My thanks go to my proofreaders for their assistance in preparing this yarn for posting.
I must admit that I was completely in the dark and had no idea what Sue was ranting-on about, when I arrived back at the house that afternoon.
"See, she just took a picture of Mark!" Sue was raving to her brother, as I entered the lounge. "I tell you Mike, they're spying on us!"
On seeing me – as was her usual wont – Sue came over, greeted me with a familiar hug, saying "Hi Mark!" as we touched cheeks, in what -- since aspiring actress Rachelle, had joined our little community a year or so previous -- had become the traditional female to male (and female to female, come-to-that) greeting in the house.
Us manly guys just kind-a nodded to each other and grunted, by the way. But if a shapely and very alluring female deigns to offer you a friendly hug in greeting, what right-thinking red-blooded male is going to refuse? Actually being greeted by Rachelle herself was my favourite; Rachelle never failed to kiss me on the lips ... and stir my blood, while she was at it.
However Sue's greeting of me, had not interrupted her conversation with her brother Mike.
"Sue, there's no way anybody could take a decent picture of anyone from that distance!" Mike had replied.
After that, I kind of lost track (and interest) in their conversation, as I passed on through the lounge and into the communal kitchen. Sue and Mark might be twins, but they were alike as chalk and cheese. To find them in mild disagreement – usually concerning something so innocuous that most people wouldn't consider it worth mentioning -- was not uncommon.
I think I was hoping that someone had a brew on the go that I could filch.
Finding myself out of luck, I set about filling the coffee machine and then I put the kettle on, in the event anyone wanted tea when they arrived home.
Barry was the next to show his face. He squinted at the coffee machine, looked me in the eye and then glanced at the door to the lounge, behind which Sue and Mike's voices could still be heard.
I should add that Sue and Mike were almost always the first two home of an evening and ... well tradition had it, that the first home got the coffee on the go, if nothing else.
"What's got up Sue's nose, this evening?" Barry grinned at me, as he opened the dishwasher and began emptying that morning's load.
I didn't reply in words: I just threw Barry a frustrated glance as I took the mugs from him and began lining them up on the worktop.
"Like an old married couple those two! I pity Ron and Sheila." Barry went on.
I still didn't reply, poured-out four coffees, picked-up my own and then headed for the peace and quiet of my own quarters, leaving Barry with the job of delivering Sue and Mike theirs.
I had myself a little suite of rooms on the top (second) floor. Bedroom, private lounge and bathroom. Larger than anyone else's domain, but – technically -- I was the landlord, so no one objected.
Possibly this is a good point for me to explain my living arrangements, which were a little on the unusual side for single bloke of my age. Er, alright 34 if you're that interested. Anyway I apologise, if this explanation is a little on the long side, but my life up to that date had had its complications.
The house (my usual weekday residence) had originally been my grandparent's abode. I'd been brought-up in the place until I was eight years old, when my father passed-on somewhat prematurely. My mother had never been a 'big city person' and ... if I'm being totally honest ... she had never really hit-it-off with my grandmother either. We'd only lived in the suburbs because of my father's work. Once he was no longer keeping her there, mother lit out for the stud farm (her own childhood home) as soon as she could respectfully arrange it. Taking me along with her, of-course.
Hey, there had never been any real hostility between the two women; they just had opposing outlooks on life. My mother was at her happiest sitting astride a fifteen-hand plus, hunter, whereas my grandmother's preference would be strolling around Harrods, taking tea in the Ritz or in some other upmarket establishment. My grandmother didn't do mud, if you get my drift.
To be honest the two women had worked very hard to maintain a good relationship – probably on my account - after my father had passed-on, but they had such conflicting interests and outlooks on life, that I find it amazing that they were as successful as they were. Anyway that's really unimportant, as they were both distant memories by the time I'm talking about.
