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This place wasn’t so bad, I had to admit, with the sun beating down on my back, a mug of tea in one hand and a ciggy in the other. I was on my break, not that we officially had such things, but lugging muck was heavy and tiring work, and nobody complained when me and Stan stopped for elevenses. Of course, old Major Cowley up in the house kept an eye on us, like he did all the staff, but he didn’t often stick his nose in. Do an honest day’s work, and everyone was happy.

Thanks to Marty Martell I’d been shovelling horse shit at Highland House for nearly a month. He’d assured me no-one knew about this place, or the old major-turned-butler who owed him a favour. And thanks to Marty I’d had a month of blessed respite after being on the run and dodging and ducking for so long.

Who’d ‘av thought getting out of organised crime would be so difficult. All I wanted was to turn my hand to something honest and above board. The thrill of the game, and my old life, had gone. I suppose I wasn’t getting any younger, and there came a time when sitting in a back alley with the souped-up engine of a stolen car idling, keeping an eye out for the rozzers and waiting for your mates to leg it back to you from whatever bank or jewellery store they had just robbed, lost some of its allure.

I’d even been picked up by the police one time. Oh, not while I was in the car. Oh no, they’d come to me own front door in the early hours on a tip off from some wanker who wanted my job. I’d spent a very few pleasant hours baiting a young Detective Sergeant. What was his name? Oh, yeah, Murphy. As in Murphy’s Law. Which had seemed very apt at the time. Having said that, I must have been the luckiest bugger alive. They had me bang to rights over being Krivas’ driver but the night they accused me of being on the job was the one night I’d been flat on my back in bed coughing up a lung with the flu under the watchful eye of my neighbour, Nurse Susan. They’d had to let me go.

Unfortunately it turned out that, just like the police, those mates who I had spent all those hours hanging around for weren’t so keen to let me go either. I didn’t expect them to be as enthusiastic about my retirement as I was, but you could have knocked me over with a feather when someone took a pot-shot at me when I was on one of my morning jogs. There I was, slipping and sliding on the muddy towpath, dodging the Sunday morning dog-walkers, and bemoaning the drizzle that just wouldn’t let up, when my feet went out from under me. I guess that mud was a blessing in disguise. Taking an unexpected dunk in the canal was my saviour. Although the poor dead duck I found floating in the water when I scrambled up the bank, grabbing handfuls of reads to give me leverage, wasn’t so lucky.

Of course, at the time I didn’t think that much of it. I rationalised that ducks got shot all the time, even if a relatively busy towpath was not exactly the best place to go hunting. People did stupid things all the time, didn’t they? Now I think about it, I can’t believe how naive I was. What an absolute plonker to think that the old life would let me go so easily.

It took the shattered windscreen, with a very round bullet hole in the leather of the passenger seat headrest, for the alarm bells to start ringing. That was over a week after the canal incident. It begs the question, how many other attempts had there been before I got a clue? I was extremely grateful that whatever hitman they’d hired to do the deed seemed to be completely incompetent. If they’d got the Hangman to bump me off, I wouldn’t be around today. I guess the Hangman, Henry to his friends, was busy on another job.

I went on the run within the hour, effectively abandoning my flat and belongings. I just had time to throw a few things into a bag, and I disappeared into the night. In this day and age, it’s not so easy to stay under the radar. I didn’t have much money on me, but it was too much of a risk to go into a bank to make a withdrawal. I was under no illusion: somehow word would get back to London and they would track me down. So I was basically on my own.

A couple of weeks went by, and I got a crick in my neck by constantly looking over my shoulder. I ended up working for board and lodgings at the Dog and Duck north of Birmingham. Nothing front of house, of course: I’m not that stupid. Just helping out in the kitchen, unloading and loading barrels, that kind of thing. I was starting to relax, felt like I could fit in, when I caught sight of Krivas through the kitchen door as it swung shut after the landlady Annie sashayed through it with a tray of plated pie and chips. And that reminded me, when all this was over and assuming I survived, I really had to drop Annie a line to apologise for leaving her with no clean pint glasses.

I can tell you my heart started pounding. I just stood there elbow deep in hot soapy water. What the hell was I going to do? I excused myself and slipped up to my room. Within five minutes I was heading out the back door of the pub, woolly hat pulled low, scarf pulled up, and the rucksack holding my meagre belongings slung over my shoulder. Thank God spring hadn’t really got going by this point. I didn’t look too out of place muffled up as I was.

I didn’t see any sign of anyone waiting for me, or following me, and I had a stroke of luck when I managed to grab onto a bus as it was pulling away from its stop, swinging myself up just as it picked up speed. I took a deep breath for the first time when no-one raced after the bus to try to catch it. It crossed my mind that perhaps I was being paranoid. Was it actually Krivas that I saw? Why would he come after me himself? He had enough lackeys that he could have sent after me. He didn’t usually dirty his own hands. Perhaps it was pure coincidence. Those did happen occasionally, didn’t they?

After that, I took no chances. I let my beard grow in, and grabbed a bottle of blond hair dye from a nearby chemist. The results didn’t look bad, but it took quite a while to get used to it, I can tell you. Every time I looked in the mirror I got quite a shock.

I didn’t stay anywhere long enough for anyone to catch up with me. Doing odd jobs here and there earned me a mug of tea at worst, a plateful of hot food at best, and kept me going. One old lady even pressed a crisp tenner into my hand as I said goodbye after fixing her collapsing gate. She wouldn’t take it back, and I had great reservations about spending what was probably her pension. But spend it I did, wisely, and it kept me fed for over a week and enabled me to disappear towards Manchester.

But of course, I couldn’t run for ever. A heavy cold took too long to get over, and for a rough few days I worried that it might turn to bronchitis. I really would have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle if it had got worse. Thank God it didn’t. After that scare, I decided I needed help and took a huge chance and called Marty.

I trusted Marty Martell implicitly. We went back a long way together, even as long ago as Africa. I didn’t think of those days too much. They hadn’t been too bad under the circumstances and I suppose I had become a man over there. Being a gun for hire at that age, and boy was I young at the time, was exciting. I was doing what I wanted for the first time in my life, the sun was hot, the women were willing, and I thrived. But it led to the life I was now trying to escape, and I couldn’t bear to think about all the years I had spent on the wrong side of the law.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know I only have myself to blame. I was taken in by the glamour and the money, and at the time I loved the lifestyle. But like I said, there comes a point when it doesn’t appeal any more. And I’d hit that point some time ago.

Leaning on the fence next to me, Stan gave me a nudge with his elbow. “Oi, Andy.”

That’s me, Andy Williams, just like that American singer. Well it is, and it isn’t. My real name is a bit of a mouthful, thanks to me Mam being something of a Royalist: William Andrew Philip Bodie. I’ve always gone by Bodie right from when I was a snotty-nosed eleven year old starting secondary school. Don’t really know why, possibly because of the number of Williams in that year, but Bodie it was back then and Bodie it has been ever since. But Bodie on the run and hiding could no longer be called Bodie for obvious reasons. So I picked something that was somewhat familiar to me, but vague enough that it would, hopefully, be overlooked by someone doing a search for William Bodie.

Trouble was, if I wasn’t really paying attention, it was also too vague for me. There had been several times when I didn’t respond when spoken to, and it was put down to “being off with the fairies” which, I hasten to add, is one of Stan’s expressions, not mine.

If only he knew the truth about me, he probably wouldn’t stand quite so close. Although, to be honest, he is definitely not my type. I prefer my men to be slim and dark and have a bit of fire in them. Someone who is able to give as well as take. Poor old Stan is too much of a plodder for me.

I suppose I ought to explain here that I do like women, too. In fact, I have often wondered if there are any little Bodies running around the world which I suppose is another sign of getting older. Wanting to procreate, that is. But my preference has always been for the hard, muscled bodies of men and a more vigorous type of sex.

“You’re away with the fairies again, young Andy.”

When I finally realised Stan was talking to me, I saw that he was smirking at me with his broken-toothed grin.

“Nah, just soaking up the sun, mate.” I drew a deep breath of smoke into my lungs and tried not to choke when it went the wrong way. Stan’s grin grew wider.

“You’d better learn how to do that right, sonny.” He stuck his own fag into his mouth. And the sad truth of the matter was that he was right. If Stan could tell I was a novice, I probably wasn’t fooling anyone. It wasn’t one of my better ideas to try to change my character and habits to make myself less identifiable. I carefully tossed the half-smoked cigarette into the bucket of water left by old-hand Stan at the side of the fence we were leaning on. First rule of the stable-block: no smoking. I guess the twenty feet gap between the building and the fence took us firmly out of the stable-block.

“Yeah, well, it’s a bad habit anyway.” I surreptitiously wiped a tear away from the corner of my eye.

“That it is.” Stan took his own drag, and nodded towards the big house. “Did you see that nice motor bombing up the drive?”

“Huh?”

“Red Jaguar E-Type. And judging from the speed it was going, I’d say the prodigal has returned.”

“Prodigal?” I wasn’t really interested, but Stan was a harmless sort, and I might learn something interesting.

“Yeah, young Master Raymond. Old man’s grandson.” He took another drag. “I suppose I shouldn’t call him that anymore. He must be in his thirties by now.” He shook his head and dropped his own cigarette butt into the water, muttering under his breath. “Not that he acts his age.”

“Oh?”

Stan shook his head again. “I shouldn’t gossip.” He turned to go back towards the stable, then paused. “If I were you, I’d keep out of his way as much as possible. Got a nasty temper on him, has that one. Nothing is ever right, and he’ll pick fault no matter what.”

I watched him disappear into the dark building, but I was in no immediate hurry to follow him. I was still luxuriating in the warmth of the sun and so lingered, leaning back against the fence. The muck could wait for a few minutes longer.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The end of the working day couldn’t come quickly enough. By the time I’d finished cleaning the tack, my chore for the afternoon, I was hot and sweaty, and looking forward to a shower at the very least. As usual the water ran hot for a few minutes in the shared staff bathroom, but it soon turned cold. For once, I didn’t mind. I felt refreshed for the first time all day.

By the time I made it to the huge kitchen, everyone else was sitting around the table. Life in a big house like this one was completely alien to me. It was like something out of that television programme, Upstairs Downstairs. Even Major Cowley looked like he fitted right in. I had to resist the urge to call him Hudson. Despite his protests to the contrary I think he secretly liked me calling him Major. His reprimand “In this house, lad, it’s Cowley, or Mr Cowley if you must; I am no longer Major Cowley” lasted for three weeks. This last week he had given up, and simply paused and sighed when I called him Major. I didn’t think it was wise to try my luck with “Hudson”.

I sat down at my designated place at the table, next to the snooty Betty, and waited for the plate of roast beef and Yorkshire puds to be passed down to me. That was the great thing about being here: the food. Once the folks upstairs had eaten their fill, the staff were given the left-overs. Oh, it wasn’t quite that bad. Cook always made sure she cooked just a wee bit too much, and there was always plenty of leftovers available. I had never eaten so well. My worn-out trousers bore evidence to that fact: they were getting worryingly tight.

Generally speaking, the staff at Highland House weren’t a bad bunch. There was Major Cowley, the butler who oversaw all the staff. Marty hadn’t given me much information about him, just said he’d been invalided out of the army at some point. He certainly walked with a limp and a cane. Then there was Cook, and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know her first name. I’d always pictured cooks in stately homes to have a plump figure and rosy cheeks, with a strand of hair that kept escaping the cap on her head and needed to be constantly brushed out the way. Nothing was further from the truth. Cook was tall and slim, and I couldn’t even gauge her age. She seemed rather young to me, but I wasn’t complaining because she certainly knew how to turn out an excellent meal.

Ruth seemed to be a fun girl. I guess she was the housekeeper and a maid rolled into one. She was helped out a couple of times a week by a teenager from the nearby village, a shy girl who seemed to be in awe of everything. I knew how she felt: I was in awe of everything when I first came here.

Then there was the aforementioned Snooty Betty, old Mr Doyle’s secretary and companion. She wasn’t very friendly and I’d never seen her smile, maybe just a slight twitch when Cook had bestowed a freshly baked biscuit on her.

Outdoor staff comprised me, Stan in charge of the stables and Anson the gardener. Anson was another one it was hard to get to know, but all in all there were far worse places that I could have found myself.

I tucked into the food, not caring that a roast dinner on a hot day was a bit of a daft idea. Apparently what old man Doyle wanted, old man Doyle got, and today old man Doyle had wanted roast in honour of his grandson’s return from London.

I sat quietly, like I usually did, and just listened. I had learnt over the years that you could pick up no end of useful information like that. Like that time with Krivas when I heard that some la-di-dah fancy duchess was depositing her most valuable jewels in a private company’s safety deposit box. Silly woman learnt the hard way that banks provide the most secure safety deposit boxes.

Anyway, the conversation this night was completely centred on Master Raymond Doyle, and his recent exploits and subsequent hasty return to Highland House.

“I heard he got some teenage girl up the duff.” Stan muttered. I wondered where he’d heard this, as most of the day I’d been in the same area as him and I hadn’t heard any such thing. He must have been busy when he got back to his room, that’s all I could say.

“Nah, I think he got caught with his hand up some Princess’s dress at a charity ball.” This from Anson from the opposite side of the table.

There was a gentle cough from the head of the table.

“Gentlemen, there are ladies present. And we don’t discuss our employers’ private lives.”

I glanced up the Major. His tone was stern but he seemed slightly puzzled rather than angry.

I chanced my luck. “What does young Doyle do?”

There was a decidedly unladylike snort from Ruth. “What doesn’t he do?”

“Ruth!” The Major’s stern reprimand brought a murmured sorry from Ruth. “Master Raymond is an artist,” he continued.

I nodded as I slowly chewed a piece of beef.

“Is he any good?”

“There has been a fair amount of interest in his work. I believe he exhibits through a renowned gallery down in London.”

I pronged another potato with my fork and shoved it into my mouth. Raymond Doyle sounded like an interesting character, but one that I was definitely going to keep away from. Whatever trouble he had found in London that had him scarpering for home could mean trouble for me, and although the chances were very slim that it could bring Krivas down on me, I wasn’t going to risk it.

I finished my meal in silence. That is to say I didn’t converse with anyone, but I sat quietly and listened to everyone else trying to analyse Raymond’s actions. As far as I could tell the majority of it was all speculation, but in any case it helped to build a picture of a spoilt playboy type who had been doted on by his grandfather when his parents were killed in a car crash when he was nine.

Raymond had wanted for nothing, it would seem. Although he had spent his formative years at the most expensive boarding schools, during the holidays he was doted on by his Grandfather. He had been taken on luxury trips overseas and bought expensive presents, even owning an array of cars before he was old enough to drive.

I couldn’t imagine that kind of life, never wanting for anything. What was wrong with working for a living? Alright, alright, don’t be too judgemental. I know I wasn’t the world’s best example of a hard-working honest man, but I never relied on hand-outs or being waited on hand and foot by servants.

And really, what had that kind of upbringing given Raymond? Away from his Grandfather’s control he had turned into a demanding, nasty piece of work, with a questionable set of friends. When you are surrounded by gold-diggers, who can you really trust?

