with a good future, and there would have been a nice young man around the next corner. But the file was slapped down on the desk. The scar on her back is deep.’

He pulled at his chin, was pensive for a moment, as if he could cast his mind towards an old memory. He recalled a face that was handsome yet could flash anger, and also had emotion, passion, brightness. He said the name, Megs Behan, pulled a face, and for a moment his control was near to slipping. The address was north London, but he coughed and wiped his mouth with a napkin.

‘I liked her hugely, a rather lovely girl, ferocious but caring, and destroyed utterly. I remember her as being very quiet on the plane, spoke to none of us, refused a drink and bolted as soon as we were down. Didn’t waste her time because he – Gillot – had captivated her. She came back to London and worked the phone – knew the contacts for dealers and brokers, and passed the word of where he was and the circumstances. A hospital jet went down and collected him while he had one foot through death’s door but not quite the other, and his fellow traders stumped up for treatment in Switzerland. He pulled through… She left that NGO. It was going fast down the sink hole as funds from charities and government dried up. The credit crunch squeezed out the generosity of individuals and ministries – consciences and aspirations tend to be put on the back hob in recession. She would have been out on the street. She’d have thought that what she’d done for him gave her rights of possession, and was wrong again. She’s now with one of those legal firms that chases human-rights litigation – Midlands Asians banged up for trying to blow us all prematurely to our Maker – and she’s a duck in a dried-out pond… Gillot won her over and the casualty was her loyalty to the campaigns against the arms trade. She’s nowhere, and I think she’s sad. If she’d never met Gillot and had never gone to the cornfields of that damn village, her life would still be ticking over, not exciting but stable. Life can play very cruel, even to rather nice people. She must curse his name.’

He scratched hard at an ear, an inflammation caused by decades in fierce sunshine in distant corners, and grinned the old black-humour way.

‘And there’s Robbie Cairns, not that he’ll have call for a tie. Quite a pleasant-looking boy – he reminded me of the young fellow who gardens at Protheroe’s, pleasant but ordinary. Must have been aware of me but had discounted any threat I posed – which was a mistake… The bigger mistake was going after Gillot and never accepting that this wasn’t the usual trade he did, different quality and different challenge. “The world’s a better place”, as they say – but he had a good face, and lost big.’

One envelope remained on the table, propped against the marmalade jar, one scarf, one tie and one of Benjie Arbuthnot’s cards. He grinned, as if the years had dropped from his back. There was a flash of saucy mischief in his eyes. He told her the names of Mrs Josie Gillot and Mr Harvey Gillot, the name of the pansion and the street that led out through the historic old town of Sozopol that was a half-hour drive south of Burgas, and ended at the beach.

‘Happy as a pig in shit, I predict. Made his compromises and can live with them, but she has also. She let him set up shop, then came out to Bulgaria, found the Behan girl – status not quite explained – on site, and saw her off. I wouldn’t be surprised if she brought the dog in a crate to further her cause. I fancy that Gillot, wisely, avoided intruding into that cat fight. I’d imagine that, facing a woman who’d decided to stick with the joys of marriage – as you’d know, my dear – Miss Behan’s feet wouldn’t have touched the ground. She was out and on her neck. The Gillots run a bed-and-breakfast in that up-and-coming resort, and would have bought it dirt cheap. When the green shoots start to sprout it’ll be a good place to have invested in. His compromise: he looks after the laundry and the catering – and might sell communications equipment but nothing that goes off with a bang. His hands can stay clean while he’s a conduit for contacts in Bulgaria and Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. Everything he does, from bookings to dinner orders and the paperwork of what he buys and sells, is bounced off her first… I’d say that Vauxhall Bridge Cross has limited contact with him, keeps him on a minimal payroll. The daughter is at an international school in Sofia and lodges mid-week with an embassy family. Who’d have reckoned it? He’s alive and well and smiles with a winner’s confidence. She looks after him with something approaching devotion, and partnership. Funny the way it all works out.’

Did she believe a word he told her? She wrote his name on the back of each package and their Shropshire address code. The postman would be the proof of his game’s credibility. If no tie or scarf came back, Benjie Arbuthnot had read it well.

He said, ‘I’ve learned… things are seldom what they seem to be.’

She said, ‘Never are, and never will be.’

A bitter, chilled morning. Snow had fallen on the fields in the night and lay almost virgin around the wooden cross. There was peace and calm, and buzzards soared on the winds, clouds scudded and a pair of young foxes were wary as they padded past the cross, leaving trails of their paw prints. The wind, soon, would have covered the tracks with blown snow from the drifts, and already the signs of the path that ran close to the cross were gone. Smoke, from the burning of damp logs, climbed from the distant chimneys of the nearest village but no mourners came to this place, tramping through the impediment of the snow, to grieve and remember. The cross, its lengths of rough wood held together by nails, and the items hanging from it, placed there with love, protruded above the carpet blanketing the ground. Only the cross gave an indication that it was at this point Harvey Gillot had cheated death and Robbie Cairns had not, and that here a schoolteacher and three young men had waited too long for a rendezvous and been trapped in another winter’s first dawn light. A lonely place, cursed, where the dead and their ghosts kept uneasy company.

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