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DEATH IS A STRANGER #1


1. The Ugly Word

 

As both chairman and managing director of Markham Construction, plc, George Markham drove a veteran Daimler as a matter of policy. He could afford to run a Rolls-Royce, but he knew that a status symbol in England draws out the worst in the envious and vindictive masses, who regard the trappings of success as provocative reminders of their own lack of achievement.
   Too many of his business colleagues and friends had been outraged by deep scratches running the length of a luxury vehicle, or body panes kicked in by the vandal's steel-toed boot, only to find that they had no option but to pay up to have the damage repaired and wait for it to happen again. The police could offer only sympathy after an insoluble crime.
   George Markham's car belonged to a lost age of comfort, when the motorist had not been expected to squeeze himself into a low-slung, tinny box. The vehicle had been built at the end of the nineteen thirties and it was ten years younger than its owner. Councillor Markham enjoyed the eleven-mile drive to the district council offices in Shepford almost three times more than the brief journey to the headquarters of his company on the outskirts of Boxbey.
   His car was company property, for tax purposes, and it had been fitted with a telephone to allow him to take and make business calls. Markham's telephone buzzed discreetly as he was approaching the growing town of Fenton, the half-way point on his journey home.
   He touched the switch to activate the small speaker in the headrest by his right ear. There was a directional microphone built in to the dashboard in front of him to allow hands-on-the-wheel motoring during calls. Assuming that the caller knew whom he or she would reached on that number, he responded with a brisk, "Hello?"
   "I know where the bodies are buried," said a slightly muffled, obviously disguised voice. "And my patience is wearing thin. The price is the same. One hundred thousand pounds."
   Without speaking, Markham broke the connection. The call was the fourth in an accelerating series. There had been a gap of a fortnight between the first and second, then an interval of just a week. Just three days had gone by since the third call.
   Message number one had warned him to expect some interesting photocopies in the mail. Number two had been a bald blackmail demand for 100,000. The next had been just repetition of the sum required. The extortionist had not mentioned a time limit.
   Knowing that he could not raise such a sum in cash without taking a considerable capital loss, Markham had done nothing. He had learned the value of patience in his fifty-four years. He had also learned how to face uncomfortable facts.
   Markham had indulged in enough institutional corruption to suspect that he was well and truly trapped. If he went to the police, the blackmailer's information would become common knowledge and he would lose both his position in the community and his liberty. Raising 100,000 in cash would arouse suspicion and he had no guarantee that the blackmailer would not be back for more later on.
   By failing to respond to the threat, Markham was hoping to make the blackmailer impatient and careless, to force him to take a rash step that would leave a clue to his identity. George Markham was confident that the man, who shared at least one of his guilty secrets, wanted the money more than the downfall of a prominent local figure. It was the sort of gamble that a successful businessman had the nerve to take when he realized that it would cost him nothing more.

Two days later, on a sunny Saturday morning, Markham was working his way through the mass of newsprint supplied by the quality papers in a sun-pit behind his imposing country house. It was a cloud-free day at the end of April. The temperature had climbed into the middle sixties in the rest of the garden and the low seventies in the sun-trap.
   Markham had moved a table and one of the chairs out of an all-glass bus shelter, which his wife had bought in one of her extravagant moods. He was adding a natural shading to his year-round, sunbed tan. An unexpected shadow falling across his colour supplement made him look up sharply.
   "All right, you bastard, here's some more of it."
   A large, solid manilla envelope smashing through the supplement tore it out of Markham's hands. "What the hell?" he demanded angrily.
   "You put on such an act, don't you?" The intruder was in his middle fifties, about the same age as Councillor Markham. He had greying hair, which had retained a hint of red, and an angry expression contorting naturally ruddy cheeks. His tone was violent. "Whenever a job goes out to tender, you always put Markham Construction's sealed bid in first so on one can accuse you of spying on the others and undercutting them. But I've got proof the bid they open isn't always the original one. I know your gang of crooks have been letting you make a second bid knowing what the others are offering."
   "Really?" Markham swallowed anger and forced a show of calm scepticism.
   "You've been pushing people around for years, you bastard. Now it's your turn to get pushed. If you don't pay me what I want, used notes, none bigger than a twenty, with non-consecutive numbers, you're going to gaol."
   "It isn't easy to come up with such a large amount of cash without people asking what you want it for." Markham was pleased with his provocative, icy calm. He had learned to shunt aside emotions when they threatened clear judgement.
   "That's your problem. You've got two weeks."
   "I may be able to raise half in that time," Markham stalled, struggling to put a name to the face.
   "All right, half in two weeks. But I want the lot before the end of May. Or else. And in case you're thinking of trying anything, my solicitor's looking after an envelope for me. If anything happens to me, he'll open it and find instructions to pass the contents on to the police. You've made millions out of swindling the ratepayers. Now's your chance to pay some of it back."
   The blackmailer stamped up the stone steps and out of the sun-pit. George Markham watched him make his angry way along the path to the rear gate, which he would have to climb because the gate had an electronic lock. Refusing to respond to threats had forced a criminal into the error of showing himself to his intended victim.
   Markham felt certain that he could put a name to the angry face of one of the envious and vindictive masses. He would know his enemy fairly soon. All that remained was to think up a way to take advantage of that knowledge. The news of incriminating documents in the care of the blackmailer's solicitor's, however, gave him a major problem.
   Councillor Markham allowed himself a few moments with a fantasy, in which he produced a gun and shot the blackmailer to pieces at some isolated spot deep in the country. His son, who had died under mysterious circumstances six months earlier, had left behind three .22 target pistols. They were still locked in his firing range that had been build at great expense behind Oliver's cottage in the grounds of the country house.
   Facing up to reality, Markham knew that he was not a killer. He would be too afraid of the consequences of one small slip to pull the trigger, and he knew no one whom he could trust to pull it for him.
   It was clear that the blackmailer thought the same with enough confidence to allow him to make a call in person on his intended victim. Markham knew that he might have to resign himself to parting with the money eventually; but not until he had explored every avenue of resistance.

