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DEATH IS A STRANGER #2


5. Parker

 

A collection of Sunday newspapers, some bulked out by a colour magazine, squeezed through a letter-box and landed with solid thumps on a doormat. A girl of eight carried the newspapers upstairs and shook her mother awake. Bleary eyes started at the back of each and worked inwards, looking for the personal section. The woman started to wake up when she spotted a code phrase in an item offering tickets for a concert, which the vendor was unable to attend.
   Jackie Webb folded the paper to a convenient size and struggled into a dressing gown. Leaving her daughter leafing through the colour magazines, she went downstairs to the telephone in a chilly living room.
   Robert Parker did not appreciate being woken up at half past eight on a Sunday morning, but his telephone kept on ringing and ringing. The shock of sliding out of a warm bed was as reviving as a cold shower. Pulling on an electric blue tracksuit, he pushed into the living room of his flat.
   "Did I get you out of bed, Bob?" mocked a female voice.
   "That you, Jackie, you sadist?" groaned Parker.
   "Got a pen handy? I've got a phone number for you," said his message service.
   Parker copied the number backwards onto his telephone pad with a felt-tip pen. He offered qualified thanks to Jackie Webb. Deciding that it was too late to go back to bed, he warmed up a cup of percolated coffee and spread thick honey on a couple of chunky muesli biscuits. He believed that a healthy diet helped with his work.
   While he ate, he gazed in pleasure at his latest project. Purchases at a recent stamp auction had enabled him to reassemble a sheet of Victorian penny reds. He was looking at something that no other living person had seen because it had existed as nine separate blocks of unused stamps since 1858. The stamps had been separated by someone wielding a pair of scissors in an office in the time of his great-great-great-grandfather. It gave Parker a tremendous thrill to have overcome the dispersing effect of one and a quarter centuries. Every man has to have an obsession and his was philately.
   Fortified by his light breakfast, he collected his car and drove less than a mile to Holly Park on the edge of Tarring, another small town on the road to the south out of Shepford. Parker was twenty-nine years and seven weeks old. He kept fit by running in the nearest park an average of three times a week. He drove to the park because he preferred to breathe clean air while he took exercise. Jogging along the roads and taking in a ration of exhaust fumes made no sense to him.
   He was deceased, divorced and five feet nine inches tall. His build was stocky and mid-brown hair covered his ears. He was trying to shed his natural Yorkshire accent because it belonged to a previous incarnation.
   He had lost one of his lives the previous year for a number of reasons, which had included evading an ex-wife in search of maintenance. Leonard Suskin, a professional assassin, had been shot in front of a reliable witness. He was presumed dead, even though his body had never been found. His ghost, under the prepared alternative identity of Robert Parker, continued to accept telephone numbers.
   After a fortnight off recovering from some final plastic surgery, he was ready to get back to work. Parker had left school at sixteen to work as a labourer in a cardboard box factory. Two years later, he had joined the Army. His service with the Parachute Regiment, which had included three tours of duty in Ulster, had ended at the age of twenty-three with a badly broken leg.
   Taking a medical discharge, he had gone to work for an arms dealer as a demonstrator and technical advisor. His first target for assassination had been the rival who had murdered his boss and put Lenny Suskin out of a job. The Army had taught him to kill his country's enemies. Making full use of his training in civilian life had seemed a logical career move.

George Markham arrived at the construction site on the outskirts of Alderhey at ten to twelve on that Sunday morning. He made himself comfortable in the office, accepted a cup of strong tea, and began to check progress reports. The two site security officers decided to check the boundary fence. His call came through at five past the hour.
   "I'm calling about your tickets," said an unremarkable voice. "They're still available?"
   Markham was not sure what he had been expecting, but the voice could have sounded much more sinister than it did. "That's right," he said cautiously.
   "Where would you like to meet?" said Robert Parker.
   "Could you come to the Shepford area? In West Sussex?"
   "Hang on, I'll just find it on the map." Even though he lived in Hetton, two miles from Shepford town centre and just seven miles to the west of Alderhey, Parker went through the motions of finding Shepford. "Right, got it."
   "If you follow the road south to Fenton, you'll see another road going east. And a branch through Caxton."
   "Got it."
   "The road crosses the railway, then goes under the canal about two miles out of Fenton. Three-quarters of a mile further on, there's a phone box. On your right."
   "Ten o'clock tonight all right?"
   "Yes, fine," said Markham.
   There was a click and a purring noise beside his ear. He had taken another step along the road to commitment. But, as he reminded himself, his options remained open.

His live-in ladyfriend had gone out for the evening with her sister. George Markham had taken the opportunity to borrow Arlette's Ford Fiesta runabout, which was invisible compared to his Daimler. He had parked just past the telephone box. Not quite sure what would happen next, he was watching the black figures of his digital watch slide toward 22:00. Precisely on the hour, the telephone began to ring.
   Markham's finger jerked off the backlight button on his watch. Moments later, he struggled out of the small car and approached the call box. He lifted the receiver and offered a cautious, "Hello?"
   "I'm calling about a couple of tickets," said a male voice.
   "I thought we were going to meet?" Markham frowned at his own reflection in the tiny mirror.
   "This is close enough until we know each other a bit better." Parker was 200 yards away, up a telegraph pole, making the call with an engineer's portable handset. "You want a job done?"
   "Ah, yes," said Markham reluctantly.
   "In this country or abroad?"
   "This country." Markham was surprised by the question.
   "Would you prefer an example or an accident?"
   "No one must know," Markham insisted.
   "We're talking about fifteen thousand for a basic job. Were you told the deposit?"
   "Ah, sixty per cent. That's...nine thousand pounds."
   "Right! Three miles down the road, towards Caxton, there's a lay-by. If you want to do business, be there tomorrow night with the details of the job and nine grand. Same time as tonight. Have you got a photo of the target?"
   "Ah, no," admitted Markham.
   "Try and get one."
   "All right. Ten o'clock tomorrow night."
   "I hope we can do business. Good night."
   Struggling with a strong sense of unreality, Markham replaced the receiver and stepped out into a dark night. The rendezvous point was a lonely spot, chosen because it was a junction. A convenient minor road slipped away to the south-west, ran behind the Markham Estate and joined the main road to the south from Shepford two miles past Race Hill.
   Parker disconnected his engineer's handset and shot down the telegraph pole. He was behind the wheel of his car by the time his prospective client had stopped looking up and down the road for approaching vehicles. Parker had noted the number of the Fiesta, just in case. It turned onto a minor road and moved away rapidly. Parker followed - without headlights at first.
   The road was unlit and wound gently between farmland hedges and stone walls. Parker had switched on an illegal single spotlight. He was navigating by driving astride the central line of cat's eyes. After three and a half miles, the car in front turned right. Parker stopped at a security gate. He switched off his engine and listened. A car stopped. Its door closed firmly. A splash of light at the back of a large house was cut off with the sound of another, more solid door shutting. A room at the back of the house developed a glow, suggesting lights going on deeper inside the building.
   Parker drove on to the main road and turned right. The name on a well-polished brass plate on an imposing set of gates was Markham. Parker was almost sure now that he had been offered genuine employment but there could be no harm in doing a thorough check on his client. His was not a trusting business. He was taking big risks for a big pay-out.