At some point I noticed that Betty didn’t join in the conversation either, even though she seemed to be listened intently. Mind you, she didn’t seem to be much of a conversationalist at the best of times. I considered myself a fairly good judge of character. In my line of work, over the years I’d had to be, but I couldn’t make her out. She had been with the Doyle’s for many years and from what I could see she seemed efficient enough. She was either a bloody saint to put up with the demands of old man Doyle, or working to her own hidden agenda. And I had to say, nine years was a long, long time to be working a long-con on the Doyle family, if that’s what she was doing.

I was tempted to believe she was just who she appeared to be – a highly efficient, quiet, intense young lady working for a somewhat eccentric elderly gentleman.

I leant slightly towards her. “What’s Raymond really like, then?”

She paused with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth and looked at me with no sign of humour or friendliness.

Under the scrutiny I felt the need to justify myself. “I mean, you’ve worked for the family for a long time. If anyone here knows him, it’s you.”

Still nothing.

“Look, I’m not fishing for gossip. It’s just I’m hearing a lot of things about Raymond, and I’d like to know if any of it’s true.”

She lowered her cup back to the saucer. “I don’t believe in speculating about my employers.”

I nodded and waited for more. My patience had just about worn thin when she continued.

“All I will say is there is more to Raymond than most people choose to see.”

Then she pushed her chair back, said good-night to everyone, and left the kitchen. Her departure hardly caused a stir amongst her fellow employees. I finished my own coffee staring at the space she had been occupying.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The lines penned by Robert Burns 200 years ago summed up my life to a T over the next few days. The best-laid schemes of mice and men could and frequently did often go awry.

My plan to keep away from young Master Doyle didn’t go awry so much as not actually start. The very next morning when I arrived down at the stables, fit to burst from the full English breakfast expertly prepared by Cook, I could hear raised voices. Or more specifically, one raised voice and Stan’s normal low rumble. I hovered in the doorway of one empty loose box, ready to dodge inside if I thought there was any chance of me getting dragged into the altercation.

“You know which horse I ride. Why isn’t he shod ready for me?”

I couldn’t quite make out Stan’s response, but it did nothing to appease Raymond Doyle’s bad attitude. Obviously, he was not a morning person.

“He should be ready to go at any time.”

“Mr Cowley said …”

“Mr Cowley is not in charge of this estate. My grandfather is, and by extension so am I. Now go and fetch my horse for me.”

I could hear Stan’s shuffled footsteps getting closer, the next minute he appeared out of the tack room door, rubbing his hand through his already sparse hair. He caught sight of me and shook his head, casting a quick glance over his shoulder into the gloom.

“Keep out of it, Andy. He could make things unpleasant.” He muttered as he passed me. There was no chance of Mr Ungracious hearing: I could still hear him ranting in the tack room about how the place was going to rack and ruin without him around to supervise things.

I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t resist the urge. I must have taken after me old man. Mam always said he liked to get out his big wooden spoon and stir up trouble. And that’s exactly what I felt like doing now, stirring up trouble, that is. I straightened my back, took a deep breath and strolled into the tack room even as Stan trundled in the direction of the paddock to collect Raymond Doyle’s unsuspecting steed.

“For God’s sake, what is it now, man?” Doyle must have heard my footsteps and whirled around to launch another attack against Stan. “I told you to fetch … Who the hell are you?”

My first close up of young Master Raymond threw me. I had wanted to let him think I was a bumbling country bumpkin who he could boss around, waiting for the right time to ensure he got his come-uppance. But when I was face to face with him, it was like my brain stopped working. He was striking, there was no other way to describe his exotic looks. His dark hair lay thickly in curls around his head, and his green eyes, his beautiful green eyes, were almost translucent. I wouldn’t have described him as handsome: his looks were more captivating than beautiful. But the complete visual package was fascinating to me.

Then he ruined it by opening his mouth. “I asked who are you? Are you stupid?”

And any attraction I felt to him ended right there. This man needed to learn how to treat people right. And with a certain amount of pleasure, I decided I was just the person to teach him.

“My name is Andy.”

“And?”

“You asked me my name. It’s Andy.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here.”

“Another one of Cowley’s lackeys, I take it.”

It was such a shame he was a complete asshole. Actually, thinking about it, it wasn’t such a shame. With looks as captivating as his, I could very easily have fallen for him, and that could have led to a whole bundle of trouble.

“I’m one of your grandfather’s employees.”

His eyes narrowed. “And just what are you employed to do?”

“I work in the stables.”

“Not another one.”

“Another what, Mr Doyle.” I couldn’t bring myself to call him Sir, although I had extended that courtesy to his grandfather when I had met him.

“Another peasant.”

I had to bite back the smile that was threatening to form.

“Peasant, Mr Doyle?”

I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears.

“You’re all the same, aren’t you? Thick as two short planks.”

“That’s a bit offensive.”

My mock indignation didn’t even make a dent in his attitude.

“Are you all taught to be so dense?”

My smile finally broke free. “No, Mr Doyle, it just comes naturally.”

He opened his mouth to respond, then paused with his mouth hanging open. Realising he was gaping, he snapped it shut.

Baiting Doyle the younger even more would be so much fun, but I held myself back with a quick reminder that I was trying to keep my head down. I couldn’t afford to be thrown out on my arse. And whilst Major Cowley might carry a lot of clout, it was the Doyle’s who had the ultimate say in who worked at Highland House. With this renewed resolve, I decided to let him think he had won this round.

His eyes narrowed as he regarded me with suspicion. I stood under his scrutiny for a few, long minutes. “I don’t trust you. You’re up to no good.” He finally pronounced.

I wonder if he realised how close his character assessment was.

“I’m just doing m’ job, Mr Doyle.”

“Or not, as the case may be.” And with that declaration, he brushed passed me out of the tack room, his curls bouncing as he stormed away.

I was still leaning against the doorframe watching the space where Doyle had been when Stan returned leading a grey gelding.

“Where’s Master Raymond gone then?” He asked, patting the horse’s neck.

“Changed his mind, I reckon.”

“Bloody typical. Never knows what ‘e wants.”

I stood up straight and stretched, then ambled away to find a barrow and pitchfork to start on the day’s chores. As I disappeared around the corner I could hear Stan mutter something about telephoning the farrier.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next day was another hot, cloudless day, and by mid-afternoon I had officially had enough of horse muck and flies. There seemed to be a never ending supply of both today. In the morning when Stan had given me my jobs for the day, I had found that I not only had to shovel fresh muck, I had to cart a ton of the rotted stuff to Anson in the gardens. At least the flies didn’t hover so much around the old stuff. And it didn’t reek as much, I suppose.

Even so, by the time I upended the sixth barrow load of rotted manure on the rose bed, I was feeling pretty miserable and dreaming of a cold shower.

“Here you go, mate.” Anson the gardener shoved a can of Coke at me and I gratefully pulled the ring on the can to open it. It wasn’t ice cold, but certainly went down a real treat.

“Thanks, I needed that.”

I leant against the statue of a naked lady that took pride of place amongst the roses. Judging by her prominent nipples, she was feeling anything but hot. I hoped I’d cool off by association.

“How many we got to go then?” Sixth barrow loads didn’t seem to go very far when they had been dug into the beds. Anson had only just reached the statue which stood halfway along the border.

“Same again, I’d say. Give or take.” He took a swig from his own can.

I groaned. “Haven’t you heard of tractors around here?”

Anson chuckled. “Not in this garden, mate. Mr Cowley would ‘av my guts for garters if the precious lawns got damaged.”

I humphed and took another swig.

“Don’t look now, but ‘is lordship is on the prowl.” Anson muttered under his breath.

Of course, when someone says don’t look now, what are you going to do? Look, of course. And look I did, right into the stormy face of young Mr Doyle as he strode along the grass path which unfortunately took him straight passed us.

Anson hastily bent down to put his can on the stone base of the statue before picking up his fork and starting to dig in the last load of manure that I’d dumped. As casually as I could, I raised the can to my lips and had another long drink, watching the approaching tempest.

He had to pass right by us, but he didn’t have to stop. Once again, lady luck was not shining on me.

“Lounging around again, I see.” Doyle’s sneer was not very attractive.

I took another sip, then wiped my grime covered hand across my mouth. I deliberately didn’t think about the number of germs I’d just exposed myself to.

“I’m entitled to a break …” Another sip. “Mr Doyle.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Anson wincing at my insolence. Inside I was wincing as well, but I couldn’t back down now or Doyle would forever walk over the staff at Highland House.

Doyle looked down his nose at Anson. “At least someone knows his place around here.”

“Oh, I know my place, alright.” I bestowed my brightest smile on him. “Usually it’s on my back with my …”

“Andy.” Anson hissed at me.

Doyle’s face flushed, he glared at me, then marched off.

“You’ll get the sack, you know. He can wrap the old man ‘round his little finger, and if he says he wants you gone, you’ll go.”

I finished off the Coke with one final deep swallow and straightened from my pose against the naked and cold young lady. “I guess I’m not used to this doffing my cap to the gentry.”

Grinning at Anson I grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow and started to push it along the path, whistling “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, it’s off to work I go” from Snow White.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I was summoned to Major Cowley’s office that night, and braced myself for the backlash I expected. My mind was running over my options for moving on, with a train ride to Scotland proving the favourite, when the Major asked if I would be able to chauffeur Mr Doyle to his sister’s estate up in Yorkshire. Oh, the irony of it all, having left one driving job for another.

“Me, Major?”

“Yes, you can drive, can’t you, lad?”

“Yes, but …”

“You’ve got a driving licence?”

“Yes, but …”

The Major leant back in his chair and took off his glasses, twirling them in his hand for a few seconds before placing them on his desk. “What’s the problem, lad?”

“I just thought … That is, I assumed …” I breathed deeply. “I thought the young Mr Doyle had complained about me.”

“Does he have grounds to complain about you?”

I stared through the Wisteria shrouded window, feeling uncomfortable. “I may have acted … um … unservant-like.”

“Unservant-like?” It sounded remarkably as if the Major was trying hard not to laugh.

“I don’t like the way he talks to the staff. As if they’re shit on the floor. Pardon my language.”

He nodded an acceptance of my apology. “Aye, young Master Raymond does have an unfortunate way about him.” I waited for the reprimand I was sure was coming. “It won’t hurt him to have someone standing up to him for once.”

Huh? I was not expecting that.

“We all bow and scrape to his every need. It’s about time he joined the real world.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing the old major correctly.

“It doesn’t seem to have done any harm, at any rate.” Cowley continued.

“Pardon?”

“Standing up to him hasn’t done any harm.” He picked up his glasses and perched them back on his nose. “He seems to like you. Asked for you specifically to drive him and his Grandfather to Yorkshire.”

And there you have it. He wasn’t going to complain about me. He was going to get his revenge.

I opened my mouth to refuse, but Cowley continued without pause.

“He’s had something of a rough time, despite all this luxury. Doesn’t have too many friends, from what I can tell. They either want his money or his status. No-one seems to like him for who he is.”

“I’m not surprised.” I muttered under my breath.

Cowley looked at me sharply. “He’s built up a lot of walls over the years. You might be just the person to help him become human again.”

He shook his head sadly. “I shouldn’t be saying any of this. It’s disrespectful to talk about one’s employers behind their backs. But I think you could do some good while you’re here.”

I shifted on my feet uncomfortably, still ready to say no.

“Look lad, I don’t know what trouble you’re in.” I was about to speak but he held up his hand. “Marty didn’t say anything, just that you needed a place to lay low for a while. I didn’t ask questions then and I won’t now. All I know is that he said you were a good bloke, and you’ve been a hard worker since you arrived. As far as I’m concerned you have a job here as long as you want. All I ask is that you continue to treat Raymond the way you have been. It seems to be getting through to him.”

“Blackmail, major?”

I didn’t mistake the twinkle in his eye. “Not at all, laddie. Just one old soldier doing a favour for another.”

And what could I say to that? I was still sure that Master Raymond was planning something heinous to put me in my place, but as long as I was prepared it should be alright. Or so I told myself.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I was stood in front of my wardrobe in my Y-fronts and nothing else, trying to decide which pair of jeans was the tidiest when there was a knock at the door. The closest thing I could grab was a blanket off the bed and I wrapped it around myself just as the door opened.

“Shouldn’t you wait until I let you in?” I growled at Ruth, who was beaming at me.

“I was hoping to catch a glimpse of all those lovely muscles.” She pouted. “But you’ve spoilt my fun.”

I wasn’t immune to flattery, and let the blanket drop slightly to show off my pecs. The blanket wasn’t going any lower though, no way.

“What can I do for you?”

“Oh, I brought you these.” She thrust a covered clothes hanger at me. “Your suit.”

“Suit?”

“And a hat. Mr Doyle believes his staff should look the part. Jeans and a t-shirt won’t do now you’ve been promoted.”

“Promoted?” I squeaked.

“I thought Mr Cowley told you.”

“He told me I was driving the old man to his sister’s. He didn’t say anything about a promotion. Or my clothes.”

“Mr Doyle is a bit old fashioned. It’s not a problem, is it?”

Yes, it was a problem. Me in a monkey suit, for God’s sake. At least the one saving grace was that no-one would recognise me, even if I wasn’t going to the back of beyond.

Clutching the blanket in one hand, I took the suit off Ruth and held it at arms’ length. And waited while Ruth hovered by the door.

“Was there anything else?”

“Um …” I could see that she was desperately trying to find a reason to linger.

“No? Okay then, thank’s for dropping this off.”

As I was talking I managed to back her out of the door, and shut it gratefully once she was through it. This time I locked it. I took a deep breath. I could do this. I could wear a stupid suit, and a chauffeur’s cap, and drive the bloody Rolls to bloody Yorkshire and not kill young Master Raymond. It was only four days, for God’s sake. If I could drive the getaway car from bank robberies while being chased by the police, I could drive an old man and his annoying grandson to a family reunion.

I took a deep breath and took the suit out of its cover. It may have been styled two decades ago, but it fit me well enough and since when had I been a fashion aficionado? I placed the hat on my head at a jaunty angle, and called myself suitably dressed.

Major Cowley had told me Mr Doyle wanted to leave at eleven o’clock, so I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and even managed to help Cook do the washing up afterwards before sauntering out to the garage and looking over the car I was to drive.

I must say it was a bit of a let-down. Twenty years ago the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud would have been a real beauty, but neglect and lack of use had almost turned it into a banger. There were a few dents on the bodywork, but it didn’t look as if there was any rust. From what I could see under the dust, at any rate. The tyres were well used but still had enough tread on them to make them legal, and when I turned the key, the engine only turned over once or twice before catching.

First things first, I decided the old lady needed a wash and polish. I hung my jacket on a hook on the back of the pedestrian door into the garage, popped my cap on top and rolled my white shirt sleeves up. A quick scout around the garage found me a bucket and some car wash, and I got down to business. Half an hour and a bit of elbow grease wrought quite a transformation, and when I had finished the old car certainly looked the part even if she still didn’t run quite right. Her silver metalwork gleamed in the sunlight and the windows shone. Even the dents were less noticeable.

A quick check of the oil and water, and then we were ready to go. And just in time. I was rolling down my sleeves when a figure appeared around the corner.

“You’re supposed to be at the front of the house.” Raymond Doyle looked, and sounded, as angry as normal. “My Grandfather doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

I sighed. “I was just getting the car ready, Mr Doyle. It’s a while since anyone looked her over.”

