A Deadly Plot

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There was a tang of salt in the breeze that ruffled Anna Evesleigh’s long black hair. The same breeze rippled the water’s surface as the sea rolled inexorably on a rising midday tide into the creek that lay before her. The opposite bank rose in a gentle slope, covered in a tight pelt of weathered oaks, their leaves gold and bronze with autumn colour.

Anna stood alone on the quay that jutted out on her side of the creek, apart from the collie who was nose down, following a trail over the grass. The quay had long ago ceased to be used by its original owners, and it had been left in peaceful isolation, semi-encircled by trees. It was only visited now by the occasional sailor or fisherman, some of whom were responsible for the charred stones and earth that marked a barbecue site edged with logs on the grass-grown paving slabs.

The cry of a little egret, flying in with the tide, startled Anna and brought the dog round with a jerk to watch it. The bird had been feeding on the mudflats that stretched out from the shore and the tiny beach on her right. It had been bright white in the murkiness created by the trees overhanging the small bay that sheltered the quay.

Once the bird had passed it was eerily quiet again. There was just the whisper of the incoming water, the murmur of the wind. Then came the cry of a tawny owl, a mournful hooting one from deep within the trees above the beach.

Anna raised a hand to brush back the strands of curly hair that had blown into her eyes, realising again how isolated it was here. She called Ben back to her, suddenly wanting to have him close. Her other hand clenched suddenly on the knife she held, startled by heavy movement in the bushes behind her.

She swung round, her heart pounding, and let out a cry of alarm as the knife was wrested from her grasp. She stared up at the man confronting her, his tousled red hair tangled with twigs and leaves, his faded shirt ripped along one arm.

‘For God’s sake, Anna,’ Mike Shannon roared, as Ben waved his feathery tail uncertainly, ‘don’t hold a knife out like that. You could have stabbed me.’

‘Don’t be so silly, Mike,’ Anna snapped, her normally equable temper frayed with fright. ‘If you startle me like that you are likely to be injured.’ She added darkly, ‘One way or the other.’

He growled inaudibly as he handed the knife back to her and picked up the armful of dried wood that he had dropped at and on his feet. He strode over to the circle of blackened earth that scarred the grass, and dropped the wood near it. Ben came to check it, sniffing diligently along the bleached twigs and branches, until, satisfied he knew who had visited them, he lay down to watch what was going on.

Anna returned to the flat stone where she had laid out the sea bass they had caught that morning. Another movement attracted her attention, almost a shiver in the colours of water and bank. Looking up she saw a heron beating its way along the far side of the creek, landing quite suddenly in an ungainly movement as it folded its large wings to stand on the water’s edge, where the sea just lapped its feet.

A muttered comment brought her attention back to Mike. To her considerable surprise, barely concealed, he had started a small fire. He crossed to where she stood and again he removed the knife from her hand. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it. You get the stuff from the boat.’

With an effort Anna restrained her urge to say she could very well prepare a fish. With a spurt of amusement she realised that Mike thought that either she was squeamish or that she did not know how to do it. Recalling the numerous impromptu beach barbecues she had enjoyed during her youth, she strolled to the boat moored against the edge of the quay, Ben at her heels.

Really, she reflected, as she swung herself onto the boat and grasped the basket that lay in the bottom, Mike is full of surprises. I didn’t know he could use a boat, and he really brought us here very efficiently. I probably couldn’t have done better myself. He’s obviously used to catching fish on a line over the stern. And he started that fire more easily than I could have done. Maybe, she mused, they’re skills an archaeologist needs, but I really can’t quite see how.

The scent of wood smoke began to drift across the quay, and the fish was cooking by the time Anna got back to Mike. He had hung it over the glowing fire, skewered on a sliver of wood that he had wedged between forked sticks, and its skin was already crisp. She put the basket down beside one of the logs that edged the fire and began to unload its contents as Ben lay down again nearby.

A large bowl of salad brought a derogatory grunt from Mike. He allowed the French loaf to pass without comment, but let out a groan when Anna lifted out a bottle of wine. ‘Not wine,’ he said grumpily, ‘you know I can’t stand the stuff.’

Anna made no reply as she ostentatiously lifted out two bottles of beer and put them down next to the wine.

‘Oh,’ Mike said, relieved, ‘that’s alright then.’

‘Don’t jump to conclusions so quickly,’ Anna admonished.

He snorted, twisting the stick so that the fish turned another side to the heat. ‘Next time we should bring potatoes,’ he commented. ‘We could cook them in the embers.’