 

6. Holly Park

 

The descending whistle of a passenger jet approaching Gatwick airport slid over the traffic heading for Tarring on a nice spring day. April had been mild and showery but May had revived a blustery echo of March. Royle had watched the progress of a squally shower through a late breakfast to a background of Radio Sussex assuring him that clear skies would follow as a belt of rain marched on toward Kent. He had decided to trust the weatherman and take a look at the May Holiday Fair in Holly Park.
   The increasingly familiar car followed him onto the main road through Fenton. Royle had noticed it lurking about over the weekend. It had been hand-painted midnight blue, the owner's enthusiasm bridging deficiencies of skill, and fitted with a black plastic aerodynamic spoiler on the boot lid to make the owner think that he could go round corners faster.
   Broad, white, go faster stripes raced along both flanks. Aluminium paint took the place of peeled chrome. The driver, a youngster just out of his teens, had tuned the engine to an aggressive snarl. He was also a C.B. freak - the long, distinctive aerial of a Citizen's Band radio sprouted from the bodywork.
   Coming to the end of his journey, Royle moved into the right-hand lane as he approached the traffic lights on the edge of Tarring. The blue car, shielded by a council van, followed him. As he made the turn, Royle caught a glimpse in his wing mirror of the driver steering with one hand and yakking into his microphone, chatting to fellow good-buddies.
   A pub called The Oak Tree faces one of the side entrances to Holly Park. Royle turned onto the car park and stopped in a corner at the back. The blue car kept straight on toward the canal, the railway and the road between Hythe and Alderhey.
   "I suppose you're off to the park, to the holiday fair," challenged a middle-aged man, who was messing about with a tub of earth and a box of assorted plants.
   "You'll be getting my business at lunchtime." Royle zipped up his anorak. "I reckon that's worth a bit of free parking."
   "Oh, yes?" The landlord did not seem too concerned.
   Royle crossed the road. The path into the park curved to the left between the fountain, which had been awaiting repairs for eight years, and a wall of rolls of turf for re-grassing bald corners. A fair number of people had turned out on the bank holiday morning, including the inevitable joggers. A man in a green tracksuit, which matched the new leaves on the trees and shrubs, was approaching Royle.
   His frothy, blond hair had become dark and matted with sweat. The man was in his late twenties, perhaps a year or two older than Royle's twenty-seven, and he seemed to be loping along without undue distress. Royle had never been one to take unnecessary exercise. The physiotherapist, who had restored 95% mobility to his right shoulder, had managed somehow to include the rest of his body in the exercise program. Royle felt that he had filled his exercise quota for the next few years.
   A loud scream from a woman out walking a small dog drew Royle's attention to the knife. The jogger had been carrying it reversed in his left hand, the blade obscured by his left forearm. A practised movement flicked the double-edged, six-inch blade to the front. Then it rushed forward. Royle tried to dodge to one side; and saved himself by getting his feet tangled and falling over. The blade snagged in his anorak for a moment, then tugged free.
   The woman with the dog let out another deafening shriek. After a moment's hesitation, the knifeman turned and dashed into the trees behind the fountain. A roving policeman, on his way to the fair, arrived at a trot to find Royle sprawled on damp grass, examining a clean-edged rent, which had sliced open the right-side pocket of his anorak.
   "There! He want that way," gasped the woman with the dog, panting as if she had been running. A meaty arm aimed a finger in the general direction of the fountain. "Had a knife, he did. A foot long, it were."
   "You all right, mate?" asked the constable.
   "Fine. He never touched me." Royle scrambled to his feet. A brown wallet fell out of his slashed pocket. He picked it up and seemed at a loss as to what to do with it. "He didn't even get this."
   "Anyone you know?" said the constable.
   "Never seen him before in my life." Royle struggled to conjure up a mental image of the jogger's face. He could remember the knife but not the features.
   "What did he look like?" The constable switched on his lapel microphone. "Two Four Nine, urgent message."
   "Green tracksuit, dark hair, about thirty, average sort of build," offered Royle.
   "And a carving knife," added the woman with the dog.
   The constable's radio emitted distorted sounds.
   "Knife attack in the park, Sarge," he replied before repeating the vague description. "No one hurt."
   "Are we going to go to the police station to make a statement?" The woman gathered her small dog to an ample bosom. She sounded pleased to have found an interesting diversion on an otherwise dull day. "Will we be in the papers?"
   "If you're called as a witness in court, madam," said the constable diplomatically. He was around Royle's age and he knew the realities of hit-and-run crime.
   Royle gave him a sceptical half-grin, telling him that J. Royle also expected the jogging knifeman to get clean away.
   A few minutes later, a patrol car picked up the trio at the side gate of the park and drove a few hundred yards to the police station at the centre of Tarring. In a small and battered interview room, Royle offered a little personal information and even less sketchy detail about his attacker. He managed to add that the jogger had been clean-shaven and did not wear glasses, but he did not feel confident about attempting a PhotoFIT picture.
   He took no notice of joggers normally, and when his attacker had been close enough to be studied in detail, Royle had been too busy getting out of the path of his knife to look closely at him. Royle had gained the impression that the jogger was a couple of inches shorter than himself, which made his height about five feet nine, and he was lightly built. The stripes on his white trainers had been green and the watch and bracelet on his right wrist were made of stainless steel.
   The uniformed sergeant clicked the refill into his ballpoint and picked a cigarette off the ashtray. He had used taking Royle's statement as an opportunity to grab a smoke. "Well, I think we've come quite a long way, Mr. Royle," he decided. "Our man is left-handed, average height, slim to medium build, longish, darkish hair and physically fit. That narrows things down quite a lot. And you think he used a commando knife?"
   "That's what I thought at the time. It was sharp on both sides, not like a sheath knife. You know, people are always complaining about your lot making them tell things over and over but it's amazing how much detail it can pull out. I wonder if I can do anything about this?" The knife blade had entered the side wall of a pouch-like pocket and ripped out through the front.
   "What's it made of, nylon?" The sergeant inspected the damage again. "It's always going to look a mess."
   "Maybe I can sue him for a new one when you catch him. You want this for evidence?"
   "We want an expert to look at it. The lady says he had a bread knife. We need to resolve the conflict of evidence."
   "That's the thing that gets you about crime, the sheer bloody inconvenience of it. One minute you're strolling about in the park, the next your clothes are hanging in shreds."
   "And you're sure you can't think of any enemies who might want to stick a knife in you?"
   "I don't have any enemies who know where I am." Royle shrugged. "And definitely none that go jogging. If he wasn't a mugger, he's a bloody nut case."
   "It doesn't seem to have bothered you much," prodded the sergeant. "Something like that would give a lot of people the shakes."
   Royle held out a hand, palm down, and observed that it was rock steady. "You don't count the near misses. Is that it?"
   "More or less," nodded the sergeant. "For now."
   The woman with the dog was nowhere to be seen when Royle emerged from the interview room, having signed a typed copy of his statement. There was a thick sweater in his car, left over from winter. It served as an alternative to the anorak. At lunchtime, the landlord of The Oak Tree took a long look at Royle, knowing that there was something different about him but failing to detect what it was.

