Chapter Six: The Black Horse Inn

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Even though the signpost to Market Higham said three miles, it felt much longer.  The winding country roads prevented Andromache from getting up any speed in the car for fear of running into the back of a tractor or some such vehicle going around one of the many blind corners.

The longer The Game went on, the more frayed her nerves became.  She wondered how The Magician could always be watching her, and why he felt the need to.  Was it from fear that she would cheat or was it from the sheer enjoyment of the entertainment?  She was feeling self-conscious being under constant scrutiny, for she believed every word he said.  The risks were too great to think otherwise.

Eventually a sign on the village limit revealed that Mac was now entering Market Higham.  She slowed down to see if she could see whether the village had its own pub.  Again panic rose in her stomach as the buildings started thinning and the village ended.

Cursing herself for not heading towards Higham Castle, she started to look for a place to turn, but there was nowhere that her Beetle could cope with.  All she could do was carry on and follow the road that led to nowhere as the seconds and minutes slipped away from her.

However, fortune must have been smiling on Mac, for soon she spotted a sign swinging from a standalone post at the roads edge indicating that here was The Black Horse Inn.  If she had turned around when she had intended to, she would never have reached it.

Mac parked the car in the empty car park.  She only now realised she had no idea what time of day it was, and she prayed that the pub was open.  She exited the car and headed over to the main entrance.  She pushed on one side of the swinging double doors, and it allowed her through.  She sighed in relief.

She now found herself in the bar of an old coaching inn, characterised by the dim lighting and the open fire place surrounded by copper kettles of various sizes and old horse brasses. Much to her concern, the bar was empty.

‘Hello?’ she called out.  It made her feel embarrassed as she didn’t like being loud, but what else could she do?  ‘Hello?’ she tried again even louder, but no one responded to her.  It reminded her of a Walter De La Mare poem, The Listeners. The lines “tell them I came and no one answered, that I kept my word, he said,” seemed awfully fitting.

Mac approached the door that had “private” written across it in large letters etched on a brass plate.  She pushed it open; there was a tiny corridor that led to another door around the corner.

‘Hello?’ she called again, just as a man of about sixty walked through the other door.

‘It does say "private" on the door, doesn’t it?’ His manner was sharper than she expected.

‘Oh, sorry about that.  I called out a few times but no one answered.  I don’t want to come across as impatient but I’m in a bit of hurry,’ she replied lightly, hoping to appear friendly, but deep down she knew this was wasting time.

‘Are you here to collect a package someone left for you behind the bar?’

‘Andromache Jones, that’s me.’

‘Come back through to the bar and I will get it for you.’

They took the few steps back into the bar, where he retrieved The Magician’s package.  ‘Here you go. Can I get you anything to drink?’

‘Sorry, I am just passing through.  I only have time to stop and pick this up.’  Mac thanked the landlord and swiftly departed The Black Horse Inn.

When she was back in the safety of the car she tore open the package.  In it was an old-looking key wrapped in another letter.

 Do not lose this key I give you

For there is only one

Now start again for which you seek

Lest out of time you run

 Although The Magician had cautioned Mac not to lose the key, there was nothing in the letter that would help her on to the next stage of her journey.  She picked up the phone.

‘How long do I have left?’

‘Hello, Miss Jones.  Perhaps we could employ the use of our manners while we chat?  I don’t know what your mother or even what your grandmother would say if they knew how you were speaking to me.’

‘You don’t know my family.’

‘Miss Jones, I know a lot more about you and your family than you give me credit for.  Crabtree Simpson’s career is doing well thanks to his gifted girlfriend.  Oh that’s you, isn’t it?  You would be surprised - or perhaps you wouldn’t? - to learn what his colleagues think of him and the way he uses you to climb the career ladder.  Do you ever wonder if you were to lose these precious gifts you possess, would he still be with you?  Or are you convinced that what you have is love?’

Tears started to form in Mac’s eyes; she swallowed hard.  There was nothing she wanted more in the world at that moment than to fall into Crab’s arms and forget this ordeal.  ‘You have made your point.’

‘Please don’t think that I want to upset or distract you, Miss Jones.  I have the utmost respect for you and you deserve more than a leech for a boyfriend.  Now shall we change the subject?’

‘Please do.’

‘How are you finding my little game? Challenging?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘You suppose?’

‘You expect me to drive around the countryside in the hope that I am just going to stumble across your clues.’

‘You put that pendulum to good use back at the lair.’

‘I don’t have time to ask the pendulum to help me with every decision I need to make.  It takes too much out of me and you didn’t exactly provide me with enough time to recover.’

‘Noted, but as I explained earlier, I don’t understand all the processes involved.  It was not intentional.  I will remember that for next time?’

‘Next time?’

‘A little joke, Miss Jones, a little joke. Now you had a question for me?’

‘How long do I have left?’

‘Two hours and counting.’

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