 

2. Albert's Out

 

The wicket door in the prison's main gate closed smoothly behind Albert Brewer. He drew in a deep breath of true freedom for the first time in three years, four months and nineteen days. The spring air was fresh and cold after a night of thunderstorms. He had left the overcrowded, malodorous confines of Manchester's Strangeways prison just once during his sentence - to attend the funeral of his younger brother under escort the previous October.
   Young Terence John, who had been known by his initials, had been cremated twice. The first time had been with two companions in a blazing car. A collection of solitary bones in a wooden box had rolled into a crematorium's furnace Down South for a more official send-off shortly afterwards.
   The police had closed the file on T.J.'s death, adding his murder to the long list ascribed to a thrill-seeking businessman, who had been killed himself a matter of weeks later. Albert Brewer was not satisfied that all of the loose ends had been trimmed.
   The heavy-set screw with the mocking voice had said, "See you again soon, Albert!" before closing the door on him. Brewer had been away twice, and he had no intention of going down for a third time. He was going to play things very cleverly from now on. He had served his apprenticeship and he knew what was what.
   He took a moment to gather his bearings in the wide open spaces of a city, then turned right toward Great Ducie Street. He passed a succession of discount warehouses, enjoying the freedom to walk a reasonable distance in a straight line again. None of the pubs tempted him. He wanted to get out of Manchester as fast as possible.
   Just past the highly artistic paintwork on the railway bridges, he turned left to the approach to Victoria station. One of the orange and white, single-decker shuttle buses took him on a 20p tour of side streets on the way to Piccadilly station. Brewer's travel warrant would get him to Euston. Then he would be on his own in the capital with just twenty-four pounds and a few pence in his pockets.

Albert Brewer's train chattered to a halt in London just after three o'clock. He took the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and returned to ground level in a brief sunny interval between showers. He walked through a few department stores, looking for a tail. It was unlikely that anyone was following him, but it was a sensible precaution to take. Brewer spent a busy half hour making himself difficult to follow, then returned to Tottenham Court Road and took the Northern line to Balham, Gateway to the South, according to the Peter Sellers parody. He was prepared to admit that he was being unnecessarily paranoid, but his last job had been a qualified success.
   Four members of the gang had eluded the police. The team of six armed men had carried out simultaneous raids on two adjacent small factories in a new industrial estate. They had got away with both lots of wages. One of the gang had spent too much too fast, and he had only himself to blame for his arrest. Albert Brewer had been grassed on by an enemy, who had been attended to by the other members of the gang while twenty-six-year-old Brewer had been tucked up in his cell, trying to become twenty-nine as fast as possible.
   The sun had been swallowed by dark clouds. Brewer walked in its approximate direction for a few minutes, then ducked into a café to wait out a shower. He had almost an hour left to cover the half mile or so to his appointment on Wandsworth Common.
   Beyond the café's window, he could see school kids going noisily home in their own rush hour. Brewer knew that he was looking at the future of his own profession. Some of those kids would go into the police force and the prison service. Others would help to keep them in a job.
   Spring growth on trees and bushes was dripping gently when he reached the common. Brewer started along one of the paths, walking at the minimum speed needed to convey an impression of purpose. After about five minutes, a man on a bicycle caught up with him and hopped off to keep pace with him.
   "You made it, then?" remarked Ronnie Flagg, puffing a little from his exertions. He was in his middle twenties, three or four years younger than Brewer, and he was developing a fine beer-gut. He had been a driver on the robberies and just a flash kid the last time Brewer had seen him. Three years had added a lot of confidence as well as the weight.
   "I was just wondering if you would," said Brewer. He had kept in shape in prison, more for want of anything else to do than in pursuit of the body beautiful, and he looked well able to take care of himself. "You got it with you?"
   Flagg was wearing a tackle bag of the sort given away to football trainers to get a brand name shown on television. He shrugged out of the carrying strap and opened the zip. The otherwise empty bag gave birth by Caesarean section to the box for a transistor radio.
   Brewer lifted the hinged cardboard lid and flicked his thumb across the edges of used but ironed banknotes. The wad of paper stepped down to a smaller size one third of the way across the box.
   "Ten grand, nicely laundered, half in fives, half in tens. OK, my son?" said Flagg.
   "I suppose it's all there." Brewer put on a menacing grin. "Otherwise, someone else might be going to the shoe shop, like Collie Hobson." Hobson had made the mistake of informing on Brewer.
   "'Kin'ell!" groaned Flagg. "Anyone would think it was you nailed his feet to the floor and ruined his Hush Puppies." He had known Brewer for five years and he felt that he was a good enough friend able to make light of his threats. "What about a bit of gratitude for looking after your share? And helping to take care of Hobson? You couldn't lend us a couple of notes, could you?"
   "On yer bike!" laughed Brewer. "You're always bloody trying it on! I suppose you've spent yours?"
   "'Kin right! A wife and two kids? It's like having holes instead of pockets."
   "What, you've got another kid?"
   "Right. She's two in May." Flagg, the proud father, pulled out his wallet and extracted a photograph.
   "Quite a big lass now. That's something else I've got to do some catching up on," Brewer added thoughtfully.
   "Yeah? I thought they called it Strangeways because you don't have to do any catching up, duckie," simpered Flagg.
   "Could be. They've got whole wings full of ginger beers. All bonking away like dodgem cars," grinned Brewer. "It's like a bloody holiday camp for them."
   "We've got another job coming up in a few weeks. I don't suppose you're interested?"
   "Not till I've spent this lot." Brewer crammed the box into his duffle bag.
   "We fixed up a nice welcome-home party for you." Flagg offered a folded sheet of notepaper. "Her name's Natalie and she's a proper blonde raver. Your gear and a motor's waiting for you at her place. Taxed, insured and a full tank of petrol. Mr. Wexton says that's us straight now."
   "Ten grand, a motor and a welcome-home party divided by three years, four months and nineteen days."
   "It wasn't our fault you got nicked, Al. And we took care of Hobson for you. You can't expect us to be grateful you kept your trap shut forever. It's all ancient history now, my son."
   "Any nonsense from me and I'll need new shoes? And some Polyfilla for my feet?" laughed Brewer.
   "You don't need to wear shoes in a hospital bed, my son."
   "Don't keep calling me my son, Ronnie," Brewer found it suddenly irritating. "I'm older than you, you pillock! You've been watching too much bloody telly again."
   "Nah, it's The Vicar. You know he's gone away? Screwed up one of his con jobs good and proper."
   "You mean, you're taking the piss out of him every time you call someone my son? He won't like that!"
   "We'll get fed up of doing it long before he's out. And talking about that, you'll be wanting to get over to Natalie's before you bust out of your trousers. See you sometime, Al. When you feel like working again. Stay lucky."
   "Yeah, see you," nodded Brewer.
   Flagg perched himself on his bicycle, one of the more modern sort with small wheels and no frame member across the top, and pressed on ahead. Brewer continued on across the common to Trinity Road and caught a bus to Streatham. The first three people had never heard of Marlborough Drive. The next one knew that it was somewhere near, but not exactly how near. A handy newsagent provided him with a packet of cigarettes and directions.
   Ten minutes later, Natalie was showing him his car. Both the vehicle, one of the last Ford Cortina 1600s in dark green, and the one-woman welcoming committee were well run in. Both still offered a comfortable ride. When warned all that time ago that anything he said could be given in evidence, Albert Brewer had kept his trap firmly shut. Silence had earned him a little extra time inside. It was time now to collect his reward.