 

7. Results

 

The cardboard-backed envelope was marked URGENT and PRIVATE in red capitals. The motorbike messenger, an unexpected caller at the large house on a bank holiday Monday, insisted on delivering it into the hands of George Markham himself and obtaining a signature. The recipient used a stainless steel paper-knife with the logo of Markham Construction to slit open the flap. A postcard-size photograph of a letter slipped out of the envelope. On the back of the picture was a telephone number, the name Jeffreys and the time 13.00.
   A solicitor's name and address were clearly visible at the head of the letter, once Markham had found his magnifying glass. The letter dealt with the purchase of Neil Finch's retirement home somewhere near Oswestry. Arlette Knight was out at a charity committee meeting, which solved the problem of lunch. Markham spent a nervous half hour at his desk, thinking about the Finch problem, then drove into Race Hill.
   He was building a plan in his mind as he parked behind the shopping centre. He walked through to the main road and took over the phone box outside one of the banks. He keyed seven digits when his watch slithered to 13:00.
   "Jeffreys?" said the competent voice.
   "Thank you for the photograph," said Markham.
   "You'll be pleased to hear it was a nice, clean job. And there's no sign of any incriminating documents in the house. Of course, I didn't have his floorboards up, or take his furniture to pieces or dig up his garden. But I think we can go on to the next part of the job with confidence."
   "I wanted to talk to you about that. Would it be possible for you to replace the envelope you remove?"
   "Replace the contents, you mean? Unless you know what sort of envelope and what's written on it."
   "Ah, I didn't think of that," admitted Markham.
   "That's what you're paying me for. To cover the angles. Do you have the replacements ready?"
   "Ah, not yet. I may have them by lunchtime tomorrow. This being a bank holiday doesn't help."
   "There's also this place your man is buying. Do you want me to have a look there too? It'll cost an extra four hundred."
   "I didn't think of that either."
   Jeffreys said nothing, letting his client make up his mind whether he could afford the extra price of peace of mind.
   "Yes, go ahead with that," decided Markham.
   "Okay, I'll do a recce on the second part of the job then get part three out of the way. If you give me a ring at five o'clock tomorrow, same number, you can let me know if you're ready to finish part two. Is that okay?"
   "Yes, that sounds satisfactory. Would it be possible for you to get me a photograph of the man, by the way?"
   "No problem. Anything else?" Jeffreys added efficiently.
   "No, I think that takes care of everything for the moment."
   Markham rang off with a sense of achievement. He was on top of the problem and he had a sound man tackling the parts that he was unable to handle personally. As he pushed out of the slightly evil-smelling phone box, he noticed a small café. Feeling that it was his duty as a councillor to support local enterprise, he crossed the road. Finch's rumours about an investigation into corruption at the council offices seemed to be spreading. More colleagues were asking Markham if he knew who or what was the subject of the inquiry. Eventually, when the story leaked further, the local press would start to complain of a cover-up if no juicy scandal came to light spontaneously.
   Neil Finch had arranged for his solicitor to pass evidence of genuine corruption to the police in the unlikely event of his death. His information was intended more as a deterrent than a weapon that he expected to use. But with Finch out of the way, the finger of suspicion could be pointed in any direction chosen by someone who had illegal access to the filing system of Finch's solicitor.
   If the people wanted scandal, it was Councillor Markham's public duty to make sure that they were not disappointed. Providing circuses for the masses was an honourable tradition that went all the way back to the glory days of the Roman Empire, when the rich had the power that they deserved.

