by Andrew Foote

Chapter 26

I eventually calmed down but I will admit that the stress relief was wonderful. I felt focused, better able to think things through and also the knowledge that now it was daytime, things would be handled by the adults leaving me to regain some level of composure.

Lady Eleanor was the first to come down stairs.

"Let us go into the kitchen and have a cup of tea Alex. How did you sleep?"

"Pretty well considering, that is until Alison called at five-thirty and then……. I couldn't drop back off."

"Did she have any news?"

"No not really. She told me that the police were there in some numbers also that the seniors had been searching the grounds most of the night and then after breakfast the juniors would take over but no one has found him yet."

"Well George will be pacified……..possibly. Last night he was talking of calling in a few favours and get the Territorial Army in to lend a hand but we'll see how it goes today first.

Just so you understand, there will be someone in the house at all times just in case the telephone rings and you especially will be kept informed of any developments."

"Thank you but I can't help feeling I'm part of the problem. I mean if he'd never met me, this might not have ever happened?"

"Sit with me for a moment Alex.

Life is full of 'what if's'. We will never know whether your relationship with Justin has been a contributory factor in all of this but if we look at what we do know, things appear more positive. Justin had become a child with a very bad attitude to the point of being objectionable. He rarely smiled, constantly arguing with us and others, completely self-centred and an all-round horrible person but then you came into his life and now he's the complete antithesis of that individual. Happy, polite, well-mannered and with a purpose in life. Now tell me you are a part of the problem! No. You must not believe that. I think that at some point something like this was inevitable and I would concede that perhaps your friendship may have accelerated the process but no way are you at fault so don't ever go blaming yourself for what is happening. You are a wonderful young man and like a breath of spring air blowing in to our otherwise tired family."

Neither of us had noticed Sir George standing in the doorway.

"Well-spoken old girl! Absolutely right! Jump to it Alex and pour this old chap a mug of tea if you please."

Mrs Morris cooked us breakfast and by nine o'clock I was back on board 'Casio' ready if not enthusiastic about my studies.

I relayed the conversation I'd had earlier with Alison and just sat there staring into my teacup.

"I think there's little to be gained by studying today Alexis. You're not in any shape to concentrate are you?"

"Sorry Mum."

"No need to apologise. I know I wouldn't be if I were in your shoes but I won't allow you to just mope around and worry. Get yourself up to the mill and at least try and occupy your mind. Okay?"

"Yes Mum but if there's a telephone call………"

"You will be the first to know. I will personally keep you up to speed. Now off you go!"

I let the dogs lose and walked with them up to the mill and letting myself in, decided to get on with white-washing the walls.

I had been working for a couple of hours when Joe knocked on the door.

"Okay to come in Alexis?"

"Oh hi Joe. Sure, come on in. No need to ask."

"I came up via the house. I'm really sorry to hear the news. Do you wanna talk?"

"I dunno. I'm not sure you'd understand."

"Try me. I wanna work for you not piss on your bonfire man?"

"Okay. What the fuck anyway. Fancy a mug of tea?"

We talked for what seemed like forever and aside from leaving out the really intimate details, told Joe everything from Jus's little tryst with Paul right up until last night.

"If you want to go, I mean if you want to reconsider our job offer, I will understand and no hard feelings Joe?"

"It's all cool Alexis. You see I have two sisters, one is well…….just ordinary but the other is like some throw-back to a different generation like I mean she's a child genius and so she managed to get a scholarship to a private school but that's not all. She is umm……in a relationship with another girl, you know, like they're an item so I sort of understand where you're at with Justin and I don't have a problem with it."

"Oh wow! Thank fuck for that! We both liked you and my Dad was well impressed with you so it would be a real shame to see you go. Where is your sis at school?"

"Doubt you've ever heard of it. It's a place called Down House about ten miles this side of Newbury."

"Let me take a wild stab in the dark here. Your sister. Her name wouldn't be either Alison or Kate per chance?"

"How the fuck did you know that?? Her name is Catherine, Kate or Katie for short and her friend is Alison!"

"Justin is at Down House. The girls have been a lifeline for him. We know them pretty well but I thought they said both sets of parents work abroad?"

"Alison's do but Kate doesn't get on very well with Mum and Dad so she uses that as an excuse for not going home very often. Bloody-hell! It's a small world!"

"It definitely is! Joe? I'm making you a firm job offer that is if you don't mind working for two kids younger than you. This has to mean something and I really want you on the team such as it is. Will you accept?"