I'd returned to live at the town house during the latter period of my education, while I attended university in London. My grandfather wanted me to work in his company after I'd completed my education, but ... well, to be honest, I took-after my mother in some respects and never really felt at home in the big city. In consequence I'd returned to live in what had by then become my mother's stud farm out in Hertfordshire and settled down to a job with a local company there.
I believe the guy who owned the establishment I found employment with, had at onetime been suitor of my mother in their younger days. Way back before my father had entered the equation.
Just over a year after I'd completed my education, my mother had an accident while out exercising a (visiting) stallion one morning. Consensus is, that something startled the animal, causing it rear and roll over backwards on top of her. Two days later my mother succumbed to her injuries.
At my mother's funeral, my grandparents suggested that I should return to town to live with them. I suppose -- to them -- it would have seemed the logical move for me to make. But as a virile young man in his mid-twenties ... yeah, I'm sure you understand.
Anyway my mother's passing, had left me with obligations. i.e. I had her animals to think about (five dogs, half a dozen mares, two/three in foal, plus assorted foals and yearlings) and there was no way I could abandon or sell them. Well, I could sell the young stock when they were old enough, but not my mother's other... "babies!"
I had to get used to fending for myself though, but it didn't take me too long to get organised. I'm not sure what my grandparents made of the two horse-mad young ladies -- Vanessa and Averill -- who became my house mates at the stud. Basically they were employed to run the house, mind the stock, and look after the dogs.
However -- just in case anyone starts getting the wrong idea -- I employed the girls to run my mother's stud farm. Not to join my own, if you get my drift. A sort-of sibling relationship had rapidly developed between the three of us and nothing untoward ever went-on. Not that I'm sure my grandparents were ever convinced of that fact.
My grandparents always were a little uncomfortable with (what they termed as) my and my mother's bohemian outlook on life. There'd been a few ... strained interludes while I been at studying university; but generally they'd tolerated my transgressions.
Whatever - my grandparents' weren't around for very long after my mother died. Less than eighteen months later, they were both killed when a gas explosion and fire laid waste to their town house.
A consequence of that was that my life took another unexpected turn. Well, some silly bugger had to run my grandfather business, didn't they?
I did look around for a suitable candidate to buy the concern. However the few people I could find, were only interested in shutting it down and asset stripping the company. I'd known a lot of the staff -- personally -- almost all my of life, so I felt obligated to keep the place going, somehow.
Besides, the place was surprisingly profitable for such a small enterprise; only twenty-five staff and it did virtually run itself, most of the time.
My next problem was what to do with what was left of my grandparents' house. It was pretty-well gutted, but it had also been very well insured.
I suppose that my most profitable path would have been to pull the ruins down and then sell the plot as a building site. A developer would probably have jammed ten or fifteen houses, maybe more, onto that site. Or even built a block of flats; possibly both.
But a surveyor's report informed me that the walls were perfectly sound, so I felt obligated to rebuild the property myself. You see, my grandfather and my father had both loved the place.
I realised it would be prudent to take a few liberties with the rebuilding though. Because I'd felt obligated to keep my grandfather's business going, I'd have to have a home in town myself. But I didn't want or need a house that large for my own use.
My first thought had been to rebuild the house as several flats, but retaining roughly the same external design. But then the idea of a house of multiple occupancy came into my head. I had a few friends from my time at Uni (Barry and the Turner twins) who were forever complaining about the scarcity of suitable living accommodation in town. So I sounded them out on sharing the house with me. To say that they jumped at the idea would be putting it mildly.
So after nine months of hell, commuting almost every weekday, I moved into my very comfortable three-room suite on the top (second) floor of the house. And then I settled into a three nights at one address, and four nights at the other, lifestyle. Varying the when and where I slept depending on how my belly or business commitments guided me.
The girl's were far more competent at running the stud farm than I could ever be and I felt I could safely leave it in their hands most of the time. Well the same way as I left a lot of running of my grandfather's company to guys who had worked for him for years.
Of course, I made sure that everyone was paid well enough; it served their purpose best to look after my interests!