Changed out of his frightening gear, Draggo Lambert hurried back to his home in Snapely. Three friends were occupying most of the furniture in the living room of the flat, eating crisps, drinking their host's cans of lager and watching a video nasty; strictly to find out why MPs and newspaper editors found it so objectionable. Lambert grabbed a chilled can in passing and took the telephone into his bedroom.
   "It went great," he told Albert Brewer. "The bloke nearly fainted when I took a swipe at him with the knife."
   "Good!" approved Brewer. "No problems?"
   "There was some old bag hanging around at the time, but if she clocked me, it won't do no good. I've been here all morning, watching videos with three mates."
   "That's all right, then. I'll see you at The Crown tonight. To give you the rest of the bread. How d'you feel about having another go at him in a couple of days?"
   "He might be waiting for me now..."
   "You'll be choosing the time and the place. And I don't reckon you'll be sending him a postcard first?"
   "Yeah, right. Shall we say two-fifty next time?"
   "I reckon two hundred's about right," said Albert Brewer.
   "Yeah, okay," surrendered Lambert. "See you tonight."

 

8. Consequences

 

After a leisurely lunch at the pub opposite the park, Royle drove back to his flat in Fenton, three and a half miles away. As he locked his car into one of the row of garages behind his terrace, he realized that he had not seen the kid in the dark blue car for several hours.
   He clicked through a gate into a paved yard and climbed a flight of steps to the roof of a concrete air-raid shelter, which served as his patio. The house had been converted into a pair of self-contained flats like a majority of the terrace. Royle entered the upper flat through the bedroom that had been converted into a kitchen. He was in nice time to cross the living room and descend a flight of stairs to answer his front-door bell.
   The man on the flaking stone step was tallish, young-looking and wore his blond hair in a short, almost military style. He was reaching for a warrant card when Royle's memory threw out a name.
   "Detective Sergeant Erskine, isn't it? Come to pin another murder on me?"
   "Not this time." Erskine cracked a patient smile. "Are you going to invite me in?"
   "Yeah, okay, go on up."
   The detective ghosted up to the first floor, moving lightly and swiftly. He had established that his host was alone by the time Royle had finished an investigation of the basket behind his letter-box. The junk mail industry kept trying to interest previous tenants in essential bargains.
   "You haven't asked me what I'm here for," said Erskine, surprised to learn that Royle read the Daily Express. He had put him down as a Sun or Mirror man.
   "I suppose you'll get round to it eventually," Royle said. "And I suppose you won't say no to a drink?"
   "That can't be the same bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich you had last time I was here, six months ago?"
   "I've got this girlfriend in Amsterdam and they've got a great duty-free shop at the airport. They don't rip you off as much as the British airports. Go on, then. What are you here for on a bank holiday?"
   "I still haven't worked out if you've got the nerves of an iceberg or you're completely innocent of everything; including dropping litter." Erskine accepted a glass of malt whisky containing 20% bottled spring water. "Cheers!"
   "If you're expecting me to start twitching just because you're a copper, hard luck," grinned Royle. He took an orange from a heaped fruit bowl and dropped into the nearer armchair. He liked an orange with a glass of whisky.
   "Is this another of your aliases? Or what do you call them? Business names? Mr. Chandrie?" Erskine stirred the discarded letters on the table with a finger, then sat down.
   "The junk mail? Nothing to do with me. They keep trying to give these people Volvos and tickets to all sorts of prize draws. Anything else I can show you? Or do you want to get down to business before it gets dark?"
   "Just some background information." Erskine was enjoying the game of trying to make Royle twitch despite his total lack of success. "We don't seem to have your occupation. Or are you unemployed and too embarrassed to admit it?"
   "Can't think what my job's got to do with being carved up by a nut-case with a knife."
   "According to our information, you were made redundant by a firm in Leeds two and a half years ago. Where you'd been working as a pipe fitter for about four years."
   "Okay, you know a lot about me," said Royle, surprised.
   "You were involved in a murder inquiry last year."
   "Only because you lot dragged me into it. What was I doing before Leeds?"
   "You left school at seventeen and worked at a steel works near Sheffield for three years. Then you moved to Leeds."
   "What was my mother's maiden name?" scoffed Royle.
   "I don't know everything about you," Erskine admitted with a smile. "You can't still be living on your redundancy money. And they've not heard of you at the D.H.S.S."
   "The last thing I did was some stunt work." Royle's reply was inaccurate but not too far from the truth in a certain sense. It was based on a remark made by his friend Bob Parker, the former Lenny Suskin, around the time when Royle had been a suspect in the inquiry into Suskin's 'murder'.
   "That how you did your shoulder in? I noticed you're a bit more left-handed than you used to be."
   "You don't miss much."
   "Trained observers, us coppers," smiled Erskine. "And talking about observing, Mrs. Lord, the lady with the dog. She did a PhotoFIT picture. Anyone you know in these?"
   Royle wiped sticky orange juice from his fingers with his handkerchief before accepting a selection of postcard-size photographs. He flicked through them, then shook his head. "I take it the numbers mean all this lot have been inside? No, like I said, I was looking at this bloody great knife, not his ugly mug."
   "Oh, well." Erskine retrieved the photographs, which included a mug-shot of Draggo Lambert. "That's us stymied. We had a word with the chief suspect but he's got three mates willing to swear he was with them all morning."
   "You mean you know who he is?"
   "We think we know who he is. Our suspect is a local hard man. Works as a bouncer or bodyguard. Pulled a couple of short stretches for assault. But always with his fists. He prides himself on his ability to punch his way out of trouble. First time we've heard of him using a knife. He must be losing his confidence in his old age."
   "So he's not got a history of armed robbery? That's about the only motive I can come up with."
   "Not that we know of."
   "And you're letting him get away with it?"
   "We don't have much choice at the moment," said Erskine a little too defensively. "You can't bring a prosecution on the unsupported testimony of one witness and nothing more. A few other people saw the bloke jogging in the park but none of them took a close look at him. Our man didn't have a knife in his possession when we caught up with him. He does jog, but his tracksuit is blue. And his trainers have black stripes on them."
   "So you've come to talk me into doing a little perjury? Like, giving me a good look at him on the Q.T. before you let me pick him out of a line-up?"
   "I hope that was a joke?" Erskine said stiffly.
   "Very nearly," grinned Royle. "What, then?"
   "I was just wondering if you've done anything naughty you'd like to tell me about. Double-crossing local villains, borrowing more than you can afford from a loan shark, that sort of thing."
   "Is this where I get indignant and say how dare you call me a criminal?" said Royle mildly.
   "This might just be an attempted robbery that went wrong, but you do have something of a history, Mr. Royle. You might have got up someone's nose badly enough for that person to want you hacked about. Or we might just be back to that business last year. Local yobs getting written off. Councillor Markham's yobbish lad suddenly becoming a heap of bones in a burnt-out car. Not to mention your international hit-man pal Lenny Suskin getting blown away all over the bonnet of some poor sod's car on the road to Bowcross Farm."
   "I thought you'd got the bloke behind that?"
   "But not the bloke who got him. Or this might be a copy-cat starting the pattern all over again."
   "What pattern's that?" Royle said, maintaining a façade of ignorance.
   "Didn't you read about it in your Daily Express?" Erskine was a Daily Telegraph man. "Colin Mulgraham, whizz-kid of the City, murdering people right, left and centre. From vicious thugs to professional killers like your friend Suskin. As well as young, active men who weren't tied down by regular working hours. Like Olly Markham. Like you."
   "I could never figure out how much of that was fact and how much was sheer invention." Royle quoted from a book that he had read recently. He was not prepared to admit that he had been conscripted into Mulgraham's final death game.
   "A lot of the stuff that appeared in print depended very much on the motives of the people writing it," Erskine said darkly, hinting at deliberate attempts to discredit the Shepford police force. "So you've not upset anyone recently?"
   "I've not been here to upset anyone. I've spent more than two months out of the last four out of the country."
   "All right for some. Which leaves me wondering if Mr. Mulgraham talked to someone about his games. Assuming the attack on you this morning was completely unprovoked."
   "It was. Completely. Is that an official police view? Mulgraham Two, the sequel?"
   "Well, no." Detective Inspector Rostov had been very sceptical about Detective Sergeant Erskine's theories.
   "Anyway, why me?"
   "You and Suskin were friends. He could have given you tips on looking after yourself, Army self-defence stuff as well as firearms training. He was in the Paras, I seem to remember, so he'd know all about that. It would make you an interesting opponent. I'm talking about before the divorce, of course," Erskine added delicately.
   According to his information, Lenny Suskin had been married to an ex-girlfriend of Royle's. Julie Suskin had gone back to Royle, which had precipitated the divorce. Erskine did not suspect that the evidence of adultery had been a put-up job between Royle and Suskin.
   "I take it you didn't get round to marrying the former Mrs. Suskin?"
   Royle shrugged. "Julie started playing around again when she was back with me. So if she walked out on one husband, what was to stop her doing it again? I mean, if you can't learn from your own mate's misfortunes, you're either an incurable optimist or the biggest bleedin' wally in the world!"
   "Very romantic," grinned Erskine.
   "You'd better give me a look at this bloke's photo. So I can get ready to duck if I see him again."
   "I shouldn't think he'll do anything more now we've warned him off." Erskine sorted through the photographs. "But if he knows you, I suppose it's only fair you know him. Alan Michael Lambert. Draggo to his friends. Interested in drag racing, not dressing up in women's clothing."
   "Must be a bit of a mad bugger, having a go at someone with a knife in broad daylight, as it were."
   "It's amazing what you can get away with if you've got the cheek. Mind you, if anything happens to Draggo, we'll know where to come looking, so be warned."
   "Bloody marvellous, isn't it? This Draggo can have a go at me anytime he likes. But if I have a go back at him, it's a crime. Unless I've got three mates willing to lie their heads off for me," Royle added thoughtfully.
   "We've told him the same thing. And his three mates. If anything happens to you, he's going to be in a lot of bother. And we've not given up yet. We're going to have a quiet word about perjury with his three pals individually, and we're still appealing for witnesses to come forward."
   "You'll catch up with him sooner or later; probably later, if at all? Tell you what, if he tries anything on me again, he'll get the hot handshake about two seconds later."
   "Leave him to us." Erskine finished his drink and heaved himself out of his chair. "Don't make trouble for yourself."
   "I don't need to," grinned Royle. "There's all these blokes queuing up to make it for me."
   When the detective had gone, sucking a mint to hide the malt whisky on his breath, Royle remembered the kid in the blue car. He was feeling crowded by the little squirt. If the pest kept following him, Royle decided, he would put him in line for some police harassment by mentioning him to D.S. Erskine. If Erskine complained about overwork, he would have only himself to blame for touting for business.

