From "Private Lives"

Chapter 1

Bideford, North Devon, England.
A Friday afternoon, late summer, 1942

The first shot shook a murder of crows into the air. The second shot kept them there. Bob Robbins closed his eyes and lay perfectly still in the tall grass while his heart leapt about in his chest. His new binoculars toppled to one side. Reaching out, he placed a protective hand over them, he didn’t want them bouncing down a slippery grass slope then over the cliff onto vicious rocks. He took a deep breath. Time to move on. Someone was out catching rabbits, no point trying to see any wildlife now.

Sitting up, Bob shaded his eyes with a warm palm and gazed out across Barnstaple Bay: nothing moved but the occasional white horse of an incoming wave. With a huff of annoyance – for this was an idyllic spot – he struggled awkwardly to his feet on the steep incline then lifted the small groundsheet he’d been lying on, to shake it free of grass seeds. Turning to face inland, he caught sight of a figure pulling something in the field above. The single figure became two. One man standing, another being dragged along the ground. He lifted his binoculars and focused: a youngish man in brown dungarees had his arms linked under the shoulders of another man. He was pulling him backwards up the field. Someone had been shot. By accident? Bob’s inner policeman processed what he was watching.

The same sense told him someone else was watching, too. Bob swivelled to his left. Something moved among ancient oaks and brambles up along the edge of the unploughed field. He adjusted the focus and studied the trees. There was nothing. It wasn’t important, the injured man took priority.

Tucking his binoculars into his knapsack and leaving the groundsheet where it was, Bob tried to hurry uphill, not easy for a portly man in his sixties but there had been a shooting accident and he had the training to deliver first aid before the ambulance arrived.

By the time he reached the top of the pasture, the young man had dragged the inert form through a dilapidated gateway into a farmyard and was backing towards the open double doors of a barn.

“Hey!” Bob called. “Wait – I’ll give you hand.”

The young man’s head shot up. “What you doin’ here?” he demanded. “This is private property. You’re trespassing.”

“I was on the public footpath – along the cliff.”

“Still our farm. Bugger off.”

“But . . .” Bob indicated the fallen man, an elderly man he could see now, despite a lean, farm-life physique. “I can help, I’m a –” he stopped, smiled, changed tack. “Just thought you needed a hand. Shotgun pellets is it? I can do first aid.”

“No need for that. None of your business. He was going down to tell you to clear off.” The boy’s knee propped up the injured man’s lolling head. Bob bent down to touch the man’s neck. “Leave him alone. Clear off!” the boy screamed.

Bob straightened up, embarrassed and surprised, and now deeply suspicious. He nodded, “As you wish,” and gave a harmless grin, looking about him, committing every detail to memory. There was no sign of blood, and if the old chap had been shot in the back by pellets – by accident, from a distance – there was a good chance he was only injured. But in that case, he should have been conscious, and this man was most definitely not. “Are you sure I can’t help?” It was a genuine offer.

“No!”

“Well, if you’re sure. I’m going into town now, though, shall I send an ambulance up for you?”

“We got a telephone.”

“Ah, that’s all right then.” Bob touched the peak of the helmet he wasn’t wearing and turned back towards the cliff.

He took his time putting the binoculars in their leather case, re-shaking the groundsheet and folding it into a neat square before stuffing it untidily into his knapsack then placing the precious binoculars on the top. As he moved, he replayed in his mind what he’d heard and seen: a shotgun; two shots in rapid succession, presumably from the same weapon. A shotgun at close range could blow a man’s head off, but in this case, he must have caught the pellets in his back – there’d been no sign of blood on his chest. Bob stared up the field, wondering if he’d got his facts right, then realised that he hadn’t actually seen any sign of a shotgun. The boy could have dropped it in a tussock of grass, of course. But it wasn’t impossible the shots had come from elsewhere. From the woods along the side of the pasture, for instance.

Had the boy fired at him, as a warning, and caught the old man coming down the field in the back? Bob frowned and rubbed the fingers of his right hand against his thigh: had the boy shot the old man by accident? There was no sign of blood on his front, but a cartridge of pellets in the backside or shoulders might knock him off his feet, cause internal bleeding . . . and being elderly he could have had a heart attack or . . . Bob closed his itchy right hand into a fist. As the boy had said, it was none of his business.

But something wasn’t right. Taking his time, Bob closed the canvas straps of the knapsack and swung it over his shoulder, conscious now that he was being watched. Had the farm boy abandoned his father, or grandfather, to make sure he was off their property? Or was it the person in the trees? There had been someone there, he was sure of it.

Bob stared at the trees. A shiver ran down his back. Suddenly he wanted to be away, back in a town, back among shops and people and traffic. Ruffled and nervous, he hurried along the footpath, climbed over the stile and hastened to his old Morris tucked into a tractor lay-by. His hand shook as he opened the door and stuffed the knapsack safely under the passenger seat to protect his binoculars and keep them out of sight. Studying coastlines with binoculars and taking snaps of coastal areas was a criminal offence these days. He wound down his window and took a series of deep breaths. As his breathing calmed, his right hand sneaked up onto the steering wheel of its own accord and tapped a light staccato rhythm against the polished wood. Something was definitely not right. Should he report it at the nearest police station?

The third shot cut through his doubts and had him gasping for breath again. Not with surprise this time, but with the certainty that he’d just heard a pistol being fired – meaning the other shots had definitely been from a farm shotgun. Bob swallowed hard and set his hand to the ignition. He was a policeman and it was his duty to render help – and if not, at the very least to ensure the old man was all right – take him to hospital perhaps. If the boy would let him.

