Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Frog Prince

By Robert Ferguson

Turkish coffee

 Eleanor straightened her back to enjoy a moment of relaxation. She moved her feet carefully in the mud. So easy to slip and fall into the edge of the river, or to kick over the bucket in which she had carefully gathered the poor frogs she had spent the last hour collecting.
“Are they running?” the voice asked from the other side of the river. She jerked around and almost lost her footing, then relaxed. He didn’t seem to be a threat, and anyway, they were separated by the river.
“They have been. There seems to be a pause, for a few minutes at least, but they’re on their way,” she said.
“How long have you been here?” he asked, in a pleasant voice. Sophisticated, but gentle, with a touch of the local vowel-sounds underlying his standard English accent.
“Since about 5.30,” she answered, moving carefully out of the river and up the slippery bank on her side.
“Can I join you?” he asked politely.
“Sure,” she said. “You can take this bucketful over the bridge, if you like, and set them loose on the other side opposite their crossing point, so they can get on their way.”

He waved one hand, and set off to her left towards the timber bridge a hundred yards up the river. He wasn’t tall, just a few inches taller than her five-feet four, with carelessly cut but neat, slightly sandy hair, and “country clothes”, rubber boots, jeans and a plaid woollen shirt open at the neck. He walked well, too, she saw, a straight back, head up, and relaxed, but with a pace that covered the ground economically. He was soon with her, and took her plastic bucket, smiled at her gently, and set off again for the bridge, as she reached for her second bucket in readiness for the next run.

By nine o’clock, they had probably helped a hundred frogs across the river, watching them hop off on their journeys back to their summer spawning lakes below Endham Wood.
“That’s all I can manage this morning,” Eleanor said. He had said almost nothing in the two hours they had worked together, just got on with the walk backwards and forwards over the bridge, carrying her buckets. He was certainly a change from most men who met a girl in the middle of nowhere and felt they had to impress her, and begin the social hunt.
“Tomorrow morning?” he asked, un-preditarily.
“Probably,” she said. “You?”
That had slipped out before she had thought to stop it. She hoped he wouldn’t take it as a sign of interest, much less an invitation.
“I could be, I guess,” he replied, “if that’s ok with you.”
“Sure,” she said, tone as flat as she could get it. ”Whatever.”
Picking up her emptied buckets, she walked off down the riverside path. We’ll see, she thought, we’ll see. But it has been nice to have somebody else here this morning.

*                      *                      *

Almost back to where he’d parked the car, he sent the required text. “Contact”, it said. Nothing more. He deleted the message from the call-log, and dumped the ‘phone in the parking area rubbish bin. He’d get another one in town later that morning.

*                      *                      *

The knock on the door had been quiet but firm.
“Come in,” the Chief Inspector called.
“Detective Sergeant Manthorpe, Sir,” the young man said.
“Hm,” said the Chief Inspector. “Sit down, Son. Welcome back to the homeland, eh?” 
“Thank you, Sir,” said the other, sitting in the upright chair in front of the DCI’s desk.
 “Know what this is all about?” the Chief Inspector asked.
“No, Sir.”
“Well, that‘s good thing, anyway,” said the Chief Inspector. “Done rural undercover before, have you?” knowing that the young man had not, but wanting to see the level of confidence – or cockiness – the Sergeant would show.
“No, Sir, but I was brought up down here, and haven’t completely forgotten about country ways.”
“People notice strangers, round here,” the DCI ruminated, reaching down to pull his pipe out of his top desk-drawer so as to have something to fiddle with, even though he was no longer allowed to smoke it in the office.
“Yes, Sir,” the young man responded. “Any undercover job will need a slow start down here, and a good strong legend for a stranger.”
“No-one to remember you from your childhood?” the Chief Inspector asked.
“Unlikely in the South of the County, Sir, after all these years. Virtually certain not to be in the North.”
“Well, it’s to the North you’ll be going, to begin with, at least.”
The Chief Inspector had made up his mind.
“OK, Son,” he said, “take the file” – he pulled it out from beneath the one he had been reading – “not to go out of the building, of course, but read it and come back tomorrow, nine o’clock sharp, and tell me your entrance strategy, and foreseeable snags. If we’re both happy, you can draw cash and comms., and get started tomorrow afternoon.”

*                      *                      *

Despite Eleanor’s growing interest, it was ten days before the riverside relationship stepped forward – if it was going to be a relationship. He was so nice! Polite, respectful, powerful in his reticence, and clearly reliable. He turned up where and when he said he would do. The run by the bridge had dried up after a couple more days, so she had suggested they moved on to the one at Hanger Lane. “Sure,” he said. “Whatever.” Did he ever say much more than that?
At the end of another day at Hanger Lane, he finally told her his name.
“Michael, by the way,” he said as they parted.
“Eleanor,” she responded,
and they walked off separately and silently to their respective breakfasts. But all the way home, all she could think was, “Michael, Michael, Michael.”

