Living with Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 57

We were just walking up the path to the side of the house when a rather old van pulled in the drive. Johnny quickly ran up the path and across the drive to the van as it was parking in front of the house. By the time I was at the end of the path, he was speaking to the van driver with directions to the yard. A moment later the van backed up, turned and started off around the house. Johnny opened up the front door and vanished inside, I presumed to go through and greet whoever was in the van at the back door.

I followed him in through the front door, taking my time. By the time I got through to the kitchen, Johnny was sitting at the table with two older youths. Anne was just putting the kettle on.

"I'm making coffee," she stated. "I suppose you'd like tea."

"Yes, once I've got these off," indicating my wellingtons. Anne laughed. "I'll be with you in a moment," I told Johnny and his friends.

Once I had got out of my wellingtons, I returned to the kitchen, to be told off by Anne for coming in through the front door with them on.

"I just followed Johnny," I pleaded.

"That's no excuse," she informed me. "He's sixteen, and all sixteen-year-olds are idiots. You should know better. If you are wearing muddy boots, you come in via the back door and into the mudroom."

"But they were not muddy," I stated in my defence.

"But they were boots," she laughed. Johnny just sat and looked at me with pity. I would have to have a word with him about men having to stick together against the monstrous army of women.

Anne was laughing as she put the coffee and teapots on the table. "We're having dinner at the Crooked Man tonight," she informed me.

"What about Tyler?" I asked.

"He's having dinner with Arthur and Trevor," she informed me. "They're meeting someone at the Belmont."

I suspected I knew whom they were meeting.

Anne poured herself a mug of coffee, then informed us she would be in the lounge as she had some reading to catch up on. Johnny introduced me to Steve and Jim.

We spent about twenty minutes with Steven and Jim telling me about their situation, how they had met and how Steven's parents had reacted when they had found out about him being gay.

"The worst thing is that it has completely messed up our plans," Steven admitted.

"How come?" I asked.

"Well, we intended to get our horticultural qualifications and then take over the day-to-day running of the nursery. We've both worked there and know the business inside out. Mam and Dad were talking about retiring in a few years, and we thought we could look at doing a deal with them to take it over," Steven stated.

"That's why we both signed up for this horticultural course; it was to give us the formal qualifications. To be honest, I think we already knew most of the stuff they are teaching in the course," Jim added. "The thing is there is not much demand for horticulturalists around here, and I do not want to move any distance."

"Any reason for that?" I asked.

"My mother's not well," Jim informed me. "I need to be around so I can help Dad and my sis with her care. It's also the reason why we can't put Steven up long-term. Mum needs her own room, so we just do not have a spare room for him. I moved out of my room into the box room so that Mum could have my room. There's only space in the box room for a single bed; otherwise, Steven would be sleeping with me, and we would not have a problem."

"Your family have no problem with you being gay?" I asked.

"No, Mum's brother, Uncle Jack, is gay," Jim stated. "Him and his boyfriend are always round at our place."

"If you can find somewhere for Steven and you to live, what are you going to live on?" I asked.

"Dad's a jobbing builder, and I've done my apprenticeship with him. I'm qualified both as a builder and an electrician. There is usually plenty of work around the area," Jim stated. "I can drop out of college and work with Dad."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Johnny said.

"We have to be realistic," Jim replied. "With the way Steven's parents are, there is no way we are going to be taking over the nursery. Living at home, we could manage on what we got from our part-time work in the nursery, but now we no longer have those jobs; one of us must get out and earn a living. I've got qualifications I can use, Steven hasn't, so it makes more sense for him to stay on and complete the course and for me to work to support us if we can find a place nearby."

I glanced at the clock and realised it was getting on for four. "Look, it is getting close to sunset, and before we go any further, I think Johnny needs to show you two what we are going to be talking about. Johnny, can you show them around the walled garden and the yard?"

"Of course," he said, grabbing his wellies and pulling them on.

"You better take the big LED torch with you," I suggested. He nodded, grabbed it off the shelf by the door and led the boys out. Just as they were leaving Anne came in from the lounge.

"So, what are you thinking of doing?" she asked. "I heard most of what was said; the lounge door was open."

I explained about the idea for the walled garden and about moving the caravan to the yard for them to live in.

"You must be joking!" Anne exclaimed. "Any idea how cold that thing gets in the winter?"

"I know, but I don't have any other ideas," I stated.

"How about letting them use one of the apartments till Easter?" she asked. "From what Jan was saying, she will not be getting things off the ground until then at the earliest. That would give them some time to do some work on the cottage and make it habitable. Anyway, by then, it should be warm enough that the caravan can be inhabited. Johnny managed in it at Easter this year."

