Monday, April 6, 2015

Foreword

This is a series of seven novellas, each of seven chapters, about the doings of one Laura Forrester, a most unlikely action heroine, perhaps even an anti-heroine. 

The first is written and appears here; the second is due mid-summer, 2015. 

1. The Island 


A now middle-aged survivor of the dotcom bubble buys an island off the northwestern coast of Britain for next to a song and decides to run rare sheep breeds with his former secretary. There is talk of marriage. Unfortunately or otherwise, a secret known only to the local few comes to light - that there's far more beneath that island than above and many people would like to have a slice of that action, including the MoD. 


A bit more of the mystery and suspense than the romantic this time round.  Hope you like it.

1. The Manx Loaghtan



I

Gerald Haas strode through to the inner office, hung his greatcoat on the stand and his Russian hat on top of that. 

'You say you don't know her name, Paul, why not?'

'We call her Emma -'

'Call her Emma?  Call her?  What's her name, man, where does she live, what's her social security number?  Can you give me any of this?'

'We can't get it.  There's no such person.'

'Europol, PRISM and all the other goodies and we can't identify one female, aged about thirty-five, nondescript and clearly from these islands by all reports?'

'She has a few identities, slips away every time.  I thought that might be your field sir.  I was hoping you could shed some light -'

'No joy there, usual calls, drew a blank.'

'It gets worse.'

'Go on.'

'We think there's more than one of her.'

'Suffer the little children.  Explain.'

'We've got Janine Cain with us today, she's been working on it for a year and a half - might be worth listening to her.  That's why I suggested this morning.  Can I bring her through?'

'Yes, yes.'

Glendinning stepped over and buzzed, there was a knock at the door and a lady was bidden to enter.

‘Hello, Janine.  Let's all sit.  I'm listening.’

‘Aged 34 -’

‘On record or on her say-so?’

'On her say-so, to various domestic staff.  We're pretty sure her base hair colour is brunette, darker in fact.  Straight-bridged nose with  a turn-up at the end.  Hair usually covering the ears.  May have a slight indentation in the chin, perhaps not.'

'Always as a female, as a matter of interest?'

'Not always ... she's played the young man a few times.  Did it well too by all accounts.'

'Go on.'

'She varies her appearance.'

'Yes.   We know such a person August 4th ruined Michel Lefebvre over in France and descriptions of such a woman came in.'

'Lefebvre?' 

'Mayor of Neuilly.  He pulled out of the race following the disgrace,' added Janine.  'The thing is, sir, there would have been no investigation at all but for the complaint by the campaign manager about some goings on and only from that, days later, did any description of this Emma emerge.  Long gone by then, on to her next job.'

'Someone pays well.'

'You'd have to say so.  She takes her time and that doesn't come cheaply.  Whether she's approached by money or whether she approaches money she thinks a prospective job - we're not sure.'

'Mercenary more than freedom fighter then.   But why bother with minor targets?  She'd make more on big hits.  Is that her only game, do you think?'

'If you look at Lefebvre, he has connections with Pascal Lebois who's denied dealings with Marc Dutroux but Lefebvre certainly did have.   Dutroux himself opens a can of worms no one cares to be associated with.   There's also the little matter of one entire village and allegations coming out of there.'

'No one ever dies in this?'

'Apart from those victims, only from shame,' put in Glendinning.  'She's no assassin but there've been later deaths - suicides.  Remarkable talent for getting close to targets we can't touch.'

'So, she's of value to people up there who are of no particular concern to us.  And yet I'm getting heat to identify and bring her in.   Can't see why though.  Even if she's a tad vigilante, she's still doing our work for us.  What's the problem, I wonder.'

'She's not attached to any agency we know,' said Glendinning, none that will own her anyway but on more than one occasion she's blown an investigation already underway.  But that only gets us annoyed, it might be that for someone above, it's a blessed relief.  Forgive me but what if she were onto one of the people leaning on you, sir?'

Haas stroked his chin.  'Can't we trace her if she was in Lefebvre's employ?'

'No.  She wasn't taking Lefebvre's shilling, not officially, not directly, possibly she was doing dirty work for him.'

