Last time Anatoly retrieved one of the children’s tents from up a tree and they began to wonder just what had become of Bill and the Mannering-Trents.
They searched as long as they dared, up until they struggled to see anything in the gathering dark. Not best pleased, the men unpacked the boat and got ready to bed down on the island in the shelter of the bushes for the night. Anatoly started a small fire to provide some warmth and cook their meal. They were rather quiet that evening, as the rough sleeping and constant uncertainty was beginning to get to them. The slept fitfully that night, and rose early to make the most of the light to search for clues.
The only thing they found was a solitary tent peg, lying in amongst a scrubby bit of heather. A lack of anything else found led them to conclude that the peg had come loose from the tent as it had been blown across the island. Information requested from Bennett on the mainland had come as they finished breakfast and they marked on their map a strip which encompassed some or all of another dozen island at least, those from which their lone tent was most likely to have come from based on the trajectory of the storm a few days earlier.
With a fresh objective to focus on they headed determinedly for the first island in that strip and searched it, followed by several more. Their fruitless searching carried on through the next day too, until, rounding their third island of the day, they spotted a jumble of detritus littering a sandy cove on the north side. They exchanged glances and wordlessly Bentley piloted the boat towards the shallows there, instead of continuing his circle around the island.
They dropped anchor and splashed ashore. “Looks like it’s stuff that’s been washed up,” Thompson said, turning over a ragged plank with the toe of his boot.
It didn’t look like anything, just scraps of wood and rope but they checked it over thoroughly. “Bill’s boat was green, wasn’t it?” Thompson said as he looked at one piece that he had picked up.
Bentley turned his head sharply to look. “Dark green, yes.”
Thompson held the bit of green wood up. “Looks dark to me.”
“I have found some lettering,” Anatoly announced a moment later, and brought over another green piece of wood with a small amount of white at the broken end. “A R” he said.
“Could be A B,” Thompson interjected, as neither letter was complete.
“AR. Lucky Star,” said Bentley. “Well, this could explain why Bill hasn’t been in contact.”
Bill was having trouble keeping track of time in the shack. He hadn’t given up on getting free, but the right opportunity just hadn’t arisen yet. When he hasn’t mentally testing out escape plans he was getting as much sleep as possible, which wasn’t easy with the wind whistling through the gaps in the hut. Twice a day he was brought food and water but it wasn’t much more than some thin porridge or a slice of bread.
He was interrogated at regular intervals, as if they expected that he would suddenly start blabbering if they caught him at the right moment. They seemed to be convinced now that one of their own had been passing him information, and were trying to get Bill to reveal his source. As nobody had been giving him inside information there wasn’t anything that he could tell them, but his flat denials were falling on deaf ears.
He was dosing once again when the door to the shack rattled open and someone was thrown bodily into the darkness and onto the floor near him.
The door was shut again before Bill could identify his new companion. Perhaps it was whomever they suspected was sharing their secrets with him. The body scrambled away from him with a small shriek, and the thin strips of light fell on a narrow, sunburnt face wearing rather bent sunglasses.
“Well, hallo,” Bill said cautiously, feeling that this chap wasn’t much of a threat. He didn’t recognise him as one of the gang, certainly.
“Who are you?” quavered the thin man. “Why are you in here? Are you here to torture me?” Bill pursed his lips and settled back against the wall of shack. “No, I’m not, I’m a prisoner here too.”
The man looked at him suspiciously and tried to adjust his glasses. In the end he took them off, revealing pale, watery eyes. “How long have you been here?” he asked in his high voice.
“A few days,” Bill replied vaguely. “I’m Bill, by the way. Bill Smugs. What can I call you?” He wasn’t sure what to make of this strange bloke. He seemed too weak and weedy to be one of the gang, but, he couldn’t rule out that he had been chucked in here to trick him into revealing something.
“Horace, Horace Tipperlong,” the man said. “Why have they put us in here? I was minding my own business and then I get ambushed, and a sack thrown over my head! I passed out, well who wouldn’t, and now I find myself here!” he babbled.
“You’re lucky,” Bill said wryly, tilting his head down to reveal the lump on the top of his bald head. “They conked me over the head.”
Horace looked at him, aghast, and sank lower into his corner. “What do they want from us? Money? Are they holding us ransom? I’ve got my boat, that’s about all, it’s not worth much but they can have it!”
“No, I don’t think they want money,” Bill said. “From what they have said to me, they think we are spying on them.”
“Spying?” Horace squeaked, his face turning pale under his sunburn. “I-I’m not a spy.” He was quiet for a moment and when he spoke again, it seemed to be mostly to himself. “They’ve got the wrong chap, that’s all. Well, when they come back I’ll just have to say to them that they’ve made a dreadful mistake. I’m an ornithologist, that’s all, on a bird-watching trip. Yes, that’s it, once they realise they’ve make an error they can let me go.”
Bill listened to Horace, and tried not to roll his eyes. “I’m not sure that will work. I’ve been assuring them I’m not a spy and I’ve been here a few days!”
Horace didn’t appear to be listening. He just carried on muttering to himself in his corner, until the door opened some time later. He blinked at the light streaming in and jammed his crooked glasses back on the best he could. “I say,” he began, “you’ve made the most dreadful mistake.”
The man cut him off. “Had a nice catch up with your friend, have you?” he asked, looking at Bill and then Horace.
“I’ve never seen this man before in my life!” Horace began to protest at the statement about knowing Bill. “In fact, I was saying that you have made such a mistake! I’m not a spy, I’m just a bird watcher!”
“So we have caught two “bird watchers” snooping around here in a week,” the man said. “Do forgive me if I find it a little bit of a coincidence that you are apparently strangers to each other.”
“I’m telling the truth!” Horace protested again as Bill chipped in with, “I’m not lying!” The man smiled nastily. “I wasn’t born yesterday you know! Maybe a few more days in here will change your minds and you will start to tell me the truth!” with that, the door was slammed shut and the two men were left in the gloomy darkness once more.
To be continued…