It was an idea. I phoned Jan and asked her about the situation regarding lets of the apartments. She advised me that she had no plans to let any of them till the first week in April. In fact, except for a couple of craftspeople taking up workshops from the end of January onwards, nothing much would happen until April. I asked about using one of the apartments for Steven and Jim, giving an outline of the circumstances.

"Let them have the studio apartment," she told me. "I've not put that up on the website yet, so can hold off on it for a while."

We agreed that I would do that. Jan told me that if the boys could pick up the furniture for the studio, they could collect it from her parents' storage unit in the morning. I told her that I would get the boys to contact her about it if things went ahead.

It was nearly five by the time Johnny, Steven and Jim got back.

"Sorry, it took so long," Jim said. "I spent longer looking at the cottage than I should. Bit of a waste of time as I need to look at it in daylight."

"What do you think of it?" I asked.

"It is probably not in as bad a shape as it looks," Jim replied. "There's a lot of damp, but I suspect that is coming in as a result of blocked downpipes and the gutters overflowing." I looked at him for some sort of explanation. "The damp is worse upstairs than down, so that shows it is coming from the top down. Gutters and downpipes are the main causes of that type of damp.

"The windows need replacing, which is going to be a bit of a job as they are not off-the-shelf sizes. All the interior walls need to be stripped back and plastered. However, there is no cavity wall so little insulation. It might be as well to strip back to the brickwork, then put a dampproof barrier and batten out so you can put in insulation behind plasterboard. It will make the place warmer and is an easier job than stripping back and the plastering the walls."

"What about the garden?" Anne asked.

"That's great," Steven replied. "Just wish we had it. It would make the perfect nursery."

"Even with the greenhouses as they are?" I asked.

"They are not as bad as you might think," Jim replied. "I know it looks like a lot of the glass is missing, but all the frames are still fairly solid, and when we looked inside there are some piles of glass panes under the benches. It looks as if somebody stripped them down for refurbishment, then stopped."

"So, you think you could turn the garden into a nursery?" I asked.

"Yes," Steven replied. "It is about half again the size of my parents' place, and they make a good living off what they have. The thing is to specialise in what you grow and sell out to the garden centres. The big problem would be getting the ground cleared and cultivating it. We don't have any tools or machinery."

"There's a pile of tools and machinery in the tool shed behind the boiler house," Johnny said.

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Joseph and I found them when we were looking around. Not sure what condition they are in, though. Don't think they've been used for years."

I did some thinking, then made a decision.

"OK, here's an offer," I stated. "We will lease you the walled garden and the associated building, that includes the gardener's cottage for twelve grand a year on a five-year lease. The first two years of the lease are to be rent-free. The only condition is that you also take on responsibility for the rest of the grounds. I know it is a bit of work to keep them tidy, but think of them as an advertisement for the nursery business. Any tools that are in there you can have.

"Until the end of March, you can have the use of the studio apartment. That should solve Steven's immediate accommodation problem. After the end of March, we have a caravan which we can loan you. You can put it in the yard of the gardener's cottage and live in that till you get the cottage sorted out. The lease will be a full-repair-and-renewal lease, which means you are responsible for getting everything up to standard.

"Are you interested?"

Steven looked at Jim, who smiled and nodded.

"You bet we are," Jim stated. "Can we look at everything tomorrow in daylight?"

"Of course," I replied. "Johnny can show you around."

Johnny did not look too pleased with that. I guessed he had something planned for the morning. Well, he should have told me first.

"I'll show them around," Anne said. "Johnny was going to help Steve at the yard in the morning."

Well, it seemed my wife knew more about her stepson's plans than I did.

It was now well past six. I invited Steven and Jim to join us at the Crooked Man for dinner, but they declined, Jim saying that he had to take care of his mother this evening. They did say they would be back about ten-thirty in the morning to take a close look at things. Jim apologised that they could not be over earlier, but he had to do some pick-ups for his father first thing. I gave them Jan's contact information so they could pick up the furniture.

After we got back from the Crooked Man, Johnny went up to his room, saying he was going to Skype Joseph. I joined Anne in the lounge. I should have been doing something in my study but did not feel like it, so I decided to spend a quiet evening having a read of something that was not a technical or scientific article.

"You could have got a lot more," Anne stated as she picked up a book on database theory.

"What?"

"You could have got a lot more for kitchen garden and cottage," she informed me. "Matt said once it was done up, it would be worth at least three grand a month."

"I know, he told me the same," I replied. "But how much would it have cost to get the place done up? Also, how long would it have taken? This way, I kill three birds with one stone. Steven gets somewhere to stay, the pair of them get a business they can start developing and I get the kitchen garden and cottage refurbished without paying out a penny." At that point, I picked up a copy of The Bull from The Sea and started rereading it for what must have been about the sixth or seventh time.

