The Chilbury Ladies' Choir(4)

By: Jennifer Ryan

As he twisted the key in the lock behind him, I knew this was going to mean money.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, surveying the surroundings, trying to cover up any trepidation. The Brigadier’s a bigwig, an overpowering presence, officious and rude and unlikable, yet powerful and ruthless. He’s one of the old types, the ones who think the upper class can still bluster their way through everything. The ones who think they can boss the rest of us around and act like they own the country.

“I knew you’d come,” he muttered in an irritated way, his voice slurring from drink. “Which is why I had Proggett put you in the back drawing room. I have a service for you to perform. Time is of the essence.” He sat down behind his vast desk, all businesslike, leaving me standing on the other side, the servant awaiting instruction. I considered pulling over a chair, but fancied this act of rebellion might lose me a few bob, so I just plonked my black bag on the floor and waited.

“Before I begin, I must know I have your full confidence,” he said, narrowing his eyes as if this were an official war deal, when I knew outright it was going to be nothing of the sort.

“Of course you have it, like you always do,” I lied, glowering at him for even doubting my integrity. He didn’t scare me with his upper-class military ways. “I’m a professional, Brigadier. If that’s what you mean? I’m never surprised by what is asked of me. And I always keep my mouth shut.”

“I need a job done,” he said brusquely. “I’ve heard you’re willing to go beyond the usual services?”

“That depends on what the service in question is,” I said. “And how much I’ll be paid.”

A gleam came to his eye, and he sat up. I was speaking the language he wanted to hear—more interested in the money than the nature of the deed. “A lot of money could be yours.”

“What exactly do you have in mind?”

By now I’d guessed he was about to come out with something big, something that would line my pockets well and good. My bet would have been another affair gone wrong (perhaps a high-profile woman involved, maybe someone from the village), so shocked doesn’t describe how I felt when he came out with it.

“Our baby must be a boy.”

There was a pause as I wondered what he meant. He took in my reaction, his eyes scrutinizing me, debating whether I had the requisite bravery, deceit, greed.

“Ours is not the only birth to happen in the village this spring,” he continued, acting like he was giving complex orders on the front line. “And ours must be a boy. If there were a way to ensure that this might be the case—”

The penny dropped. It was outrageous. He wanted me to swap his baby with a baby boy from the village, if his was a girl. I sucked in my lips, working hard to keep the ruddy great smile off my face. I’d take him to the bank for this! But I had to keep calm. Play it for all it was worth.

“I think it would be a tremendous risk, as well as an immense personal compromise,” I clipped.

He leaned forward, dropping his façade for a moment, his eyeballs shooting out, bloody and globular. “But could it be done?”

“Possibly,” I said elusively. But I knew I could do it. I have a vicious herbal potion that induces babies to come forth very promptly, and the village is small, you can get from one house to another in minutes.

“Anyone who could help that to occur would certainly be well compensated,” he said evenly, his fingers toying with his mustache as if it were a battlefield conundrum.

“How well?”

There was a scuffle from outside the door that made him pull back. “We can discuss that at another time and place.” He stood up and went to the window. There was a French door that overlooked a muddle of fields and valleys down to the English Channel, gray and churning like dirty dishwater.

“We’ll meet the Thursday after next at ten in the outhouse in Peasepotter Wood,” he said in a low voice.

“I’ll be there,” I whispered.

“You may leave now,” he added. Then his head shot round and his eyes dug into me with threatening revulsion. “And mention this to no one.”

Only too happy to get away, I spun round and bolted for the door, fiddling with the key in the lock and then closing the door gently behind me, before sallying out into the thronging hall. My stride widened as I swooped in and out of the black-clad mourners, the uniforms, the nosy neighbors. I marched straight out of the front door without so much as a by-your-leave. People were still arriving in the expansive driveway, so I had to refrain from skipping for joy as I trotted briskly back to the village.