I suppose I sort-of lived a bit of a playboy life-style, for the next few years or so. Oh, nothing extravagant or anything like that; I just had a bloody good time of it!
I dated quite a bit. I suppose you could say I was a pretty eligible bachelor. After all how many thirty-year-olds own two large houses and two companies? But I was never overt with my cash: I had no intention of inviting the wrong kind of people into my life, male or female. Every big city is full of that type.
Anyway, over the next few years several other housemates came and went. One who came and stayed was the delectable Rachelle. Rachelle had arrived as an overnight or temporary guest of a character who eventually skipped-out on us, his rent for that month, and poor Rachelle. He took Rachelle's car, ready-cash, credit and debit cards with him; however she did eventually get the car back. The cards, I assume she cancelled.
Whatever, Rachelle having nowhere else to go, stayed-on! Yes okay, I'll admit it I felt sorry for the woman. And no at no time did thoughts of the kind some of you are thinking, cross my mind. A mug for a pretty face I might be, but I'm not daft enough to get involved in a... 'favours' for rent situation. Jesus in the big city, one could soon end up with a house full of bed-partners and an empty bank account.
For all her intermittent work schedule Rachelle has always been extremely punctual with her rent. She'd also learnt a very hard lesson about men, and now sometimes calls upon Barry and/or myself to ... discourage any undesirables who try to hit on her.
Actually, Rachelle is great fun to have around and she adds a certain glamour and some excitement into our routine. In recent times she'd landed a part in a TV series and a significant part in a movie. Barry and I had also been roped-in as Rachelle's escort to some of the very ... enlightening parties she'd been invited to. Barry I know, had made significantly better use of the contacts (of the female variety) we'd managed to make at those parties, than I had.
However I'm getting bogged-down in insignificant detail here, I was telling you about the Thursday evening it all started, wasn't I?
Well, not wishing, to get involved in Sue and Mike's sibling disagreements that evening, I'd made my way up to my apartments to shower and change.
I figured that someone would give me a yell, when they'd sussed-out what the plan was going to be for eating that night. Hey, it might be a takeaway or some of us might have gone out somewhere for a bite. But then again, one of our budding chiefs might fancy trying to poison us all. Yeah well, all university graduates we might be ... but cooking was a skill that none of us had truly mastered.
When you live in a big city with a takeaway, chish'n'fip shops and/or restaurants on every corner ... who the hell needs to know how to cook? A proper meal that is, I'm not talking about fry-up's here.
Er yeah, I suppose I'll have to admit that young Vanessa and Averill were magic in the kitchen and the village pub sported an extensive menu, when I was out in Hertfordshire.
Anyway while in the shower, I found myself ruminating on what Sue had been harping-on about. I hadn't consciously listened, but obviously some of what she had been saying had sunk in my thick skull.
From what I could recall of Sue's rant, it appeared she was convinced that two young girls had apparently got into the habit of watching the house from the park opposite. And on that particular evening, Sue was suggesting that they were taking photographs of us all as we came home from work.
My gut instinct was to go along with Mike in assuming that his sister must be mistaken. I could think of no possible reason anyone would want to watch the house, even less photograph me, or any of the other residents.
Possibly we'd have the paparazzi wanting to photograph Rachelle when she hit the big time; but up to that time, she'd only appeared in a few TV adverts, the odd pop video or two and a spurious play in some back street avant-garde theatre.
I'd sat through the bugger and had not understood a word of the plot. To be honest, I don't think that play had had a plot.
Having completed my ablutions and dressed again. I wondered over to my lounge window that overlooked the park, to see if I could locate Sue's miscreants for myself. Sure enough, I found that I could just make out two figures -- obscured somewhat by the trees -- sitting on a bench on the far side of the park. At that extreme range I couldn't tell whether they were male or female and -- as Mike had pointed out earlier -- I also doubted they could take meaningful photographs of anyone entering or leaving our house from that distance.
