All of a sudden, a distinct crack and a replying spray of sound reached the room. These sounds were loud enough to immediately silence all conversation at the table, but so distant that they seemed, in themselves, as small as the fluttering of a sparrow’s wings over the remains of the meal.
Glass was breaking, cascading voluminously out of a window frame.
Andrew gave no indication that he had heard anything, aside from a gentle pressing of his lips together. The room was at once busy with rapid, stealthy movements. Two of the service staff were conferring in the dining room doorway. To Tori, their murmur was as soft as bubbles zipping through champagne.
Janet and Pat were currently very still, like children who are waiting for an episode of seriousness amongst the adults to end. Then Tori noticed that Andrew had placed a revolver in front of him on the table.
“There is an intruder in the house,” John McIntyre explained, rather unnecessarily.
Tori’s face rolled slowly, sadly, around with despair as Tycienski bounded to his feet. It was already a faux pas – she was already acutely embarrassed. In Edinburgh, they would both vie to do the most outrageous thing at parties and in nightclubs, but Tori was always a solemn little girl again when back at Andrew’s table. Tycienski was filling the room, his tall body much bigger and stockier now, blowing out like a flag in a breeze.
John McIntyre looked at Andrew for conformation and, after a moment of ironic, blinking disgust, Andrew nodded. John McIntyre rose too and padded quickly after Tycienski.
John McIntyre soon arrived at the broken window. He inspected the broken glass on the floor and the skirting board opposite the empty window frame.
Tycienski had already glimpsed a figure at the end of the corridor and he was now crashing down towards them. A swinging fire door raced up to meet him and he slowed in a great clumsy meal of footsteps, instantly cautious. He could be attacked as soon as he stepped outside. He crossed into the shadow of a bay window which scanned the lawn outside. He swore to himself as the same figure, now recognisably male and very young, sprinted across the lawn and wormed into the blackness of the shrubbery. All that was left were shuddering bushes.
Suddenly Tycienski’s gaze darted across the corridor and through an adjacent door. A light had come on and a group of men were clattering heavily through the house. Cries of relief were audible from the dining room.
Tycienski retraced his steps to the dining room, to find Ted remonstrating hotly with his father. “Please put the gun away. You’re going to end up shooting one of the service staff. The Polacks will walk out on us. We’ll have to recruit bloody Bulgarians or these bloody people who sail across the Mediterranean in saucepans.”
Ted’s jocularity was always strained, but he was now laughing in a way which looked utterly wretched.
“Polacks?” Tycienski queried. Ted spun around, his fists clenched, but he then paused and unclenched his fists delicately. Tycienski smiled at him without total warmth.
Andrew was yawning angrily. “Where’s Marvin? Where’s Cunliffe? What are they doing?”
“There may be another intruder, somewhere else on the premises,” John McIntyre interposed.
“We can’t get hold of Marvin,” Ted admitted. Uniformed men were now stalking into the room.
There was an elephantine man in a fluorescent jacket and a peaked cap, who was so covered in cumbersome apparatus that he reminded Tori vaguely of a Christmas tree. He carried a laptop under his arm. He glanced about with discomfort, overheating now that he was in from the night.
“Detective Sergeant Clive Strathearn,” he announced. An equally tall man in a fluorescent jacket, gazing doggedly ahead, was holding up the rear. Both men were greyingly middle aged and they seemed to clunk about and knock together in this domestic scene as stiffly as robots. “This is Detective Constable Beaufort.”
“The intruder is away, across the garden” John McIntyre informed them. Tori could not help envisaging a small child letting go of a helium balloon. Perhaps nobody at the table could.
Strathearn smiled. “It will take a while for the Chief Inspector to get here, but he is coming. Yours wasn’t the first call. We had a report of some men breaking into the back of your garden.”
Why hadn’t the Worthingtons’ neighbours called the house?, Tycienski wondered. Everybody else knew about the retreat.
Andrew spoke officially for the household. “Detective Sergeant, will you send an armoured van, to take away all of the valuables in my house?”
