The day of the banquet brought a screaming crescendo of activity to Staddon Hall. Freddy and Carmen had kept well out of the way but, for the staff, the working day began at dawn. Melsham’s automated production line in the old Stables began churning out its fare at first light and, by the time that Cherry and Ying embarked upon their elopement, everything was more or less ready. Slipper had found it ridiculously easy to get Helga down into the dungeons. He had given her enough sewing and mending work to keep her occupied in her room all day so, when he slipped the forged note under her door just before the guests were due to start arriving, he was not surprised at the eager speed with which she had obeyed the summons. Once she was safely inside the prepared room, he went in search of Melsham.
“Well there’s a turn up, eh? A bleedin ′ motor mechanic breakin’ down.” Ying slammed down the bonnet of the car in disgust. “Well,” he said leaning through the passenger window “We said we was goin’ to have a holiday trampin’ the moors. We may as well start now.” He held open the door for Cherry. “There’s a pub a few miles up the road. We can put up there for the night and get this sorted in the morning. Pass the map, we may as well see where we’re going.”
Ying kicked the wheel of the car as he passed, hooking an arm around Cherry’s waist. “Don’t worry. It’s not too far. It’s a nice evening for a walk anyway, and we might hitch a lift.” He looked over the wilderness stretching out on all sides. “But I wouldn’t bank on it.”
“S’all right” Cherry snuggled into his shoulder. “Just so long as I’m with you it doesn’t matter how far it is.”
Ying smiled, “Tell me that when your shoes start pinching,” and jogged along for a few yards, bringing squeals of protest.
The sea in the remote distance was a silver knife edge slicing across the patchwork of fields and hedges that patterned the coastal plain. It balanced a darkening blue sky, so perfect that it might have been polished cobalt. The sun, just dipping towards its watery bed, laid down a blanket of somnolent warmth that promised a long, drawn-out, luscious night, and the pleasure that Arthur and Cherry took in one another’s company complemented the quiet, bracken-riffled solitude of the moors.
They walked along in companionable silence for some time, passing small rills, isolated farmhouses way in the distance, and wooded valleys made mysterious by their inaccessibility. Once they passed close to the rear of a huge pile of a place set within a valley but rather than detour to try to seek help which would more than likely prove abortive, kept to the road.
Ying looked at his map, noting the landmarks, and pointed the way down a side turning.
“Not too far now. Tell you what, another ten minutes and then we’ll sit down and have a rest, eh?”
At the same time as Ying had been waiting in the shadows at the ‘Spring Roll’, Kwan was pacing the floor at the Motel with a face like thunder. “Willy’s fouled it up! He must have! He should have been back long before now.” The ’phone rang and Kwan snatched it up, listened briefly, slammed it down and turned to his companions. “Lin’s van is just about ready to go. Willy’s not going to get here. It’s up to us now.”
There was only one possible route that Lin’s van could have taken to Staddon Hall, and Kwan and his cronies soon picked it up, trundling along in the distance. By dint of some hair-raising driving Kwan soon overtook it, leaving the other car to box it in behind and the ‘Serve you Right’ personnel soon wondered what they had done to deserve the treatment handed out by Kwan and his men as they were stripped, bound and gagged and thrown into the back of the van to await a more suitable site to dispose of them.
Kwan pulled his cars off the road, out of sight amongst the gorse, and chugged on to Staddon Hall in the hi-jacked van, staring grimly through the windscreen. It was do or die from now on. The adrenalin was starting to flow.
Ying and Cherry were sitting on a low granite wall watching the sun dip behind the tors and leaning their tired backs against a ruinous building that may, at one time, have been a barn, when Ying cocked his head and listened. “Here we go. There’s a car coming. Stick your leg out, or something.”
A moment later, it was obvious that the vehicle was going the wrong way, headed back the way they had come, as it appeared around a bend in the road. Ying looked at it in disbelief. “Gordon Bennet, Cherry. It’s one of your dad’s vans! We’d better hide.”
They scrambled off the wall just as the van drew alongside. Through the passenger window, they saw the incredulous face of Tony Kwan, who signalled the driver to stop and then jumped out as Ying and Cherry made to run away. “Well, well, well, what have we here?” Kwan asked, stepping in front of them.
“What are you doing with my father’s van?” Cherry countered defiantly.
