Despite its name, the Moat House was of no great antiquity, five or six years old at the most. The sort of place estate agents would call an executive mansion or something of the sort, for people who enjoy having what they call a life-style. Set in a couple of acres of grounds. Nice place, if you like that sort of thing. Better than the stuff they were putting up in the ’sixties and ’seventies, but worse than anything earlier. The moat was a dried-up stream alongside the road just outside the gateway, more of a ditch than anything. When I were a lad, it were all fields and that round there. Come to think of it, it was all fields until about five years ago.
Straughan’s silver Merc was on the drive, a uniformed chauffeur going through the motions of polishing it. A Rolls stood nearby. Presumably he left them outside for show. I spoilt the effect by parking my battered Volvo in between. Then I tugged the bell rope in the front porch. It played an irritating jingle.
The door was opened by a thickset blue-jowled man who presumably was the nearest Straughan could manage to a butler. He struck me as more of a bouncer. But at least he was dressed in a lounge suit rather than a tux. I started to introduce myself.
‘We know who you are.’ I recognized the voice from the phone.
He jerked his head. I followed him into the main reception room. Rather bleak and bare; minimalist is the modern expression, I think. Straughan was sitting with his back to the window, behind a desk bearing a computer but nothing else. I imagined he might have read one of those business or self-improvement courses that teach that a clear desk is a sign of a clear mind. An alternative view of course is that an empty desk is a sign of an empty mind. Beside the desk stood two more heavies, one on either side like bookends. The butler, or whatever he was, remained guarding the door behind me. I recognized the scene from a score of Hollywood ‘B’ movies. The confrontation in the casino office, where the gangland boss warns the hero off.
‘Ah, Mr Danzig,’ said Straughan, with a broad smile as sincere as a toothpaste advertisement. ‘Or may I call you Jim?’
I shrugged. ‘Please yourself.’
‘Very well, Jim, I will. Sit down.’
One of the heavies pulled out a chair for me, and I sat opposite. Straughan sighed unhappily. By now the course the interview was going to take had become obvious. ‘I’ve been hearing things, Jim,’ he said, shaking his head sorrowfully. ‘The sort of things I don’t like to hear, I’m afraid. Do you take my meaning?’
‘I think so. I’ve been making enquiries, and you’re not happy about it.’
‘Got it in one, Jim. I’m not happy at all. For instance, I hear that a Mr Traven called at my stud last Saturday. Alleged he was interested in buying one of my mares. Said he’d discussed it with me.’ He shook his head again. ‘Not t rue, Jim, I’m afraid. Mr Traven was telling porkie-pies. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jim, he seems to have been a snooper. McGuire, that’s my stud groom, gave me a full description of him. Any idea who Mr Traven might have been, Jim?’
There was no point in denying it. ‘Just doing my job. Looking into the horse kidnap for Dave Ringland. I often prefer to use aliases when I’m at work. It saves embarrassment. Of course I didn’t think you had anything to hide, but I thought I’d just make sure.’
‘Another thing, Jim. I hear you spoke to Phil Black a few days ago. Now, he’s not one of my favourite people, I’m afraid. He and I had a difference of opinion some years ago, and he’s never had a good word to say for me since. Deplorable how some people can bear a grudge. Sad, I call it. Very sad.’
Again he shook his head, and clicked his teeth. Evidently he enjoyed playing the part of the smoothly menacing bad guy. On his own he’d have been about as frightening as one of the Daleks, but the presence of the heavies meant that I had to tread a bit carefully.
I shrugged. ‘I’m an open-minded sort of bloke. Perhaps you’d like to tell me your side of the story.’
‘And perhaps I wouldn’t. You’re missing the point, Jim. I hope not deliberately. Anyway, I’ll spell things out for you.’ He narrowed his eyes, very Edward G. ‘I don’t like it when people start enquiring into my affairs. I don’t like it at all. Do I, Doug?’
One of the heavies alongside shook his head and pursed his lips. ‘No, boss. You don’t like it at all.’ He linked his stubby fingers and cracked his knuckles slowly. By now it was so much like a bad film noir from the ’forties it wasn’t true. If it hadn’t been for the risk of getting a mouthful of teeth I might have laughed.
‘Unfortunate things seem to happen to people who enquire into my affairs too closely. Very unfortunate indeed. Remember that private eye last year who tried to involve me in divorce procceedings?’
‘Yes, boss.’ The heavy shook his bullet head. ‘Very nasty, what happened to him.’
‘You’re a nice fellow, Jim. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. So just stay out of my way in future. And please stop making enquiries. I’m afraid they tend to annoy me.’ He sighed again. ‘I find I get irritable rather easily nowadays. I think it must be the stress of modern life. Don’t I get irritable easily, Doug?’
‘Yes, boss. Very easily.’
‘Do you understand me, Jim?’
No doubt a Chandler hero would have found something smart to say. Given a few minutes perhaps I could. But there was no point in looking for trouble. I inclined my head and smiled.
‘I understand perfectly, Mr Straughan.’
‘Jenson,’ he said, with the toothpaste-advertisement smile. ‘Jenson to my friends. Splendid. I’m so glad we understand one another. Nice talking to you, Jim. All right, Shardlow, show Mr Danzig the door.’
I decided to try to spoil the effect. ‘See you then, folks,’ I said, with a cheerful half-salute.
And that was that. Except that once outside I was a bit disappointed to find that no-one had bumped off the chauffeur.