you!"
     "True, true," Richard looked shifty, "but not all of us, Sam.  Not Emma, for a start."
     "But you said she was involved in that incident at the derelict house?"
     "That's exactly why I know I can trust her."
     "OK - you can explain that later - and, who else?"
     "Well, there is still me?" 
     "Will that be 'open-book' you, or 'secretive' you?"  Guilty conscience, Sam thought.  Richard was actually asking, rather than assuming, Sam should regard him as beyond reproach.
     "Sorry, Sam."  Richard produced his wallet from an inside jacket pocket, raising Sam's expectation of a dramatic piece of new evidence... but, no, just one of his special teabags.  "From a family point of view, I find myself quite alone in this - left holding the baby, so to speak." 
     Sam's turn to feel sorry.  Yes, Richard was alone, he didn't even have the fractious support of a disgruntled wife to lean on.  Sure, Ginny was often around, and very attractive too - Sam allowed himself a shiver of jealousy - but more tomboy than shoulder to cry on, more minx than maternal.  In fact, if he dare think it, more selfish than giving!
     "Three of us then, Richard.  You, me and Emma - a triangle."
     "Did you know you can't distort a triangle?  Engineers love them!"
     "What's that got to do with anything?"  Typical Richard, off on a tangent, but Sam was determined to keep to script.  "Right, to get us started I'll begin with the fruits of my trip to London."
     "Fire away."
     "No more buggering about, open-book from now on?"
     "I promise, but you first."
     "Alright, here goes," and Sam began to read from his notes, "DW Stubbons was born on the 23rd of November 1854 at Pleasant Place, Windsor..."
     "That's the guy!"  Richard interrupted,
     "...anyway," Sam continued, giving Richard a cautionary glare, "Stubbons was born the son of an Army father, by then a shopkeeper in civvy street.  At the age of fourteen young Stubbons joined up, 1868, attached to the Army Medical Department, previously the Army Hospital Corps, later the Royal Army Medical Corps, or RAMC, and served briefly in India before being posted to the Cape."
     "Told you," Richard interrupted again.
     "He returned to barracks, late 1880, to be discharged 'wounded, not on active service'."
     "Really?"  Richard stopped fiddling with his tea.
     "I know all this because I've been through his discharge papers."
     "You dig all this up in just one day, Sam?"
     "One morning.  Less actually, it's my job - though anyone could do it."  Sam was glad to have Richard's full attention at last.
     "Go on then..."
     "I visited the Public Record Office at Kew yesterday, also the Family Record Centre in Islington and the British Library - with results from all three."  Sam noticed Richard's attention falter.  "Don't worry, shan't burden you with the procedures, just give you my findings.  I also, though I've not heard back yet, rang an ex-colleague of mine who specialises in military history.  I've asked him to look into the Officer casualties around the time Stubbons was out in the Cape, that's circa eighteen seventy nine-eighty.  Stubbons wasn't an Officer, obviously, but, as we understand from Mogens' article, the perpetrators of the plot used Officer's coffins to ship out the loot."
     "Stubbons being one of the perpetrators?"
     "We don't know that, Richard.  Let's stick to the evidence."
     "OK, Sam."
     "So... in 1879 Stubbons, aged twenty five, took his second overseas posting as a medical orderly attached to the military hospital in Pretoria.  A sort of male Army nurse stroke dogsbody.  Home address still Windsor.  Next-of-kin, father, Daniel Alfred Stubbons, same address, occupation shopkeeper.  The final entry in the Army records stated that Stubbons returned to the Woolwich Barracks in March 1880, wounded 'not on active service' as I've already said.  Interestingly, his forwarding details from the barracks changed to, 'care of Mrs Black' at a Woolwich address."
     "Well done, Sam."
     "Oh, there's more."  Sam licked his finger and dabbed at the crumbs of his flapjack.  Richard still had eaten nothing.  "Next, the tube to Islington to search the 1881 census returns for Woolwich.  I did first check the Windsor address - but, all gone.  Then to Woolwich, and what a result.  There he was, aged twenty seven, married with one son, an infant, Alfred.  Imagine my excitement!  I made straight for the BMD cabinets to bring up the marriage reference, paid the exorbitant fast-find fee for the full certificate, and waited..."  Sam reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced a sealed envelope which he held aloft, not quite passing it to Richard.  "First quarter, 1881, and the bride's name..."
     "Yes...?"
     "Flora, Flora Black, nee Hipp."

