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Frost Shattering

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Clouds were gathering above the car park, grey and threatening in the afternoon sky. “We’d best be getting back soon, I reckon, sir”, Goodfellow remarked, squinting up at them with concern. “Looks like the snow could get heavy.”

Mallory followed his gaze, glaring up at the sky as the first few flakes drifted earthwards. “There’s no point in hanging about here, anyway”, he grumbled. “I suppose we may as well head home. Heaven knows there’ll be hell to pay if I’m out late on New Year’s Eve.” With a last look at the gloomy sky, he ducked into the car’s passenger seat and slammed the door.

“I’m sure your family will be glad to have you there”, Goodfellow said as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’ve got a nice bottle of wine waiting at home to share with Mrs Goodfellow, and some chocolate to take back for the children.” He patted his pocket with a smile.

“Yes yes, very nice, I’m sure”, Mallory huffed. “Just get a move on.” He leaned his chin on his hand, his breath leaving a mist of condensation on the passenger side window. Scowling, he wiped it impatiently away with his coat sleeve.

More snowflakes danced like scattered white petals in the air as Goodfellow reversed the car out of their parking space, the steering wheel turning smoothly beneath his gloved hands. Through the narrow streets they wended their way to the outskirts of the town, and then, at last, onto the country road back towards Kembleford.

The snow increased steadily as they drove, becoming a constant stream of white that swirled through the air as far as the eye could see. Mallory watched through the window as it settled over the landscape, decorating the fields and hedgerows with a soft veil of white.

Still it increased, heavier and heavier, until the air was so thick with large flakes that it became hard to see. Goodfellow slowed the car to a crawl, craning forward to peer through the damp sludge pushed about by the windscreen wipers. He fumbled blindly for a cloth tucked under the dashboard, and used it to clear the fog their breath was adding on the inside.

“Sir, would you mind having a go?” he asked, reaching to press the damp cloth into Mallory’s hands. “Only, I need to keep my hands on the wheel, and it’ll steam up again in a minute.”

Mallory scowled at the stained and sodden object but did as he was asked, mopping away the condensation as it clouded the view ahead.

"Don't you worry, sir", Goodfellow assured him, "By my calculations, we should reach Kembleford soon. Another fifteen, twenty minutes, and we'll be able to get out of here and into the warm.

Mallory sighed heavily, resting his head on his fist and gazing at the thick flakes obscuring the view beyond the window. “I hope you’re right, Sergeant”, he said, “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

*****

They were turning a corner when it happened. The car found a sheet of black ice and veered sharply, spinning out of control before either of them could react. With a sickening lurch, it skidded off the road and slammed head-first into a hedge.

For a long moment, there was silence. Shock stole every thought from their minds, freezing them in place until they could process what had happened. When they finally moved, it was cautiously, checking themselves and each other for injuries. But shaken though they were, they were otherwise unharmed. Even so, getting the car back onto the road would prove more of a problem.

“Please tell me we can get out of this." Mallory's voice was subdued, his usual gruffness shot through with anxiety.

“I’ll try, sir.” Goodfellow revved the engine. The wheels churned uselessly, the car’s awkward position giving them no traction on the wet grass and mud. He tried again and again, but the engine rebelled against the cold and mistreatment and cut out quickly each time.

"I'm sorry, sir, but don't think it's going to work”, he said at last. “Tell you what, though, I'll get out and have a look around, see if I can get an idea where we are. There might be a house nearby, or a phone box we can use to call for help."

Mallory sighed. “Fine, but don’t go wandering off anywhere without me. This is dangerous weather, so we should stick together.”

“Quite right. Back in a mo’, then!” Goodfellow said cheerfully, climbing awkwardly out of the car onto the frozen grass. He struggled to the edge of the road and peered around in all directions, shielding his eyes against the ever-falling snow. After a moment, he ducked back into the car, clumps of snow dropping from his hat and coat but an encouraging smile on his face.

“Well, Sergeant?”

“Well, sir, the bad news there are no houses or phone boxes anywhere near here. None that I can see through this blizzard, at any rate.”

Mallory’s expression descended into gloom. “And the good news?” he asked, without optimism. “I take it there is some?”