'Tax evasion.'

'Unless her legit work has lots of perks and she declares the perks as income, remains a good girl and keeps their taxman happy.'

Janine spoke.  'It's just an idea but if she's able to get this time off to do these things, then her legitimate work is piecemeal, not 9 to 5.   It's casual work.'

There was a long pause.   Haas ran his hand over his brow and asked, 'And that's it?  No photo, no eye witness -'

'There are photos all right, three we thought might be legit but they're of different women.  They're here.'  She extracted the prints and handed them across.

Haas studied them.  'This one's of a girl, this is a young woman, this one we can't see her face at all.  Why do you think them legit?'

'Domestic staff, shopkeepers.  We think one might be but at least it's a type, isn't it?  An identikit.'

'All right, let's all three of us meet here again Tuesday next, same time.'

II

The 8:22 from Lytton-by-Sea was one of those awful two-carriage sprinters but Chloe Jamieson had bigger things to worry about as her nervous eyes gazed over the passing greenery - a field here, a clump of trees there.

It was bloody cold and only November - a frost still covered the grass in the fields this morning.

There was a message, she looked down and dismissed it.  Thirty-eight minutes till the first change.

He didn't know she knew the address but why should he?   In all their time together on that island, the address of his estranged wife's parents had never entered the conversation - why should it have?

Melissa, supposed to be his wife, the dotcom company had folded, money had run out, so had she.  At least, she refused to be part of the island idea.  She'd never asked for a divorce, he'd never asked.  Now he was suddenly visiting her at Daddy's home.

And she, Chloe, his secretary - so quickly he'd accepted her offer to help develop the island, had never come onto her until she'd made it painfully obvious - strange man, Miles.  Thirty-eight to her thirty-two, the deal needed to be sealed.

Things were coming to a head this day and Chloe Jamieson was going to have a ringside seat.

III

Glendinning had taken her to the Fox and Hounds, the drinks and nibbles were before them, they'd found a quieter spot near the now locked beer garden door, he thought he'd open proceedings.

'Describe her more fully than you did at the meeting.'

'You'd understand a lot of this is guesswork on my part.   Why  would people trust Emma?   Because she's nondescript and serious, with strong ethics, quite vulnerable - a criminal sees her as easy prey.   She's a good functionary, the type you'd employ, she takes on the work and never complains, she makes some errors but very few, she's generally forgiven - she comes over well.  

She's self-effacing, precisely the type you'd entrust your secrets to, there'd be bonhomie in the office, a man she worked for - always a man - would come onto her but she'd be too shy and retiring.  Then she'd suddenly decide to throw in her lot with him but somehow it would never get to the altar.'

'What's the longest she's been on any of these ... projects?'

'One went eleven months, one was over and done with in three weeks.  No pattern.'

'There is in the final result - the man is ruined or the wife is, or else someone withdraws from office or emigrates.'

'We've been over that.  On occasions she does do the chantage but then it goes to a charity.  She doesn't need it, obviously.'

'Your appraisal of her nature, her wherewithal.'

'Normal, I'm afraid.  Can be arrogant and sassy, can dissolve into tears, can be strong, can stand up to her employer if it's a matter of justice.'

'Does she ever smile?'

'Men report the sun coming out.  Women say she's into classic fragrances, such as Chanel, likes florals, occasionally chypre.  One thing she never varies is delicacy in her attire - she likes lace, chiffon, likes to feel a woman.   Even when she stacked on the pounds during one of her jobs, she was still delicate in her dress.'

'Well there's a vulnerability.'

'Many women like to be women.'

'How far do her scruples extend to the bed?'

She laughed.   'You mean does she sleep with men?  It really depends.  The elegant lady is her usual defence, the kiss in the doorway, the lingering goodnight, the good humour and deep interest in him, which lets her string him along.   In some cases, it's been said to have ended up in bed.   She doesn't strike me as a saint, more like someone with a moral compass as a rule but not if something like that is needed to crack the nut.'

'How is she with women?'

'Supportive shoulder, not into women, though women trust her, as do the men.'

