A CLUSTER of elms skirting a hawthorn hedge provided the ideal screen for her black Fiat Punto.
Her journey north on the M1 had gone without event, although the traffic through Rotherham had been heavy. The motorway’s mundane aspect gave way to banks of green she had rarely seen in the flesh. Big skies and craggy outcrops north of Leeds should have uplifted her but instead instilled a sense of foreboding. Well, Sheila would have found it all boring. The last leg, Satnav assisted, left her feeling like a splinter pushing into deeper countryside. Tarns and forces glimmered within fells of rust and mauve. Derelict barns and twisted groves haunted roadsides that would appear unused. The weirdly-named Gaping Burdott informed her destination near.
Once through the village of Quinton Marsh, she pulled into a lay-by to check her bearings. Little did she realise the tall hedge reflected in her rearview mirror formed the back perimeter of Vince’s property.
After crawling up the lane and exiting her Punto, she loitered at the foot of a tree-lined driveway cleaving acres of lawn. The Little Chef’s offering of ham sandwich and tea reeled in her stomach. Every cell in her body told her not to proceed but going back was inconceivable. She wanted to know. She wanted to know before Vince’s publicist informed the media; she felt she had the right to see for herself.
Two men and three women emerged from the building. They chatted on the steps next to a pair of Aston Martins. The grey listed building that formed the backdrop had been tastefully extended from a chapel-like structure at the centre. A book listing Yorkshire’s most haunted buildings could have included a vista rather like the one now presented to Nancy. Turreted chimneys pushed into the treetops; arched windows dotted jutting walls and deep gables.
The five separated out. Three got into the larger model. The couple loitered behind to chat on the steps. They could have been guests at a wedding, but today was an ordinary day. The woman checked her pockets. The man extended his hand and waved at the occupants of the other car before it moved off. Nancy ducked away as the car crawled down the drive with a soft crunch upon gravel. She could see no reporters and attributed this to the misinformation Vince remained in hospital with a possible convalescence in his Knightsbridge apartment. The car hit a ramp which seemed to trigger an opening mechanism for the gates. The second Aston Martin soon caught up and followed the other into Lime Tree Drive, one of the through-roads of the village of Quinton Marsh.
Nancy waited for stillness to resume before stepping next to a brick pillar enclosing an intercom system. She had readied her words: the spiel practiced on the housekeeper about Dennis, the poker night and Leon, but the gates didn’t close for some reason. Nancy stepped through the threshold onto the drive and into another world. No sniper gun singled her out, no Dobermans bounded her way. Nancy idled forwards. A misted white sky bore down upon her, the elms closed in. The arched windows watched but did not watch at the same time. The ambiguity made her stomach churn. Nancy’s gait gathered momentum as she continued forwards. She glanced behind and saw the gates were still open. The gravel crunched beneath her feet and the oak panel door atop a wide patio of Lakeland slabs loomed ahead. Nancy boarded. The sensation likened that of a stage. She disliked the openness of such an alien place. She craved her former seclusion next to her Punto.
Nancy approached the door and raised her hand. She curled her fingers into a fist.
She was being watched.
The door burst open.
Nancy’s shadow reeled back. The physical Nancy froze upon the Lakeland slabs. A pair of black hooded eyes delineated with black eyeliner and soiled with distrust glared back at her from the gloom. Chocolate skin, long braids, bands of scalp and a silk pantsuit that tapered to a tiny waist. The woman could have been a member of a failed girl band ten years ago, or perhaps the sixth spice girl. Pissed-off Spice, Nancy thought.
‘Who the hell are you?’ the woman demanded in a brash tone.
Nancy’s lower lip slackened but no words came.
The woman’s black eyes flicked sharply about. ‘Where’s the delivery van? I was expecting a delivery man!’ The woman’s glare once again burrowed into the imposter on her step. ‘You know we‘ve been expectin’ a delivery at this time, didn’t you? You’ve been watchin’ with your stupid little watch and your dumb little notebook, am I right? You had better not be what I think you are or I’m gonna set the dogs on you!’
Nancy resisted the urge to step back. ‘I’m not from the press.’
The woman’s salmon-like lips bunched up, colouring her pissed expression with incredulity. ‘Not from the press, huh?’ Her beaded necklace clinked as she crossed her arms. ‘That’s interesting. Let’s see if I can guess what this little surprise visit is in aid of, shall I? So far, I’ve had a homeopath, a chiropractor and a therapist. We ain’t had a counsellor yet. That’d be good. Perhaps you could help me with a little anger management!’
‘You don’t understand…’
‘Oh, but I think I do,’ the woman sneered. ‘But today’s your lucky day. I fancy a little humourin’. If you ain’t from the media, maybe you’d like to come on in and have a little chat out back with Mr. Jonas’ solicitor. He loves to interview people. Before you know it, you’ll be collectin’ your P45 and walkin’ the streets beggin’ to clean toilets for a living.’
Angry Spice jerked the door wider. ‘Wanna take your chances, Miss Cheap Shoes?’