So Beverley told Vince all about the man who was lurking among the trees on the evening of her arrival.
‘But he could have been next door’s gardener, couldn’t he?’ said Vince.
‘If so, he’d strayed over the boundary and was gardening in the dark.’
‘Or he could have been an intruder of some sort…’
‘Oh, you think that’s better, do you? – A criminal lurking in the grounds? Better than a very helpful ghost, who happened to save my life?’
‘Sorry – that was tactless of me. But I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘Don’t you, now?’
‘No, I don’t believe in any sort of life continuing after death. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.’
‘Well, I don’t think Derek would agree with you.’
‘If I see him, I’ll ask him.’
‘So will I.’
‘And while you’re at it, maybe you could ask him what happened to the Prototype? And his notes. I mean, the people who killed him probably destroyed them, but I’ve always wondered. It wasn’t like him not to have a back-up. Whatever he did, he always had a back-up. Very well-organised man. Very bright. Very funny, too. God, I miss him.’
The following day Beverley called round to see Alice.
‘Good morning,’ began Alice. ‘How can I help…? Oh, is it Beverley? Goodness, I didn’t recognise you.’
‘Yes, this is the other me – the clean, sane, normal-looking one. I’ve brought you a cyclamen to say, “Thank you.”’
‘Well, how lovely,’ said Alice. ‘Let’s find a niche for it on my window sill.’
Her window sill turned out to be so full of lush plants that Beverley couldn’t see where it could possibly fit, but Alice squeezed it in.
‘It turned out that Bertie was visiting Vince Shotter,’ said Beverley. ‘He came round to apologise.’
‘As well he might! He probably just didn’t think. He’s actually a very nice man, under all the dirt and hair.’
‘Yes, I thought so, too. He took Bertie for a walk for me.’
‘Well, that would have suited them both. They dote on each other. Of course, Bertie used to belong to Vince’s friend, who was the previous owner of your house.’
‘He was Derek’s dog?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘So why didn’t he go to Vince after Derek’s death?’
‘I think it was all agreed between the Porters and Derek’s family. Vince didn’t get a look-in.’
‘That’s sad. But it’s obvious Bertie wants to be with Vince. Why don’t the Porters just let him go?’
‘That’s a very good question, Beverley, because they don’t strike me as dog-lovers at all. I’ll tell you what I think. That they liked the idea of owning a Poogle, and it was part of the deal when they bought the house. But they find the reality a bit of a nuisance. At least, they don’t walk him very often, which is probably why he escapes. But for some reason they’re not prepared to let him go.’
‘That’s a bit silly.’
‘I call it dog-in-the-manger.’
‘So do I.’
‘Beverley, come in! Nice to see you,’ said Vince. ‘You’ll have to take me as you find me. I’m not the world’s best housekeeper.’
‘Don’t worry, Vince. My expectations are quite low.’
‘Sensible woman. Tea?’
‘No thanks. I’ve overdone the tea, lately.’
‘That would be lovely.’
Every horizontal surface in the kitchen was covered in tools, books, boxes of parts, or dirty pans and crockery, which was more or less what Beverley had expected. But by re-arranging various piles, Vince managed to unearth a coffee machine, two mugs, and two raggedy armchairs, and soon they were cosily ensconced with surprisingly good cappuccinos.
‘I wanted to pick your brains, Vince.’
‘Go right ahead.’
‘Bertie isn’t eating very well. Actually, I don’t think he likes the food the Porters have left for him.’
‘Why, what sort of food is it? Cheap, horrible stuff?’
‘It is, really.’
‘No wonder he goes visiting. Other people give him nice things to eat.’
‘So I’d be doing him a favour if I let him escape from time to time?’
‘Hmm… No, you’re probably wise to keep him under control. After all, you’re the one responsible for him. Nobody else is.’
‘Alright. Maybe I’ll buy him some decent food, myself.’
‘No, Bev – why should you do that? Tell you what, though. I’d be happy to buy it for you. The Porters need never know.’
‘That’s very kind of you, Vince. The problem is, all the dog food they’ve stacked in the cupboard will still be there when they return.’
‘So calculate how much you would have used, and throw it away.’
‘I don’t know… I don’t think I can do that. It doesn’t feel right.’
‘Okay, so what you do is, every day you put out two lots of food – theirs and mine. Bertie won’t touch theirs, so it’ll go off and then you can throw it away. Does that feel better?’
‘Actually – yes, it does!’ said Beverley, starting to laugh. ‘Silly, isn’t it?’
‘Oh well, whatever gets you through the night,’ said Vince. ‘Or the day, or whatever,’ he continued, suddenly awkward.
Oh dear, thought Beverley, he’s embarrassed himself by making an oblique reference to sex.
‘Tell me,’ she asked, to cover his blushes, ‘Should I buy a bone for Bertie?’
‘Well, it’s a nice idea,’ said Vince with relief, ‘But if I were you I wouldn’t, because he’ll dig a hole in the lawn to bury it, then forget where he’s put it and search for it by digging lots of other holes in the lawn.’
‘He’s a great digger, is Bertie. It wouldn’t bother me – well, you can see what sort of lawn I’ve got. But it would upset the Porters.’
Now that Vince had relaxed again, Beverley relaxed too. And while they were chatting it occurred to her that hidden beneath the hair and ragged clothing was a good-looking man. He had pale, almost colourless eyes, defined by a dark ring round the edge of the iris, and they were actually quite beautiful. His features under all the hair and stubble were large and well defined, and his body was tall, slim and muscular, though slightly stooped at the shoulder. Scrubbed up, he would be a dish. She wondered if he’d ever scrubbed up in his life.
