“We’re splitting into groups,” an older man who Joel didn’t know called into the crowd. “Everyone needs to have a working phone with them.”
Nick appeared at Joel’s side and touched his elbow lightly. “Do you want to come with me?”
“Yeah,” Joel said, a little too quickly. But Nick didn’t seem to notice.
He touched Joel’s arm again and tilted his head, signalling the direction they should start moving in. Joel followed him, and Nick offered a quick thumbs-up to the man who was still giving instructions.
They moved quickly and quietly at first, a little further down the hill and then over a gate into the large field where the reindeer had been kept. Joel hardly ever had a reason to come in this direction, so though he’d seen the reindeer from his kitchen window, he hadn’t had chance to get a closer look.
“That’s the barn back there,” Nick said, pointing a low wooden building. “But the fence is down at the back, over here.”
The field had a cluster of trees that would have provided more cover, if the reindeer didn’t want to go into their barn during the day, and it didn’t take long for them to come across the broken fence.
“Was that deliberate?” Joel asked, looking at the trampled ground and broken wood.
“The police are have already been out to have a look,” Nick said tightly. He picked his way through the semi-frozen mud.
“What do you think?” Joel carefully followed in his footsteps. He didn’t want to end up face-down in the mud, if he could help it.
“I think… I don’t know, actually. I really hope they haven’t been stolen.”
“Would someone really do that? It’s a pretty small community around here. I know we’re only fifteen minutes from the city, but still.”
“It’s not necessarily someone local. I don’t want to go throwing accusations around when I really don’t know anything. I just hope we find them.”
Joel followed out of the field and into a much denser area of trees. This area he did know, sort of; he’d spent a lot of time exploring these woods during the summer holidays when he was a kid.
“So what’s the plan?” Joel asked when he was a little steadier on his feet. “How long have they been missing?”
“At least a day,” Nick said. “I came to do a check yesterday morning on the four that were still here, before I headed in to the office. We noticed they were missing about an hour ago. Fergus was good enough to start knocking on doors, looking for helpers.
“As for the plan,” he continued with a sigh. “The police have already come out to take pictures of the fence, but apparently they can’t say if it was pulled down, or if there was a weakness in that area and the reindeer just took advantage.”
Joel stole a few looks in Nick’s direction as they made their way through the woods. He knew he hadn’t been too drunk and mis-remembering how handsome Nick was.
But he really was very handsome.
Like Joel, Nick had tucked his hair under a thick wool hat and was wearing a fleece-lined jacket over his jeans. Winter clothes were never sexy, but Nick’s sharp jaw, dark stubble, and adorable little dent in his chin certainly were.
He was at least six inches taller than Joel, and Joel had never considered himself particularly short. Nick was broad across the shoulders too. He probably kept himself fit, to be able to work with large animals.
“How do you even buy a herd of reindeer?”
“It’s a long story.”
Joel shrugged. “We’ve got at least a couple of hours before it starts getting dark.”
They picked their way over muddy, rocky ground, heading uphill through the woodland area. Though the air was still cold, the wind had died down, and Joel was grateful for the extra layers he’d put on. He shocked himself by realising he was enjoying being outside… not running from the car to the supermarket or the office, or dodging bursts of rainstorms, but being out in this little patch of countryside south-west of the city.
He took a deep breath of crisp, cold air.
“Well, about five years ago I was the lead veterinarian for an animal welfare charity,” Nick said, “and we got word about a herd of reindeer that weren’t being particularly well looked-after at a safari park. I went along, flashed my credentials at them, and they let me go in and have a look.”
“Just like that?”
“I have very good credentials,” Nick said with a grin. “Anyway. I went back a few times to check in on them, and in the end the safari park agreed to let me buy the herd. For not that much money, really.”