Goodfellow pointed towards the hedge the car was jammed in. “The good news is I think there’s a shed in that field that we could take shelter in.”

“A shed?!” Mallory’s expression turned from gloom to rage. “If that’s all this godforsaken place has to offer, I vote we stay in the damn car and wait for the snow to ease!”

Goodfellow’s smile fell away. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, sir”, he warned. “We don’t know how long this could go on for. It looks like it’s settled in for a while, and we don’t want to get trapped in here. We could end up with hypothermia if we’re not careful.”

Mallory grimaced and shook his head. “Do me a favour and at least have another look.”

Goodfellow opened his door and got out again, his navy-clad form half-obscured by the snow as he headed for a gap in the hedgerow. A few moments later, he returned and ducked his head back into the car. “I can definitely see the place, sir. I know it means a bit of walking, but I think we’d be safer in there.”

“You think? You’d better be damn sure, Sergeant, because I’m not leaving this car to go traipsing across a field unless you are.”

“I’m sure, sir. I know where we are now; this field belongs to the Fryer farm. I must’ve passed it thousands of times, and there’s a small storage shed about about halfway along the field in that direction.”

“How small?”

Goodfellow shrugged. “It’s got four walls and a roof, sir, and it’ll be bigger than the car, at any rate.”

Mallory sighed heavily. “Well, I suppose beggars can’t be choosers”, he grumbled. “But if you’re wrong about this...” He pressed the door handle and pushed, but nothing happened. He tried again, shoving harder, and the door gave way with a jerk, sending him toppling out onto the snowy grass.

“Whoops. Sorry, sir, the door must’ve been starting to freeze already. Still, all the more reason to get out while we can, eh?” Goodfellow hurried around the car and reached down to help him. Mallory glared at him, ignoring the proffered hand to push himself up off the wet ground. His hands and the front of his trousers were damp and stained with mud, and he slammed the car door behind him with more force than necessary.

"I think we should take what we can from the boot, sir, if we can get it open." Goodfellow met the inspector's poisonous glare with his usual equanimity before turning away to open the car boot. Reaching in, he pulled out a sizeable woollen blanket, which he draped over one shoulder, and their first aid tin.

Mallory waited by the hedge, shivering, his trench coat wrapped tightly around him and his gloved hands tucked under his armpits.

“This way, sir", Goodfellow said, leading the way to the gap in the hedge and through to the edge of the field.

Mallory followed cautiously, wary of falling again. He could see it too now, a dark shape squatting at the edge of the field ahead, dimly visible through the ever-swirling white. “Well, come on then”, he snapped, grudgingly starting to walk.

Hats pulled low to protect their faces as best they could, they hunkered down into their coats and trudged through the thick, cold flakes that filled the air.

*****

The shed was locked, with a large, shiny padlock that looked incongruous against the old, weathered wood.

“Stand back, sir”, Goodfellow warned, taking a step back himself before throwing himself shoulder-first against the door. It took a few tries, but as predicted, the wood gave way to leave a yawning opening into the pitch-black interior. He wrestled with the broken door for a minute, until it swung loose to let them pass through.

Mallory held back, suddenly hesitant, as the sergeant went ahead into the darkness. A memory loomed large in his mind of another dark room he’d once been trapped in, and he found his feet refusing to step into this one. He stood there, oblivious to the snowflakes settling on his hat and coat, gripped by a dread he couldn’t shake off.

“Sir?” Goodfellow reappeared in the doorway, his forehead creased with worry. “Is something wrong?”

Mallory swallowed and shook his head firmly. “Of course not. Apart from the fact we’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a ruddy blizzard! Other than that, everything’s just perfect!” He pushed past Goodfellow into the darkness, then stopped abruptly. His breathing turned shallow, his body remembering a time when he lay in the dark and felt the oxygen in the room getting lower as the seconds ticked by.

The soft crack and sulphur tang of a striking match cut through his mental fog, and he turned to face a bright flame, dazzling in the darkness. Goodfellow’s face was illuminated behind it by the glow, reassuringly familiar and filled with concern.