'You like her.'

'So do you.    As you learn your target, it's possible to appreciate them.   Would you bed her?'

He blushed.  'That's no question to ask a married man.'

'You would.'

'From what I've heard, she might be able to get under a man's guard.  I wouldn't though.
Do we have anything else?'

'She doesn't bleed in public.  She's flawed, she's had close shaves but someone up there is covering for her, we know that, perhaps for services rendered, perhaps just because she's so ... helpable.     I think she's doing high grade work on a private basis but not ad hoc - there's a definite pattern - the gathering of data, the extension of her network all the time.   I think she's mercenary but not unprincipled - she needs to live with herself.'

'Does she move in high circles?  What's her milieu?'

'In the case of John Malthas, you'll recall - it was only because someone made a casual remark over tea and clotted cream that he was caught out.   I'd say she helped organize the guest list, she has the social sense of a hostess.   It seemed wretched luck for our John, that this woman whom the wife could not have known the connection with was invited.'

Glendinning took another sip of his cold coffee.  'And after her rare mistakes?'

'Disappears into the woodwork, of course.  Appears a few months later, that much the wiser.  She almost always plays within her limits, doesn't demand too much, is reliable once she takes on the task.'

'All right, look at it another way - what does she offer that money would want?'

'Nondescript, discreet, leaves no traces, gets the job done.'

IV

Frank O'Brien could have moved out of the dingy office at the back of the garage any time in the past eight years. 

The little MOT business had expanded, he'd kept up with the latest automotive technology, he'd done the exams, he'd employed the right graduates - the new vehicles were almost an apprenticeship in themselves.    This was his field, this was where he shone.

He was annoyed at Melissa.  For someone who'd been educated at Woodburn Hall, Melissa had chosen a man below her but that was OK in one way because Miles was making money hand over fist in technology.   Then had come the crash, he'd lost all but had still ended up on his feet.   As a bloody farmer.   With his daughter, the ultimate fashionista?   He must have known that wouldn't wash with Melissa.

He suspected Miles had wanted shut of Melissa - well, she was a right little pain, for sure but Miles hadn't asked for a divorce, Melissa hadn't either.  His darling daughter seemed perfectly happy at home - his home with Laura now.

Chloe- fair-haired, curvacious, a cutie in her early-30s - why didn't Miles just go for it, start proceedings?  Melissa wasn't to know it but there wasn't a lot left in that fund of hers, there'd been certain ... difficulties ...

Frank O'Brien stared ahead, deep in thought.   Melissa was cramping their lives, Laura and him.   He loved his daughter he supposed but she wasn't doing anything, wasn't going to the island, wasn't divorcing Forrester.   Melissa kept to herself in the house and ... well ... did nothing.  Except get in the way.

Then she'd go out in the evening.

V

'The only reason I agreed to see you again, Miles, was to confirm in my mind, for once and for all, that my decision was the correct one.'

Melissa gazed at him for precisely five seconds for maximum dramatic effect, then delivered: 'It was.'

With that, she turned on wobbly stilettos and clattered across the Provencale tiles, through the double doors to the steps which led up the back of the house to the stables.   He watched her disappear with as much hauteur as she could muster, all 159cm of her, in those label-out garments he hadn't a clue about the names of, except that they must, by definition, have been more than he paid out in six months on his entire cost of living.

Hermes scarf with her kagoul, walking up that stone path towards the muddy surrounds of the stables - he could hear the clatter of heels and the cursing - she looked the goods all right but he had to own she seemed further away than ever. 

He looked down at himself - the gladrags still stood up - she'd have said they were three years out of date, yet she'd been the one who'd chosen them.   His leather shoes were still smart and polished, his fine cords were well cut, his leather jacket was soft and fitted him carelessly.   It was one of two outfits he maintained, the rest outdoor gear for the island.

She was an anomaly, certainly the fashion queen, unsuited to island life and yet she'd muddy her gear for the stables, she'd go riding in jodhpurs, boot-deep in mud.