Brewer emerged from a sound sleep at the end of the next morning. A note on the bedside table told him that Natalie had gone to the shops. He wallowed in a hot bath for a quarter of an hour, then enjoyed a fry-up for brunch. Selecting the menu and cooking for himself were novelties that would soon wear off.
   Natalie was still out when he was ready to move on. He left her the washing up and a 20 tip. Driving cautiously, well aware that he had not been behind a steering wheel for a very long time, Brewer joined the relatively light mid-morning traffic. He found his way to the A23 and headed south. His next destination lay 35 miles from the centre of London but only 30 miles from Streatham.
   He stopped for a break at Shepford, a large market town eleven miles short of the end of his journey. He had dumped most of the clothes from his two cases in Natalie's dustbin. Marks & Spencer provided him with replacement underwear, socks, shirts, handkerchiefs and two warm sweaters.
   He bought a fairly unexciting, mainly dark blue suit at one high street tailor and two pairs of trousers and a sports jacket at another. Brewer was lucky enough to be a stock size. After buying two pairs of shoes, he abandoned shopping in favour of a toasted sandwich and a pint at The Royal Oak, a pseudo-Victorian pub beside the market.

Councillor George Markham had lost his only child in mid-October of the previous year. Six months after Oliver's death in a blazing car, his father had come to terms with his loss and he had started to take advantage of his complete isolation in human terms. The former Mrs. Markham had been divorced and remarried for ten years. No longer inhibited by a twenty-four-year-old son living in a cottage in the grounds of his country house, George Markham had allowed his thirtyish mistress to move in with him.
   Arlette Knight, who was less exotic Mary on her birth certificate, opened the door to the visitor. There was something in blue-suited Albert Brewer's manner that persuaded her to show him straight to the study. He looked a little like what she called a 'corporate suit', a hatchet man sent out to deal with tough industrial relations problems. Brewer had the required air of confident menace but not the customary non-stick gloss.
   His name sounded familiar enough to encourage George Markham to take a break from his paperwork. The caller had short, receding hair that clung to his scalp like a black cap. He looked almost like a boxer, who had dressed up for a day off between bouts. Markham put his age at around thirty the hard way. They had never met before but Brewer's pale features plucked at his memory.
   "My brother Terry used to work for you," explained Brewer when he had claimed a chair beside Markham's desk.
   "Ah, of course," nodded Markham. "I was so used to calling him T.J. that I'd almost forgotten his surname. Can I offer you a drink, Mr. Brewer?"
   Markham noticed that the elder brother made no attempt to hide an uncompromising Yorkshire accent. Young T.J. had been a whole lot smoother and almost indistinguishable from Oliver's circle of well-off friends. T.J. had been employed mainly to keep an eye on Olly to keep him out of trouble, which made compatibility with the moneyed classes an essential item on his C.V.
   "A drop of Scotch would go down very well." Brewer looking across at the well-stocked cocktail cabinet. "I came to talk to you about T.J. You know where I've been while now?"
   "Yes, T.J. did mention you were, well, away?" Markham handed a chunky glass to the visitor. "A tragic business."
   "I reckon there's still some loose ends. About who did it."
   "I think the police were satisfied that it was that fellow Mulgraham who was responsible."
   "I've had people asking questions about that. You know your lad had a run-in with a guy called Royle three or four days before the fire?"
   "How do you know that?" said Markham, astonished.
   "We got his name from a bent antiques dealer called Potheroe. This Royle was in a pub, looking for Potheroe, when he got into his barney with Olly. Did you know they were in the same line of business? Olly and Royle?"
   "Business? I don't follow you?" Markham frowned. He was starting to become concerned about the direction that the conversation was taking. He was having to deal with one blackmailer already. A second was something that he could well do without.
   "Mulgraham was one of the crooks in the City," said Brewer after taking another approving sip at his malt whisky. "Making his money out of wheeling and dealing. And he got his capital from coke. Your lad used to work for him. About eight or nine times a year, usually when T.J. was visiting me in Manchester, Olly went over to either Holland or Belgium and came back wearing a body belt with anything up to half a pound of coke. That's how he made a bit on the side to pad out the allowance you gave him. I think this Royle bloke is still doing it. For whoever took over from Mulgraham."
   George Markham gaped at his visitor, stunned by such a matter-of-fact announcement that his only son had been a criminal in such a stupid and hazardous way. Then his face contracted into a frown of suspicion. "I hope this isn't an attempt at blackmail," he said coldly, trying for a dangerous expression.
   "Do me a favour!" groaned Brewer.
   "What, then?"
   "I told you, loose ends. Like Olly and this Royle were both working for this bloke Mulgraham, but Mulgraham was in London when Olly, T.J. and the other bloke were killed. There's no way he did it."
   "As I recall it, the police found Oliver's name in friend Mulgraham's files, along with the names of quite a few other men of similar age, who had either died or disappeared. They also had extreme difficulty in establishing Mulgraham's movements. And there was an uncertainty of eighteen hours in the time of death of the three lads."
   "Even so," said Brewer confidently, "my friends have talked to the people Mulgraham was with and there's no way he left London on either of the likely days when T.J. and the others were killed."
   "So what are you suggesting?" George Markham was still suspicious, still expecting some sort of a demand for cash.
   "What if this Royle knew Olly's reputation as a tough nut and took him out before Olly could catch up with him? Your Olly was well known for getting even with people who got in his way. Or what if this Mulgraham set up some sort of elimination contest between them? I've heard some pretty weird stories about how he got his kicks. And he didn't see off all the blokes in his files in person. He's got solid alibis with business connections the coppers didn't know about for some of the killings. I'm thinking maybe he had a sort of knockout competition and he only went after the winner."
   "But why?" frowned Markham.
   "Hard to say, now he's dead too. Maybe he liked killing people as'd put up a bit of a fight. Maybe he were a nutter. But whatever, he didn't kill T.J. and the others. And that means someone else did."
   "Do you have any proof it was this man Royle who killed my son and the others? Or even that he's capable of killing?"
   "Anyone can kill someone, Mr. Markham. They wouldn't be able to have wars else."
   "I still don't see what you're hoping to accomplish."
   "I'm going to shove a ferret down a few rabbit holes and see what pops out."
   "And what do you want from me?"
   "Nowt at the moment, thanks. But I may need a bit of local information later on - if you feel like finding out what really happened to T.J. and your lad."
   "I see," said Markham slowly, trying to decide whether a demand for money for expenses would come at once or after a decent interval.
    "I'll be in touch again when I've got something. You don't know a pub round here as does bed and breakfast?"
   "Yes, there's The Angler on the canal; where it crosses the road to Shepford, about two and a half miles from here. Or you could try The Crown at Hythe, which is more central. The Waterloo Arms in Ashley is about the best, but it's usually full with trade from the motorway."
   "Can't beat a councillor for knowing all't pubs." Brewer drained his glass and pushed to his feet. "Well, I can see you're busy. I'll get on."
   George Markham watched Brewer drive away, then went back to his desk with a feeling of mild relief. He knew that T.J.'s older brother had been to prison for armed robbery. The presence of a man of violence had been unnerving, even though he had not been under any threat. Markham was not sure that he wanted someone to revive painful memories by digging into the circumstances of his son's death.
   If Oliver had been smuggling cocaine into the country, he might have been engaged in other illegal activities. George Markham did not want to know about other, equally stupid indiscretions. His own were causing him enough trouble.
   Eventually, Markham resolved to extend his policy for the blackmailer to T.J.'s vengeful brother. He would wait and see what developed. Having made a preliminary decision on the problem, he was able to push it into a corner of his mind and return his attention to the paperwork on his desk.
   His holding in Braxell Plastics was ripe for liquidation, by chance. He had bought the shares at 249p and watched take-over rumours lift them to the 4 mark. It was time to unload the shares before the rumours were exposed as empty speculation. A fellow member of Race Hill golf club had been having planning problems a few weeks earlier. Markham had helped to work out alternatives to unacceptable areas of the application. His reward had been inside information about Braxell and another good deal.
   Had he not been under threat from a blackmailer, Markham would have been able to reinvest his Braxell gains in another sure thing. His grateful fellow golfer had suggested that his tip would rise 25% to 50% in a matter of a couple of months. If the blackmailer had been prepared to wait, George Markham would have been able to grow his next investment to a sum very close to the negotiated first instalment. But patience was hardly Neil Finch's strong suit.
   Markham had seen the blackmailer often enough at the council offices but he had never had a reason to take much notice of him before. Neil Finch worked in the contracts department and Markham had always let his general manager handle bids for council contracts to maintain a discreet distance between his position on the council and a source of business.
   A few minutes' research had provided him with the blackmailer's home address. He had obtained a brief character sketch during an apparently casual conversation with a colleague. Neil Finch did his job well enough but he was not terribly popular. He became impatient quickly when people failed to grasp the obvious and an abrasive tongue made his colleagues wary of him. He was single, he lived alone and his main out-of-work occupation appeared to be do-it-yourself.
   Further digging established that Finch's parents were dead and he had never been married. His next of kin was listed as an older cousin in Bangor. He was one of life's plodders. He had done fairly well for himself by virtue of hard work beyond the requirements of duty, but he had reached a career plateau a number of years earlier.
   Finch did not have the flashes of inspiration that lift gifted people to higher things and he knew that he had reached his limit. Extra effort would allow him to get through more of the same kind of work. He was not capable of surviving at the next level of management. He was just coasting along in sight of the end of his thirtieth year as a council employee.
   When he reached his fifty-seventh birthday at the end of June, he was planning to take early retirement and leave the area. Markham's source of information had no idea where Finch would be living, but he did know that Finch was planning to open a craft workshop of some sort. A business start-up cushion of 100,000 would come in very handy.
   As he acquired more and more knowledge of his enemy, George Markham continued to permit himself fantasies of violence against the blackmailer. There had to be alternatives to meek surrender; but an envelope stuffed with incriminating documents in a solicitor's office seemed an insurmountable obstacle.

 

3. Expert Advice

 