"Are you kidding me? Yes of course I'll accept! It'll be so good to be in on the ground floor of something exciting! I can't wait to tell my family and especially Katie! She'll flip!"

"Can you wait until we have news about Justin?"

"Sorry. Yes of course. I won't say a word."

Just then my Mum appeared in the doorway.

"There's been a telephone call Alexis. Do you want to come outside so I can tell you?"

"Mum this is Joe. He will be working for us and I've told him everything so you can come in out of the rain and tell me."

"Nice to meet you Joe. Tim said you were a smart guy so welcome to the party.

Alexis, they've completed a thorough search of the school and its grounds and they haven't found Justin. They said he would've been impossible to miss so all they can assume is he headed onto Buckleberry Common. The police have called in the army and are organising a grid search whatever that is, Sir George knew what they were on about so it's just a case of waiting."

"Mum? I want to help!"

"How do you propose to do that?"

"Take the dogs. They know Jus's scent. They might lead us to him."

I'll ask the question. It might help. Come back to the house once you're ready. Bye Joe. Nice to meet you."

Mum left and Joe helped me to clear up.

"Can I do anything Alexis? You know, to help with finding him?"

"I want to take the dogs Joe and they don't know you but if you want to help, I'll give you a set of keys and you can carry on painting or helping my Dad, which ever you want."

"Either or both is cool. Do you trust me with the keys?"

"You're Katie's brother or rather Katie is your sister so yeah I trust you!"

"Cool. In which case, stop with the clearing up. I'll carry on with the painting and tidy up once I'm done for the day. Do you want me to drop the keys back to the house?"

"How are you going to let yourself in tomorrow if you do that Joe? Just hang on to them. We've got spares."

I got back to the house and again I was told about the developments, the involvement of the army but one thing I didn't know about was that Sir George had contacts with a Ghurkha Regiment, one that was awaiting reassignment and also that tacit agreement had been reached that they would lend their expertise in jungle warfare in the search for Jus together with permission for me to join them with the dogs so long as I obeyed orders.

Hell, I would do anything if it helped to find Jus so after supper I took a shower and headed for bed, this time back on 'Spook'.

I tried to let my mind go into free-fall, usually a good method of getting to sleep but my thoughts repeatedly came back to Jus and where he might have gone.

I tried to put myself in his position. What would I do under similar circumstances but there were a couple of variables that got in the way of joined up thinking. What was his state of mind and what was he trying to achieve? I had to consider all possibilities.

Okay so first scenario. He has been beaten into a state of shock, he isn't thinking through his actions but just needs to escape from his attackers. The most obvious conclusion is that he'd find a quiet corner within the school or its grounds and wait to be found or once he'd come to his senses, give himself up to a member of staff.

The problem with this is the school had been turned upside down and there was no sign of him so back to the drawing board.

Scenario number two. He's been badly beaten up, he's able to think clearly and just needs to be away from the school and make his way to a safe haven.

The most obvious course of action would be to make his way to the 'Castle Inn' to his Uncle Rolly. I knew he knew the route as he'd told me he'd walked there many times in the past and it only took a matter of an hour and a half at a gentle stroll but that hadn't happened.

What else might he do?

Get away from school, find a public telephone and if he had money, phone Mapledurham, if he'd lost his money somehow, find that public telephone and dial 999 for the police or ambulance but he hadn't done that either!

"Come on Alexis, THINK!!"

A cold shiver ran down my spine when I thought of the alternative.

He'd been badly beaten up and seriously injured. He'd given up the fight and just wanted to die.

My words to my Dad on the drive back the previous weekend came back to haunt me.

'It's as if he's got a death wish Dad, throwing caution to the wind, going for broke.'

I choked back my tears.

'Stop it you idiot! Your crying isn't going to help you or Jus. Stay focused boy!'

I knew nothing more until I was roused by my Dad at five the following morning.

"There's been no further news son but if you still want to help then we better get our skates on. They want to start out at seven so it's breakfast and away."

I cannot remember that journey to Down House, it's as if it never happened but I do remember the rest of that day clearly.

We met with the brigade RSM who looked me over, doubts and concerns written all over his face.

"Well young man. I'm not at all sure this is a good idea but it seems you have friends in high places and so the matter is out of my hands so just do as you're told and don't get any ideas about rushing off and doing your own thing. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir. Perfectly clear."

"And don't call me 'sir'! You address me as Sergeant-Major, understood lad?"

"Yes Sergeant-Major."

"Good. Corporal Baines? I'm placing this lad under your wing. He has some madcap idea his dogs can do a better job than we can."