At once, the crushing weight in Mallory's chest eased, and he took a deep breath. His lungs filled with ice-cold air, laced with just a hint of match smoke.

“Are you sure you’re alright, sir?” Goodfellow asked.

"I'm fine." His voice came out as a hoarse croak, and he cleared his throat. "I'll take one side of the shed, and you take the other. We'll check whether there's anything in here we can make use of."

He dug in his pocket for his matches and lit a flame of his own. Small though they were, the matches provided enough light to examine the assorted farming supplies piled up around the walls. Most were of no use at all, but they found a small pile of logs in one corner that could be used to make a fire. They moved these to the centre of the room, and dragged over some sacks to make seating that would, at least, be more comfortable than the cold stone floor.

“Sir, I think we should wedge the door in place”, Goodfellow said, looking over to where the broken wood swung in the cold wind. “That draft won’t do us or the fire any good. If you get the fire going, I’ll find a way to leave enough of an opening for the smoke to escape.”

Mallory looked up from where he was trying to build a viable fire. "Yes, very well, Sergeant", he mumbled distractedly.

They hadn’t found much in the shed to use for kindling, but he did his best to coax the fire reluctantly to life. Memories crowded at the edges of his mind, of a single candle and suffocating darkness. Again and again, his eyes glanced across of their own accord to where Goodfellow was struggling with the door. The sergeant seemed more awkward than usual, wresting the slats into position with his left hand instead of his right, but he was getting the job done all the same. A cold draft still blew in through the broken gap in the doorway, making the growing flames flicker wildly. Mallory shivered when it chilled the exposed skin of his face, but it helped ease the lingering tightness in his chest. Anything was better than being sealed in.

By the time the sergeant returned, the small fire was blazing with a warmth and brightness that banished the shadows of the past back to the edges of his mind. The two of them arranged the sacks on the opposite side from the doorway and sat huddled on those. Their hats and coats were damp from the walk through the snow, but it hadn’t permeated through to their other clothes, so they left them on for the extra layers they provided.

Goodfellow unfolded the large blanket and wrapped it awkwardly around them both. After his earlier enthusiasm for the whole enterprise, he had fallen unusually quiet, but Mallory put it down to the fact they were still freezing.

“This is all very well, but how are we going to get home?” the inspector grumbled, more to break the oppressive silence than from any expectation of an answer. He shivered under the blanket, sitting as close to the sergeant as he could bring himself to. Goodfellow had made some suggestion about sitting pressed together to conserve heat, but he was damned if he was going to get that cosy. At least his teeth had stopped chattering, now the fire was warming the air within their refuge.

“I suppose we’ll have to wait until someone comes looking for us”, Goodfellow said. “Give it a little while, and our families are bound to start wondering where we are.”

“’A little while’? I don’t know about you, Sergeant, but I was hoping to get home tonight! At this rate, it could be hours before they even start looking for us!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s not much else we can do.” Goodfellow’s gave him a strained smile. “Still, look on the bright side, at least we’re together. I wouldn’t want to be out here in this alone.”

"Well, excuse me if I don't feel blessed by your company right now", Mallory growled, his eyes blazing in the fire’s orange glow. "I could be at home by now, in my own armchair in front of a proper fire, instead of stuck out here with you!"

The words had teeth, sharp and vicious, and they tore through the silence leaving a jagged hole in their wake. He hadn’t meant to lash out, but habit is an insidious thing, and instinct pushed him to defend the fortress he had built up over the years.

The firelight threw the contours of Goodfellow’s face into sharp contrast, highlighting the subtle movement around his eyes as he flinched. Guilt twisted in Mallory’s chest at the sight, but the apology stuck in his throat like so many others had before.

Silenced, his attempt at cheerfulness gone, Goodfellow looked away to where the lower logs of the fire rested on the concrete. He clutched his right arm, apparently unconsciously, his fingers twisting out of sight in the dark fabric of his uniform jacket. He hunched in his seat with his shoulders raised, although whether from cold or tension, or a mixture of both, Mallory couldn't tell.