#
 

"Christ!"  Grabbing the envelope, Richard pushed away his healthy-choice salad, untouched quiche and gastro bric a brac.  He flattened out the certificate on the table in front of him, holding it in place at either side as though it might jump up and smack him in the face.  He leant forward to inspect the spidery handwriting with the same enthusiasm his jeweller applied to the cube the previous day.  "Ah, yes!" he said.
     "Not a wasted trip, then?"
     "Woolwich Registry Office, 23rd February 1881," Richard read, but slowly so as not to miss anything.  "Daniel Walter Stubbons married Flora Black.  Bride a widow, maiden name Flora Hipp.  Groom a bachelor, medical orderly with the Army Medical Department.  Fathers, both of them, previously enlisted in the British Army, retired, different Regiments, 94th and Connaught Rangers."  Richard scanned the document, absorbing every penned scratch of information.  "No, Sam, not a wasted journey.  Thanks a lot."
     Richard's only disappointment was that Flora wasn't 'his'.  Sadly, that particular fairytale princess had been snared by the bete noir in his little melodrama.  He sighed.  With no living family, it was tough being reminded how alone he was.  Well, not quite.  There was always Sam.  Good old Sam.  Emma too, but in the wings and kept well out of it.  So, not really a triangle.  More a trio of lines, not joined up, parallel perhaps?  Yes, the three of them geometrically aligned, stretching to infinity, never quite touching...
     "One more thing, Richard.  I dug up young Alfred's birth certificate, 4th April 1881.  So, not long after the wedding - in case that had any bearing on the big day!"
     "Thanks, Sam.  You're a brick."
     "Brick's all done.  Your turn.  And you've only got half an hour."
     "Where do I start?"  Richard looked around the ArtsCafé.  Not busy yet, but filling up with peak-time lunchers, chattering intellectuals gathering for their midday ritual - inadvertently imposing on Richard's space.  Not the place for him, a public confessional.  Almost like exposing himself naked in the street.
     But, Richard always stuck to a bargain.  And then, once he'd started, the privacy issue no longer seemed to matter.  Unrehearsed and from the heart, he held nothing back.  This was to be his story spoken for the very first time.  Its debut after fifty years of secrecy, and to an audience of one.  Sam's gob-smacked expression.  Two, if he included himself.  Many more, if he'd noticed all the faces, those within earshot, turn perpendicular with astonishment.
     He began at the beginning, not the very beginning - that belonged to his ancestors.  Back to the derelict house, Richard's very beginning.
     "I see... yes, like it could be thought of as murder," had been one of Sam's comments, admonishing Richard by his inflexion of 'murder'.  "What an awful situation."  Sam's dismay showed true concern for his friend.  "I'm so sorry, Richard," he kept saying with such sympathy Richard thought if either of them had been a woman, they'd have held hands.
     "We should have gone back.  That, or informed the emergency services."
     "...an anonymous phone call would have done, I s'pose," was Sam's only hint of criticism, quickly countered with, "but why should you - he started it!"
     "I was a coward, Sam.  I ran from my conscience and, physically afraid of how he might react, kept on running.  Like an ostridge on jet skis..." then, regretting his analogy as trivial, Richard lowered the pace and pitch of his voice.  "Exhibiting a total lack of moral fibre, I didn't want the bastard rescued.  He'd attacked Emma, both of us.  Anyway, if he ever found out who we were, we'd be at the mercy of him pursuing us to 'get even', or whatever that class of people do."
     "Like those stalkers and nutters we read about... dreadful, Richard.  I'm with you hundred percent."
     "I wanted him dead, Sam," and Richard, so angry, banged his fist down on the table, spilling some of his special tea.  "I am a murderer!" he shouted.

