We packed up the car, checked the directions to Malval and set off. It had been a bright, sunny morning, but just as we reached the turning for the lake, the sun went firmly behind the clouds. Something told me this wasn’t a good omen. The lake stretched grey and cold before us. It looked dead.

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“So. Shall we have one last go to try and catch Aidan’s common then?” I asked.

It was Wednesday morning. We were finishing breakfast, standing outside our bivvie and watching the mist rise from the lake. We both had a pain au raisin in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other.

“Damn, if only we’d thought of taking a photo of one of us holding it before we put it back in the water,” I shrugged.

Aidan had called by on both Monday and Tuesday, early afternoon, to see if we’d seen his fish. He did genuinely seem to be worried about it.

Fi wrinkled her nose. “I dunno. I’d fancied stalking up at the shallow end again.”

We’d had a great stalking session the previous evening and caught some fairly decent carp. Monday hadn’t produced much. To be fair, we hadn’t done a lot of fishing. It had poured in the morning so we were more than happy to stay in bed. We’d only just surfaced when Aidan had arrived. We hadn’t expected him at all. Quite possibly he’d been hoping to catch us busy with Fi’s jet-powered vibrator. He had kind of snuck up on us after all. We went shopping in the afternoon so it was evening before we did some baiting up and spodding, and put the rods out. Not surprisingly we hadn’t caught overnight, but we got plenty of bites during the day. But not from the common. It was probably lying low to recover from its ordeal.

“You go and stalk, Fi,” I told her. “I’ll watch the rods down here. I’ll chuck the rest of our maize and parti mix in, and spod some halibut boilies to try and tempt him. We should make the most of today. It’s not as though we’ll be catching much the rest of the week.”

We both knew Malval was almost certainly an empty lake.

“Just for a while then,” Fi acquiesced. “Then I’ll come back and keep you company.”

“Like you kept me company last night?” I queried, hopefully. We’d had a lot of fun with that spray dairy cream stuff.

“No, not like that,” Fi said firmly. “Just ordinary company.”

“Shame,” I grinned.

She smiled too. “You’re a dirty old man, Marcus Summers.”

“Which is precisely why you’re crazy about me!”

“Yeah right!” she laughed, picking up her rod and heading up to the far end of the lake.

I watched her go, smirking happily to myself. It had been an amazing few days. I was up on cloud nine and I had no wish to come down any time soon. So, of course, Julian chose then to text me, to make sure we were going on to Malval that afternoon, as planned. I didn’t want to especially. I had been thinking about heading off with Fi for a few days’ sightseeing and a few nights’ rampant sex in a comfy hotel somewhere. That was much more appealing than meeting Frank Hodgkiss and messing around with an empty lake. We could probably check the lake out fairly quickly with Daphne and the fishfinder. We could slip away tomorrow afternoon. Yeah, I could take Fi off for 48 hours before reporting back to Julian. Nice thought.

I didn’t get the common, but I landed a 2 lb roach, a 24 pound grassie and a 31 lb mirror. I saw Fi bring in a couple of fish too. Then I noticed her crouching at the water’s edge, taking photos of something in the water. It wasn’t long before she hurried back down to me, looking pleased with herself.

“Here he is!” she smiled triumphantly. She called up a photo on her camera. And sure enough, you could see the ghostly outline of a hefty common just below the surface.

“That will make Aidan happy,” she announced proudly.

“What will?” came a voice behind us. We both spun round. It was the man himself. Jesus, but he was good at creeping up on people.

“I’ve seen your fish,” said Fi, showing him the photo. “He’s safe and sound.”

Aidan’s face lit up. “That’s him all right. Great! I really was starting to think something had happened to him.”

Fi caught my eye. We were both convinced that he’d known nothing about the fish disappearing from his lake.

“We’ve had a good couple of days here,” I told him. “Thanks. Nice lake and smashing fish. Very healthy.”

“Cheers,” he acknowledged. “What have you caught so far?”

We reeled off our catches.

“I’ll email them to you when we get back if you like,” I offered. “And send some pictures?”

“I’ve brought my laptop,” Aidan replied. “Can I take copies off your camera card now? And I’ll note down those catches too.”

He bustled off to his car and then came back with his Mac. It had one of those fancy covers on it. No shortage of money in the Hodgkiss household evidently. He typed in our fish and downloaded the photos. We began to bring our gear in.

We chatted with Aidan a bit more and then he shook our hands.