Mentally, the inspector cursed himself. Giving up on words, he reached out instead with his hand, sliding it under the blanket to rest on the sergeant’s shoulder. Goodfellow didn’t turn around, but Mallory felt the slight shift as he relaxed. Scant comfort it may be, but it was all he could bring himself to offer. After a second, he gave the lightest of squeezes and then took the hand away.

The fire crackled and hissed as it ate into the wood, throwing out sparks that cooled and died on the concrete floor. For a while, the two men sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts as they watched the flames dance. Grateful though they were for the light and heat it provided, it was a meagre blaze to combat the blizzard raging outside.

"When this is over, I'm going to buy that double-thickness thermal underwear Mrs Mallory was going on about, and to hell with the cost", the inspector commented at last, to break the looming silence. “I feel like I’ll never be warm again. How about you, Goodfellow?”

There was no reply. He glanced around at his sergeant, who sat gazing into the flames. The fire cast the lines of the man’s face into deep shadow, and it was hard to tell with the glow whether his face was flushed or pale. He looked tired and distant, and showed no sign of even having heard the question.

"Goodfellow?" Mallory peered more closely at him, then barked, "Sergeant!"

Goodfellow jerked back to awareness and turned to blink at him. “Sir?" he mumbled. "Sorry, I was miles away." He shook his head and looked around, as though seeing their surroundings for the first time. The blanket slipped as he turned, and he winced as he wrapped it more securely around himself. Then he turned back to Mallory and frowned. "Is everything alright, sir? You look like you're shivering a lot there."

“Never mind that”, Mallory grumbled. “How are you doing? And don’t lie; I don’t want to find you’ve gone and got hypothermia. They’d probably send one of those damn DCIs from London to investigate and commandeer my office again.”

Goodfellow shook his head. “I’m feeling much better now, sir. The fire’s working wonders.” He held his palms out towards the flames, then winced, hurriedly pulling his right arm back to his side.

Mallory craned forward, trying to see what he had hidden. “What happened to your arm? Let me see.”

“It’s fine, sir, see? Just a rip in the fabric.” Goodfellow’s voice carried a strained edge. He held his arm out, turning it too quickly for Mallory to see clearly. He winced again and made a soft, pained noise, drawing the arm to his chest.

Mallory frowned, peering down at where his torn sleeve had ridden up and exposed the skin of his wrist. “Please tell me that’s not blood.”

“It’s nothing, sir. Just a bit of a scratch. Must’ve happened when I was wrestling with the door. Nothing you need to worry about.”

"Don't be ridiculous, you're bleeding", Mallory said gruffly. He moved from his makeshift seat to crouch on the floor before his sergeant, trying to get a good look at the injury in the flickering firelight. “Let me see it.”

Reluctantly, Goodfellow pushed up the sleeve of his jacket and angled his arm to better catch the light. The pale blue of his shirt was stained with red, and a dark, ragged gash marred the skin.

Mallory inhaled sharply. “Where did you put the first aid kit?” he asked, his voice tight with suppressed concern.

“I’m not sure, to be honest, sir.” Goodfellow brought his good hand up to rub his forehead, grimacing as he tried to think clearly. “It might be over in that corner where we found the firewood. I think I put it down to bring the logs over.”

Mallory nodded. “Right. Stay here and don’t move.” He stood up, giving Goodfellow’s shoulder the briefest of touches in an awkward attempt at reassurance. Taking his matches from his pocket once more, he struck a new flame and went to explore the shadows beyond the reach of their fire.

He found the small tin where Goodfellow had said it would be, which was a comfort in itself. At least it seemed his mind was still functioning as it should, beyond the pain and the cold. Taking it back with him to the fire, he knelt before his sergeant once more.

“It’ll need cleaning and dressing”, he mumbled in explanation, with a muted gesture at the wound. “I’m not much of a nurse – lousy bedside manner – but we can’t leave it in that state.”

Goodfellow shook his head. “Don’t worry, sir, if you give me the tin, I can take care of it myself. No need for both of us to take our gloves off and risk freezing our fingers.”

“No!” The determination in Mallory’s voice startled even himself, and he lowered it back down to a quiet gruffness. “As your superior officer, it’s my job to keep you safe. I may have failed at that before, but I’m not going to see you end up in hospital because of me again. So please, let me do this for you.”