Thursday morning I was up early, just in time to see Johnny going off to the yard. Anne seemed to be having a lie-in, seeing they did not have to get off to college. I had a feeling that Tyler had not come back last night; his car was not parked in the yard, though Arthur's van was standing over by the Stable House, so I knew that pair had come back.

I mentioned Tyler's absence when Anne came down.

"Damn!" she exclaimed. "Sorry, I forgot to tell you he got a call just before he left to meet Arthur and Trevor. His foster mother's just got back from wherever she was, and Tyler was driving over to stay with her for a couple of days before she joins his foster father for Christmas."

"I'm surprised Tyler has not gone to join them for the holidays," I commented.

"He can't," Anne informed me. "Both he and Trevor are booked solid for the week after Christmas doing post-sync, whatever that is?"

"It's where they re-record their words in a dubbing studio, so there is no extraneous sound on the soundtrack," I informed her.

Just then I noticed Martin's car pulling into the yard. For a moment I wondered what he was doing here, then I remembered.

"Oh, shit!"

"What's up?" Anne asked.

"I forgot that the police are coming to interview Johnny and me this morning. Should have told Johnny, but I forgot all about it. Just remembered when I saw Martin pulling in."

"You'd better phone Steve and the yard and get him to send Johnny back," she informed me. "I'll make a new pot of tea; I'm sure Martin will want one."

I went through to my study and got on the phone to Steve and explained the situation. He assured me there was no problem in sending Johnny home; they were just doing an end-of-year stocktake. He did ask if I could send him back when we were finished. I promised I would if I could. When I got back to the kitchen, Martin was seated at the table enjoying a mug of tea.

"All ready to be interrogated?" Martin enquired.

"Probably as ready as I will ever be," I replied. "Wish I knew what is going on, though. Bernard's not said a thing to me other than dark hints that Beryl expected to be killed."

"That is probably just as well," Martin stated. "What you don't know you can't give away."

"I know that Beryl left a letter to be handed to Bernard in case of her violent death," I responded.

"And Bernard has already advised Superintendent Lawlan of its existence, though not its contents."

"I bet that's pleased the Detective Superintendent," I stated.

"It has, rather," Martin replied. "However, the communication is privileged under client confidentiality. He could try for a court order for Bernard to disclose the contents, but Bernard has advised him that he will provide the police with any relevant information. I am sure they are aware that if they tried for a court order, he could tie them up in the courts for months, if not years. That's why Bernard wants you and Johnny to speak with the police today before you know what is in the papers that she sent him."

"What was in them?" I asked.

"Bernard will tell you tomorrow," he replied. "For the time being, best you do not know."

I poured myself a mug of tea and sat down. We chatted for a few minutes about odds and ends. Then my phone rang. I answered it.

"Could I speak to Mr. Michael Carlton," a female voice I did not recognise asked.

"Who's calling?" I asked.

"Jennifer Morley, Essex Probation Services," she answered.

"Could you hold, please. I will transfer this call to my study," I replied, then I redirected the call to the phone in my study and put the receiver down.

"It's Essex Probation Services," I informed Martin, do you want to listen to the call. Martin nodded, so I told him to bring his tea through to the study and grabbed my mug.

Once in the study, I answered the ringing extension and put it on speaker. "This is Mike Carlton, Ms. Morley. How can I help you?"

"I've been advised that you have made an offer of employment to one Lee Sanderson. Is that correct?" she asked.

"Yes, it is," I responded.

"May I ask the nature of this employment?"

"Yes, I am setting up my own production company, and I need a production assistant," I informed her.

"Are you aware that Lee Sanderson is currently in custody serving a sentence for a violent offence?" she enquired.

"Seeing how I first met him during a legal visit to HMP Chelmsford, I am well aware of his situation," I stated.

"May I ask how you came to be on a legal visit to him?" she asked. Martin looked worried.

"I am a researcher with a London firm of solicitors; that day, I was accompanying one of their solicitors."

"That was somewhat irregular," she stated. Martin jotted something on his pad and handed it to me. I looked at what he had written.

"I think it would be best if I brought Mr. Clay in on this call; he is Lee's solicitor," I stated.

"Ms. Morley, my name is Martin Clay. I am a solicitor with LeBrun, Dean and Cohen," he informed her. "I am Lee Sanderson's solicitor. Mr. Carlton is a researcher with LeBrun, Dean and Cohen and was with me that day in connection with another matter. However, I needed to visit Mr. Sanderson and get his instructions. Given the nature of the instruction that I was requesting, I felt it important that I had a witness to it, so I asked Mr. Carlton to accompany me on that visit. As a clerk to the firm, he is entitled to act in such a capacity and take part in legal visits."

