What should MI5 do when a retired researcher from one of its highly secret development centres is killed by cobra venom at a chess and bridge evening held in rural Oxfordshire? The guests for that evening included a scientist who works at the centre, his wife, who is a marketing manager, an estate agent, a retired teacher and a post-graduate researcher who has worked at the centre before.
MI5 is concerned its own research has been compromised and used for the murder, but it does not want any information on this to get out. It cannot ignore recent events at the centre, which were a fatal explosion and fire and a recent break-in where cobra venom was stolen.
A trusted, independent detective is required, so it again asks, via its NATO contacts, for Norwegian DI, Sven Ffolkes, whom it has used before, with great success. Ffolkes returns to Oxfordshire, posing as an inspector from the Metropolitan Police bought in to cover a shortfall in manpower. He meets up again with Hannah Chapman, who was his driver on his previous case. Working with Chapman, who is now a detective constable, he finds all his suspects had opportunity, some had motive and others had means, but any with all three eludes him, until he sharpens his thinking.
Ffolkes also has a personal agenda. He is hoping to meet up again with Dr Mary Fielding, a phycologist with whom he had a romantic encounter on his previous visit that left a lasting impression on him. But nothing is as he had thought, causing him to wonder what will happen next and whom he can trust.
Cover Artwork by Heather Bentley
Chapter 1 – 19th August 1995, 10:15 pm, Sexton Village
‘In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.’
That remark was typical of what Francesca Freeman would have expected of Brian Bayford. In fact the whole evening was a testament to his thinking. She could see the other guests regretting Clifton Wells having asked him to organise it.
She had imagined a quiet welcoming dinner for David and Eloise Deeds, the new owners of No. 82, with the other residents of the row of five terraced cottages on Oxford Road. Instead here she was, playing bridge with Andrea Ainsworth against David Deeds and Wells. Because there were six of them, Brian had added chess and turned the whole evening into a competition, complete with his chess clock and the new bridge set, with engraved pencils, he had given Wells for Christmas.
Having made the remark, Bayford was now silent, apparently deep in thought, while the unfortunate Eloise, who had asked him to go easy on her, had withdrawn to the toilet. Eloise was not having a good evening. Not only had her lack of concentration been a significant factor in her poor performance while playing bridge, but now, at the chess table, her white forces were being ripped apart by a marauding black army commanded by a far superior player.
All this on top of her having been sick three times during the evening. After the first bout she had admitted to being pregnant; news that seemed to have come as a surprise to David.
Freeman knew, from looking after him herself, that Paul, the Deeds’ one-year-old son, was enough of a handful on his own.
Eloise emerged from the toilet looking ashen. She retook her seat opposite Bayford, who said nothing. He did not even look up. Ainsworth was quietly going about her task of making four spades, so the steady tick of Brian’s clock was the predominant sound in the room. Freeman saw Eloise’s expression change as she looked at the chess clock.
‘Brian, your flag has fallen’, Eloise whispered.
When he did not react she pushed his shoulder gently, adding, ‘Brian, you have lost on time’.
Freeman saw Bayford fall forward as Eloise’s face showed panic. She was out of her chair before she heard Eloise’s scream and attempting to take the pulse in Bayford’s neck before it ended.
The other players had no time to complain about their cards being sprayed everywhere as they found themselves reacting to this unfolding drama.
Wells headed for the telephone as David arrived at his wife’s side to comfort her. He could see she was in shock. He pulled her away and sat her in the spare chair, away from the table and the collapsed Bayford. Ainsworth, having no obvious role, decided that fetching a glass of water for Eloise was the correct course of action.
‘He’s dead’, Francesca announced in a faltering voice. ‘Pass me that phone will you, Clifton, I have to call the police. Before you ask why, it is because I am suspicious about how he died. I have seen that look on the faces of dead people before, but not in this country. It is normally the result of heart failure caused by a snake bite.’