Following Councillor Markham's recommendation, Albert Brewer found his way to the centre of Hythe, one of the cluster of small towns to the south of Shepford. Conveniently, The Crown was 'about a quarter of a mile down the Welling road, mate, on yer right'. Brewer turned onto the spacious car park in the dead period between afternoon and evening drinking. A figure shuffling bottles behind the bar responded to a knock on the side door.
   "Bed and breakfast?" Brewer turned his right thumb in the general direction of the card in a front window. "How are you fixed."
   "I think we can fit you in," smiled the landlord, giving points for a conservative, dark suit and a subdued tie. "Here on business?"
   "Visiting a few people." Brewer knew that a Yorkshire accent Down South branded him as a stranger as soon as he opened his mouth. "George Markham said you're the best place round here."
   "Councillor Markham?"
   "Right," nodded Brewer, judging that he had dropped a useful name to good effect. "I'll just get my bags."
   "I'll give you a hand."
   The landlord took note of a car that was a few years old but outwardly in perfect condition, and the quality of the luggage. His guest had rough edges but he also had the money to paper over them. That message came through loud and clear.
   Having established himself in a surprisingly large and comfortable room, Brewer retraced his last journey as far as the growing village of Fenton. He turned across the main road into Mulberry Street. Two rows of eight terraced houses behind the shops on the main road had been demolished in the recent past. A more modern terrace was being built on the left of dusty Worth Road. The other side had been levelled and covered with tarmac as a temporary car park.
   Brewer parked his car in clear space and continued on foot along Mulberry Street, looking for Lion Street. Royle lived at number 28b. He occupied the upper floor of the house, which was old enough to have a concrete air raid shelter in the back yard. He also used one of the row of concrete lock-up garages behind the house.
   Having walked past the house, front and back, without seeing any signs of life, Brewer prowled along some of the adjacent streets, getting the feel of the area. It was fairly run-down and approaching the limit of its useful life as a dormitory area for Shepford. Some of the houses looked as if they would fall down before the council or a developer got round to knocking them down.
   Some were boarded up, some bricked up, some just fire-blackened shells. It was an area with a large floating population, where few people knew, or cared to know, their neighbours. If one of the people who lived on Lion Street didn't come home one night, such as the tenant of number 28b, nobody was likely to miss him.
   Brewer reclaimed his car and headed to the north. He turned left at the junction in the centre of Ashley, the next town on the Shepford road. Heading west, he ducked under the motorway then began to climb a hill. The road descended through Poulfield village and crossed the River Dane at a town called Ottabridge. Two miles past a line of electricity pylons, Brewer turned right and followed a rocky track round a low hill and down a long gradient into an abandoned and overgrown quarry.
   Windswept grass, shrubs and even small trees sprouted on broken rock faces. The track petered out. There was no marker, no outward sign of October violence at the beginning of the following May. Natural growth had replaced scorched grass. Somewhere in an area half the size of a football pitch, three young men had died and had received a sort of Viking funeral in a blazing car.
   According to police reports, the intensity of the fire suggested that the car could have been set alight deliberately. Oliver Markham had been found in the driver's seat, the proper position for T.J. Brewer, his chauffeur and watchdog. That was further grounds for suspicion. The police had found a photograph of Olly and his name and address in the files of the shadowy Colin Mulgraham. Although they had no direct proof, the police were satisfied that Olly, his friend Ryan Naylor and T.J. had been three of Mulgraham's many victims.
   Albert Brewer had done his best to sort fact from prison gossip and he had persuaded his friends on the outside to ask questions as part of the price of his continuing silence. He knew that Mulgraham had spotted and recruited as cocaine mules young men with steady nerves and a willingness to take big risks for large rewards. Most of those men had just disappeared or they had been found dead. Mulgraham had also kept files on two-bob tearaways and professional assassins. The pattern suggested duels to the death.
   Brewer's evidence was sketchy but he was reasonably confident that Mulgraham had been miles away during elimination contests to select a fitting opponent for the master. From that point, it was a small step to assuming that Royle had been matched with Olly, and that T.J. and Ryan Naylor had been no more than inconvenient witnesses.
   Finding out the exact truth was a matter of pride, not to mention credibility. A hard man like Albert Brewer could not be seen to allow his brother's murderer to get away with it, but he had to be sure that he got the right man.
   The second step of his plan was to test Royle's character. The first was to find the right ferret to shove down Royle's rabbit hole to find out how he responded to a threat.