A faint smile broke through the tension on Goodfellow’s face, and Mallory looked quickly away, ducking his head to rifle through the first aid kit and find the antiseptic. He splashed some onto a wad of cotton, then held Goodfellow’s arm still while he dabbed it against the wound. The sergeant hissed through clenched teeth at the sting, but he didn’t flinch.

The blood shone vivid red against the white cotton when Mallory removed it, and they both tried to ignore how much there was. The inspector kept his focus on the broken skin, cleaning it as gently as he could. Once he was satisfied he’d reduced the risk of infection, he unwrapped a wad of gauze from the tin and positioned it in place. Then, slowly and carefully, he wrapped a long strip of bandage from Goodfellow’s hand, up over his wrist, and along the lower part of the forearm. Perhaps it was more than was strictly necessary, but he refused to take any chances.

Only when the bandage was secured in place with a careful knot did he look up, to find Goodfellow’s steady gaze on him. He quickly dropped his eyes again, packing the rest of the dressings back in the tin. Pushing himself up stiffly from the rough stone floor, he put it aside and sat back down in his former seat, wordlessly putting on his gloves and wrapping his half of the blanket around himself once more.

“Thank you, sir”, Goodfellow said quietly, carefully flexing the bandaged arm.

“Gerry.”

“Of course.” Goodfellow smiled. “Thank you, Gerry.”

“Not at all.” Mallory ducked his head and looked away.

“Oh, I’ll tell you what, si- Gerry. I’ve just remembered, I’ve still got that chocolate in my pocket. How about we share that? It might help keep the cold out.”

Mallory turned back to him with a pained grimace. “That’s for your kids. I can’t take chocolate away from children. What kind of man would that make me?”

The sergeant shrugged. “We need to keep our strength up, sir. We don’t know how long we’ll be stuck out here, and I’m sure both our families would rather have their fathers make it home safely than a bit of chocolate.”

Mallory sighed, looking down at the floor. “Yours would, but I’m not so sure about mine. I’m not exactly much of a father to them.”

Goodfellow reached a cautious arm around him, ostensibly to adjust the blanket more securely around his shoulders. Still, he let it linger for a moment in an attempt at reassurance. Then he reached into his pocket and retrieved the small bar of chocolate.

“You know, my father was a police officer too”, he said, as he took off his gloves and tore open the wrapper. “He worked all hours like we do, but all us children loved him, and we never once doubted that he loved us too. He did his best to be around when he could, and we made the most of him then.”

The inspector sighed, rubbing his gloved hands over the chilled skin of his face. “I don’t doubt that, but I’m not sure I’m any match for your father. I wouldn’t even know how to be. Mine always taught me a man should be a rock. Don’t show any emotions except anger, or else people will think you’re soft. Effeminate. I’m sure you get the picture.”

“I do, sir.”

“Anyway, I learned quickly enough that it was best to do as he said. I was never going to be exactly strapping, and the lads at school were always on the lookout for any signs of weakness. So I put up a front and shouted loud enough to make them leave me alone. By the time I left school, I'd been doing it for so long, I'd forgotten how to be any other way."

He shook his head, his eyes on the fire. “Anyway, my point is, it makes it hard to… Well, to be… To say…” He broke off, swallowing down the jumble of words his throat refused to say.

“I know, sir.” Goodfellow pressed one half of the bar of chocolate into his gloved hand, closing the fingers gently around it. “I know.”

Mallory took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking down at the chocolate. “I’ll buy a replacement bar once this is over”, he mumbled. “I can’t make your kids go without.”

“I’d appreciate that, if you would.”

Mallory glanced at the sergeant, a faint smile twitching the corner of his moustache. “I might get one for my own kids, too, while I’m at it. It wouldn’t hurt to show I’m thinking of them, once in a while.”

Goodfellow smiled back. “I’m sure they’ll enjoy that. And I know they’ll be happy to see you when we make it back home.”

*****

Dark had long since fallen, and for a long while they drifted in and out of dozes, leaning against each other for support beside the slowly dwindling fire. Every so often, one would nudge the other awake, the fear of hypothermia lingering even though the risk had diminished. Otherwise, they gazed at the flames that were their only light source, each lost in their own thoughts. As the shadows around them began to creep closer, they were roused to full alertness by the sound of church bells ringing somewhere in the distance.

