The traditional glass of sloe gin was stronger than expected, and alcoholic enough that he refused a second although the other men were not as circumspect. Then he took his seat for the journey to the first drive: a couple of cars for the paying visitors, the loaders in a wagon, beater and dogs in another and a horse drawn cart following behind to transport the day’s trophies afterwards. A rough and jolting journey, his back still sore from sleeping in the chair and his whole attention fixed on his environs and fixing the details in his mind: the wide sluices and narrow bridges, the sweep of water in the distance and the dark woodlands, the sky heavy with the promise of more rain. He hoped Jackson had managed to get the car up to the House. He did not relish the thought of coming out here again at night without his Enfield. A shotgun, however accurate, didn’t have the range or accuracy required for his purposes.
They pulled to a halt close to a wooden lodge, tables set out ready for the midday meal. The major took charge, busying himself with the task of assigning pegs and handing a paper over to Straker with a hint of a malicious grin. ‘I look forward to seeing if a damned Yank can shoot as well as an Englishman Get me a couple of brace and we’ll call it payment for last night’s accommodation. Get more and you can stay another night. Otherwise…’
The smirk was enough warning. There would be no easy way out of this, no excuses accepted, no gentleman’s agreement. Halliwell had the look of a man who could cause trouble and make things difficult, even to the extent of abandoning Straker out here when the day was over. He nodded. ‘Fair enough.’
They set off, surrounded by boisterous gundogs and cautious loaders. The ground, soft and damp after the rain the previous day, was easy underfoot and on any other occasion he would have enjoyed the walk. But not today. He was acutely aware of Halliwell watching him, of the man’s glare of disapproval when Jackson led him to his appointed peg without offering to assist anyone else.
Not a favourable spot. He was at the far end of the drive, and lower down than the others. A deliberate move on the part of the Major? The chance of him getting any good sightings was poor, but he prepared himself for the cries of the beaters moving closer through the woods opposite and took one of the unloaded guns from Jackson, breaking it to check the barrel before closing it and swinging it up to his shoulder to get a feel for the weapon.
A solid piece, well-balanced and spotlessly clean, the sights in line, and he handed it back for loading. A quick glance at Jackson at his side, the first shotgun prepared and held in the approved manner, although he felt sick. He crushed the reaction down, counted the slow numbers. He could do this. All he had to do was shoot the birds. Birds. Not men. And although he hated killing, hated the noise of guns and the scream of the dying, this had to be done if he was to remain here for more than a day. And he needed that time to discover if there was any truth to the rumours, though he already knew what he was going to find. He could hear Halliwell arguing somewhere nearby but he closed his mind to the intrusion and waited, the gun heavy in his hands, his heart pounding.
A squeak of wings, a clattering of birds from the woods and he swung the gun round ahead of the flight, aware of the sounds of guns to his left. A double shot, the stock recoiling against his shoulder and a mixture of shame and pride as his prey gave the briefest of flutterings before dropping motionless to the ground. He opened the gun, passing it stock first into Jackson’s waiting hands and took the next. A second volley, his aim as true as it had been in France. And yet these were innocent creatures, with no intention of harming him. Had it not been for Halliwell’s unspoken threats he would have walked away, but as it was the only thing he could do was bring death with as much swiftness as possible.
They fell into an easy rhythm, the two of them. The gun broken, cartridges ejected, handed over to Jackson. Swinging the reloaded second gun up to his shoulder, the muzzle moving ahead of the birds and then the pull on the trigger. Dogs bounding to fetch the fallen, the shouts of the beaters, the smell of gunpowder, the cries of dying birds from further up the line. And then it was over, the last few birds gone, and he breathed a sigh of relief, stepping aside and handing the gun back to Jackson. He could hear the beaters approaching through the thick undergrowth of the wood. One of the dogs dropped a bird at his feet before running off to retrieve another victim. He bent down, picking up the pheasant to carry it back. A warm and heavy weight, head hanging limp, the glossy feathers stained with blood. One eye stared at him in accusation. In silence he handed it over to be hung with the others.
Lunch was as excruciating as breakfast, Halliwell complaining about the beaters and his peg and the condition of the dogs until Straker pleaded a headache and went to sit in the shelter of one of the trees, away from the profiteer and his grievances.
‘The birds do not have a quick death at his hands. He is a poor shot and the other men know it.’ Jackson leaned against a nearby tree, arms folded. ‘He fires at birds that are too high or out of range because he cannot bear to be seen as a lesser man, or bested be someone like yourself – a newcomer and a foreigner at that – and it is all too easy to for men like these to forget your efforts for our country in the last years. To people like Major Thomas Halliwell, success is only to be measured by how much you acquire. He has few true friends here.’
‘You have a way of looking at people and understanding them I think? Seeing to the heart of a man, past all the pretence and hard exterior. A rare talent.’ Straker took a cigarette out of his case and lit it, then, safe in the knowledge that they were out of sight, handed the case to his valet. ‘Please. Take one.’
