Chapter 1

Andy came up behind her. “I’d like to see your boobies,” he grinned. I groaned inwardly with embarrassment. But Fi was a match for him. She turned and looked him squarely in the eye. “You couldn’t handle my boobies,” she replied firmly, picking up her battered tin box of fishing flies.

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Steamy Beginnings

It was nearly ten and things were starting to quieten down at the fishery. At this time of year, mid September, we opened at 8 a.m. and the regulars were all settled in by 9 for a full day’s session. Off-season holidaymakers drifted in next. Most of them hadn’t booked so it was first come, first served. As usual the carp lake had filled up the quickest, then the fly-fishing trout lake. There were only a couple of pegs left now on the any-method trout lake.

There was a late summer chill in the air, and several anglers had taken a break to come over to the lodge for a hot drink. Which was unfortunate, as the coffee machine was playing up. I had been away for a mere two days on a Fisheries Management course a couple of weeks ago, but in that short time, Adam Siskins, the fishery owner, had gone ahead and installed this wretched swanky espresso maker. It was a total bollocks of a machine, as temperamental as the Italians who had made it, and it was driving me into an early grave.

“Blimey, haven’t you got it going yet?” grumbled Andy. “I’m parched.”

“I’m doing my best,” I answered through gritted teeth. “I’ve done everything I’m meant to do but it’s not co-operating.”

“A bad workman …” he began pompously.

“Not helpful, Andy,” I cut him short. “Go away.”

Andy sighed and mooched off to join Derek, another of the regulars. These two were inseparable. They’d been fishing here for as long as I’d been working here, almost fifteen years now. They’d been thirteen-year-olds, coming along with Andy’s granddad, and I’d been twenty-three. But all three of us were still here, still friends, and still single.

The lodge was a roomy, wooden building. As you came in, you walked through the café section, basically just a few tables and chairs set around, and came to the counter. This doubled as booking counter and serving counter for the café. Behind it were the sink, crockery storage and kitchen equipment, including the wretched espresso machine. To the right there was a door that led into our small office and off that was the staff cloakroom. There was a separate toilet and shower block for customers next to the lodge. To the right of the counter was the shop, which was proving to be ever more popular. This stretched to the back of the building and was starting to spread into the café as we added more lines to meet customer demand. We were starting to get cramped and needed to expand, but this was something Adam and I couldn’t agree over.

There were three of us running Adam’s Fishery. It was a private limited company. Adam was one of the two directors, with a 70% holding of the shares. The other director was his uncle, Liam Woods, and he held 20%. Liam did nothing apart from turn up to the AGM and snooze through it. Adam did only marginally more than his uncle. But to be fair, what he did condescend to do, he did very well. He had a PR and ICT background. As a result we had a very good reputation and a very sophisticated, sleek website. Adam was always tinkering with it, adding extra user-friendly features. The latest facility was the ability to take online bookings and payments. It was frankly brilliant.

I held the remaining 10% of the shares. They’d been transferred to me over my fifteen years with the fishery. I’d started there, working for Adam’s dad, Tim, as an assistant. I’d quickly risen to manager. Despite the age difference, Tim and I had got on brilliantly and shared the same vision and commitment. When Tim retired five years ago, he passed his shares to Adam and Liam, and Adam had become boss in his place. The first couple of years had been enjoyable. Adam had taken an active part in the day to day running. But he soon sussed that I was competent and reliable, and also a workaholic, so more and more had ended up on my plate. But he pushed it a bit too far and that put a severe strain on relations until Adam had finally allowed me to recruit a full-time assistant. Having Graham around made a hell of a difference to me.

However, a new rift was opening between me and Adam. I was keen to expand in a family-friendly direction, which was what the punters demanded, but Adam was looking business-wards. I wanted to build a playground to encourage parents to bring their children along. Adam wanted a conference centre. I wanted to do kids’ parties and fun days and get schools to visit. I got calls asking if we offered that sort of thing several times a week. But Adam wanted to host corporate days out. I wanted a bigger shop, Adam wanted to put it all online. We were still co-existing, but it was getting more difficult and stressful.