Erskine turned left at the end of Mulberry Street. He had another call to make just beyond Fenton's shopping centre and a third in Ashley, which lay on the road back to Shepford. The other calls were in connection with a haul of stolen credit cards. They had been found at the home of a man who had been trapped by a suspicious shop assistant. Erskine had decided not to save the most interesting piece of business until last.
   Royle intrigued him. He knew that tall, dark and possibly dangerous John Peter Royle had been born at West Hotton, near Sheffield, one November 23rd. Royle's father had worked in Bristol and then Leicester for fourteen years before moving back to the Sheffield area, which explained his son's lack of a Yorkshire accent. Erskine had seen the details of Royle's educational qualifications and most of his employment record. He knew that he had held a driving licence for seven years but very little else.
   Royle had first come to the attention of the police on the fringes of the Mulgraham affair. He had no visible means of support but he could afford to run a car and he spent long periods abroad. The stuntman story answered some of the questions but Erskine remained interested in Royle Several successful criminals, who tended to live further north, nearer London than Shepford, had adopted the same sort of lifestyle. Police intelligence information suggested that they had made a lot of money from a brief spell of intensive criminal activity and they were spending it quietly over a long period of time instead of splashing out madly.
   Of course, Erskine had no reason to think that Royle had made his money illegally, but there was something about the man that registered on his policeman's instinct. One of Erskine's colleagues, Detective Sergeant Brian Orwell, had called Royle a one-man bottle bank, someone with the bottle to do almost anything given the necessary incentive.
   Being a stuntman sounded the perfect career for Royle - yet Erskine reserved judgement automatically. Police officers hear all sorts of silly stories told to them with apparent sincerity. He had no reason not to believe what Royle had told him but he had never actually seen him perform any stunts.

