I looked at the guy who had been involved in trying to kill me twice. Could you realistically forgive someone who’s done that? Maybe some people, much nobler than me, could. I couldn’t. But I could acknowledge his words. “Yeah,” I nodded.
But I soon had the answer.
“We get the hell out of here and go to the police.” I got up. “We can leave Yann out of things. We can say it must have been a poacher or someone who fired the shots at the boat. We can say we’d heard shots on other nights. But everything else we come clean about.”
Fi nodded agreement.
“Now, I’m going to try and break the door down. You carry on with the hole, please Fi. I’m going to beat the crap out of this cabin.”
Fi set to with the tubing. I began to systematically batter the door on the side with the lock. Christ, but it was tough. Every time I smashed the gas bottle into it, the effort made me feel faint and the shock was making my head want to explode.
“Let me have a few goes,” I heard Fi say gently behind me. I hadn’t realised but I’d been leaning against the wall with one hand over my face for quite a few minutes.
“Hmm? No, no it’s OK. I’m good.”
I steeled myself for the next onslaught. “ ... fourteen ... fifteen ... sixteen ...” I wanted to crawl away and die with the pain in my head and the tiredness. “ ... seventeen ... eighteen ...”
I took a brief pause and then slammed the bottle even harder against the door. “Nineteen.”
I’d do one more and then have a rest.
“Twenty!” I bellowed as I swung the bottle. This time when it made contact, the door flew open. There was a cry of pain and surprise from behind the door. Someone was there!
My momentum catapaulted me out of the doorway. The gas bottle went spinning one way, and I went another. But my judo training instinctively cut in and I rolled neatly, if a little painfully, out of this fall back onto my feet.
A man was struggling upright beyond the door, clutching his hands to his face. It was Aidan. Fi was standing in the doorway, a piece of tubing in each hand. I was aware of another figure to my right. I swung round. It was Tony. What the hell was he doing here? But he was staring at me, clearly wondering exactly the same thing.
I recovered first. Adrenalin surged round my whole body. I took a few running strides and retrieved my gas bottle. Then brandishing it as a weapon I backed towards the cabin.
“Get behind me Fi,” I ordered.
She slipped in between me and the cabin wall, still brandishing her gougers. Attagirl.
Aidan staggered round to stand next to Tony, his face covered in blood. From what I could see of it, his expression showed puzzlement as well as pain.
“So. You came to retrieve our bodies, did you? Frank told you to, I suppose?” I snarled.
“What?” Aidan and Tony looked at each blankly and then back at me. Aidan took a step forward.
“Keep the fuck away from me, you bastard,” I warned.
“What the hell are you doing here, Radley?” he spluttered. His nose was the source of all the blood. It was well and truly broken.
“Like you don’t know!” I growled.
“No. I don’t bloody know.” He was getting angry. Well, he’d been smashed in the face. Hardly surprising.
“Your fucking brother tried to drown me at Malval. Fi saved my butt. Then Julian and Penny came to supposedly rescue us but brought us here and left us to suffocate in this sodding little tomb of a cabin.”
“Oh Christ!” he groaned. “Frank’s at it again.”
“At what?” exclaimed Tony. He looked completely baffled.
“At murder,” I told him. “Frank had an angler called Clive killed, possibly with the help of Aidan here and Julian. They’ve got some carp smuggling scam going on. Yesterday it was meant to be my turn to meet my doom, and then Fi’s. Only it went wrong.”
“Holy shit! Aidan, is this true?” Tony turned to him. “Why would you want to kill Marcus?”
“Who’s Marcus?” Aidan was the confused one now. “And I never killed anyone.”
“I’m Marcus, not Radley,” I told him. “Long story.” I looked back to Tony. “So ... you didn’t tell Frank who I really was, then?”
“No I didn’t. I keep my word. Yeah, I know you think that’s not worth much, but to me it’s important. If I say I’ll do something, I do it. I never renege on a promise.”
I frowned at him. Did I believe him? Yeah. Yeah, I think I did.
“Yes, but why are you here now, then?” I need to know.
“I left my silk scarf here yesterday when Aidan was showing me round. I’m heading back home tonight and the good Mrs Frobisher won’t be pleased if I lose the bloody thing. She gave it to me for our silver wedding anniversary.”
I don’t know which was more surprising - Tony wearing a silk scarf or staying married for so long.
