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DEATH IS A STRANGER #4


17. Payment

 

Robert Parker telephoned his client at five o'clock on Sunday evening and warned him that he was on his way to see him. George Markham was surprised to hear from him. He could not imagine what the assassin had to say to him. Parker replaced his receiver in the blank silence following an acknowledgement. It was not until he was parking his car, ten minutes later, that Parker began to wonder why his client seemed not to be expecting him.
   His thoughts earlier had been focussed on a stamp auction, which he would be attending on Thursday of the following week. Parker's hobby was an expensive one, but his last assignment had been almost 100% pure profit. Eight gallons of petrol and a couple of meals had made a very small dent in the deposit of 9,000.
   Parker had left his car on the minor road behind the Markham estate, which had left very little change out of a quarter of a million pounds. The gate had an electric latch but it swung open at his touch. He took a path to the right and descended a set of stone steps into the sun-pit. His client was sitting on a canvas chair in what looked remarkably like an all-glass bus shelter.
   "Pleased with the news on Thursday?" said Parker.
   "Yes, it was very welcome," nodded a sleek man in expensive casual clothes. George Markham had a prosperous figure and took regular sunbed treatments to maintain a year-round tan. He had started to indulge in a little cautious cosmetic surgery to keep his appearance youthful. His calendar age was fifty-four but he had the wrinkles of a man ten years younger.
   Parker lit a cigarette as his client expelled a cloud of fragrant smoke from a fat cigar. He was aware that Markham was staring at him with barely restrained curiosity as this was the first time that he had shown himself in decent lighting conditions. Parker was wearing dark sunglasses, a black wig and a bushy moustache that was so blatantly false that it drew the other man's eyes irresistibly.
   "But it wasn't very good news for you," added Markham. "Are you returning my deposit - less your expenses, of course? I must say, I wasn't expecting to hear from you again."
   "Returning the deposit?" Parker was baffled. "I'm here to collect the other six grand."
   "You surely don't expect me to pay you when Finch had a genuine accident? You told me you'd do the, ah, job at the weekend."
   "Now let's get something straight," said Parker slowly, realizing that he had done too good a job. "You hired me to arrange an accident and I said I'd get the job done by Sunday. But it just so happened the opportunity came on Thursday."
   "You're not trying to tell me you pushed him off his ladder? The neighbours were on the spot immediately."
   "They put their cups down first. They were both drinking tea and watching racing on TV. Taking a break from Radio Three and their gardening. I was a good fifty yards away by the time they came out. They must have talked it over before they went to see what all the noise was about. Amazing how much racket an aluminium ladder makes when it falls onto concrete."
   A shiver chased down George Markham's spine as he realized the calibre of his hired killer. He had been convinced that the blackmailer's accident had been genuine, even knowing that he had sent someone to murder Neil Finch. "I'll get you your money," he murmured. Parker sprawled even more comfortably in his red-and-white striped canvas chair and wondered how many bulbs had been planted to create his client's host of daffodils. The crescent-shaped bed was an explosion of bright yellow with dabs of orange.
   A few minutes later, Parker took possession of a bulging envelope containing twelve bundles of 5 notes. "If you're at all worried about having the late Mr. Finch on your conscience," he suggested as he counted, "you can always tell yourself it was a proper accident and I've done you. Either way, he's off your back."
   His client responded with a thin smile. If the creative private investigator, who had burgled the office of the blackmailer's solicitor, had done as good a job as the assassin, then Neil Finch had been neutralized completely and a threat had been turned into a weapon.
   As Parker made his way back to the gate, Markham found himself amazed at how smoothly his problems had been solved. He could hardly wait for the solicitor to pass on a dead client's confidential papers to the police and start the ripples spreading.
   It took a cool head and determination to stand up to a blackmailer, Markham told himself. A man who could also take the opportunity to use the blackmailer's weapon to shoot dirt at rivals deserved to succeed. Of course, the arrival of Albert Brewer and his expert advice had also played their part. Some would call the chain of events good luck. In businessman George Markham's opinion, luck was the refuge of the incompetent. He had made things happen for him.
   Suddenly, he made a mental connection. The man Royle had been in a similar position to himself - threatened yet unable to deal directly with the threat. The medical evidence suggested that Alan Lambert's death had been an accident, according to D.C.I. Halsey, but the same was true of Neil Finch's death.
   A cocaine smuggler would be able to afford an expert assassin. Someone who trafficked in drugs was the scum of the Earth and deserved to die. It was a relief to find reasonable grounds for Royle's death if Albert Brewer took his revenge on the wrong man. George Markham could not condemn someone who had commissioned the murder of the likes of Alan Lambert, but a drug smuggler deserved his fate.

 

18. Light Grilling

 

