Jabez switched off the engine at the top of the slope. Below him the
ancient pile of Hasbene Hall nestled in its valley, surrounded an extensive
park littered with lakes, cascades, grottoes and the occasional classical
temple. The house was undoubtedly old. Built under the Tudors, embellished by
the Jacobeans, knocked about a bit during the civil war, given a new frontage
in the eighteenth century and a new wing by the Victorians, the end result was
a bit of a mess, though picturesque when seen from the right angle. Jabez gazed
down at it gloomily. As an ambitious young executive, he should be relishing
the challenge. Certainly the Avril Clench, the Customer Relations Manager,
assumed that he was.
‘You go in there and wow
them,’ she had instructed during her pep talk the previous afternoon. ‘Show
you’ve got what it takes. And remember, Sir Willy is a man of influence. He is
also a major shareholder and on the Board of Directors. You know there have
been rumours of a hostile takeover – his support will be crucial. Any hint of
wavering and the financial people will not be happy. Not happy at all. Sir
Willy must be kept on happy - so find out if he looks like throwing a wobbly.
Luke forwarded the file, I take it? Everything you need is there. Remember,
it’s Lady Frances you want to watch out for. If she likes you you’re home and
Unfortunately Jabez had
made a firm rule: never open any attachment from Luke Sharpe, in case it
contained a virus. Like the one which had replaced all adjectives in his
outgoing emails with the word ‘fucking’. Too late to worry now, he’d have to
play it by ear. He put the Jag into gear and glided down the hill.
A large sign in green and
gold announced ‘Hasbene Hall - Conference Centre and Leisure Venue’. He drove
between two lodge cottages like an outsize cruet set, over a rustic stone
bridge, then into an avenue of ancient elms where he slammed on the brakes.
‘Oi! Watch it!’
A large horse had
appeared from nowhere. A horse apparently mounted on another horse. That
couldn’t be right. Jabez blinked. No, the one on top was a female, human-type.
Still, the resemblance was uncanny. He lowered the car window.
‘Everything okay?’ he
One of the horses had
dismounted and was examining the legs of the other. She straightened up with a
‘No thanks to you,
driving around like a maniac. Who the hell are you anyway?’
‘Er - I’m from
Amalgamated Parts. I’ve an appointment with Sir Wilfrid.’
‘Amalgamated? Humph. Not
seen you before. What have you done with the good-looking one?’
‘Mr Sharpe has moved on,’
said Jabez, gritting his teeth.
‘Go on up to the house
then. I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve got Mr Darcy rubbed down.’
Jabez parked on the
gravel by the massive front door. There was no sign of a doorbell, but as the
door stood open he wandered inside. The air struck chill after the warmth of
the summer morning. As his eyes grew used to the gloom he became aware of the
rows of moth-eaten stags which stared balefully down at him from the oak
panelled walls. He shivered.
‘Ah, there you are,’ a
voice boomed behind him.
He turned. ‘Lady
A large grey hairy beast,
like a werewolf crossed with a grizzly bear, reared up before him. His knees
sagged as two paws like pile drivers landed on his shoulders.
‘Help!’ he croaked.
‘Down, Dinky. Good girl.
It’s all right, she’s only being friendly. Dinky! I said leave it! Put
it down. Sorry about that. Still, wasn’t a new jacket, was it?’
‘No,’ lied Jabez.
‘So what’s your name? I
thought I knew all Amalgamated’s young men, but I don’t remember seeing you
‘Hmm. Not one of the
‘I shouldn’t think so,’
‘Probably just as well.
So what can I do for you?’
‘I’ve come to see Sir
Wilfrid. He’s expecting me.’
‘Ah. I’m afraid Willy has
had to go up to town. Unexpectedly. You’ll have to make do with me.’
‘Oh - er - that’s
unfortunate. I need him to sign something,’ said Jabez.