“Are you finished?” He snapped.

“Yes.”

I buttoned the left cuff of the shirt, and then rolled down the right sleeve and buttoned that cuff. I could feel his eyes on me and glanced up. He was staring at my chest and for a moment I feared I’d managed to get oil on me even though I’d been really careful. When I looked, though, there was just a damp patch from where I’d leaned against the wet driver’s door to reach the centre of the roof. I shrugged and adjusted the cuffs to sit comfortably. Now I was aware of it, the damp patch felt uncomfortable and cold, and I rolled my shoulders to get the wet material away from my skin.

I wasn’t standing close enough to Doyle to have heard his sudden intake of breath, but I sensed it. The air around us suddenly seemed so still and I wondered what the hell was going on. A look to Doyle showed me that he was still staring at my chest. He probably didn’t realise that he was biting his bottom lip until he saw me looking at him. When he did, red flushed across his cheeks. In his embarrassment he responded with his usual anger.

“Get a move on. We’re leaving in ten minutes.” With that, he whirled and disappeared back around the corner of the building.

Well, well, well. Who’d have thought it? Raymond Doyle liked men. I won’t deny how chuffed I was that I had managed to get him all hot and bothered. Even if I had no intention of pursuing the young master Doyle, it felt good to know that I still had it in me.

Whistling softly, I put away the bucket and cloths I had been using, and grabbed a few tools which I threw in the boot just in case the old engine decided enough was enough. I ran back to my room to pick up my rucksack which I’d packed with a change of clothes and some toiletries, and was back at the car and driving to the front of the house within nine minutes. When the Major opened the front door for the Doyles’, senior and junior, I was stood smugly by the rear door of the car ready to hold it open for them. I won’t pretend I didn’t get a bit of a thrill when I briefly caught Raymond‘s eye as he was climbing into the car and he blushed again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I’ll be honest with you, Miss Doyle’s Yorkshire estate was not what I was expecting. Having become used to the opulence of Highland House and its grounds, the detached Victorian house which stood in about one acre of gardens was a bit of a let-down. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was well maintained, and the gardens well-tendered, but it was very small in comparison to her brother’s property. I wondered if she’d chosen to leave Derbyshire or if she had been pushed out. Not that it was any of my business.

The house stood on the outskirts of a small village with an uninterrupted view of the rolling moors. Beyond the garden was a field with a small brook running through it, and then it was just open moorland marred by just the occasional stone wall. It was a truly beautiful spot.

Even though I was staff, I was allowed the luxury of a bedroom in the main part of the house. The look of disdain Raymond gave me as his great-aunt herself showed me to the room only amused me. I suspected he thought I should be sleeping in the car. Or maybe he just didn’t want me sleeping in the room right next to his.

The male Doyles planned to stay in Yorkshire for five days which left me with time on my hands. I was familiar with cars and engines, and as I had nothing else to do I decided to give the old girl … the car that is, not Miss Doyle … a bit of a service.

The morning after we arrived, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, I set to work. There was so much that needed doing to the engine, it was hard to know where to start. As I worked I made a note on a scrappy bit of paper I’d found lying around of replacement parts the car needed. At one point I wondered if it might be easier to simply replace the whole engine. But that would cost money, and I had a feeling that repairing the car was not a priority for the Doyles.

I was doing my best to clean a spark plug when I heard the front door of house opening, and then the gravel on the driveway crunching under foot as someone walked towards me. I expected to see Thelma, the not quite as elderly as Miss Doyle housekeeper who’d earlier bought me a steaming mug of coffee. I’ll admit I was surprised when Raymond leant against the wing of the car and thrust another mug at me.

“Here.” He simply said ungraciously.

I took the mug off him, our fingers brushing at the moment of handover, and it was as if lightning shot between us. I put the feeling down to the heat from the coffee. He jerked his hand back and shoved it in the pocket of his jeans.

“Thanks. I’m ready for this.” He might be an obnoxious upper-class arsehole, but that didn’t mean I was going to drop to his level of rudeness.

I took a swig of the hot drink, expecting that duty done he would move away. But he continued to lean against the car.

“What are you doing?”

I would have thought it was obvious, but I answered anyway. “Just giving the car a more thorough going-over. I imagine it’s a good few years since anyone serviced it.”

“Why?”

Was he thick, or something? I studied him for long moments before answering. He shifted uncomfortably under my gaze.

“There’ll be less chance of us breaking down on the way home if I do.”

He frowned. “I meant you’re not paid to do that.”

“No.” I agreed and bent to put the mug on the floor by my feet. Picking up the rag and the next spark plug, I started wiping away the grime. I could feel his eyes boring into me but I refused to be intimidated by him.

“Why would you do something for nothing?” He finally asked, sounding genuinely puzzled.

“I’m still on the clock.” I made a point of looking at my watch. The time was three thirty in the afternoon, so I was most definitely still within my working hours.

“But you’re not paid to fix the car.” He persisted.

I glanced around me. “I don’t see any stables around here that need mucking out.”

“But …” He started but I went on.

“And if I’m not paid to fix the car, I guess I’m not paid to drive it, either. But that didn’t stop you asking for me, did it?”

He blushed. “What I meant was you could demand more money for driving and fixing the car. It’s much more skilled than working in the stables.”

My hands stilled. “Why would I demand more money? Your grandfather is paying me for my time, however it’s spent.”

He straightened. “Other people would.”

I was beginning to see what Major Cowley had meant. Raymond had definitely been burnt in the past. I found myself wondering if it was someone amongst the current staff at Highland House who had exacted every penny they could from their employer. None of them seemed the type, though, and I couldn’t help but hope Raymond’s jaundiced view of the world came from his life away from his grandfather. Despite only working there for a relatively short time I had come to like the others and didn’t want to believe that any one of them would cheat old man Doyle. Even Snooty Betty didn’t seem a likely candidate.

It seemed a bit ironic, given my background and all, that I found myself being so honest.

I coughed. “Yeah, well, I’m not other people. I don’t like sitting around doing nothing and the car needs attention.”

Raymond looked down and shuffled his feet in the gravel. “Umm … thanks. Grandfather will appreciate it. Things haven’t been … quite so easy recently. Jobs have to be prioritised, you know.” As if he’d said too much, talking to staff about finances, he suddenly whirled on his heel and went back inside. I stared after him for a good few minutes, feeling somewhat perplexed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was the afternoon of the fourth day in Yorkshire, and we’d be heading back home in the morning. From what I could tell, the annual visit between brother and sister had gone well, and Raymond’s thaw towards me had continued. Even though he hadn’t approached me directly again he had been more amenable towards me when we had come across each other. As far as I was concerned the trip to Yorkshire was a success all around, especially as there had been no sign of any revenge from Raymond as I had been half expecting.

I’d done as much as I could to the car without a proper toolkit and parts, and I’d helped the elderly Thelma dig the vegetable garden over in preparation for the planting of spring cabbages. When I’d gone to ask if there was anything else that needed doing after lunch, Thelma told me that I was to take the afternoon off, with Mr Doyle senior’s blessing.

I headed for the river running through the field behind the house. There were one or two willow trees I could plonk myself under out of the heat of the sun, and thankfully no animals in the field to disturb me. I didn’t have a problem with animals, but they could be inquisitive buggers and I was hoping for an afternoon of uninterrupted snoozing.

The hot air was still but under the trees it was cooler and I settled myself in the dappled shade. There wasn’t even a slight breeze to rustle the elongated leaves of the willow. The thick grass made a comfortable bed and it wasn’t long before I was dozing to the sound of bird song and grasshoppers.

The sound of someone whistling woke me. Not much time could have passed because when I glanced through the leaves to the sky it didn’t look as if the sun had moved. I sat up to see who it was, and couldn’t stop the grin when I saw Raymond’s curly head.

“Hello.” I called.

He jumped, and I hastily called out an apology.

His smile seemed almost shy as he made his way to my peaceful spot.

“I don’t want to intrude.” He murmured.

“You’re not. Come and take a load off.”

He accepted my invitation and sat down near me. I watched as he carefully placed a sketchbook and a small wooden box on the ground next to him.

“You any good?” I asked, nodding to the items.

He gave a startled laugh. “I’m probably not the best person to ask. A bit biased, you know.”

I held out my hand. “May I?”

After a moment’s hesitation he handed the sketchbook over. Flipping through the pages, I could see just how talented he was. The sketches were from around Highland House, mostly people captured going about their day to day activities and none of them posed. There was cook chopping carrots, the Major admiring a brass urn he had just polished, Anson leaning on his garden fork smoking a cigar and staring off into the distance. I abruptly stopped when I came across one of Stan and me leaning on the fence outside the stables, each with a mug of tea in hand, and laughing at something. The detail was amazing.

“When did you …?”

He looked away, embarrassed. “I remember things,” was his simple answer.

“A photographic memory?”

He shrugged. “I was passing by one day and there you both were. You didn’t see me.”

“And you did all this from memory?”

He nodded.

“These are fantastic. Do you sell many?”

“Not the sketches, no. These are just for me. Sometimes I’ll take the sketch one step further and transfer it to oils.”

“I’m not really into the art scene,” I confessed. “I wouldn’t know if you were famous or not.”

His laugh rang out. “Generally artists only become household names when they’ve died. I’m doing alright. There’s a gallery in London where the owner likes my stuff, and one or two or his clients have started collecting me.”

“That sounds worrying.” I glanced up from the sketch of me and Stan.

His grin really did light up his face and I found myself mesmerised. “Collecting my works, you dimwit.”

I turned over to the next page and studied the sketch of Mr Doyle, senior, dosing in his study, a blanket tucked over his legs.

“You’re fond of your grandfather?” I asked, although I could see the answer in the quality of the work in front of me.

“I’d do anything for him. God knows where I’d be if it hadn’t been for him.” He gazed across the river, lost deep in thought, and I flipped through the last few used pages of the sketchbook.

“You know,” he continued after several minutes had passed, “it’s my Grandfather who made me take this career.”

I glanced up. “Made you?”

“Yeah, ever since I came to live at Highland House there’s always been such a pressure on me to do the right thing. My Dad probably felt the same way, but I was only a kid when he and Mum died and I was too young to see what a burden the Doyle name was. But when they died and I went to live with Grandad, there were no end of people happy to give me advice and tell me what I should be doing.”

“In what way?”

“Expectations! You know … you must act in this way, you mustn’t do that, got to keep the integrity of the Doyle name, go into the Doyle family business.”

“What is the Doyle family business?”

“Investment Banking.” He said it with such acute disgust I couldn’t help but laugh. He wasn’t amused.

“Can you see me as a banker? All stiff collars and ties. Meetings day in and day out. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.” And neither could I, but I held my own counsel.

He paused, and tossed a stone into the river in front of us. As the ripples spread across the water, he continued. “All I ever wanted to do was be an artist. Grandad told me to follow my heart and do what made me happy. So I did.”

“He was right.”

“At the time I thought so.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was just finishing up at art school when some investments the company had made went bad. Grandad lost everything. He eventually sold the company to make good his debts.”

“You had nothing to do with that.”

“No, but if I had been there things might have been different.”

“You can’t blame yourself for might-have-beens.”

“No, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?” Another stone was tossed into the water. “He refused to sell Highland House. He said it had been in the family for generations and he wasn’t going to see it be turned into some overpriced tourist hotel.”

“Or a conference centre.”

Raymond smiled at that. “Or a conference centre. I love the old house as much as he does, but keeping it is a nightmare. This time it’s not people putting pressure on me, it’s the burden of keeping Highland House going."

“I imagine it must cost a fortune to run.”

“You don’t know the half of it. The estate only brings in so much money. We just about manage to keep things ticking over, but repairs are mounting up now and there is no money to pay for them. You’ve seen the state of the car.”

“Have you spoken to your Grandfather about it?”

“He’s a bit like an ostrich. You know, burying his head in the sand. He knows how things are but I think he’s hoping it all goes away. Every year that we come to Yorkshire to see Granty I hope he’ll see sense.”

“Granty?”

He smiled. “Great Aunty Phillippa. I’ve always called her Granty.” The nickname suited Miss Doyle perfectly.

“Why did she come to live here?”

“She fell in love with Yorkshire. Bought this house when she was in her twenties and has lived here ever since. She used to come down to Highland House a couple of times a year to visit, but over the last few years she’s not been able to. They took away the keys to her car and her driving licence the fourth time she drove into the village post box.”

I barked out a laugh and he grinned at me. “She’s quite a character.”

“Grandad doesn’t want to move to a smaller house. He loves Highland House too much.”

Personally, I’d never settled anywhere long enough to form such an attachment to a building or a place. But each to their own, I guess.

“Anyway,” Raymond continued. “I didn’t come here to bore you with my problems.”

“Why did you come here, Mr Doyle?”

“Please call me Ray.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“We must be the same age.”

“What about propriety? After all, I’m only staff.”

He winced at that. “I’ve been a bit of an ass, haven’t I?”

I grinned. “Just a bit.”

“Please, call me Ray, at least in private.”

I didn’t know what had brought about this change in his attitude, but I liked this new Raymond Doyle. I guess Major Cowley had been right, after all.

I lay back in the grass and tucked my hands behind my head. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“What question?”

“Why did you come here?”

“To sketch … but I hoped I’d bump into you.”

“Oh?”

“I wanted to see you on neutral territory. Somewhere where you didn’t have to call me Sir.”

I turned my head to look at him. “I’ve never called you Sir.”

“No. But the implication was there.” He picked up his sketchbook and opened the wooden box to reveal an array of pencils and rubbers. “I wanted to apologise. I know I tend to assume the worst of everybody, and treat everyone accordingly. That, and you seem to … unsettle me.”

“In what way?”

He looked straight at me. “You’re not afraid to stand up for yourself. I’m not used to people doing that. Usually they’re all yes sir, whatever you say sir.” He paused. “I find it an attractive attribute.”

An attractive attribute? Did that mean …

“I like you, okay?”

“Okay?”

“In a … romantic way.” He flinched away from me as if he expected me to hit him. But he must have known … or sensed, at least … that I felt the same way or else he wouldn’t have risked the admission.

“Okay.” I settled back down and closed my eyes.

“That’s it? Okay?”

Without opening my eyes I smiled. “What would you like me to say? That I like you too?”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, I like you too.”

“Thank God for that.” He muttered. I felt him settle beside me. “Otherwise I just made the biggest fool of myself.”

“Nah. You did that when we first met.”

I opened one eye to see his reaction.

He was just smiling softly to himself, the sketchbook open on his lap and his pencil poised to start another drawing. After a few minutes quiet, his pencil moving fast over the paper, he asked “What brought you to Highland House?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t seem the servant type. Don’t get me wrong, you fit in well enough and I’ve heard nothing but praise for your work, but you seem too … opinionated.”

“Servants can’t be opinionated?” I wondered.

“No, not really. Maybe to the other staff, but not to their employers. They don’t really stand up for themselves like you did. You’re different.”

“Yeah, well, I guess it takes all sorts.”

He looked up from the paper and studied me for a moment before returning to his artwork.

“What did you do before this?”

“This and that. Worked at a pub for a while.” Well, it wasn’t a lie. I had worked at a pub, if only for a few days. “Before that, I did some driving.”

