Authors: Peter Helton
Middleton grunted and shifted uncomfortably on his seat. âYeah, all right, I hadn't thought of that.'
âIf another one turns up, keep it. I'd like to look at it. And try to look harassed when you read it. Are they handwritten?'
âSome were â printed in capitals, though, no joined-up writing. Others were computer print.' He picked up his empty glass. âAnother one?'
âNot for me, thanks. It's my round anyway. I'll get you another but I really have to get home now.'
âAll right, piss off, then. I'll buy my own, don't worry. I bet I make ten times what you earn. I'll see you at the Roman Baths in the morning.'
âWill you be all right getting to .Â .Â . where are you staying in Bath? If that's not a secret?'
âCourse not. Royal Crescent Hotel, just round the corner. Only for two nights, mind; after that we'll all be out there somewhere.' He waved an arm at the dark window. âIn the wilds of Somerset.'
nn? Whaaa .Â .Â .? What's going on? What's that hideous noise?' Next to me Annis burrowed deeper under the duvet.
I myself fumbled blindly with my mobile, which was making increasingly shrill bleeping noises until I had silenced the unfamiliar sound. âIt's called an alarm. For people,' I yawned like a hippo, âwho have to go to work.' Neither of us had heard an alarm clock for years. How did people live with it?
âWhat time is it?' said Annis from very far away.
âBring me a cup of tea in about two hours.'
âYou'll have to fend for yourself. I'm in television now, the golden hour and all that.' I dragged myself out of bed and opened the shutters a crack. âThe sun's actually just up, you know. Amazing.'
Annis snatched my pillow and piled it on top of her head. âI'm so very, very happy for you.'
I nearly fell asleep again standing up in the shower but by the time I had plunged the cafetiÃ¨re and was warming my croissant in the oven I felt almost normal, except that the early light had such a quality that I opened the back door simply so I could look at it. It lent a certain beauty even to the straggly herb garden that was giving room to herbs and weeds in democratic measure. I piled my croissant high with rose petal conserve â I had brought half a suitcase of it back with me from Greece â drained the cafetiÃ¨re and drove into town.
Not only had
managed to borrow the Roman Baths for a few hours, they had also wrangled reserved parking for their vehicles at the end of York Street for the morning. There were vans and cars and a Land Cruiser in the green and gold
livery. I stuck my car at the end of the line.
It was very quiet here in the centre of town â perfect for filming, I supposed â and the warm early light playing on the sandstone buildings was in itself nearly compensation for the early start.
Six-thirty exactly. The doors to the baths were closed. In answer to my knocking, a sleepy and monosyllabic employee opened up for me and pointed the way past the silent tills and racks of audio guides. As I turned right and started down the stairs I could smell the warm sulphurous air that had pervaded this place since the beginning of time. Even though I hadn't been here for years I still remembered it well, the smell and the museum layout. Not that it was possible to get lost in the museum. It had been designed as a one-way walk-through for funnelling hordes of visitors past the exhibits, down to the baths and out through the gift shop. I took my time, revelling in luxurious, tourist-free quietude.
All the lights and displays had been turned on for the benefit of the TV crew, giving the empty museum an eerie, abandoned air. Here and there life-sized film projections of actors in period costume, sitting, standing and chatting silently, added to the ghostly feel of the empty rooms. As I progressed I could hear voices â English, not Roman. I found the first of the TV crew by the overflow of the Sacred Spring, just inside the museum building. A camera on a tripod was pointing at the ancient stonework of the arched culvert from which hot water gushed into an equally ancient drain. Minerals in the water had stained the stonework bright orange and the scene was atmospherically lit from below. A sad-eyed, middle-aged sound recordist with headphones clamped to his ears kept shaking his bald head at the man behind the camera.
The camera operator, a man in his thirties with a sharp nose, dark hair and long sideburns looked up. âAre you .Â .Â .?'
âChris,' I confirmed.
âHi, I'm Paul. Guy with you?'
âI was supposed to meet him here.'
