After that evening, moments of passion were grabbed whenever opportunity presented itself. Lady Melsham had, at long last, found her gestalt and, although she still retained the vainglorious desire for acceptance by the County set, Slipper came to understand the reason for it and hated Melsham all the more. Slipper’s own personality underwent a subtle transformation too, remarked upon by the staff at Staddon Hall with amazement, who could not guess what had happened to transform him. Gone was the austere, self-effacing Slipper they had all learned to respect. Instead, in his place, they had a Slipper who loped around with a spring in his step and a permanent half-smile on his face - except, of course, in the presence of his Lordship. In the presence of her Ladyship there was a seething undercurrent of passion that, on more than one occasion, threatened to break through the surface of strained normality.
For all his feelings for Lady Melsham, Slipper had not confided his plans for Melsham’ s downfall to her. There would be time for that afterwards and he did not want to jeopardise them in any way. And, in any case, he was still not quite sure of her reactions. He knew that there lurked the desire to play the Lady of the Manor - particularly at the opening Banquet - and if she thought that her own wishes might be thwarted to this end then her support would probably not be forthcoming. No. Some things were best left alone, Slipper reasoned.
Lady Melsham’s state of mind was also giving her husband pause for thought at that moment. Whilst they were dressing for the TV interview he had again broached the dismissal of Helga.
“I’ve told you before Archie, and I don’t want to tell you again, Helga stays. I really don’t know what you hold against the poor girl.”
It wasn’t so much what he held against her as what she had once held against him that was so exercising Melsham’ s mind. A whiff of scandal in such close proximity to his crowning glory might prove more than a trifle embarrassing but, of course, he could not confide that to Sylvia.
“I’ll tell you something, Archie,” said Lady Melsham, brushing her hair, “If you persist in persecuting Helga then I might just have to leak some facts and figures on how PieCrust Incorporated came to be taken over last year.”
Lady Melsham looked over her shoulder at him. “That surprises you doesn’t it? I’ve not lived with you and your business deals for the past twenty-five years without picking up a few tips. So be warned. I can play your game as well as you can, Archie.”
Melshsam glowered apoplectically.
“Don’t let’s fool ourselves, Archie. You need me as much as I need you. But it doesn’t mean we have to like each other. So,” she said, smiling sweetly “let’s drop all this nonsense about Helga and just get on with it?” She sailed regally from the bedroom leaving Melsham seething in front of the dressing room mirror. As accustomed as he was to using women for his own ends, Lappit had never been much good at manipulating them, despite his undoubted success in manipulating his peers. There was something about the female spirit that frightened him, which was why he tried to associate himself with quiescent women who liked to be dominated. Despite her loquacious and sometimes vitriolic tongue, Sylvia had fitted into the manipulative category until a few days ago and there was something about his wife’s sudden change of character that niggled him. Melsham suddenly felt curiously uneasy, as if someone was tentatively tugging at the rug beneath his metaphoric feet. It was a disturbing feeling.
He shook himself, and adjusted his tie, two red spots of colour showing livid on his cheeks.
The TV interview went well, although Melsham had been taken aback at the paucity of the equipment - he had, at the very least, been expecting a pantechnicon-load of cameras and sound crew. As it was, the young interviewer and her single cameraman put up a very creditable performance.
Watching the snippet on the news that night Melsham was very pleased with the way he - and the project - had come over. In the short space of time available the crew had cleverly managed to combine a potted history of the Hall with Melsham’s dissertation on the future he foresaw for the project, while panning over the range of buildings that comprised the long-forgotten stately home soon to be catapulted into the limelight once again. Staff and family looked on from several vantage points, trying vainly to get into the shots.
Freddy and Carmen managed it without trying.
Engaged upon their own business all day, far removed from the Hall and its doings, they had been unaware of the interview taking place and walked around the corner right into shot as Melsham was being interviewed without even realising it. They had thought nothing of it.
Tony Kwan, however, slumping in front of his TV set in abject boredom, thought a very great deal of it. He shot upright in his seat as though it had suddenly sprouted needles, and reached for the volume control. " and it is from historic Staddon Hall that history will be made again on Saturday night when the inaugural Melsham Pie will be ceremonially cut in the presence of the Prime Minister and a host of invited guests. Staddon Hall of the past will then look forward to a future of prosperity under the watchful guidance of the new Lord Melsham. This is Rosemary Lunn returning you to the Studio from Staddon Hall, Houndsmoor.”
Kwan snatched up his telephone receiver and dialled Lin frantically. Without waiting for the niceties of introduction he gabbled into the receiver, as soon as Lin answered, “That catering job you mentioned the other day. It was at a place called Staddon Hall, wasn’t it!”
“I thought so. Well, Lappit’s there - I’ve just seen him on the News!”
Lin expressed amazement.
“Well, get me in there!”
Lin hesitated. “With the caterers, you mean?”
“No, my friend. Certainly not.”
“Why? You gave me your word you’d help me find Lappit.”
“Find, yes. But not jeopardise my operation Mr. Kwan. This catering business is my legitimate arm. If I compromise myself on your behalf it puts me in an impossible position. No. I’m afraid not. Lappit is found now. You’re on your own Mr. Kwan. And anyway,” he continued “my boys have all had their securi ty photographs taken already. Don’t forget the Prime Minister will be there and the place will be crawling with security. You are very much on your own. Don’t involve me at all!”