“A taxi driver?”

“No, not really. Carted some business people around.” They were business people in a manner of speaking. It’s just their business was robbing other people. “All pretty boring, really.”

“Felt like a change of scene, did you?”

“Something like that. It was time to move on, try my hand at something different.”

Without lifting his head he said “I hope you don’t move on from Highland too quickly.”

The way I was beginning to feel, I hoped I didn’t have to.

He lapsed into silence and I drifted off to sleep, leaving him to his sketching.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Back at Highland House life continued as before. Arriving back after the trip to Yorkshire, for once it felt like I was coming home. I don’t think I’d ever felt that, and I realised it was the people that made it home. For once there was someone out there who actually gave a damn about me, and damn if it didn’t feel nice.

I was soon back to shovelling the muck and straining to catch sight of Ray around the estate. Since our mutual admissions, we hadn’t spent any time together on our own. I wasn’t that desperate to get in his trousers – well maybe I was just a little bit - but it would have been nice to at least have a chat once in a while. You know, get to know one another better.

Stan caught me on more than one occasion staring up at the house. “Those fairies are after you again, young Andy,” he called out in passing. I just grinned at him, gave him a rude two-fingered gesture and got back to work. I’ve no idea if he figured out that something had changed. Occasionally the old fool surprised me with his astuteness.

When Ray turned up at the stables a week after we’d got back, I was beginning to itch with the need to talk to him. I’d never quite felt like that about anyone before, and the intensity of my feelings was very unsettling.

“I’m going for a ride.” He announced as he strode into the yard. Stan and me both stopped what we were doing and looked up. “Fetch my horse for me.”

I’ll admit my heart sank as he barked out his order in his old aggressive way. I thought he’d changed.

“You’d better bring that old bay gelding as well.” He called out after Stan as he disappeared into the tack room to get the horse’s halter. Stan didn’t question the order, just put his hand up in acknowledgement.

“What are you doing, Andy?”

I looked down at the tin of saddle soap and dirty rag I was holding, and then back up at him. He did have a habit of asking the most stupid questions. Wasn’t the answer obvious?

“I mean, can you get away for a bit?” Now this sounded like the new Ray. A little uncertain but hopeful.

“You’ll have to ask Stan.”

This he did when Stan returned with the two horses. It was only then that it dawned on me that Ray intended me to ride with him.

“Stan, can you spare Andy for an hour or two. There’s something I need to discuss with him.”

Blinking, Stan looked between the two of us. Then, with a “tut”, he rolled his eyes and thrust the rope of a bay coloured horse into my hands.

“Like that, is it? No wonder you’ve been staring at the house. Mooning around like a girl.”

“I’ve not been mooning around like a girl,” I responded indignantly.

He walked off, shaking his head, but not before I saw the twinkle in his eye.

“Mooning around?” Ray asked gleefully. “You’ve been mooning over me?”

“I have not.”

“Don’t believe him, lad. Keeps staring at the house, waiting for someone to appear.” Stan called from the tack room. “I was right about them fairies, then, wasn’t I?”

“What’s this, gang up on Andy day?” I grumbled although secretly I was chuffed. Stan had accepted it very well, something I’d not expected as most people frowned on homosexuals, and Ray was once again the funny, smart man I was beginning to admire very much.

“You ever ridden before?” Stan asked as he passed over a saddle.

“I’ve … once or twice.” How hard could it be?

Twenty minutes later I realised that it could be very hard. And I hadn’t even got myself into the saddle.

“Come on, Andy, you can do it.” Ray was laughing at me, I could tell. I ignored the urge to stick my tongue out at him and once again tried to hoist myself into the saddle of the huge horse. Behind me I could hear Stan sniggering.

“If you even say a word …” I warned them both, and laughter erupted.

“I thought you said you could ride.” Ray accused me.

“I rode a donkey on the beach at Blackpool when I was nine. Doesn’t that count?”

They both howled.

Eventually, with a surreptitious shove from Stan, I found myself sitting astride the horse with a handful of leather straps which Ray confidently told me were called reins. I’ll admit I’d never felt so out of control.

By the time we’d ridden to the other side of the lake and on towards the woods at the edge of the estate, I had mastered steering the animal, making it stop and making it go faster. I’d also acquired a set of aching muscles that I never knew existed.

Ray rode by my side, effortlessly. He had been fairly quiet for the ride, offering encouragement and the odd instruction but not much else. When we stopped to look back down the valley to Highland House and the lake, he sighed.

“I’d hate to lose this place.”

He’d said things were bad financially and I’d seen evidence of the poor state of the place, but I didn’t realise they were at risk of losing everything.

“Will it come to that?”

“I hope not. It’s just … there’s always some bill to pay, you know? I don’t see how we can cut back much more. We’re already running with the minimum of staff. I suppose we could sell the horses, then we wouldn’t need Stan or you.” He realised what he’d said as the words left his mouth. “I didn’t mean …”

“Yes, you did mean …” I grinned. “It’s okay, Ray. I understand it’s not easy. Thank God I don’t have any property to worry about. There’s just me and my rucksack.” That wasn’t quite true. There was the flat I’d been living in for several years and whilst I didn’t own the flat, there had been quite a few possessions I’d collected over the years that I wouldn’t have minded keeping. They’d have been dumped by now as I hadn’t paid my rent for several months. Oh well, such is life.

“To be honest,” he continued, “that would be just a drop in the ocean.”

“What about tours?”

“What do you mean?”

“Open the house and grounds to the public. Like the National Trust. You could even have a café. You’d have people coming from miles around just for Cook’s biscuits and cakes.”

He looked into the distance, deep in thought. “Wouldn’t it cost too much to do?”

“No idea, sunshine. I’ve never had a stately home, let alone opened one to the public. You’d need insurance, and some more staff I’d imagine.”

I swear I could see his brain working, cogs turning like the mechanics of a clock. We gave the horses their heads and they happily grazed while we sat, Ray deliberating. Every now and then he would ask a question. I suppose he was just throwing ideas about and didn’t really want answers there and then, which was a good thing because I really wasn’t the best person to give advice on such matters. Now if he’d asked me to plan the getaway from a robbery, I was your man. Ray seemed to have had a weight lifted off his shoulders and was making plans, and for that I was pleased I had been able to give him hope.

The afternoon was cooling as we finally started back at a leisurely pace. Conversation was minimal but I didn’t mind that. The rhythmic creak of the leather saddles beneath us as the horses walked was soothing, and if I had closed my eyes I’m sure I would have drifted off to sleep. Not that I was going to chance that. I didn’t fancy a tumble onto the hard ground from up here.

Even though it was close to dinner time, Stan was hovering when we got back to the stables. He took the reins from me and talked me through dismounting. The process wasn’t elegant and was accompanied by grunts and groans. I honestly thought when my feet touched the ground that my legs were going to buckle.

“Don’t ever ask me to do that again.” I grumbled whilst I clung onto the saddle waiting for the pins and needles to stop.

“It gets easier.” Ray, the smug bastard, promised. He was busy unsaddling his own horse and had his back to me, so he didn’t see the look Stan and I exchanged. I had never seen him look after his horse before, and obviously neither had Stan. Saddle off and in his arms he turned to us.

“What?” He asked when he saw us both looking.

Stan stammered and left me to say something. “Nothing. It must be the rush of oxygen to my brain, the horse being so big, and all.” Well, that was intelligent, wasn’t it?

Ray’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and he pursed his lips. He studied us for a few long seconds and then turned to the tack room with the saddle. Stan nudged me.

“Go after him, lad.”

I took one step and my muscles screamed. At this rate, Ray would be back out before I could make it there. But he wasn’t. When I entered the room it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. Ray was leaning up against the stone sink.

“Was I that bad?” He asked quietly.

I didn’t know how to answer. I decided it was one of those times when actions spoke louder than words. With only a little wince I stepped right up to him, personal space be damned.

“You did used to be a bit all Lord and Master.” I said and before I could talk myself out of it, or he could stop me, I leant forward and kissed him. It was only a little peck on his lips, quite chaste, because after all Stan wasn’t that far away, and it was over far too quickly leaving me wanting more. But it seemed to do the trick. Ray’s haunted expression disappeared. “But that’s in the past,” I ended.

I stepped back as the jangle of bridles announced Stan’s approach.

“Horses need putting back in the field.” He announced as he entered the tack room, and I took it for the order that it was.

Whistling tunelessly, I went to untie the horses and lead them back to their pasture.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

That evening I couldn’t get comfortable. I’m not joking when I said I didn’t know I even had half the muscles that were aching. After dinner, I went to my room to lie down, but stillness seemed to make it worse and it wasn’t long before I was on my feet again and heading outside for a walk, hoping a little gentle exercise would loosen things up.

I strolled away from the house through the gardens. It was still light and the air was warm, and before long I found myself taking the landscaped path that surrounded the lake. The only thing that marred the walk were the pesky gnats that insisted on eating me alive.

I was three quarters of the way round the lake when I came to the folly situated on a slight rise and positioned for the best view of the lake and house beyond. As I approached, a voice said “you took your time getting here.”

Ray was lounging on one of the stone benches, his left leg propped up on the bench providing an arm rest. As usual, he had his sketch book and pencil box with him.

“Stalking me, are you?” I tried to hide the initial jolt of fear that I had felt. If he had crept up on me that easily I must be losing my touch, and in my world that could be fatal. Then again, he hadn’t exactly crept up on me. He must have been sitting in here for quite a while otherwise I would have seen him arrive.

“Hardly.” He shifted and made room for me. I plonked myself down next to him. “More likely the other way round. I’ve been here since after dinner.”

“Hiding?”

“Nah. Thinking. Planning. I think better when I’m drawing. Here!” He opened his sketchbook and ripped out a sheet. It was an exquisite sketch of two horses and their riders. Even in the half light I could see that the riders were Ray and me. “It’s for you.”

I took the paper from his hand with a quiet “thank you” and held it carefully. I was more touched by his thoughtful gift than I would ever admit. He closed his sketchbook and put it down beside him.

“What are you planning?”

“About what you said earlier. You know, opening the house to the public.”

“It was only an idea.”

“I think it’s a great idea. Grandad does, too. I’m going to make some calls tomorrow, get some proper advice. First thing I need to do is put together a business plan.”

I smiled to myself. You could take the boy out of the banking world, but you couldn’t entirely take the banking world out of the boy.

“Sounds good.”

Silence fell as it got darker outside. I could see the dark shapes of bats flitting about in the dusk. I hoped they were catching some of those bloody gnats, giving them a bit of their own medicine.

“Andy?” Ray said softly.

I turned my head to face him, but before I could speak he closed the distance between us and pressed his dry lips to mine. My mouth parted in surprise and he took advantage, slipping his tongue in. There was nothing chaste about this kiss. It was frantic and full of desperation, and left me wanting so much more when Ray pulled back.

“Two can play at that game,” he murmured.

I licked my lips and breathed deeply. “You did that for revenge?”

“Well, you did leave me high and dry earlier.” His chuckle echoed in the darkness. “But this was because I wanted more.” His right hand settled on my thigh and started stroking. I closed my eyes and shifted my sore bum on the hard stone.

“Got a problem?” Ray asked, close to my face again.

“Yeah, I’m never riding again.” There was no need to make it too easy for him.

“I’ve got just the cure.” This time when we kissed I gave as good as I got, and we were both left breathless when we broke apart again.

“Much as I don’t think there’s anyone around at this time of night, I think we’d better take this somewhere more private.” He stood up and grabbed my hand. “I know just the place.”

“Hang on.” I pulled my hand free and carefully folded the drawing and slipped it into my pocket. With only a little grunt I stood and took Ray’s hand again. “Lead on, McDuff.”

We made our way down the path in the near darkness. Ray was nimble footed and, holding his hand, I followed him easily enough. He led us to a wooden building on the lake shore and fumbled about over the doorframe with his fingers. With an “ah-ha, here it is” he brought down a key that slotted into the door lock and turned the mechanism with a decisive ‘thunk’.

Ray shut the door behind us when we stepped inside and locked it again.

“Wait here.” It was pitch black inside but he seemed to be able to find his way around. I could hear curtains being shut and then a small light came on in one corner.

I saw that we were in quite a simple, small room. There was a small sink in the far corner under a window and next to that a cupboard with its door hanging off the hinge. A table and three chairs sat in the other corner and along the long wall, between two now-curtained windows, sat an old settee with a couple of blankets on it. Opposite the settee was another door.

Ray saw me looking at it as he turned around. “That’s where the boat is.” He grinned, then spread his arms wide. “This is the Doyle family boathouse.”

“It’s seen better days.” I observed.

He nodded. “It’s sound enough even if it’s shabby. I come here quite often to draw.” He looked at the settee, puzzled. “I swear I never refold the blankets when I’ve finished with them, and yet they’re always folded. I think Ruth turns up every now and again to give it a dust and tidy up after me. That, or there’s ghosts.”

“Not likely.”

He shook his head. “Come here, Andy.”

And like a proper servant, I found myself obeying his order. Standing in front of him, with only a couple of inches separating us, I awaited further instruction. His fingers touched my shoulder and then trailed down to where a suddenly erect nipple pushed against the fabric of my t-shirt. I shivered as he ran his index finger around the protrusion. I noticed the pencil-lead stain on his finger as it circled round and round, then the sensations got too much and I closed my eyes.

“I want you, Andy.” He whispered. I felt his other hand on my waistband moments before it dropped to cup the bulge of my rapidly hardening penis. “I think you want it, too.” I moaned my acquiescence and stood there like a fool while he fondled me.

“Take your clothes off. I want to see you.” He stepped back and left me panting with desire. I brought my trembling hands up and undid the button and fly of my jeans. I hesitated then, my hands poised to push down and looked at Ray.

“Please,” he whispered, and with just that simple request I pushed the fabric down to my ankles and pulled off my shirt as I stood back up. Toeing off my trainers, I stepped out of the jeans and underwear and stood naked in front of him.

His breath caught, and I could see the raw desire in his eyes. He came back to me and leant into a soft kiss. “You’re beautiful,” he breathed into my mouth.

I reached for him, intended to unbutton his shirt, but he pushed my arm down with a stern “no touching.” I was the one who usually led when having sex but all I could think of now was letting Ray be in charge and calling the shots. I’d never realised what a turn-on it was being told what to do and although I didn’t have to obey him, I’d never wanted anything more.

His long, slender fingers stroked all over my body, learning the planes and angles and lingering anywhere his touch elicited a particularly strong response. I had never realised my spine was an erogenous zone but as he tapped out a gentle rhythm on it with his fingertips I felt shivers run the length of my body and couldn’t help but moan my pleasure. By the time he’d moved on from that area I was a quivering mass of jelly.

And although he remained fully clothed there was no mistaking the huge bulge tenting his cotton trousers. I desperately wanted to touch it, but any time I moved towards him he admonished me with a stern “no”.

He finished his exploration of my body with a gentle squeeze to my balls. “Over by the settee, back to the room,” he ordered.

Once in position I awaited his further instructions. I knew he was directly behind me but I couldn’t see him or hear any movement at all. Minutes ticked by and I felt sweat prickling my skin. What was he doing? When his hand brushed my shoulder I jumped and he shushed me with softly.

