Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 2 ¤
The proud hunters, chilled and thoroughly damp to the knees from their trek through the fields, made their way home as the frail sun, having reached its shallow winter zenith in a rapidly greying sky, struggled its way westward. An exhausted Gracie rode on Steed’s shoulders, dressed in William’s slightly over-large hand-me-down trousers, jumper, boots, and wax jacket. Having taken her duties as bearer very seriously, she was still wearing the knapsack that she had insisted on carrying despite it being almost as big as she was. Steed kept one hand on her back to steady her, having tucked the unloaded air guns under his other arm. William carried the string of three rabbits they had caught, obviously footsore but just as obviously resolved to show that he was as tough and tireless as his uncle.
William had been disappointed to learn that they weren’t going to go after rabbits right away: Steed insisted that first he needed to learn how to shoot at a target that wasn’t moving, before he could take aim at one that was. So he had marched the children well away from the house, to a stone wall that divided his sister’s family’s property from that of the neighboring farmer who had given them permission to hunt rabbits on his land, where Steed set up the tins his sister had saved and then proceeded to teach the children how to handle a gun safely (“We never point a gun at a person, and any gun you ever see is always loaded. Always.”) and how to be conscientious hunters (“We kill the game as quickly and painlessly as possible, we never kill what we’re not willing or able to eat, and we never, ever shoot at animals or birds of any kind for fun.”)
Gracie, whom Steed permitted to shoot at the tins but not at the rabbits (“Shooting at rabbits is real hunting, and you need to be ten to do that”) had turned out to be quite a good shot once she got the hang of it. This irritated her brother somewhat, since he took a bit longer to improve his aim. But after an hour or so of putting holes in a row of unfortunate metal cans, Steed deemed his troops ready for the next phase of the operation, whereupon they piled the cans back into the bag, which they left at the foot of the wall to be fetched home and discarded later. (“Good hunters always tidy after themselves,” said Steed.) Then they climbed over a nearby stile and went in search of dinner.
Farmer Haskins had given them directions to three likely places where they might find rabbits. They had no luck at the first warren, because the breeze shifted round at a most inopportune time. It carried their scent towards the grazing animals, sending them scurrying into their burrows before Steed or William could so much as take aim. The second warren, nearly a mile beyond the first, yielded two of their catch, taken in lightning succession by Steed after they had bolted at the sound of William’s errant shot. The children were starting to droop at that point, even after an infusion of tea and cake; and over William’s objection that he could so go on, that he couldn’t go back empty-handed, it wouldn’t be right, Steed deemed it wise to head for home. However, he promised that they would retrace their steps instead of going by a more direct route, so that on the way they could stop again at the first warren. This time, the breeze behaved itself, and the last contribution to the rabbit-pie feast was bagged by an immensely proud William.
As they came in view of the back of the farmhouse, the kitchen door opened and a stout woman with a braided coil of greying fair hair pinned to the top of her head stepped out and waved to them. Forgetting his weariness, William ran the remaining thirty yards to show Mrs Jenkins their catch and regale her with the story of how they had been bagged, and by whom. Steed strode up a few moments later, then swung Gracie down effortlessly with one arm, where she stood blinking with tiredness.
“Good morning, Mrs Jenkins,” he said, “or is it afternoon now?”
“It’s good to see you, Mr Steed,” she replied. “And it’s about half past noon. I put the kettle and a pot of soup on as soon as I caught sight of you, so if we can get everyone inside and into some warm, dry clothes, I’ll fix you up a good hot meal.”
“But what about the rabbits?” said William.
“Hand those to me, dearie, and I’ll bring them to Mr Jenkins to dress for the pies while you three get warmed up.”
“Is Mr Jenkins at home?” asked Steed. “I have to go fetch a bag of tins we left near the wall, so I may as well bring these to him while you see to the children.”
“Very good, sir. You’ll find him in the glasshouse near the stables. Come along, children,” she said, putting a hand on each of their shoulders and gently propelling them forward. “Let’s get indoors out of the cold, shall we?” She glanced at the sky. “My, it looks as though it might snow tonight.”
Perked up by the need to move, and not to be outdone by her brother, Gracie announced, “I was the bearer. I carried the knapsack the whole way. And it wasn’t heavy at all.”
“Did you indeed?” said Mrs Jenkins. “That’s quite a feat.”
Before she could get them quite inside, William turned to Steed. “You will tell Mr Jenkins which rabbit is mine, won’t you, Uncle?”
Steed smiled. “I most certainly shall,” he said. “Now get inside and mind Mrs Jenkins. I’ll be back presently.”
He watched until Mrs Jenkins had herded her charges into the warm kitchen and closed the door behind them. He turned to his right and walked towards the stables, over which was a mews flat in which Mr and Mrs Jenkins lived, the lower portion of which had been turned into a garage for motor cars, and beside which was the glasshouse in which Mr Jenkins, who did the gardening on the Burrows’ property, grew various plants, both edible and decorative.
It was odd, Steed mused as he made his way there, how much it was possible to love children who weren’t actually one’s own. Not that he had any, or ever really expected to. Children were marvellous creatures, but he wasn’t sure he was meant to have them. His job was so dangerous, and called him away so often. No, perhaps it was better simply to enjoy being an uncle. Less to worry about that way.