She certainly had no further need for him but as they weren't divorced, as there was no settlement involved, no children - he couldn't make her out.   Chloe was much easier to read - she was in it for herself and would force the issue with him soon - hence his visit today to make sure.

And it hadn't been easy setting up the island.   His friend from blogging days, Stephen Brown, had put him straight on his first visit.

'No-one relies just on crops on an island in a temperate climate, Miles.  The best and most profitable agricultural undertaking would be the raising of sheep or other ovine creature. Salt-tainted pasture gives a distinctive and delicious flavour to the meat.

Poor soil, as on your island, would give the right sort of pasture for a rare breed like the Manx Loaghtan - in the Manx language Loaghtan means ‘mouse brown’.   Of benefit is the fact that the breed originates from an island off the UK coast.

Listen, my friend, if you want to get anywhere with this, forget the tilling, except for your domestic needs and go the rare breed route.'

He'd done so but those already breeding on the Isle of Man were not playing ball and it had been the devil of a job getting Devon breeders to allow a couple of ewes for a substantial consideration, at a time when funds were thin on the ground.

He'd needed to up his game and do his own slaughtering but had then had second thoughts.  It hadn't been squeamishness but the quality of the cuts which had been the issue and so mainland butchers had been brought in, on condition Miles would farm some of their own breeds for their specialty shops, this had required outhouses and then there was the tax man and so on and so on.

Not an issue.   Then had come a visit by two of his Swiss contacts from the dotcom era and they'd seen the gites and put it to him that if the island could not exactly be set up as a tax haven, then it could at least be a haven for those needing one in a different way, i.e. they could conduct business from there ... for a consideration.

Chloe was against it, reasoning that as the two of them were already turning over a pretty penny, why complicate things?   When she'd heard the amount of the 'consideration', she quietly urged him to vet each potential denizen of their island carefully.

'You vet them,' he'd told her.

And she had.

They'd crossed the romantic line a few days back.   She'd upped the ante.

VI

Paul stood back and surveyed the whiteboard.

London had gone to ground.  Everyone was all of a sudden cagy - Peter Thomas had always played fair but now it was, 'Sorry old boy, no can do,' this time round.  Money was involved, lots of it.  Someone had discovered something as big as fracking and then the curtain had come down.

Until yesterday.   A message had been intercepted, unencrypted, a geological report which spoke of something the government had sat on for years, a possibility off the north-west coast.

Chap up north had bought an island in the middle of it.   He'd not keep that island all that long.

VII

Miles stood on those white tiles of the foyer at the back of the house, inwardly fuming as Melissa stormed out, the utter cheek, the lack of grace.  

He wasn't going to demean himself by running after her - he knew it was over but there were considerations.  In a nutshell, if she filed, she'd get her fair share.  If he filed, he'd lose all.  He didn't wish to be so mercenary about it but she was and he was damned if he was going to give it all away.  Chloe and he would marry and develop the island further.

He looked at the double doors and wondered whether to force the issue of the divorce.  Just why she had gone to the stables instead of pushing past him and barricading herself in her room or whatever - he couldn't fathom.  In those stilettos?

Well, he wasn't doing much standing here, with Frank in the front room, well aware and yet not interfering.

Yep, he'd have to go up there, have it out, find out her stance and then take his leave.  So sad.  He'd hoped, he'd hoped for too much with Melissa, besotted he'd been in the early days.

He sighed, then went outside, the chill hit him in the face, he  skipped up the steps to the stables.

Door was locked.  Shouldn't have been.  It never had been in the days he'd spent here.

He turned the latch handle and pushed again, it gave slightly but on the other side, there was something blocking it, probably a sandbag, bale of hay, whatever.   Damn, he'd just stood in a muddy puddle.

He called her name.  Nothing.

He pushed a bit more and it moved, whatever it was, which gave him about 50cm and wasn't going to give any more.  

Should he be doing this?   If she'd put it there, was his trying to break in now going to be seen as an act of aggression and used against him?  

He called her name again.

And again.

He pushed, the upper half of the door moved just enough for him to slip through but he didn't want his jacket messed and there was nowhere to hang it out here.   Taking it off, he reached inside the stable, felt along the wall, hung it on something protruding, he now forced his way through, put the jacket back on, turned and looked down upon the crumpled body of his wife.