During the course of the afternoon, Royle had to answer the door to two reporters, one from the Shepford Courier, the local weekly newspaper, and the other from the Shepford Area Diary, a link in a chain of free newspapers. Someone from the Evening Standard telephoned him too.
   Mrs. Lord, the woman with the dog, had given a very graphic account of the knife attack. She was of the opinion that there was a maniac running around and that no one was safe. Royle endorsed her opinion and, when asked how he had felt when the knife had been slicing through his clothing, he had told all three reporters that he had been wondering if he had been wearing his brown trousers.
   He met questions about his age and background with a blank refusal to divulge personal information. The young woman from the Courier asked him what he was trying to hide. Royle pointed out that her question was self-defeating. He told both local reporters that he had no recent pictures of himself. He turned down both chances to be photographed free of charge. He was reluctant to let his face become public property in case other nut-cases were encouraged to use him for whittling practice.

 

9. Defence

 

In the evening, Royle drove into Shepford, heading for the Paradise Club. Having survived a possible attempt on his life, he was feeling lucky. He bought an expensive half-pint of draught cider and listened to the girl singer for a few minutes. Then he pushed through the two sets of double doors to the casino.
   As if prearranged, a lane opened in the ranks of gamblers. Royle found himself looking at a familiar face and then making eye contact. The other man turned away suddenly and made for an exit on the other side of the room. It was only then that Royle realized that he had been eye-balling Draggo Lambert, the mad knifeman.
   By the time he had decided that he ought to do something, Royle knew that it was already too late. Lambert had been moving at speed. He would be out of sight long before Royle reached the street. Even knowing that roulette is a mug's game, he decided to play the red while deciding what to do about friend Draggo. Black came up five times out of seven and cost him fifteen pounds.
   Royle decided that his choice was due for a bit of a run. He dropped two 10 plaques onto the red diamond and lit a cigarette with a confident smile. He was over twelve hundred pounds to the good when he decided not to push his luck further. Red came up once more, giving the house another good haul on black, before the pattern changed.
   The club's owner gave him a mournful look as Royle cashed his chips. It made up for the smile of sympathy that had been offered the last time Royle had dropped a bundle. The owner had slipped out of his native Czechoslovakia at the end of the Dubcek era to become a naturalized British citizen under the hybrid name Anton Watson. He spoke perfect English, but his accent was more French than Eastern European. He knew quite a bit about the jogging assassin.
   Draggo was the last of the line of Fighting Lamberts, a family that had been throwing its weight around in the Shepford area since the First World War. The others had been whittled away by old age, fatal accidents, some of them high-speed crashes during unofficial road races, and by moving out of the area in search of work.
   Draggo had stayed to keep the family flag flying. He worked as a bodyguard for several local bookies when they went to the races, and he also earned a crust as a chucker-out in various pubs and discos in the area. Royle wondered if the close interest of the police would persuade Draggo to join the general exodus of Lamberts. A certain lack of faith in police powers of intimidation persuaded him to take out a little extra insurance.

Leaving Arlette watching a bank holiday Bond film on BBC One, George Markham borrowed her car and drove out into a heavily overcast night. He stopped on the lay-by nominated by the assassin and switched off the headlight. Darkness closed in. He switched on the interior light and wondered what he would say if a police patrol took an interest in him. Then someone tapped on his passenger window. Markham leaned across and unlocked the door. A spare figure in dark clothing slid onto the plastic seat.
   "Concert tickets?" said Robert Parker, giving this client's password.
   Markham handed him a bulky envelope. Parker flicked a thumb across the edges of the wads of notes then turned his attention to the target information, as some of his colleagues insisted on calling the combination of photograph, physical description and a list of places where the job could be found. Jeffreys had sent his pictures of Neil Finch and his retirement home via another motor-bike messenger.
   "I don't want you to, ah, go into action immediately," said Markham hesitantly. "If that's all right?"
   "I wouldn't anyway," said Parker. "I'll have to look the job over first. I hope you don't want him to have his accident at a particular time of day? So you can fix up a fancy alibi?"
   "Ah, no, I won't need an alibi. But something has to, ah, happen beforehand. But the job must be over and done with by the weekend."
   "No need to apologize," chuckled Parker. "You're paying so you say what you want doing, Mr. Markham."
   "You know my name?" gasped Markham.
   "'Course," said Parker smoothly. "I had to check you out before I took the job. It's not unknown for clever coppers to go fishing with an advert in the papers. I like to know who my clients are; and why I'm doing the job for them."
   "Blackmail," said Markham reluctantly.
   "Do you want me to look for whatever he's got on you after I've done the job? That could complicate things."
   "Ah, no. That's in hand."
   "Straight in, do the job, then straight out?"
   "Ah, yes, that's it."
   "All right. We'll settle the price at fifteen grand. Is that okay for you?"
   "I suppose it's a lot cheaper than paying this leech."
   "That's a good way to look at it. Suppose I phone you about half-six tomorrow night. I'll ask for Councillor Markham if your Miss Knight answers so she thinks it's one of your constituents looking for advice or whatever. I'll call myself Davis. Then you can tell me to go ahead or phone again later."
   "Ah, yes. Could you make your call on Wednesday night?"
   "Okay. Make sure you're at home at half-six."
   Parker let himself out of the car and disappeared through a gap in the roadside hedge so suddenly that he left George Markham struggling to believe that the meeting had ever taken place. But the envelope had gone. Neil Finch was one step closer to extinction and Councillor George Markham was another step closer to a life sentence as an accessory to murder if anything went wrong.