However, my curiosity was suitably piqued, so I hunted out my mother's binoculars ... Mother's interest in everything equine had extended to point-to-point racing, as a jockey, an enthusiastic observer and remarkably successful punter. A consequence of which had been my inheritance of several pairs of high quality and very powerful binoculars.
Selecting the most powerful pair, I went back over to the window and located the two figures again. And boy, did I get a surprise!
Look, actually locating what you are trying to see through a pair of very powerful binoculars, isn't quite as simple as it sounds. When you're not in the habit of using the things, the view is partially obstructed by the foliage of several large trees and you've never set-the-buggers-up for personal use anyway. In fact, I believe that I shut one eye and used them as a monocular or telescope.
Anyway, once I'd located the two young ladies ... yeah young ladies, both attired in the uniform of a well known and somewhat elite public school in that part of London, I was surprised to discover that one of them was apparently looking back at me through a similar pair of binoculars to the ones I was holding.
I say "apparently," because – at first sight – there was the chance that she was studying something in foliage of the trees on the near side of the park. You know, birds or even a squirrel.
Whatever, the second young lady was holding – what looked to me like – a thirty-five millilitre camera; only the thing had a totally massive telephoto lens attached to it. The sort of thing, one sometimes sees photographers using at motor racing circuits and the like. Well, that was the only place I'd seen one that size before.
Okay, even with that discovery ... logically, the two young ladies could-well have been trying to take photographs of the wildlife in the park. However what happened in the following half minute or so, told me that it was most likely Susan had been on the right track.
The girl with the binoculars lowered them and said something to her companion. Who then raised her camera to her eye and pointed the bloody great lens in my direction. A second later, both girls -- trying to look casual -- stood-up and walked-off towards a gate on the far side of the park.
There was no shadow of doubt in my mind that the girl with the binoculars had spotted me looking back at her from the window and that, that sighting, had prompted their sudden and swift departure.
I dashed down to the lounge to inform the rest of the gang of my observation.
"And, they were both wearing school uniform?" Sue asked.
I think Sue was asking me to confirm the conclusion she'd come to from her earlier observation of the two girls. Susan hadn't had the advantage of powerful binoculars when she'd spotted them.
"Yeah, a tasty pair of binoculars, no mistaking it!" I replied, "And the telephoto lens on the other birds camera ... Jesus, tripod job, no mistaking that either! I can't understand how she managed to hold the bugger steady enough to take a picture of anything!"
"Age?" Barry asked.
"Christ, buggered if I know." I replied. "Teeny-boppers anyway; they're still in school uniform, Barry. Too young for you anyway!"
I knew how Barry's mind worked; he was far worse than I when it came to females.
"Got to be between ... say thirteen and eighteen at the outside then!" Barry replied, ignoring my comment. "So who've we had living here of late, likely to have done something stupid?"
"Why do you always assume it has something to do with sex?" Rachelle, asked, pointedly directing the question at Barry.
"Sex is all he ever thinks about!" Sue interjected.
"That's a lie!" Barry snapped back. "I think about my Scooby ... sometimes!" Barry ginned back at her.
By the way, Barry's Scooby is his Subaru Impreza, the second great love of his life. The first great love of Barry's life appeared to be, any "available" female. Available translating as, old enough, pretty enough and willing (or stupid) enough, if you get my drift?
"That Scooby is your pussy magnate, mate!" Mike chimed in.
"Well, a man has to have at least one redeeming factor." Barry grinned back at him. Then added. "Besides Mark's worse than me. Only, he just plays his love-life ... low profile!"
"Oh you are funny!" Rachelle interjected. "But this banter isn't solving the mystery of those two little girls, is it! What possible reason could they have for taking photographs of us all?"
"Rachelle, there's no mystery where taking pictures of you is concerned, gorgeous; male or female!" Barry winked at her. "But the rest of us ... now that is a worry! Kind-a smacks of some idiot having done something stupid ... Like playing with a youngster's emotions. And I ain't that desperate ... yet!"