She'd been shot in the back of the head.  A gun lay about a metre away.  He ignored it.

He dropped to his knees and uncurled her on the floor, onto her back, utterly numb.  Surprise on the face, she hadn't seen it coming of course.   Killer probably still here but now he took her in his arms and everything from the last three years came out.

...

Some minutes later, Frank heard the rapid footsteps down the driveway and saw Miles cross his living room window, he went to the front door, Miles told him to put his boots on and come, he did, they went together up to the stables, he saw and lost it for the best part of an hour whilst Miles stayed outside, rubbing his hands, blowing on them.

Frank came out and they went back down to the house.

...

They took off their boots as if nothing had happened, came through and neither knew how to emote, relate, what to do.

Frank walked over, got two glasses, grabbed the whisky, sloshed two and handed Miles one.  They knocked them back.

They did it again, then looked at one another. 

'Why haven't we called the police?' asked Miles.  'Why haven't we raised the alarm?'

''It's only just happened. You'll help me get her down here now?'

...

The moment they entered those stables again, O'Brien cried out savagely and swore, Miles just stared at his wife's face.   There was a second bullet hole in the forehead and blood had dripped to the stable floor.

'You fucking bastard,' screamed Frank, searching every corner of the stable, looking out of the far window, racing back, beside himself.  'You fucking bastard, you fucking bastard,' was all he could say.

Miles grabbed his arm.  'They're not around now, Frank, let's take her down there.  Frank!  Enough.'

There was always a folded camp bed in the stables for when there was a sick animal and someone had to remain; they took it and loading her onto it was gruesome - her lifeless finery, the lightness of her body. 

They opened the double doors to the stable and carried her down the pathway, leaving her in state in the hallway on the tiled floor, Miles closed her eyes while her father went for her duvet, came back and draped it over her.

They went into the front room again - another two whiskies were poured and downed.

'Killer's still up there,' muttered O'Brien, standing in the bay of the window.

'No way.  Frank, we need to bring the police in now.'

'I wouldn't trust them not to bungle it and then we'd never know.  The killer can't stay up there forever, he can't hide, except one place I know - no one outside family knows of it.  He can't cross the fields in the light, as you know -'

Miles headed for the door before Frank could stop him, crossed the gravel path and looked down into the gully running from the outhouses behind the stable down to the front fence of the property.

There were indentations but they seemed to stop where he was standing now and then continued down to the fence.  It was like a hard earth bridge just here.

He turned and went back to the living room.  'Are you going to call them or am I?'

'I've called them.  They're on their way.'

VIII

Chloe brought the dinner through on the tray, he poured the wine.  

'I have to break my silence,' she said.   'Four days we haven't spoken on anything of significance.   We should discuss it.'

'I know.'

'They couldn't trace either bullet, Miles, yet they were from the same gun, none of you caught or saw anyone, the police could make out those tracks in the gully but couldn't match them to anyone.  You know what I'm thinking?'

'It couldn't have been Frank himself unless he had a pistol rigged up and took it down later.  When I went through the double doors, I was leaping up the steps beside the house to the stables and could see anyone going back down the driveway.  I heard nothing.  I looked about me while I was waiting to go in, I would have seen someone on the roof because it's quite low at that point.

While I was in there with her, nothing else moved and then I went straight down to the house where he was.  That second round was put into her forehead in the meantime -'

'And you didn't hear that either?'

'The pistol was silenced.  The first shot must have been the instant she got through the door, before I was even running up those steps, the second while we were down in the house of course.'

'You left Frank in there with her.'

'For a few minutes.'

'So?  There it is.'

'I can't accept it.'

'Fathers have before, you know.'

'I don't mean that.  I mean that it wasn't in anyone's interests as far as I can see, certainly not Frank's.'

'It was in yours.'

He looked across at her.  'Actually, it's not.  There's a reason I didn't divorce her and killing her was one step worse than that.  Her death has put me under the hammer.'

'How?'