As Steed crunched across the gravel in front of the stable-cum-garage he spared a glance down the drive towards the gate that divided the Burrows’ property from the road. A white van had pulled up onto the wrong side of the road, on the verge alongside the low wall on the right-hand side of the gate. On the van’s side panel was a roundel in which a bust of the two-faced Roman god Janus had been drawn, above which the name “JANVARY SVRVEY, LTD” was printed in a font meant to resemble the lettering found on ancient Roman monuments.
Steed paused. Helen and James had left for Town while he was out with the children. They were going to a New Year’s party being thrown by one of James’ colleagues in the City, where James worked as a barrister. They intended to spend the night in London and return some time in the afternoon on New Year’s Day: one of the reasons Steed was visiting was to help Mrs Jenkins look after William and Gracie while their parents were away. Helen had told Steed that they were expecting no tradesmen or visitors of any kind. It was certainly possible that the van’s purpose was entirely innocent, but long experience and a robust sense of self-preservation had taught Steed that anything out of the ordinary must be treated as suspect until one was completely sure that it wasn’t. He started down the drive towards the van, but as he did so, it drove off, its number plate obscured by the wall. It wasn’t worth trying to chase it down; there was a bend in road not far from the gate, and the van would have driven round it long before Steed got to the gate himself.
Frowning, Steed walked over to the glasshouse, where he knocked on the door. He entered at Jenkins’ invitation.
“Hello, Mr Steed,” said the older man, wiping his hands on a rag that had seen better days.
“Good afternoon, Jenkins,” said Steed. He gazed around the glasshouse, then closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of freshly turned earth and green and growing things. Jenkins is a wizard with plants, Steed thought, opening his eyes and noticing the boxes of bulbs that had been stored away for the winter, and the bright yellow fruit of the small lemon tree Jenkins had planted in a gargantuan pot and somehow coaxed into bearing. It was always a treat to come into this glasshouse. And Jenkins himself was well worth talking to, wise in his own way, and a shrewd observer of human behavior. Steed wondered how the other man had managed to hone that skill, given that he spent most of his time working alone on the grounds, or in the company of his wife and Steed’s sister’s family who, though delightful, intelligent people, made up a very small sampling of humanity indeed.
Jenkins noticed the rabbits. “Ah, so these are the fruits of your labors today, are they? The Missus told me you might come by with them.”
“Yes,” said Steed, handing them to the other man. “And I am under strict orders to tell you that the one with the white-tipped hind feet was bagged by Master William himself.”
“Was it, now?” chuckled Jenkins.
“It was, indeed,” said Steed, trying (and failing) not to beam with pride. “Mrs Jenkins was wondering whether you might dress these as soon as possible and then bring them down to the kitchen; she’d like to get started on the pies so that we can have them for dinner tonight.”
“Right you are, sir. I’ll have them down within the hour.”
“Thank you, Jenkins. And may I say that your lemon tree looks spectacular? I think the last time I was here it hadn’t even flowered yet, and now look at it!”
Now Jenkins glowed with pride. “Yes, sir, it was a rum go getting it to take at all, but just at the end of summer it suddenly decided that it may as well flower and fruit, and here we are. Mrs Jenkins is planning to make a lemon cake with them tomorrow.”
“I shall look forward to that,” said Steed in all earnestness. He was well acquainted with Mrs Jenkins’ baking, and knew it as a glory not to be missed.
“Say, Jenkins,” Steed said, “what do you know about a firm called ‘January Survey’? I saw one of their vans parked on the verge outside the gate just now, and I remember Helen saying that she wasn’t expecting any tradesmen.”
“January Survey,” murmured Jenkins. “No, can’t say as I’ve heard of them, but there’s them as have been building some new estates just east of the village for the past six months now. Builders are fellows who can never leave well enough alone; maybe they’re out looking for more land, and think something around here might suit?”
Steed acknowledged that that might be the case, and let the subject drop. The men exchanged a few more pleasantries and a bit more news, and then Steed left the gardener to his work and started back to the house to see how Mrs Jenkins and the children were getting on.
On a whim, he first went to the foot of the drive, where he looked up and down the road. There was no sign of the strange van. He opened the gate, and slipped through, closing it quietly behind him. He stood, listening, watching. Then he looked at the ground. In the chalky soil of the verge behind the place the van had been parked were three indentations: probably the marks of the surveyor’s theodolite tripod. Evidently they had been making some kind of survey and Steed had seen them just after they had packed away and gotten into the van. There was no way of telling which direction the theodolite had been pointed, although the marks certainly suggested that it could have been used to measure something on the Burrows’ property. Not for the first time in the past few days, Steed wished that Mrs Peel were there to help him. But she was in Scotland visiting an elderly cousin of her mother’s, and wouldn’t be back until the end of next week.
With another glance around, the bag of tins momentarily forgotten in his distraction over the van, Steed went back through the gate, latching it carefully behind him. Then he strode up the drive and around the house, where he entered the kitchen to find it fragrant with the scents of soup and fresh bread and tea, and full of the piping voices of children recalling their day for Mrs Jenkins.