âWe all are. OK, erm, we need some quiet for this now. Emms is outside, through that door.'
âMags Morrison. The director. Red hair, lots of it, can't miss her.'
I stepped through the door, shedding two millennia in the process. The green waters of the Great Bath steamed gently in the cooler morning air. Surrounded by a colonnaded archway paved with uneven flagstones worn smooth by a million feet, the rectangle of the bath itself was open to the sky and watched over by life-sized stone figures. This didn't need projections to transport me back in time; it was doing fine on its own. Then I heard voices and spotted the twenty-first century encamped in a dark doorway. Camera, sound equipment, monitors, cables, people with clipboards, thick files and several laptops.
As promised by Paul the cameraman there was a woman with henna-red hair. Dressed in sweater, jeans and walking boots she had her hair drawn back into a long ponytail clasped by a black plastic butterfly grip. Behind her I saw Cy crouching in the shadows in front of a laptop. They had set up shop at the west end of the baths. Behind them thousands of coins, thrown there by visitors, glittered at the bottom of a circular plunge pool.
I walked over to introduce myself to the director but she beat me to it. âHi, I'm Emms, I'm the director. Mags Morrison, really, but Emms is fine. You must be Chris Honeysett. Cy described you well.'
âWell, the long hair, ancient leather jacket and stuff .Â .Â .' We shook hands while I worried about
. âWelcome to
. You've met Cy over there. The others are busy. You'll get to know them if you hang around long enough.'
Cy, who was now standing with a phone clamped to his ear, looked in my direction rather than at me when he said: âYou're late. And so is Guy. I'm calling the hotel again.'
Emms shrugged. âThere's plenty of time as long as we shoot within the hour. After that the sun will come round and we'll lose this shot.'
âHi, it's Cy Shovlin again,' he said into the phone. He nodded impatiently as he listened. âYes, I'm sorry about that, but could you try his door again for me, please?' He wandered away along the rim of the pool as he waited for an answer.
âProblems?' I asked.
âNo, not yet,' Emms said. âWe always call Guy to make sure he's up and running but this morning he's not answering and the staff at the hotel said they got no reply from his room. You met him yesterday?'
âYes, we had a drink.'
drink? Skip it,' she said before I could answer. âYou're a painter as well as a private investigator, how does that go together?'
âOh, really well,' I lied as though I'd planned it and not simply slid into it by accident. âThey complement each other.'
Cy came striding back into the sunlight. âThey tried his door again and there's no answer. Honeysett, that's your baby from now on, making sure he's on location, on time. Go up there and drag him out of bed and deliver him here. Use all reasonable force,' he added with a cold smile. âCall if there's a problem. You got my number?'
The town had come to life in the last thirty minutes and traffic was building up but Bath is a compact place and ten minutes later I was parking the DS in the centre of the crescent in front of the Royal Crescent Hotel. No neon signs here to mar the Palladian splendour, just a couple of potted plants and a doorman with top hat and tails. âCan I help you, sir?' he asked, rightly guessing perhaps that I would turn out not to be a guest.
âYes, you can. Don't let anyone stick a ticket on that car, I won't be long.' At reception I explained the who, why and what-for and they found me a manager. She was a concerned forty-year-old in a suit and she walked upstairs with me to the second floor.
âMr Middleton is a regular guest at the hotel. He always takes the John Wood Suite. I do hope nothing has happened to him.'
âA few double whiskies may have happened,' I said and started pounding on the door with my flat hand like police officers like to do.
When the manager had had enough of the noise she unlocked the door herself. âWe don't like doing this except in an emergency.' She opened the door and allowed me to go in first.
And I found Guy Middleton. He had never made it to his four-poster bed. He lay half naked and slumped on the sofa facing the fireplace.
The manager remained by the door as I went to look at him. âIs he all right?' she asked.