‘You’re experienced at barbecuing,’ Anna said lightly.

Mike did not look up as he said, ‘My dad and I used to go sailing around the Hebrides. There was a battered old boat he hired at Mallaig for a couple of weeks every summer. We just took off, mooring on islands, scrambling up the cliffs, walking across deserted white sandy beaches. We caught and ate fish every day.’

And you loved every minute of it, Anna thought, strangely touched at the thought of Mike as a boy. She had never heard him speak of his father before. All she knew about him was that he had died when Mike was in his late teens.

‘What are they like, the Hebrides?’ she asked cautiously, anxious not to stop Mike’s flow of memories. ‘I’ve never been.’

‘Beautiful,’ he said simply. ‘Islands hazed in mist, their cliffs appearing suddenly as dark shapes looming up before you. Islands bathed in sunlight, the beaches quite silent in front of the villages that were finally left empty a century ago. Puffins flying in, beaks full of eelworms, their babies calling from underground burrows. Seals singing in the rain.’ He fell silent as he turned the fish again.

‘It sounds lovely,’ Anna said wistfully.

‘It is,’ he replied gruffly. ‘We should go there one day.’

‘I’d like that,’ she replied simply.

The silence between them was peaceful as she put salad out on two plates and poured herself a glass of wine, before sitting down on one of the logs. Mike brought over the fish, dividing it between the plates. He passed one to Anna and sank down with the other onto another log. The collie had turned slightly, looking out over the creek while keeping an eye on the two people who sat beside him.

Anna passed Mike a bottle of beer and they ate quietly for a while. Mike, though, was soon wiping a piece of bread around his empty plate. He looked across at her hopefully as she sipped her wine. ‘Did you bring anything else?’

‘Raspberries from Daddy’s garden, and some shortbread from the deli. Just let me finish this and I’ll get them out.’

Mike got up and began to prowl across the quay, staring into the tangled woodland that stretched 0ver the land behind them. ‘It’s in there,’ he muttered. ‘All we’ve got to do is find a way in.’

‘The garden?’ Anna queried, putting down her plate as she got to her feet. ‘I didn’t realise Elowen came down to this creek. In fact, I didn’t know this creek existed, it’s quite a way from my home territory. It was clever of you to find the quay.’

Mike shrugged, still staring inland. ‘It was clearly marked on one of the regional maps, one of the late eighteenth century ones. And sea or river transport was common then, when roads were bad and land transport slow. Cut stone for building would have come in this way, and furniture and coal. Garden produce may well have gone out from here if the family had a London house to supply. I don’t know if Philly has looked into that yet.’

‘Remember to ask her this evening,’ Anna said, pulling another bowl out of the basket, watched by Ben. ‘I’ve forgotten pudding bowls, Mike, so we’ll have to share from this.’

He tore his gaze away from the trees and came to sit heavily down next to her. ‘Philly’s been doing a good job on the historical research,’ he commented, as Ben lowered his head against one of Mike’s feet. ‘She’s really flourished, you know. We soon won’t remember the farmer’s daughter who didn’t know what to do but wanted to stay in the area.’ He ticked off points on his fingers. ‘She runs Will Rossington’s holiday homes. She’s the bedrock researcher for Elowen. She,’ Mike said in some surprise, ‘has become invaluable to us all. Is she going to be at tonight’s meeting?’

‘Yes,’ Anna said, ‘and tomorrow’s, then she’s taking a couple of weeks off. I think she’s spending a few days helping her parents on the farm, and then she’s going with friends to the Maldives. As you say, she’s come into her own. She’ll be bringing Will up-to-date on the holiday homes today. He’s just got back from his gap year in India, although I haven’t seen him yet.’ She looked thoughtful. ‘He would be lost without Philly to run things, and would possibly depend more on his sister, and really,’ she said, ‘Lucy can’t take on any more responsibilities.’

‘No,’ Mike agreed forcefully. ‘We’ll need all her attention on the garden. Well,’ he amended with unusual sarcasm, ‘as much as she can spare.’ He saw that Anna was about to continue on this line, and asked hastily, ‘Who else is going to be there tonight?’

‘Well, Harry added an item to the Elowen Trust agenda, so he will be. He’s arranged that work party he mentioned before. It’s through some organisation he knows, and he wants to discuss where they should start. He really should be the chairman of the garden trustees, you know. He’s already done so much work.’

‘So have you,’ Mike said. ‘So have I, for that matter. Okay, he comes from a well-known West Country family, which appeals to the locals. And he’s got a title. That’s good for publicity. But you’re much more photogenic than Harry, and better known nationally. You’ll get more media coverage, the press are always interested in actresses. God knows why.’

