It was late afternoon by the time the Dower House came into view. Straker led the horse round under the portico and halted her as the front door opened to reveal Cooper.
‘Use the servants’ entrance round the back and put him in one of the empty storerooms. Cool enough down there and they’re well out of the way.’ He stepped back, making it clear that he was not prepared to assist in any way.
Another trail round the house, gravel crunching underfoot, and the sky darkening around them. No one spoke as they unloaded the cart, the body already beginning to cool, the blood tacky and staining the rough boards of the cart, the face ashen, the two of them gasping under the deadweight as they carried Halliwell down the back stairs to the dark cellar and laid him on the stone flags. No one spoke. Straker knelt down and began unbuttoning the sodden shirt, only to be pulled back by the butler.
‘What do you think you’re doing? Leave the man alone. Bad enough that he’s dead, but this is beyond the pale.’
Straker shook off the hand on his shoulder and stood. ‘Very well. It can wait until tomorrow. Is the telephone working yet? I need to contact someone urgently.’
‘No. The line is still down.’ Cooper gestured for them to leave. ‘I’ll lock the door for tonight and keep the key. Not that anyone is likely to come down here. Meanwhile – ,’ he waved a hand at Straker. ‘Jackson had your car brought here earlier. You can be on your way.’
‘No.’ Straker tilted his head. ‘I have to stay until the police arrive. Someone needs to tell them exactly what happened. And I was the first on the scene.’
‘Now listen –.’
‘No. You listen to me Cooper. Just for once forget you’re a butler, forget the rules and the protocols. There’s a man lying there, dead, and someone has to take charge. I’m going to go upstairs to have something to eat and then I’m going to get some rest. Don’t even try to make me leave.’ He walked out, Jackson close behind him as the butler locked the door.
The servants’ corridor was bleak and cramped, the stairs uncarpeted and uneven. No worse than most backstairs, but a grim place in which to live, unconsidered by employers. They made their way back to the upper part of the House, emerging into the welcome warmth and brightness of the main hall. The dining room door was ajar and Straker could see the other men from the party sitting round the mahogany table, eating in silence. He pulled out a chair at the far end and sat, numb with cold and the horror of what he had done. And was going to have to do, later.
One of the footmen draped a thick linen napkin over his knee and set a plate in front of him. The food was warm at best, but he ate with a mechanical need for sustenance. He might as well have been eating field rations out of a mess tin; bully beef or chunks of tough meat in grey liquid. He ate, that was all, tasting nothing, his mind filled with the memories of birds falling and guns firing and Halliwell’s terrified scream.
A clink of glass as drinks were refilled and he picked up his wineglass desperate for something to refresh his mouth. The wine was Merlot, rich and dark, and he put it aside untasted.
‘Straker? You seem to have taken charge for some ungodly reason. Care to tell us what happens now?’ Someone spoke from the far end of the table, a slight slurring to the voice.
He looked up. They were all watching him. Waiting. ‘It’s a matter for the police now.’ He shrugged and put his fork down. ‘They’ll confirm it was accidental death, but it’s the end of shooting on the estate. I suggest you get some sleep and in the morning you should make arrangements to leave as soon as possible. There’s no point staying on any longer.’ And it would get them off the estate and out of immediate danger.
There was no outburst of denial, not even one word of objection. He pushed his plate aside, tossed the napkin on the table and walked out.
Jackson was waiting outside, head tilted to one side as if he had been listening for Straker’s footsteps. ‘This way, if you please, Colonel.’ He led the way to a room set off the main hall. The library: walls lined with dark oak bookshelves, a log fire, deep-buttoned leather chairs grouped around small tables, a couple of over-sized sofas facing each other, heavy velvet curtains at tall windows. A bowl of dark golden chrysanthemums stood on a desk next to a locked Tantalus with a single decanter. Someone had placed a tray on one of the tables near the fire: cups and saucers, teapot and milk jug, a small bowl of rough sugar lumps together with a set of silver tongs.
Jackson beckoned him to sit down, picked up the teapot and began pouring, adding a splash of milk to both cups and then, at Straker’s assent, two pieces of sugar to one of the cups before handing it across. ‘I thought you would appreciate some refreshment. I would have provided this earlier, but there was no opportunity. However, this offers us the chance to talk.’