George Markham had found a way to come to terms with Albert Brewer's criminal record. A dangerous man could be used; with due caution. By the end of the afternoon of Brewer's visit, Markham had formulated a new approach to his own problem. He slept on it, thought about it during a working Thursday, and then invited Brewer to drop in at his home for a chat on Brewer's third evening of liberty.
   "I want to put a hypothetical problem to you," Markham explained when he had armed his guest with a can of real ale and a pint mug.
   "Is that where we pretend it's one of your pals with the problem?" divined Brewer.
   Markham ignored the insight and got straight down to business. "Suppose my friend were being blackmailed and the blackmailer had told him he had incriminating documents, which were stored in the office of his solicitor. What could he do about it?"
   "You know who the blackmailer's solicitor is?"
   "Unfortunately, no."
   "Sounds like your friend's a bit screwed."
   "I suppose he could find out but I don't see how. He does knows who's blackmailing him. Can I offer you a cigar?"
   "In that case, there's no problem." Brewer drew a cigar from a half-full tin of fifty slim panatellas and stripped off the wrapper. "Your pal wants to hire a bloke to turn the blackmailer's place over. That should give him the brief's address. Then he does the same at the brief's office for the evidence."
   "Is that possible?"
   "Easiest thing in the world," said Brewer confidently. "If he'd shoved it in a bank, your pal would be in dead trouble. But he won't have told the brief what he's holding for him. He's going to think it's something like this bloke's will or the deeds to his house. Not something that's worth anything in itself, just something as needs to be handy. All you need is a bloke as can find his way past what's likely a simple alarm system and into a locked filing cabinet. No problem."
   "And could you put my friend in touch with someone in that line? He'd have to be completely dependable. My friend wouldn't want to exchange one blackmailer for another."
   "What he wants is a private eye with, what's it called? A creative approach to the law. I know a bloke like that."
   "Naturally, I could offer you a consultation fee," said Markham, seeking to oil the wheels.
   "I'll tell you something, you can tell me something. We can work it like that. You must know all the top brass in the local police?"
   "Ah, yes, I do." Councillor Markham was on the police committee.
   "And you'd be able to get info on your son's case? The file must still be open? They didn't really prove anything."
   "Well, yes, I can ask about where the investigation is up to, and I can have sight of documents if there's something you want to know. Another thing," Markham forced a smile, "do they still put people in motorway bridges? I believe they call it the inland concrete overcoat."
   "You ought to know that, squire," laughed Brewer, "being in the building trade. Yeah, it happens. Not that often, though."
   "I was just thinking my friend might prefer a permanent solution to his problem."
   "Yeah, that's probably best. The only way to stop a blood-sucker is to step on him. I can put you in touch with a bloke as'll bash his head in for five hundred quid. But a murder makes waves. He could have an accident, though."
   "Yes, my friend might prefer that."
   "Wouldn't be cheap."
   "Cheaper than giving in to a blackmailer, though?"
   "Yeah, has to be. Well, I'll find out how it's done. I've heard one way is to put the right advert in the papers. But you need to know exactly what to say. How to dress it up."
   "I'm sure my friend would be most grateful." Markham changed the subject quickly to something less embarrassing. "Well! How are you getting on at The Crown? Comfortable?"
   "Yeah, you'd never think it was so big inside. There's a bloke there says he'll sign me in at the Paradise Club in Shepford. You reckon it's worth a look?"
   "It's quite a popular cabaret club with a casino. I've been there a few times, but a person in my position has to be a little, well, cautious of gaming establishments."
   "Yeah, you've done pretty well for yourself. But there's not much point in trying to blackmailing someone as don't have a few bob. T.J. always reckoned this was the best job he'd ever had."
   "You were close, you and your brother?"
   "More like good mates than brothers. We didn't see that much of each other but he visited me regular inside. They're very important, the visits. And he always used to slip me a few bob for ciggies and the odd drink. I really missed that when he went up in smoke."
   "I'd imagine you would," nodded Markham, at a loss for something more constructive to say.
   The interruption to Albert Brewer's comforts had been brief, the other members of the gang had delegated T.J.'s voluntary work, but by far the worst part of his brother's death had been the grins and knowing looks from Albert's enemies. He had served his sentence quietly but he had made no attempt to hide his dislike of certain fellow prisoners.
   Some of them had taken every opportunity to gloat over T.J.'s death, trying to force Albert into making an apparently unprovoked assault on them. Albert had been forced to bottle up a great deal of rage to preserve his remission for good behaviour. He intended to vent it on his most persistent tormentors when he had sorted out his brother's killer. Royle had the advantage of being an unsuspecting and available target. None of the worst offenders was due to be released from Strangeways before the autumn.
   "Yep, T.J. were a good lad," said Brewer reflectively. "That's why I want to be sure the bloke as did for him don't get away with it."
   "Yes, I can understand that." Markham caught a hint of violent emotion under tight control. "One thing I found out after you called last; there was no Royle in Mulgraham's files."
   "Yeah, but they found Mulgraham's body right outside his own house. Whoever did for him could have taken his file with him."
   "Well, yes. And that could have been Royle?"
   Brewer shrugged, neither concerned nor interested.
   "Another thing; the police questioned Royle about a friend of his, who was shot just a few miles from here."