“Got to run,” he said. “I hope you do OK at Malval. I’m heading off somewhere a bit more to my liking for some paella and sangria.”

And with that he turned and left.

“I imagine anywhere else is more to his liking than his hated brother’s lake,” observed Fi. She hesitated, then added: “I kind of wish we weren’t going to Malval.”

“Me too, babe. I’ve already planned to bunk off tomorrow, just as soon as we’ve sussed the fish situation out. We could take in some sights and find a nice little romantic auberge to stay at.”

“Oh, let’s go down to the Cantal,” Fi urged. “It’s not so very far. That’s where my Mamie was from. I love it there. It’s, well, kind of rugged and bleak in places, but it’s beautiful. St Flour is a lovely old city.”

“Sounds good to me. We’ll go there,” I agreed.

Fi glowed happily. And so did I. I’d amassed a few handy brownie points there and I knew exactly how I intended to redeem them.

We packed up the car, checked the directions to Malval and set off. It had been a bright, sunny  morning, but just as we reached the turning for the lake, the sun went firmly behind the clouds. Something told me this wasn’t a good omen. The lake stretched grey and cold before us. It looked dead.

Like Aidan’s lake, this one was a few kilometres from the owner’s house. Frank must have been keeping an eye on the time, because our two jeeps drew up at the lake side at pretty much the same instant.

Frank gave me the creeps from the word go. He had piercing, light blue eyes, and he didn’t blink a lot. It looked like he was staring at you the whole time. However, he did the jolly host thing, plastering a big smile on his face and delivering a large helping of bonhomie. He strode round his lake, pointing out the odd snag and telling us about his fish, all the while throwing his arms around energetically. I hoped I looked like I believed him when he gave us facts and figures about the stock in his lake. He really meant his ex-stock.

“You’re selling up, I hear,” I remarked when we got back to the 4x4.

“And you’re buying?” he countered. Julian had filled him in on my mythical status as a wannabe fishery owner.

“Not in France,” I smiled. “I’m not adventurous enough to want to live over here. Holidays are OK.”

“But you’ll want to buy stock, I assume?”

“I expect so. I don’t have a lake yet, but I intend to stock densely so punters are sure of catching something. I imagine whatever lake I buy will need topping up.”

God, I couldn’t believe I could say such a thing so convincingly. It made me feel sick as it ran so counter to everything I knew about sustainable and humane fishery management.

Frank nodded sagely. “Good policy. Stick the fish in. Nothing pisses off a customer more than not catching anything. You won’t get them back and they’ll slag off your lake.”

“Jeez,” I heard Fi mutter very quietly.

“Yeah, no one can ever believe they’re a bad fisherman. They always blame the fish,” I agreed.

“That’s who you’re dealing with,” shrugged Frank. “You have to keep them happy.”

He and Tony Frobisher would get along like a house on fire, I decided.

“Look, before you go, how about we have a chat? I can bring you some numbers,” offered Frank. “I have access to some excellent fish and I’m sure we can cut a good deal.”

“Sure. Why not?” I nodded. “I’ll ring you when I get back home.”

“I don’t like doing business by phone,” Frank informed me. “I’m a face to face kind of guy. I’ll drop by around five on Friday evening to talk it through. OK?”

Shit. There went my hopes of bunking off with Fi. I guessed I’d have to stay now to keep appearances up. Bloody Julian and his ideas.

“Thanks. That’ll be great.” I forced a smile.

Fi suddenly began limping.

“I’ll catch you up,” she said. “I’ve got a stone in my boot.”

She crouched down to unlace it and deal with the problem. I continued sauntering along the bank with the creepy Frank.

“Oh, and if you happen to be in town on Thursday evening,” he went on, “I’m having a drink with a colleague you might be interested to meet. Eight thirty at the Café du Commerce. Does good food there. You could wine and dine your young lady.”

He glanced back appreciatively, bordering on lecherously, at Fi.

“I’ll bear it in mind, thanks.”

I wanted this guy to go. He didn’t give off good vibes. I could easily see him forcing harmless lake owners out of business with his underhand ways. But he showed no sign of leaving imminently.

“How’s the fishing been lately?” I asked. Maybe I could make him feel awkward.

“A little slow, it has to be said,” he replied, his expression immobile. So, he wasn’t a blatant liar, just a liar. “My fish like a lot of ground bait, and I mean a lot. If you don’t whet their appetites, you won’t bring them in.”

“I haven’t got a great deal,” I confessed. “I’ll do a lot of spodding and hope for the best.”

