T he gunroom was at the back of the house. There was a keypad by the metal door and Jenny tapped in a four-digit code before pulling it open. At the far end of the room were metal cabinets and the walls on either side were lined with racked shotguns behind thick wire mesh.
‘Bloody hell, Jenny, you could start a small war with this lot.’
‘Daddy has a loads of friends who like to shoot and he stores their guns for them. But most of these belong to him. Some of them are antiques. There’s one somewhere that King George the Fifth used in December 1913, when he shot over a thousand birds on one day.’
‘Now that’s just overkill,’ said Nightingale.
‘One of them was a gift from the Duke of Edinburgh.’
‘He’s shot here?’
‘Several times. And Lord Rothschild and his son, Nat. I think Daddy was sort of hoping that Nat and I might hit it off.’
Jenny grinned. ‘Definitely no spark.’ She pointed at one of the guns. ‘That was the one from Prince Phillip. It’s more than two hundred years old.’
‘You’d have thought he’d have run to a new one,’ said Nightingale.
Jenny patted him on the back. ‘I forgot – you’re not much of a Royalist, are you?’
‘I think the French had the right idea, pretty much.’
‘Well, don’t let Mummy or Daddy hear you say that, even in jest.’
She fished a key from the pocket of her jeans and unlocked one of the mesh panels. She took out a shotgun, opened it to check that the breech was clear, then handed it to Nightingale. Nightingale wasn’t familiar with sporting guns but he could appreciate the quality, and the beauty, of the weapon. As a serving officer with SO19 he had spent thousands of hours with an MP5 or a Glock in his hands, but he’d never thought of either as anything more than a utilitarian tool. The gun he was holding was a work of art. The stock was gleaming wood that had been polished to perfection, the barrels were silky smooth and flawless, and the engraving was intricate and quite beautiful. He looked closely at the design and he smiled.
‘Not just cats. A particular cat. Rollo, the cat I had when I was a teenager.’
Nightingale broke the gun open, then closed it again and sighted down the twin barrels.
Jenny took its twin from the rack.
‘You don’t mind shooting birds?’ he asked.
‘They’re bred for it, Jack. And believe me they’re well looked after. Some of them are so fat they can barely fly.’
‘Makes them better targets, I suppose,’ he said.
Mrs McLean appeared at the door to the gunroom. ‘Everyone’s ready for the off,’ she said. She was wearing a waterproof Barbour jacket and a tartan headscarf. ‘And Jack, thank you so much for the shower gel. So thoughtful. And Bulgari is one of my favourite brands.’
Jenny shouldered the shotgun she was holding. ‘Can you take that one for me?’ she asked Nightingale.
‘You’re going to use them?’
Jenny laughed. ‘Of course. They’re not for decoration, pretty as they are.’
They walked together down the hall and out through the main entrance to where three Land Rovers were lined up, mud-splattered workhorses that didn’t appear to have been washed in months.
‘Jenny, you, Jack and Marcus go with Lachie, okay?’ said Mrs McLean.
A white-bearded man in tweed plus fours was standing by one of the Land Rovers and Jenny rushed over to him. ‘Lachie!’ she yelped and hugged him and then kissed him on a whiskery cheek. ‘Merry Christmas!’
‘And Merry Christmas to you, young lady,’ he said in a deep Scottish accent that suggested a life in the Highlands.
‘Her leg’s playing up again and she’s as grumpy as always, but what can you do? She’s my wife and, as much as I’d love to have her put down, the law’s agin it.’
Jenny laughed and introduced the gamekeeper to Nightingale. ‘This is Lachie Kennedy,’ she said. ‘He’s been at the house since before I was born. He worked for the family who sold the house to Daddy.’
Nightingale shook hands with the man. He was in his late sixties but he had a strong grip and he looked Nightingale straight in the eyes as if getting the measure of him. ‘You’ll be the private detective from London that Jenny’s always talking about?’
‘I don’t know what I’d do without her,’ he said.
Lachie kept a tight grip on Nightingale’s hand and brought his face closer. ‘You take good care of her, laddie. Do you hear me?’