“Lie down on your stomach.”

I did as instructed, shifting slightly to find a comfortable spot amongst the lumps for my engorged dick. When his hands came down on my backside, soft and warm and coated with oil, I moaned and arched into the touch. He massaged my bum with firm strokes, alternating between cheeks until I forgot that I’d ever ached there. His strokes gradually dipped lower into my crease and his knuckles brushed my balls time and time again.

I felt a sudden chill when his hands moved away, and I heard something being picked up. A drizzle of cold liquid trickled down my crack but I soon forgot the discomfort when his finger started to circle my anus.

“Is this okay?” He asked breathlessly.

I’d let men fuck me before, but not very often and not for a long time. Usually it had been with men bigger than myself who probably wouldn’t have taken no for an answer even if I’d felt inclined to object. I was a little apprehensive, I admit, but Ray had woven something of a spell around me and at this time there was nothing I wanted more.

I nodded my agreement and he pressed his finger into my hole in a gentle rocking motion. After the initial shock of intrusion, it felt good. So very good, and I pushed back onto his finger trying to take him deeper.

“No moving, Andy, or I’ll stop. I’m in charge here, remember.” And I stilled because the last thing on earth I wanted right then was for him to stop.

My body loosened and he worked in another finger along with some more lubricant. It felt so good and I felt my balls drawing up. I buried my head in my arms and prayed that I didn’t lose control. I wanted to come with him buried deep inside me. He seemed to know how close I was because there was suddenly a tight ring of pressure around my cock.

“No coming, Andy. Not until I say you can.”

My groan was one of relief and for God’s sake, get a bloody move on. He released my cock when the urge to ejaculate passed, and eased me up onto my knees with a hand on either, slippery side of my arse. I braced myself, desperate to feel him inside but scared my body wouldn’t be able to accept him.

When I felt his length pressing against my hole I sucked in a deep breath and held it. The burn as he slid inside was minimal and soon all I felt was exquisite pleasure. It had been so long since I’d had sex, either giving or receiving, and I lost myself to the almost forgotten sensations as he found his rhythm.

When his hand once again encircled my cock I actually whimpered. I had been on my way to one almighty orgasm and to have it nipped in the bud was almost too much.

“Only … when … I … say … you … can.” Ray panted into my ear and continued to pound away.

I have no idea how much time passed. It could have been minutes or hours. Spots were dancing in front of my eyes when suddenly he pulled me to close into his body and I felt the rough texture of fabric rubbing against my bare backside, and then his body jerked and I felt the warm flood of his semen deep inside me.

“Now.” He instructed and the moment his hand released my cock I was coming.

I don’t remember him pulling out of me or easing my body down onto the settee, but when I finally came back to myself I was lying down with his arms wrapped around me and one of the old blankets pulled over us.

“You okay?” He asked softly when he saw my eyes open.

I licked my dry lips and stretched slightly. How much time had passed? “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

“I’ll get you some water.” He eased himself out from under me and stood. I could see he was still fully dressed, but had now tucked himself away and zipped up his trousers. If it wasn’t for the large backside-shaped grease stain on the trousers he would have looked completely respectable.

He ran the tap for a minute or two before filling an old crock mug with water and bringing it over to me. I shuffled back until I was more or less upright and took the mug off him. Water had never tasted so good, even when I’d been in Africa. I had to wonder why I was so dry-mouthed. Had I been drooling in my sleep?

“Did I hurt you?”

I was taking another sip of water so I simply shook my head in answer.

“I get a bit carried away some times,” he went on even though no explanation was necessary. “I like to be in charge.”

“It must be that Lord of the Manor thing you’ve got going on.”

He smiled at that, still unsure. “No-one has ever passed out on me before. I thought I’d hurt you.”

“Ray, I’m fine. It’s just been quite a while for me and, if I’m honest …” I paused to take another sip and to consider if I was really going to make this admission “… you taking control was a huge turn-on for me.”

He beamed.

I lifted the blanket and looked down at myself. I was a sticky mess and the liquid oozing from my arse was most uncomfortable.

“What the hell did you use on me?” I asked with a delicate sniff. Whatever he’d used as lubricant had a somewhat familiar smell to it.

“Olive oil.”

I stared at him.

“What? I keep it around for cleaning my brushes of oil paint. I didn’t exactly have time to sort something else out.”

“At least it wasn’t Turps,” I grumbled, thinking of the Turpentine usually used to clean artists’ brushes.

I let the blanket drop back down. “l’ll tell you one thing,” I said as I tried to find a comfortable, dry spot on the lumpy settee that didn’t aggravate the unfamiliar pain in my arse when I moved incautiously.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a completely different set of muscles that are aching now.”

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Several weeks passed by quickly. Ray and I settled into a regular routine of meeting in the boathouse where he took charge and I loved every minute of it. He joked that it was the only place I behaved like a servant and did what I was told. I was becoming that smitten with him that I dare say I’d have obeyed him even if we weren’t having sex. I kept that thought to myself, though. I didn’t want him getting ideas.

For once the English summer turned hot and dry. Every day the sun beat down relentlessly and we all longed for a spot of rain, not least of all Anson who was having to water the gardens with watering cans since the hosepipe ban was introduced.

I didn’t see much of Ray during the days. I was kept busy around the stables and helping Anson with the watering when I could, and Ray was deeply involved with the plans for opening the house and gardens to the public. Arrangements seemed to be going well - there had been workmen on site during the last week turning an unused part of the servants quarters into a tea room and visitors toilets – and Ray had taken a break from it all to go down to London for a day or two to visit the gallery that sold his paintings.

I was missing him and feeling restless. A trip to the local pub, the Fox and Hound, probably wasn’t a good idea, but it was a scorching hot Wednesday and a pint of ice cold ale, freshly drawn with condensation rolling down the side of the glass, was just what was called for.

Over the months I had been at Highland House I had only ventured off the estate that one time to take Ray and his grandfather to Yorkshire. I’d had enough to keep me busy and there had been no need to trek into the village, especially since me and Ray had become close. I’d always kept clear of any visitors to the estate, especially the occasional tradesmen who might talk to me, and had become quite adept at blending into the woodwork, so to speak. I figured the risk was minimal what with the beard and the change of hair colour, not to mention the tan that was getting deeper from working outside in the sun day in, day out.

It was definitely worth the risk: the Whitbread Forest Brown did the trick and touched the spot, so much so that I ordered a second pint and savoured that one more than the first now that my thirst had been quenched. I started the mile long walk back to the estate refreshed and relaxed, even if I didn’t entirely let down my guard.

I left the pub at dusk, just as it started to get dark, and hadn’t got far when I wondered if I should have brought a torch with me. Night time in the country was most definitely darker than it was in the cities that I was more used to. A soft light from an orangey full moon lit the way well enough on the narrow lane, but once I reached the footpath across the estate I’d have to be careful that I didn’t step in a bloody rabbit hole and bugger up my ankle, or worse.

I’d heard of someone who did that once, in the grasslands of Africa. Only it was a meerkat burrow, not a rabbit one. He then took a header right into a termite mound, or so I heard, and managed to break his ankle and his arm, and knock himself out at the same time. At least I didn’t have to worry about termite mounds in Derbyshire.

A bat flew close to my head, and I ducked instinctively, only feeling slightly foolish for doing so. I don’t think there are many people in the world that wouldn’t have done the same when faced with a ferocious fast-flying beast, and at least no-one had seen me do it.

As I straightened up I caught a glimpse of car lights some way down the road, hidden by several bends and only now visible through a gap in the hedge where an oak tree was growing because I was at the right angle and height to see it.

I crouched down a little further to get a better view, but the only thing I could tell was that the vehicle was stationary. The road wasn’t exactly a teeming metropolis but it was well enough used, and the occupants of the car could have been anyone. But I didn’t like the fact that it seemed to be parked at the end of the estate drive. At least, that’s where it looked as if it was parked.

I briefly contemplated turning and hightailing it back to the pub. I probably wouldn’t be too late to catch a lift with one of the regulars, who I’m sure would have been happy to drive me to the nearest train station, or possibly even further, if I’d offered them the cost of a pint of beer or two. But something stopped me from doing just that. It might have been the thought of my meagre belongings in my room back at Highland House, or it might have been the image of dark curls and luminous green eyes that came into my mind unbidden.

Whatever the reason, I slipped through the gap in the hedge, in the process grazing my back on the rough bark of the oak tree even through my shirt, and continuing towards the main entrance to the Doyle estate with the hedge between me and the lane. I stumbled a few times over fallen branches and the like which I failed to see in the dark, and cursed the Doyles’ misfortunes that had led to essential estate maintenance only. Clearing away fallen branches was obviously not considered essential maintenance.

After one stumble, I lay on my back clutching my bashed shin with one hand whilst shoving the other fist into my mouth to prevent the groan that wanted to escape. God, that had hurt. To add insult to injury, there was a strong whiff of fresh manure and I prayed I hadn’t landed in a cow pat. I don’t think Major Cowley would appreciate me having two showers in one day, let alone the state of the clothes that would have to be washed.

I heard voices, and froze. I hadn’t realised I had moved so close to the car.

“You bastard. Where’s our money?”

I didn’t recognise the voice, but realistically that didn’t mean anything. And what money? I hadn’t even taken my money, let alone anyone else’s. Then it dawned on me that they probably had nothing to do with me at all, it was just a coincidence.

“Hold ‘im up more, Dave. I don’t think we’ve got ‘is attention yet.”

Then there was a sound I knew so well, that of a fist hitting flesh. Someone was getting worked over.

“Now let’s try again, shall we? Where is our money?” Not-Dave asked.

“I told … you. I don’t have it.” What the hell? That sounded a lot like Ray.

“And why don’t you have it, fairy-boy?”

“Lost it.”

“Speak up, man, we can’t hear you.” Sarcastic bastard. I heard Ray perfectly well, and I was what seemed like miles away from him.

“I said I lost it. In a poker game.”

Another thump as, I assume, the fist was slammed into his stomach again.

“Not good enough.”

And another thump.

“We want it back. All of it.”

“I don’t have any money.” Ray sounded winded … and desperate. “I can get some, but it’ll take time.”

“You’re all out of time, poofter.”

The scuffling started up again, and I guess Ray was trying to fight back. Judging by the guffawing I could hear, I assume he wasn’t being very successful but was providing some great entertainment for his assailants.

“You can beat me up all you want, but it won’t get you your money back.” And there was the Ray I knew and loved so well, angry and belligerent. I was impressed with his bravado.

“I can send you back to your grandfather, one piece at a time. He’d soon pay up to get his precious grandson back, alive if not in one piece.”

I shuddered as I imagined which piece they might be referring to.

“It’ll do you no good. The old man has no money. The estate is as good as bankrupt.”

They was some hushed conferring where I could only pick up what seemed like every fifth word. Certainly not enough to get a good gist of what was being discussed.

“You’re bluffing.” After several long minutes, not-Dave was back.

“No, I’m not. I’ve spent all of his money. There is nothing left. He’s going to have to sell stuff off as it is.”

“So, where would you get the money from?”

“I’ve got some things I can sell. Things my father left to me.” Ray paused to take a breath. “Listen, Hawkins, I just need a few days. Then you’ll have it back, all of it, I promise.”

Hawkins didn’t answer for long minutes, then “four days only, Doyle. I’ll be here at ten on Sunday night. If you don’t have it, or you’re not here, I’ll be giving grand-daddy a little surprise.”

Car doors slammed, the engine roared to life and the car bombed off down the road, doing a ton at least, I’d have said. I feared for the lives of any poor creature that might get in its way.

As silence settled over the countryside, I rolled over and climbed stiffly to my knees then my feet. My shin still stung, and the lower leg of my cords felt suspiciously wet. I prayed it was dew, or even blood, anything but cow poo. I didn’t need that indignity. Not that I particularly wanted to be bleeding, but anything was better than cow shit.

Hobbling, I made my way to the iron fencing which ran the length of the drive and kept the livestock from straying, and climbed over it stiffly. Once on the gravel drive, I made my way passed the brick pillars which marked the entrance to the estate, and looked around for Ray.

I could see the bulk of his body sitting slumped against the left hand pillar, but in the gloom could not make out his features. I stumbled to him, and dropped to my knees.

“Ray?” I gently touched what I guessed was his face. “You alright?”

He raised his head slowly, like it was too much effort, and struggled to focus on me. At least I think he did. Judging by the angle of his head he was looking straight over my shoulder.

“Andy?”

“Yeah. What you got yourself into, mate?”

“Don’t ever borrow money off Hawkins. Or Anderson. Bad news, both of them.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

Judging by the reek of alcohol, I wasn’t the only one who had been drinking that night. And if he was as drunk as I thought he was, that would explain his inability to look straight at me. At least he wouldn’t have felt the punches he’d received as much as if he’d been sober. It would hit him though, no pun intended, when the alcohol left his system.

“Got myself into a bit of a pickle, old man,” he said in his poshest accent. Unfortunately, it lost some of its impact, what with his slurred speech and all. I found it quite endearing.

“I can see that.”

“Trying to help out the old man.” His head dropped, heavy against my hand. “Just made things worse.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad, sunshine.”

“It’s worse.”

There’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years: you can’t argue with a drunk. No matter how hard you try, it just gets you nowhere. The time to argue with them is when they’ve sobered up and not a minute before. Sobered up and got past the maudlin stage, that is. Somehow I didn’t think that Ray would end up overly maudlin, thank God.

“Come on, sunshine, let’s get you up and back to the house.”

His hand grabbed my arm and stopped me from rising.

“Can’t go to the house. I don’t want them to know.”

I sank back down onto my haunches, thinking. I needed to get him somewhere with light to check him out, and myself for that matter as I felt the pull of split flesh on my shin. And the best place to do that would be the house. But I had to respect his wishes and considered alternatives.

The boat house sprang to mind. It wasn’t the most comfortable of places, but at least there was an electricity supply and the old lumpy settee he could lie on. We could spend the night there, again, and review the situation in the morning.

It wasn’t easy getting Ray to his feet. Matters weren’t helped when he insisted on finding his bottle of Whisky. When I did eventually find it, nearly ten feet from where Ray still sat, it was lying on its side, uncapped, and the contents had all but drained onto the grass verge and were now evaporating into the warm night. I tossed it under the hedge, noting where it landed so I could return to properly dispose of it when I was unencumbered by a drunken man. Even I could be a responsible citizen when I wanted to be.

He grumbled about leaving the bottle behind once I’d got him upright and managed to pull his arm across my shoulder. He twisted around, I assume to try to pick up the bottle even though he was nowhere near where I’d thrown it, then promptly lost his balance and nearly pulled me down on top of him. Talk about the blind leading the blind. We must have looked a right sight: me hobbling, Ray a drunken lump, neither one of us balanced on our feet. Thank God we didn’t see anyone as we staggered up the drive, keeping to the shadows under the majestic oak trees that lined the route.

When we reached it, we took the footpath that ran behind the stables and the walled garden, and in amongst the laurels and rhododendrons we were well hidden. Which was a good thing when Ray suddenly lurched to one side and threw up the contents of his stomach. Judging by the overwhelming stench of alcohol I would say he hadn’t eaten an awful lot today.