'I'll tell you if and when we're ever settled down together.  If things are working, if it looks all right, then I'll tell you all of it.   Does money affect your yea or nay?'

'Of course not.  You know that.  Why did you not stay near Frank, why did you go back down to the house?'

'I couldn't have stood finding you there.'

'Pardon?'  She placed her drink on the table.

'You were there, Chloe.  At least I don't know if you were at the house itself but you certainly came to the mainland, you travelled by sprinter and you took the main line to the town.   You were booked in at the Travellers Arms.   You knew I'd booked in there too, just in case it all went wrong.'

She never attempted to deny it.  'I was there for you.  If you hadn't appeared, I'd have gone to the house.  I suspected it wasn't right, that someone was going to play hard ball and you're not hard in that way.  And yes, Miles, I was also looking after my own interest in the matter, so you can forget about asking that question.  Or not asking it.'

'Just on spec, yes?'

'No.  Laura kept me up with what was happening.'

'Laura?  Why?'

'She didn't like what was happening.  She knows most things about that family, she knew of you coming because she was listening in from her bedroom and heard a row between Frank and Melissa.  At least, Melissa seems to have been the one going ballistic at Frank.'

'Which really does seem to put him in the frame.'

'He's not an idiot.  He knew Laura would have heard, he didn't trust her of late, he wanted her to go to Durham.'

'Durham?'

'Her sister's.'

'Ah.'

'She went to Durham all right, as she suspected someone would have been posted to see her get off at the station but she then took a taxi and rang me back to say she'd be at the Travellers mid-morning and we could talk it through.'

'A taxi?  Around what - £400 or so?'

'What's that to her?  Frank was paying.  It was his card which had paid for the trip over.  She knows the three numbers on the back.'

'Bloomin 'eck.  And then?'

'She didn't say but I felt she was going up to the house.'

'You do understand how vital that evidence is you've withheld.'

'She was with me that afternoon, she was not accused by anyone, why should I have introduced that?'

'Chloe why are you protecting her?'

'Look, you know I know Laura from the dotcom days.  You've had dealings with her yourself.  Obviously, as your secretary, I was going to deal with the details and I got to know her.  I like her.  She likes me.'

'Have you ever made contact with Melissa before?'

'Yes.'  

'You amaze me.  So close, so secretive.'

'Oh come on, Miles, you know a lot of things you don't divulge.  You have no evil purpose but you just like to know ... in case.  And before you ask - I don't know in case of what - just in case.'

'OK, OK.  How?  Where?  When?'

On King's Nympton station.   You'd sent me down there for the insemination, she was there about the Tarka Line and stock - for her father of course.'

'And you recognized her?'

'She recognized me - that little smile on her lips, she asked, I told her, we talked.  She was non-committal about you, not angry, not upset but that upset me and she saw it. 

We spoke more about Laura and Frank and she gave little hints that Laura's the key figure in what goes on at that place.   That also came over when we talked at the Travellers.'

'When did she reach the Travellers exactly?

'Just after 11:00.  She went out about late afternoon, then came back late evening and slept with me and I can confirm she's AC/DC.  She made the moves of someone quite used to it all - I allowed some of them.  I'm not but it wasn't nauseating.   In fact, that was the moment I decided it had to be all or nothing with you and me.'

'We haven't talked that out yet.'

'Funeral's in three days.   Do you want me there?'

'Do you want?'

'I'll go if you want.   I wasn't exactly fond of Melissa but if you need my presence, I'll be there.'

IX

Chloe got a text from Laura about ten days later.  She'd left Frank.

'When you met her at the funeral,' mused Chloe, 'did she give any indication?'

'It was a funeral.   Look, let's get her down here.  Send her a text and tell her we'll put her up for a couple of days.'

'Are you crazy?   She's trouble.'

'Meaning you have something to protect now.  You'd agree not everything's kosher?  

She looked at him.  'I don't want to go this route, Miles.'

'I think she killed my wife and I want to speak to her.'

'To accuse her.'

'No, to observe, to talk.'

'I don't like it.   I agree there's something wrong in the business.  I can't see it being her.  I'd prefer you to leave her alone.'

