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Back in the drawing room, the man who was known to them as Upensky was gripping the carpet with both hands and muttering, “Close the door, I’m freezing!” He appeared to be referring to the bullet hole in his thigh. Tori and her grandfather had run up to help, carrying cushions to plug the wound, but they were anxious to avoid treading in Upensky’s blood. They were currently stranded on the shoreline.

Beaufort’s gun wandered across the company. “Where’s the Polish guy?” He looked so agitated that he might shoot any one of them out of hand. “When did he leave? How long has he been gone?” The gun dipped murderously towards Tori. “You know this!”

Tori closed her eyes and whispered a bedtime prayer from her childhood.

Meanwhile, Andrew had noticed that the tiny laptop which had been placed next to him at dinner was all at once near to him again, on a table underneath a lamp. Incredibly, it was still activated – it must have been on all throughout this emergency.

Even more incredibly, some part of his brain must have always known that it was there. For he now recalled Pat following him with the laptop, afraid to leave it for the thieves. At the time, Andrew had been speaking to the policemen and he had told Pat to put the laptop on this exact table.

Andrew glanced back at Beaufort to verify that he was still preoccupied. He then darted across to the laptop, as dizzyingly as a monkey swinging between jungle precipices.

He logged on, typing quickly despite the handcuffs. Yes, the Skype call to the captain of the airliner was still running.

“Captain, this is your employer speaking,” Andrew commanded loudly. “My house has been overrun by armed intruders, my family are in danger. Phone the police immediately. We need firearms…”

“Not a good idea, Pa,” Ted broke in worriedly. “They’re probably landing around this time…”

A sharp liquid crunch was squirted out of the laptop’s speakers, the sound of a thousand champagne bottles being smashed on the other side of a hill, and the line was disconnected.

At Lisbon airport, one hundred and forty-nine passengers and airline staff had been incinerated in their seats on the runway. It was the deadliest plane crash in Portugal’s history. Andrew was going to be replying to emails about this for weeks.

Beaufort gestured angrily at Andrew with his gun. “I don’t know what you two are up to, but back over here. Now!”

When Andrew had returned to his old place on the sofa, he registered a sudden, almost imperceptible lightness beside him. He strained his neck, as if he could possibly see over his own head, sensing that his mother was padding about behind him.

It was wondrous how noiselessly she could move. He was reminded of Christmas time and of his mother gliding through the nursery to place a stocking on the mantelpiece.

As normal, John McIntyre’s contribution was unassertive and it sounded ineffectual, but he had actually furnished them with a solid floor of sense. “Tycienski will have called the police by now,” he observed. Merely as an intellectual exercise, to while away the remaining time, his mind had already begun to sketch out a rudimentary legal defence for these three men. Soon his imagination was in the courtroom, patiently, and with his own frosty precision, lecturing a jury.

A little later, Beaufort stared at John McIntyre with irritation, not understanding why the solicitor was smiling. It was because the judge had just sentenced Beaufort to a fine and community service.

“Yes, Tycienski will have called the police,” Ted warned. “So I would be away pretty sharpish if I were you.”

Beaufort shook his head bitterly. “Downstairs, they’ll have killed him. The guys at the centre of this job might look like students, but they never mess about.”

Strathearn agreed earnestly. “They get it from Game of Thrones. They have no sense of reality at all – it can be quite frightening sometimes, to tell you the truth.”

Beaufort had momentarily turned the gun on his colleague in annoyance. He spun it back on the room in a flash.

“Surrender – call an ambulance,” Upensky gibbered from the carpet. “I want to die in a bed at least.”

Suddenly there was a pretty little patter of soot at the bottom of the chimney and then louder, more explosive noises, like suppressed sneezes.

The room could not believe their senses. Was Janet really climbing the chimney?

Strathearn scampered clunkily over to the fireplace. “Don’t stick your head up there, idiot!” Andrew snarled. “You’ll get covered in soot. You know she’s there.”

Strathearn stepped back again. Soot was now pouring down as steadily as blood from the cut throat of an animal.

Ted smiled inquiringly at his father. For a moment, retreating into the realm of family lore, they seemed to be like two men who were standing together in a single sunbeam. “Has Granny ever done this before?”

Andrew gave him that rueful, hayseed look which he only ever shared very rarely with his son, in humorous moments of despair. “I have a memory of a game that the family used to play at Christmas called “Hide and Seek in the Dark.” Somebody – one of the uncles I think – yes, he was a tiny little old man, practically a midget. Yes, he had hidden up the chimney. We only found him because he had taken off most of his clothes beforehand and left them folded neatly on the sofa.”

But Janet could no longer hear this conversation. She had slithered painfully up the perished brickwork of the chimney, wheezing carefully under her breath for fear of inhaling masses of soot. The blackness was so total that Janet only realised that she had reached the top when her head was buffeted with booming, swooping air.

She looked around and a picture started to form. Against the black pool of the house and its estate, the night sky had softened almost to a dust colour. Stars dripped, gleaming harder and more brilliantly than any light within their own world.

And then she heard indistinct movements below. Footsteps and voices were emerging from the kitchen door.

[Next instalment: “The Massacre Of The Agency Workers.”]