The following evening after supper, Beverley was on the carpet in front of the fire, giving Bertie a tummy rub, when he stiffened and raised his head. Then he rolled over, leapt to his feet, and dashed to the lounge door, whining to be let out.
‘What is it, Bertie?’
She opened the door. He sped to the back door and whined again. Knowing the front gate was closed, she let him out. And as he burst through the doorway and hurtled towards the boundary hedge, she heard, faint but clear in the frosty air: ‘Herbert! Come!’
What was Vince doing in the garden? she wondered, and followed Bertie along the brick path. It was a clear night with a waxing moon, so she didn’t need a torch, and had no intention of going anywhere near the drop.
There was a rowan tree growing close to the hedge, and Bertie had stopped in front of it, standing to attention with his chest out, in his prize-winner-at-the-dog-show posture. And Beverley could just make out the shape of a man, standing in the shadow of the tree. She could also hear his voice, though she couldn’t make out what it was saying. There was either something wrong with her hearing or something wrong with the voice, because it seemed to be coming from a great distance. Then the hairs stood up along her spine. Of course it wasn’t Vince. It was Derek.
A strange but irresistible feeling came over her, that this was Derek’s house and Derek’s dog, and the two of them were having a private meeting which was none of her business.
So she turned around and walked back to the house.
Ten minutes later Bertie yipped at the door, and Beverley let him in. He smiled at her, wagging his tail furiously and pressing his flanks against her legs. Then he flopped down on his bed and went straight to sleep.
The following afternoon, Bertie went missing again. Beverley didn’t panic this time, but after searching the garden, went straight to Vince. Luckily, he’d just got back from a shift at the factory.
‘No, he’s not here, Bev,’ said Vince. ‘Did you leave the gate open?
‘No! That’s what I don’t understand.’
‘I suppose he could have scrambled down the bank at the back.’
‘What! Over that sheer drop?’
‘Well, it’s not so steep further along, behind the boundary hedge. Look, give it another half hour, and if he hasn’t returned, come and fetch me and we’ll go looking together.’
‘Oh, would you mind? That would be fantastic.’
‘No problem. But he might be back home already.’
And so he was. Lying on the step, covered in mud, with something in his mouth. He leaped to his feet at the sight of her, wagging his tail.
‘Herbert, sit!’ commanded Beverley before he got mud all over her, and was gratified when it worked.
‘Herbert, stay!’ she added, and nipped into the house to get his lead from the hall table.
‘Herbert, stand!’ she ordered, and he did. Goodness, this was fun. She could happily order this dog around all day. She clipped the lead to his collar, took him across the road and up the side of Vince’s house, and knocked on the kitchen door at the back.
‘Ah, the digging dog!’ laughed Vince, and ‘Herbert, sit!’ before Bertie could cover him in mud.
‘He’s got something in his mouth, Vince. It looks like a sheet of paper.’
‘Herbert, drop!’ said Vince, and Bertie dropped the item into his hand. It was indeed a rather muddy sheet of paper. Vince froze, suddenly serious.
In the kitchen he cleared an area of table top and laid the paper on top of it. He smoothed it out, placed a hand on either side of it and, leaning on his braced arms, stood looking down at it for some minutes. Beverley could vaguely make out a labelled diagram and some writing. Finally he cleared his throat, and looked up at her.
‘What is it?’ asked Beverley. ‘Is it…?’
‘I’m not sure. But I’d like to see where Bertie’s been digging. Can I come over and have a look?’
Behind the boundary hedge the sheer drop morphed into a steep slope, with trees and shrubs growing out of it. Bertie led them to a gap in the hedge, and turned, smiling and wagging his tail.
‘You see? He wants me to take a look,’ said Vince.
‘He does seem to… But Vince, it’s very steep. Shouldn’t we get a rope? Just so I don’t become chief suspect in a murder investigation.’
‘And I’ll shut Bertie in the shed so he doesn’t get in the way.’
So Vince fetched his rock-climbing equipment, secured a rope to himself and the trunk of the rowan tree, and squeezed through the hedge.
‘Vince!’ called Beverley as soon as he had disappeared from view.
‘Yes?’ came his voice sounding rather muffled.
‘I can’t see you. I need to know what’s happening. Sorry.’
‘Come through, then, if you can. There’s a place where you can stand.’
It was more of a squeeze for Beverley than it had been for the others, but there was indeed a small platform on the other side of the hedge.
‘I still can’t see you.’
‘I’m just below you. Lie down on the platform and look over the edge.’
So she eased herself down onto the muddy ground and peered over the edge. There was Vince’s head, immediately below her. He was wedged between the slope and a birch tree growing out of it, and seemed in no immediate danger of falling.
‘Well, I’ve found the spot,’ he said, indicating the wall of earth below her. He’s made quite a deep hole here. I want to see if I can open it up a bit more.’
‘Would you like a trowel?’
‘A trowel would be perfect.’
It took him another hour and a half. Bertie had unearthed a plastic box of papers, and had managed to open it and mix mud with the contents. Some of the papers were scattered down the slope, and Vince collected them all. Then he dug deeper into the bank, and uncovered another, larger box. Which contained the Prototype.
Vince had said that Derek always had a back-up. And here it was.
Part 4 soon
© Sue J Davis 2016
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