“You may be lucky,” he shrugged.

Hardly encouraging, but then I wasn’t supposed to know that there were no fish in his lake. And he didn’t bother offering to try and sell me any bait.

“Could we use that boat?” My eye had fallen on a smart wooden rowing boat at the cabin end of the lake, moored by a chain to a concrete block. If we could row round the lake, we’d soon get our detective work done with the fishfinder. I idly noticed there was a second concrete block and chain next to the first. Frank kept two boats here then?

“Sorry,” shrugged Frank, but not especially looking it. “Can’t get insurance for punters to use that.”

“Oh well, don’t know if you don’t ask,” I replied nonchalantly.

Frank said ‘goodbye’ and headed off.

 “That looks like your tractor,” noticed Fi, who’d joined me again. There hadn’t been anything in her boot. She simply couldn’t stand being around creepy Frank.

“The Beast?” I studied the machine in the field. “Hey, you’re right. Impressive, Fi! It’s a Fordson Dexta too.”

“And about as temperamental as yours,” she added, as with a crunching sound that we could clearly hear, the tractor suddenly stopped moving.

“They must be twins,” I remarked.

“Why don’t you go and give helpful advice?” she suggested. “I’ll translate.”

The chances were this guy knew way more about Fordsons than I did. But I’d been battling the Beast for fifteen years and I’d learnt a trick or two along the way.

“Oh, I don’t know, I’d rather get the bivvie up,” I shrugged. “And then warm the sleeping bags up?” I nuzzled into her neck.

“Come on, Marcus,” laughed Fi, pushing me away. “Five minutes, that’s all. Just see if you can help. I’d love to have a proper French conversation again. I’ll make it well worth your while later.” She winked.

“In that case, what are we waiting for?” I grabbed her hand and we jogged to the edge of the grassy field.

On peut vous aider?” called Fi.

Volontiers! ” came the grateful reply.

We joined the tractor driver. He was a young guy, in between me and Fi agewise, maybe thirty or so. He already had oily hands from fiddling with the engine so offered his elbow for us to shake. Fi chattered away, telling him who we were, and how I had a tractor exactly the same and so we wondered if we could give him a hand. He gushed back at machine-gun speed. I only caught the odd word or two, including that his name was Yannick, but Fi was in her element.

“OK.” Fi turned to me. “Yannick thinks one of the pistons has seized.”

“Tell me about it,” I said sympathetically to Yannick. “One of mine does it all the time. I heat it with a blowtorch, then drive it down with a bit of wood and a hammer, and then I can drive it back up again. And one time I was out of propane, so I followed the advice in the ancient manual that came with the tractor and burnt a bit of oily rag on top of the piston to warm it up.”

Fi translated.

Vraiment?” Yannick looked to me for confirmation. I nodded. “Chouette,” he smiled. He pulled a cotton hanky out of his pocket, lifted the oil can out of the tool tray on the tractor and soaked the hanky in it. He shoved it into position, then out came a lighter. Wumpf. The rag lit quickly and flared.

Merde!” exclaimed Fi, stepping back in alarm. “It’s not going to blow up, is it?”

Yannick and I, the seasoned vintage vehicle engineers, both laughed at Fi’s reaction. When the flames finished, Yannick bashed the piston a couple of times and it moved. He soon had it mobile again.

Impec,” he nodded, impressed, and thumped me happily on the shoulder.

He pulled out a packet of Gaulois cigarettes. I hated the things, and even more so since the airport, but it was a gesture of gratitude and solidarity, so I stoically took one. He and I smoked and talked tractors while Fi translated at breakneck speed. Yannick told us how he’d recently taken over his small farm with the intention of being as self-sufficient as possible. He’d been some sort of sales executive in Paris, but had had a breakdown, so chucked in the corporate lifestyle. He was here on his own, scraping a living from his land. As far as we could make out, he was living on eggs from his chickens, vegetables his neighbours were giving him and his share of the local hunting club’s trophies every weekend. He laughed as he explained that at 33, he was less than half the average age of the members of the hunting club. And since he’d joined, their success rate had increased exponentially. I’d liked to have invited him to join us for fishing, but since we knew the lake was empty, that seemed an equally empty invitation.

“If you’re free, drop by one mealtime,” I said. “We’ll give you something other than eggs and veg, but it won’t be as exotic as wild boar.”

“How about Friday night, then?” suggested Fi, first in English to me, then in French to Yannick. “We’ll have all our leftovers to get through. And we seem to have overcatered so there’ll be plenty.”

