"What are we doing here again?" Cutter scowled in annoyance at Jenny.
They were seated in the front room of a small B&B in the Cotswolds. There was a little table by the window and Jenny had pulled out her folder in order to spread the contents on the table. She had already had this conversation with Nick a couple of times and had no desire to repeat it. She pushed a piece of paper across the table towards him.
The letter was on House of Commons notepaper, which looked more impressive when it wasn't a poor black-and-white photocopy. Nick's eyes slipped over the heading anyway.
"Yadda, yadda, the beast of the downs. Any evidence this is anything other than some yokel with a hyper-active imagination?" Nick waved the paper extravagantly in her face.
Jenny winced and hoped the B&B owner wasn't listening in on them. They had already managed to upset him in several different ways from arriving "too early" to tracking muddy footsteps onto his carpet. Their overnight bags were still stashed in the hire car since it was apparently impossible for them to be stored safely anywhere on the premises. However the owner had consented to supply them with a cup of afternoon tea and to let them sit in the front room. It was half an hour before they were expected up at the hall.
Jenny turned her eyes back to the letter and the rather feeble set of old newspaper clippings that lived with it in the folder. Cutter had a point about yokels and hyper-active imaginations.
"The land belongs to the junior minister for transport. He has just enough security access to know the ARC is involved in something, but not enough to really know what. Lester wants us to reassure him that the whatever-it-is is nothing to do with us and then leave."
"So the point is to be diplomatic." Cutter grinned wickedly at her over his tea cup.
Jenny looked at him severely, "Don't get any evil ideas. I know you consider being diplomatic an unconscionable imposition on your personal integrity. Do you think you can at least manage to keep your mouth shut unless asked a direct technical question?"
"Better than that! I've been practicing my impression of an eccentric scientist kept well under control by my home office manager." Nick's eyes sparkled.
Jenny laughed quietly. "The day I have you under control pigs will fly."
"I can do a good impression if it means getting this junior minister out of everyone's hair."
By mutual agreement Jenny drove the hire car while Nick read the map. Cosgrove Hall wasn't too difficult to find. It was close to the main A road and not far outside the small village of Little Cosgrove itself. Jenny typed the code she'd been given into the keypad at the gate and watched as the big steel structures swung inwards. They drove up a wide gravelled driveway and around a corner to come to the house itself.
It was quite small for a country house, looking more like a large cottage than the kind of manor house Jenny had imagined. A very modern-looking extension had been added to one side. The extension was a blocky shape with wide picture windows and a contrasting brickwork and render effect in squares.
Cutter's forehead creased slightly as he regarded the building. "Bit of a mish-mash," was his verdict.
"Well, we're not here to admire the architecture."
Jenny marched up to the door and rang the bell. It opened almost instantly and Jenny suspected that the owner had been alerted by their arrival at the gates. St. John Marshall was everything she expected from a junior minister with a public school background. He was of average height, dressed in a blue blazer and pale chinos, running to overweight with black hair that fell around his face in untidy curls.
"You the animal chappies?" he asked.
"Home Office, sent by James Lester," Jenny said with a smile before Nick could interrupt her.
"Not very many of you," he observed.
"We've been sent to assess the situation, see if it's relevant to our remit."
"It had better be. The bloody beast has eaten half the wife's poultry."
"We should probably start by taking a look there then," said Jenny brightly.
"He should just call in the local hunt," Cutter murmured in her ear as Marshall led them round the house.
Jenny frowned at Nick, warning him to keep quiet, but she couldn't quite suppress her smile.
Once they reached the chicken run however, Nick became pleasingly professional. He listened seriously to Marshall's tale of missing chickens and examined the high fences.
"No fox could get in here," Marshall said confidently, clearly guessing that Nick was checking for signs of digging.
Nick glanced up at Jenny but restricted himself to merely waggling his eyebrows at her and refrained from comment. He then moved to check the various chicken coops, stepping around the remains of Marshall's flock as they pecked hopefully at the ground. Jenny noticed the moment when his back suddenly stiffened. Nick straightened up and turned to face her.
"Well?" asked Marshall.
"I take it back. It's not a fox."
"So what is it?" asked Jenny.
Cutter looked at her with a concerned expression. "I'm not sure, to be honest. I've found a footprint though, I'll take a picture and send it to Connor."
Jenny bought a bottle of cheap-ish red on their way back to the B&B. They'd ask for at least one large room when they'd booked the place and it turned out her room had plenty of space with a table, two armchairs and a window seat. The B&B offered toasties as an evening snack. She and Nick sat at the table and washed the taste of cheap ham and cheese away with the wine as they reviewed what little evidence they had.
"Well, it's definitely a something, probably a big cat. Maybe it came through an anomaly a while back and only just found Marshall's chicken run," said Cutter.
Jenny sighed and rubbed her temples. "James won't be happy."
"Mebbe not, but he'll know it's not our fault. Cheer up! All we need is a little more evidence and we can have the team here and hunt the thing down."
Jenny left Cutter to his research, while she pulled a novel out of her bag and curled up in the armchair with it and the wine.
Jenny had got so accustomed to the quiet beep of email arriving at Nick's laptop that she hardly noticed another had arrived until Cutter said "Oh!" in such a surprised voice that she glanced across at him over the top of a Dick Francis.
He had both hands to his head and a look of such revelation on his face that she almost laughed.
"What is it?" she asked.
"It is completely bloody obvious."
He swivelled his laptop around so that she could see the picture of a big cat on the screen.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Panthera onca otherwise known as a jaguar. Connor matched the footprint I found."