On the floor beside the sofa lay an empty cut-glass tumbler where it had fallen from Middleton's grasp. His mouth was half open. He was snoring. âHe's alive, anyway.' I shook him, without getting a response. Remembering Cy's permission to use reasonable force I pulled him upright by one arm and patted his face. And again a bit harder. His eyes remained shut but he at least made some kind of protest sound. âA large cafetiÃ¨re of coffee, I think, would be helpful,' I suggested to the manager. She agreed and left.
I noticed that Guy didn't have a bald patch after all. I also noticed there was a bottle of complimentary mineral water standing untouched on a side table. I opened it and poured some of it over the man's head. His eyes opened and swam around unfocussed. This was entertaining so I poured some more.
âHey!' Middleton tried to say something else but only said âhey' a couple more times. Eventually his eyes found me.
âRight, time for a shower, Guy. You're late.' I managed to hoist him up and get him to his feet, then launched him in the right direction. He ghosted towards the bathroom, walking under his own steam now, like a very old man using very old steam. He didn't utter a word. While he showered I called Cy. âHe's in the shower. I'll deliver him in half an hour.'
âArse!' was Cy's first reaction. âThe pisshead's done it again. He'd better hit the ground running when he gets here.'
When Middleton emerged from the bathroom in a hotel bathrobe he didn't look like a runner. A walker, perhaps. He walked straight past me. âI know what you're thinking; you think I got paralytic last night. You're wrong, Honeysett. Some bastard spiked my drink.' He picked up a bottle of whisky from the little period table by the sofa and thrust it at me. Covering the normal label was a handmade one of the same size, cut from printer paper. A crudely drawn skull and crossbones sat above the hand-printed legend âPOISON'.
Middleton spoke while he dressed himself as though his clothes were made from woven lead. âI did have a few last night. But I wasn't being stupid with it. Well, no more stupid than normal, if I'm honest. When I got up here I wanted another drink. I had that bottle of single malt in my shoulder bag. Got it out and saw someone had stuck that
thing on it.'
I opened the bottle and sniffed it. A fine whisky smell. âAnd you drank from it?'
âI thought about it for a while first.'
Oh, of course. âYou get threatening letters, then someone sticks a “poison” label on your Scotch and you think about it and then decide to drink it anyway?' Before I could tell him what I thought about it there was a knock at the door. I opened it and a waitress delivered a cafetiÃ¨re of coffee, two cups and some biscuits on a red tray. CafetiÃ¨re, cups, tray and girl were all as beautiful and immaculate as you'd expect at just under Â£500 a night. I poured two cups and handed one to Middleton who was still
trousers but making progress.
âTwo thoughts came to me, and both made complete sense last night. A bit less this morning, naturally. The first was that if someone wanted to kill you they probably wouldn't warn you about it with a sticker. You see, it could have been just Cy trying to send me a message about my drinking â he's always on about it to me, the sanctimonious little git. One bottle of Becks and he needs to have a lie-down.'
âHow would he have managed to get at the bottle? Are they all staying here?'
âShit, no, the rest of the crew are staying in third-rate accommodation all over town. Unlike them I had top hotels written into my contract.'
âOh, we all met up at the Wagon and Horses near Avebury on the way here yesterday. Most of us, anyway, the archaeological team and some of the production team and myself. They do make good coffee here, is there any more?' I poured him another cup and sat it on a side table while he pulled on his boots. I held out the plate of biscuits but he made a face as though I had offered him maggots. âWe had a working lunch there and then we all went on to our destinations. Some of the archaeology guys are already camping at the location.' He tapped the side of his nose. âStill a secret. So anyone could have got at my bag. I had it with me at the table.'
âNot just Cy then.'
âNo, but he's the one going on about my drinking. I had one drink of that last night and felt myself slipping away.'
âPerhaps sleeping tablets then. How are you feeling now?'
âA bit slow but not too bad. Splitting headache but I took some painkillers. If I can keep the coffee down I'll get through it. How do I look? That's much more important.'
Actors. âNothing five minutes in make-up won't cure,' I said truthfully. âYou said two thoughts occurred to you last night, what was the other one?'