Jackson tipped one of the cigarettes out, catching one-handed the lighter tossed to him. ‘In my former homeland I was a psychologist as well as a medical doctor. In 1910 I came over to England in an effort to escape the poverty in my country but I was not permitted to practise here. And so I ended up here, a servant, utilising my skills in order to get whatever work I could. It has not been a hard life, though I regret the loss of my vocation.’
‘A waste of your experience. We have few enough doctors as it is.’ Straker tossed his cigarette into the damp grass. ‘Time to go. The major will be getting impatient.’
The transport was waiting for them, Halliwell grumbling and morose as they walked to the new line further on and closer to the Hall. He could see the rooftop in the distance, a symbol of the Eshley heritage and its associated power and wealth, and now abandoned. He was glad of Jackson’s presence. A different thin mist was creeping up the inlets, shimmering through the trees to cover his coat in silver, the thin fog muting the calls of the beaters as they worked their way through the wood. Jackson was ready with the second gun but there was no need. Nothing moved out of the trees, no cries of panicking birds or clatter of wings. The shouts of the beaters faded into silence. The dogs whined, slinking away from the tree line to cower close to their handlers. He shivered, broke the gun and ejected the cartridges, handing them back to his loader before he put the empty gun down on the wet grass. ‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s the mist. Something in the mist scares the birds more than the beaters and the guns. This has happened before and people report figures in the distance. Green-faced men in red garments, who are nowhere to be seen when the mists fade.’ Jackson’s murmur was for his ears only. ‘This is a place of death and horror and nightmares. You should have stayed well away from here, Colonel.’
Halliwell could be heard cursing the incompetence of the beaters, then his voice grew louder and for a moment he came into sight, marching across the open ride towards the line of undergrowth and trees on the other side. A brisk march that took him to the edge of the wood and then he disappeared into the shadows under the trees, still carrying his shotgun.
‘Halliwell, you fool. Come back!’ Straker’s voice was muffled by the fog, and he started running in a desperate attempt to reach the man before… then a gun fired. A single blast followed by a hideous scream. Then silence. He stopped running for just long enough to shout a brisk order to the other men to put their guns down and stay back out of danger, then he ran on, heedless of the rough ground threatening to twist his ankle or worse. The beaters on the other side of the trees had fallen silent and he could hear Jackson close on his heels as he raced through the mist to the dark shadows of the now silent woods. ‘Stay behind me.’ A gasped order. He hoped the man had the sense to obey.
He could only guess at where the Major was, all he had to go on was that last scream and his own heightened senses: the smell of blood, the rustle of ferns, twigs cracking in the distance, a flash of silver disappearing into the mist. Too late, and anyway, he could do nothing with bystanders in the vicinity. He had no hope that Halliwell would be alive. Jackson was still close behind him, not from fear, but following his orders to the letter. A good man, his skills wasted. The smell of blood, and worse, grew stronger.
And there. A spread-eagled shape, a swathe of scarlet blood staining the sparse undergrowth and pale yellow leaves. He heard Jackson mutter something in a foreign language; a prayer maybe or perhaps an imprecation. He held up his hand to warn the man against any further sound or movement then crept forward, boots silent on the damp ground, holding his breath until he was kneeling beside the ruined body. The gaping wound was all he needed to see, the shotgun on the ground close by, the face contorted in agony. And he had left his own gun behind. Too late now to think about the danger. He could only hope that the killers had left.
He pushed himself to his feet, aware of the silence and Jackson moving forward to examine the body.
‘But this is not a gunshot wound. He has been -.’
‘Not another word.’ A harsh response, yet it was vital no one else saw this. There would be questions asked, search parties organised, bringing everyone’s attention to the area and that was the last thing Straker wanted right now. He picked up Halliwell’s shotgun. There was little time left before the rest of the party decided to disobey him and come to see what had happened. ‘Move away. Now.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘What must be done. Now get out of my way.’
He thought Jackson was about to object, but the man did as ordered, walking past to stand well behind and wait.
It was a vile thing to do, even to a dead man, but there was no help for it, not now. He aimed the gun at Halliwell’s already ruined torso, fired, broke the gun and placed it on the ground with shaking hands. Only then did he turn to face Jackson. Despite his claims to be a doctor, Jackson was ashen. Disgust in his expression as well as shock at the callous brutality.
‘What purpose did that serve? The desecration of a body? Please tell me Colonel.’
‘There’s no time to explain; I can hear the others coming.’ Straker pulled off his borrowed coat, draping it over Halliwell’s upper body. Not long enough to hide all the damage but enough to conceal the look of horror in those dead eyes. Crimson seeped into the dark grey wool. ‘You let me do the talking, understand? Otherwise this is going to get worse.’
The rest of the party, drawn by the second shot, barged through the undergrowth towards them and then stopped at the edge of the small clearing, indistinct figures shrouded in the dappled fog.