'There's a hell of a lot wrong, Chloe, even officially, even with the police.  It's as if everyone wants Melissa excised from the landscape.'

'And you think Laura will open up to you?'

'I don't know but I'm not happy, Chloe and I need to speak to her about things.  This was my wife, you know.'

'Don't say I didn't warn you.'

X

They'd made enough out of the gites that when one of the inmates, as Miles called them, had suggested a helicopter, which they'd also spring for, for their mutual use, it had seemed a logical move.

They'd sent the copter to the mainland today to pick up Laura and here she was now, climbing out on their island, hunched down under the rotors, looking a picture.

The face was not what many would have called beautiful but she was certainly hard to resist - there was just this manner she had, the way she moved, so light on her feet - everything about her was light, from the black trainers and the dark-navy jeans to the fur or fake fur coat - she had this fixed stare she gave you.  All this within moments.

She'd brought wellies in stylish multicolour which worried the sheep, she held them disdainfully in one hand.  He watched while she changed to the wellies, still a short distance from him.

Then she came over, a smile on her lips.  'Miles.'

'Laura.  This way.'

They walked up the hill to the house, Chloe came out, Laura's things were put just inside the door, the two women embraced. 

...

Not a lot was said over lunch and Chloe knew the score.  'OK, go for your walk, you two.'

They rugged up, wellied up, went outside and took the slope for the east side of the island.  The steam from the nostrils of a hundred Loaghtans, plus them, was a curious sight. The two hundred horns were simply daunting.

'We never saw much of each other, Miles,' she said, dodging a couple of sheep, 'except at the -'

'You were preoccupied, so was I.  Plus you like women, Laura - according to Chloe.'

'Ah, the Travellers, she told you that?  No, I'm straight as a general rule.'

'You went out early afternoon from the Travellers.'

'What makes you say that?'

'You were seen.'

'By Chloe?'

'No, I knew she'd cover for you.'

'You're fishing.   I went out in the evening for a while.'

'Why did you not phone Frank?'

'Why the third degree?'

'You knew the script before you arrived and still you came.'

She shrugged.  'I didn't kill him.   It might have been a professional.   Silencer.'

'One of Frank's friends?'

'You're quick, Miles.  I like that in a man.'

'What are your plans now?  You know you're welcome here as long as you would welcome Chloe if you were mine.'

'If I were yours.'  She grinned at that and he had to fight the rising feeling, force it down again.  Her smile had hit him amidships and he pleaded.  'Please don't do this.'

'You have Chloe.'

He just looked into those melancholy eyes - but still with flashes of mischief.  'You had a hand in Melissa's death, Laura.  I don't know how, it might even be that you did nothing physically but you knew all right.  You're the sort of woman who knows, Laura.  You always know.'

'Hostile.'

'All right, I accept you didn't actually kill her.'

'Melissa wasn't right for you, Miles.   Sorry.  I've no right to play god over your marriage but she wasn't right.   I didn't poison her mind against you if that's what you're thinking, I swear it, in fact I told her to go to you but I know things about her which you can't know and she was not loyal to you.   I don't think she cared about lovers or anything like that - I mean she was loyal to Melissa alone.'

'You think I don't know that?'

'May we go back?  I'm getting chilly.'

Along the track back, he asked, 'Why did you leave him?'

'He thinks I did it.  I think he did it.  In a way, this island is sanctuary.'

'He thinks, you think.  Explain.'

'Frank told me to stay away.  Durham.  I went and came back.'

'The taxi,' he grinned.

'Well yes, no need to go into that.  But I was at the house.  I observed but from a distance.   So yes, Miles, I lied.  I was there, as you say, early afternoon.'

'And Chloe lied to cover you.  Question is - why admit it now?'

'Miles, let me explain something to you about me.  I always work on the basis that the truth is best to tell, not from any moral superiority but because lies become webs.  Some need to be kept in place at times, in certain situations but as far as humanly possible, once it becomes possible to tell the truth, I do.  It's easier in the long run and one doesn't need a perfect memory.'

'I do the same.'