   "Lenny Suskin, right. He used to be a contract killer - just the bloke to see you your pal's problem!"
   "Do you think Mulgraham arranged an elimination contest between Royle and this Suskin fellow?" frowned Markham.
   "Doubt it. Royle ran off with Suskin's wife. He'd be the prime suspect if Royle got the chop. A working hit-man like Suskin would never do a job on Royle and point the finger right at himself. But Mulgraham would have heard about Suskin when he was checking Royle out as a cocaine mule. Maybe he had a scrap with Suskin..."
   "Even so, this fellow Royle seems to appear everywhere we look," Markham said thoughtfully.
   "That's what I mean about him being a loose end. Well!" Brewer drained his pint mug. "I'll be getting on. I'll be in touch about your friend's problem."
   George Markham showed his visitor to the front door, then returned to his study with a sense of accomplishment. Sounds of gunfire from the drawing room followed him. Arlette was watching a recording of The Professionals minus commercials. She had a bit of a crush on the curly haired one.
   If an envelope in a solicitor's office had seemed quite inaccessible to the intended victim, it would seem just as secure to the blackmailer. Markham felt tempted to let the creative private detective retrieve the incriminating documents so that he could enjoy calling Finch's bluff. One of his partners in the scheme had spoken to him during the day to ask if he had heard any rumours of an investigation into unspecified corrupt practices. Markham had told him to sit tight and do nothing, confident that any such rumours were inspired by Neil Finch and intended to put pressure on George Markham.
   There might be a way of turning the situation to his own advantage, Markham realized. But the way depended on both Albert Brewer and himself. If Brewer could put him in touch with an assassin, would he have the courage to issue the fatal contract? Markham put the matter out of his mind to await further developments. He put aside too Brewer's investigation.
   He had drawn comfort from believing that his son's killer had met a violent end. Albert Brewer would have to produce some very solid evidence before George Markham would ever admit the possibility that Oliver's murderer was still alive and living just a few miles down the road in Fenton.

 

4. Ferrets

 

Following directions from his passenger, Albert Brewer turned left off the road to Shepford town centre, and then right into a multi-storey car park. The Paradise Club lay fifty yards farther down Hobard Street, on the left. Its owner and manager, a bullet-headed Czech exile, directed customers to the car park and provided an extra security man during club hours in exchange for a slice of the extra profits from non-nightclub goers, who took advantage of the safest place to park in town. Brewer was fairly sure that his new acquaintance, a rep. for a chemical firm, received a commission for bringing guests to the club.
   One half of paradise was an intimately lit cabaret cavern. The rest was a bright casino. After he had been signed in, the guest was armed with a glass of whisky and steered through an airlock of double doors into the buzz and smoke of the casino. Brewer changed 50 into chips. His duty done, the rep. drifted away. One of the women in circulation tried to attach herself to him but Brewer gave her no encouragement. He was looking for a certain type of man. The club's security staff had given the stranger the once-over already and Brewer had taken the measure of each of them.
   There were no broken noses on show, just dinner jackets well padded with muscle. The bouncers had been chosen for intelligence, size and an air of unshakeable confidence in their ability to handle trouble. They were too obvious and much too respectable for Brewer's purpose.
   He finished his drink and bought another at the long bar. A man losing his money in fits and starts at a blackjack table attracted his attention. Brewer drifted over and took a vacant seat. The man glanced at him, then pulled a face as another 1 chip went the way of the rest He was clearly trying to play his way out of a long losing streak.
   Brewer took a third card and stuck at eighteen. The dealer showed twelve and turned over a king. Brewer won three times more, then lost to the dealer's ten and jack.
   "No, thanks, love." He smiled at the dealer, wondering if she had to use glue to keep her low-cut top in place. "That'll do for me. Bit of a mug's game, this," he added to the man on his right. "But it shows you how your luck's going. I might risk chucking the dice about now."
   "Reckon I might watch you," decided the man, a dark, medium-sized individual, who looked as if he would be a lot more comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt than a suit.
   Having nothing better to do, Brewer had filled many long hours in his cell with a pair of illicit dice and a table of odds. Now, he had the chances of winning for every combination of numbers instantly available. He watched other shooters in action at first, making sure that the game was straight, before he took over the dice himself.
   The man from the blackjack table soon realized that he was standing next to an expert and he began to follow Brewer's bets. Before long, Brewer was able to send him to the bar with instructions to get a drop of gold watch and one for himself.
   Sticking to favourable odds, Brewer won more often than he lost. He found himself drinking with another Al; not Albert but Alan Lambert, who was called Draggo by acquaintances when they let on to him.
   There was a fluidity in Lambert's movements to suggest fitness and general good health despite his appetite for drink and cigarettes. He was much the same age as Brewer but he had slightly less bulk and he was not so obviously dangerous to cross. Even so, Lambert gave the impression of being able to handle plenty of trouble if someone made it worth his while. Draggo looked promising ferret material.
   Brewer left the Paradise Club at ten thirty. He had some telephone calls to make. Draggo Lambert had promised to look him up at The Crown in Hythe the following evening. When last seen, Lambert was handing over his dice winnings to the same brunette blackjack dealer.

