“Come here a minute.”
“Can I get you anything, sir?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I’m going to ask a question now, and you’re going to tell me the truth, aren’t you?”
“I always do, sir.”
“No, you don’t. No boy always tells the truth. Come here—come a bit closer.”
He wasn’t speaking loudly, but Malcolm knew that everyone nearby—and his father, especially—would be listening intently. He went where the man beckoned and stood near his chair, noticing the scent of cologne that emanated from him. The man was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, with a navy-blue-and-ocher-striped tie. His vixen dæmon lay at his feet, her eyes wide open and watching.
“I reckon you notice most people who come in here, don’t you?”
“I reckon so, sir.”
“You know the regulars?”
“You’d know a stranger?”
“Probably I would, sir.”
“Now, then, a few days ago, I wonder if you saw this man come into the Trout.”
He held up a photogram. Malcolm recognized the face at once. It was one of the men who’d come with the lord chancellor: the dark-eyed man with the black mustache.
So perhaps this wasn’t going to be about the man on the towpath and the acorn. He kept his expression stolid and bland.
“Yes, I saw him, sir,” said Malcolm.
“Who was he with?”
“Two other men, sir. One oldish, and one tall and sort of scholarly.”
“Did you recognize either of them? Seen them in the paper, anything like that?”
“No, I didn’t, sir,” said Malcolm, slowly shaking his head. “I didn’t recognize any of them.”
“What did they talk about?”
“Well, I don’t like to listen to customers’ conversations, sir. My dad told me it’s rude, so—”
“You can’t help overhearing things, though, can you?”
“No, that’s true.”
“So what did you overhear them say?”
The speaker’s tone had become quieter and quieter, drawing Malcolm closer. Conversation at the nearby table had nearly ceased, and he knew that everything he said would be audible as far as the bar.
“They talked about the claret, sir. They said how good it was. They ordered a second bottle with their dinner.”
“Where were they sitting?”
“In the Terrace Room, sir.”
“And where’s that?”
“Down that corridor. It’s a bit cold in there, so I said they might like to come in here by the fire, but they didn’t want to.”
“And did you think that a bit odd?”
“Customers do all kinds of things, sir. I don’t think about it much.”
“So they wanted a bit of privacy?”
“It might have been that, sir.”
“Have you seen any of the men since?”
The man tapped his fingers on the table.
“And what’s your name?” he said after a pause.
“Malcolm, sir. Malcolm Polstead.”
“All right, Malcolm. Off you go.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Malcolm, trying to keep his voice steady.
Then the man raised his voice a little and looked around. As soon as he spoke, everyone else fell silent in a moment, as if they’d been waiting for it to happen.
“You’ve heard what I’ve been asking young Malcolm here. There’s a man we’re eager to trace. I’m going to pin his picture up on the wall beside the bar in a minute, so you can all have a look at it. If any of you know anything about this man, get in touch with me. My name and address are on the paper too. Mind what I say. This is an important matter. You understand that. Anybody wants to talk to me about this man, they can come and do so once they’ve looked at the picture. I’ll be sitting here.”
The other man took the piece of paper and pinned it on the corkboard, where the notices of dances, auction sales, whist drives, and so on were displayed. To make room, he tugged down a couple of other notices without looking at what they were.
“Hey,” said a man standing nearby, whose big dog dæmon was bristling. “You put them notices back up, what you just pulled down.”
The CCD man turned to look at him. His crow dæmon opened her wings and uttered a soft “Kaark.”
“What did you say?” said the first CCD man, the one who’d stayed by the fire.
“I said to your mate, Put them notices back, what you just pulled down. This is our notice board in here, not yours.”
Malcolm drew back towards the wall. The customer who’d spoken was called George Boatwright, a high-colored and truculent boatman whom Mr. Polstead had had to throw out of the Trout half a dozen times; but he was a fair man, and he’d never spoken roughly to Malcolm. The silence in the bar now was profound, and even customers in other parts of the inn had become aware that something was happening, and had come to the doorway to watch.
“Steady, George,” murmured Mr. Polstead.
The first CCD man took a sip of his brantwijn. Then he looked at Malcolm and said, “Malcolm, what’s that man’s name?”
But before Malcolm could even think what to say, Boatwright himself answered in a loud, hard voice: “George Boatwright is my name. Don’t try and put the boy on the spot. That’s the way of a coward.”
“George—” said Mr. Polstead.
“No, Reg, I’ll speak for meself,” said Boatwright. “And I’ll do this too,” he added, “since your sour-faced friend don’t seem to have heard me.”
He reached up to the wall, tore down the paper, and crumpled it up before throwing it into the fire. Then he stood, swaying slightly, in the middle of the room and glared at the chief CCD man. Malcolm admired him greatly at that moment.
Then the CCD man’s vixen dæmon stood up. She trotted elegantly out from under the table and stood with her brush sticking straight out behind her and her head perfectly still, looking Boatwright’s dæmon in the eye.
Boatwright’s dæmon, Sadie, was much bigger. She was a tough-looking mongrel, part Staffordshire terrier, part German shepherd—part wolf, for all Malcolm knew—and now, by the look of things, spoiling for a fight. She stood close by Boatwright’s legs with all her fur bristling, her lips drawn back, her tail slowly swinging, a deep growl like distant thunder coming from her throat.
Asta crept inside Malcolm’s collar. Fights between grown-up dæmons were not unknown, but Mr. Polstead never allowed anything to get that far inside the inn.
“George, you better leave now,” he said. “Go on, hop it. Come back when you’re sober.”
Boatwright turned his head blurrily, and Malcolm saw to his dismay that the man was indeed a little drunk, because he was slightly off balance and had to take a step to right himself—but then everyone saw the same thing: it wasn’t the drink in Boatwright, it was the fear in his dæmon.
Something had terrified her. That brutal bitch whose teeth had met in the pelts of several other dæmons was cowering, quivering, whimpering, as the vixen slowly advanced. Boatwright’s dæmon fell to the floor and rolled over, and Boatwright was cringing back, trying to hold his dæmon, trying to avoid the deadly white teeth of the vixen.
The CCD man murmured a name. The vixen stood still, and then backed away a step. Boatwright’s dæmon lay curled up on the floor, trembling, and Boatwright’s expression was piteous. In fact, after one glance Malcolm preferred not to look, so as not to see Boatwright’s shame.
The trim little vixen trotted neatly back to the table and lay down.
“George Boatwright, go and wait outside,” said the CCD man, and such was the dominance he had now that no one thought for a moment that Boatwright would disobey and take off. Stroking and half lifting his dæmon, who snapped at him and drew blood from his trembling hand, Boatwright made his miserable way to the door and through to the dark outside.
The second CCD man produced another notice from his briefcase and pinned it up like the first one. Then the two of them finished their drinks, taking their time, and gathered their coats before going out to deal with their abject prisoner. No one said a word.
It turned out that instead of waiting obediently for the CCD men to come out and take him away, George Boatwright had vanished. Good for him, thought Malcolm, but no one talked about it or wondered aloud what had happened to him. That was the way of things with the CCD: it was better not to ask, better not to think about it.
The atmosphere in the Trout was subdued for some days afterwards. Malcolm went to school, did his homework, fetched and carried at the inn, and read over and over again the secret message in the acorn. It wasn’t an easy time; everything seemed hung about with an unhappy air of suspicion and fear, quite unlike the normal world, as Malcolm thought of it, the place he was used to living in, where everything was interesting and happy.