Blinking and sitting up, Goodfellow checked his watch. “It’s midnight, sir”, he said, in response to Mallory’s drowsily questioning look. “Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year, and may the rest of it be better than this”, the inspector mumbled, shifting uncomfortably on the seat and rolling his neck.

“Can’t argue with that, sir.”

"I suppose we might as well go and see if it's stopped snowing, at least." Mallory stood up stiffly, adjusting the blanket carefully to avoid pulling Goodfellow's half away from him.

The sergeant followed, and together they made their way to the door, shifting the prop Goodfellow had used to wedge it closed hours before. Away from the fire, and with the full force of the night air, they began shivering again, and they stood huddled together, the blanket wrapped around them.

The snow had ceased to fall, but it had left a thick covering spread over hills and fields as far as the eye could see. It glowed white under a bright moon, and when they looked up, the sky was a patchwork of clouds and star-dappled clear areas. Their little shelter felt smaller than ever, a single island of warmth and life amid the snow-draped landscape.

They turned to look towards where they had left the car, out of sight beyond the hedge. Now the air was clear of the relentless blizzard, the distance they had travelled seemed much shorter, barely an obstacle at all.

Mallory shivered harder, wrapping the blanket more tightly around himself and pressing closer to Goodfellow. “If we’d stayed there, we’d have hypothermia at the very least”, he murmured. “We might have frozen to death by now.”

Goodfellow nodded. “That’s what I was afraid of, when I suggested we leave it and try the shed.”

Mallory shot him a sideways glare. “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

The world felt eerily quiet now the chiming of the bells had ceased, and they spoke in hushed voices as though afraid to disturb the peace of the slumbering landscape.

Just when they were thinking of heading back into the shed, a movement on the road caught their attention: a beam of headlights swinging into view and then disappearing once more. They caught their breath, then sighed in disappointment. A moment later, though, the light returned, as the looming shape of a large vehicle reversed back to the gap in the hedge. It stopped, and a figure climbed out, tall and dressed all in black. Mallory narrowed his eyes suspiciously, peering through the darkness as he tried to tell for sure who it was.

The light of a distant torch clicked into life as the figure headed to where the car was stranded. Others were emerging now, smaller and sticking close together, as though holding onto each other anxiously. The faint sound of shouts reached the men, too distant and muffled by the snow to make out what was said.

A few moments later, the first figure reappeared in the space between the hedgerows and began to sweep the torch in a wide arc across the field, searching.

Mallory and Goodfellow stepped away from the shed, shouting and waving their arms as best they could to attract attention. The light swept over them, then back. With a cry of triumph, the man waved back. Standing tall, with a light in his hand, it was easy to see now who he was, with his black cassock and familiar wide-brimmed hat. He began making his way towards them along the edge of the field, closely followed by a second figure carrying a lantern

“Father Brown.” Mallory sighed wearily. “Of course it’s him. I might have known he’d be the one to show up, if anyone did.”

“I think it’s a whole rescue party, sir. That looks like Miss Windermere with the lantern there, and then-” Goodfellow broke off, emotion stealing his voice as he realised who was following. Picking their way carefully through the snow under the warm glow of Bunty’s lantern were Mrs Goodfellow and Mrs Mallory.

The Father reached them first, thanks to his head start and long legs. He began a stream of reassuring chatter as soon as they were close enough to hear, perhaps even sooner. As he spoke, he shone the torch over them, careful to keep it out of their eyes as he checked them for injuries. He gave Goodfellow a questioning look when he noticed the bandaged arm, but the sergeant just shook his head, a relieved smile on his face.

A moment or two later, the women arrived, Bunty holding the lantern high as the elder two hurried to check their husbands. After hours of isolation and uncertainty, Mallory and Goodfellow were dazed by all the attention, and the relief of knowing they would be safe now brought with it a rush of exhaustion. Between them, they managed a brief, halting account of their breaking into the shed and building a fire.

