25. Sgt. McKeown aids and abets an escape

Velox trotted off down the street with his nose to the ground. Whereas before he had been weaving from side to side, sniffing at the full width of the street, this time he was moving steadily and clearly following a single trail. He wasn’t running at full speed, but his pace was fast enough that Graptus and Cleon were going to have to work at it to keep up with him. Graptus had turned to wave farewell to Philemon as he stood in the doorway, puzzled at their sudden departure, and had regretted it when he saw how far behind he had fallen. By the time he had caught up with Cleon again he was too out of breath to speak for a few moments.  I’m getting old, he thought, and too lazy – my rose garden isn’t keeping me fit as much as I thought.

 

While he was waiting for his breathing to calm down enough so that he could speak, as well as keep up the extremely brisk walking pace that Velox was setting, Graptus pondered Velox’s behaviour. He hadn’t shown any interest in the door, or in running off down the street, when they had arrived, so did that mean that Felix was the person they had heard at the front door? If it was Felix then what had he been doing there? Had he followed them, or had he gone to the house for some other reason? If he had caught sight of them and followed them there, why hadn’t he called out to them, knocked on the door – or even just waited for them to come out again? If he hadn’t followed then why was he there? So many questions. So many puzzling events that didn’t seem to fit together – Graptus was beginning to feel like he had been set an exam where more than half the questions were missing altogether and the other half were written in a language he didn’t speak. As he thought back to their time in Philemon’s house, Graptus remembered how Cleon had behaved when coming back into the office to check that the side door was secure – now that he thought about it, Cleon had behaved very oddly.

 

‘Cleon, what did you really find when you and Velox went to check the other door? You looked like you were going to say something and then thought better of it after Philemon told you about what Paradotus has been up to.’

‘We didn’t find anything – the door was locked and all was quiet, but Velox was sniffing all over the place – he’d clearly picked up some kind of scent. From how much he was interested I’d say it must have been quite strong, so probably recent. After that Velox went off into the kitchen, but I’m honestly not sure if he was sensing Felix in there or just the leftovers of a chicken carcass – but what was Felix doing there at all? After Philemon told us about Paradotus and his sudden change in behaviour I must admit to worrying that Felix was mixed up in it all somehow.  Paradotus’s new friends don’t sound anything like Felix or the way he would behave, and if he ever had enough money to buy that fancy strong box then he wouldn’t have had anything left to put inside it, but I needed to be sure. As it was Velox didn’t pick up anything from either of the strong boxes at all, so maybe Felix just came to the house to find us?’

 

Graptus let Cleon ramble on, glad of the opportunity to think and, he had to be honest with himself, to catch his breath some more. He really was going to have to do something more strenuous than weed his rose garden if he was going to avoid turning into one of those old men who couldn’t leave their own house without an arm to lean on. He hadn’t been unduly surprised that Velox had picked up Felix’s scent by the side door as well, it was what Graptus suspected once he had put together all his memories of their time in the house together in a coherent way, and Cleon hadn’t said anything he hadn’t already thought himself about Felix’s possible involvement with the plot that Paradotus was involved in.

 

By this time the two friends were half way across the Pons Sublicius; the old wooden bridge led to the base of the Aventine Hill on the far bank and had been rebuilt many times, replaced after floods or when it simply became too rickety. The oldest bridge to cross from Rome to the west bank of the Tiber, it had never been rebuilt in stone. It was wide enough for the two men to walk side by side but not much more, so whenever they met a heavily-laden pack animal they were forced to stand to one side until the animal and its driver had passed. The bridge was a bottleneck between the wider networks of roads either side of the river, and was usually fairly crowded. It was a common haunt of beggars, who took advantage of the fact that there were usually crowds of people who were unable to move quickly along. A couple of beggars had been sat dotted along the length of the bridge so far, asking for alms as Graptus and Cleon passed, enough to make even Graptus anxious that they would lose sight of Velox, but not as many as there would have been on the Ides of May when a procession wound down from the Temple of Fors Fortuna, collecting effigies from all the Argei shrines as they went. When they reached the river the Vestal Virgins took the effigies from the magistrates who had carried them through the streets, and threw them into the river – no one knew why anymore, but it was still done every year. This was Rome, after all, and you didn’t just abandon an ancient religious ritual just because no one could remember why it had started. Graptus wondered what else would be forgotten in years to come. Maybe, one day, the roads, palace and temples he had worked on would crumble away to nothing and no-one would know they had ever been there, much less who built them. Who will live here then, he pondered, before bringing himself up short – Graptus you old fool, he thought to himself, stop getting distracted by anything and everything, you need to be thinking of finding Felix, not daydreaming away.