There was a bit of a harumph audible over the line; it was clear Ms. Morley was not very happy with the response.

"If you are working for a firm of solicitors, how are you able to offer Lee Sanderson a job?" she asked.

"I am a part-time consultant to the firm," I responded. "My main work is as a scientific commentator on television and radio and as a technical writer. Currently, I am working on a TV series that we hope to have in production next year. I need an assistant to handle a lot of the mundane administrative tasks involved."

"The problem is that he is outside the area of the office that his probation supervision has been assigned to," she informed me.

"That is your problem," Martin stated. "Your head of service was advised by my firm on the first of December of the offer of employment and accommodation. If you had any objection to it, you should have raised it before now. It should have been raised with us in writing at least seven days before his expected release date. I suggest you need to get Lee's supervision changed to one of the local offices."

For the next ten minutes, Martin and Ms. Morley discussed the ins and outs of Lee's supervision being moved to a local office. She was not very happy with doing it. Martin, though, was quite firm about getting it done. Once they were finished, Martin rang off.

"Is there going to be a problem?" I asked.

"Only for them," Martin replied. "This is the typical sort of mess that they get themselves into. We notified them on the day you made the offer to Lee. The notification was faxed and posted to them; it specifically stated that if they had any objections, they needed to let us know within seven days; they have not done so. The courts will take a very dim view of any objection they care to raise at this late a date."

I was just about to ask if he would like some more tea when the front doorbell rang. It was Detective Superintendent Lawlan and Detective Sergeant James. Anne brought them into the study.

"I'll bring some tea and coffee through," she stated after showing the two men into the room.

"No Sergeant Crawshaw?" I commented.

"Unfortunately, the good sergeant is listening to ten gigabytes of telephone conversations," Lawlan informed me. "So, I get Sergeant James today. I like to make all my staff equally miserable."

The sergeant snorted at that remark. Lawlan gave him a look.

"May I ask, Mr. Carlton, when was the last time you were in contact with your ex-wife?" the Detective Superintendent asked.

"The last day of the trial, which was last Friday," I replied. "She asked me how our son was getting on and asked if he had dropped this mad idea of being a yacht designer."

"When abouts on Friday was this?"

"It was just before court commenced," I responded.

"Did you speak to her any other time during the trial?" he asked.

"Besides exchanging pleasantries if we met in one of the doorways, I don't recall speaking with her."

"Before the trial, when was the last time you saw her in person?" Lawlan asked.

"That would be back in March when she dropped Johnny off at my old place," I replied.

"Your old place?"

"Yes, I was living in Lynnhaven at the time," I informed him. "The place was not big enough with Johnny living there and me getting married, so we moved here at the start of April."

"Your ex-wife never came here?" the Detective Superintendent asked.

"No, at least not when I was here. In fact, I am not certain she knew the address unless Johnny let her know it."

"So, your son was in contact with his mother?"

"Yes, he phoned her a couple of times about some of his property that was missing, and he mentioned she had phoned him to check if he was still in education."

"Why should she do that?" he asked.

"Something to do with child benefit, I understand," I replied.

For the next twenty minutes, the questioning concerned what I knew about Beryl's life and her friends. There was little I could tell the Detective Superintendent since I had had little contact with her since our divorce.

"From what you have said, I doubt if you would have been aware of any fear she may have had for her safety," Lawlan stated.

"I was not aware of anything like that," I informed him.

Detective Superintendent Lawlan nodded, then thanked me for my help. He then asked if he could speak to Johnny.

"I'll go and fetch him," I informed him. "He should be back from the yard by now." Going through to the kitchen, I found Johnny sitting at the table with Steven and Jim.

"You are wanted in the study," I informed him. "I'll be through in a moment or two." Johnny went off in the direction of the study; I spoke briefly with Steven and Jim. Anne informed me that she would show them around the grounds. That settled, I went back to the study.

Johnny's interrogation followed basically the same as mine, though he was able to give a lot more insight into Beryl's life than I could. The one thing that surprised me was that it seemed that Beryl made frequent trips to South America — either to Brazil or Argentina.

Although Johnny's questioning took longer than mine, it was not that long. I got the impression that it was very much a matter of ticking off all the boxes. Shortly after twelve, it finished. The detectives thanked us for our co-operation and left. Martin commented that he got the impression that the whole thing had been something of a formality, and then he left.

Johnny informed me that he was going to find Anne and take over showing Steven and Jim around. I said that I had to get down to the Belmont as I had a luncheon engagement. I made it with a few minutes to spare. As I entered the Belmont, Miss Jenkins was just getting out of the lift.

"Mr. Carlton, it is so nice to see you again," she said. "I was sorry to hear about your ex-wife's death, though it is hardly surprising."

I looked at Miss Jenkins with some surprise, considering her comment.