Straker shook his head. ‘An accident. It would have been instantaneous from the look of it. He must have stumbled, snagged the trigger somehow and caught the blast full on. Not difficult to do in conditions like this.’ He waved a hand at the rough undergrowth. The mist was lifting now, the dark trunks glistening with fine droplets. Somewhere close by he heard a bird call a warning, then a clatter of wings as a bouquet of pheasants took flight. ‘You all heard his gun go off and by the time we got here there was nothing anyone could have done.’
‘There was a second shot.’ An accusation from one of the men. Simpson, if his memory was correct.
‘That was my fault entirely. Jackson can verify to that. I picked up the Major’s gun and it went off.’ He turned to the other man. ‘You were here, you saw what happened.’
A long pause. He clenched his fist, wondering if he had been right to trust this man.
‘Yesss.’ A drawn-out hiss, as if the word caused pain. ‘Mr Straker lifted the shotgun to move it to a place of safety and it fired without warning. I suspect it may have been damaged when the Major fell. A fortunate thing that Mr Straker was pointing it away from myself, otherwise I too might be lying there.’
Simpson bent down and drew back the sodden coat before anyone could stop him. ‘Dear God. The whole of his…’ He turned round, one hand over his mouth and hurried into the undergrowth. No one spoke. The sounds of muted birdsong, branches rustling in a gentle breeze, restless feet shuffling, someone retching. Straker stood there in silence unable to think of anything to say to these men, these strangers. He wanted a cigarette but it would be seen as disrespectful, though he had done it enough times in the camps after an enemy strafing– lighting up a smoke while all around him bodies lay half-submerged in the foul water and mud. The act nothing more than an attempt to ignore the death and destruction and the horror around him for a while. Simpson returned, wiping his mouth, his face ashen. And still no one moved.
He stepped forward. ‘We need a litter. Something to carry the body.’ No one spoke, and he turned round, taking their silence as tacit approval of his authority. ‘Jackson? Fetch a couple of blankets from the cars and then bring the horse and cart down the ride and get as close as you can. The rest of you?’ He pointed to the edge of the wood where sunlight brightened the grass. ‘Find the Head Beater and him to call everyone together. They’re finished for the day. Then go back to the house but don’t speak to anyone other than Cooper about this. Anyone. Understand? Not until Jackson and I return.’
He stood there, coatless and shivering slightly in the cool air, hands thrust deep in his trouser pockets as he watched them go, murmuring to each other in quiet, concerned voices.
The woods were quiet now, the autumn chill making its presence felt as he waited for Jackson to complete his task. He could smell Halliwell’s blood, a sickening stench that took him back to those days and nights in France. The smell of death, of rot and decay, of burnt flesh. Petrol and the faintest lingering smell of cordite, sharp and sweet against the fouler odours still hanging in the air. He would have moved away from the body, made his way to the open space of the ride where he might be safer, but at the same time it was vital to get as much information as possible from the scene before his self-appointed valet returned.
He had done this too many times before: a meticulous examination of the corpse even with its devastating gunshot wound, a further search of the surrounding area for any traces, any clues, but as usual there was nothing to be found other than a faint trail of footprints leading deeper into the woods. He would not follow the tracks without his own familiar weapons for protection. There was nothing for it but to return to the body and wait for Jackson.
It was over thirty minutes before the doctor returned, laden with tartan rugs and a spare, ill-fitting coat for Straker. They set about making a simple travois to haul the body to the waiting cart. No one else around, just the two of them and the horse. It might have been pleasant under different circumstances: the sun shining down, the creak of cart wheels, Jackson silent and efficient, a slow walk back to the house, the others long since gone in the cars.
In the end it was Jackson who broke the silence. ‘You know what happened don’t you?’ One hand rested on the broad withers of the mare as she ambled along the wide track. ‘You’ve witnessed other men killed the same way.’
‘Yes.’ The blanket covering Halliwell had slipped, revealing a greying face still twisted in horror. He stopped the horse, tugged the shroud straight again.
‘Is that why you are here Colonel? I wondered what such a high-ranking officer such as yourself was doing out here. Shooting parties and old houses? There are far more interesting places in the world than this quiet corner of England.’
‘I heard the rumours. And you said it yourself. A place of death and horror and nightmares. Unexplained deaths during the war, people disappearing, strange sightings in the woods, noises at night. The sluices are the only places I can think of.’ He wiped his hand over his brow. ‘That’s where they’ll be hiding. At least I think so.’
‘In the water?’
‘They hide underwater. In small U-boats.’
‘A U-boat, however small, could not pass through the sluice gates. And there is no way one could travel up the culverts from the coast, even at high tide.’ Jackson stopped walking, turned to face Straker. The mare huffed in annoyance at the delay and stood there, tail flicking. ‘Just what is it you are hiding from me Colonel?’
Straker slapped the horse on her rump and she shook her head and plodded on, hooves throwing up thick clods of muck. ‘Later. I’ll tell you everything when we’re done with the major.’ He moved forward to take hold of the mare’s bridle and lead her on. An unnecessary act – the horse was more than capable of making her own way back to the stables but it gave him something to do, something to occupy his mind. A menial task but comforting in its monotony. Jackson reverted to his former silence and they walked on in a slow march beside the placid mare.