The train pulled into Shepford on time, now forty-nine minutes south of London's Victoria station. After crossing the canal and passing within a mile of Holly Park, it would stop at Hythe, Snapely, Bilcross and Boxbey. Royle was planning to get off at Boxbey and take a bus a mile and a bit back the way he had come to Fenton. A solid, grey man of around forty had other plans for him.
   "Detective Inspector Rostov," he announced, displaying his warrant card as he reached Royle's seat. "We'd like to ask you some questions. At the police station."
   "Yeah? What about?" said Royle, aware that everyone in the carriage was staring at the coppers and their victim. He caught the eye of D.S. Joe Erskine, who was standing behind his boss wearing a patient expression. Erskine failed to respond to a twitch of the head of recognition.
   "We can discuss it at the station," said Rostov impatiently, aware of mindless hostility from the other passengers.
   "Am I under arrest? Is this a handcuff job." Royle made no move to get up, wondering what the coppers would do if the train started to move.
   "No, you're not under arrest, sir. We just want you to answer some questions. Sergeant?" Rostov plucked Royle's weekend bag from the seat beside him and passed it back to Erskine.
   "Watch out for the bottle in that." Royle stuffed his book into a pocket of the new, dark green anorak that he had bought to keep Amsterdam's rain at bay. He pushed to his feet and followed his luggage. Rostov brought up the rear. "You ever been on telly?" Royle passed over his shoulder. "Weren't you the K.G.B. agent in Game, Set and Match?"
   Erskine swallowed a grin as he stepped down to the platform. A sure way to get up D.I. Peter Rostov's nose was to make remarks about the K.G.B. His grandparents had been Russian refugees and his looks were grim and grey enough to be right at home in Dzerzhinsky Square. Rostov slammed the carriage door with unnecessary force and nodded to the guard. The train moved away.
   There was an unmarked, two-door car parked opposite the station's main exit. Royle was allowed to sprawl in the back for a silent drive of less than half a mile. A uniformed sergeant, who looked close to retirement age, glanced up from the lost property ledger when the trio reached the entrance hall at the rear of Shepford police station.
   "D.C.I. Halsey wants you to ring him, sir," he remarked to Rostov. "He left a number for you a couple of minutes ago."
   "Right," grunted Rostov. "Look after him, Joe."
   Moments later, Royle found himself in an interview room, which looked very much like the one at Tarring police station. The walls were painted the same shade of light green gloss, the woodwork and ceiling the same ancient green, the table was bolted to the floor and the movement of the chairs was restricted by lengths of chain to prevent them from being picked up and used as weapons or missiles. Someone had dug ACAB into the table top with a blue ballpoint. The air was heavy with strong pipe smoke. Royle sat down on the far side of the table and transferred his book to the zippable pocket on the side of his weekend bag. He had been allowed to take charge of his luggage again.
   Erskine tipped his head sideways to read the title. "A Confederacy of Dunces. Can't say I've heard of that. Or its author."
   "He's been dead for years. Killed himself because he couldn't get it published. But his mum kept hawking it around. Won a Pulitzer Prize as a masterwork of comic genius."
   "And is it?"
   "It has its moments."
   "Not much point in giving him a prize when he's dead, though. He's not going to appreciate it."
   "That's the way it goes in the arts world. You're not worth anything until you're safely dead. Look at van Gogh. Only sold two paintings in his lifetime, but now they're all worth millions. Writing and painting are mugs' games. Like roulette."
   "You've not asked why you're here."
   "I thought your boss wanted to tell me that. He's not a Russky, is he? He looks like one."
   "You'd best not be cheeky to him," warned Erskine.
   "As long as he's not cheeky to me, we'll get along all right." Royle smiled briefly, then put on a questioning expression. "I got a pull from the Customs on the way in so I'm used to being buggered about. That wasn't anything to do with you lot, was it?"
   "No. Why, were you looking guilty? Bringing in a bit more than you should?"
   "Just the usual fags and a bottle of Scotch. They gave me a body search and all. Stripped down to my underpants and my scars. But I didn't get the rubber glove up the arse."
   "Sounds a bit serious."
   "They seemed to be looking for something biggish, a decent amount of whatever they were after, not just making life difficult for the punters. Still, what can you expect on Monday the thirteenth?"
   The door opened. D.I. Rostov crossed the room with a purposeful stride and sat down next to Erskine.
   "I suppose you know why you're here?" he snapped.
   "Not till you tell me," said Royle coolly through a benign smile.
   "This is no laughing matter," warned Rostov.
   "Well, I wouldn't know, would I?" Royle shrugged. "Not until you let me in on the big secret."
   "You say 'sir' when you speak to me."
   Royle laughed in his face. "Sir? Just hold on, pally. Let's get something straight. I'm not some daft old lag you can blackmail. I'm a member of the public and you're a public servant. So if there's any sirs flying around, I get them. You may think you're in the K.G.B. but this isn't bloody Russia."
   "You're not exactly unfamiliar with the interior of a police station," Rostov said in an ominous tone, controlling his anger internally and feeling proud of the victory.
   "No," smiled Royle, "I've been in one twice. Last time was because some idiot tried to chop me up with a commando knife, and the time before was when you were trying to pin a murder on me. But I hear you know who tried to stab me but you can't touch him. And you got what was left of the bloke who did for Lenny Suskin. So how does that make me Public Enemy Number One?"
   "I suppose you're going to tell me you don't know Lambert is dead?" scoffed Rostov.
   "Is he?" Royle's grin faded into shock; then started to return. "That's good news. Popped his clogs?" He turned for confirmation to Erskine, who gave him a ghost of a nod. "Well, if he got the chop after lunchtime last Friday, it couldn't have been me. I've been in Amsterdam, or on the way there and back, since then."
   "Yes, we know. Bloody convenient it was, too."
   "Hang about! It was you lot set the Amsterdam police after me. They weren't looking for Carlos the bloody Jackal. You didn't have a chain of coppers watch me get off the plane and get a train down here, did you?"
   "The point is, Mr. Royle," Rostov leaned heavily and sarcastically on the title, "you told D.S. Erskine if you ever ran into Draggo Lambert again, he'd get the hot handshake two seconds later. Would you care to explain that remark in the light of subsequent events?"
   "No, I don't think so. Shouldn't you be warning me anything I say may be given in evidence?"
   "It wouldn't be a reference to shaking hands with the Devil, by any chance?"
   "You saw that film too, did you? No comment."
   "You see our problem, Mr. Royle? A jury would be inclined to take that as a threat against Mr. Lambert's life. Especially in view of the fact that someone knocked him on the head and shoved him in the canal a couple of days later."
   "I can see another problem," grinned Royle. "Explaining how I pushed the button on him all the way from Amsterdam. I don't think even the long arm of the Law could shove him from that distance. Or are we talking about a Dutch canal?"
   "You know it happened while you were in Amsterdam?"
   "I'd have been shown the inside of a Dutch police station otherwise. Look, mother, no alibi."
   "We could be talking accomplices," snarled Rostov. "What line of business was your pal Lenny Suskin in?"
   "According to the papers last year, my ex-mate Lenny was a hired gun. But he's dead and you said Draggo got knocked on the head, not shot. I reckon you're just pushing your luck, mate. You've got nothing to go on and it was nowt to do with me. You want to watch out I don't get you charged with wasting police time if you're looking for my non-existent accomplices."
   Rostov forced a confident smile. "We'll see, sir." Then he scraped together a collection of paper, which he had brought into the interview room for no apparent reason, and stalked to the door. Erskine followed in response to a flick of the bullet head.
   "He's too bloody cocky by half," muttered Rostov in the corridor. "He's laughing at us."
   "It's just his way." Erskine shrugged. "He was just the same last year when we brought him in after the Suskin killing. The more Brian Orwell leaned on him, the more he laughed at him. Because he didn't do it and he knew there was no way we could prove he did it. Brian reckons the time to really lean on him is when he stops talking. That's when he'll have something to hide."
   "You're trying to tell me Lambert's death really was just a convenient accident, Joe?"
   "The post mortem suggests Lambert tripped or slipped. He fell forward, skinning his left hand as he tried to save himself. The blow on his head was caused by a flat object, not something round like a baseball bat or an iron bar. Probably one of the paving stones along the edge of the canal. He only hit his head hard enough to knock himself out briefly. If he hadn't rolled into the canal and landed face down, he'd just have jogged home to get some aspirin for a sore head."
   "I just don't like convenient accidents," said Rostov. "But, reluctantly, I have to agree with you. Royle didn't know Lambert was dead, and he's either a brilliant actor or he really didn't get someone to do the job for him. Pity. It would have been nice to put him out of circulation. That man is trouble, Joe."
   "I have to go out to Race Hill in connection with the credit cards, sir. I could give him a lift home and do a bit of prodding on the way."
   "I suppose it's worth a try," nodded Rostov. "Mr. Halsey wants to know today if there's the slightest hint he was involved."
   Erskine collected his briefcase from the office that he shared with D.S. Orwell and two D.C.s, then he collected Royle from the interview room. When they were sitting in Erskine's car and heading south, Royle offered his driver a duty-free cigarette and lit one for himself.
   "Bit of a new twist, that," Royle remarked. "Instead of a good-cop, bad-cop routine, there was just the bad cop and the other cop had nothing to say for himself. Are you going to tell me what happened to Draggo?"
   "You're sure you don't know already?"
   "Is it worth answering that question?"
   "I suppose not." Erskine gave a brief account of the facts.
   "Couldn't happen to a nicer bloke," grinned Royle.
   "You didn't get one of your mates to give him a push?"
   "To tell you the truth, I didn't think of it. And I thought you lot had warned him off good and proper anyway."
   "Yes, we did give him a good talking to."
   "So why would I make trouble for myself by doing him in?"
   "A lot of my work is clearing up after people who do make trouble for themselves," said Erskine.
   Royle tried to remember the look on Draggo's face when he had produced a gun from his pocket and delivered his own, much more effective warning. He had assumed that he would not have to take Bob Parker up on the offer of a favour while he was out of the way; and he could hardly tell a copper that he did know a professional assassin, but one who had been away doing a paid job from Thursday to Sunday of the previous week.
   "How come your inspector's busting a gut to pin this on me?" Royle said. "Is he up for promotion, or something?"
   "He doesn't like convenient accidents."
   "Tough."
   "He doesn't like your attitude, either."
   "Can't say I'm wild about his, either. How did you know where to look for me in Amsterdam?"
   "That envelope you gave your neighbour for the stamps. Your girlfriend's address was on the back."
   "Easy when you know how. That's why Sherlock Holmes didn't like Dr. Watson writing about his cases. He got people telling him, 'Oh, and I thought you'd done something clever, Mr. Holmes.'"
   "The clever bit is knowing what to do to get the information."
   "Guess so. Are you going somewhere on a job? I bet your K.G.B. inspector wouldn't let you drive me home."
   "I'm going out to Race Hill. It's a bit of a weird case. A bloke complaining about a screwed-up credit card statement. He noticed they'd charged him things like forty quid for videos. Only he doesn't have a video-recorder. And the signatures on some of the vouchers turned out to be forgeries. We're trying to figure out how someone managed to borrow his credit card and do him for a hundred and fifty pounds. The trouble is, it all happened five weeks ago now. The shop assistants don't remember the customer. All they did was a routine check to make sure the card hadn't been reported stolen and it wasn't over its limit."
   "Very weird. Sounds like one for Mr. Holmes. Reckon you're going to have time to crack it? Or are you going to be too busy trying to nail me for murdering Draggo?"
   "D'you reckon that's worth the effort?" prodded Erskine.
   "Don't ask me," grinned Royle. "I'm only the chief suspect."