 

They waited for the latest mule to squeeze past them with its mountain of cargo, and turned to continue their way along the bridge. As they did so Graptus realised that Velox was speeding away from them. Up to now he had seemed to understand that they couldn’t move any faster and had waited for them patiently whenever they were dispensing alms or just held up by the bridge traffic, but no longer. Graptus nudged Cleon and pointed, saving his breath for the inevitable run to catch up, but just at that moment he caught sight of Velox skidding to a halt by another beggar. It was a little difficult to see through the crowd and hear over all the hubbub, but it seemed as though Velox was barking excitedly. The man obviously seemed startled, struggled to his feet and scrambled off with Velox in pursuit. Graptus and Cleon wasted no time in chasing after the beggar and Velox as fast as they could manage. They knew that they needed to catch up with the fleeing pair before they left the bridge, or they could lose them in the tangle of streets on the far side, which would mean losing track of the one clue they had to Felix’s whereabouts, and Velox into the bargain.

 

**********************************************************

 

Sgt McKeown looked around as he waited for the kettle to boil. The teapot had been easy to locate in the end, sitting on the corner of the range cooker keeping warm. He had emptied the dregs of the last pot out and set himself to the next task of finding some tea, at the same time as keeping an ear out for the conversation at the end of the room, in case he was needed.  It didn’t seem to be going too well so far – DI Robb was doing her best to sound bright, cheery, and as if this was just a routine visit and that all they wanted were the old farmer’s reminiscences of his time down in Kent. Unfortunately she was getting nowhere at all so far, and was clearly running out of farming knowledge to casually drop into what she was saying in the hopes of drawing a response. In the meantime Nathan had managed to find the tea caddy on a shelf above the range cooker, an ancient tiny fridge that – thankfully – did contain some milk and three clean mugs. As he carried the tea over to the pair sitting by the woodburner Katie Robb was starting to stumble to a halt, and she had stopped speaking completely by the time Nathan had sat down in the remaining chair. She looked at him bleakly, quite clearly out of ideas and handing over to him.

 

Nathan looked at Martin Foreman, who had taken his mug of tea without a word and was now sat looking from one visitor to another, holding his drink untouched and ignored. Nathan wasn’t sure, but was that a hint of a grin at their discomfort? He looked down at his own tea for a second, weighing up in his mind what to say, and desperately hoping that he’d guessed right about Martin taking his tea very strong, with a good slug of milk and three spoonfuls of sugar. Well, he thought, being coy about why we’re really here hasn’t worked, so why don’t we try being honest? And with that he launched into a potted history of recent events, starting with the disappearance of the Smiths and ending with the twin explosions that had killed an entire crew of firemen and left Martha seriously injured in hospital. He reckoned that Martin wouldn’t appreciate anyone trying to make him feel obliged to talk either, so he kept to a sparse re-telling of the facts – not glossing over anything but not laying it on with a trowel either. If he remembered anything of farming folk from when he was growing up back home, they tended to be used to hearing of tragedy, disaster, and sudden death – farming being one of the riskiest professions – and therefore supremely unimpressed when faced with a half-baked tale told just to gain sympathy or a favour. The story he was telling was bad enough, there was no need for embellishment, and it would either work or it wouldn’t.

