Last time Bill related his evening with Mike and Alan to Allie.
The morning brought a fresh crisp day, one of the better ones of the trip so far. The Evans were just beginning their morning routine with their animals when a big black shiny car pulled up to the main gate and a young man got out and strode forward to the house, glancing around cautiously.
“He must be here for Mr Cunningham,” Mrs Evans said to her husband, putting down the sack of grain she was carrying and hurrying into the yard.
Bill, sleeping lightly, had heard the purr of the engine and the slam of the car door and entered the kitchen just in time to see Mrs Evans bustling around with the tea-things, not paying any heed to Johns’ protestations. He had quickly thrown on some clothes before coming down, wanting to see who had arrived. He had a hunch it might have been someone from the office but he wasn’t sure and wanted to make sure that the visitor wasn’t hostile.
Johns was trying very hard not to let Mrs Evans cook him a full blown meal. He had eaten on his way up, and had had some strong black coffee. She wasn’t listening, however, and he found himself hen pecked into a chair in the kitchen and waiting as she made him eggs and bacon with toast.
“No use,” Bill said to him as he sat down, glad that it was the ever stolid and sensible Johns that would be accompanying him that evening. “She’ll force food on you, no matter what, so best just to eat it.”
Johns sprang to his feet and held out his hand to shake Bill’s. “I’m beginning to realise that, sir,” he said before sitting back down and taking a deep drink of tea.
“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Bill said, letting him know he didn’t have to be so formal. “We’re in for a bit of a strange one. Might be some off the record stuff. OK?”
Johns raised an eyebrow but nodded minutely. He knew better than to question Bill in front of a civilian. “I’m ready for anything,” he confided. “I even brought some equipment down in the car, in case it could come in handy.”
“Good lad.” He looked up as he heard footsteps on the stairs and Allie appeared, wrapping her robe around herself.
“I thought I heard voices,” she said.
“My backup,” Bill said shortly, crossing the kitchen to her and blocking her from Johns’ view. It didn’t seem right for him to see her in her nightwear. “We’ve got a lot of plans to make, so why don’t you head back to bed and get some more sleep. It’s still early yet.”
“As if I could sleep,” she retorted.
Bill fixed her with a stern look but then relented quickly as she was, quite rightly, not sleeping well while the children were missing. “Go and freshen up then and join us for breakfast,” he said softly. “Mrs Evans is making eggs and bacon so it won’t be long.”
Allie disappeared with a swish of her robe and Bill returned to the table. “How’s she holding up?” John asked, tilting his head in the direction of the now-empty hall.
“Better than could be said for most women with missing children,” he said graciously but not really wanting to discuss Allie with Johns. He liked the stolid-looking agent and thought he was very good at his job, but the one thing Bill knew from his longer service history, was that it was easier to not discuss anyone close to you with work colleagues. The less they knew about each other the better. Anatoly was an exception to the rule and Bill sometimes wondered why he had ever allowed himself to get close to Anatoly and his father in the first place. It was easier not to think about it especially as it brought up a lot of emotions for Anatoly, never mind lots of questionable missions that Bill had scraped out of with Grigori Petrov’s help and knowledge. Lost in his thoughts for a moment, he hadn’t registered what Johns had said. He grunted, as he tuned into the lad’s voice. “Speak up lad. Don’t mumble.”
To his credit Johns simply repeated his words which had been; “Hopefully we will bring them back tonight for her.”
“Hopefully,” Bill agreed. With breakfast served he insisted that Mrs Evans leave them to continue on with her early-morning chores. “I can serve Allie some breakfast, and get us seconds if need be,” he said. “You just get on.”
“Well,” she said dubiously. “You just shout for me if you need anything, look you. There’s more bacon in the larder, and eggs too, and…”
Johns grinned as Bill finally ushered the woman out the kitchen door and closed it. “She’s something, all right.”
“She’s been very kind and looked after us well, especially Allie, er, Mrs Mannering,” Bill corrected himself. “Her heart’s in the right place,” he added.
“Her cooking’s good as well,” Johns added.
Allie reappeared soon after and Bill put out some food for her. “I assume you two are going to shut yourselves away later and make your plans?”
“We might emerge for food, eventually, but yes, we’ll need to shut ourselves away for a good while,” he agreed.
“And will you tell me… will you let me know what you’re planning to do?” she asked.
Bill considered this, it wasn’t standard practice, but none of this was. “I’ll let you know what I can,” he agreed, just cautious that Johns shouldn’t know too much about Bill’s own brand of rule breaking other than what was strictly necessary.
With breakfast eaten, though plenty was still left on the stove, Bill and Johns set off to find a private place to make their plans. There wasn’t anywhere suitable in the farmhouse. The kitchen and sitting-room were too open, the scullery and larder too small, the bedrooms impractical unless they wanted to sprawl on the bed. In the end they settled on one of the smaller barns, one which had an old wooden table in one corner. It had been lying on its side and when they went to turn it upright they discovered it was missing a leg, but they were able to prop it up using an old barrel and it made a reasonable work-surface then.
Bill spread out a couple of maps and placed his notebook beside them. “So, about this mountain,” he began.
To be continued…