 

19. Retirement

 

By the time they reached Fenton, Erskine was satisfied that he was not going to worm any incriminating information out of his passenger. Royle was pleased, naturally, that Draggo Lambert had come to grief and that Draggo was no longer threatening him. Erskine's criminal radar told him that Royle had not had advanced warning of the too convenient accident. Royle seemed quite capable of doing that sort of job unaided, if necessary.
   Safely back in his flat, Royle washed his hands at the kitchen sink and started a teabag brewing. He drew an outer London number from his memory and tapped it out on his telephone. The throaty voice of the man at the message service sounded a little more hoarse than usual.
   "This is Sunray," said Royle. "Tell Uncle Cliff I am taking my cards, as I warned him last month."
   "Right, mate," grunted the message-taker, sounding like a voice from The Goon Show. "All the best."
   "Thanks, same to you," returned Royle. "Sunray, over and definitely out."
   He replaced the receiver and strolled back to the kitchen to see how his teabag was getting on. He was out of a job, but he had enough money put away to last for a good few years. The man who had recruited him into the business, the infamous Colin Mulgraham, had made a policy of retiring his cocaine mules when they had made twenty trips spread over about two and a half years.
   Royle had made fifty-four trips to visit Sibbi in Amsterdam in just over two years. On twenty-seven return journeys, he had been paid to bring home a body belt containing half a pound of cocaine. He knew now that he had pushed his luck to the limit. That morning's body-search by customs officers proved it.
   His final five business trips had been made for the new management of the cocaine-smuggling ring. Having been present at the death of his previous employer, Royle had been amazed to receive another routine summons from his despatcher, code named Uncle Cliff, who had mentioned a takeover in passing while assuring Royle that business as usual continued for existing members of staff.
   Royle had made his first trip for the new management with his right arm in a sling; he had been recovering from a wound inflicted by his late employer's crossbow. He had made the next four trips after the Christmas/New Year break between other expeditions to Spain and France. Apart from having to remember to use a code name in telephone contacts - Mulgraham had not bothered with them - Royle had noticed no practical difference after the takeover.
   The same despatcher had issued him with tickets - and a false passport when required. The same receiver had collected the body belt and paid him when he had returned to England. Acquiring his own, personal code name had seemed a logical and overdue extension of a system that ran along espionage lines anyway. But now that he had retired, Royle knew that he would never be recalled to active duty in the way that retired spies were in the books that he read.
   He drank his tea while unpacking. Then he took his car out for an airing. An hour and a half after he had been hauled off the train, he was back on the outskirts of Shepford. Bob Parker had reached his apartment in Hetton a quarter of an hour earlier, having spent the morning driving down from Leeds via London. Royle's ring on his doorbell interrupted thoughts of lunch.
   "How was Holland?" said Parker as Royle wiped his feet.
   "Bit of drizzle yesterday morning, but okay otherwise."
   "And that's it for free board and lodging in Amsterdam?"
   "Right. Sibbi's off to her new job in Nijmegen next week."
   "And her other bloke? You don't seem too heartbroken."
   "She's after something a bit more permanent than a couple of weekends a month and the odd week." Royle sank into an armchair in a sitting room with the same floor area as his whole flat. "And there's the job. She's really looking forward to designing frocks as well as making them. We had a good time while it lasted. And we're still mates."
   "Don't ever get married!" shuddered Parker.
   "I know, you speak from grim experience," laughed Royle. "Serves you right for pinching my bird off me."
   "Look what I saved you from. So what's your excuse for going to the drug capital of Europe now?"
   "I've jacked it in. The new lot want bigger loads. Mulgraham wanted to test my bottle to see if I was up to a duel with him. The new lot want to make money and I don't fancy going through customs looking like the bloody Michelin Man. And if a telly star like the guy playing Mike Hammer got nine months inside for forty grams of coke, what's four kilos worth? And I got a body search off the customs this morning. Good job I did my last job a fortnight ago."
   "Some people have got the luck of the seven blind bastards!"
   "Talking about breaking the law, how did your job go?"
   "Very smooth. And a lot faster than I expected. I went back to Leeds for the weekend."
   "Anyone spot Lenny Suskin behind your new face?"
   "I had a look in the old pubs and clubs and I did see a lot of familiar faces. Luckily for my plastic surgeon, none of them let on to me. Tell you who I did see - you know that Helen? That brunette you were going round with after Julie dumped you for me?"
   "Yeah, we went to your wedding," grinned Royle. "How's she getting on?"
   "She's divorced too. I had a couple of drinks with her but she didn't know who the hell I was."
   "Looks like you're only just back." Royle had spotted a suitcase parked on one of the dining chairs. "The bloody cops dragged me off the train when I got to Shepford. You know that bloke who had a go at me with the commando knife? He only fell in the canal and drowned while he was out jogging!"
   "You mean he's done me out of a job?" Parker feigned indignation and ignorance of Draggo's fate.
   "Right," grinned Royle. "They wanted me to admit I'd got someone to give him a shove while I was out of the way."
   "And you put your hands up to it, of course?"
   "Yeah, sure! We wasted a bit of time in the cop shop, then this sergeant gave me a lift home."
   "And saved you the bus fare from Boxbey? In that case, you can afford a pint and some pub grub. Doing anything tonight?" Parker added casually.
   "That sounds ominous."
   "I thought, being fancy free, you wouldn't mind doing me a bit of a favour. I met this cracking bird last week and I want her mate out of the way."
   "Did she buy you the first drink?"
   "I booted the rules into touch for her. How about it?"
   "Yeah, okay. As long as it's not too much of a favour."
   "No more than I've done for you in the past, old son."
   "And look where that got you!" scoffed Royle. "Stuck with an ex-wife who'd still be after your money if she hadn't collected your life insurance."
   "Ah, but she hasn't," grinned Parker.
   "You what?"
   "Helen told me the insurance company won't pay out without a body. So Julie's going to have to wait seven years to have me declared legally dead."
   "Nice one!" laughed Royle.
   "So I think I'll wait six years then send both of them a postcard from somewhere like Bradford."
   "You rotten sod! Oh, yeah, what are you doing these days? For a living? Just in case anyone asks."
   "I told Gail I'm in the travel business."
   "What, one-way tickets to the cemetery?"
   "Checking out hotels and things. If they're rude to me, they get a black mark in my firm's guide for the trade. Very confidential stuff."
   "So you can't tell her anything about it? Not a bad story. You can shoot off on a job anytime you like. Or get to a stamp auction to blue in your pay without distractions."
   "And I mentioned you're a stuntman."
   "I hope this mate doesn't need a bloody stuntman," said Royle warily.
   "She's not a bad-looking lass, Johnny," grinned Parker. "Trust me."