George Markham added three miles to his journey home from the district council offices in Shepford the next evening by taking a detour through Hythe. Albert Brewer spotted the distinctive black Daimler turning into the car park behind the covered market and strolled over to meet it.
   "I made some phone calls for you," he remarked, settling himself on a passenger seat of real leather. "Here you go." He passed a strip of newspaper to the driver. It turned out to be a stop-press column from a no-news day. "The first number's the private eye. He'll cost you but he can keep his trap shut."
   Markham read through the rest of the block capitals. "And this advertisement is for, well, the assassin?"
   "Right. You have to put it in the paper exactly as it's written there. The space is for a phone number."
   "That sounds rather, well, risky. What if people who want to go to this concert ring up and ask for tickets?"
   "You add three hundred and ninety-nine to your number. The bloke will know to take it away. I'll put the advert in the paper, if you want."
   "That's very good of you." Markham fished out his wallet and took out three 10 notes. "That should more than cover the advertisement with a contribution to your expenses."
   "Cheers!" Brewer retrieved the stop-press column and tore it in half. He returned the top part. "There's the private eye. I need your phone number to put it in the ad."
   George Markham thought for a moment, then supplied the number of the site office of a Markham Construction contract in Alderhey, seven miles to the north-east of Hythe. "Could we put a time in the advertisement? Say between twelve and one?"
   "No problem."
   "What happens now?"
   "What's tomorrow? Saturday. We'll put this in the personal column of one of the Sunday papers."
   "Is that possible at such short notice?"
   "If you push the right buttons," said Brewer confidently. "The bloke will phone you to fix up a meeting. You tell him what sort of job you want doing and he'll quote you a price. If it sounds okay, he'll fix up another meet to get the deposit and the details of the job."
   "What sort of price will he ask?"
   "Depends on the job, but it's going to be ten or fifteen grand basic. More if you want something fancy. It's not cheap, but you're getting peace of mind. Know what I mean?"
   "I suppose so," said Markham doubtfully. "What will the deposit be? Half?"
   "Sixty per cent is the going rate."
   "Six to nine thousand pounds."
   "Just think how much the dirty little bastard's going to bleed out of you if you don't chop him off at the knees."
   "Yes, I'm doing just that. How is your investigation going, by the way? May I ask?"
   "Okay. I think I've found my ferret."
   "I'm still not to sure what your man is going to do."
   "Have a go at this Royle bloke. See what he does about it."
   "If he has killed before, what if he kills your man too?"
   "There's going to be a queue to shake his hand," grinned Brewer. "My ferret comes from a right family of trouble-makers. The Fighting Lamberts. He's pure rubbish, like your friend's blackmailer."
   "Yes, I've heard of the Lamberts."
   "Nothing good, I'll bet?"
   "Nothing that springs to mind. It sounds a very dangerous game you're playing, Albert."
   "Me and your friend both, Mr. Markham. Right! I'll go and get me tea. I'll be in touch."
   Brewer let himself out of the car and headed for a nearby café to lay a foundation for an evening's drinking. He had two immediate objectives. The first was to talk Draggo into having a go at Royle to provoke a revealing reaction. Then he wanted to get to know a decent-looking woman, who would give him bed, breakfast and a few extras for the pleasure of Al Brewer's company and a few quid for expenses.
   Councillor Markham headed for home, telling himself that he had made a slightly firmer commitment to murder, but that a simple refusal to meet the assassin's price would bring matters to a safe conclusion if his nerve failed him.
   He noticed for the first time a telephone box across the road from the station in Snapely. He thought about using the telephone number on the strip of newsprint for the next mile and a half. Then he turned onto a pub car park at the heart of Bilcross, the next town on his route, and sorted through his change.
   He dialled the outer London number. As the ringing tone began, he realized that normal business hours on a Friday evening were over. Almost at once, a male voice repeated the last four digits of the number.
   "I understand that you are a private investigator," said Markham uncertainly.
   "Who gave you this number, squire?"
   "Ah, it was Albert Brewer. Do you know him?"
   "Describe him."
   "Well, he's about thirty. Ah, dark hair. He has a Yorkshire accent..." Having met Brewer twice, Markham knew that he would recognize him instantly in the street but describing him was a positive struggle. "He, ah, came out of prison on Tuesday..."
   "That's Albert. What can I do for you, squire?"
   "I'd rather not discuss it on the phone."
   "Why not? You don't think this phone's bugged, do you? Calls go through automatic exchanges, these days, not nosy operators."
   "Well, someone has some documents. It's a matter of blackmail. I'd like someone to get them."
   "What we call a retrieval, in the trade. Where are they?"
   "In a solicitor's office," said Markham reluctantly.
   "No problem," said the private eye confidently. "The next step is a meeting to discuss a deal. Where are you?"
   "Well, I'm on my way home at the moment..."
   "No, squire. I mean, where do you live?"
   "Race Hill. About eleven miles to the south of Shepford, in West Sussex. Five miles beyond the end of the motorway."
   "Suppose I call on you at about half-nine tonight?"
   "At my home?"
   "Why not? I'll leave the car somewhere out of sight. Who's going to take any notice of me strolling up to your front door? And I'll wipe my feet."
   "I suppose you can drive right up to the door. It's the Markham Estate. Three-quarters of a mile past Race Hill, on the left."
   "Okay, Mr. Markham. I shouldn't have any trouble finding you. There'll be a non-refundable consultation fee of twenty-five pounds, including V.A.T. If that's all right?"
   "Yes, that sounds reasonable."
   "In that case, see you at half-nine. Good evening."
   George Markham replaced the receiver and returned to his car, impressed with the air of efficiency conveyed over the telephone. Arlette was going out with a party of friends to the Shepford Arts Centre. An evening of modern drama, which George Markham failed to appreciate, would keep her out of the way from about six-thirty to at least half-past eleven. The creative private investigator could not have chosen a more suitable evening for their meeting.
   Markham believed that he made his own luck. He scoffed at superstition. Even so, he felt a great temptation to knock on the walnut panelling of the Daimler's dashboard to keep a chain of good fortune going. Albert Brewer turning up on his doorstep at a critical time was not luck but a consequence of hiring T.J. The fate of blackmailing Neil Finch would depend on Markham's strength of will. That part of the future would be fixed by a positive decision, not blind chance.