Kwan sneered. “That’s my business but, since you ask, you can come along and see.” He grabbed Cherry by the wrist and drew her struggling to the van.
“’Ere!” Ying yelled “You leave her alone, Kwan!” Tony snapped his fingers and the rear doors of the van flew open as a bevy of his cronies piled out, pinioning Ying’s arms.
Kwan threw Cherry into the passenger seat. “It was very fortunate that we came across you, my dear. Very fortunate indeed.” He slammed the door shut, imprisoning Cherry inside and turned to his gang. “Leave him here,” he said “and dump that lot inside the van in this building.” He nodded to a thick-set individual with no neck. “Kim Lee, you stay here and see that they all stay put. We’ll pick you up again when we’ve finished our business with Lappit at Staddon Hall.”
Kim Lee grunted and, picking Arthur up, tied and gagged him and threw him down on the earthen floor of the old barn. Soon Arthur was joined by other bound and gagged Chinese dressed only in underclothes who looked as bewildered as they were terrified. Then he heard the van pull away and Kim Lee squatted down in the doorway of the barn.
He pulled out a huge knife and started to whittle.
“What? Now?” Melsham looked incredulous at Slipper’s insistence that he inspect the dungeons. “I’m supposed to be greeting the guests.”
“It might be advisable, milord. It will only take a moment. You did ask that the display be as realistic as possible. You should be sure you’re happy with it. After all…”
“Yes, yes, all right Slipper,” Melsham replied, tetchily. “No need to go on.”
“Just so, milord. The door is open. If you will excuse me I must be on hand when the caterers arrive.” Slipper scurried away before Melsham could change his mind and waited around the corner of the corridor.
Melsham looked at his watch in irritation and started down the dungeon steps to where the bottom door stood ajar. Behind him, unnoticed, the outer door softly closed and the bolt was silently shot home.
With his hand still on the bolt Slipper pressed his ear to the door. Faintly, through the thickness of the oaken beams, he heard Melsham squawk and then the slam of the inner door, and he walked away smirking.
The sight that met Melsham’s eyes as he pushed open the inner door brought the blood rushing to his face. Slipper must have gone mad, he thought. Plastic, blow-up dolls were scattered around the dungeon in every inconceivable pose and state of partial dismemberment. Wherever Slipper had got the blood from, Melsham didn’t really want to know but it was all too hideously obvious where it had been applied. Tortured dolls lolled and bobbed in the draught in plastic animation, all except the largest which lay on the centre table crammed into the skimpiest chamber maid’s costume that Melsham had ever seen. Then he started as the doll rolled over and assumed a languid ‘come-and-get-me’ pose, leering at him through painted eyes and the room seemed to turn somersaults in Melsham’s mind.
He squawked and turned to flee. But, quick as he was, Helga was quicker as she sped to the door, slammed it and barred the way with her spread-eagled body. “Zo! Mein noddy liddle boy haff kom at last!”
Had Ying and Cherry passed close to the front of Staddon Hall rather than the rear they might have seen more chance of obtaining assistance, for the courtyard had become a car park for V.I.P.s - although they may have had difficulty approaching since security men were as thick as ticks on a sheep’s back. Invitations and passes were checked and double-checked as the honoured guests arrived for the Banquet. The only things impairing proceedings were the lack of a host and the catering firm. Slipper knew where the host was - although he was not letting on - but he did not know where the caterers were.
Lady Melsham was in her element. Resplendent in an emerald green gown she allowed guests to kiss her hand and positively shimmered in delight. Slipper looked on under lowered eyebrows in disapproval but she was hooked on the occasion and in no mood to respond to equivocation. And, in the absence of Archie, all the limelight was falling on her. Slipper left her to it and walked on outside.
The courtyard was rapidly filling with limousines as the cream of the County set and V.I.P.s arrived to the glare of TV lights. Staddon Hall had seen nothing like it before.
Apart from the host, all that was missing were the caterers. They should have arrived hours ago. He paced up and down, checking his watch from time to time and wondering whether to call Lin again. He had been assured that the van was on its way and, if it had had a puncture, as Lin had suggested, there was little that he could do about it.
Lady Melsham joined him, as other V.I.P.’s pulled up “Where’s Archie? He’s supposed to be here to meet everyone. I can’t do all this by myself, it isn’t proper.”