 

20. Supergrass

 

Detective Sergeant Brian Orwell was in his middle thirties and looked like a copper. He looked solid and dependable, and he had a long, weary face, which was decorated during the winter months with a dark brown moustache. He had shaved off the previous season's growth on May Day. Almost a fortnight later, his colleagues were again used to his naked upper lip but Orwell was still expecting people to tell him that there was something different about his appearance.
   He was standing outside a newsagent's shop in Tarring on a cold afternoon, glancing through the night's television menu in an evening paper, when he was approached. The man was in his late twenties and wearing patched jeans, a tatty anorak and a nervous expression.
   "Can I talk to you?" he muttered. "You are a copper?"
   "That's right." Orwell had a good look at the man but failed to recognize him. "What about?"
   "Can we go somewhere else? Quieter?"
   "Okay. Get in the car."
   Extracting information from the man, Orwell judged, would require a light touch. It was clear that the man had spoken to him on the spur of the moment and he might start to regret his impetuosity. Orwell drove to car park beside a bingo hall, which had once been Tarring's cinema. His car became just one vehicle among a dozen others.
   "Fag?" Orwell offered a half-full packet of cigarettes.
   "Yeah, cheers." The man took one with a mildly trembling hand.
   "What do you want to talk about, squire?" Orwell flicked his lighter into life.
   The man dipped his cigarette into the flame. "Do you do deals? Like you see on the telly?"
   "I can't take you to see a District Attorney, if that's what you mean? What do you want to do a deal about?"
   "We tried to do a factory in Ashley on Friday night. Me and a mate. But he cut his arm open."
   "Oh, yes, right." Orwell told himself that it would be fatal to laugh. "Hughes. He ended up in hospital. You must be Collier. How's your mate?"
   "They give him a transfusion. He got out on Saturday afternoon. We're in court on Wednesday. What d'you think's going to happen?"
   "First offence?"
   "Yeah, both of us."
   "Well, you won't go to gaol, if that's what you're worried about. I don't see where your deal comes in."
   "If we give you some information, can you get them drop the charges? At the factory? We'll pay for the damage and everything. But we're going to be made redundant. It's going to be hard enough getting another job. What chance are we going to have if we've been done for breaking and entering?"
   "Ah, I'm with you now," nodded Orwell. "Well, I can't make any promises, but people do listen to a good word from us, and you can't make things any worse for yourself."
   "There's this bloke," said Collier, facing the inevitable. "Down our street. He's not working but he's always in the pub. Has at least a couple of pints at lunchtime and four or five at night. Smokes, like, forty a day. I reckon he must spend twice what he gets from the dole on booze and fags alone. And he's got his grub and his bills on top of that. And he's got a new car."
   "Maybe he's got a job in the black economy."
   "It must be a bloody good one! And when does he do it? He's been here a couple of months, but he must have been in every pub for miles around. I haven't heard of half the ones he's been in."
   "So you reckon he's up to no good?"
   "Stands to reason he must be."
   "Who is he?" Orwell produced a notebook.
   "Says his name's Jack Winters. Lives at twenty-seven Oak Drive. Just over there."
   "More or less opposite you, Mr. Collier?"
   "I can see his new bloody car from my front room. And mine. Five years old it is. Mine."
   "Sure he's not won the pools?"
   "I reckon he's a bloody crook," stated Collier. "So what d'you reckon that's worth?"
   "Definitely worth a good word if there's anything in it."
   "And what's going to happen to us on Wednesday?"
   "At the very worst? Well, what did you do? Broke a window and raided a first-aid box. If you stand up in court and say you're sorry and you'd had a few drinks..."
   "We did have a couple more than usual."
   "They'll fine you a few quid for breaking the window, plus costs, and tell you not to do it again."
   "There's no danger of that! You're sure?"
   "It's not as if you tried to lift the Crown Jewels. Or got away with anything."
   "Robbo, my mate, he wasn't sure about grassing on this bloke. But it's every man for himself, these days."
   "There's nothing wrong with giving me information that could put a crook out of business."
   "What if he's not a crook? And I've set the law on him?"
   "If he's not a crook, he's got nothing to worry about. What pub does he usually use around here?"
   "The Rifleman. It's the nearest. Couple of streets away."
   "Okay, Mr. Collier." Orwell made a final note. "We'll see what can be done."
   It's the uncertainty that gets to the amateur crook, thought Orwell, quoting one of D.S. Erskine's favourite sayings as his informant hurried away across the car park. They're forever wondering what's going to happen to them and they keep worrying themselves sick. Still, it might do us a bit of good.
   He started his engine and turned toward the main road. His first stop at Shepford police station was the Collator's office. Nothing was known about a Jack Winters at the address given in Tarring. Later in the evening, Orwell dropped in at The Rifleman to take the measure of someone who could live so well without an income.
   There was nothing particularly impressive about Winters at first glance. Orwell managed to stand beside him at the bar and discovered that they were the same height; which made Winters five feet ten. The hand holding a 10 note was nice and clean and the nails were neatly trimmed.
   Viewing from a distance, Orwell decided that Winters was very well turned out in an unobtrusive sort of way. His suede jacket might have been bought at a discount store, but it looked new. His hair looked as if it received frequent, expensive professional attention. Winters did not rely on his girlfriend giving him a quick trim when his hair started to look untidy.
   Orwell made a bet with himself that Winters' shoes were hand-made and his lighter solid gold, even though it looked plated. If he was not the son of a rich man, Winters had done very well for a man in his late twenties with no visible means of support. He was obviously not trying to show off his wealth, but he had failed to deflect good, old-fashioned Socialist envy. The have-nots had Winters marked down as someone deserving an upset.
   Orwell finished his drink and strolled to Oak Drive to look for red cars. Winters had chosen a 2.3 litre model and installed an expensive sound system with a detachable control panel. He had also taken the trouble to mark each of the windows with the registration number to deter anyone planning to steal the car and sell it with different number plates, and a combination ignition lock was clearly visible.
   A discreet check had revealed that Winters was not receiving state benefits of any sort now, but he had been registered as unemployed for several months the previous summer. He seemed to have just dropped out of the system. On paper, he was even worse off than the incompetent burglars Hughes and Collier had suspected. In fact, he seemed to be living better than a hard-working detective sergeant could afford. While that, in itself, was no crime, it did arouse Orwell's professional curiosity even more.

