I rapidly became a nervous wreck as Penny’s hand found its way onto my leg several more times during the meal. Each time I removed it firmly. I couldn’t wait for the beautiful meal to end. Once Jules was out of the room, Penny laughed and ran her hand down my arm. “Cut it out, Penny,” I growled. “Oh, don’t be so grumpy,” she wheedled. Her hand was back on my thigh, sliding upwards fast. “Stop … it.” I knocked her hand off crossly. “I’m not interested.” And I wasn’t. Pre-Fiona, well, yes, I might have been. Penny was pretty and very curvy which made you ignore the moodiness aspect of her. Once I would have been quite happy for a quick, no-strings romp with a girl like her. But not any more.

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“OK. What are you doing?”

It was six o’clock on Thursday morning. I had the decoy duck and a selection of electrical items spread on the table in front of me.

I looked up at Fi. She was smiling at me, intrigued. She looked cosy and very huggable in a pair of lavender striped pyjamas and a familiar looking baggy grey jumper.

“Isn’t that my jumper?” I asked.

“Sorry. You left it in the shop on Tuesday. I brought it over to give back to you, but I sort of started wearing it instead. It’s lovely and warm. I’ll wash it for you today.”

“It’s OK. It looks better on you than me,” I acknowledged. I was secretly chuffed she was pinching my clothes. That had to be a good sign. “Anyway, why are you up so early?”

“Starting to get nervous about tomorrow, and excited about our France trip,” she admitted.

How excited, I couldn’t help wondering.

“You’ll ace it tomorrow, Fi,” I smiled.

She pulled a face. “I don’t know. I don’t have many qualifications. You need to be brainy to work in a bookshop probably.”

“Nonsense. They’ll love you.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, you haven’t told me what you’re up to.” Fi put the kettle on and then perched on the chair next to me. 

“Well, I am turning this duck into a fish finder!” I announced. “I told you I had a cunning plan.”

“Yup, that’s cunning,” she nodded. “But why?”

“Malval doesn’t allow baitboats, which, following Rob’s lead, would be the obvious device to shove a fishfinder in,” I explained. “I need to get an accurate idea of how much stock is in that lake for Julian. So, it occurred to me to use a decoy duck.”

“Awesome idea!”

“It came to me a bit late, though. I’m not sure I’ll get it finished. It’s going to be harder than I thought.” In fact, that was an understatement. I was going to have to cut holes in the duck, which might well mean it would become a sinking duck, rather than a sitting one.

“I’m free this morning so I can run the shop and café for you. You have to get Daphne done.” 

“Daphne?”

“The duck of course,” she grinned.

“Daphne Duck it is,” I confirmed.

“Will you get it through airport security, though? Won’t they be suspicious of a duck with wires in?”

I looked at Fi in admiration.

“Drat. I never thought of that. Good job one of us is a genius!”

“Don’t be silly,” Fi shrugged the praise off. “It’s just airlines are pretty paranoid these days.”

“True. OK.” I sighed. It had been a brilliant plan, though, hadn’t it? “I’ll just pack the duck and my fish finder. I can attach the sensor onto Daphne at Julian’s. I’ll have to pull it around on a length of line instead of driving it around. The lake’s about four acres so it’s not too huge. It’ll be doable.”

“Do you have one of those rod end fishfinders?” asked Fi.

“Yeah, I’ve got a Humminbird RF35. It’s really smart – the receiver is a watch. The editor of Angling Talk gave it to me to try out and review for the mag a while ago. It’s good, and I’ll bring it, but there’s always the worry that casting it in scares away the fish from where you are. If I use that and Daphne then we should get an OK idea of what stock levels are like.” I yawned. “Darn! I got up early for nothing.”

“Not for nothing,” Fi contradicted me. “I’ll make you some pain perdu as a treat.”

“Sounds good. What is it?”

“Delicious!”

I cleared the table and put the coffee on while Fi did things with slices of bread, milk, eggs and sugar. Soon we were sitting down to a very French breakfast.

“It’s French toast,” Fi explained. “The French call it ‘lost bread’ cos it’s a way of using up spoilt, or lost, bread. You dip it in milk and eggs mixed together with anything else you’ve got lying around pretty much.”

 “Well, it’s great Fi,” I said appreciatively.

De rien.” She blushed happily.