"What do you mean?" I asked as we made our way towards the dining room.

"Your ex-wife was involved with some parties who, to put it mildly, had a somewhat unsavoury reputation," she replied.

We arrived at the dining-room doors; the maître d′ immediately came up, giving Miss Jenkins a slight bow of the head. He then guided us to a table set in one of the bay windows overlooking the harbour. I noticed that there were no other tables nearby.

"You seem to know more about my ex-wife than I do," I commented as we took our seats.

"It is necessary in business to know about those who, while not competitors, may inconvenience one," she replied.

"And my ex-wife was one such?" I asked.

"Oh, no, Mr. Carlton," Miss Jenkins replied. "Your ex-wife was a minor pawn in a dangerous game. So minor, in fact, that she had not come to the attention of my family until shortly before her demise. However, her demise had all the hallmarks of certain parties we were interested in, and when we incorporated her into our understanding of things, a lot of little pieces fell into place. Then, quite a few big pieces started to fall into place when we looked at the server your son left with us."

Just then, the waiter came to take our order. Miss Jenkins opted for a winter salad; I went for grilled plaice.

Once the waiter left, Miss Jenkins continued. "You see, Mr. Carlton, for many years, there has been an organised trade in designer drugs, child pornography and prostitution; it appeared to be controlled by certain parties in South America, specifically Argentina. Although we knew of their existence, we avoided contact with them as their activities were repugnant to where I wished my family's to be. They did not directly impact on what my family was doing.

"About two years ago, that changed. Unfortunately, one of the younger members of my family got involved with an operative within that organisation. This led me to taking action against them, something Maddie was able to assist me with."

The smile she gave as she remembered something made me feel sorry for whomever she had taken action against.

"As a consequence of those actions, we, unfortunately, came to the attention of the main organisation, and this has resulted in a couple of unpleasantries. Unfortunately, it looks as if the late Mr. Mayers was part of that group, and your involvement in the events surrounding him may cause certain parties to think that my family were involved."

I was just about to ask why they should think that when the waiter brought our drinks to the table. Once she had left, I asked the question.

"Why should they think that?"

"The thing is, Mr. Carlton, that the connection between my family's business activities and your family goes back quite some time," she informed me. "A bit more than forty years."

I was amazed at this information.

"How?" I asked.

"When my Albert took over the family business, I persuaded him that we really had to get out of the illegal activities it was in. It took us over thirty years to do so. Now we are legit — maybe only just — and some of our business activities may be considered questionable, often immoral, but I can assure you they are legitimate," she informed me. "Getting there, though, was not easy. We needed professional help; we needed an accountant who would understand where we were coming from and where we needed to get to. A Jewish business associate recommended a young accountant in Golders Green."

Suddenly, I realised where this was going; things fell into place. My face must have shown it.

"I see you understand, Mr. Carlton," she stated. There was a pause in the conversation at that moment as our lunch was brought to the table. We started eating. In a pause between bites, I finally asked what I was presuming.

"My father was the accountant?"

"Yes, Mr. Carlton, he was," she replied. "Understand, please, he was scrupulously honest. He had to be. Nothing he handled came from our illegal activities. From the start, he made it very clear that he would not and could not become involved in such things.

"He did, though, fully understand where the funds for our business ventures were coming from. It was understood by both sides he would never ask about it.

"You should not be surprised. Most of the money which was coming from that end of London in those days came from, shall we say, questionable sources.

"Fortunately, the rules back then were not so tight, and the government wanted investment, so nobody asked too many questions about where it came from, and back in those days, the money-laundering regulations were non-existent. Over the years, your father helped Albert and me into many business ventures. Most of them were successful, a few very successful."

She returned to her winter salad. We ate in silence. As we were both finishing our meal, she looked over at me.

"Somehow, you do not seem totally surprised with the information I have given you," she commented.

"To be honest, I'm not," I replied.

"Oh, why?"

"I used to help Dad in the office at times," I stated. "One of my regular jobs was to reconcile the rent records for Thompson Estates. I met George Thompson a couple of times. Dad told me he was one of the biggest villains in London."

"He was… before the war," Miss Jenkins confirmed. "In the Fifties and Sixties, we saw the likes of the Kray brothers and their gang coming in, so we decided to get out. George went into property. How did you link him to me, though?"

"Neal's flat. Arthur told me where it was when he went to visit Neal. I remembered that block from when I reconciled the rent receipts some twenty-five years ago. It's not the sort of address you forget. Then, Neal's surname clinched it for me."

"The thing is, we appear to have a coincidence, and the people we are dealing with are not the type of people who believe in coincidence," she stated.

"And what is the coincidence?" I asked.