 

21. Amber

 

As promised, Royle had no difficulty in finding Briar Road in Tarring. He turned left at the phone box after the pelican crossing and first right. There was an inviting gap in the row of parked cars outside number 46. Royle pulled in behind Parker's Volvo estate. The garden of number 48 was a spreading jungle.
   Like Royle's, the house had been divided at first-floor level. A neat plaque on the front wall directed callers seeking 48A round to the back of the house, onto which a brick extension had been built. Royle faced the new wall and prodded the bellpush beside a solid door. The occupants clearly believed in making life tough for burglars. A blonde in a startling red dress opened the door.
   "You must be Johnny," she smiled. "I'm Gail. Come in."
   "Hello, Gail." Royle wiped his feet and closed the door. Bob Parker had done all right for himself, he decided.
   The extension was a kitchen with a view of another uninspiring garden. Royle turned left into the house and found that his friend had made himself right at home. Parker had shed his jacket and he was sprawled on the settee with his drink balanced on the wide arm. The other occupant of the living room was perched on a solid dining chair, looking ready to leap to her feet and rush out with the visitor. It was clear that she knew the score. Royle was supposed to get her out of the way so that Parker could work on Gail; and probably vice versa.
   "This is Amber," smiled Gail.
   "As in Forever?" Royle tore his eyes away from the first prize and clasped a dainty hand with red nails.
   "See?" laughed Parker. "I told you he'd say that."
   Royle and Amber smiled at each other, weighing up the prospects for the evening. Amber was dressed for going out in bottle-green jeans and a matching jacket. She was in her mid-twenties and a nice size. Her auburn waves looked as if they had been to the hairdresser in honour of the occasion. Her mouth was a little on the wide side, but toned down with pale lipstick.
   Parker had taken full advantage of his first choice but Amber was no bag-over-the-head job, Royle decided. The care that she had taken over her appearance justified his decision to have another shave and make a proper job of polishing his shoes. The relaxed quality of Amber's smile suggested that Parker's description of her escort had been fairly accurate. Royle guessed at tall, dark and knocked about a bit. Amber's naturally broad smile tended toward the relief end of the welcome scale rather than suppressed horror
   "I thought we'd go out for a drink," suggested Royle, responding to Parker's get lost expression.
   "Fine," said Amber brightly, collecting a black handbag.
   The back door with a letter-box closed firmly behind them. Bob Parker and Gail Fletcher were on their own.
   "Do you mind if we go to your place and watch something on telly?" said Amber as Royle started his car. "There's a serial on tonight."
   "Sure, anything you want," said Royle.
   "Have you known him long? Bob?"
   "Quite a few years, on and off."
   "So you're used to doing him favours like this?"
   "I suppose you've known Gail a while too?"
   "We grew up a couple of streets from each other. In Hythe. We went to the same schools and a youth club. Are you really a stuntman?"
   "I'll show you my X-rays, if you want."
   "I suppose you keep them in the bedroom?"
   "Where else?" grinned Royle.
   Eight minutes later, he locked his garage and took his guest up to the flat by the back way. Amber was expecting to be escorted to a back door at ground level. She was quite surprised to find herself climbing steps to the roof of a former air-raid shelter.
   Royle's kitchen offered just closed cupboards and bare working surfaces to reduce cleaning to a rapid minimum. The living room was equally uncluttered. It contained two armchairs, a table and two dining chairs and two storage units. A fourteen-inch portable television, a transistor radio and a collection of old newspapers decorated one varnished pine unit. There was a fruit mountain in a wooden bowl, two heaps of books and a collection of bottles on the other one.
   Royle plugged in the fan heater and switched it to full blast to warm up the room on a chilly May night. His guest chose white wine in preference to malt whisky and an orange, and drank slowly. During commercial breaks, Royle learned that Amber worked at the biscuit factory in the Poulside district of Shepford. She was one of the slaves who fed order information into the computer and passed on its commands to suppliers of raw materials, the production plant and the fleet of distribution vans.
   Her host admitted that his alleged stunt work had been confined to two high dives, the second of which had put him in hospital for a fortnight. Amber was impressed by a man with the courage to risk his neck for a enough money to let him circumvent the nine-to-five routine. In fact, a crossbow bolt in the back had put him in the hospital, but he had been risking his life to earn 25,000 at the time. Not having the option to refuse the job, he had been forced into taking a much more desperate risk than any professional stuntman would have considered for the money.
   Amber had been fortunate enough to find a job at the biscuit factory after leaving school with three A-levels. Eight years on, she would have loved to take a break from work, but she knew that the chances of finding another job were slim. Shepford had not escaped the recession. A drop in national biscuit consumption had resulted in one wave of redundancies at the factory and there was another on the way. There was a distinct possibility that the question of employment might be taken out of Amber's hands.
   As News at Ten began, Royle thawed out a couple of beefburgers and provided cheeseburgers and crisps for supper. Amber stirred a skinny spoonful of sugar into a mug of tea and gave him a quizzical smile.
   "You're not trying very hard to get me stoned, you know. You should be trying to get some of your duty-free vodka into me, not giving me supper. Or would that be doing your friend Bob too big a favour?"
   "It puts me off if a woman's stomach starts rumbling," Royle told her. "Fancy going somewhere for the weekend?"
   "What, have Gail and Bob got something planned?" said Amber lightly.
   "The thing I don't get is why they couldn't gone to Bob's place."
   "Gail's expecting a phone call. Her sister's having a baby."
   "Oh! All right, we're supposed to be doing Gail and Bob a favour, but it must be bloody obvious I fancy you. So what do you reckon to a weekend away to see how it works out?"
   "Yes, I think I'd like that. I quite fancy you, too, Johnny."
   "Enough to stay the night?"
   "I'm thinking it over," said Amber with an enigmatic smile.
   "How about a clue? Do I rush into the bedroom and draw the curtains? Or should I go and read six hundred pages of Alexandre Dumas in a cold bath?"
   "I've got to be up for work in the morning."
   "We can go to bed early and get up early. My alarm clock works. And I can run you home in less than ten minutes. So what d'you reckon?"
   "Yeah, all right," smiled Amber. "I brought my toothbrush, just in case."
   "Nothing like being prepared."
   "It's a sort of joke between Gail and me. Have a toothbrush in your bag in case you get swept off your feet into a mad, passionate affair. I bought mine a year ago and it's not been out of its box yet."
   "Don't you go in for mad, passionate affairs?"
   "Not till I know the man a bit. I mean, I don't usually jump in with both feet straight off. But I've never met a stuntman before. And Gail keeps telling me I should do something reckless before I get old and past it."
   "You've got a long way to go yet. Hey, I hope you don't expect me to take a flying dive at you off the wardrobe?"
   "Don't make me laugh," spluttered Amber. "I'm spilling my tea."