We talked and ate and talked and ate. I told her about the meal with Tony, and she told me that she was seriously starting to think about setting up her own business. She made two more batches of French toast and I made a lot more coffee. And we talked some more. We both jumped when there was a bash at the door. It was Graham. It was eight o’clock and I hadn’t unlocked the lodge. He grinned knowingly, seeing us both in our pyjamas, as I opened the door to give him the key. He also recognised my sweater on Fi.

“Clothes borrowing stage, eh?” he whispered to me. “Getting serious.”

“Go away,” I instructed, shutting the door firmly in his face.

Graham’s visit spurred us into action. Fi left the house to carry on varnishing and I attempted to get everything organised for going away, with my usual lack of success. But Graham would be fine, and Adam would be appearing from time to time to do, well, whatever he actually did do.

I left taxi money for Fi on the kitchen table, and then loaded my suitcase, which contained as many warm waterproof clothes as I could fit around Daphne, the fish finder and my tackle box, into the car. We would be borrowing all our fishing and camping equipment off Julian so we could travel relatively light. I went to find Fi, who was still busy. She was a hard worker, that was for sure.

“I’m off then,” I announced. “Good luck tomorrow. And I’ll see you at Limoges on Saturday night.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to our week of fishing skulduggery.” She smiled. “Safe journey.”

“You too.”

Our eyes locked. I hesitated. I suddenly didn’t want to go. But I had to. I wanted to hug her but she was all varnishy. Should I kiss her? Would that be OK? I stood there dithering. But before I could decide, she’d stretched up and kissed me very lightly on the lips. Then with a wink she turned away and got on with her work.

Grinning like a moron I floated back to the car. What had that kiss been about? Was it just a goodbye kiss? Was it a hint of what was to come next week? God, I hoped so. A frisson of excitement tingled through me.

The journey was uneventful. As an unattached male, I was plonked in a seat next to the emergency exit over the wings. Airlines harboured the optimistic idea that we lone travellers would selflessly and nobly help our fellow passengers in a crisis. Given the choice, I preferred to travel at the back of the plane. I’d read somewhere that you were more likely to survive in a crash if you sat there. OK, by the slimmest of margins, but that was good enough for me. I was a pretty nervous flyer.

And, still being an unattached male when we disembarked, I was top of the list for stop and search. I took great interest in my finger nails when Daphne was unpacked. The man searching my case didn’t seem surprised. I guess he’d seen it all before, and then some. He checked the fishfinder out thoroughly, spread my other belongings all over the counter – allowing me to notice that I’d forgotten to pack the pile of clean undies that I’d put out ready – and then wished me a nice holiday. I was glad I’d thought to post the microchips, scanner and gun to Julian rather than bring those through. They might have proved tricky.

I stuffed everything back in my case, and then collected the 4x4. It was a classy vehicle. My suitcase looked lost in the back. But by the time we set off for Bellevue from Julian’s, though, it would be all filled, what with a large tank full of large fish as well as cold weather camping gear. My heart sank slightly as I thought about the main goal of this trip. I wasn’t good at being a criminal.

I got to Julian’s about half past ten. He offered half-heartedly to feed me, but it was too late to eat and anyway, a couple of whiskey and gingers were all I really wanted. Then I turned in. Tomorrow was going to be a heavy day.

Julian was off early to collect a niece of his, Penny, from the train station. She was coming to stay for a few days and would be helping out with the chipping side of things. She’d be useful. We needed all the pairs of hands we could get.

I got up and had breakfast around eight. Blanchard’s team arrived shortly before nine. I was ready in a borrowed wetsuit from Julian by then. I’d be spending a good bit of time in the water today. The water shouldn’t be too cold and at least the sun was shining, if weakly.

Julian and Penny rolled up as Blanchard’s lads were unloading the net from the truck they’d come in. I hadn’t met Penny before. In fact, Julian had never mentioned her over all the years I’d known him. She was a stunner. Tall, slender, long black hair, curves in the right places. She looked good, and she knew it. She stood around looking bored while all the blokes pitched in with the netting. First up we had to lift the enormous length of net onto the rickety looking rowing boat. Then Blanchard’s boys set off round the perimeter of the lake in it, incredibly low in the water, letting out the net behind them. Even with the level dropped and the surface area reduced, the net barely made it all the way round.

Then the really hard work began. Slowly and painfully we hauled the netting towards the dam wall end of the lake. There was a winding mechanism on the back of the Blanchard’s truck, but it was better for the fish to do the operation by hand because that way was slower and more sensitive. Gradually the net grew smaller. Bobbing behind it was the poche or pocket, where all the lake fish would end up as they found themselves gradually squeezed out of the larger net into there. After about an hour of pulling, we had the poche in front of us. I took a break to thaw my hands out, have a quick smoke and get ready for chipping. Blanchard’s crew got back in, and staked the poche out around its perimeter with six or seven metal poles to hold it steady.