We managed a few more feet and then the same thing happened. I held him whilst he retched and then lifted him back to his feet and wrapped my arm around his waist to guide him forward. At some point he must have passed out as he was getting heavier and heavier, slumped against me, and I was getting to the stage where I wanted to pass out as well. Two pints of ale wasn’t enough to deaden the aches and pains I was starting to feel in earnest.

Eventually we made it to the door of the boat house, and I rooted around for the key on the top of the doorframe. My fingers found the crack where the frame had come away from the mortar, and I prised the key loose. Within seconds we were inside, and I shut the door firmly behind us and relocked it. I felt my way over to the settee, and let Ray slump down on it, before working my way around the small room and drawing the moth eaten curtains on the three windows.

Even with the curtains drawn there was a small chance someone would see that there was a light on inside, but I had done what I could to afford Ray some privacy. I made my way back over to him and pushed his legs to the back of the settee so I could perch at the front.

From what I could see he didn’t look too much of a mess, but I guessed most of the damage was out of sight on his torso. There was a small cut over his right eye, but I only saw that as I brushed his hair out of his eyes. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be visible. By the time morning came around, he would probably just look like he’d had a night on the drink which, let’s be honest, he had.

I unbuttoned his shirt and gently pulled it out from the waistband of his jeans, wincing when I first got a glimpse of the already purpling bruises on his right side, starting in his armpit and reaching almost as far as his hip. That was going to hurt in the morning. A quick prod, best accomplished while he was too out of it to know what I was doing, confirmed that his ribs weren’t broken, and I could detect no signs of internal bleeding, thank goodness. It was good to know that the training I’d received in Africa did come in handy sometimes.

I left him on the settee and went to get some water, letting the tap run for a minute and rinsing the mug before filling it. I slipped my arm around his shoulders to raise him, and managed to rouse him enough that he swallowed half of the contents. That was better than nothing, I guessed, and didn’t force him to have any more than he wanted. I pulled my still clean handkerchief out of my pocket and damped it down before wiping his face as best I could and freshening him up. When cleaned, the cut wasn’t too deep and would heal quickly enough on its own. Content that I had done all I could at the moment I pulled the dusty Afghan over him and left him to it.

I had never been half as good at dealing with my own infirmities as I was with other peoples, and I wished there was someone there to tend to me. It was a good job Ray was too out of it to get the wrong idea, but I had to take my cords off completely to get to my shin, and when I did I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was a mess, scraped and raw from just below my knee to a couple of inches above my ankle. It had bled quite a bit, and I was relieved that it was only blood that I’d felt running down my leg. And not just because I couldn’t stand cow shit. I wouldn’t have been able to clean the wound sufficiently if it had been, and I couldn’t have risked leaving Ray as drunk as he was to go and get cleaned up at the house. I did what I could and left my trousers off for the time being.

I found a bucket under the sink and put it on the floor by the settee before settling down next to Ray. I slipped my arm under his shoulders, settled back and closed my eyes. I felt shattered but thoughts kept intruding into my mind. What the hell had Ray got himself involved in? What exactly had he been doing to help his grandfather? And why the hell had he borrowed money from loan-shark scum like this Anderson and Hawkins? I didn’t know them particularly, but I was more than familiar with their type. Something I’d learnt a long time ago was never borrow from a loan-shark. You’ll only end up getting bitten.

Eventually I did fall asleep, but it was as dawn touched the horizon and the birdlife erupted into full song. I probably only had four or five hours sleep maximum before the aches and pains from resting at an awkward angle woke me up. I untangled myself from Ray and went outside to relieve my bladder in the laurels outside the boathouse. He was stirring when I returned.

“Oh my God.” He sat up and clutched his head with his hands when his hangover made itself known.

“Morning, sunshine.”

“Andy?” He could barely open his eyes as he looked around the room for me.

“Yeah.”

“Oh my God.” He repeated. “I’m going to die.”

“Not today, mate.” I handed him a mug of fresh water and he gulped it down. “Not too fast. You’ll make yourself sick.”

He lay back down again.

“What am I doing here?”

“You didn’t want me to take you to the house.”

“Huh?”

“What do you remember?”

He thought about it for a few minutes.

“I went to London, to see about raising money.”

That was news. “I thought you went to the Gallery.”

“I did.” He looked guilty. “Ah, shit.”

“What’s going on, Ray.”

He took a deep breath. “I borrowed some money from some blokes a friend knew. The banks didn’t want to know about lending money for opening the house, and I needed money to get things moving.”

“So you went to a loan-shark.”

“I guess that’s what you’d call them. Anyway, they lent me the money, no problem. Only trouble is I had three weeks to return it. With interest.”

“Three weeks? Where the hell did you think you’d get the money from in three weeks if you didn’t have it then?”

“I was expecting a sale of a new painting.” He rubbed the side of his face. “Only it fell through. The buyer changed her mind. Thought it was too erotic to hang in her hallway.”

“You don’t paint erotic paintings, do you?”

“Not usually, but I … was inspired.”

I raised my eyebrow. Despite the circumstances, this sounded interesting. I would have to quiz him about this later. But for now …

“So, you borrowed money and had no way to pay it, or the interest, back.”

“That about sums it up.”

“When was it due?”

He looked towards the window. “Yesterday, I guess.”

“So Anderson and Hawkins came looking for you?” He looked startled that I knew the names.

“Yeah, I stopped at the shop in the village on my way home, the one that’s open until nine. I couldn’t wait to get home. I needed a drink.” He gave a short laugh. “I was sat in the car, drowning my troubles, and I couldn’t find the keys to start the engine. How stupid is that?”

“Well, it’s a good job you couldn’t. You’d have likely crashed on the way home.”

“Maybe.” He took another deep breath. “I had to walk, of course, which at the time seemed like a good idea because I could walk and drink at the same time. But they were waiting for me at the gates. I don’t remember too much after then, but I think they gave me a few more days.”

“How much are we talking about?”

He winced. “Ten grand in total.”

“You don’t make things easy for yourself, do you, sunshine?” I asked as I flopped onto one of the chairs. Where the hell were we going to get ten grand from in four days?

“I’ll sell the car,” Ray was quick to assure me. “And Peter who owns the gallery is making some calls.”

“Do you have anything else you can sell?”

“My mother’s jewellery. It’s not as if I’ll ever use it, and there’s some nice pieces there. And Dad left some bits and pieces of silver and some paintings. It’s not stuff I ever wanted to part with, but I don’t have much choice now.”

He lapsed into forlorn silence and I left him to his thoughts whilst I made plans. I knew a few honest people who wouldn’t cheat Ray. Well, they weren’t exactly honest, but you know what I mean. It was quite a risk. To get Ray the best deal, I’d have to make contact myself and chances were they wouldn’t trust just anyone else anyway. All I could do was pray that word didn’t get back to Krivas, and hope for Ray’s sake that the price of silver was high at the moment.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Four days flew by and before we knew it, it was Sunday. Why is it that when you are looking forward to something time drags, and when you are dreading something it comes round far too quickly?

Ray had been lucky. His erotic painting had sold, for twice as much as the original buyer had offered, and his Jaguar had fetched a good price with a private collector. I contacted Benny, a fence I knew from way back when, who pointed me in the direction of a legitimate businessman who bought and sold from estates.

Before I phoned Benny I drove nearly 100 miles to the south of Highland House and found a phone box in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t much of a deterrent but, even though I trusted Benny, it didn’t hurt to be cautious.

I arranged for Ray to meet Benny’s contact on his own, but had as good as set up the deal over the phone so Ray wouldn’t have to negotiate with him. He walked away from the meeting with the asking price and a heavy heart. The belongings I’d left behind in my flat when I’d legged it were ultimately replaceable: a few LPs, a book of poetry I’d always carried around with me but had somehow managed to overlook in the rush, the bulk of my wardrobe. Ray was parting with items that held great sentimental value, and I felt for him.

All in all, Ray managed to raise an extra five grand on top of what he owed. I hoped it would be enough to get Highland House opened to the public.

When the appointed time came for Ray to meet with Hawkins and Anderson, I hid myself in the bushes behind the wall. The loan-sharks had obviously come expecting, or at the very least hoping for, a fight and subjected Ray to a barrage of verbal abuse. He simply ignored their taunts and handed over a hold-all stuffed with ten pound notes. It was a tense fifteen minutes while we waited for them to count it, and when they had done so, Ray was left watching their red rear lights as they sped off down the road.

Sure they were out of sight, I went and stood next to Ray. His shoulders were slumped.

“That’s it, then.” He muttered.

“What were you expecting?” I asked softly.

I was standing close enough to feel his shrug. “I don’t know, really. It just feels like a complete anti-climax, don’t you think?”

“Did you want another fight?”

He ran his hand across his still sore ribs. “No, not really. It just doesn’t seem right that they can get away with it.”

“That’s the way of the world, sunshine, whether it’s right or not.”

“You seem very reticent about it all?” He commented.

“In what way?”

He turned to look at me in the half light. “You don’t seem at all surprised by the …” he searched for a suitable word and came up with “… brutality of it all.”

“I’ve seen a bit of the world, that’s all.” I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty that I was hiding my past from him.

I draped my arm across his shoulders and gave him a squeeze that was meant to express sympathy. “What you’ve got to remember is that although you’ve lost a few things that were important to you, you’ve saved Highland House.”

“How am I going to tell Grandad what happened?”

“We’ll find a way.” I turned him around and we started to make our way back towards the house. “Come on. I’ll let you seduce me to cheer you up.”

He gave me a sideways look. “I seem to think you’ll find it quite enjoyable, too.”

I grinned. He knew me too well.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I should have known my run of good luck wouldn’t last.

My change of fortune coincided with the sudden change in the weather two days after Ray paid off Anderson and Hawkins. The wind was blowing in one hell of a storm, and Stan and I were frantically trying to bring in all of the horses from the pasture before the deluge began.

I didn’t really notice the black car parked on the drive as I hurried back to the field to fetch Ray’s grey gelding. It was only the softly spoken “Hello, Bodie” directly behind me that brought me to an abrupt halt mid-stride. I almost didn’t hear it over the wind.

I recognised the voice at once, although it wasn’t the one I’d thought I’d hear.

“Murphy.” I turned to face the Detective Sergeant who I’d once run rings round when I’d been arrested.

“We thought you’d dropped off the face of the earth, mate.” He grinned at me: I didn’t much like it. “That, or Krivas had decided you’d outlived your usefulness.”

“Yeah, well, I fancied a change of scene.”

“You do know Krivas has a hit out on you, don’t you?” He asked conversationally as if having a hitman after you was a daily occurrence.

“And you’ve just led him straight to me. Thanks, Detective,” I added sarcastically.

“If anyone has led him to you, I’d say it was your mate, Benny.”

My heart sank.

“He was quite the mess when we got to him, you know. Lived just long enough to admit he sold you out to Krivas. Didn’t do him any good, though, did it?”

I was starting to panic, my breaths coming too fast, too shallow. I had to leave. Now.

“Andy, you finished?” Stan called from the stable block.

I tried to take a deep breath. “Just Ray’s grey to get.”

“Be quick about it, then. This lot’ll be here in a minute or two.” He waved his hand up at the cloud.

“I can’t do this now.” I hissed to Murphy and turned away, all but running down the path to the field. He didn’t have to follow me, but I guess he didn’t know I was actually going to fetch in the damned horse. The grey stood quietly while I put on his head collar, and I momentarily leant my forehead on his neck as if saying goodbye, whether to the horse or through him to Ray I didn’t bother to analyse.

Murphy stood by the gate, and held it open as I approached.

“We need to talk.”

“Really? You sure you’re not here to arrest me?”

He walked by my side as I led the horse towards the stables. “I’m here to make you an offer.”

I glanced at him. “Are the police allowed to do that?” I didn’t really care, but I’d latch onto anything if it helped me stall for time and give me the chance to plan my getaway.

“In this instance, yes. There are bigger fish here to fry than you.”

A huge raindrop landed on my nose. I clicked me tongue and started to jog next to the horse. Without hesitation it followed at a trot, and we made it to the stable just as the downpour started. I felt no shame leaving Murphy out in the rain while I settled the horse inside.

“Bodie,” Murphy continued. “Is there somewhere dry we can go? Without the horse,” he added just as I was about to invite him into the stable. I knew Stan would be in the tack room and the only other place I could think of was the feed store, right next door. Stan would be able to hear every word.

I shook my head.

“My car it is, then.” And before I could really protest he grabbed my arm and all but pulled me from the stable.

By the time we made it back to the drive, we were both drenched. Once we were settled he started the engine and turned on the heater full blast. I sat in my steaming clothes and glanced about.

“Are you allowed to be here on your own?” I asked. “Don’t you lot always travel in twos.”

“Not always. I said I’d come and talk to you on my own. Less intimidating, and all that.”

As if the police could intimidate me. I waited for him to continue.

“We’re after Krivas and think you’re the man who can help us.”

“How? He’s trying to kill me, or hadn’t you heard.” A thought occurred to me, and horrified I added “You don’t intend to use me as bait, do you?”

He looked at me and I could see that was a possibility that had been considered. Nice. “You worked for him for a long time. I bet you picked up a lot of information that could be detrimental in the wrong hands. A lot of things he’d rather were kept secret, perhaps.”

“And that would be why he’s hired himself a bleedin’ hitman.” I stated the obvious.

“With your evidence we could put him away for a long time.”

“And what would be in it for me?” I wasn’t really mercenary, but there was no way I was going to sacrifice myself just so the coppers could lock Krivas up and throw away the key.

“A lesser sentence.” He saw my wince. “At the moment, you’d go down for twenty with what we’ve got against you.”

“You didn’t have any evidence before.”

“We’ve not been idle. While you’ve been off on your holiday,” as if I’d had the time, “we’ve been building quite a case against you. It’s amazing who’ll come forward with the right incentive.”

Thinking of Benny, the deluded and dead turncoat, I said “you lot are no better than Krivas.”

“We don’t generally bump people off when they give us the information we want, though, do we?”

Who knew what they did.

“If you give evidence, you’ll go down for a maximum of two years in a secure prison, followed by a nice new life.”

The nice, new life did sound appealing. I wasn’t so sure about the two years in a secure prison, though.

“Look, Bodie, you’ve been a bad boy. You do this, the slate is clean and you can walk away. You don’t, and my gaffer will throw the book at you. Think about it.”

“There is a third option.”

“And what’s that? You run again? How long do you think you can keep running for, Bodie?” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to me. I declined with a shake of my head. “How long have you managed this time? Five months, six maybe? Aren’t you tired of looking over your shoulder all the time?”

There was that, I suppose.

“What about the new life?” I asked.

“New name, new identity, new place to live. A completely clean start. All records destroyed.”

“And Krivas will still know I’m alive.”

He shook his head. “That’s been considered. You’ll meet with an unfortunate accident whilst in prison and unluckily die from your injuries.”

“Huh.”

“What do you say?”

I glared at him. “You can’t expect me to give you an answer this minute.”

He looked as if he wanted to say “why not”.

“I’m not sure that I want to say goodbye to Bodie forever. I can’t make that decision without weighing up all the options.” What I didn’t say was that I couldn’t say goodbye to Ray forever. The thought of never seeing him again was too much to bear. I would run for the rest of my life if it meant I would still be able to see him occasionally.