Getting up at a quarter to eight on a chilly spring morning was an unfamiliar experience for Royle. Ten o'clock was more his time for greeting a new day. Lion Street ran roughly north-south and the even numbers caught the early sun on fine mornings. Amber reached into a slice of brilliant sunlight to silence the alarm clock. A gusting breeze was tugging at the join of the curtains.
   The persistent buzzing noise had brought Royle almost to full consciousness. He was wakened fully by movement of the bed, which was a size compromise between a single and a double. Half-open eyes showed him a cascade of auburn hair and a pale body, which was sliding into clothes.
   After a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and tea, Royle drove Amber through the morning bustle to Tarring. Gail was strolling around in a red silk dressing gown with a yellow dragon on the back when they reached the divided house on Briar Road. She seemed in no hurry to go anywhere. Amber gave her a conspiratorial smile and hurried into her room to change into working clothes.
   "I see you two hit it off all right," laughed Gail, looking just as gorgeous as on the night before. "Cup of tea?"
   "Thanks," nodded Royle. "One sugar. I'm giving Amber a lift to work. Can we drop you somewhere?"
   "No, thanks. I work at the hairdresser's on the main road, near the post office. No scramble for the bus for me."
   Royle joined her at the table, glancing at the doors to work out the geography of the flat. A view of a wash basin told him that the former kitchen had become the bathroom. Two bedrooms had been created at the front of the house.
   "Bob tells me you're a gentleman of leisure," said Gail, spreading thick-cut marmalade on a thick slice of toast. "Since you got out of hospital. He reckons you're a bit mad."
   "That's good, coming from him," scoffed Royle, deciding not to shock Gail with the truth about how Bob Parker earned his living. He dropped into his stuntman cover story instead. "The way I see it, you balance working five days a week for five or six years against the time it takes to fall a couple of hundred feet. Working for a firm, you've got no guarantee it won't go bump. Or you can get made redundant."
   "Being a stuntman, you might be crippled for life or even killed. Bob said you were in hospital for a fortnight."
   "That was last November. I've done a lot since then."
   "Well, you don't seem to be limping," Gail conceded.
   "And you can still get crippled for life on your way to a boring old nine-to-five job," Royle pointed out.

 

22. Credibility

 