Then it was time to chip. Henri, in the water, would grab a fish and pass it to Sylvain who carried it over to me. I had the gun preloaded with a chip, the details of which the sulking Penny had noted on the sheets on her clipboard. Julian held the fish steady while I shot the chip into it, carefully following the training I’d had with Harvey. I was a bit slow and dithery at first, but after I’d done a few fish, my confidence soared and we worked fairly steadily. I only knocked one scale off a particularly feisty mirror, so I felt very pleased with myself overall.

We took a quick break for lunch, and then got going again. Another hour and a half and all the fish were done. We left Fi’s rogue common with the tell-tale tail till last. It was good to see him again, despite the fact he was leading me into a life of crime. He was a fantastic fish. The Blanchard lads whisked him off to Julian’s stockpond near the house. The first part of our mission was accomplished.

Penny began to thaw out in the afternoon. Possibly it was due to the several glasses of wine she’d knocked back with the French lads over the buffet. I’d stuck to water as I didn’t want to damage any fish with unsteady hands. Or chip myself by mistake. Penny was quite witty, and we chatted away happily enough. I noticed Julian kept a close eye on her. He didn’t seem to trust one or other of us.

She disappeared once the chipping was finished, but I stuck around to help the lads bring the net in. Then we talked, smoked and joked until it was late afternoon and I began to shiver after being damp for most of the day. Blanchard’s team headed home and I went up to the house with Julian. I showered and changed, then made myself coffee in the kitchen. Julian was busy on his website, getting the photos up he’d taken during the netting and chipping. Penny was watching TV. I watched with her for a while and checked for texts on my phone, hoping there wasn’t one along the lines of ‘Fishery destroyed by earthquake’ from Graham, or ‘You’re fired’ from Adam, or ‘I’m running off with Andy and Derek’ from Fi. There were a couple from her, happily not involving eloping. ‘Finished fence J’ was the first and ‘Found pile of yr undies on kitch table – do u wnt me 2 bring them?’. Oops, that was embarrassing, but luckily I’d treated myself to new underwear when Fi moved in and thrown out all the old stuff that was long overdue being put out of its misery. I figured we’d come across each other’s washing as housemates and I didn’t want her cringing. I texted back saying yes please re the smalls and thanks for doing the fence. She didn’t text back. I sent one more wishing her luck for the interview, and then it was time to eat.

Julian had booked a table at a rather nice local restaurant as a ‘thank you’ for me. I appreciated good food so it was a nice gesture. But Penny put a bit of a damper on things. She was rather whiny about the menu, and frankly pretty rude to her uncle on several occasions. But worse was to come. I was sitting next to her at our table. She was across from Julian. A couple of times during the entrée I’d thought I’d bumped my leg against a table leg, and told myself not to be so clumsy. And then I felt something on my foot. It was probably the small, ratty dog that had come into the restaurant with the only other diners there tonight. I managed to restrain myself from kicking it.

But it soon became clear what was really going on. I was midway through taking a generous sip of the excellent St Emilion wine Julian had ordered for us, when something clamped itself hard on my right thigh, only inches from my groin. It was Penny’s hand. I gasped in shock, which of course meant I choked, and I splattered the table cloth and Julian with a fine rain of red wine. I coughed till I went bright red and could hardly breathe. Penny whacked me cheerily on the back, and Julian poured out two glasses of water for me. I gulped them both down gratefully.

I glared at Penny when at last I was back under control.

“Sorry, Jules,” I croaked. “Went down the wrong way.”

He looked slightly pained. “Not a problem, Marcus,” he fibbed, dabbing his now-spotty yellow silk tie. Penny was grinning.

I rapidly became a nervous wreck as Penny’s hand found its way onto my leg several more times during the meal. Each time I removed it firmly. I couldn’t wait for the beautiful meal to end.

At last Julian got up to pay. Once he was out of the room, Penny laughed and ran her hand down my arm.

“Cut it out, Penny,” I growled. “I made a right bloody fool of myself with the wine.”

“Oh, don’t be so grumpy,” she wheedled. Her hand was back on my thigh, sliding upwards fast.

“Stop … it.” I knocked her hand off crossly. “I’m not interested.”