‘Loud and clear,’ said Nightingale.
‘London can be a hard city at the best of times and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to her,’ he said. ‘Apple of my eye.’ He winked at Nightingale. ‘Now you get in the back with Mr Fairchild so that the young lady can ride with me.’
‘What do I do with this?’ said Nightingale, holding up the shotgun.
‘Just keep hold of it,’ said Jenny.
As Jenny and Lachie got into the front of the Land Rover, Nightingale climbed into the back. Fairchild came out of the house with a battered leather gun case under his arm. He climbed into the back next to Nightingale. The gamekeeper started the engine, revved it, and then headed down the driveway.
‘Okay to smoke, Lachie?’ asked Fairchild.
‘Only if you give me one of your Cubans,’ growled the gamekeeper.
Fairchild laughed and held out a cigar. ‘It’s a deal,’ he said.
Lachie slid the cigar inside his jacket while Fairchild lit his.
‘So I’m told this is your first time at a shoot,’ said Lachie, glancing over his shoulder at Nightingale.
‘First time with birds, yes.’
‘It’ll be a driven shoot because not everyone’s experienced,’ said the gamekeeper. ‘There’ll be ten guns in all. You’ll be standing about fifty paces apart and the beaters will come through the woodland so absolutely no firing towards the trees. You can load yourself or we can supply a loader, that’s up to you. We have pickers-up and dogs from the village and I’ve got Poppy and Daisy in the back.’
The two springer spaniels in the rear of the Land Rover both barked as if they knew that Lachie was talking about them.
‘How many birds do you have, Lachie?’ asked Fairchild, winding down the window and blowing blue smoke through the gap. He had his gun case between his legs.
‘Two thousand, ready to go,’ said the gamekeeper. He turned off the driveway and drove along a rough track that meandered towards woodland in the far distance.
‘Two hundred for each gun? That’s a lot,’ said Nightingale.
‘They won’t all fly, and the newcomers will have sore shoulders after the first dozen or so shots,’ said Lachie.
‘All the more for me,’ said Fairchild.
‘You do this often?’ asked Nightingale.
‘Every weekend, right through the season, from October the first to February the first. Rarely miss a weekend, even if I’ve a big case on.’
‘I’m guessing you don’t eat everything you kill,’ said Nightingale.
Fairchild laughed. ‘No, but somebody does,’ he said. ‘Everything I shoot gets eaten eventually.’
‘That’s the way it goes, sir,’ said Lachie. ‘Any that the guests don’t want are offered to the villagers and any left over after that get sold to a butcher’s in Norwich.’
Lachie pulled up near to a table covered with a red and white checked cloth on which were pots of coffee, mugs and foil-wrapped packages. ‘Bacon sandwiches,’ said Jenny. ‘Daddy always gets hungry when he shoots.’ There were half a dozen young men standing by the table munching on sandwiches and tossing the occasional titbit to three black Labradors. ‘The lads are from the village,’ said Jenny. ‘They work as loaders and pickers-up.’
They climbed out of the Land Rover as the two other vehicles arrived. Lachie made a quick call on his mobile phone and then went over to talk to McLean, who had put on a heavy jacket and a flat cap and was carrying a weighty gun case.
McLean opened the case, took out a shotgun and broke it over his arm. ‘All right, everybody, the beaters are in place. Five minutes to go. Lachie will put you at your stations – he’s in charge. Protective glasses and ear protectors are available but it’s your choice as to whether or not you wear them.’
Lachie took the group across the grass and showed them where to stand. Jenny was on Nightingale’s right and Fairchild on his left. They both had leather bags filled with cartridges.
‘I’ll load for you, if you like,’ Lachie said to Nightingale. ‘Give you a bit of free advice too, if you want.’
‘I’m still not sure if I’m going to be shooting,’ said Nightingale.
‘Let’s see how it goes.’ His mobile rang and he took the call, then waved over at McLean. ‘Everyone’s in position, sir!’ he shouted.
‘Well done, Lachie,’ said McLean, shouldering his shotgun. ‘Let’s go.’