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THE MAN stepped out of the shadows, blocking the way into the house. 'Mr. Sam Bolt?' he asked quietly.
Sam stopped, the door key in his hand. If the thin man in the long raincoat was wearing a trilby hat, with a press card pushed into the rim, he'd be a dead ringer for a reporter from a 1940s B movie.
'What are you doing here, Tolley?' Sam snapped. 'Come to accuse me of killing my partner? Again?'
The man already had his notebook open. 'I think maybe we can help each other.' He looked up and smiled.
'Bill Tolley, the Sniffing Ferret.' Sam shook his head. 'Hasn't Fleet Street got rid of you yet?'
The smile disappeared instantly. 'Now, Sam -- may I call you Sam? -- I don't invent the news. I only report it.'
'With innuendo. Why the hell should I talk to you?'
'I have some information.'
'About my partner?'
The reporter shook his head.
'My children? The money?'
'Sam, Sam, it's freezing out here. You're going to have to let me in.'
Sam Bolt put the key in the door. Three months ago Tolley had been a persistent problem, like a neighbor's dog that never stops barking. 'This had better be good,' he said.
'I want you to run back over the events when your partner went missing.'
'I don't like your tone,' warned Sam.
'Do you want me to run a piece for you on police victimization?'
'Press victimization, you mean.'
Bill Tolley pointed to the front door. 'Let's start at the beginning. Can we go in?'
Sam sighed loudly, but decided it would be as well to keep on the good side of this reporter from the Morning Herald. He showed him into thelounge. 'Leave your coat on, sit down, and don't muck up the furniture.'
Tolley referred to something in his notebook. 'Your partner Sally won ten million.'
'See, you're making it up as you go along. You know perfectly well it was just over two million.' Sam stayed on his feet. 'I think you'd better leave.'
Bill Tolley sank back into the large sofa. 'Okay, so she won something over two million. And she decided to keep it for herself.'
'Did you have a problem with your relationship?'
'What the hell business is it of yours, Tolley?'
The reporter studied his notebook again, although he probably knew his questions off by heart -- and most of the answers as well. 'You told the police that Sally had bought the lottery ticket with her own money, so the winnings were hers.'
'Very noble of you.'
'We weren't married, so I didn't stand a chance. That's what the lawyers said.'
'Then she left you -- you say.'
'Look, if you know where Sally is, tell me. I want my two children back.'
Tolley nodded and wrote down something briefly. 'Yes, that's a bad one. Of course, she gave up her job when you... she... won the money.'
'Sally was a typist. Who wants to type when they've got two million in the bank?'
'Over two million.' Tolley flicked his notebook shut. 'Have you ever wondered what your partner was doing at the Institute of Egyptologists?'
'She typed letters for them. That's what typists do.'
'Bring anything home?'
'Not that I know. Why?'
'Would you say they're a weird lot?'
He knew he should never have let the man through the front door. He could imagine the headlines in the Herald tomorrow, implying he still had something to hide. 'Sally didn't like the place, but it was a job.'
'And you've no idea where she is now?' 'I don't know, and I don't care. All I want is to get the kids back from the Social Services.'
'Have you considered that your partner might still be at the Institute, with Dr. Wynne?' Tolley leant forward with a studied earnestness. 'He might have brainwashed her.'
'Like a cult?' For a moment he felt caught unawares. The possibility had never occurred to him before. 'What makes you say that?'
'Who knows what that crazy lot are up to? They seem to have their finger on something. There's talk of war in the Middle East. The Israelis have been acting offensively lately.'
'They're on the defensive,' said Sam. 'They're caught in the middle with all these terrorist reprisals.'
'They're caught on the back foot,' said Tolley. 'And suddenly the Arab nations are afraid of being nuked by them.'
'I heard. But I can't imagine that lot up the street are selling Israel the bombs.'
'Of course not, but they popped up all of a sudden to tell us it's been predicted.' Tolley seemed to be running through a well prepared speech. 'One moment there's a few old duffers at the Institute of Egyptologists muttering about an ancient Egyptian god called Aten, and now they're fixing up a press conference to tell us about the end of the world.'
'I didn't know.'
'That's why I'm telling you.'
'You're enjoying this,' taunted Sam. 'You're just about finished as a reporter, but you think you could be a star again.'
Tolley held up his hands. 'Me? With a bloody piss artist for an editor?'
'You're investigating the Institute!'
The reporter yawned. 'I'll probably be making a fool of myself but, yes, I'm interested in what Dr. Wynne is doing.'
'Careful you don't overdo the enthusiasm.'
'It's only a temporary attack.' Bill Tolley stretched, and yawned again as he swung his legs up onto the arm of the sofa. 'It doesn't matter how long you've been in the game, the world always springs surprises on us. You still flying those jets?'
'I've been under suspicion of murder,' muttered Sam. This reporter was a menace. 'The airline was happy to let me go. They thought the passengers wouldn't be too pleased if they knew a murderer had his hands on the controls.'
'Is that an admission?'
Sam stood up. 'For God's sake, Tolley, can't you even recognize a joke?'
'She might be out there.' Tolley pointed to the back of the house.
'She'll be cold if she is.'
'Not if she's six feet under.'
'She's not. The police dug up the garden eight weeks ago.'
'Did they find any clues?'
'I think you'd know if they did.'
'Okay, would you have her back?'
'You're not serious, I hope.'
Tolley opened to his notebook again. 'Ever thought about checking up on the Institute one night? If your partner's shacked up at there, it would prove you didn't murder her.'
'I'm not breaking in.' Tolley's visit was starting to make sense.
'You could look through the windows.'
'What's in it for you?'
'I'll tell you what, Sam, my new editor is still wet behind the ears. I started to write something to send the Institute up, but he wouldn't have it. Said he wanted a sympathetic approach, not a lampoon. Wrote something himself for the Sunday supplement a couple of weeks ago.'
'And you're still mad at him?'
'He believes all this rubbish from Dr. Gresley Wynne. Tell me, Sam, what sense is there in being motivated nowadays?'
'Look, Tolley, I don't care what drives you, but whatever it is you're planning, you're not doing it here.'
'I was hoping you'd help me dig the dirt on the Institute.'
'What, snoop around for you? You haven't got a hope in hell. You and the police have ruined my life.'
Tolley stood up and waved his notebook. 'Before I go, Sam, tell me one thing. You're definitely innocent?'
'Right, that's it.' He caught the reporter by his long coat and propelled him through the front door.
Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Wright