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It was sold to Dan as a mercy mission, a favour for a mate. There was never any suggestion of trouble. He just had to be there with Robbie, a supportive presence in the background while the handover took place.

Dan agreed to it for Cate’s sake: that was the noble motive. But he also had a favour of his own to ask, and a lot riding on the answer. So he ignored the voice in his head that urged him to let Robbie sort out his own mess for once.

He should have known better. Because Robbie had this ability to drag you in, enticing you to share his burden whether you wanted to or not, and once committed you felt obliged to stay and see it through.

A painful lesson, as Dan later reflected, that the path of least resistance can sometimes be the route to disaster.

* * *

The pub was busier than either of them had expected. On the drive over Dan had remarked on a recent news story on the death of country pubs, and they had reminisced about the dives they’d visited over the years: grumpy landlords, terrible decor, flat beer and greasy food; pool tables where the balls wouldn’t roll straight. At twenty-nine they were old enough to enjoy an occasional wallow in nostalgia; young enough to giggle and splutter as they competed to find the ideal name for a pub in decline. The Sack of Shit was declared the winner.

In the same vein, The Horse and Hounds had been rechristened The Hearse and Hounds, though it turned out to be a handsome Tudor hostelry on a lonely rural track a few miles north of Steyning. ‘Middle of bloody nowhere,’ as Robbie put it.

The car park was almost full, necessitating a tricky reversing manoeuvre on Dan’s part, easing his weary old Fiesta into a gap between a Land Rover and a trade-waste bin. He made it, but only just, and there was the usual teasing from Robbie about his shortcomings as a driver.

The pub was divided into two bars. Most of the action seemed to be in the public bar, and the reason soon became obvious: live music.

Robbie groaned when he heard the first strains of what sounded like a fiddle. ‘Not folk,’ he said. ‘Anything but folk.’

Now came a flutter of acoustic guitar, the sly rattle of brushes on a snare drum. ‘Folk rock, maybe,’ Dan said. ‘Some kind of fusion. That drum sound is almost ...’

‘Jazz,’ Robbie finished for him, and they grimaced in unison. ‘Shit, no, it’s jazz folk. Jolk.’

‘It’s no jolking matter.’

Laughing, Robbie punched Dan on the arm. ‘For that, you’re getting the first round.’

* * *

First they checked the saloon bar. It was whisper quiet, the room deserted but for a prim middle-aged couple sharing a banoffee pie, and an elegant young woman sitting alone in the corner. Dan would have waited until he could meet her eye, but Robbie dragged him away.

‘Don’t stare at her.’

‘I wasn’t. Anyway, this client of yours isn’t even—’

‘It’s a precaution, all right? We have to act like we’re nothing to do with her.’

For that reason, Robbie wanted to wait in the public bar, despite the fact that his dislike of the music intensified a hundredfold once he was physically in the presence of the musicians – four of them, all silver-haired but youthful in manner and joyful in mood. It was too noisy to talk properly, which didn’t suit Dan’s purpose. As he watched Robbie drain his first pint in double quick time, it dawned on him that this was the reason he’d been lumbered with driving: Robbie wanted a night out on the lash.

Then the musicians took a break, and after Robbie had bought more drinks Dan managed to steer the conversation round to his business venture. ‘I went to see some brilliant premises in Hurstpierpoint, perfect for a coffee shop. Empty at the moment, but it’s got an A3 classification.’

Robbie didn’t exactly yawn, but neither did he exhibit much interest. Undeterred, Dan went on: ‘I had a meeting with the bank last week. It’s not looking good.’

‘Course it’s not. The economy’s fucked.’

‘So I reckon we may need to find an alternative source of finance—’

‘Honestly, mate, you’re insane to think about starting a business. You wanna stay where you are till things improve.’

‘But Denham’s isn’t secure. It’s only a matter of time before the online retailers wipe us out.’

‘At least there’ll be some redundancy in it.’

‘That’s what Hayley says. But it feels wrong. Like we’re wishing it to fail.’

‘You mean Hayley and me agree on something? Jesus, I’d better retract that.’ Robbie’s glass was empty once more. ‘Your round.’

‘Give me a chance.’ On the tiny makeshift stage, the musicians were preparing to resume. Dan checked his watch: it was almost ten p.m. ‘Do you think he’s coming?’

‘Of course he is. I’ll tell you what, we’ll go next door. I can’t listen to any more of this shit.’

‘All right, but how long are we going to wait?’

A harsh note on the fiddle delayed Robbie’s reply. ‘Plenty of time left yet. I wanna get this sorted tonight.’ A fierce glint in his eye as he emphasised tonight. It was a look that Dan knew well – and should not have ignored.