Executing a reasonable three-point turn for a steep, high-banked country lane, Bob raced back to the farm entrance he’d passed earlier that afternoon. The sign on the gate said ‘Hentree Farm’. Bob manoeuvred into the yard, parked next to an aged tractor, then took stock of his surroundings before getting out. People liked their guns on this farm, and they hadn’t taken too kindly to visitors.

As he opened the car door, the stench of a filthy pigsty struck him like a physical force. He had been too preoccupied by the injured man to notice before, but now he saw hens pecking around the thin tractor wheels and a skeletal dog at the end of a chain. Holding his breath against the appalling smell, he hurried towards a grey, unwelcoming farmhouse. The porch was overgrown with weeds; the front door evidently never used. He knocked several times then headed round to the back of the house.

The back door had been painted a bright shade of green once – long ago. He opened the latch and called in. The kitchen was empty, with the still air of vacant premises.

“Hello! Anyone in?” There was no reply. He walked through to a narrow hallway, peered into an unlived-in living room then briefly debated going upstairs. “Hello!” he called up the stairwell. The old man was in no condition to get up the stairs unaided, and the silent response to his repeated calls was perfectly clear but he tried one last time anyway. “Are you all right? Can I help?” There was still no answer.

Bob hesitated but he knew he couldn’t leave without at least checking the old man wasn’t lying alone and injured. With a huff of annoyance, he started upstairs. The landing was gloomy and smelled of damp, the wall green-tinged with mould. “Your roof needs fixing,” he muttered, massaging his right knee before starting on the bedrooms. All the doors were shut. Peeking in each, he was struck by the sense of absence he’d noticed earlier. No one lived here anymore. The last door was that of the so-called master bedroom. A shaft of sunlight sneaked in through a tightly shut window, sending a weak beam across a threadbare rug. He stepped back, wrinkling his nose at the stale, sickly-sweet smell and observed the room from the door: there was a lumpy bed covered in a brownish counterpane, but there was no farmer lying on it or sprawled out on the rug. He shut the door, hobbled downstairs and left the way he had entered.

As he walked back to his car, he noticed a stone-built milking parlour and a row of stables that ought to be checked. The milking parlour hadn’t been used for many years. “Hello!” he called into the echoing darkness.

The lower doors to the stables were bolted shut. Peering over the first he caught a glimpse of shiny metal. A motorcycle. He opened the door and put his hand on the petrol tank. It was stone cold. He closed the door and checked in the next two stables. Nothing. Nobody.

Anxious to leave now, he forced himself to investigate the barn. The doors were rusted open. Gentle, warm afternoon sunlight illuminated the dirt floor; stray beams peeking through cracked windows turned bits of old farm machinery into instruments of torture. A path of sorts led diagonally towards a side door. He crossed the eerie space. The door opened onto another smaller yard, and the source of the foul odour: the remains of a pigsty. Its brick walls were reduced to rubble; the corrugated iron roof, tilted down to the ground, was being used by four mottled piglets as a playground attraction. Bob started to laugh and moved towards them, then stopped as a twitching snout emerged from the beneath the ruined shelter, followed by a long, sagging body. Bob swallowed hard: the entire yard had become a pig pen inhabited by a gruesome sow and Lord knew how many piglets, all slopping around in their own slurry. The sow looked up and fixed her small, mean eyes on his. Bob backed away. The sow moved towards him. Suddenly, she was joined by half a dozen other sows, teats swinging, snouts and tails twitching. Bob froze, horrified, until a huge male with tusks like a wild boar came galloping around the sty, followed by a good dozen older piglets.

“Gawd almighty!” Fear turned to flight. Regaining the power of movement, Bob turned back the way he’d come, getting to the barn door just in time to shove it closed on a long black-speckled snout. There was a squeal from the depths of hell, but he persevered until the door was fully shut, then he dropped the latch – and it fell off.

Then he was running through the murky barn as fast as his short legs could take him – aiming to get back to his car and as far from Hentree Farm as possible. But that meant crossing the open front yard again and he wasn’t certain the pigs couldn’t get around the barn to the front of the house. He glanced upwards. Was there a hay loft? Would it be safe? Dare he risk it?

He reached the ladder and, despite various missing rungs, pulled himself up to relative safety. Fearing the wooden-slatted floor would give way at any moment, he stepped onto the platform and turned: could the buggers get up ladders? He’d just seen piglets scaling a roof. Then he began wondering if the ladder were moveable: could they would knock it down and leave him in the loft for ever. Lowering himself onto his stomach, he stared below, but it didn’t look or sound as if the pigs had followed him after all.

Where had they gone, though? Taking great care, he crawled across the loft to an open square that overlooked the other side of the yard then lay flat again to see what was outside for fear of toppling through the gap. There was a sort of crane contraption below, an empty wheelbarrow and a pitchfork, but no sign of his four-footed enemy.

A glint of sun blinded him for an instant. He shaded his eyes. From here he could see over the field he’d recently come up and right out across the bay. It was a spectacular view, a pristine ocean beyond a sad realm of neglect and decay. Gazing out, he tried to locate the spot where he’d first seen the boy and the injured man. Then he looked down at the yard again to get his bearings: where had they been when he’d offered the boy help? Between the gate to the field and this barn. So, where were they now? And why had the boy refused assistance?

He listened. There were no grunts or snuffles, but that didn’t mean the pigs had gone back to wherever they’d been before. He waited.

He waited for what felt like a very long time, then slowly, very carefully descended the rickety ladder and went to the double doorway, not too fast to draw attention, not too slow to give the old sow time to catch his scent. At the entrance to the barn he paused. In the dark hollow behind a half-open door lay a crumpled figure. He’d walked right past it before.

Two fingers placed on a greasy neck told Bob this time the boy was the victim and he was quite dead. He hunkered down, waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. A bullet had entered the boy’s chest dead centre. Of the old man there was no sign.

***