George Markham was not in the habit of taking a morning coffee break as such, but he did refresh himself with a cup of real coffee while working. On a sunny Tuesday after the bank holiday, his enjoyment of the ten o'clock coffee bag was spoilt by a brief telephone call to the head office of Markham Construction in Boxbey.
   His secretary told him that a Mr. Andrews was calling from the council offices. Markham found himself speaking to Neil Finch. The blackmailer asked him, in a roundabout way, what progress had been made toward meeting his initial demand. Markham gave him guarded encouragement. Finch told him that he would be away on leave from Thursday to Saturday, but back on Sunday. He was looking forward to their meeting. His sneering tone helped to brush aside any residual doubts that Markham had.
   As an exercise in self-discipline, Markham cleared his in-tray before turning his attention to the papers in the large envelope in his briefcase. Producing material incriminating others had been a good idea hampered by short notice. A great deal of thought had yielded a set of typewritten notes listing various misuses of council property and labour. They had been prepared by laborious two-finger pecking on an electric typewriter at the council offices.
   If George Markham wanted a small job done, or even a large one like the construction of a pistol range for his son, he could call on the resources of Markham Construction. Most of his fellow councillors were not so fortunate but they could supplement a lack of private-sector resources by soliciting public-sector favours. Neil Finch, in Markham's opinion, was just the type to keep a score of the abuses.
   By delving into his memory, and using his imagination, Markham had been able to prepare a set of costings of such favours done for people who had offended him. He knew about surplus turf that had found its way onto private lawns, new, expensive facing bricks becoming available for a home extension over a garage, council vehicles borrowed for personal use or to lend to friends, and all sorts of other abuses, major and minor.
   Everything on the list could be covered by that elastic word perks. Publishing it would destroy reputations and lead to criminal charges. While others were keeping their heads down and feeling obliged to weather what was just a teacup-sized storm, George Markham would be expanding his sphere of influence into the vacuum.
   At lunchtime, he left the two-storey office building. The headquarters of Markham Construction occupied a site beside the railway lines, on the north-eastern fringes of Boxbey. Markham walked a quarter of a mile into the centre of the village. The phone box near the post office was occupied.
   Markham fumed inwardly, but he smiled when he caught the voter's eye. She chatted on for a couple of minutes, then picked up her shopping bag. Markham held the door open for her and smiled again. When his watch changed to 13:00, he dialled the number.
   "Jeffreys?" said an increasingly familiar voice.
   "I arranged to call at this time," Markham.
   "The alternative documents are ready now?"
   "Ah, yes. When can you go ahead?"
   "I can be in your area in less than an hour."
   "I'll meet you in the Royal Oak in Boxbey. It's on the main road, on the right coming from the motorway. About two, if you can make it?"
   "See you then," said the efficient private investigator.
   Markham turned toward the pub on leaving the phone box, then he realized that he would have to go to the bank. Jeffreys required an increased payment to cover his trip to the Welsh border. Things seemed to be going very well for Councillor George Markham. Few men under threat from a blackmailer would be looking forward to a good lunch, he told himself. There was a lot to be said for seeking the right professional advice.

Royle had been packing a rod for twenty-four hours. His gun usually lived in its hiding place under a storage unit in his living room, wrapped in a lintless cloth and a plastic bag. He had taken the gun for a walk to the newsagent on Tuesday morning. The weapon was a 7.65 mm Trojan T-12 self-loading pistol, made in Jacksonville, Florida, and a trophy from his encounter with Oliver Markham the previous autumn. Royle was carrying the gun in the side pocket of his other anorak. Unlike the slashed one, the spare had no red stripes along the blue sleeves. He had left the gun encased in its self-sealing plastic bag to keep fluff out of the works and the interior of his pocket free of gun-oil.
   Colin Mulgraham had shown the decency to warn both parties when he had arranged an elimination fight-to-the-death. Nothing had come through Royle's letterbox, apart from junk mail addressed to others, for over a month. He had even checked with the downstairs neighbours to make sure that nothing had been pushed through the wrong letter-box. If D.S. Erskine was right about someone else taking over Colin Mulgraham's deadly sport, then the rules had been changed.
   His shadow was back. Royle had not seen the kid in the white-striped, dark blue Escort on Tuesday afternoon, when he had driven into Shepford to buy a fresh supply of second-hand reading material at the bookshop on Hope Street. The kid was back, messing about under his bonnet, when Royle went out to buy a paper at five past ten the next morning.
   Breakfast over, Royle want out for a drive. As he turned left onto the main road through Fenton, he noticed a blue shape leaving the temporary car park on Worth Road. The kid was yakking into the microphone of his C.B. set as Royle led him onto the Bilcross Road.
   After less than a mile, Royle took a fork to the right. He crossed the railway cutting and drove toward the tunnel in the canal's stone aqueduct. Just before reaching it, he turned off onto a lay-by and locked his car. His shadow had stopped twenty yards short of the lay-by, screened partially by a massive roadside oak tree. Royle took no notice of him and started up broad, stone steps that led to the canal.
   He lit a cigarette and started to stroll along the tow path, heading upstream. It was a bright, spring day with just a breath of wind to ruffle the dark water. There was a pub called The Angler half an hour's walk away. Royle wondered if he would reach it.
   The attack came unexpectedly from the side. Draggo Lambert stepped out from behind a tree, grinning and holding his commando knife at the ready. Royle was taken completely by surprise but he felt quite safe because the hand in his anorak pocket was holding a gun. It was quite fun to pull the safety catch off while pretending to be terrified.
   "I was going to lay off," lied Lambert. "Till you followed me into the Paradise Club and started asking nosy questions about me. I don't like nosy buggers. The way I see it now, it's gotta be you or me." He twisted his features into what had looked quite a frightening snarl in his shaving mirror. Draggo was enjoying himself immensely.
   "In that case, I reckon it'd better be you." Royle produced his gun, minus the plastic bag, and pulled back the hammer with an ominous click. There was no need to work the slide; he had a round up the spout.
   Lambert stared at him for a long moment. He realized that a bullet can cover three yards a whole lot faster than a man with a commando knife. He turned to run away - and got his feet tangled. Royle was too surprised to laugh when Draggo toppled sideways and fell into the canal, but he soon recovered from the shock.
   Lambert scrambled back onto the tow path. He had lost his knife and his soggy tracksuit sagged like a garment made for a man twice his size. As Royle was considering what to say, two boys with nets and jam jars rounded a bend twenty yards further down the canal. Lambert caught the shift in Royle's gaze. He glanced over his shoulder, then leapt to his left and sprinted deeper into the trees, certain that Royle would not shoot in front of witnesses.
   Before the boys noticed it, Royle let the hammer down on the loaded chamber and stuffed the gun back into the plastic bag. He took a final drag on his cigarette and tossed the dimp into the slow-moving water. Then he turned round and headed back to his car. When he reached it, he lifted the bonnet and had a quick look under the vehicle before heading back to Fenton. His suspicious mind had suggested that the knife attack could have been a diversion. He had survived one explosive assassination attempt by pure chance. He was unlikely to be as lucky again. For once, his paranoia had been misplaced.
   Royle wondered whether to tell the police about meeting Draggo Lambert again. He realized that it would lead to more awkward questions - such as how he had managed to frighten away so easily a man armed with a very nasty knife. And he could be sure that three of Draggo's pals were standing by to swear that Lambert had been miles away at the time of the attack. Phoning D.S. Erskine would be a waste of time, Royle told himself. And a look at the gun would have made Draggo very reluctant to try his luck again.