So I pretty much did everything physical and practical around the fishery. I was the hands-on guy. I looked after the fish, monitored the lakes and stocks, supervised the shop, ran the workshops, did the ghillying, maintained the grounds and dealt with the customers. I worked long hours and lived on site. I was paid an OK salary but if you took into account all the overtime I did, it didn’t work out that much more per hour than I paid Graham.

Graham was an enthusiastic assistant. He’d slouched in warily for his interview with me three years ago, his face hardly visible under dreadlocks and his Rasta hat. That made for an interesting combo with his suit and tie, which I imagined his mum had made him wear. But once I’d got him onto the subject of fish, he opened up. He was as passionate about them as I was. It was obvious he was the man for the job. He didn’t have the greatest set of qualifications, but I was willing to take a chance on him. It was one of the best things I ever did. He loved his job and the customers loved him. These days the Rasta look was a thing of the past, and he was usually way smarter than I was.

There was the rumble of a motorbike engine outside. It was unmistakeably a Hog. No-one currently on our books had a machine like that. Good, this was someone new, probably a holiday maker but possibly a new regular.  We always needed more clients. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing well, in fact the fishery was thriving, but fresh faces were welcome.

I could vaguely see a figure pulling off bike leathers and boots through the fogged up windows at the front of the lodge. Adam’s new frothy coffee machine produced so much damn steam the windows were always clouded over. “We need to be more trendy,” Adam had said. But did Adam ever use his expensive knick-knack? Did he heck. It had ended up on my list of stuff to do.

Another burst of steam shot out of the tap. God knew why it was doing that. I sure as hell didn’t. Exactly when I should be welcoming a new customer, I was having to turn my back to the door and sort out this latest life-complicating contraption before it blew up.

I heard the door clang open. And I heard a sudden silence. Andy, Derek and the group of three fishermen in the shop and café all stopped talking at the same moment. You could have heard a fish hook drop. What was going on?

“Well, hellooo,” smirked Andy.

I twisted my head to get a glimpse of the newcomer. Holy crap! I did a double take and spun round. There, in the middle of the lodge, was not a usual customer. For a start, it was a she. (Why are there so few female anglers?) And what a she! She was wearing a plunging tee-shirt and very clingy lycra shorts, which didn’t leave that much of a great body to the imagination. The outfit was finished off with a fishing waistcoat, camouflage crocks and a heavily bandaged elbow. She was early twenties, slim and about average height. She had long, dark auburn hair, huge green eyes and freckles everywhere. God, she was gorgeous.

I gave a friendly smile.

“Hi!” That came out a bit high-pitched. Well, I was in shock! Like I said, I didn’t get angers like this at my fishery. I cleared my throat and started again, in a more manly tone. “Hello, I’m guessing you’re here to fish?”

“Yes, a day’s angling please,” she replied, sitting up on one of the high stools by the counter. “And a cappuccino. Does your machine do those?” She looked dubiously at the hissing monster.

“In theory,” I replied. “I’m Marcus, by the way.” I stuck my hand out over the counter. She took it and shook firmly.

“Fiona.”

“Well, Fiona, I hope you’re not dying of thirst because I’m having a bad day with this dreadful machine,” I confessed. “I was quite happy with dishing out cups of instant, but my boss wanted this fancy contraption. Sure, it looks good, but this thing is one of the banes of my life.” I ran a hassled hand through my hair. That was a bad move I realised at once. I was in dire need of a haircut and my thick, collar length, wavy hair was borderline uncontrollable at the best of times. It was probably standing on end now. Not the way to impress someone as lovely as Fiona.

But she didn’t seem alarmed.

“What are the other banes?” she enquired.

“Customers,” I grinned. “Especially ones that want cappuccino. Give me fish any day!”

“Tell me about the fish,” she encouraged.

“With pleasure,” I said. “I’m nearly done here, I think.” I had a last tinker with the cappuccino machine. There was a whooshing sound and it burst into life. Success. But then I had to jump back as a jet of boiling water shot over the floor.

“Damn,” I cursed.