#

Sam put a finger to his lips.  Hopefully not that bad, but he sensed a shiftiness in the adjacent diners, as though Richard's outburst had upset the ambience of lunchtime in academia.  Not that Richard seemed bothered.  Proclaiming himself a murderer to a captive, but sceptical, audience was a sign his dam had burst.  Swept clear on a deluge of white-water, he'd become light-headed on its fizz.
     "Maybe, but I don't think you should tell everybody," Sam whispered, hoping Richard might follow suit.  "Perhaps we should move on... how about Henderson?  Where does he fit in?"
     "Bastard!"
     "I know, but best get it off your chest."
     "OK, but not here," Richard stood up and, to Sam's astonishment, took an undignified bite out of his triangle of quiche and a gulp of cold tea.  "Come on, Sam, I'll walk you to the library," he said, speaking with his mouth full.
     Together they strolled the raised walkways heading in the general direction of the campus library.  All the time deep in conversation, they stopped occasionally to rest against the bare concrete parapets that lined their route.  A weary breeze puffed eddies in the summer dust.  It danced at litter, and the leaves of trees sucked dry of Spring-green rattled in the August sun.  Anonymous, like traffic, passers-by strode their own agenda, unaware of any drama but their own.
     Some of what Richard told him, Sam already knew.  Much, he didn't.  How upset Emma had been, for example.  Or, that she'd been raped, as good as, despite Richard's intervention.  And that she spent some weeks in Le Touquet suffering a breakdown.  Sam heard how all this time a twenty year-old Richard, hurt, guilty, indignant, emotions raw and immature, wrestled with the days, hours, seconds, waiting for the news.  And when it came, the actual news was worse than the 'no news', and his long-awaited seconds turned to stone, petrified and permanent.  Because, they found the man dead.  Imprisoned in an instant, pre-dead for two whole weeks, then dead - roughly in that order.  And that would have to stay with him forever.
     Richard admitted he and Emma had barely spoken of it since, and Sam realised he was getting his first ever admission of the truth.  He could have saved that man, but didn't.  And Richard shook from the telling of it and his sentiments were so hungry for sympathy, Sam shook too.
     It was what Sam asked for, and what he got.
     As for his one o'clock meeting, it was already too late for not being late, and Sam excused himself the imposition of getting there at all and heard, instead, how it had taken Richard until middle age, over twenty years, to bury his past.  The mistake of a lifetime solidified in secrecy, bound, gagged and de-commissioned deep inside his head.
     "Then, Henderson popped up...?"
     "Bastard!"
     "I know, Richard."  So demonstrative was Richard's hatred of the man, Sam despised him just as much.
     "The police were useless, so he made it his crusade to discover who killed his brother." 
     "...and succeeded."  Sam gave the parapet a metaphorical kick, and hurt his toe.
     "Trouble is, he does have evidence.  Feeds me with it, drip, drip, drip, to manage my compliance - his expression."
     "Threatening you with the authorities?"
     "Both of us, though he knows well enough I'd do anything to keep Emma out of it."
     "So, what's his terms?" Sam asked, hands on hips, ready to do battle.
     "Cash, obviously.  I've given him plenty already and I'm sure he'd bleed me dry.  But it's worse than that, he enjoys being a bully."
     "Got to be stopped, Richard.  Not sure how, but we'll think of something."  Sam wasn't a vindictive guy, but the thought did enter his head that Richard might consider bumping him off.  After all, he'd already done the brother...

#

Soulful and precise, Richard had given Sam the definitive account, right up to and including the bloodstains, his misconstrued suspicions about Mark, the pavilion escapade, Huntingdon, Flora... almost the whole lot.
     "Bloody hell, Richard!  I'm glad I didn't have a cut finger."
     "Me too," said Richard, embarrassed by his own detective work.
     "What's the plan, then - you must have some ideas?"
      "I have, yes - helped, I might say, by the elusive Jilt Mogens and your enthusiasm for his treasure hunt."  Richard knew a plan entirely of his own would lack the flights of fancy Sam might suggest.  But, between the two of them he might have a coalition creative enough to outwit Henderson et al.  "Thing is, they are both after the loot, Henderson and Mogens, so my idea is to set one against the other."
     "Good start, Richard.  Anything else?"
     "Yes, the spoils.  Judging from the chin-drop valuation on that chunk of emerald, there could indeed be cartloads of precious gems just waiting to be dug up.  Knock me down with a feather, but the stash could actually exist!"
     "And..."
     "And I'm only in this to get Henderson off my back.  Without Henderson, Mogens is not a threat, so..."
     "It's sideline Henderson, or lead him to the loot, or bump him off."
     "No!  It's - I don't think it'll help to have the six of us, a third party, competing for the loot."  Ignoring Sam's previous remark, Richard looked at his friend hoping he hadn't misjudged him.  "How are you on the acquisition of untold wealth?"
    "Don't worry, a handful of precious stones would be nice, but not essential.  Can't speak for the others, but I'm in it for the chase."
     "Knew I could count on you," said Richard, regretting his caution about confiding in Sam.
     "So, what have we got?"
     "Mogens' version of the plot, the stuff from the trunk, your potted history of Stubbons and the photo of Flora," said Richard, counting on the fingers of one hand.  "Christ, not even five!"
     "And what have we not got?"
     "Mogens' identity and Bertie's Journal, Sam."
     "And, by deduction, we suspect the Mogens' camp of stealing the Journal."
     "True."  With Henderson responsible for the second raid, it had to be Mogens, whoever he was.  Richard cursed the man, but not with the vehemence he held for Henderson.  "Get one, get the other free," he said, realising the importance of getting to know a guy before thoroughly despising him.
     "A sort of BOGOF," said Sam, flippantly.
     That Richard had no notion of Mogens' identity was fast becoming an issue.  He was being manipulated again, but doubly so, and mocked.  With the humility of it, he felt like a supplicant grovelling at his own gates.
     Time to retaliate!
     It was an exciting, daring sensation, to feel his tolerance implode.  Caution crumbling, the appetite for a fight tasted sweet upon his lips.  "Oh, and one more thing, Sam," he announced with quiet confidence.  It was 'All for one and one for all' now so far as Richard was concerned.  To his comrade-in-arms, he was about to reveal his most treasured discovery - what amounted to his battle orders.
     "Yes, Richard?"
     "I already have the first set of letter-codes."

('An Adventure of Choice' Tovell PWA, April 2011, Novel, 20 chapters, 110k)