 

10. Progress

 

A dry but still very shaken Alan Lambert reported to Albert Brewer at lunchtime in The Crown at Hythe. Realizing that something significant had happened, Brewer rushed his nervous ferret into a quiet corner for questioning. Half of his pint of lager vanished in two gulps to lubricate Lambert's throat.
   "That's it for me," Draggo announced firmly. "I'm not in that guy's league. I'll just take what's owing and split."
   "Let's hear what happened, first," countered Brewer.
   Lambert leaned toward him and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial mutter. "I caught up with him on the canal bank and showed him the knife again. Only he didn't scarper. He only pulled a bleen' gun out of his pocket!"
   "So you scarpered instead?"
   "'Kin right, I did!"
   "I reckon that's you and him even, then," grinned Brewer. "You gave him a fright on Monday and he gave you one today." He reached into the side pocket of his sports jacket. "Don't spent this all at once."
   "You didn't tell me this sod's dangerous," persisted Lambert in an aggrieved tone.
   "What did you expect? Mr. Wimp? You're getting paid enough danger money. And you're still in one piece. So are you planning a trip away for a while?"
   "No, I reckon not." Lambert smoothed the shreds of his tough-guy image. "I'll just stay out of his way for a while." The police had warned Draggo that if anything happened to Royle, he would be in big trouble. They had to have said the same to Royle. "But if he comes after me..." Lambert left the threat hanging ambiguously.
   "You might not have to worry about him much longer," said Brewer with a sinister smile.
   "How d'you mean?"
   "Some blokes are too dangerous for their own good. Having another pint?"
   "Yeah, cheers," nodded Lambert, making the most of his new acquaintance's hospitality.

A mile and three-quarters away, in Holly Park, George Markham joined his creative private investigator on a bench in the shade of the trees behind the fountain. Jeffreys had brought a sandwich lunch.
   "Egg and tuna," he said, parting a greaseproof wrapper. "I think you'll find the envelope between us of interest."
   A white business envelope came into view when he lifted the sandwiches onto his lap. Markham opened his briefcase and jerked the envelope into it, as if trying to deceive any watchers with speed.
   "I gave your material to the gentleman's solicitor," added Jeffreys. "The original contents of his envelope make very interesting reading. He really did his homework on you."
   "To your advantage." Markham slipped an envelope containing the balance of the investigator's fee onto the bench between them.
   "I think that concludes our business, Mr. Markham. I've kept no copies of documents or photographs and no records of our transactions. None of this ever happened."
   "I must say, I'm impressed with your efficiency, Jeffreys. Even if you are a little pricey."
   "Maybe you could have paid less. And maybe you'd have got a botched job." Jeffreys filled the cup at the top of his thermos flask with black coffee.
   "Well, I don't think I have any grounds for complaint about your work," admitted his client, realizing that less than a week had gone by since Albert Brewer had suggested that a counter-attack might be the best solution to his problem.
   "I also do conventional investigation work, if you want to get some more mileage out of the phone number I gave you," added Jeffreys. "Enjoy your bonfire, Mr. Markham."
   "Bonfire?" Markham frowned, then he realized that Jeffreys was talking about his envelope. "I think I'll put this through the shredder as soon as I get back to the office. But I'll certainly remember your number."

As a solution to his personal problem was coming into sight, George Markham found himself able to devote some attention to Albert Brewer's investigation. At first, he had been shocked to hear that the man Royle carried a gun. After more thought, he had been prepared to admit that it was a reasonable reaction of someone who was being menaced by a dangerous man with a knife. He had asked himself next how an apparently average citizen could acquire a handgun.
   Applying clinical logic, he had produced a series of unanswered questions. There was no proof, for instance, that the gun was real. It could have been a replica - a convincing toy or even a novelty cigarette lighter. His gun-mad son had given him just such a lighter as a birthday present. The lighter was a convenient pocket-size and it looked exactly like a real firearm to a casual glance.
   The degree of courage possessed by Albert Brewer's ferret was another unknown factor. Assuming that all bullies are cowards at heart, it was likely that he had panicked and fled for his life when confronted with a gun-substitute. Being honest, Markham admitted to himself that he too would not have lingered to examine such a weapon closely.
   Brewer was convinced that he had grounds for further investigation but he had started from a presumption of guilt. As far as George Markham was concerned, Albert Brewer was still a long way from proving that his brother T.J., Oliver Markham and Ryan Naylor had not been murdered by Colin Mulgraham. Even so, Markham had agreed to approach his police contacts for information on Royle to fill in some of the background detail.
   He was considering the best way to make the approach when his telephone rang. The time was six-thirty and he was waiting in his study for his assassin to call.
   "Concert tickets," said Robert Parker, giving his password.
   "I'd like you to go ahead," said Markham, shutting his mind to the implications of his words.
   "Should take a few days. But I'll have it done by Sunday."
   "The job will be away from home from tomorrow. Or possibly tonight. You have the address in Shropshire?"
   "Yes, I know where you mean."
   "I hope that won't affect the, ah, job?"
   "Might even make it a bit easier," said Parker. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"
   "Ah, no, I don't think so."
   "In that case, I'll be in touch in due course."
   As he replaced his receiver, George Markham was aware that he had just taken the most serious decision of his life - he had ordered the death of another man. If everything went well, he would be free of a blackmailer. If anything went wrong, he might lose his liberty and his own comfortable life. Prison would be a living death for someone like himself.

 


 

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