"Yes Sergeant-Major. C'mon lad, I'll introduce you to the others. What's your name?"

"Alexis umm………"

"Oh yeah right! I'm Peter but the lads call me Pete. We're a Ghurkha regiment and we don't stand on ceremony. We're more like a big family and so unless there are officers around we stick with first names. So what's with the dogs then?"

"Justin is my best friend, you know like we're very close? The dogs know him almost as well as they know me so I just thought that they might just pick up on his scent."

"It's been raining quite heavily so I'm not sure if that's a possibility or not but there's no harm in giving it a go. Are they obedient?"

"Both visual and verbal commands. Don't worry, they will stick to me like glue, they won't go running off after rabbits."

"Good. Our Sergeant-Major would have a baby if that were to happen and while we're on the subject, he likes to think his bite is worse than his bark but in actual fact he's one hell of a guy and all of us have enormous respect for him."

"He certainly put me in my place!"

"Just setting out the ground rules. Work with him and you will get along just fine.

Come on, we're about to set off. I hope you're fit because we've got a lot of ground to cover."

We paused for something to eat early afternoon. I was going to say lunch but a wholemeal bar, some compressed dates and a cup of water isn't my idea of a meal!

"High energy food Alexis. Men can't march on an empty stomach but neither can they on a full one and anyway we travel light so the idea is to eat the minimum for the maximum calorific intake. I'll bet you don't feel hungry?"

"No not at all!"

"Not bloated either?"


"There! See what I mean? How are your legs holding up? Aching yet?"

"No, I'm all good thanks."

"I'm impressed! You put some of our recruits to shame!"

"I do a lot of river swimming. Maybe that helps."

"Finest exercise there is but don't go letting on to our friend the Sergeant-Major! Just let him be impressed with your stamina and leave it at that!"

We rested for all of twenty minutes before resuming the search and then some hour later Ben, the scruffy little dog of the pack started barking furiously.

"What's going on Corporal?"

"Dog's found something Sergeant-Major."

I sat Ben down, patted his head and went to investigate.

Initially I couldn't see anything so calling Ben over, I ushered him to show me where to look and there, tucked inside a bush was a handkerchief, blood stained but on closer examination were Jus's initials embroidered in one corner.

"He's passed this way Sergeant-Major. One of the dogs sniffed out one of Justin's hankies."

"Well done boy! Well done dog! Johnson! Radio Red Platoon and tell them to get their arses over here pronto. The rest of you men, take five. Alexis. A word with you."

"Have I done something wrong Sergeant-Major?"

"No lad. That's a fine bit of work you and your dogs did there. It now means we can concentrate our men and resources in this direction rather than them being out on some wild goose-chase. If I'm not much mistaken your friend is marching to a plan.

You see he's sticking to a route which is almost parallel to this road." He pointed out a road on a map.

"What we must try and understand is where might he be going and why? Any thoughts?"

"Where does this road lead to?"

"It joins the main A4 London to Bath road. Head west towards Newbury, east towards Reading."

"No! He couldn't possibly be going towards Newbury, there's nothing there for him but then why would he be trying to walk back to Reading? He could stay hidden here but once he hits the main road there's little or no cover. It doesn't make any sense."

"Why does he feel he needs to stay hidden?"

"I can't answer that but if he wasn't bothered, it would be a far easier proposition to walk along a made-up road rather than fighting his way through the undergrowth wouldn't you think?"

"Point well made. If as you say, there's no reason for him to head west then we have to assume he's trying to get back home. Might it be he'll try to hitch-hike?"

"He's never said he's done it in the past and anyway, surely some kid, soaked to the skin, presumably covered in blood with a possible broken arm would be reported?"

"Okay. He's going home via Shanks's Pony then. Christ! If that is what he's doing, he must be made of wrought iron! Would that all my men were as tough as him!

I want to make a suggestion Alexis. Finish the day with us then we'll get a vehicle to take you home. If indeed that is where he's going, I think you place is there, not here. Tomorrow we will search ninety degrees to today's direction and if we can't find him we have then to assume he's not on the common.

You've done very well! You're a tough little lad aren't you? You should think about joining a Commando Regiment when you're older."

"Thanks but I want to be a physicist!"

"What a waste! Only kidding you lad. You must go your own way. Are you happy with my proposal?"

"I'd like to stay but it does make sense for me to go home. I'd hate myself if he got back and I wasn't there."

"Good! Okay men. Let's get this done before we lose the light!"

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