Royle dropped Amber at the main gate of the biscuit factory; and collected a few interested looks from her fellow workers. His next stop was Bob Parker's apartment in Hetton, where he leaned on the doorbell until he realized that Parker was not going to appear to tell him to quit making such a racket. The sight of a fire engine turning into Holly Park attracted his attention as he was driving through Tarring. Royle left his car at the pub opposite the side gate and strolled into the park to find out what was happening.
   One or two joggers were panting along the paths at nine o'clock in the morning. Royle preferred to take a two- or three-mile walk for his exercise, usually to and from one of the rural pubs at about lunchtime. He kept a close eye on the joggers to make sure that none of them tried to sneak up on him with a knife. The fire engine was parked beside a group of cars and lorries. Its crew was hanging around in yellow trousers, smoking and drinking out of plastic cups. Nothing terribly exciting seemed to be happening.
   An athlete in an electric blue tracksuit slowed and then approached Royle across the grass, mopping his face on the chocolate and cream towel that he was wearing like a scarf. Royle reached into the pocket of his anorak, but he was wearing the new one and the gun in the plastic bag was in the unslashed old one. He had not been stupid enough to take a firearm on a round trip to Amsterdam.
   "What are you doing out at this time?" panted Bob Parker, knowing that Royle usually went to bed at two o'clock and rose at ten the same morning. His body clock seemed to be slightly out of synch with the rest of the world.
   "What's up? Didn't you get enough exercise last night?" Royle took his hand out of his pocket. "Good job I recognized you. Joggers make me nervous. I nearly put a couple of holes in you on principle."
   "You've not still got a pocketful of gun, have you?" grinned Parker.
   "Lucky for you."
   "What time did you bring her home last night? I shoved off at half-eleven. We were expecting you back just after chucking-out time at the pubs."
   "Twenty-five past eight this morning. What was it, a boy or a girl?"
   "Girl. Six pounds three ounces. You sod! You mean you cracked it last night? And I could have taken my time with Gail?"
   "Yeah, you daren't rush things at your age in case you sprain something," mocked Royle. He was twenty-seven and a half. Parker was two months past twenty-nine.
   "Didn't take you long getting over the push from Sibbi, old son. But then, it never does. So what are you doing here, anyway?"
   "I gave Amber a lift to work. Then I saw this fire engine turn into the park."
   "Gave her a lift to work! 'Kin 'ell!" scoffed Parker. "This is getting serious. I think they're doing some filming over there. Are we having a scout?"
   "That's the general idea." Royle produced a packet of duty-free Bensons, which had been diverted on their way to the duty-free shop. "Got yourself healthy enough to risk one of these?"
   Parker accepted a cigarette and a light and strolled with Royle to join a group of hopeful spectators. Four uniformed coppers - three P.C.s and a well-built W.P.C. - were making sure that the public remained safely behind a rope barrier. Beyond the dividing line, a man with a clipboard was leaning against a council van, conferring with a fire brigade official and two men in bright orange overalls with a large, circular badge on the back.
   Various other figures were strolling about between the vehicles and the trees, or chatting around the canteen van. Royle found himself standing beside a thirtyish man with shortish, blond hair. His suede jacket looked familiar.
   "You're feel safe in the park now?" remarked D.S. Erskine after a glance to his left.
   "Don't you bloody start," groaned Royle. "Watch what you say around him," he added to Parker. "He's a copper."
   "I'm surprised you're not running for your life," grinned Parker. "In case they try and pin something else on you."
   "It's the inquest on friend Lambert later on this morning." Erskine gave Parker an appraising stare. "We're expecting a quick accident verdict - unless you want to make a statement?"
   "Ha!" scoffed Royle. "What's going on here?"
   "Filming for some videos. All-action stuff for people who can't get hold of video nasties."
   "What, they're killing cars instead of people, like they used to do in the A Team?"
   "Something like that. Some of the older trees in this area are rotten inside, so the council's given permission for them to crash into them. And some have rotten branches that could fall on the heads of ratepayers. And I think some mad sod wants to drive a van into the canal. But they're still talking about that. Sounds right up your street."
   "Nah, it's not dangerous enough for Johnny," scoffed Parker. "I suppose that bloke from the council's there to make sure they crash into the right trees?"
   "And clear up the bits," nodded Erskine. "And replace the damaged turf."
   "Who's going up in flames?" Royle pointed to the fire engine.
   "No one; if everything goes to plan. See the man in the shades and the combat jacket? At the canteen van? He's in charge. A real ball of fire. Like his badge."
   "Oh, that's what it is on the overalls," Royle realized. "A fireball with wings."
   The leader of the video unit concluded a discussion with a grey-haired man with his right foot in plaster, who needed the assistance of a heavy-duty walking stick. He started for the council van, stopped to exchange a few words with the W.P.C., then changed course toward the spectators.
   "Sergeant Erskine?" he beamed, offering a hand. There was something not quite right about his American accent and he shed a cloud of splash-on male perfume. His hair was thinning but still hippy-length and he was clearly young at heart. "We really do appreciate the co-operation we're getting from you guys."
   "Glad to be of service, sir," said Erskine with a straight face, not letting on that the uniformed officers were there on crowd-control duty and that he was just skiving between calls.
   "Hank Gordon," added the American, offering his name in case he had not been recognized. He was around fifty, grey to an advanced stage and apparently bursting with energy. "If you're around the Oak Tree tonight, maybe I can buy you a drink?"
   "I'll have to see if the local villains give me a night off, sir," said Erskine non-committally.
   "How about your colleagues?" Hank Gordon noticed Royle and Parker.
   "They're not on the force. Actually, Mr. Royle's more a colleague of yours. He's in the stunt business. I don't know what his friend does, though."
   "Yeah? Maybe I can use one of you. We're a man short." Gordon offered a leathery hand to Royle.
   "I think he's a bit too rich at the moment," said Parker. "And I'm in the travel business. Hotels, not crashing cars."
   "No one's too rich to make more money," said Gordon confidently. "What's your speciality, son?"
   "High dives." Royle stuck to his script. "But like my mate says, I can afford not to break any more bones for a while."
   "Yeah, okay. Why not have a cup of java with Frank Harbin, our stunt co-ordinator?" insisted Gordon. "The guy with the concrete boot. We really could use another driver."
   "Well, can't hurt," conceded Royle.
   Erskine looked at his watch. "I'd better get moving. I've got calls to make. And an inquest to attend."
   "You guys head on over to the chuck wagon." Gordon raised the rope barrier to shoulder height. "I'll catch you up."
   "This you diving in over your head again?" said Parker as they crossed restricted grass with the eyes of the crowd on their backs.
   "I can do a bit of driving." Royle shrugged. "And if the cops see me doing a bit of stunt work, they might believe some of the other things I tell them."
   "We'll put that on your gravestone," laughed Parker.
   "It's all your fault, anyway. When you told that bird at Sibbi's Christmas party she should ask me about some of the stunts I've pulled. And she thought that meant I'm a stuntman.
   "It gives you something to say when people ask you what you do, old son. Even if the nearest you've ever been to a real stuntman is watching repeats of The Fall Guy on your telly. Watch what you say when they ask about your qualifications, too. I don't think they're looking for six O-Levels and a City and Guilds in pipe fitting."
   "You're enjoying taking the piss out of me, aren't you?"
   "Well, if you put it like that, yes," grinned Parker.
   "Well, I haven't said yes to anything yet. And we're getting a free cup of coffee out of them."
   Royle and Parker completed the twenty-yard journey to the canteen van. Hank Gordon had covered more than twice that distance but he still managed to beat them to the counter. He spent fifteen seconds introducing Royle to the injured Frank Harbin, then he rushed away.
   "What sort of experience have you got?" frowned Harbin. "I don't think I know your name."
   "Not that much," admitted Royle. "I did a couple of high dives onto an airbag. An expert set them up but he couldn't do the jumps. Done his back in." Royle glanced at Harbin's foot.
   "Before anyone tells you anything different, I fell down two steps, stone cold sober, and broke the ankle," sighed the stunt co-ordinator. "How did the jumps go?"
   "The first went okay," said Royle, embroidering shamelessly. "But they wanted me to do it again."
   "Anyone can be a stuntman once," quoted Harbin, "but it takes a professional to come back for take two."
   "That was the one that put him in hospital," remarked Parker.
   "What's your nerve like, son?" said Harbin.
   Royle shrugged. "Okay."
   "He's got the nerve to get himself into enough trouble for any two normal people," said Parker. "That's his problem."
   "But he's got bugger all experience of the bread and butter stuff," said Harbin. "Okay, being honest was the right thing to do. But Hank doesn't have to know. When I talk money, you just back me up, okay?"
   "Fine by me," nodded Royle.
   "Are you in the union?"
   "I used to be in the A.U.E.W."
   "I meant the stuntman's union. I guess I can take that as a no. Well, I suppose we can get away with it. Just don't mention it to anyone."
   "I won't if you won't. What's the job?"
   "Basically, all you have to do is drive at a constant speed, usually in a straight line, and let the others work the gags around you."
   "Like what?"
   "Jumping over you and stuff like that," Harbin said dismissively. "And you can maybe roll your car - if I think you can handle it."
   "Sounds okay," nodded Royle.
   "Looks like you've dragged him out of retirement," said Parker.
   He could see what Frank Harbin was up to. Harbin would charge the video company the rate for a fully trained man, pay Royle a percentage and split the rest with the other stuntmen - but only if they realized what was going on. But it was a cruel, hard world and Royle seemed willing to be exploited to establish some protective credibility with the police. And just driving around while proper stuntmen took most of the risks did not merit the full rate for the job anyway.