"There's been no one that silly living here for years - we've made sure of that!" Mike pointed out, but still pointedly looking Barry right in the eyes. It was clear to see where Mike's suspicion lay.
"Nope, I learnt my lesson with that American exchange bird at Uni ... You all remember her. Christ, the size of her ol'man ... I've never ran so bleeding fast in my life!
"Anyway, since her, I've been very ... circumspect. If they're foreign, I even check the age of consent in their own country." Barry insisted.
"Look, it might just be a coincidence." Rachelle pointed out. "Those two girls were probably just in the park taking pictures for a school project or something. And then, when they saw Mark looking back at them with his binoculars, they probably just panicked ... like you're all doing now."
"Yeah, could be." I admitted.
But Susan wasn't at all convinced.
"No I've seen them several times during the last couple of weeks. They are always by the same bench and always looking in this direction." She insisted.
"And who's to say that there isn't some rare bird or something, nesting in one of the trees over the road." Rachelle suggested.
"The lack of a tripod." Mike replied. "Well, surely if you want to take pictures of a bird on it's nest with a big telephoto lens ... well, a tripod makes sense, don't it?"
The conversation went on in a similar vein for the rest of the evening. Even continuing down at the pub, where we went as a group to eat and while away the remainder of the night with Mike and Sue's significant others, Sheila and Ronald.
There was no sign of the two so-called spies when I dashed into the house on the Friday to get changed for my date for that evening ... weekend. Well the young woman in question was spending weekend at my country estate, because she wanted to see the horses. Yeah you believe that, and you'll believe anything. But you get the idea.
Anyway, Averill and Vanessa had great fun, making suggestive remarks all weekend. About par for the course, with the majority of the young ladies I took down there, to be honest with you.
The exception being a woman named Rosalind, who for some inexplicable reason Averill and Vanessa had taken an instant aversion to: there was no mistaking the fact. You know -- on reflection -- none of the gang were particularly enamoured with Rosalind either, but I could never understand why. After all, Rosy had all the attributes that should have had Barry and Mike drooling, and Rosalind knew how to advertise the fact.
Anyway, my houseguest on that particular weekend proved to be surprisingly gymnastic and maybe even a little kinky. I was pretty-well knackered by the time I arrived in the office on the following Monday morning.
Monday evening when I arrived home, Sue and Mike were once again discussing the two so-called spies. Apparently, both Mike and Barry had spotted them -- sitting on the same bench in the park -- at different times over the weekend. However there was no sign of them when I checked it out.
But as the two girls were proving to be an enigma to us all, I decided to carry out a little surveillance of my own. It was all a little Heath Robinson, but I rigged up a web cam on my windowsill, pointing at the park and connected it to my computer.
Then I set the computer to take a still picture every five minutes. Video would have filled the available hard drive space in two or three hours, and I didn't want have to wade through that much video.
But I made a mistake in my settings anyway. I'd intended that the computer would start taking pictures at 3PM when the school day ended. But somehow I set it to start at 3AM; don't ask me how.
Anyway, by the time I arrived home -- late on the Tuesday evening -- Sue and Mike told me the two girls had been and gone already. But I was more interested in what time they'd arrived and how long they'd stayed.
Of course it was then that I discovered that I'd had the computer recording all ruddy day. Still no worries, the computer could run the whole days recordings though as if it was a film. So I just set it running and sat there staring at the screen; that's when I got a shock.
I found that I could see everyone walking along the pavement outside the house. I could even see my housemates and myself as we left for work that morning. And – in a single frame, at around ten past eight -- the two girls had walked past, apparently staring at the house as they did so.
At half-three they went past again going in the opposite direction. It was difficult to time them precisely, or say how long they stopped, because of the time-lapse nature of the recording, but they must have stood outside the house for ten or fifteen minutes, apparently talking; they were in three frames. Then in the next frame, they were gone.