The chimes of the front doorbell sent George Markham's eyes to his watch. Liquid crystal displays were showing 21:30 and a few seconds. He opened the door to a man in a dark tweed cap, round glasses and a dark blue raincoat.
   "You'll be the gentleman who phoned me earlier?" smiled the caller.
   "Yes, come in." Markham looked past him, into the shaft of light thrown out from the hall, not quite sure what he was looking for.
   "No one followed me." The man offered a slightly damp hand. "My name's Jeffreys, Mr. Markham."
   Markham clasped the hand. There was a slight sheen of moisture on the raincoat sleeve. "Come through to the study. Can I offer you a drink?"
   "No, thanks. I work dry." Jeffreys shed his damp coat and cap to reveal a dark blue, ex-RAF pullover and dark trousers. "Shall we start with the consultation fee?"
   "Ah, yes." Markham sat down behind the desk and took a white envelope from the top drawer.
   Jeffreys draped his coat and cap on a handy chair, slid onto its neighbour and looked at five 5 notes. "I could give you a formal receipt, but as I may be performing an illegal act for you, I'd advise against establishing any overt connection with each other. Shall we get down to details?"
   "A man is attempting to blackmail me." Markham decided not to dress up his problem in evasion. "What I want you to do is break into his house to find out the name of his solicitor then break into the solicitor's office to remove an envelope of potentially damaging documents."
   "Do you actually want me to do any breaking?" frowned Jeffreys "Or would you rather I slipped in and out without anyone knowing I've been there? Either way's fine by me."
   "Yes, the discreet way," said Markham quickly. "No one must know what you've done. How much do you charge?"
   "Five hundred. Each. It's two jobs, really."
   "Too much. Seven hundred and fifty for the whole job."
   "Excluding the consultation fee. Four hundred up front."
   "Agreed." Markham took a bundle of 20 notes from the same drawer and retained five notes. "Does this include V.A.T. too?"
   "This job is in the nature of a foreigner, which I'm sure someone in the construction trade will understand," smiled Jeffreys. "Unless you'd prefer me to add you to my accounting system?"
   "No, I was just asking."
   Jeffreys counted up to twenty then zipped the notes into the inside pocket of his raincoat. "Okay, who's the man? Have you got a picture?"
   "No, but I can tell you where he works and what he looks like."
   Jeffreys took out a pad and a ballpoint. Markham gave him a carefully prepared physical description and the details of Neil Finch's address and the make and number of his car.
   "He works at the district council offices in Shepford," Markham added, "that's the large town to the north of here. And he lives alone, which means the house is empty during the day. If that's any help to you?"
   "We'll see," smiled Jeffreys. "Want me to check Finch's place for copies of these incriminating documents?"
   "Ah! I didn't think of that. Of course."
   "What are they about?"
   "Information on tenders for council contracts."
   "Ah, that area? It's quite popular with blackmailers. Are you under any sort of time pressure? Is he breathing down your neck for his money because you've been putting off doing anything about him?"
   "I have about another week."
   "It's Friday today. I should have a result for you by Monday, Tuesday at the latest. I'll ring you after the first job with an interim report."
   "That sounds satisfactory."
   "I know what you're thinking," smiled Jeffreys. "How to warn me not to hang on to any of that incriminating material so I can do a bit of blackmail on my own account, right?"
   "Well, yes, the thought did cross my mind," admitted Markham.
   "It's all a matter of integrity, really. If the word goes round that I can't be trusted to do what I'm paid to do, my business goes right down the drain. And one of Al Brewer's pals might just break a couple of my legs. So I end up on hospital food then the dole."
   "Yes, I see what you mean."
   "But it helps to clear the air. Well!" Jeffreys pushed to his feet. "I think that's everything. You'll be hearing from me after the weekend."
   George Markham showed his visitor to the door and watched him drive away. The interview had lasted just six expensive minutes, but if Jeffreys was as efficient as his manner suggested, it had been time and money well spent.

The two Als, Brewer and Lambert, had decided to top off a Friday night's drinking with a curry. Lambert was very interested in taking on a job that involved a spot of frightening. They had picked a corner of a noisy Pakistani restaurant to discuss details. The rest of the clientele tended to be young, Anglo-Saxon and well lubricated.
   "What you want me to do is buzz this guy?" said Lambert, mashing chips into his curry sauce. "Turn his hair white?"
   "Right," nodded Brewer. "It's worth two ton."
   "He's not expecting any trouble?"
   "Not till you give him some."
   "Where's he live?"
   "Lion Street in Fenton. Number twenty-eight-B. That's the top flat. Name of Royle. Black hair, tallish, late twenties."
   "I've got this commando knife. How about if I give him a near miss with that?"
   "You can even take a piece out of him. Not too big a piece, though. I want plenty left for me."
   "I've got this cousin. The kid's a C.B. radio freak. He can keep an eye on this bloke. Give me a call when he's on his tod."
   "I'll leave the details to you."
   "Okay. Might take a day or two."
   "Just as long as it isn't a week or two."
   "Half up front?" said Lambert hopefully.
   "I pay by results." Brewer reached for his wallet and slipped money round the side of the table. "I'll give you fifty up front for expenses."
   "Yeah, okay. I'll give this bugger the fright of his life," grinned Lambert. Throwing his weight around came naturally to one of the Fighting Lamberts. Getting paid for doing it was a Christmas present come early.

 


 

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