Jenny almost choked on her wine. "A jaguar."
"Yup! That's right."
"What's a jaguar doing in the Cotswolds?"
Nick shrugged. "It will have escaped or, more likely, been abandoned by some kind of private owner. It happened a lot in the sixties. Big cats were seen as a kind of fashion accessory. The law's tightened up a lot since then, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still happen."
"The beast of Bodmin and all that?"
Nick nodded, "aye."
His email pinged again and he pulled the laptop back towards him.
"Well, at least that means it isn't our problem."
"Ach! I wouldn't be too sure about that."
"What do you mean?"
Nick swivelled the laptop back once more. Jenny found herself skimming the contents of an email from Abby that went on at some length and, for Abby, was surprisingly poorly spelled. The summary was `don't you dare abandon the poor creature'."
Jenny rolled her eyes and rubbed her temples. "There I was, thinking that James would be pleased. This isn't our problem. He'd much rather it was a smilodon than that we get involved in capturing an escaped zoo animal."
"Well, there's nothing much we can do tonight at any rate. It's not like Marshall is staking out his chicken coop with a shotgun."
"Do jaguars hunt at night?"
"They're not nocturnal, no. So we're not missing an opportunity by staying here. But we should try to get to Cosgrove Hall early tomorrow. I'm think the jaguar will come back for an easy source of food like that. I'll set the alarm for early. I put a tranq gun in the car and I can easily work out the dosage for an average jaguar."
"Can you shoot though?" Jenny bit her lip after saying it, knowing how jealous Nick could be of his pride.
"Well enough. I'm not as good as Stephen was, but I'll do."
For a moment a look of deep sadness crossed his features and Jenny suppressed the urge to reach out in sympathy. She watched as Cutter tapped away at the laptop.
"What are you doing?"
"Emailing Abby. Hopefully she can get someone from a zoo to us early tomorrow. I don't want yon junior minister getting any ideas into his head about decorative trophies for his country home."
Jenny was woken up before dawn by Nick banging on her door. She shrugged into her dressing gown and opened it.
"What time is it?" she asked blearily as she peered out at Cutter. He was fully dressed and looking disgustingly perky.
"We should get to the estate early. I think the jaguar may come for the chickens around dawn."
"Any good reason why?" she couldn't help asking.
"Partly a hunch and partly because Marshall says they found the chickens attacked every morning when his wife goes out to collect the eggs."
Jenny sighed. "OK, point. I'll dress."
"I'll buy you breakfast," he promised.
"I'll hold you to that."
Half an hour later, they were lurking in St. John Marshall's chicken run. Jenny sighed and pulled her coat around her, thinking wistfully of coffee. Nick was standing remarkably still and quiet in the half light, the tranquiliser rifle held loosely in one hand. Jenny fought the urge to stamp her feet and move around. Nick's stillness made her remember that he had spent time out in the field, just as Stephen had. She didn't want to foul up his stake out.
She was startled when he slowly raised the rifle to his shoulder. She peered across the enclosure but couldn't see whatever it was he was looking at. It wasn't until a sleek black form leaped onto the roof of a chicken coop that she realised where he was aiming. She clapped a hand to her mouth but was pleased that she managed not to cry out in surprise.
Nick paused, aiming, and then pulled the trigger. The creature yowled and leaped down from the top of the coop. Jenny started forward but Cutter's hand on her arm restrained her.
"Let's wait until we're sure it's good and asleep eh?" he whispered.
The next five minutes were worse than the half hour that had preceded it. Jenny peered out into the ever brightening day, but she couldn't see the jaguar which seemed to have fallen or jumped behind the coop.
Eventually Nick moved forwards slowly, Jenny trailing along in his wake. They rounded the hen coop to find a large black cat sleeping peacefully in the grass.
"I thought jaguar's were spotty," remarked Jenny.
"They can sometimes be black." Nick knelt down beside the creature and checked for life signs. "She'll be fine," he said, pausing to stroke the fur. "Isn't she a beauty."
Jenny found herself nodding in agreement and crouching down to brush her own gloved hand across the creature's shoulders and back. Briefly her hand touched Nick's and she felt herself flush as she looked up. His smile was open and friendly.
"Did Abby manage to contact someone?" Jenny asked.
"Aye, she did. I should phone him, tell him to bring his truck."
Jenny nodded, "And I should deal with Mr. Marshall."
She straightened up, brushing down her coat and headed off to the manor house in order to wake up the junior minister for transport and let him know his chicken problem had been resolved.
"Lester will say this was a waste of our time," Nick remarked later, as they watched Abby's contact driving away with the jaguar safely caged up in the back of a truck.
"I don't know. It'll lay a certain amount of speculation to rest."
"Speculation?" Nick looked at her.
"The junior minister was very surprised to find his problem was something as mundane as an escaped big cat. Someone has been spreading some very sensationalist rumours in the corridors of power."
Nick laughed. "You should see your expression. You look terribly disapproving of gossiping politicians. What on earth did you tell him? That we spend our days rounding up escaped pets for the idle rich."
"Not exactly, but I did somewhat imply that this little outing was all very much business as usual for us. Hopefully he'll spread a little counter-gossip."
Nick shook his head. "You are a very devious woman."
Jenny smiled. "And you owe me breakfast."
"So I do."
"And please God don't take me back to the B&B. Those toasties last night were enough for me."
"Well I saw a cafe in Little Cosgrove that advertised all-day breakfast. I can't guarantee it'll be any nicer though."
"I think I'll risk it."
Jenny linked her arm through Nick's and they headed off together towards the car and the promise of fried egg and bacon.