“Whoops!” said Fi, unwinding the bloodstained scarf from her badly cut arm. She’d found it in the cabin earlier. “Um, I didn’t realise what it was. I hope it’s not stained.”
She leant round the side of me and handed it to Tony, who took it gingerly. He walked over to the car and chucked it onto the back seat.
“I was just unlocking the door when you must have hit it with that gas thing,” Aidan concluded.
Was I meant to apologise?
“We didn’t know you guys were there,” I shrugged. “I’d been battering at it for ages.”
“Yes, we heard something and thought there was an animal stuck inside,” Tony added.
This was all very interesting, but I wanted to get me and Fi the hell out of this place before Julian and Penny came back to deal with our remains. I took control.
“OK. No more talking. We need to get to the gendarmes. Now. Will you take us or do I have to beat you to a pulp with my gas bottle in order to get your car keys?” I managed a weary, wry grin.
“No one’s going anywhere,” came an icy, female voice. Penny stepped out from behind the cabin. She was holding a gun. I recognised it as Julian’s Browning Buchmark.
“The Botox Bitch again,” I heard Fi groan behind me.
“Where the hell did you come from?” demanded Aidan in amazement, speaking for all of us.
“You were all so busy not believing each other, you didn’t hear us coming,” Penny smiled coldly.
I glanced up the path. Julian was driving slowly down it. For whatever reason Penny had come on ahead. Maybe because they’d caught sight of Aidan’s car parked by the cabin? She’d come to investigate.
“Aren’t you pleased to see me, Dad?” She addressed that remark to Aidan. All eyes swivelled to look at him.
“You’re her dad?” Fi was aghast.
“Step-dad. And ex-step-dad. I wasn’t married to her mother for long before I realised she was a mean, miserable bitch. Just like her daughter.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” Penny pouted.
“Now grow up and give me the damn gun,” demanded Aidan. He moved towards her, hand outstretched. There was a loud bang and a cloud of leaves exploded into the air centimetres away from Aidan’s left foot.
“Holy fucking shit!” he yelled.
“Next time I’ll bloody well hit you,” hissed Penny.
Julian had parked and got out to join his gunslinging girlfriend by now.
“So, you betrayed me to Frank. And got us to do all this dirty work for you. You’re a lying, conniving, two-faced son of a bitch,” I yelled at him. “You’re a complete and utter fucking arsehole. And that’s just for starters.”
Julian wouldn’t meet my eye.
“Look at me, you piece of shit.”
But he wouldn’t.
“He’s pretty wet, I’m afraid Marcus,” shrugged Penny. “But he was useful for a while. Sadly, no longer. I’ve gone off him.”
And with that she turned and shot Julian in the chest at point-blank range. Fi screamed. The rest of froze in horror. Fi made to go to Julian but Penny pointed the gun at her so I dragged her back and shoved her behind me again. Penny was a psychopath, that much was obvious.
“Noble Marcus,” sneered Penny.
“Fi’s worth protecting. Unlike you,” I told her.
Julian writhed on the ground in agony, clutching at the huge hole in his chest. There didn’t seem to be anything we could do for him. Did she really intend to murder the lot of us? But no, hang on. The Browning’s clip held five bullets. Penny had used two. Only three left. And there were four of us.
“Penny, for God’s sake, stop this!” cried Aidan. “It’s all gone too far!”
“I’ll call an ambulance,” offered Tony, reaching for his phone.
“I’ll shoot you if you do,” warned Penny.
“You can’t win,” I told her. “You can’t kill all of us before you need to reload. Whoever of us is left will get you then.”
Penny did look slightly rattled at that. But she quickly recovered. “I don’t need to. I can blackmail step-daddy to stay quiet, so bye-bye the rest of you! Now, who first?”
At that moment Julian, lying just behind Penny, caught my eye. He had the look of a man who realises he’s been a complete and utter idiot. Somehow or other Penny had dragged him into all this mess. Julian was back on my side. So I took my chance.
“The hell you will!” I challenged.
“Marcus!” Fi gasped behind me.
Penny levelled the revolver at me.