And I wasn’t. Pre-Fi, well, yes, I might have been. She was pretty and very curvy which made you ignore the moodiness aspect of her. Once I would have been quite happy for a quick, no-strings romp with a girl like her. But not any more.

“Course you are. You’re a handsome guy. I’m a good looking girl. We both want what the other’s got. How about we get together tonight once the old codger’s asleep?”

“No thank you,” I replied icily.

“Go on,” she coaxed.

“I’m … I’m too old for you,” I protested.

“Nonsense. I’ve been with a guy who was 57,” she purred.

“Well, in that case I’m too young for you,” I riposted.

“I don’t worry about age limits,” she smirked.

“I do, and I’m not interested, OK?”

“Whatever,” she shrugged. But she was still smirking. I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Julian came back in and I was safe, for the time being.

We drove home and had nightcaps before we all turned in around midnight. I was in the one upstairs bedroom and it didn’t have a lock on the door. I felt dangerously vulnerable. Luckily there was a chair in the room. I dragged that over to the door and wedged it under the handle. Then I went to bed.

About ten minutes later, I heard a scuffling outside. There was a gentle knock on the door. I ignored it. Another knock and a whispered ‘Marcus’. Then the handle wiggled a little. The chair held firm. The handled wiggled for a fair while longer. Then there was an angry hiss of ‘fuck you’ and Penny stalked off. I heaved a sigh of relief, and then thought about sex. It had been quite a fortnight. I’d had two women after my body, but because of Fi I’d fought them both off. If me and Fi didn’t work out, I would definitely feel hard done by. No. It was going to work. Wasn’t it? I finally drifted off to sleep, full of self-doubt and frustration.

I was still flat out when Julian thudded on my door around nine the next morning. I woke slowly and crossly, and pulled the sheets over my slightly sore head, muttering rude things about my host. But Julian kept bashing the door.

“Go away!” I croaked optimistically.

“Come on Marcus, lazy git!”

And with that he tried to open the door. He couldn’t, of course. The chair kept it shut. Oh shit. Now he’d want to know the story behind that.

Julian kept shoving.

“Hang on.” I rolled out of bed and shuffled over to the door. I pulled the chair out of position and opened the door.

“Why have you jammed the door shut?” asked Julian, puzzled.

“I have this thing about bogeymen,” I fibbed, yawning.

Then Julian sussed the reason. He looked furious. “Bloody Penny!” he snarled.

I was slightly shocked by his reaction. But maybe having a nympho in the family was a hard burden to bear. I couldn’t tell him the truth. 

“No, honestly, I just like to lock my bedroom door at night. Bogeymen. Ugh,” I shuddered.

Julian rolled his eyes but still looked cross. “Come and get breakfast. I’ll take you shooting and then I thought we could do some fishing.”

So long as Penny wasn’t anywhere close by, that would be the ideal day. Apart from the breakfast bit and the shooting bit, given the current state of my head. The fishing bit sounded OK though.

I dressed and had two mugs of black coffee and a generous helping of paracetamols. I hoped they’d kick in before we got to the shooting range. I enjoyed shooting. One of the few good things about my relationship with Suzie had been meeting her dad. He was a decent bloke and we’d got on well. He had a small armoury at home – about ten different guns and pistols. He was addicted to shooting and was president of the local club. I often used to go along with him to the Saturday night sessions. Well, it wasn’t as though Suzie and I got up to anything exciting then. I turned out to be a good shot, surprisingly, and I felt comfy around armaments.

The day passed pleasantly enough. Shooting was just about bearable, although it took a quick slurp of an unidentifiable strong spirit from some French guy’s hip flask to make me feel completely human. I’ve always believed in the hair-of-the-dog remedy. And the day brightened more when we got back to find that a friend had called round and whisked Penny off with her to some fête or festival somewhere. I hadn’t been looking forward to being around her. We had a quick lunch with several beers and then fished for a few hours. I tried my Humminbird out. Every time I cast out, it showed several fish. So that was what I should be seeing at Malval, if it were still populated. The fish began coming in around four. I landed two grass carp and a 33 lb mirror and soon became engrossed.

I only stopped when the party of suspicious anglers turned up around 7. They’d told Julian they’d be latish arriving. They seemed pleasant enough to me, but I only chatted with briefly in bad French. Julian scowled at them ferociously. They didn’t seem to notice, luckily.

I was dangerously close to being late for Fiona. I had the pedal on the floor for most of the journey to the airport. Even though, as an angler, she’d have understood my getting carried away fishing, I didn’t want to be late for her. I couldn’t wait to see her.    

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