I turned to Fiona and shrugged an apology.

“Tell you what, I’ll have a can of coke,” Fi compromised.

“Good call,” I sighed, opening the refrigerated drinks cabinet. “I’ll have to go through the instruction book again later. But now, fishing.” I was on to safe ground. “Right. Well, we’re in old water meadows here. We have twenty acres of water in four lakes. The biggest lake, which is seven acres, is for trout fly-fishing only. Rainbows and brownies in there, starting at a pound or so, up to around twenty. There’s a six-acre any-method lake for mixed trout and coarse fishing, a four-acre specimen carp lake and in a few weeks’ time, the fourth lake comes on-stream. That will be cats only, with the odd one or two sturgeon in for fun. The lakes are all up to 5 metres deep in places. You can take a boat on the big lake, but you must book in advance and wear a lifejacket. And no night fishing.”

“OK,” she nodded. “What else do I need to know?”

“Well, for your fly-fishing, the trout are all naturally fed – there’s plenty of insect and fly life for them. So, you’re best off following the seasonal fly life cycles. This time of year you’d be OK with something like an olive dabbler. Nymphs and buzzers seem to work well all year round here too. The water’s clear so fluorocarbon long leaders are good. Now, with the carp, they’re triploid Royal hybrids up to 50 lbs, beautiful things, and there are some good-sized grass carp too. Minimum 12 lb line, micro-barb hooks. No nuts. We sell Best Baits here if you need boilies, ten different flavours in 15 and 20 mms. Pop-ups and dips too.”

No harm throwing in a sales spiel.

“Yeah, I’ll need to buy bait off you when I do some carp fishing. I only came prepared for trout today,” Fi said.

“Do you tie your own flies?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” Fi confirmed. “I certainly do. Have a look.”

Fi fished around in her rucksack and pulled out a battered tin box of flies. She put it on the counter.

Andy came up behind her. “I’d like to see your boobies,” he grinned. I groaned inwardly with embarrassment.

But Fi was a match for him. She turned and looked him squarely in the eye. Andy was a tall lad in his early twenties, with a truckload of earrings and tattoos, and not a hair in sight on his head. He was a bit intimidating when you didn’t know him. But Fi wasn’t fazed.

“You couldn’t handle my boobies,” she replied firmly.

“So shut up and sit down, Andy!” I ordered.

“Go on, let me have a look.” Andy ignored him. “You show me yours, and I’ll show you my … bunny leech fly. It’s awesome.”

“Those are really tricky to tie,” Fi said in admiration.

“Andy doesn’t tie his own,” laughed Derek, joining us at the counter. “He can’t tie his own flaming shoelaces. I think Marcus made it for him. Anyway, I’m Derek.”

“Hey Derek,” Fi smiled.

Derek was shorter and plumper than Andy and had a touch of stubble over his skull. He went for noserings rather than earrings. The pair of them were pleasant and genuine, despite the hard look.

Everyone pored over Fi’s box of flies. She had a good selection and they were all neatly arranged. There were a couple of rows each of dry flies, nymphs, streamers, hairwings and wet flies. I recognised most of them, but there were a few novel designs.

“What’s that one?” asked Andy, pointing to an olive green, insect-like nymph with glass bead eyes.

“Mudeye – dragonfly larva,” Fi told him. “That was really fiddly. Trying to get the joints in the legs took some doing.”

“It’s effective,” I nodded. “Love the eyes! And that’s a deer-hair fry there?”

“That took ages too,” admitted Fi. “My first few efforts were disasters, but once I got the hang of adding the turns of thread through the hair, and packing the bunches densely, well – I got there. It’s a good streamer.”

“I reckon on marabou muddlers best,” said Andy. “You’ve got a couple of nice ones.”

“Thanks,” said Fi, looking pleased.

“What’s this one made from?” I asked, fingering a tan coloured caddis emerger. “Doesn’t feel like deer hair.”

“Guess,” challenged Fi.

“Rabbit?” offered Derek.

“Elk?” shrugged Andy.

“What the hell’s an elk?” Derek frowned at him. Andy ignored him.