“Here, catch!” I was still holding my bottle. I lobbed it, and as I did Julian, and God knows how, raised his legs and kicked Penny in the back of her knees. She stumbled forwards and the gas bottle hit her in the head and chest. She crumpled and the gun went flying. We all leapt into action. Tony launched himself onto Penny and pinned her down. He was my height and twice my weight so Penny wouldn’t be going anywhere fast. Fi and I went to Julian’s side. There was blood everywhere. I pulled my hoodie off and tried to staunch the flow from the huge wound. Fi dashed back to the cabin to get towels. Aidan was on the phone. That was pretty noble given that he was almost certainly going to end up in a truckload of trouble since he knew about Frank murdering Clive.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Julian gasped, gripping my arm.
I looked at the guy who had been involved in trying to kill me twice. Could you realistically forgive someone who’s done that? Maybe some people, much nobler than me, could. I couldn’t. But I could acknowledge his words.
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Tell Lou I love her,” was his next request.
Christ, he was dying. I couldn’t let him die in an atmosphere of hatred, although God knows, I had nothing but contempt for him any more.
“Jesus, Jules!” I exclaimed, forcing a smile. “You’ve been an unbelievable dickhead, haven’t you? You ditch your amazing wife and then try to kill your friends. Talk about screwing up! Anyway, you can tell her yourself.”
“Won’t make it.”
“You bloody well will. You’re a stupid, stubborn git. You’ll last for donkeys’ years. And good work with decking Penny like that.”
We looked at each other in almost friendship again.
Fi was back with towels. I practically rammed one into the wound to stop the blood. Other than that I didn’t know what to do.
Fi laid the other towel over Julian. He’d begun to shiver violently.
“He’s going into shock,” she said. “We need to keep him warm.”
She went back for our clothes and laid them over him too.
“Hurry up ambulance,” she urged.
Julian was as white as a sheet and his breathing was shallow.
“Carla ...” he panted.
“Phone,” I said to Aidan. He’d finished his call to the ambulance and cops and was helping to sit on Penny now. He threw it across. Resting the phone on my knee, I tapped in Julian’s number with my left hand, keeping the pressure on Julian’s chest with my right.
“Bonjour?” came Carla’s voice.
“Carla, it’s Marcus. Look, I’m sorry. Your dad has had an accident. He’s very ill. Please talk to him.”
I held the phone to Jules’s ear. I could faintly hear Carla’s voice. Poor kid, what a phone call to receive. But she sounded calm. Julian managed a few words. And he smiled. Then he lost consciousness.
“Dad? Dad?” Carla was calling.
I took over.
“It’s Marcus. An ambulance is coming.” I couldn’t think what else to say.
“Leave me on the line, please,” she cried. “Tell me which hospital.”
I passed the phone to Fi. She began to chat to Carla.
Julian was still breathing. And despite what he’d done, I willed him to hang in there. One death due to this still partially unexplained affair was more than enough.
“So. Were you involved in killing Clive?” I asked Aidan.
“No. No. Frank did that all on his own.”
“But why?” Fi wanted to know.
“We had a scam going,” Aidan sighed. “We started out supplying small quantities of fish which we bought when owners netted their lakes to sort their stock out. We found a lot of old farmers had some damned good stock which we could get at knockdown prices. We made a lot of money out of it. But that’s when I met Penny’s mother, who quickly became very expensive, and Frank got into gambling in a big way. We needed more money. Julian had cottoned on to what we were up to and he approached us to get involved too. That’s when he hooked up with Penny, poor sod.”
“Poor sod is an understatement,” I observed grimly, looking at the near-death Jules.
“So we got more ambitious and extended our client base. We moved into selling lakes too. There’s huge demand for carp lakes in France. So we worked on making them available the cheap way by planting instantly recognisable fish in them. We knew when they were pulled out and photographed it would cause a lot of trouble. There’d been a few cases over the last few years. We encouraged certain people to sling allegations around and bingo, we had pissed-off lake owners who couldn’t wait to sell up and get the hell out of the damned business.”
“Just like Malval’s previous owner,” I remarked. “Des someone.”
“Brown. Des Brown. Yes.” Aidan sighed. “It was a shitty thing to do, I realise that now. I was a fool.”
“I’d say,” snorted Fi.
“Anyway, a few months after Des sold his lake - to us - we cleared the stock, and then started to try and sell the lake on. And that’s when Des’s son came sniffing around. He ...”
“What?” I interrupted. “Clive was Des’s son?”