“We ought to put out the fire before we leave”, Bunty pointed out. Father Brown nodded and handed his torch to Mallory, then scooped up an armful of snow. He disappeared into the shed, Bunty following closely with the lantern, before they re-emerged a few moments later with the first aid tin. Then the six of them headed back together towards the road.

Weary footsteps crunched their way through the soft white, Bunty leading with the lantern to illuminate the way. The Father brought up the rear, like a shepherd herding the once-lost members of his flock back to safety. On the way, the rescuers recounted their own story of what had happened while the men had been gone.

“I knew something was wrong when you didn’t come home”, Mrs Goodfellow explained, from where she stuck close by her husband’s side, “So I called the Mallorys to ask if the inspector had got back safely.

“And of course he hadn’t”, said Mrs Mallory, with a glance at her husband. “So when we realised you were both missing, I called the presbytery. I thought if a case had come up and kept you out, Father Brown would be sure to know.”

Mallory scowled at that, but she had a point.

Mrs Mallory smiled mildly, unfazed by his sullen look. “Anyway, the Father hadn’t heard anything, so we agreed we should form a search party and follow the route you should’ve come back by.”

“I called in a favour to borrow the coach, so there’d be room for us all”, Bunty added over her shoulder. “The ladies insisted they didn’t want to be left behind, and I can’t say I blame them. It’s much more exciting being in on the action!”

“We didn’t want to sit around doing nothing”, Mrs Goodfellow explained. “Mrs McCarthy agreed to look after the children. She made some flasks of tea, too, so you can have those on the coach to help you warm up.”

There was, indeed, tea waiting for them on the coach, along with a stack of blankets. Their rescuers draped fresh blankets around each of them and pressed thermoses of warm tea into their hands. The others carried on chatting, but it all washed over them. Mallory's answers dropped to little more than monosyllables, and Goodfellow only gave exhausted smiles in between careful sips of his tea.

“I think perhaps the inspector and sergeant need to rest and warm up properly, and then they can tell us everything that happened”, Father Brown said gently. “Bunty? If you wouldn’t mind starting the bus and taking us back into Kembleford? I’m sure Mrs McCarthy and the children will be wondering how we’re getting on.”

After all they had been through together, the two officers found themselves reluctant to separate. They sat side-by-side on a seat of the bus, with their wives across the aisle, as their bodies and spirits gradually warmed after their ordeal.

Bunty drove slowly for once as she guided the bus through the darkness. The Father took the seat closest to her, his hat on his lap and his umbrella propped beside him. The soft murmur of their familiar voices, along with the sound of the engine, provided a quiet, reassuring background hum, bringing a sense of peace and security at last.

Mallory sighed heavily, gazing at the darkness beyond the window, back towards where the shed had disappeared from view, lost to the night. “I suppose we’ll have to get in touch with the farmer tomorrow about that door”, he said.

Goodfellow murmured in agreement, instinctively cradling his wounded arm. Both of them recalled the wreckage they had left behind: the door hanging in broken pieces from one hinge and the logs now reduced to the charred remnants of their fire.

Mallory glanced sideways at his friend and cleared his throat. "I expect he’ll want us to replace it, but I'll sort all that out; no need for you to worry about it. It’ll probably sound better coming from an inspector, anyway.”

Goodfellow nodded. “You’re right there, sir. Still, it’s shown him a flaw in his security: no point in having that fancy padlock if the door itself goes down that easily.”

“Yes, well, let’s just be grateful it did. I don’t like to think what might have happened to us otherwise.” Mallory sighed and leaned back against the padded seat, gazing up at nothing in particular. “You were right earlier, you know”, he murmured.

“About what?” Goodfellow turned to look at him.

“If we had to get stuck out there at all, at least we were stuck together.” Mallory wrapped his blanket more tightly around himself, his eyes on the window. “In any case, I just wanted to say that… Well, if you ever need me to… to fight a clown for you, or anything at all, just say the word.”

Goodfellow grinned. “Much appreciated, sir. I’ll let you know if any clowns start giving me grief.”

Mallory turned at last to meet his friend’s eyes. "You do that”, he said, and for once, he didn’t hide the affection in his smile.