It seemed like forever, waiting for enough debris to be cleared so that the paramedics could get to Martha and assess her condition. As they dug down it appeared that she was underneath a table, and it was this that had saved her. Goodness knows what she had been doing underneath the Frensham’s coffee table, but Japp pushed that thought away as being not immediately relevant. Having reached her it was another far too long age before she was declared stable enough to be moved. The table had done its best, and it was as sturdy as they come, but it had partially collapsed under the impact of so much weight, and Martha’s legs had been pinned by the weight of bricks.
Nonetheless the mood was much more optimistic as she was eventually pulled out strapped to a stretcher and loaded into the waiting ambulance. Arthur had calmed down considerably once he knew that she was still alive, and the ambulance crew declared themselves happy for him to go along with her to hospital.
While they had been waiting Japp and Sarah Bacon had gone through everything they had learned that morning. Land Registry had been taking their time confirming who held the title deeds to the farm at the end of the tunnel, so in the meantime Sarah had decided to visit the local National Farmers Union office to see if they could help. She’d been in Tenterden when the call came through about the explosions, so had dropped everything to drive over and co-ordinate the police presence. She had managed to glean some information before dashing off, though. The tenant farmer that Martha remembered had gone to live with his son up in Yorkshire when he retired. The farm had been hop fields and orchards mostly, with some livestock, so nothing remarkable for the area. That was all the clerk had got round to telling Sarah, while looking up the paperwork, before the call had come in. Japp in his turn told Sarah about the plastic contraption that had been found, and the pipe leading underground, and even that he wasn’t certain of. After all, he’d not seen any pipes coming out of the barrels, so maybe it hadn’t been used to spread the chemical fumes after all.
As there was no longer the need for quiet, the buzz of people talking filled the area. The occupants of the neighbouring houses had been evacuated, but instead of going down the road and evicting the mother and toddler group from the village hall, the pub landlord had opened his doors and started handing out teas and coffees, with a meaningful comment to the effect that helping out his neighbours was not breaking any laws and he wouldn’t be expecting any objections next time he had to renew his licence. Sarah Bacon had shrugged and said she couldn’t see that there would be a problem. After Martha had been found the tension had lifted and the people of the village were busy discussing what had happened and coming up with various bizarre theories about what had happened. Of course, so far as they knew it was probably a gas explosion, they had no reason to suspect anything other than a terrible accident, and most of their gossiping consisted of shaking their heads over the terrible luck that family seemed to be having. As Japp listened in with half an ear he came to the conclusion that none of them had any idea that the Frenshams had gone away. They’d accepted the news that the house had been empty apart from Martha and assumed, as Japp had, that they had gone to the hospital, or the GP, or to the supermarket, or to a coffee shop perhaps, just to get out of the house.
The landlord came over with a couple of mugs of steaming hot tea, and Sarah had introduced him as Stevie Kilner as he’d handed them over. He hadn’t just brought tea, though. He’d also come with information. It appeared that he had spotted the Frenshams leaving their house after dark last night, but had thought nothing of it at first.
‘When this lot turned up after the big bang we all thought they’d be looking for Mary and the family, but then word got round you knew they weren’t there and it was Martha being looked for. I didn’t think nothing of it at first, they’re not usually at home in the daytime anyway, aside from Mary, but then I realised I’d seen them leave last night around 6-ish, but I don’t ever recall seeing them come back. And now I’m thinking about it I don’t think there were any lights on in the house later in the evening neither. There’s usually a light on upstairs when I go to lock up, but there wasn’t none last night. At the time I just thought I’d missed them coming back and they’d taken an early night.’
As he spoke Japp was paying close attention and trying to gauge whether there was any ulterior motive for Stevie to come and talk to them at that point. Although the pub was set back from the road quite a distance the ground it stood on was higher than the road, which was higher than the exploded house. He would have had quite a vantage point from there to see the comings and goings in the house, although it wasn’t directly opposite but at a slight angle to one side. Japp knew that he would have been interviewed after the burglary, along with anyone else whose house overlooked any part of the Frensham’s property. It wasn’t standard practice with a burglary, but then it hadn’t been an ordinary breaking and entering.
He might be getting paranoid but the list of strange events was getting longer by the day and Japp was starting to wonder just who knew what and how many people were involved. Sleepy English villages didn’t usually have houses explode simultaneously with hidden tunnels full of chemicals. Did Stevie know more than he was telling? Was he telling them something small and possibly not very important in order to see what they knew and get information from them? Japp glanced over to Sarah as Stevie talked, and tried to read her face for clues. She seemed to be taking what he said at face value, and as he looked back at the pub landlord Japp saw that he seemed genuinely puzzled. Maybe he was reading far more into it than there really was.
Stevie’s next words, though, jolted both Sarah and Japp out of their own thoughts and made them look at each other to see if they had heard what they thought they had. Sarah asked him to repeat what he’d just said.
‘I said, when I took tea over to the ambulance Arthur was raving a little. I reckon that paramedic must have given him a hefty dose of whatever. He was rambling and mumbling away and he said something about if he’d known this could happen he would never have got involved and that he’d find the Frenshams and make them pay for what had happened to Martha. No clue what he was talking about, but I thought as how you’d like to know.’
Yes, they would like to know about that, and Japp was thanking him and saying so when they heard the siren of the ambulance start up as it drove off with Martha finally inside. And Arthur. Arthur was being whisked away just as they realised they needed to talk to him. Sarah looked at Japp and said, ‘You go. You know the way to the hospital now, and you’ve already talked to Arthur about the house in the forest, so you’re best placed to see if he really knows something or just talking pish. I’ll finish up here, co-ordinate with Sergeant McKeown at the other site, and follow on. You never know’, she added with a wry grin, ‘I might even have time to pick up those documents from the NFU on my way back. Besides, my car is blocked in by a couple of squad cars now, you’ll be away faster. Oh, and I’ll call ahead and get someone to meet Arthur at the hospital, make sure he doesn’t do a runner before you get there. It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do right now anyway.’ Again, there was that wry grin.
Japp hesitated. This time there was a mock frown instead of a grin, and her voice was stern as Sarah said, ‘Well do I need to tell you twice? You know it makes sense, there’s no need for two of us here, just think what the Super would say!’ At that Japp nodded in agreement and turned back to his car, handing Sarah his virtually untouched tea as he did so. Shame. It was better than anything he was likely to get at the hospital. Oh well.
As he walked back to his car he heard Sarah call out after him, ‘Get a move on! Run!’ He knew she was joking, as the hospital was so close to the police station, and so far from the village, that Arthur was in no danger of getting to the hospital before his reception committee, but Japp ran anyway. My poor, poor feet, he thought.