Fi looked at me for an attempt.

“Angora goat?” I hazarded. The hair felt soft.

“All wrong!” Fi announced triumphantly. “Llama.”

“No way!” exclaimed Derek.

“Yes way,” she gloated. “It’s great hair. It’s hollow so floats really well, never gets waterlogged. Quite a few of my flies use it.” She indicated three or four others.

“I’ll have to try that,” I said. Good to learn something new. And I could bring it into my column sometime. I was always on the lookout for ideas for that. I made a mental note to start researching llamas.

Yes, I was a columnist. I was Mr Fish in our quiet part of the world. There wasn’t a great deal of competition. By chance, one of the fishing monthlies, Carp Out, was published in the local town, and ten years ago, Matt, the editor, had asked me to write an article about life as a fishery owner. It had gone down well, and so I became a regular columnist. I enjoyed the writing. I had free rein to write about pretty much anything that impinged on my professional life, so I included equipment reviews, discussion of legislation, recounted amusing incidents and had the odd rant. I had a good following.

 “What are your PBs?” asked Derek, stroking the long feathery tail of her black tadpole with his finger.

“OK.” Fi listed out her personal bests. “Brown trout 14 lbs, rainbow trout 17 lbs, grass carp 22 lbs, pike 24 lbs, mirror carp 37 lbs and catfish – 41 lbs.”

 “Pretty fair,” said Andy approvingly.

“Better than that,” Derek disagreed. “Impressive, babe. I’ve got you beat on the brownie and the mirror, but my biggest cat was only 38 lbs.”

I must have looked a bit smug because Fi laughed. “Go on,” she urged. “What are your PBs?”

“I got a 94 lb cat last year in France. And a 52 lb royal carp. And my best trout is 25 lbs. Tah dah!” I grinned.

“Well, I caught my mirror when I was thirteen,” she retaliated.

“You’re kidding,” exclaimed Andy.

“Nope. Gospel truth.”

“Go on, tell,” prodded Derek.

Like any angler, Fi was clearly pleased to be asked to recount the story of her greatest triumph. “Well, I was with my Dad,” she said. “He’d been on a spree the night before so he set up his rigs and fell asleep. I was spinning for perch, but then one of the alarms went off. Anyway, Dad didn’t wake up. So I thought, OK, I know what to do. I struck, and began to wind in. He was a cunning fish. He’d come in for a while, then suddenly shoot off towards snags.” Her audience nodded sympathetically. “But I kept on top of him and bit by bit I brought him in. Another angler had seen what was going on and he grabbed Dad’s net and lifted my carp out for me. He helped me weigh him, took my photo  and helped me put him back. And Dad slept through it all!”

“Good story!” said Andy.

“Yeah. You must bring your Dad here sometime,” I suggested. Another new customer! I mentally rubbed my hands.

“No can do,” Fi sighed. “He died six years ago.”

“Oh, sorry,” I apologised. Me and my big mouth.

Fi shrugged. “One of those things.” She looked sad for a moment. It can’t have been easy, losing him. I remembered my father’s slow, awful last illness. I didn’t need to think about that.

“That’s my favourite booby,” piped up Derek suddenly, changing the subject, thankfully. He pointed to a vibrant pink marabou one.

“Nah. I think that booby’s better,” disagreed Andy. He’d gone for a yellow and white longtail cat booby.

“Just what exactly is going on over there?” came a voice. We’d been so engrossed we hadn’t heard the door open. I looked up and the others glanced round. A tall, lean young man with sandy-blonde hair was watching us with a very slight sneer. “Two blokes leaning over a young lady picking out their favourite booby? I hope it’s not what it looks like!”

Andy rolled his eyes.

Derek grinned. “You’re just jealous ‘cos we got first pick. You can share Andy’s booby if you want.”

Neither Andy nor Derek, nor I, for that matter, were particularly pleased to see the new arrival. I guessed Fiona must have picked up on that. She gave the new guy a searching look.

“Come and meet Fiona,” I said quickly. “Fi, this is the cappuccino-machine-buying Adam I told you about earlier.”

My nemesis was here.

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