Amalgamated, certainly. Avril’s last words had been, ‘Get the old bugger to
sign, or it’s shit creek for us. Don’t let him wriggle out of it. If there’s
any suspicion in certain quarters that this refinancing deal might fall through
- well, just do it.’
Which was all very well,
but a bit difficult to reconcile with the instructions e-mailed him the day
before by Morgan Spline. Now the problem was, if not solved, at least
postponed. Jabez was very much in favour of postponing problems, in the hope
that they would eventually disappear. Or at least turn into different problems.
However, he tried to look
‘Any idea when he’ll be
‘None at all,’ said Lady
Frances, cheerfully. ‘You can leave the stuff with me, if you like.’
‘Thanks, but, er, I think
I’m supposed to . . . ’
‘I’d better be getting
along, then,’ said Jabez.
‘No need to rush off,
after coming all this way. You can stop for a spot of lunch, surely?’
‘Well, er - ‘
He knew he ought to say
yes. The words of Morgan Spline still echoed in his mind. ‘The wife is the key.
Sir Willy … will do as he is told.’ The trouble was, she terrified him. She was
even scarier off her horse than on it.
Luckily she did not wait
for an answer. ‘Come along.’
Jabez followed her meekly
into a large room furnished with brocaded sofas and occasional tables.
Portraits glared down from the walls. He shriveled under the gaze of a
particularly grim female hanging over the fireplace.
ma-in-law, Lady Euphoria,’ said Lady Frances. ‘She was a Trollope, you know.’
‘Was she really?’
‘Sit yourself down. How
about a little drinkie? G and T?’
‘It’s a bit - ’ early,
Jabez tried to say, Too late. She had already half filled a tumbler with gin,
added a couple of ice cubes and a dash of tonic.
‘Here.’ She poured
another for herself, then came to sit beside him on the sofa. The dog ensconced
itself on his other side. Jabez started to feel distinctly hemmed in. He took a
gulp of his gin.
‘Lady Frances … ’
‘Call me Fanny. Everyone
‘Fanny - er - it’s
awfully good of you … ‘
‘Nonsense. I like to have
a young man around, especially with Willy away such a lot. Tell me, is your
hair red all over?’
Jabez edged away
slightly. On his other side, the dog growled.
‘Quiet, Dinky! So, what’s
all the gossip at Amalgamated, then? Have they arrested Cordelia yet?’
‘Cor - who?’
‘Pratt! For bumping off
that funny little bald fella - whatsisname - Wedge.’
‘Mrs Bilkington-Pratt has
been questioned,’ began Jabez, ‘but - ‘
‘Come off it!’ Lady Fanny
dug him in the ribs. ‘Everyone knows she done it. Mind you, I was surprised at
Cordelia. She was such a timid little thing at school. Not the sort you’d
imagine stuffing her knickers down anyone’s throat.’
‘They weren’t her
knickers!’ gasped Jabez.
This was not what he had
intended to say, but the pressure of Lady Fanny’s hand on his thigh had induced
such a spasm of panic that he blurted out the first thing which came into his
‘Not - ? Who’s were they,
‘My lips are sealed!’
Lady Fanny smiled at him,
like a shark surveying a plump bather.
‘Well, far be it from me
to unseal them. Have some more gin.’
She took the glass from
his unresisting fingers and poured in another slug. ‘Are you coming to this
training session they’re having in a week or two?’
‘Yes.’ Jabez had
forgotten that the ‘Bonding Weekend’ was being held in Hasbene Hall.
‘Good, good. I’m sure
you’re looking forward to it. Chance to show your initiative.’
‘Of course.’ Like hell I
am, he thought. He took another large swig of gin.
‘I’m sure you’ve got
loads of initiative. Would you like to see the facilities? We’ve plenty of time
‘Yes please,’ Jabez
agreed with enthusiasm. Anything to get out of this sofa. He did not like the
way she had pushed him into the corner.
‘Bring your drink.’ She
led the way out of the room.
Jabez followed her ample
rump up the main staircase. He wished the stairs would stop going up and down
in such a disconcerting manner.