Ted liked this officer. He would give the impression of agreeing to everything whilst not actually committing himself to anything. His men were in the process of securing the house, sealing off each exit. Moreover, because firearms had been used…
“Firearms?” Andrew spoke with amused astonishment, as if he had come across an erroneous item on a bill.
“The glass was shot out of that window,” John McIntyre explained. “There are bullets in the skirting board.”
“Armed officers will be shortly on the scene,” Strathearn explained. They had sought permission and it had been granted. Everybody would be evacuated from the building once the police had secured a safe passage.
“It’s dark outside,” Beaufort added, speaking for the first time. He sounded as gruff as he looked. “We need lights to light everything up.”
“That bullet didn’t come from a long-range weapon, even I can see that,” Strathearn chuckled. “But we’re still in a position in which we cannot yet guarantee your safety.”
Everything slowed down and it became caught on a wandering administrative current. The dinner party were asked whether they had ever received any death threats on Twitter. Between them they had received about four hundred.
The laptop was set up in the next room. From peering around Strathearn, Tycienski caught a brief view of footage from all over the house.
Police officers were going from room to room, turning on lights, looking behind doors, throwing open wardrobes, and checking under tables.
“Aren’t they handsome?” Janet beamed. There had been a lapse in the conversation and her voice sounded incredibly loud and animated. “What handsome, brave men. If only I could take one to bed with me, to keep me safe and warm.”
“The Chief Inspector is here!” Strathearn called from the next room. Beaufort tumbled in haste to open the door.
A plump, kindly-looking old gentleman, with velvety evening dress shining under the protective wrapper of a grey trench coat. He had been presumably decanted from his own disrupted dinner party into theirs. He was bleary-eyed and sniffing; it looked as if several glasses of wine had stripped a layer of alertness off him. “Good evening, what an inconvenience for you” he cried, evidently thinking mostly of himself. He stared about the room, in every direction. “Good evening, my dear,” he waved at Janet.
I do not tolerate fools, something in Andrew’s amiable reply seemed to warn. Tori was suddenly startled by Andrew’s expression. He was still engaging with the room with that sweet, languorous sarcasm, and treating the police who were supposedly now in charge of his house as if they were dinner guests whose tiresomeness it was natural to ignore. But his hair was somehow standing out in wild wisps and his eyes were wandering over the table in front of him. If only he would put away that revolver, otherwise he might be rebuked by the police. They were so far reacting to the sight of the gun with a noncommittal politeness.
“Stuart Upensky,” the Chief Inspector told them smartly. He looked up at Strathearn. “Are we ready to…?”
These huge middle-aged men looked strangely boyish in the presence of their ancient superior. They were presently running lightly between the rooms on tiny errands. “There is a floor at the Swan hotel ready,” came another voice from the next room. “We need to get more men out into the garden.”
Upensky became rather merry at this. “In my day, when I was out on the beat, we would have just made a run for it. But here you are – health and safety! It’s done more damage to this country than the Luftwaffe.”
He looked as if he would have liked a drink. In his day, he would have no doubt helped himself to one.
“The service staff are assembled in the kitchen?” John McIntyre inquired.
Beaufort looked glum. “We still can’t get an exact figure on the number you have on the premises.”
“Phone the agency,” Andrew proposed blandly.
The household agreed to be transferred to the drawing room, where lamps had been lit in preparation. Here there were armchairs placed around a large, apparently ornamental fireplace, which might have been made to the proportions of a dolmen. Three men could have sat on hard chairs and conferred in this fireplace. Draughts scurried about in its corners and occasionally boomed in the chimney.
Patience was required of the dinner party, for an indefinite period. Hastily manipulative, Tori suggested that Janet might like to finish the story of the Waldingham fairies for them. She gave Upensky and Strathearn a garbled account of how the story had unfolded up to this point. Strathearn gave an appearance of growing imaginatively involved, but he then laughed at how they were tempting him away from his own police investigation. Upensky looked admiringly at the younger officer as he excused himself from the drawing room to study his laptop.
[Next instalment: “The Nursery Times.”]