‘I suppose so.’ Anna ignored the last comment. ‘And Harry’s got a lot to do, now that he’s taken over from his father. He’s got so much work on the estate, and the various businesses his father was involved with.’ Anna shivered suddenly with anticipation, her thoughts returning to the garden. ‘This work party will be the start of Elowen’s recovery, Mike.’

‘Hmmph,’ he said repressively. ‘Don’t get carried away. It’s only a very small step; the whole project could easily still fall apart. The public meeting tomorrow will be more important than the work party. We need to get local opinion on our side before we go much further with plans for the garden restoration.’ He swallowed a mouthful of shortbread. ‘Will Lucy be there?’

‘Yes, and she’ll be at tonight’s meeting too. She gets in from Peru today.’

‘Then she won’t be much use,’ Mike commented. ‘She’ll be too tired. Last time I saw her she looked exhausted. All this flying backwards and forwards, trying to do everything, isn’t doing her any good.’

‘Well, you know how much she wanted to take the seed bank job and she knew what was involved in it. She’s a very dedicated person, and botany is her passion as well as her profession,’ Anna said. She sighed, brushing back a stray curl. ‘But you’re right. Lucy can’t do everything. I know she always focused on whatever goal she set her sights on, but she seems to have changed so much I barely know her any more. And she’s my oldest friend. You know, I didn’t think she’d be able to leave Ben for so often and so long, but she doesn’t even seem to mind that.’ She glanced at the collie, whose golden eyes were fixed in a steady gaze on her. ‘I’ve got used to having him around. I’ll miss him when he goes back to her.’

‘How about Hugh?’ Mike demanded gruffly.

‘I don’t think he’s too fussed about having him around when he’s here. Oh, I see, you didn’t mean the dog. I don’t know about him and Lucy.’ Anna sounded despondent. ‘She definitely doesn’t mind leaving him either. You’d hardly know they were married really. His publishing business keeps him in New York as much as Lucy’s away in South America, and they either can’t or don’t bother to dovetail their time back in England. I haven’t seen or heard from Hugh for a couple of weeks now, and I don’t know where he is.’

‘That isn’t what I meant,’ Mike said quickly, keen to forestall any more comment about their friends’ marriage. ‘What they get up to is their business. Is Hugh going to be here for tonight’s meeting and the public one tomorrow?’

Anna shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Does it matter?’

‘Of course it does. He’s supposed to be dealing with the legal side of things; after all he might as well get some use out of that barrister training of his, even if he doesn’t practise any more.’ Anna glanced at him in surprise. ‘Is there something special you think he should be doing?’

‘He could tell me what to do about these damned emails I’m getting,’ Mike said abruptly, clenching his fists. ‘I know how to bar them, but some of them … well, let’s just say, some of the writers must be very sick.’

Anna turned to look at him. ‘Emails about Elowen?’ she demanded.

He nodded, and she said with obvious relief, ‘Thank heavens it’s not just me.’

Mike’s eyes narrowed as he stared at her. ‘You’re getting abusive emails too, are you?’

‘Yes, ever since I gave the interview about Elowen to that journalist from the local paper,’ she said, avoiding his gaze as she picked up a couple of raspberries. ‘Kelvin Wilton. He jazzed up what I said, so it wasn’t really what I told him.’ She added with annoyance, ‘It didn’t sound at all like me. You know,’ she glanced at Mike, ‘I showed you the piece he wrote.’

‘And when,’ Mike asked with an effort at restraint that failed to prevent his voice from rising to a muted roar, so that the dog glanced up at him, ‘just when were you planning to tell me about these emails?’

‘Why, Mike, whenever there was time,’ Anna said sweetly, getting her mobile out of the pocket of her jeans. ‘We’ve been so busy. Let’s see if we’re getting duplicates.’

He snorted in disbelief as he tugged his own phone out and began to tap the keys. He handed it to Anna and seized hers as she held it out to him.

Mike had only read a few of the messages when the angry colour rose in his face. ‘My God, Anna, you need to go to the police about these. They’re directly threatening you.’

‘Mmm,’ she said, ‘yours are really quite mild by comparison. Obviously being the front person for the Elowen Trust is not going to be as straightforward as I thought.’

‘Anna,’ Mike refused to be distracted, ‘at least speak to Rob Elliot. After all, what’s the point in having a police inspector in your train if he can’t give you some useful advice?’

Now read on…

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