"The week before Easter, some members of my family took down a rather nasty operator known as Master James. I won't bore you with the details, but we were able to assist Maddie in sorting out some problems she had come across. It so happened that the particular problem she had come across was one we had an interest in sorting out, so we got together to work on it.

"Part of that action resulted in us acquiring a large amount of computer data relating to the activities of the Argentinian-based organisation. Within a few days of that, you became involved in triggering a series of events which resulted in Mayers being arrested.

"We had already identified Mayers from the data we had recovered from Master James' system. Another person who was named in that system was Mrs. Smith. It was quite clear from the information we have that she was involved in laundering funds through various businesses. Back in September, we were able to identify Mrs. Smith as being your ex-wife. For the last few months, we have been watching her activities. Then your son goes and exposes her as a crook, an act which was going to cause those she was working for significant problems; I believe a large amount of their assets are held in her name.

"I do not doubt that they will now be taking an interest in you and your son, and when they do, they will soon come up with the connection with my family. After all, we have the same solicitor, we have interests in the same companies, your father was our accountant, and a number of my family, including myself, have trained with your brother.

"All these connections are, of course, pure coincidences, but the people we are dealing with tend not to believe in coincidences. To make matters worse, it seems that the Hendersons and their Brethren Church, may have been involved with the same group."

"What?"

"We can't be sure Mr. Carlton, but there are indications of a connection between the Hendersons and both Master James and Mayers. If that is the case, and I suspect it is, between the two of us, we will have delivered a major blow to their operations in this country. A blow which I do not think they are going to take lying down."

"So, what do we do?" I asked.

"At the moment, there is probably little that we can do," she responded, opening her bag and withdrawing a card case. She removed a couple of visiting cards from it. They bore the inscription 'Family Services Support and Helpline'. "I suggest you give one of these cards to your son. Both of you should program the number into your phones. If you find yourself in difficulties, use that number. It is manned twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. If they ask why you are ringing, just say Aunty told you to.

"It would be best if you never have to use that number, but somehow I suspect you probably will."

We finished our lunch, and I escorted Miss Jenkins to the lobby, noting that there had been no requirement for her to sign for the meal. When I commented on it, she smiled and stated it was one of the perks of owning a hotel.

As we were about to part, I asked who these people were who might be taking an interest in us.

"Die Vereinigung," she replied.

"I think that just means something like 'association'," I commented.

"So, I have been told," she replied. "I've also been told it should be 'der Verband'. Die Vereinigung is terrible German, but then, they are bad people."

"Der Verband means the association," I replied. "Die Vereinigung is sometimes used in places where we would say association, but it really means something more. An assembly or a coming together, die Deutsche Vereinigung meant the unification of Germany."

"That is interesting, they have been referred to in English as the association, but from what I know of them coming together makes more sense." With that comment, she turned and made her way to the lift, leaving me in the lobby.

It was getting on for two-thirty by the time I got back to the Priory, so I was a bit surprised to find Jim and Steven in the kitchen chatting with Anne.

"How did things go this morning?" I asked.

"Fine," Jim replied. "We had a good look round the place and made a list of what needs to be done. Dad came over during his lunch break and had a look at the cottage. He says there is a lot to be done but nothing structural.

"He brought his ladders over so we could look at the downpipes and gutters. They are all pretty blocked up and need clearing out. That is almost certainly the cause of the damp. Dad said he could get those cleared this weekend if it is OK for us to start work on it."

"I've got no problem with that, though I will not be able to get the lease sorted out for you till the new year," I informed them. "I'll get a letter of intent drafted so that you know where you are and what the overall terms will be." I glanced at the papers on the table; it looked like a rough drawing of the grounds. "What are you up to now?"

"We were discussing with Anne about some possible plantings," Steven stated. "I think we could put a planting scheme for the grounds together over the holiday and present it to you in the new year."

"So, you want to go ahead and take the place on?" I asked.

"Of course," Jim confirmed. "When can Steven move into the studio?"

"Today, if he wants," I told them. "You will need to arrange with Jan to pick up the furniture." I had already given them Jan's contact details. Then I went through to my study and got down to some work.

Surprisingly, there were not a lot of emails for me to deal with. There was a note, though, on my desk from Johnny asking if he could speak with me when he got back. I made a mental note not to start anything which would tie me up for any length of time as I had no idea when he would get back. I presumed he had gone to the yard.

Shortly after four, Johnny poked his head around the door and asked if I was free. I told him I was. He came in and took a seat in the armchair.

"What was the Bitch up to, Dad?" he asked.

"I have no idea," I stated.

"But she was up to something, wasn't she?"

"Yes, Johnny," I replied. "Nobody makes the kind of money she appears to have unless they are up to something. The thing is, I just don't know what. I am hoping Bernard might be able to shed some light on it. It might be a good idea if you were around in the morning."