Slipper shrugged. “You saw him getting ready. I don’t know where he is. I haven’t seen him for half-an-hour. Make some excuse. Tell them he’s temporarily indisposed. I’ll send some of the servants to look for him. I’m more concerned where these waiters are.”
Lady Melsham flapped away exasperated, turning a watery smile on a V.I.P. who had looked as though he were about to say something, and then changed his mind.
As Slipper looked at his watch for the tenth time in ten minutes, a large white van drew up haltingly at the gates as the Security men stopped it. “At last” he breathed, trotting over.
The Security man riffled through Kwan’s pilfered ID cards, with another one looking over his shoulder. Did they but know it, Cherry lay bound and gagged in one of the hampers in the back of the van, covered with linen and spare uniforms. The guard slowly pushed his cap up off his forehead. “I dunno,” he said to his companion, examining the passes, “They all look the bleedin’ same to me.” Kwan held his breath and hoped that the adhesive holding in place the hastily obtained polaroid photographs of his crew would not slip.
“Look out” said the second security guard, nodding in Slipper’s direction as he hurried over with a face like thunder “Here comes Hitler!”
“And about time!” Slipper said, brushing past the first guard and looking up at Kwan. “You have about fifteen minutes to get ready. I thought this firm was reliable!”
“Eh, just a minute!” the guard interposed “we’ve got to check these security passes first.”
Slipper silenced him with a stare, grabbing Kwan’ s ID from his hand. “And just how many totally Chinese Catering firms do you know in Dimpset officer? Surely you must have checked the firm out beforehand - there isn’t much that you haven’t. I haven’t got time for this nonsense. The banquet starts in half-an-hour. Lin’s ‘Serve you Right’ I ordered and Lin’s ′ Serve you Right’ I seem to have got. See?” He waved Kwan’ s ID in front of the guard’s nose, gesturing at Kwan with the other. “Come on. Get a move on please. You can change in the cloakroom next to the kitchen.” So saying he strode on in front of the van leading the way.
Kwan bridled. He was not used to being treated so abruptly and it rankled, but he gave the order to drive on, thankful for Slipper’s intervention at the most vulnerable point of the operation. He hissed to his companion - rather unfairly the man thought - “After Lappit, this man goes! No-one speaks to Tony Kwan like that.”
But Slipper had a few more choice words to fling at Kwan and his crew as they unloaded their gear from the back of the van, and chivvied and harried them until they were all but trotting into the Hall, carrying their unwilling burden with them. He left them panting in the cloak-room with a final admonition to “Get a move on!” and dashed out to see to final arrangements in the Great Hall.
Tony’s eyes followed Slipper’s hasty exit, spitting ice, then he yanked open the basket lid and hauled Cherry Lin out, tearing free her gag but stilling her mouth with harsh fingers. “Quiet! Not a word.”
Cherry’s eyes filled with tears at the harsh treatment, but she nodded assent. Tony relaxed his grip, loosening her bonds. “Now. You have exactly ten minutes. You tell us what we must do. You know about waiting on table. We know nothing.”
“You’re crazy!” Cherry cried. “No-one can learn about waiting on table in ten minutes.”
“Maybe. But that’s all the time I have. I just need to know enough to get by until I can get my hands on Lappit. Teach, if you value your precious Arthur’s life!”
“I need a menu” cried Cherry in panic, clutching her hands to her face “I need to know what you’re to serve.”
Kwan snapped his fingers and one of his men paused in pulling on his coat to pass along the menu card that Slipper had left behind for Kwan’s perusal.
Cherry scanned it frantically, while Kwan motioned his men to gather round. “You’ll never get away with it. This is all silver-service. You’ll be found out straight away!”
“Never mind, I said” snapped Tony, “Just do as you’re told.”
“All right, all right! But it’ll have to be course-by- course. You’ll never keep it all in your head.”
“Fine. We may not need to. As soon as I’ve got Lappit, we’re on our way.”
Hurriedly, Cherry ran over the etiquette of the soup course while Kwan’s men tried to let it sink in and Kwan cursed the absence of Willy Sung who, alone of them all, had waiting experience.
In the kitchen next door Sung, to whom any experience at all was now irrelevant, simmered aromatically in a slow oven, whilst below, a different kind of simmering was taking place as Melsham tried to keep the table between him and Helga, spitting expletives that poor Willy would have been only too glad to have uttered had the grinding blades not shaved away his epiglottis, before extruding him into the mixture for the famed Melsham Pie.