Lin put the receiver down on Kwan who glared at the instrument at his end with hatred. Then, he clicked the receiver rest and dialled out again.
Ying was heartily sick of dialling. Whenever he tried all he got was an engaged tone or a Cantonese voice feigning puzzlement and repeating “Velly solly, no spikkie English” ad infinitum to all his vain attempts to contact Cherry. The bamboo curtain had very definitely been drawn between them and, for all that Ying was aware, nailed down as well. There was only so much a Chinese motor mechanic with a bloody mind could take, and that point had long been passed, in Ying’s opinion. He wrenched a bag down from his wardrobe and threw clothes in it as fast as he could. Tonight would see a resolution to the impasse once and for all!
In fact, when Ying arrived at ‘The Spring Roll’ that evening armed as surreptitiously with a ladder as that object allowed, he could get nowhere near. Vans emblazoned with Lin’s commercial slogan ‘Serve you Right’ were parked nose to tail outside and the restaurant seethed with waiters being briefed for their part in whatever big job it was that Lin was involved in.
There would be no question of approaching Cherry’s bedroom window tonight! Ying returned home again a disappointed and frustrated man to kick his heels until a more propitious moment.
The first to arrive in response to Kwan’s telephone calls was his second cousin from Bristol, Willy Sung. Kwan greeted his arrival with some circumspection - Willy’s apprehension on the motorway bridge which led to Lappit slipping the net still rankled.
“It wasn’t my fault, Tony” he whined. “This copper was keen. And, anyway, what about me? I didn’t know they’d taken me in for my own good. Do I look the suicidal sort? I thought they’d nailed me for the Cardiff job last year.” Willy wiped sweat from his forehead at the recollection. “I shit bricks in that cell until they called the trick-cyclist in and I finally rumbled. It wasn’t easy talking my way out of that, I can tell you.”
Kwan scowled. “Well, now you’re here you can make amends. That shit Lin refuses to co-operate any more. But who needs him? Kwan continued. “I know where Lappit is now. All we - you - need to do is go and get him.”
“Yes, you. Call it a penance, if you like.” Tony thrust a drink into Willy’s hands. “Anyway, I can’t go in mob-handed. The place is crawling with filth.”
Willy almost dropped his drink. “What? You expect me to walk into…”
Kwan dismissed Willy’s objection with a wave of the hand. “Not proper filth. Security guards. Even you should be able to handle that. Especially at night. That’s your mark isn’t it? You’ve brought your gear I hope?”
Willy nodded. He never travelled anywhere without it. Amongst the brethren he liked to be known as the human Stealth Bomber - although his metier was the knife, rather than the big bang - speed, silence and invisibility being his particular trademarks. More, if truth were told, by luck than judgement, although Willy was not letting on.
Kwan grunted. “Good. I’ve got the rest of the boys coming down as back up. But the best chance we’ve got at the moment is you.” He picked up a map and an old guide book from the coffee table and put them in Willy’s hand. “This is the place. Staddon Hall. Lappit is holed up there. I want you to slip over the wall and fish him out. And, if you can’t persuade him to come…” Tony drew his finger across his throat.
Kwan poured another drink. “Do this right, Willy.” It was not an admonition. It was an order.
Willy departed for Staddon Hall soon afterwards, and soon after that the first of the rest of Kwan’s associates began to arrive, and trickled in all afternoon. They were spoiling for a showdown and were disappointed that they were just to play back-up to Willy’s lone efforts. However, no-one argued with Kwan. When word arrived later on that afternoon that Sally and Lisa had both given birth to twins within minutes of each other Kwan’s mouth had taken on a murderous tilt that his colleagues knew only too well. Someone was going to pay very dearly. If Sung should fail in his task, they were very, very glad they were playing second fiddle.
Tony seethed all day.
Ying had given up on the clandestine approach. Wandering the streets at night with a ladder was asking for trouble, whereas the open approach, in daylight, was unlikely to raise comment, particularly when armed with bucket and window leather. He loitered in the shadows behind Lin’s restaurant waiting for an opportune moment. A ‘Serve you Right’ van pulled past him laden with Chinese waiters en route to some venue or other and Lin had just gone back inside, after seeing them off. There would never be any better time, he thought and unhooking the lightweight ladder from his car where he had parked it around the corner, walked quickly across the road and into the Lin’s back yard. Quietly, he inched the ladder up the wall underneath Cherry’s bedroom window, shielded from sight by an advertising hoarding, clambered up the ladder and tapped at the window.
“Cherry!” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s me.”
Cherry raised her head from where she lay moping on her bed and, seeing Ying’ s head poking warily above the window sill, flew to him. “Arthur!” She flung the window open.
“Don’t say a word. There’s no time to waste. Throw some clothes in a bag and let’s go. We’re eloping.”
In a matter of moments, that seemed like hours to Ying perched on top of his ladder, Cherry was ready and clambering down after him. Together they ran across the road, fell into his car, embraced, and then Ying gunned the motor and they sped off in the direction of Houndsmoor.