 

23. Lucky Break

 

Detective Sergeant Erskine ignored the telephone when it shrilled in the silence of the shared office. He was working on the credit card case, drawing information out of the computer's memory and making notes on a polythene-shrouded map of the district with a chinagraph pencil. Eleven cases of mysterious purchases with credit cards had been reported and he was expecting more when other people checked their statements. All of the victims were shift workers and the purchases had been made while they had been at home asleep.
   In each case, around 150 had been spent in 20 to 40 instalments; always on easily resaleable goods like packs of cigars or two hundred cigarettes, bottles of spirits, blank and pre-recorded video cassettes and good quality audio cassettes.
   Erskine had been unable to find any pattern to the crimes. The victims had been selected apparently at random in a wide area to the south of Shepford. Somehow, and Erskine had no idea how, the thief was getting hold of credit cards, using them and then returning them to their owners undetected.
   The thief had bought goods only from large department stores in Shepford. The sales assistants concerned had been unable to offer much in the way of a useful description. Erskine knew only that he was looking for a man who was younger than middle-aged and who dressed in a manner that failed to attract attention - which was a lot of help!
   "Here, listen to this," invited D.S. Orwell, cutting across Erskine's frowning attempts to shuffle his data into a pattern that meant anything through a late lunch. "Would you mind repeating that to my colleague, sir?'
   Erskine put down his corned beef sandwich and pressed the illuminated button on his telephone. "D.S. Erskine. What's it all about?"
   "My brother's credit card's gone," said an agitated voice.
   "Your brother wouldn't be a shift worker, on nights at the moment?" suggested Erskine.
   "I've just told your mate that," said the man impatiently. "The bastard's getting away."
   "My colleague's taking care of that, sir." Erskine could hear Orwell issuing instructions requesting everyone in that area to report sightings of a cream Ford Escort, which was presumed to be heading for Shepford from Caxton. "You've seen the man?"
   "Young, twenties maybe, well dressed, driving an old Ford Escort. I could tell that from the pair-of-specs headlights and radiator grill. I saw him come out of the house. I didn't get his number, though."
   "We've put out a description to our people, sir," said Erskine calmly. "Can I have a word with your brother? And can I have your name?"
   "Tom Sydney, with a y. He's asleep." There was total surprise in the brother's voice. "Spark out in a chair by the phone. I can't wake him up."
   "He doesn't usually take sleeping tablets to help him sleep through the day?"
   "No, there's none in the house."
   "I think he may have been given a sedative," Erskine realized, understanding how the thief had managed to return the credit cards without waking their owners. "We'll send a doctor round to look him over. Just leave him where he is if he's not likely to fall off the chair. He'll be okay."
   "You sure?" said Tom Sydney doubtfully.
   "We'll have a doctor there in a matter of minutes," Erskine assured him as Orwell was issuing the additional instructions. "In the meantime, can you tell me what you saw? From the beginning. You're at your brother's house?"
   "Yeah, I'm doing a bit of work for him. Taking the lead water pipes out and putting in copper tube. He went to bed and I went out to get some bars of solder while he got off to kip."
   "He normally sleeps in the afternoon?"
   "Yeah, he goes to bed about two and gets up around nine when he's on nights. Anyway, I'd been out about three-quarters of an hour and I was coming back. That's when I saw this bloke coming out of the house. Out the front door."
   "You're sure he hadn't just been to the door?"
   "No, I heard it close behind him. I didn't think anything of it till I got in - and found my brother upstairs, fast asleep. Well, I managed to wake him up and we had a look round. We couldn't find anything that had gone but we rang you anyway. Then the other detective asked about his credit cards."
   "There are no signs of forced entry? No other doors or windows open?"
   "Don't think so. Hang on." The telephone clattered as it was placed on a hard surface. Feet pounded up and down stairs. "Only the bathroom window, the transom," Tom Sydney resumed a couple of minutes later. "And there's no sign of a ladder."
   "Did the man see you, Mr. Sydney? As you were arriving at the house?"
   "I was just turning the corner when he come out. He was round another corner and away by the time I got to the house."
   "Okay, as I said, there's a doctor on the way to have a look at your brother. And there'll be someone round to take a statement from you. Try not to touch anything he may have left fingerprints on. Do you know which bank your brother uses?"
   "Yeah, it's the one right next to the supermarket."
   "Phone them and tell them his card's been stolen. That will put him in the clear if the thief tries to use it."
   "You reckon there's any chance of nailing this bastard?"
   "We'll do our best, Mr. Sydney. In the meantime, would you just sit tight and co-operate fully with the officers from Bilcross when they arrive?"
   "Yeah, okay," said Tom Sydney, sounding resigned to wasting the rest of the afternoon.
   Erskine noticed that Orwell was grinning at him as he replaced his receiver. "All right, what do you know that I don't?" he invited.
   "Get your coat on. We're going out," grinned Orwell.
   "Where?" Erskine shrugged into his ageing suede jacket, which was developing small bald patches and had been relegated to the rough and tumble of police work.
   "Delta Eight spotted him going through Hythe. We've got Nick Crosby standing by to pick him up in Tarring and follow him."
   "You sure it's our man?" Erskine grabbed the remains of his sandwich. It would be lunch on the move from now on.
   "Jack Winters never got rid of his old Escort when he bought his flash new BMW."
   "That's a bit of a leap, isn't it?" Erskine remarked through a mouthful of sandwich as he followed Orwell down the stairs to the ground floor. "From the neighbour your amateur burglar turned supergrass doesn't like to our credit card operator."
   "It's the only cream Escort anyone's seen up to now, and Mr. Winters is heading our way from Caxton. It would be nice to follow him into a shop and see if he tries to buy anything with Alan Sydney's credit card. And if it's not him, the mob from Bilcross are standing by to set up surveillance on the Sydney place for when the bloke puts his credit card back. Belt and braces, me old Joe."
   "You ever thought of a career in the police force?" laughed Erskine.

 


 

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