“We thought you’d say that. I can give you twenty four hours.”

I nodded. I could work with that.

“I’ll be back here same time tomorrow. Bodie,” as I got out of the car he leant across the now-wet passenger seat. “If you run again, there will be no place you can hide. Your details will be circulated to every police station in the country.”

I’d just have to find a way to leave the country then, wouldn’t I?

I slammed the car door shut and stood in the pouring rain as he drove away.

I slipped into the house and made it to my room without being seen. I fought the urge to throw myself on my bed and weep into the covers, and instead stripped off my soaking wet clothes and dried myself with the blanket from the bed. I quickly pulled on dry underwear and socks and slipped into my last pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. I contemplated leaving the wet clothes and boots where they lay, but when you only had one other change of clothes that wasn’t an option.

There was a plastic bag lining the waste bin and I grabbed it and shoved the wet clothes and boots into it so they wouldn’t get my rucksack wet. On top of that went the old biscuit tin I’d found lying around unused in the tack room and had borrowed so I’d have somewhere to store my unspent wages. Over the months I’d managed to acquire quite a tidy sum that would keep me going for a while. I made sure I had my wallet, with the precious sketch tucked inside it as always, and then I left the room.

My exit from the house went equally unnoticed. I wanted desperately to say goodbye to the people I had worked with and who had become my friends, but I didn’t have time. I was convinced Krivas was on his way, and I had to have time to say goodbye to the one person who mattered the most.

I stashed my rucksack under the laurels where the rain hadn’t penetrated and went looking for Ray. He was in the new tea-room instructing the decorators, but when he saw me in the doorway he came over.

“Hello, has Stan let you off work again. I swear I’m going to have to have words with him.” He said brightly.

I took his arm and draw him into the corridor away from prying eyes. Before he could question me I kissed him.

“What was that for?” He asked as I pulled away.

“I’ve missed you, that’s all.”

“Andy?” My strange behaviour was starting to unsettle him.

“I just had the urge to tell you how much I loved you.” I kissed him again, hoping to distract him. “And now I’m going to go back to work before Stan gets into trouble.”

Before he could respond, I whirled away and pushed the door open. I was sure he hadn’t seen the tears in my eyes when I heard his soft laugh as the door shut behind me.

I wasn’t half way down the drive when two cars swung off the road and came barrelling towards the house. I wasn’t worried about the occupants noticing me because I was deliberately walking through the bushes to avoid anyone from the house seeing my departure. The realisation that everyone back at the house was in danger hit me like a brick, and I turned and raced back the way I’d come. I reached the stable block, gasping for breath, just as cars came to a screeching halt on the gravel outside the front door.

Stan was looking out of the tack room door, no doubt to see what the commotion was about, when he spotted me.

“Andy, what’s going on?” He called.

“You need …” I gasped. “You need to get somewhere safe. Stay hidden.” I waved my arm in the direction of the cars. “These guys … bad news. Go.”

Krivas was storming towards the front door, his four goons carrying what I guessed was a battering ram. There was no way I was going to be able to get everyone to safety. They were all too scattered around the building.

In the moment I took in the activity at the front door, Stan came and stood by my shoulder. The old fool was missing what was probably his only opportunity to get to safety. I opened my mouth to tell him just that, when he said: “Distract them, young Andy. I just need ten minutes to get everyone to safety. Then get your arse into the kitchen. We’ll be waiting for you.”

He slipped away back into the stable yard. What the hell was he doing now? I glanced behind me and saw him disappear through an ivy covered doorway that I had never before noticed. A secret passage? At another time, I’d find that very amusing. Right now I had to give Stan ten minutes? How the hell could I distract Krivas for ten minutes? Then a thought struck me. The laurels. I could lead them into the shrubbery and get them lost. It was as good as a maze. And let’s be honest, in the time I had available it was the best I could come up with.

I took a deep breath and yelled “Krivas” at the top of my lungs. All five of them whirled around and Krivas shouted out an order to the others. I waited as long as I could before turning and disappearing into the thick bushes. Off the proper footpaths the branches were unkempt and kept smacking me in the face. I hoped they were having as much trouble as me. I could hear them following like a heard of elephants and I made as much noise as I could to keep them interested, changing direction often and trying to mislead them. Somehow I doubted they heard me over the racket they were making themselves.

I’ve no idea how much time had passed when I broke cover, but I hoped it had been long enough. I legged it across the drive and around the side of the house just as the first goon managed to find his way out of the shrubbery. The kitchen door had been left open and I threw myself into the room and flung the door shut behind me. I managed to turn the key in the lock and then Stan was calling to me. Inside the ingle nook fireplace and to the side of the stove was a narrow opening, only just big enough for him to fit through. He ducked back into the room behind and I followed him, stooping low to avoid hitting my head. Once I was in, Stan leant back out and pulled a brass plate across the opening. Once it was in place no-one would ever guess that anything lay behind it other than a brick wall. I had stared at that brass plate often enough during mealtimes to know that.

Stan led the way through the dark passageway with only a small pocket torch to guide him. In the near darkness I lost track of how many times we turned a corner and how many other passageways or doorways we passed by. The only sign they were there at all was a momentary intensity in the darkness as we walked by. I stuck close to Stan’s heels fearing that I would soon lose my way without his guidance. There must have been markings or something similar along the way to indicate where we were, but I’m damned if I could see them. It was enough that Stan could find his way around.

“Careful now, Andy, there’s some steps here.” Stan warned quietly as he proceeded down five or six steps so narrow that I had to put my foot down at an angle otherwise I’d have pitched forward.

At the bottom he turned immediately left and stopped by a door. I heard a faint scratching, and then the door was opened.

“In here.” Stan whispered.

I followed him into a small windowless room which was kitted out with an array of mismatched chairs. I looked around at the scared faces of my fellow employees and employer, and did a quick headcount. Anson, Cook, Ruth, Betty, the young girl from the village whose name I could never remember, and old Mr Doyle.

“Everyone’s here except Mr Cowley and Master Raymond.” Anson said from his position as what I assumed was guard by the door. “Mr Cowley’s gone looking for Ray.”

“He was in the tea room twenty minutes ago.” I murmured, doing another headcount to reassure myself the others were all there.

Silence fell on the room, and I squatted down on my heels to try to get my breath back. I realised now I had been a fool to try to run. If Murphy had tracked me down to Highland House so would Krivas. And of course Krivas would come here. My moving on would have made no difference. The only thing would have been that I wouldn’t be around to see Krivas torturing these innocent people to find out where I’d gone.

I kicked myself, metaphorically speaking, for having taken the risk of coming out of hiding. I had believed the only traceable thing that I arranged the sale of was the car, and I had taken pains not to mention that to Benny as it would have been too easy to track back to Highland House. Had something else been so easily identifiable? I guess I would never know for sure.

In the aftermath of the adrenalin rush I felt drained and shaky. I needed to plan our escape, or at the very least take precautions to barricade our safe room, before Krivas realised we were still in the building. If he couldn’t find us, I dreaded to think what he would do to the house itself: I’d always had a deeply held fear of fire.

But I found myself rooted to the spot.

“What’s going on, Andy?” Anson asked quietly.

I looked up. They were all staring at me, waiting.

I took a deep breath. “My name isn’t Andy, it’s Bodie, and I used to work with those people upstairs.” It sounded like an introduction at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

They waited in silence for more.

I swallowed passed the lump in my throat. Who knew it was so hard to own up to being a criminal to honest, law-abiding people? “They … that is, we … rob banks and jewellery stores and that sort of thing. I tried to leave.”

“You’re a thief?” Stan asked.

I shrugged. “I drove the getaway car, but I suppose in the eyes of the law I’d be tarred with the same brush.”

“Why were you leaving?” Ruth asked.

“I’d had enough of the life. I wanted to settle down somewhere, stop looking over my shoulder all the time.”

“And what’s with that lot upstairs?” Stan asked. “They a bit too fond of your company, are they?”

I smiled without any humour. “Something like that.”

“Did you steal something of theirs?” Betty asked from her position by old Mr Doyle. I suppose she had the right to make the accusation, but it hurt nonetheless.

“No. The only thing I have is the ability to put Krivas away for a long, long time.”

“They want to silence you. Permanently.” Anson clarified for the benefit of the others. I got the impression he was enjoying all the cloak and dagger stuff. It wasn’t so much fun, though, when you actually lived it.

“What do you mean?” Ruth looked between the two of us.

“I know a lot of things about Krivas that the police would be interested in knowing. He doesn’t want me to go to the police.”

“He wants to kill you?” She persisted.

I nodded.

There was a noise beyond the door, a quiet scratching on the wood, and we all stiffened. Anson opened it a crack and peered into the darkness, then swung the door wide to admit Major Cowley.

He limped into the room and stopped before the old man.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I couldn’t get to him quickly enough.”

I jumped to my feet. “What do you mean?”

The major turned to face me. “I mean that lunatic running around out there has captured Master Raymond and the workmen in the tea room.”

I blanched at the implication of Krivas capturing Ray. What the hell would he do to him?

“It’s all your fault.” Betty accused me. She was entitled to be angry; they all were. Right now, though, I didn’t have time for guilt. Ray’s life depended on me keeping my head clear.

The major, surprised at Betty’s animosity towards me, asked what was going on. Whilst he was filled in, I stayed quiet and planned.

“Okay, we need to call the police.”

“It’s already been done.” Betty spoke up superciliously. “I dialled 999 as soon as Stan told us what was going on.”

“Good.” I acknowledged the sanctimonious bitch.

Given the timescale, I hoped that meant the police would be arriving any minute now, hopefully with sirens blaring. “Right, then. Someone needs to get me to the tea room.”

Stan pulled himself up to his full height, but it the major who spoke. “What do you intend to do? You can’t go up against them all, laddie.”

“It’s me Krivas wants.”

“Do you really think he’ll let us all go once he’s got you?”

“I just need to stall for time until the police arrive.” He studied me, then nodded. “Stan, you and Anson are in charge here. Don’t let anyone but Andy, Ray or me in. Not even the police until we can be sure that’s who they really are. Understand?” They both nodded. For me, it was just a relief to share the responsibility with someone as capable as the major.

We left the hidden room cautiously, the door shutting quietly behind us as Anson locked us out. I followed the major through the labyrinth of passageways and trusted that he would be able to get us to the old servants’ quarters quickly. Every now and again he would stop and listen, trying to place the enemy, I imagined. It’s what I would have done, anyway. If Krivas had any sense he would have positioned his men around the building, and we couldn’t afford to come across any of them.

Eventually we stopped, and the major gestured into the darkness. I leant close to him and he whispered in my ear “this is it, laddie. This door opens into a storeroom, and the tea room is beyond that.” I nodded to let him know that I understood, and he slowly opened a door that I hadn’t even seen. We were in luck, the door from the storeroom into the tea room was shut, and we were able to exit the passageway without being seen.

I could hear Krivas ranting in the main room, his accent thick and almost unintelligible with anger, and Ray’s angry retort “I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about, you bastard.” The sound of a slap was unmistakable as was the grunt of pain that Ray tried to hold back.

I would have been through the door and rushing to Ray’s aid like a shot but for the major’s firm hand on my arm holding me back. “Not yet.” He mouthed at me, and the soldier in me obeyed the order from a senior officer.

There was more shouting and another slap, and it was almost more than I could bear to stand there and listen to Ray being beaten up again. Major Cowley held his hand up, listening to something beyond the tea room and then I heard it, too. The sound of police sirens.

The shouting in the other room stopped, and I heard Krivas say “Go. Hold them off while I finish here.”

I looked at the major and he gave a decisive nod and released my arm. And even though I was desperate to get in there, I waited for him to open the door minutely and then peered through the crack to see what we were up against.

Krivas had his back to us. One of his men, a bruiser called Frankie who was as thick as too short planks, held Ray immobile for Krivas to beat the shit out of him. Talk about an unfair advantage.

Time seemed to stand still as I saw Ray try to kick Krivas in the balls and the Greek lost any semblance of control. His thick hands came up around Ray’s throat and he started to throttle him. I saw red. One minute I was standing by the door wondering how I could approach them without Frankie seeing me, the next I was throwing myself at Krivas’ back and putting my arm around his neck in an attempt to pull him away from Ray.

Frankie dropped Ray’s arms when he saw the major approaching him with his walking stick raised above his head as a weapon, and legged it through the open door to the corridor. I caught sight of the spectacle as Krivas spun around and around, trying to dislodge my arm from his neck.

Ray dropped to the floor and lay gasping. The major stooped down beside him and tried to pull him out of harm’s way, just as Krivas got wise and changed tactic. With an inhuman roar he thrust his whole body, and mine, backwards and rammed me into the storeroom door frame. With all the air whooshing from my lungs I found it impossible to keep such a tight hold on him, and he used the opportunity to prise himself free of my grasp.

I was bent nearly double trying to replenish the air in my lungs while Krivas hovered several feet away clearly undecided whether to go for me or try another attack on Ray, when both our attentions were drawn by the pounding of feet down the corridor. I didn’t think I’d ever be pleased to see Murphy, but when he appeared in the doorway I couldn’t have been happier.

Murphy quickly assessed the situation and started towards Krivas. I saw my old comrade reach into his pocket and pull out a handgun which, by all rights, he should have pointed at Murphy. But Krivas must have realised he was cornered and chose the two defenceless men on the floor as his target. In hindsight, I suppose he reckoned if he couldn’t get out of the room he’d kill as many of us as he could.

Murphy started forward just as I straightened up and yelled “no” to Krivas. Of the two of us I was closest and posed the greatest threat to Krivas, and he knew this. He swung round towards me and brought the gun up, just as one of those ‘defenceless’ men raised his cane and thwacked him in the shins.

The sound of the gun firing was deafening in the small tea room. Something slammed into my body, spinning me around, and I fell back against a Welsh dresser. I dropped to the floor in a shower of tea cups and saucers, and lay gasping for breath amongst the shattered crockery whilst Murphy tackled Krivas and they both crashed to the tiled floor.

What the hell had happened? I hadn’t seen anyone tackle me, and yet here I was on the floor. The shouting and sounds of fighting seemed to fade into the background and all I could hear was ringing in my ears. Then, out of nowhere, there was an intense burning pain all across my right side. I didn’t have the energy to raise myself up to see what the problem was, but I was able to touch the spot where the pain was coming from. When I brought my hand back to look, it was covered in blood.

I think I could be forgiven for taking so long to realise I’d been shot. Actually shot with a real gun! I may have been a mercenary back in Africa, I may have taken part in armed robberies, but I’d never been shot before. It was agonising. How anyone ever survived this was beyond me.

Gradually the ringing in my ears lessened, and I realised that the fight between Murphy and Krivas was still going on around me. I felt vulnerable, lying flat on the floor as I was, and I put my left hand down to try to push myself up so I could at least shuffle back out of the way. But it just wasn’t my day. With all the broken crockery lying around me, it was just a matter of time before I cut myself. Thank God the sting in my hand was nothing compared to the pain in my side. I think I might have passed out if it had been.

The battle seemed to be slowing down, each of the combatants’ movements becoming laboured. Murphy, being both younger and taller than his opponent, managed to overpower him with one final right hook that sent Krivas crashing to the floor. Breathing hard, arms hanging by his side, Murphy hissed “take that, you bastard.” I didn’t think policemen were allowed to say things like that.