 

He’d kept his eyes on Martin throughout and his voice as matter of fact as possible – although he felt it catch in his throat as he got to Martha’s injuries as a result of being buried under Stu’s house, but he took a breath and tried to carry on calmly. When he had finished he simply stopped talking, resisting the urge to keep on speaking until Martin showed signs of responding. The old man had been looking at Nathan as he spoke, his expression neutral, although there had been a couple of times when Nathan wondered if he had imagined a twitch of feeling in the old man’s face.  He held Nathan’s gaze for a couple of seconds more, and then looked at his tea cooling in his mug. He took a sip, frowning slightly, the first time his expression had changed at all since their arrival. Then he drank the rest of the mug, and put it firmly down on a little side table.

 

‘All right, lad, I’ll answer your questions but on one condition – you give me a lift to t’retirement flats by t’ next market town along the road. I reckon you’ll be going that way onnyroad if you’ve got rooms at that bed and breakfast that calls itself a hotel at the top of the lane, there. There int anywhere else ta stay near ‘ere, onnyroad.’

Nathan looked to Katie, glad that Martin’s speech had taken on enough soft southern characteristics from his time in Kent to need no translation. She nodded her agreement, and they were both taken by surprise when Martin shot to his feet, brushed passed them and started off down the corridor towards the front door. It was clear that if the crutches and walking sticks they’d nearly tripped over on their way in belonged to the old farmer then he was in no need of them now. He’d dived into the front parlour and as they entered the dimly-lit room he started picking up the luggage Nathan had seen earlier and almost flinging it at them. Katie and Nathan looked at each other, thoroughly bewildered – this was a complete change of pace, not at all the cosy foreside chat that they’d both been expecting.

Katie managed to get her voice in gear and blurted out, ‘But I thought you just wanted a lift to visit someone after we talked?’

‘Nay, lass, ah’m movin art, greedy son o’mine thowt if ah lived wi’ him afta giving up t’farm I’d just give him orl uz savings. Well, I’ve spent ‘em instead and got missen a flat, so he can ferget it!

With a shrug Katie and Nathan lugged Martin’s bags to the car. There was a brief delay while Nathan had to go running back in to fetch a coat from the rack and a fantastically carved walking stick – Martin deciding that perhaps he’d overdone things and would need a stick after all. He rejected the offer of retrieving the tablet and headphones from the kitchen though, telling Nathan that they belonged to Andrew who would only come and retrieve it and that he wasn’t ready to have a visit from that tight owd bugger. He caught Katie rolling her eyes at that description, and couldn’t help mentally agreeing that father and son were very alike.

 

It was when they were installed in his new accommodation that Martin opened up. Once away from his son’s farm any pretence of being out of touch and disconnected from events down in Kent dropped away. He had heard about the disappearance of the Smiths in suspicious circumstances and the explosions, although obviously not the results of the police investigation so far. Yes, he had been aware of the tunnel, but not until the gangmaster who supplied the farm labourers had told him about it. He’d said something about stumbling on an old ventilation shaft and wanted to go poking around in the cellar. Once the entrance had been found – not without removing lots of clutter and knocking on the walls to see if anything sounded hollow – life had suddenly changed on the farm for Martin. It appeared that the gangmaster had been dictating a lot of how the farm was run already, but as Martin was getting less able to cope and the profits seemed to be steadily rising he hadn’t bothered too much about it. Once the tunnel was found, however, Martin became a prisoner in his own home and had very little say in anything.

 

No, he didn’t know what the tunnel was being used for – he was kept well away from it and had to move out into the converted oast house across the yard. There was a lot of coming and going, he knew that. He might not have been able to see what was going on inside the house, but they hadn’t been able to hide the steady stream of lorries that came into the yard and backed up to the front door. He hadn’t been able to see what, if anything, was being loaded or unloaded, but he always knew when a lorry was expected as the labourers would drop what they were doing and start gathering in the yard.