Approximately forty minutes later they appeared on the bench in the park and remained there until around half-six. Again, because of the nature of the recording I didn't see them arriving or leaving. Actually the picture was so poor at that distance that, if it were not for the colour of their school uniforms, I wouldn't have been able to say for sure that it was the same two girls. However I could just about make out that whoever it was, they had binoculars with them and appeared to be staring at the house when Sue and Mike arrived home. There was nothing that led me to believe that they had their camera with them that day.
Completely intrigued by then, I reset the computer to take pictures at one-minute intervals. I also set it to start recording at 8AM and stop at 9; then start again at 3PM and remain on until I arrived home. I also moved the camera a little so that it had a better view of the pavement outside the house.
To my amazement the two girls spent six minutes standing outside the house on the Wednesday morning. It's difficult to tell from time-lapse recording, but I got the feeling that they were having a disagreement. I'm not sure why exactly; I suppose it must have been their body language that put that idea into my head.
That afternoon, they didn't stop at all on the way home from school: just walked past staring at the front of the house. Then they appeared in the park later as well.
However when Sue arrived home alone, the two of them left their bench and must have started to walk across the park towards the house. That is until Barry's Scooby appeared in the picture. In the next frame they were no longer visible.
Once the rest of my house partners had arrived home, I called them all up to my room for a conference and showed them the recordings.
"Seems to me, they are building up to something." Mike suggested once they'd all reviewed the recordings. "I'd say they were going to approach you Sis, until Barry scared them off."
"I didn't scare anyone off; I just came home from work!" Barry insisted.
"Not intentionally you didn't, Barry. But your arriving home made them change their plans. I'd say that they were heading for the front door; where-else would they be going?"
"I don't know." I replied, "But I think Sue, you'd better find out tomorrow morning. I suggest that you go into work late and tackle them on their way to school."
"No can do, busy day tomorrow; I've got a lot on." Sue replied.
"I can do it!" Rachelle said. "I've got nothing in my diary for tomorrow. I'll sneak up behind them."
"There's no need to scare the life out of the little beggars, Rachelle. A quiet 'Can I help you girls?' should do quite nicely. I'll hide my car in the garage later and stick around as back-up." I suggested.
It was agreed between us as a suitable plan of action. Although Barry did fancy staying home as well, and for some unknown reason suggested he could hide in the bushes in the garden. I'm not sure that anyone understood what Barry doing so, was supposed to achieve. So it was unanimously vetoed, on the grounds that Barry suddenly popping out of the undergrowth would probably frighten the life out of the two youngsters.
The following morning I was quite taken aback when an efficient looking blond, (I do realise that some people might think 'efficient' and 'blond' are two words that inconsistent in a sane sentence, but that was my observation) dressed in one of Sue's smart business suits and who bore no resemblance to Rachelle whatsoever, walked into the kitchen.
"They've seen me before; there's little point in giving them time to leg-it before I get close enough to talk to them, is there?" Rachelle explained.
"No chance of that happening, Girl." I replied. "Hey, you'd better watch-out Barry will be trying to chat you up!"
"He did! Gets up earlier than some, does our Barry." Rachelle grinned back at me.
Rachelle slipped out of the house around eight o'clock then set off along the road a-ways, timing herself as she went for her big entrance. Rachelle was planning on confronting the two girls as they crossed the drive in front of the house, where I could witness the encounter.
I stood in the main lounge behind the net curtains, from where I would be able observe, but not be seen by the participants.
Virtually on the button of ten past eight, Rachelle and the two girls walked into my field of vision from opposite directions. Rachelle had obviously timed it to perfection, as one would expect of a good actress.
Using Rachelle as a reference, I was surprised to see the two girls were taller than I'd expected. Probably it was that rather staid and old-fashioned school uniform that made judging their actual ages difficult. Both sported long auburn hair, but styled in plaits which also confused the issue. And of course neither sported any make-up: that definitely would not be on the approved list for that particular seat of learning.