I saw Major Cowley lean down and pick something up off the floor. When he held his hand out, I saw that he’d picked up Krivas’ gun from where it must have been dropped in the fight. Murphy took it gingerly and put it in his pocket as the major disappeared back into the storeroom. If Murphy wondered where he was going, he didn’t ask. I just assumed he was going to let the others what was going on.

Now that the coast was clear, Ray picked himself up off the floor and stumbled across the room, avoiding Krivas’ prostrate body. He flopped down next to me on his knees, his eyes fixed on the blood on my side. Close up, I could see the side of his face was red where Krivas’ punches had landed. I dreaded to think how bad it would look when the bruising came out.

“Christ, Andy.” He croaked, his voice barely there after his near-strangulation. “You’ve been shot.” His hands hovering over my side, he was clearly unsure how best to help me.

“Yeah.” I tried to smile at him but I don’t think the result was very successful or reassuring. “I figured that out.”

He stripped off his shirt, exposing the now-yellowing bruises from his previous battering, and I found myself wincing at pain that had nothing to do with my injuries. He wadded up the shirt and gently pressed it against the still bleeding wound. That did hurt, and I couldn’t stop myself gasping out loud.

“Sorry.” He muttered, still pressing down. After a few minutes, during which time I found it hard to focus on anything other than breathing, he peered under the material. “I think the bleeding’s slowing down.” The pressure on my side eased and the pain reduced marginally.

“I thought Anderson and Hawkins had come back again,” Ray admitted in a hoarse whisper. I saw him swallow, and could tell the action caused him pain. “Who the hell are these people, Andy?”

I was saved from answering immediately by a flurry of activity at the tea room door. Three men came into the room, all strangers to me, and I braced myself for more trouble, conscious I could do little this time to protect Ray. However, Murphy eased the tension by calling out “Jax, keep an eye on this rubbish,” indicating the now-handcuffed Krivas.

A dark man stepped forward and grinned at Murphy as they passed. “Well done, mate.”

“What about the rest of them?” Murphy asked.

“We got three of them as they made a break for the cars, and a fourth never even made it out of the house. Doesn’t seem to be any more around.”

“That was it, Krivas and the other four.” I piped up from the floor.

Jax looked down at me and then commented “no-one said they’d be armed.”

“Any casualties?” Murphy asked.

“Not ours, thank God. Other than this one,” Jax added, with a nod down at me.

“What about the workmen?” Ray called out from my side, his voice not carrying that far into the room.

“What workmen?” Murphy asked.

“They were in here with me when this lot barged in.” He glared at Krivas. “Two men in blue overalls.”

“Don’t worry,” Jax said. “They were locked in the loos, making that much noise we couldn’t miss ‘em. They’re fine.”

At my side, Ray relaxed.

Murphy knelt down beside us. “You don’t do things by ‘alf, do you, Bodie?” He lifted Ray’s shirt from my side, and started poking.

“Bodie?” Ray queried. Neither Murphy nor I answered him: Murphy because he was busy inflicting pain, me because I was desperately trying not to scream.”

“What are you whinging about, man?” Murphy asked as he sat back on his heels. “It’s just a scratch.” He replaced the shirt and gently patted it. He grinned when he saw my incredulous look. “I’ll go find you an ambulance and a doctor who can give you a second opinion.”

Ray watched him go, then looked back down at me. “I think you’d better tell me what’s going on.”

And while we waited for medical attention, I did.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I lay on my bed staring up at the ceiling and the concentric rings of light and shadow made by the light bulb that had been turned on when I’d been all but carried in here hours ago. There was a spider up there by the light fitting, spinning a web to catch unsuspecting flies. It hadn’t been there this morning when I’d woken up; must have moved in after I’d packed my bag earlier. Talking of which, I’d have to ask someone to fetch the rucksack from the stables where I’d dropped it when Krivas had turned up.

Hours had passed since Krivas and his motley crew had arrived at Highland House and wreaked havoc. The police had rounded them up and carted them off to jail, and we’d all been interrogated … sorry, I mean to say our statements had been taken.

And those of us that were in need had been fixed up by the medical professionals. The ambulance men had wanted me to go to hospital. Murphy hadn’t. He’d said he’d take full responsibility for my wellbeing. I had wanted to shout that I was quite capable of taking responsibility for my own wellbeing, but to be honest the drugs had made everything hazy and in the end I couldn’t be bothered. Murphy had won the battle, and they’d done all the could for me, including taping up the gash in my hand and putting stitches in my side that pulled like nobody’s business every time I as much as flinched.

It was blissfully quiet, the only sound being the soft snores that Ray made on every exhale. He lay by my side, on top of the covers, curled up in a near-foetal position. His face from his forehead down almost to his jaw was bruised, the dark purple and black of the contusion standing out in sharp contrast to his still pale skin. If I’d looked beneath the collar of his shirt I knew I’d see the ring of bruises around his throat where Krivas’s fingers had squeezed relentlessly. He’d been told there’d be no lasting damage, but that was little consolation when he could hardly speak and swallowing caused great pain.

Back in the tea room he had listened to my story in silence, waiting until the end to confirm that I had indeed finished with my life of crime. He hadn’t said anything else: no anger, no disgust, nothing. Even now I didn’t know what he thought about my background. All I know was that he had only left my side for the police to take down our statements. He’d led the way when I was brought back to my room and had held my hand, metaphorically speaking, while I was being poked and prodded. And now he lay next to me.

Major Cowley and Mr Doyle senior had made their way to see us when the police gave them permission to do so, and Stan had later popped his head round the door to see if I wanted anything. Not much was said by any of them, just general enquiries about our health. It did nothing to lessen the guilt I felt.

I was still mulling everything over when the door opened to admit Murphy. I closed my eyes and sighed. I really wasn’t in the mood for another interrogation.

“Bodie.” He said and pulled up a chair next to the bed. “How are you feeling?”

I opened one eye and did my best to glare at him. “I was shot a few hours ago. How do you think I’m feeling?” I shifted slightly to ease my numb bum, and the wound in my side screamed in protest. “I want more drugs.”

He glanced at his watch. “Not just yet, mate. We don’t want you overdosing.”

“God forbid.” I muttered.

“We need to talk, Bodie.” He leant forward and rested his forearms on his knees.

“I think you said all you needed to earlier.”

“I’m not going to give you the chance to run again, Bodie.” I put on the most innocent face I could. “One of the constables found a rucksack by the stables,” he pulled a notebook out of his pocket and flipped over a few pages, “and one Stan Evans said, and I quote, young Andy came running from the drive like the devil ‘imself was after ‘im’.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Murphy’s eyebrow raised. “You know exactly what I mean. After my visit earlier, you ran.” He sat back and crossed his legs. “What do you think would have happened if Krivas had got here after you’d gone?”

I knew exactly what Krivas would have done. None of these good people would have lived to see another day. I didn’t need Murphy on his high horse talking to me as if I didn’t have a clue. I ignored the question and went back to staring at the spider.

Murphy wasn’t fazed. “The way I see it is these people will never be safe if you run again. Krivas will probably avoid jail if you don’t testify against him, and even if he is put away on a lesser charge he’d find someone to come here and either exact revenge on his behalf or he’d use the Doyles and their staff as leverage against you. From what I know of Krivas, I’d say he’d thoroughly enjoy himself in the process. Do you really want that?”

I couldn’t help but look down at Ray, deep in a drugged sleep. I knew the only way to get Krivas off my back was to effectively die. I could easily set something up myself, but without an actual body to show him the suspicious bastard wouldn’t believe it, and I’m afraid I wasn’t prepared to go that far. Especially as it defeated the object of running in the first place.

It pained me to admit it, but Murphy’s solution was by far the best one. There really wasn’t an alternative. I could refuse to give evidence and they’d lock me away for twenty years or more, but Krivas would still be free, and holding one hell of a grudge against me. Or I could give evidence against Krivas, be locked away for a year or two, and be ‘killed’ in jail. Krivas would have no need to go after Ray if I was not around to suffer the pain of loss.

I had no choice. I had to do it to keep Ray, and everyone else, safe.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Murphy’s firm hand on my elbow steadied me as I came to a halt at the top of the stone steps. I think he was offering support in case my legs went out from under me, rather than being ready to stop me if I did another runner. On the gravel drive ten feet below us stood a black Mercedes, its rear passenger door standing open and Murphy’s partner, Jax, facing away from the building, his head constantly on the move as he looked for threats.

I still felt shaky. A bare twenty-four hours after getting shot, the pain in my side was still a constant bone-deep ache that left me feeling permanently nauseous, and if I moved without thinking … well, that didn’t bear thinking about. Although I’d rather have had a shower, the wash I’d insisted on having earlier had made me feel a whole lot better. And the shave. Oh, it felt so good to be clean-shaven again after all these months. I’d just have to wait a while for the freshly-shaven skin to tan to the same shade as the rest of my face.

At the top of the steps I turned briefly to Major Cowley who was standing quietly next to Stan in the open doorway, but I didn’t know what to say. Under the circumstances sorry seemed too blasé, and I wasn’t one for overt displays at the best of times.

The Major held out his hand for shaking, and suddenly that seemed the right thing to do. I took it and shook, and if I held on to it for slightly longer than I should, neither he nor I said anything about it.

“Take care of yourself, laddie.”

I nodded, feeling choked up, but there was one more thing I needed from him. “Can you look out for Ray? He’s …”

Cowley’s hand squeezed mine firmly. “You know we will. All of us.” Next to him, Stan nodded emphatically. As the Major’s hand dropped away Stan stepped forward and gently patted my shoulder.

“Good luck, Andy.” He grinned when he realised his faux pas. “I mean Bodie. That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“Andy is fine, mate.”

I took a deep breath and turned around.

“Come on, then.” Murphy’s grip tightened momentarily. “Let’s get you somewhere safe.”

“I don’t think that place exists.” I muttered as we started down the steps. Under the circumstances I think I was entitled to feel somewhat macabre.

I’m embarrassed to admit it but by the time we were at the bottom of the steps I was sweating like a stuck pig and my legs were visibly shaking. Who’d have thought getting creased by a bullet in the side would have such an effect on your body. I was profoundly grateful for Murphy’s support. Even more so when a scuffle on the gravel from the direction of the walled garden had all of us whirling around, myself included which turned out to be a bad idea. Murphy braced himself as he momentarily took all my weight.

There was no danger, though, just Ray, and we all breathed a sigh of relief, although in my case I was just breathing through the pain.

He looked so young, then: young and bewildered. His curls were tousled, like he’d been running his fingers through them constantly. In hindsight, he probably had, assuming the streaks of colour I could see were paint and not hair dye.

The garish colours on his face stood out even more in the daylight, and I tried not to stare at the ring of bruises around his neck. Krivas had come so close to ridding the world on the only person I had ever loved more than life itself.

I took a deep breath, and straightened up.

“Give me five minutes, mate?” I asked Murphy.

He hesitated, then nodded decisively and released his grip. I steadied myself and was able to make my own way over to Ray, and I was quite proud that I didn’t use up too much of my allocated five minutes in reaching him.

“How you doin’, sunshine?” His left eyebrow rose in the way that it did when he was about to say something scathing. But really, he didn’t need to speak. I could see exactly how he was doing by just looking into those beautiful eyes of his.

I gently cupped his left cheek, only realising I’d used my bandaged hand when I noticed the contrast between the stark white of the bandage and the deep colours of the bruise. It was oddly hypnotic. “It’s all over now.”

Ray’s eyes closed briefly. “Never has a truer word been spoken.”

“Everything’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

He didn’t answer, and I couldn’t bear the silence.

“When this is all over, I’ll …”

“Don’t.” Ray interrupted in a hoarse whisper. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“I want to keep them.”

“I know you do.” He smiled briefly, sadly. “I spoke to Murphy. He told me what you are going to do. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it to myself,” he added when he saw my momentary look of fear.

“You could come with me.” I had no idea I was going to say that until the words were out of my mouth.

“I wish I could.”

I latched onto that like a drowning man clinging to a life raft. “I could ask Murphy.” I was half-turning away from him before I really thought about it, or all the implications.

“No.” Ray’s quiet negation shattered the hope that had suddenly flared. “I wish I could come with you, Andy … er, Bodie, but I can’t. My place is here, with my Grandfather.”

I knew it was. There was no-one else to support the old man, not family anyway, and when old Mr Doyle finally passed, without Ray the estate would have to be sold. If Ray disappeared with me into a new life and quite possibly a new world, the old man’s heart would break. I could not do that to his grandfather any more than he could.

My own heart was close to breaking, but I knew I would survive it. A little voice deep inside me was whispering that I deserved to live without Ray as penance for the life I had lead up to now. It was very hard to ignore that voice.

“Bodie.” I heard from behind me, and glanced back to see Murphy standing patiently. “One more minute, okay?” I acknowledged him with a quick nod.

“Ray, I don’t know what will happen when all this is over. But I’ll find a way to let you know I’m alright, I promise.”

I leant forward and pressed my lips against his. I didn’t care that Murphy was standing behind me, or that everyone stood by the cars and on the steps could see. I pulled away and whispered, for him alone to hear “I love you.” I kissed him once again, briefly, then turned around and walked away from him.

Murphy helped me into the back seat of the car, then slid in beside me. Jax took one final look around the grounds, then sat behind the steering wheel. The Mercedes engine purred softly to life as he turned the ignition key. And then we were moving, driving forward, passed Ray who hadn’t moved. I smiled briefly but he didn’t respond and then we were in the trees, and the house and the staff and Ray were all out of sight.

I screwed my eyes tightly shut, refusing to let any tears fall. I would not let the world, or at the very least my minders, see what a broken man I was. At that moment it felt like I had lost everything and I wondered if the price of redemption was too much to bear.

But as the days passed into weeks, and the weeks passed into months, and I healed and testified against Krivas and my old gang, and then served my time, the pain began to lessen and my months with the Doyle family became a fond memory.

Fifteen months into his sentence William Andrew Philip Bodie was fatally wounded by a fellow inmate wielding a shiv and died on the operating table, and Peter Skellern was born. Once I was released from prison and I had reclaimed my meagre belongings if not my life, there was not one day that went by without me looking at the sketch of Ray and me on horseback, that day we had ridden around the lake. And I often found myself studying the arts section in the daily national newspapers just for a sight of his name. I missed him so much.

But now it was all over, with Krivas unlikely to see the light of day again, I began settling into my new life as Peter. Working as a mechanic in a small market town in the north of England wasn’t so hard, and I found the quiet life suited me. I certainly didn’t miss the constant looking over my shoulder.

And I kept my promise to Ray. Two and a half years after I kissed him goodbye, on his birthday I took out a classified ad in the Times: To my Lord and Master, I’m ready for you to take charge any time you want, with all my love, your obedient servant A.

Each day for the next week I bought a copy of the Times, and each day I sat down in the little cafe across the road from the garage to read it while I had my lunch. One week later to the day, there was an answer. I’ve no idea if anyone saw me grinning like a loon when I read Ray’s reply, and what’s more, I didn’t care. A, you were never my obedient servant, but I love you anyway, your ever loving Lord and Master.

~ END ~