~ 3 ~

Malcolm heard Clara wishing him luck as he left their room, and knew there was no sincerity in her words. She hated Bridgelands Cross and would no doubt complain volubly for the duration of their stay.

Yet luck was exactly what he needed. Malcolm could use all the persuasion he could muster, but he could no longer disguise the facts. The hotel was a run-down dive, the village itself cut off from all civilisation. It was a far cry from the places he’d taken Clara in the early days of their liaison, when their destinations included Paris, Rome and New York. He hadn’t heard her complaining then.

His fortunes may already have been pointed downward but, back then, he’d no way of knowing how far he had yet to fall. In the ensuing years, all doors had closed and his knocks remained unanswered. As the rumours spread, he’d become marked as untouchable. Given his current circumstances, it was good to find he still had one friend. If Ruth-Anne Crozier could be considered a friend.

Bridgelands Cross wouldn’t have been his first choice, but it was some time since he’d been able to pick and choose his assignments. When an opportunity presented itself, Malcolm had to grasp it with both hands now and hold on for dear life. His debts were mounting, and even the most athletic of fraudsters would struggle to stay ahead of his creditors. It was a blip, of course. His current finances were only a temporary embarrassment, but the humiliation ran deep.

Clara knew nothing of his current predicament, and there was no reason for her to find out. If this current project came to fruition, his fortunes were about to blossom.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Malcolm adjusted his tie before entering the lobby. The first person he saw in the reception was Brice. Wearing a starched apron that gave him the appearance of a mortuary assistant, he was speaking quietly to the pretty blond girl who provided night cover.

‘Has Mr Holland been down yet?’ he heard Brice ask, his voice as free from inflection as ever.

‘Been and gone’ the blond girl replied. ‘Started his walk half an hour ago.’

‘I see,’ Brice said. ‘We must then assume that he won’t require any breakfast this morning.’

He moved away from the desk without acknowledging Malcolm. The receptionist’s greeting was somewhat more cordial.

‘Good morning,’ she said with an enthusiasm that suggested she actually enjoyed interaction with others. ‘How can I help you?’

It would help the hotel, Malcolm thought, if they moved her to days.

‘I couldn’t get a signal on my phone this morning,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you might have a payphone I could make a call on?’

‘Certainly sir,’ the receptionist replied. ‘Down the corridor and on the left.’

She signalled with her hands while giving the direction, reminding Malcolm of an air hostess running through flight safety procedures. According to the name badge pinned to her lapel, she was called Shelley.

‘As for the mobile reception,’ she continued, ‘the nearest transmitter’s on the far side of the trees. Sometimes we get decent coverage, but it’s not something we rely on.’

‘Thank you,’ Malcolm replied. ‘You’ve been most helpful.’

Following Shelley’s directions, he found the ancient telephone in a dim corner behind the stairs. Faded instructions for its usage had been stuck to the wall with yellowing sellotape. As Malcolm read the illustrated steps, he had the feeling he was being watched. Looking up, he saw Brice standing in the doorway of the breakfast room, his hands clasped before him in a weakly sinister manner. The hotelier gave a curt nod before retreating to the serving area.

Malcolm returned to the task at hand, wondering how long it had been since he last used a payphone. It was longer than he could remember, and longer still since he’d used one with a central dialler rather than numbered buttons.

He hooked his finger into a numeric and pulled the dialler clockwise. Lifting his finger, he waited as the dial completed its slow rotation back to its starting point. The temptation to help it along was overwhelming, but he resisted for fear that any interference would end the call and leave him having to dial the full number again.

Eventually, each digit was entered and the phone started to ring.

‘Addison-Mayhew Clinic.’

‘Malcolm Tennison calling for Ruth-Anne Crozier.’

‘One moment sir.’

He waited as his call was transferred.

‘Ruth-Anne Crozier,’ his contact stated bluntly.

‘Ruth,’ he greeted. ‘It’s Malcolm!’

Her tone changed immediately.

‘Malcolm! It’s been forever – how the hell are you?’

‘Very well,’ he lied. ‘Very well indeed. And you?’

‘I can’t complain,’ she replied. ‘Well, I could complain, but who would listen?’

Malcolm chuckled at her joke.

‘Didn’t you get my message?’ she asked.

‘If you left a voicemail, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get a decent reception since I arrived.’

‘Really?’ Ruth-Anne asked. ‘Where is it you’re staying?’

Malcolm told her and instantly regretted having done so.

‘Oh you won’t get a decent reception in Bridgelands Cross,’ Ruth-Anne said. With a slight barb she added, ‘Sorry, I just assumed you wouldn’t stay in the village itself.’

‘Well, one hates to be predictable,’ Malcolm replied. ‘Besides, it turns out to be much-’

He caught himself before saying cheaper.

‘-much closer to the sea. We wanted to be near the sea.’

‘Well, there’s no beach to speak of,’ Ruth-Anne said.

There her pleasantries ended. When she next spoke, her tone was focussed to the point of abruptness.

‘Malcolm, there’s been a change of plan.’

‘Oh?’

Malcolm tried his best to sound casual, but even this single syllable betrayed the panic of desperation.

‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ Ruth-Anne said.

He thought she sounded quietly pleased that he needed her reassurance.

‘But it is urgent. I trust tomorrow suits.’

Even if it didn’t suit, it was clear Malcolm wasn’t being given any other choice.

‘Take the day off and see the sights,’ Ruth-Anne said. ‘Use that vast charm of yours on the locals.’

‘Then I shall see you tomorrow,’ Malcolm replied. ‘It will be my pleasure.’

He replaced the handset and waited to see if any change would be given. No coins fell into the return slot.

‘So you found a phone then?’

Malcolm wondered how long Clara had been listening. More importantly, he wondered how much she’d overheard. He gestured toward the handset.

‘One invented by dinosaurs,’ he said. ‘Anyway, how long have you been standing there?’

Clara gave a non-committal shrug.

‘I just got down.’

‘Did you charge your mobile?’

Clara shook her head.

‘Well, get it charged,’ Malcolm said. ‘We don’t want to be using this thing every time we need to reach the outside world.’

He patted his stomach.

‘It seems I have the day free after all,’ he added. ‘Now, after breakfast I thought I might take a stroll through our new neighbourhood and hoped you’d care to join me. What say you, fair maiden?’

‘Do I get a choice?’

Malcolm smiled.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose you do.’

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