"I intend to be," Johnny informed me. "He's bringing Joseph over. Joseph said he's getting the train to Romford to meet his father; then they will come here."

That was news to me but, in some ways, made sense.

Over dinner that evening, Anne informed me that Steven would be moving into the studio apartment tomorrow. He and Jim had spoken to Jan and had arranged to pick up the furniture for it just after lunch so that they would be moving it into the studio sometime in the afternoon.

"It's going to be quite busy tomorrow," she observed. "We've got Lee arriving sometime in the morning and Steven and Jim in the afternoon."

"Blast! I had totally forgotten about Lee," I responded. "We have Bernard coming over tomorrow as well — and Joseph."

"That does complicate things," Anne observed. "I suspect I will probably have to go and pick Lee up when he gets to town. The question is, how will I know him?"

"I don't think that will be much of a problem," I commented. "He's six foot four at least, black and built like the side of a mountain."

"Don't forget you have James arriving this weekend as well," Johnny pointed out.

"Plus the family; they will start to arrive for Christmas," Anne stated. "We need to get the decorations up."

"Not till Christmas Eve," I stated. "It's bad luck to put them up before then."

"Do we have any?" Anne asked.

"There is a box of fairy lights and some tree decorations in the storeroom," I responded. "They belonged to my parents."

"You probably need to get some decorations," Johnny stated. "Joseph and I can put them up over the weekend."

"I did say, Christmas Eve," I pointed out.

"Don't think Joseph is staying that long," Johnny replied.

"How long is he staying?" I asked.

"Till Monday," Anne answered. "Debora said Bernard is in Romford on Monday and will pick him up after he's done."

"He seems to be in Romford a lot recently," I observed. "He's there in the morning."

"It seems he has quite a complicated case on, from what Debora was saying," Anne informed me. "It's only in the County Court for a few thousand, but it could end up going all the way to the Supreme Court on a point of law."

"That's going to cost thousands," I commented.

"It will probably cost millions, knowing what Uncle Bernard charges," Johnny commented.

"And how do you know what he charges?" I asked.

"Well, I know he can afford Joseph's school fees, and his fees as a day boy are higher than mine were as a boarder."

Once dinner was over, I joined Johnny in the storeroom, sorting out what Christmas decorations we could find. There were not many, so I promised I would take him and Joseph to get some more on Saturday.

.oOo.

Friday morning, I had intended to get up early, but somehow, I had forgotten to set the alarm. As a result, it was nearly nine before I got down for breakfast. Anne had clearly been up for some time.

"There's coffee in the pot," she informed me. I made a face. "OK, I'll make a pot of tea for you."

I popped a couple of rounds of bread in the toaster, then looked around for the butter.

"It's in the fridge," Anne informed me.

"Didn't Johnny have toast this morning?"

"He's not up yet," Anne replied. "Doubt if we will see him much before midday."

"Isn't he going into the yard?"

"Not unless he has the keys," she replied. "Steve and Peter are going up to Peter's parents today. They were leaving early this morning."

"Where do Peter's parents live?" I asked.

"Oxford," Anne replied. "Both Peter and his father are on duty over Christmas, so they are having this weekend with Peter's parents."

The toaster popped, so I collected my toast, got the butter from the fridge and put it on the table. As I was getting some marmalade out of the cupboard, Anne put a pot of tea down in front of me.

"Any idea when Lee will be getting here?" she asked.

"None," I replied. "It depends on how early they let him out. As he is being released a couple of days prior to his due release date, they can keep him in until sunset."

"So, he will be here for dinner tonight," Anne stated.

"I should hope so. Why?"

"I just have to work out my shopping list. There's nothing in the studio, so I'd better get some basics for him. Thought it would be easier if he joined us for dinner tonight and over the weekend. Tyler is in Town till at least Tuesday. He will be back for Christmas, though."

"What about Trevor?" I asked. "Not seen him around since the weekend."

"He's in Town doing post-sync," Anne informed me. "Arthur said he was coming back for the weekend but had to be back at the studio on Monday. That brother-in-law of yours is pushing to get everything finished before the new year."

I just nodded, wondering how it was that women always seem to know what is going on. Men need to be told. Finishing my toast, I poured myself another mug of tea and asked Anne how things had gone with Steven and Jim over the ground plans.

"They basically told me to forget what I was asking," she informed me. "Turns out we don't have the right soil type for the plants I wanted. They've promised they will have some plans for me to look at after the new year."

"How long after?" I asked.

"Probably next Christmas, seeing how things go around here," she told me. "By the way, the housekeeper's apartment is ready for Tyler. He can move in when he gets back."

"They've done well with that," I commented.

"I think Tyler offered them a good bonus if it was finished this week."