We parted well pleased with each other, arranging for Yann to come over around seven. Since I was going to have stick around to see Frank, then we might as well make a night of it.

We unpacked the car, but not very enthusiastically it had to be said. We put up the tent and had a late lunch. We were fairly apathetic until Fi reminded me that she owed me a favour. I was about to carry her into the bivvie for payback time, but then we both felt our lake checking duty looming over us like a black cloud.

“Shall we get the fish hunting out of the way first?” I suggested. “Yann’s not around and there’s no reason for Frank to turn up. It’s kind of hanging over our heads, isn’t it? Get it done, then we can have some fun?”

“God, yeah. Let’s do it,” agreed Fi.

“We’ll start with Daphne,” I suggested, “and, depending on results, I’ll give the Humminbird a go too.”

We rigged up Daphne as best we could. I tied a band round her neck, then Fi took her to the opposite side of the lake from me. I cast out right across the water. I messed up first time and landed in the water, but reeled in and tried again. It went against every instinct to be purposely trying to reach the far bank. Second time round I landed it right at Fi’s feet. I had to admit, I was a very accurate caster. I smiled smugly. Fi gave me a thumbs up. She put the hook into the band around Daphne’s neck and dropped the plastic duck into the water. I reeled in slowly, watching the reading on the receiver at the same time. The sensor picked nothing up. No real surprise. Fi trotted round to collect Daphne and then took her back.

We repeated the process a couple more times but still nothing. But then we reached a stretch of bank that was heavily treed. Fi slipped in between two of them but I got caught in the branches casting across. It took Fi ages to free it. And then, on the way across the lake, Daphne must have snagged on some weed or something we couldn’t see. The hook came loose as I tugged. There sat Daphne in the middle of the lake. I did a dramatic shrug across to Fi. This was going to be a much bigger deal than I thought. We might need till Friday night to complete the task. Good job we’d given up our plan to cut and run.

OK. How to get Daphne? I ran my hand through my hair as I began to think what we could do. But then, to my amazement, Fi pulled off her jacket, jumper and jeans, and hopped into the lake. While I was always delighted to see Fi with not very much on, this was risking pneumonia.

“Fi, don’t!” I called. “You’ll catch your death of cold!”

“Not me,” she yelled back. “I have antifreeze for blood. Besides, the water’s warm. Well, relatively.”

She swam strongly over to where Daphne was bobbing up and down.

“Yeah, there’s some weed growing up here,” she called. She freed Daphne and pushed her over the water towards me.

“Get out, you ninny!” I told her when she got to the bank. “Seriously Fi. This is madness!”

“No. I’ll carry on till we’re done,” announced Fi firmly. “I could do with a good swim and we need to check this lake out. You can warm me up when I’ve finished,” she grinned wickedly.

“Well, when you put it like that, OK!” I smiled in reply. I’d make sure I did a good job.

And so for the next half hour, Fi swam up and down the lake while I watched the receiver, but I did keep half an eye on that lovely bum that kept breaking the water’s surface. But fishwise - nothing. Not one single fishy shape came up on the screen. Julian was onto something.

I helped her out of the water. She was shivering, and she was covered in fine silt.

“You’re a hero,” I smiled, wrapping a towel around her. “Didn’t pick up a thing. Julian isn’t quite as paranoid as I thought he was. Now. Hot shower for you.”

“You coming?” she asked.

“Did you even need to ask that question? It’s obvious your back needs scrubbing,” I smirked.

We kissed and hurried to the shower block, where the hurrying stopped at once. It was a good three quarters of an hour before we emerged, looking extremely pleased with ourselves. I’d been more than compensated for going along with her idea of talking to Yannick, and judging by Fi’s rosy cheeks, I hadn’t scrimped on my warming her up promise.

Over supper I reviewed our week so far. We’d put the fish back at Bellevue and had some good fishing. Then we’d come here, been creeped out by Frank but made a friend in Yannick and confirmed the lake was empty. And we’d had plenty of truly amazing sex every day. So far, pretty damned good. But now we were venturing into murkier territory with me posing as a potential buyer of dodgy carp and meeting up with Frank and his shady colleagues. I felt peeved about doing Julian’s dirty work for him. Sod it, what he ever done for me? But in for a penny, in for a pound. We’d come this far, we might as well keep going. When you’re going through hell, keep going, Churchill advised. We hadn’t got to hell yet, but I had a nasty feeling we might reach it fairly soon.

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