‘We’ve turned the
ballroom into the main conference hall,’ Lady Fanny pushed open one of the
double doors on her left, through which Jabez glimpsed a darkened auditorium
with raked seating and a rostrum. ‘Smaller meeting rooms along here, and the
Delegate’s Bar. And here,’ she flung open a door, ’we have the delegates’
Jabez found himself
ushered into a small room tastefully furnished in shades of beige. It contained
a, dressing table, a shower cubicle and a single bed (already made up). At the
end a long window opened onto a balcony.
‘What do you think?’
‘Er - very nice?’
‘You ought to try the
‘Oh, I don’t need - ’
‘Nonsense. Have a
bounce.’ She removed the glass from his nerveless fingers, then pushed him hard
in the chest. He landed on his back on the bed, which was indeed surprisingly
comfortable. He could do with a little rest. He lay smiling at the ceiling,
while the room revolved gently around him.
A movement drew his eye,
and he strove to focus, only to be gripped by a spasm of terror. She couldn’t
be - yes, she was –
Two enormous orbs, tipped
by dark brown nipples, swung threateningly above him. Lady Fanny, totally
starkers, knelt on the bed looking down at him. Jabez wriggled ineffectually.
He tried to explain that, although as a valued customer she was eligible for
all manner of special offers, he didn’t really go for the Junoesque type. It
was no use. All he could manage to utter was an inarticulate squawk of dismay,
as her hand found his zip.
‘No - gerroff,’ he
‘Silly boy! I’m not going
to hurt you..’
Gently she eased his
chinos over his hips. ’Why, what a fine upstanding young man you are.’
Someone should have
warned him. Hadn’t there been a suspicion of a smirk on Charlie Mildew’s face
when he’d said, ’Watch out for Lady Frances’? And Luke Sharpe - he must have
known as well. Bastards! When he got back he’d –
Desperately he tried to
rise, but her weight pinned him to the bed. Her hands roamed freely as he
squirmed, a squawk of protest dying in his throat. It was no use. His struggles
grew weaker, and he had almost given himself up for lost, when he heard a voice
‘Hey! Fanny! Are you
there? Anyone home?’
Lady Fanny sat up with a
snort of annoyance. ’Willy? What’s he doing back so soon? Drat it! They must
have cancelled the trains again.’ She rolled off Jabez and got to her feet.
’Still, you’ll be able to get that signature now.’
She opened the door and
went out, calling, ’Willy? We’re up here, dear.’
Jabez had lost all
interest in paper signing. He sprang from the bed, took one step and fell flat,
as his trousers and underpants tangled round his ankles. Kicking them off and
bundling them under his arm, he staggered to the window. Thank God, it was not
locked. He squeezed out onto the balcony.
Unfortunately it was not
a proper balcony, more like a shelf. It was really too narrow to stand on.
Jabez clambered on to the balustrade. He looked down, and gulped. It was a long
way down. He wanted to put his trousers on, but no way was he going to risk
standing on one leg. He had to get out of here. The front of the house was
covered in thick strands of Virginia creeper. Dare he risk it? Through the
window he heard faint voices. Sir Willy and Lady Fanny were returning. That
settled it. Trying his trousers round his waist to provide some protection, he
grasped the thickest stem and began to climb.
For a minute all was
well, but as he descended the strands began to pull away from the wall. He
tried to increase his pace, but while he was still several feet from the ground
the strands gave way, to deposit him in a rose bed.
Manfully holding back a
howl of agony, he listened for noises from above. All was silence. Extricating
himself from the rose bush was almost as painful as the initial encounter, but
at last he was free. He untied his chinos and bent to retrieve his boxers,
which had fallen out of the pocket, when the silence was transfixed by an
unearthly, spine-chilling shriek.
Something had stabbed him
in the rear. He whirled round and stared in dismay. A hundred eyes stared back.
It was too much. Moaning,
he fled across the gravel to his car, pursued by a peacock.