Duke lay on his blanket in the corner of Toby O’Bee’s large farmhouse kitchen. He had been working like a dog that morning, trying to round up Toby Ron’s sheep. Toby Ron did not actually have any sheep but Duke liked to make sure of this every morning.
This morning, Duke had been especially keen to keep his mind occupied but had been finding it especially hard. Even his usual distraction of thinking about old Mrs McClusky’s thoroughbred show poodle, Fifi, was not working. This was the morning that Toby Ron was confirming their entry into the Women’s Institute cake, bun and integrated dairy-based dessert competition.
Just as climacteric, they would finally discover the nature of Garth Jones’ entries. Duke felt butterflies in his tummy just thinking about it, and not just the Orange-Tip he had swallowed on this morning’s sheep-hunt. Farmer Jones made a mean Manchester Tart. (One year it had actually attacked Mrs Martinson who, coincidentally, was also a mean Manchester tart.) He had won prizes in the W.I. cake competition for three years running. (He was running from Mr Martinson. Garth Jones was a tough man but even he did not mess with big Biff Martinson. Biff was a professional boxer but had to retire after beating a referee senseless, ironically whilst trying to “beat some sense into him”. Even more ironic was the crowbar that Biff frequently used to beat sense into anyone messing with Mrs Martinson.)
So lost in thought was he, Duke did not hear Toby Ron’s Range Rover come up the driveway. It was only the slamming of the car door that caught his attention. Even so, by the time Toby had crunched across the drive to the back door, Duke was off his blanket, waiting expectantly.
Toby shut the door quietly behind him, absent-mindedly patted Duke on the head and tossed his car keys onto the table. Duke’s head tracked his owner across the room. When it became obvious that Toby was not going to say anything, he frowned.
“Well?” Duke asked impatiently.
“Hmmm?” Toby Ron was obviously as lost in thought as Duke had just been.
“How did it go?” Duke pressed.
“Oh. We made the deadline OK. I’ve entered your pavlova, eccles cakes and I opted for an orange Dundee in the end.”
Duke nodded. That made sense. Toby had lost faith slightly in his lemon Madeira following the success last year of the Manchester Tart. - Mrs Martinson had entered an exquisite Victoria Sponge. (Bishop Jeffrey Plum had entered a chocolate eclair, which was why he was not allowed on the judging panel this year.) This was all skirting round the issue that Duke really wanted to know about.
“And what about Garth Jones?” Duke could not help but snarl as he uttered the name of Toby Ron’s nemesis.
Toby Ron held his dog’s stare for a moment or two. “He missed the deadline. He wasn’t there.”
Duke looked puzzled and rightly so. Garth Jones always entered the cake competition. (The regularity of Jones’ entry to the cake-making competition was only matched by Detective Sergeant Jenkins’ entry to the cake-eating competition.) It was rare for him not to be the first to file an entry. It was unheard of for him to miss the deadline altogether.
“He wasn’t there?”
Judging from Toby’s expression as he shook his head, Duke’s owner was a confused as he was. “No. No one’s seen or heard from him. It’s like he just disappeared.”
“Blimey,” said Duke.
“I know.” Toby Ron did not understand it. “I don’t understand it either. It’s not like him at all.”
Duke scanned the kitchen as he thought. He absent-mindedly noticed one of the goats crouching outside the back door. Part of his mind wondered what the goat wanted. That could wait, though. The issue was the disappearance of Garth Jones. Duke knew that he should feel relieved to lose his best opposition but instead he just felt strangely empty.
Duke looked at Toby Ron for guidance. “What do you think it means?”
“What did it mean?” Toby thought, puffing his cheeks up with air. He emptied his cheeks in a big sigh and shook his head. Garth Jones would not disappear for a nice reason, he was sure.
“Trouble,” he told Duke. “Big trouble for someone, no doubt.”
“Yeah,” thought Duke. “Big trouble for us, probably.”
“What can we do?” he asked.
Toby shook his head again in bafflement. “I really don’t know, Duke. I really don’t know.”
The two of them stood in silence for a few seconds before the sound of a car coming up the drive interrupted their contemplation.
Toby Ron ruffled the furry head of his faithful four-legged friend. “I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. Now, let’s see who’s visiting us on this most confusing of mornings.”