I gave a half laugh at the comment, then finished my breakfast. Anne informed me that she was going to the supermarket, then the farm shop.

Gambling that I would get at least a couple of hours work done before any of the day's arrivals started to come, I went to the study and got down to dealing with the emails, of which there were not many. Then I set about writing a couple of thousand words on why satellite navigation was going wrong. That involved an explanation of graph theory and weighting. Not a subject I was really into but one I had some understanding of.

While I was writing, I remembered what one of my professors told us during a lecture. He had stated that when he was a student, he had been told that graph theory was an area of mathematics which was good for games and puzzles but had no practical use outside of colouring maps. He then went on to point out that in the last twenty years, more uses had been found for it, and in the next twenty years he suspected it would become one of the most critical areas of mathematics. How right he was!

How wrong was I. I had been sure that I would have a couple of hours free to get things done. I had hardly done a hundred words when Johnny came in and asked if I could give him a lift into Maldon.

"Anne's going shopping; she is probably going that way," I informed him.

"She's just left," he informed me. "Meant to ask her last night but I forgot. I really do need to get into Maldon this morning."

"What's so urgent?" I asked.

"I have to pick up Joseph's Christmas present," he replied.

"And you can't do it on your moped?"

"No, it's too big," he answered.

After a bit more discussion, I agreed that, once I had finished off the immediate piece of work I was doing, I would run him into Maldon. He could pick up the present, and I would bring him back. I did, though, insist that I finish off the piece of work I was doing.

As it turned out that was probably for the best. I was just about finishing when the landline rang. Answering it, I found myself talking to Lee. He had been released, had picked up the phone from the solicitors and was now at the bus terminal. He had found out that he had missed the bus to Dunford. He would have to get the bus to Maldon and then one to Dunford. I told him to get on the first bus to Maldon, and I would pick him up from there. Before I finished the call, I checked he had my mobile number. He had. Martin had programmed the relevant numbers into the phone before leaving it at the solicitors. I instructed him to call me on my mobile when he got to Maldon. I then went and told Johnny that I was ready to take him to Maldon.

It took us about forty minutes to get into Maldon; then I had to find somewhere to park. I managed to park at the car park in Butts Lane. Fortunately, it was not too far from the shop in the High Street where Johnny had to go to collect Joseph's present. I walked down with Johnny to the High Street, then sent him off to get the present. While he was doing that, I went into a nearby coffee shop and ordered a hot chocolate and a brownie. I had just finished the brownie and was about halfway through my chocolate when my phone rang. It was Lee to let me know he had arrived in Maldon and was at White Horse Lane. That was at the end of the High Street, so I told to come along down the High Street to join me. He arrived about ten minutes later.

I got Lee a coffee and a cake to go with it. I got myself another chocolate. While we were consuming them, I started to fill Lee in on what I needed doing when he started work in the new year. I was pleased to see that he pulled a notebook out of his bag and started to make notes. Over the next fifteen minutes or so, I gave him an outline of what was going on with Mike Carlton Productions and the role I expected him to take. Then Johnny rang me.

"Dad, I need some help," he said when I answered the phone.

"What wrong?" I asked.

"The things are bigger than I expected, and I can't carry them," he stated.

"Where are you?"

He told me. I informed him that Lee and myself would be with him shortly. Then I noticed that Lee had not finished his coffee. I told him where I was going and asked him if he could follow me as soon as he had finished his coffee. He promised he would. I then went to find Johnny.

When I got to the shop, a computer store, I found Johnny standing just inside the door with three large boxes.

"What on earth have you got him?" I asked, looking at the boxes.

"It's an iMac draughting setup," Johnny replied.

"In three boxes?"

"Yes," he replied. "This box is the iMac, that is the plotter, and that one is a second monitor."

I was just about to make a comment when Lee entered the shop. Once I had introduced Lee to Johnny, we set about getting the boxes to the car. I decided it was best for me to go back to the car and bring it to the shop to load up. That decided, I left Johnny and Lee outside the shop with the boxes and went to get the car.

When I got back, Johnny and Lee loaded the boxes into the Santa Fe, then Johnny got in the back; Lee got into the passenger seat. I asked Lee if he needed to get anything while we were in Maldon as he only had a small bag with him.

"No," he replied. "Dad is going to bring my stuff over from home as soon as I've settled in."

Given that comment, I was somewhat surprised when Lee asked if we could stop as we came to the Market Square in Dunford, saying he wanted to go into the Co-op. Once I had parked up, he took some time getting out of the car and walking back to the Co-op. Five minutes later he was back with a bag of crisps and some chocolate. I looked at him, surprised.

"Well, I had to buy something," he stated, as I started up the car. "Did you know you are being followed?"

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