It was a few days later that he finally asked her out.
“Drink tonight, maybe,” he said, with his gentle smile, “if you’re free and would like to?”
“Thank you,” she said, almost gulping over the words.
After that, they spent increasing amounts of time together. When the frogs’ seasonal migration had passed, they no longer met in the early mornings. Mostly, they went walking and bird watching around the country in the evenings, when their respective days’ work was done – whatever his was. He remained vague about that.
         “I’m a wages clerk,” was all he said, and she assumed he worked in one of the factories in the nearby city.

It was a couple of months before she mentioned him to the Group.
“I’ve met a possible recruit,” she said, slightly shyly. “He seems all right, and perhaps useful to us. He knows the countryside, loves the birds and animals. He’s strong, and he’s quiet. Won’t be gabbing all over the place.”
“We’ll need to vet him, of course,” said Paul, their almost self-appointed leader. “Stay on for a minute after the meeting and fill me in, will you? You haven’t mentioned the Group to him, have you?”
“No, of course not!” said Eleanor, firmly. ”I do know better than that!”

The meeting broke up half an hour later, and Eleanor’s orderly mind was ready to tell Paul everything she knew about her Michael.
“Well, that’s not a lot, is it?“ Paul said, when she had finished. “Where’s he come from, where’s he work – precisely? Where’d he work before that? Are you soft on him, and, if so, how soft? If necessary, would you give him up for the Group?”
Eleanor put every nerve and muscle into not reacting at the mention of this possibility.
“Of course,” she said. “Our work is more important to me than anything else. You know that, Paul, after these last four years.”
“OK, leave it with me,” Paul said, eventually. “Don’t mention him again, to anyone, not even in the Group.”
“Fine,” she said.
She seemed to have been saying nothing else all evening, but it was fine. The Group’s work was indeed her priority. She supposed.

*                      *                      *

His second report caused more of a flurry of attention than the first one had done. “Tailed,” it said. Again, the message was deleted and the ‘phone thrown away immediately after it had been used. The sender drove pensively back to his recently rented apartment, taking care not to lose his tail, even by accident, in the going-home evening traffic.

*                      *                      *

At the meeting of the Group three months later, Paul congratulated them on the success of their recent operation, introduced their new member, Michael, and told them that, for a while, they’d be sticking to demos,
“Until the fuss about our last operation has died down. So, in three week’s time, we need a full attendance outside the pig farm beside the A578. Meet the vans on Hershaw Street at eight a.m. Drivers will be John and Nick. Michael, do you have a vehicle we can use?”
“Yes, I can get eight in my van,” Michael said, “as long as there isn’t too much gear to get in as well.”
“OK,” said Paul, “I’ll brief drivers and allocate passengers here, the evening before. Anyone else got anything else?”

Michael and Eleanor walked back together to Michael’s Land Rover after the meeting. Neither spoke, but Eleanor was the happiest girl in the world with his strong arm around her in the dark.

At the beginning of March, Paul finally told them that the next operation was ready.
“Right. This is the big one,” he said.” We’re going to hit an unregistered dog-breeder out towards Cadister. We’ll release the dogs and burn out the pens so it will cost them too much to get back into business too quickly.” There were subdued hurrahs from the Group. “Unregistered the breeders may be, and they do sell pups to homes, but most of the little so-and-so’s go to the laboratories at the teaching hospital in the city, and to that skyscraper of Great Pharma in Milchester. A couple of us have followed their van on deliveries, packed to the gunnels with dogs. I’ll tell you the layout and the tactical plan, here, on Friday week. Usual time. That’s it, for now, then. Many thanks.”

*                      *                      *

At last, the text said, “Target”, Finally, the ‘phone, wrapped in plastic and buried in the garden, could be unearthed. Hiring a car at the other end of the city, the sender drove out to receive the message which would tell him when, where and how to report the details.

*                      *                      *

The Chief Inspector was greatly relieved to get the message. To receive his Sergeant’s report, the DCI made a special trip into the next-door county, and booked into a busy seaside hotel, taking his wife for cover.
“You go shopping, dear, and don’t come back before three this afternoon. Have a nice bit of lunch in the town,” he told his wife, pushing a bundle of notes into her handbag.
She knew that meant that they weren’t here just for a mid-week break. But this wasn’t the first such trip they had made since he was promoted to DCI, so she knew better than to express anything more than gratitude for the meals she hadn’t had to cook for a couple of days.

The code was tapped on the DCI’s hotel-room door.
“All right, Son?”, the DCI greeted him. “Let’s get down to it.”
Within the hour, it was clear that they would need a lot of officers for this operation. They’d also need as many vans as possible, to cart the silly kids off securely to the station. They’d need armed officers on call as well, of course, even though there was no sign as yet that the Group had access to weapons. But you never knew.