The delicate china cup was hot in his fingers, the tea fresh and strong with the bite of tannin and the sweetness of sugar. He drained the cup, leaned forward to pour another and waved a hand at the chair on the other side of the table. ‘Sit down. Please. But first, I need to make sure we’re not going to be disturbed.’ It was an effort to push himself out of the chair and walk over to the door. The key turned quietly, and he went back to where Jackson was now sitting in the chair opposite his own. ‘I was hoping you might forget, actually.’
‘Never underestimate the memory of a psychologist.’ Jackson gave a wry grin, transforming his features so that he looked as he might have done years ago. ‘The U-Boats. The enemy. You were not talking about the Germans were you.’ It was not a question.
‘I wish it were that simple. I was sent here by my superior to investigate the rumours. Men going missing from the Hall, unexplained deaths, a sense of evil in the woods, in the mist. It’s not the first time I’ve seen victims like Halliwell. It won’t be the last either.’ Straker stirred his tea, the silver spoon catching on the remains of the sugar lump, crushing it out of existence. He put the spoon down on the saucer. One of the logs in the fireplace cracked open and he flinched, just a slight jerk but enough to set the bone china rattling in his hand for a moment.
‘Something stronger perhaps, Colonel? One moment.’ Jackson stood up, his footsteps silent on the thick rugs. Straker put the empty cup down on the tray and leaned back in the depths of the armchair. It would be easy to stay here, to fall asleep in the warmth and quiet of the room. He heard a muttered curse in a foreign language then the rattle of the Tantalus being opened and that peculiar and quite distinctive squeak of a glass stopper as it was extracted. He let his elbows rest on the low arms of the chesterfield and laced his fingers together, wondering how much he should tell this stranger.
‘The enemy. Not Germans, not Russians. Not even any nationality you might know. We call them aliens.’ He spoke into the dark. ‘They don’t use U-Boats, or any sort of craft you might have seen. They …’ He paused. But he had started so it was pointless to stop now, even if his companion laughed at him. Enough people had done that already, one more would make little difference. ‘They don’t come from Earth. They’re from another planet. Mars maybe, perhaps Venus. We’re still working on that.’
Jackson handed over a drink – a more than generous measure of dark amber whisky – and took his seat again. ‘Lord Eshley’s favourite brand. I am the only one with access to it, although one of the footmen has tried yet again to pick the lock. Without success I am pleased to note. As I have the only key I am sure his lordship won’t mind if we help ourselves.’ He took a sip and leaned back, slender fingers wrapped round the fine crystal. ‘So these aliens you are talking about travel in spacecraft. That does not explain why they feel the need to submerge themselves in the culverts, even the larger ones.’
‘I believe there’s something in our air that damages their ships, something that makes them hide underwater. And larger drains like the Hundred Foot are deep enough to accommodate one. Even the shallower cuts, the ones round here for example, might be capable of hiding one of their smaller craft.’ The whisky was stronger than he expected, oily and peaty with more than a hint of smoke. A far cry from the sweet bourbon he had drunk at home, or the thin red wine in France that had done little to ease the cold nights and the constant hunger.
‘What do they look like? Their ships?’
Straker picked up his empty teacup, turned it upside down. ‘Something like this. Silver, spinning like a top, with discs round the rim. That’s all we know. And once they’re out of water for any length of time they self-destruct. I’ve never found a single piece larger than this.’ He splayed out his fingers.
‘So. Major Halliwell? Why did they…?’ Jackson took a deep breath.
‘Slice him open? They do that to most of the people they kill, at least to the ones whose bodies we find. As for why? I have no idea. Maybe they need something from us, something they don’t have on their planet. Halliwell wasn’t the first to be killed like that and he won’t be the last.’ He took a sip of the whisky, wanting a larger mouthful but he could already feel the effect of even that small mouthful on tired and aching limbs. And he still had hours of work ahead of him. ‘They come out of their ships and hide somewhere until they’ve found another victim, I know that much. They must have been hoping someone from the party might go into the woods, or else perhaps they were waiting to get one of the beaters. The problem now is to find where their ship is hiding.’