“Step-son. Des married his mum a couple of years ago.”
So that was how the pieces fit together. I shook my head.
“Clive had done some detective work and didn’t trust what we were up to. He booked himself into our lakes under a false name - like you did, Marcus - and poked about. We got nervous. Frank said he’d go and put the frighteners on him and scare him off, only he got carried away. I got a call from him asking me to come and help me get rid of Clive’s body.”
“Holy shit,” muttered Tony.
“There’d been a fight. Frank ended up bashing him on the head with a rock. We panicked, but Julian suggested we make it look like an accident by dumping him in a stretch of river he knew about close by that had a very rocky bottom. We seemed to get away with it.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” Fi stared at Aidan incredulously.
“That was it with Frank, though. I couldn’t look at him any more. We went our separate ways. Julian stuck with me. He was disgusted too.”
“You should have gone to the gendarmes,” Fi pointed out.
“I couldn’t hand my own brother over to the law, even though I hated him now. I mean, could you?” He looked directly at me. “You said you were close to your brother. Frank and I were inseparable since childhood. Could you denounce your brother, even if he did something so bad? Could you?”
I shook my head. “No,” I replied honestly.
“Neither could I.”
“But why the hell did you put your common into Julian’s lake, when you two were allies? What was the point of that? Did you hope to drive Julian out of business so he’d move on and not be a threat? I mean, because of what he knew?” I grilled him.
“My what?” Aidan was surprised now.
“Your common. It was in Julian’s lake. Fi caught it three weeks ago during our fishing holiday there. Jules went ballistic when he saw it! We came back over this week to put it back.”
“I knew he’d gone!” exclaimed Aidan. “He’d never broken his habits before.”
“That motor you heard wasn’t my vibrator,” Fi confessed. “It was the air pump in the tank the fish was in.”
Aidan laughed, despite the circumstances. “Thank God for that.”
“So - who did put the fish into Julian’s lake?” wondered Fi.
“Me, you dimwits.” Penny entered the conversation suddenly.
“You wanted to devalue your partner’s lake?” That didn’t make any sense at all.
“Yes, so that bitch Louise didn’t get as much money in the settlement. She kept badmouthing me to Julian, the witch. I mean she was right, I began an affair with Frank pretty much as soon as I hooked up with J, but that’s what I do.”
“We’re supposed to be impressed?” snorted Fi.
“You’ve been sleeping with Frank?” Aidan sounded disgusted. “What’s wrong with you?”
Penny ignored her ex-step-dad. “But Julian, the idiot, thought it meant Aidan and Frank were back on good terms again and were ganging up on him, trying to drive him out of business. God, he was so pissed off about that! It was so funny! I let him carry on believing that.”
What on earth had possessed Jules to get involved with this nasty, twisted piece of work? Thank God I hadn’t succumbed to temptation.
Well, that seemed to tie up the various loose ends that had been flapping around. Jesus, what a sad, sordid tale of greed and murder. We all sat quietly with our thoughts. All except Aidan. He walked over to his car. I imagined he might be going to get some cigarettes or something, but instead, flashing something of a triumphant grin at us, he jumped in, started the engine and floored it up the track, swamping us in a huge cloud of dust. There wasn’t a damned thing any of us could do about it since we all preoccupied with restraining and trying to save villains.
“Bloody hell!” exploded Tony. “He’s gone off with my scarf. The missus will get to kill me after all!”
“He’s making things worse for himself by running away, isn’t he?” asked Fi.
“Only if he gets caught,” I replied.
Blast it. With him gone, our version of events leading up to me being attacked would all be hearsay. The gendarmes would take us a lot less seriously I imagined. But there wasn’t anything I could do about anything so I concentrated on looking after Julian. The bleeding seemed to be slowing down but he’d lost a hell of a lot of blood.
Then at last we heard engines. An ambulance hurtled down the driveway, stirring up another tornado of dust, closely followed by two police cars. I handed Julian over to the paramedics who had him on drips within seconds it seemed, and then I sat down on the ground, letting it all go on around me. I was totally and utterly drained. Fi did all the talking while Penny mainly screamed and swore. Then Penny was handcuffed and shoved in one car and driven off. The ambulance left next. Fi spoke to Carla on Tony’s phone and said we’d meet her at the hospital later on. And then the remaining gendarmes turned their attention to us.