*                      *                      *

Overall, the operation went well for the police, though there were a few hairy moments. The Group debussed a mile West of the target and crept up on it, mostly silently, through the woods, with minimal disturbance of the game. Praise be, too, they managed it without stepping on any of the police officers lying increasingly damply in the long grass and under the bushes between the trees. At the outer chain-link fence, there was inevitably a little noise as the bolt-cutters did their work, but the severed fences were prevented from springing back noisily by the Group-members allocated to those tasks. The direction of the attack had been chosen carefully, so that such wind as there was would blow into the faces of the Group, and ensure that their scent would not reach the dogs inside the compound until the last possible moment. So far so good for both sides, as the policemen behind the attackers silently got to their feet and flexed the muscles cramped by their day-long wait.

Then everything speeded up, suddenly. As the attackers’ bolt-cutters chopped open the padlocks on the dog-filled inner compounds, the dogs set up a deafening chaos of sound from within, and the backdoor of the farmhouse was opened from inside by a man carrying a shotgun. Dogs poured out of the compounds into the countryside, the DCI called the word.  Lights filled the woodland behind the attackers like the rising of a blindingly low sun. The man in the doorway raised his gun, and someone among the attackers swung a canister of fire at the kitchen-window of the house. “Armed police”, shouted the DCI, a cry every officer in the field took up whether it was the truth or not, as they knotted their identifying white cotton strips around their left arms. The shotgun must not be discharged. The shouts worked, and the gun was thrown down promptly. But there was a fire raging inside the farmhouse kitchen.

Figures were running every which way across the white lights.
“My wife, my wife,” bawled the man at the backdoor, “she’s in there!”
 “No, she ain’t,” came a female voice from the corner of the house. “I come out the front with the other gun, and I’ll ‘ave one of they varmints if I get ‘alf a chance.”
The DCI went forward at a quick, authoritative, walk, shouting his police identification, and gently took the weapon from the woman’s hands before she could add to the danger that already existed in the situation.

Three officers went into the kitchen, and quickly doused the fire. Gradually, fewer and fewer figures could be seen darting across the lights. Within twenty minutes, the uniformed inspector in charge of the cordons came to tell the DCI that, as far as he could tell, his officers had captured as many members of the Group as they were going to get that night.
“Too early, my Son,” was the DCI’s response. “There’ll be a couple of the clever dicks lying doggo in the bushes waiting for us to go home. I want your boys to stay here, and to stay awake,” the last word spoken emphatically, “until an hour after sunup, if you please. Half on, half off, two hours at a time. First off-watch can go down to the station and bring back tea and scoff.”
“Sir,” said the Inspector obediently.
The men wouldn’t like it, but nonetheless he could see it had to be done.

However, it was only possible to tally up the number of Group members who had been arrested when they were brought out from the police vans behind the secured gates of the station yard. In his office, the DCI and his undercover sergeant were watching a CCTV split-screen which showed the scenes in the yard and in the Custody Suite.
“How many are we supposed to have, Son?” the DCI asked.
“Fourteen of us went on the operation, Sir, including myself,” the sergeant replied. “Well, we’ve missed two of them,” said the DCI, “and I’ll bet my pension they’re the
most dangerous of the lot. Who flung the Molotov cocktail bucket, do you suppose?”
“That would have been Paul, the leader, Sir, I’d guess. He was carrying it when he got out of the van and set off into the woods. But that’s not evidence that he threw it, of course. I didn’t see him after they left the vehicles and went into the trees, and I haven’t seen him here, either. We’ll need to break down a couple of the Group, and get definitive statements, in order to be sure for ourselves, and for the Crown Prosecution Service, that it was Paul. If he ever turns up again.”
The DCI grunted disconsolately. It hadn’t been a bad night, but it could still have been much, much better.

Eleanor was no longer Eleanor. She was a damp, grizzling mess curled up on the floor in the corner of a police cell. She had been deteriorating into that condition ever since she saw the bucket of fire fly through the farmhouse window. She had been horrified. That wasn’t what she had foreseen when she joined the Group. Then the lights had gone on, she was knocked down violently, picked up and carried, and literally thrown onto the floor of a van. And now, for the first time in her life, she was in a police station cell. Under interrogation, she had at first obeyed Paul’s standing instruction to say no more than, “No comment” to whatever she was asked. Soon, however, between bouts of sniffling, she gave them as much information as she had.

But where was Michael? Where was his calmness? Where was hope? There was none without Michael. As she realised this, she collapsed further and further beyond the reality of the world to become no more than a quivering, occasionally sobbing, muddy, barely-conscious blob, curled up half-under the hard, unforgiving, concrete bench.

About the author

Robert Ferguson has published a collection of poetry (“Late Starter”, available through www.latestarterpoems.com), contributions to quarterly anthologies, and several short stories on CafeLit. He has recently completed the first draft of a novel.

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