‘And then what do you propose to do? Destroy it?’
‘One man against a spaceship? There’s not much chance of me doing that, although I intend trying if I get the chance. All I really need to do is stop the aliens themselves. Once I manage to kill them then the ship destroys itself.’ He rubbed his face with one hand, as if to wipe away the tiredness, the memories. ‘I need to take a look around, find somewhere I can survey the area and keep watch for a couple of days. They’re somewhere nearby. I know it.’ He clenched his fist. ‘I just don’t know where to look.’
‘You said they hide underwater. Have you thought about the lake? That would be the obvious place –close enough to the woods for them to get there without being seen and deep enough to hide any large vessel.’
‘It’s on the other side of the Hall. You can’t see it from here. Wait a minute.’ Jackson went over to the desk and rummaged through one of the drawers, pulling out a sheet of paper. ‘Yes. I thought so.’ He handed it across. ‘The plan of the whole estate. You can see the lake here, and there…’ one finger pointed to a rectangular building on a small hill overlooking the lake. ‘The folly. A ruined castle – fake of course – complete with dungeons and secret passages. Having a folly such as this one was considered de-rigueur when the Hall was being designed, but, like most of the estate, it has fallen into disrepair and I can no longer vouch for its condition. It is, however, a perfect place from which to observe the lake and the surrounding woods without being exposed.’
‘I’ll take a look first thing in the morning. Is there a way I can get inside without anyone seeing?’
Jackson tapped his lips with a finger. ‘There’s a tunnel from the gardens at the rear of the Hall that leads right into the dungeons. The family had it built so that servants bringing supplies would not be seen from inside the folly. That would be the best way. The entrance is here.’ He indicated a point on the map. ‘Concealed behind a trellis of climbing roses. It leads directly to the dungeons.’
A tunnel. He recoiled from the idea, taking a breath as he tried to calm his irrational reaction. A tunnel. It would be safe enough. It had to have been once. But it was imperative that he wasn’t seen by any alien, otherwise he would be the next victim. If that meant going through a tunnel he would do it. He clenched his fingers to stop them shaking. ‘That’s all I need. I’ll take a look tomorrow, once the police have been.’ The fire was dying down now, the logs little more than glowing ash and he took a last mouthful of the whisky and put the glass down with a sense of regret. ‘I don’t need to tell you to keep this between us, do I? If people found out that aliens were here on Earth and killing without reason, there’d be widespread panic.’
‘You have my word. As it is, I am grateful that you saw fit to take me into your confidence. Tell me, Colonel. How many of these aliens have you killed so far?’
Not enough. But he would not tell anyone that. ‘Hundreds maybe? I really don’t know. But if what I do deters them, makes it unfeasible to come here, then I’ll be more than content.’ He yawned. ‘Time I was in bed. Goodnight Jackson. And thank you.’
There was no one around when he made his way to his room, but he could hear people talking in the billiard room. The fire had not been lit and he lay on the bed in the dark, hands behind his head, planning what he was going to do. If he waited until dawn then it might be too late. He needed to be in place well before the sun rose if he was to have any chance of seeing where the alien craft emerged from wherever it was hiding. Jackson would be annoyed, but he was used to working on his own.
The house grew quiet, doors closing and the outside lights turned off. The downstairs grandfather clock chimed midnight, one o’clock, two then three; the chimes each quarter-hour enough to wake him from his light doze.
Time. He sat up, rubbing his face and yawning before padding over to the window. Eshley Hall was visible in the distance, its unlit windows dark rectangles in the pale grey stone. There was no sign of anything moving, no sounds either, dog foxes barking or owls screeching. He needed to retrieve the Enfield and then find the entrance to the tunnel. After that? He would see what the dawn brought. He went through to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face to bring him wide awake then pulled on his dark jumper and coat and made his way down the wide staircase carrying his boots. His stockinged feet made no sound as he crossed the endless space of the hallway to the main door. It opened in silence and he pulled it shut behind himself, hoping that the soft click of the lock would not waken any light sleeper.