 

The money really started to roll into the farm accounts then, but he only saw a fraction of it. The rest was siphoned off into the account of the gangmaster through various fictitious charges and so on. Martin hadn’t dared to tell anyone, although he had tried to tell Martha on one of her visits in the early days. It was just after the tunnel had been discovered, and before he’d been forced to move into the oast, but there had been a minder hanging around the whole time and he hadn’t had the opportunity to say anything.  Martin was pretty sure his minder was suspicious, though, as he’d spoken to Martha out of Martin’s earshot as she left, and he hadn’t seen her again after that. It seemed certain that whatever was said had put her off returning.

‘Shame. I liked the lass, she were gran’ company, and if she’d come again after the coup then I’d have told her enough to get her to look into things, minder or no.’

‘Coup? What coup?’

‘Well, one day the gangmaster were one bloke, and the next it was t’other. Everything else stayed the same, the company stayed the same, just t’bloke at t’top changed. The labourers seemed to stay the same too, although maybe one or two changed over, but other than that not much changed – except they never did tell me what happened to the first bloke. If I ever even looked like I was about to ask they’d threaten to ‘it me. I started to wonder if he was buried somewhere on the farm, which is what I’d have wanted that Martha to investigate. She were a gran’ lass, she’d’ve found a way to get the ball rolling and I wouldn’t’ve had to say much to tip ‘er off neither – bright as a spark that one. I were reet sorry to hear she were hurt. I know you said she were goin’ to be fine – that’s right, is it? You weren’t just making it up so I would talk to you?

 

Katie started to speak, but looked to Nathan to carry on. ‘You know Martha, and I don’t – you’re the better person to reassure Mr Foreman.’

So Nathan started to explain that yes, Martha’s injuries had been pretty severe, and would have been very serious indeed if left untreated for days, but things were looking good. If it hadn’t been for the radiologist picking up on just how much pain Martha was in as they’d moved her into position for the X-Rays then things would have been very different, but as it was she’d been treated very, very early, and just needed to give everything time to heal up.  As he was talking Nathan was thinking that they still had questions for Martin, so he tried to be as swift with his updates on Martha as possible. He could see that Katie was writing what looked like a list, so he guessed that she was as curious as he as about the gaps in Martin’s tale and was making notes before she forgot what she wanted to ask.

 

Nathan was thinking that he wanted to know how and why Martin had left the farm – it didn’t seem like the sort of thing that the mysterious gangmasters would have been happy about, given that they seemed to want to keep him under their noses to ensure his silence. And just who had those two men been? They hadn’t come across any paperwork relating to the name of one gangmaster, let alone two. Had the gangmasters been the real men in charge, or was there someone else behind it all?

 

The news about Martha was told soon enough, and Katie was all set to take over and resume asking questions when Martin stepped in, and asked them to come back the next day. He did, in truth, looked suddenly very drawn and tired, and Nathan realised that he’d forgotten just how old the farmer must be – Martin’s voice was still strong and showed no hint of the tremor that can show up with age; his face, despite being lined and weather-beaten, had looked younger and been full of colour earlier, animated with interest as they had talked about the past. All of which had made Nathan treat him as if were a good twenty or thirty years younger than he must be. After all, his son Andrew looked as if he was nearing sixty years old, although it was difficult to tell for sure.

 

As impatient as they were to hear the rest of the story Katie agreed to return. It had been fully dark outside for quite some time now, and although their accommodation for the night was secured they still needed to find the place, and somewhere to eat as well. It’s only a few hours, thought Nathan, I’m sure we can wait that long, so reluctantly they left and wound their way through the lanes. As they did so it started to snow heavily, and soon he only had time to concentrate on not driving into one of the stone walls lining the road in the sudden whiteout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About kentishlol

Wife, mother of three, dog owner, and rank amateur at everything. You don't really want to know that I bake, knit, garden, make marmalade and sloe gin, do you? Thought not.
This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 25. Sgt. McKeown aids and abets an escape

  1. betunada says:

    okay …. a somewhat quiet period in the proceedings …

    Liked by 1 person

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