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DEATH IS A STRANGER #5


24. Near Miss

 

On the second morning of his career as a stuntman, Royle was getting used to low-flying vehicles. Cars, motorbikes and even a minibus had flown over his scarlet, souped-up Ford racer without incident. All that he had to do was sit tight, listen to Frank Harbin's instructions over his personal radio and adjust his speed accordingly.
   The other members of the team had rolled cars, crashed into trees and one another, and had been clobbered by falling branches and whole trees. Hank Gordon had brought another canteen van and an icecream van onto the site, and he was making a fortune out of sales of snacks and soft drinks. The weather had been dull and chilly as often as sunny, but there had been no rain to drive away either the mob of spectators or the workmen, who had arrived to replace the leaking pipes to the fountain.
   There was no formal lunch-break for the stunt team. Hank Gordon had offered a bonus out of his profits on the food and Frank Harbin had agreed to keep the action going to make a lunchtime visit to the park worthwhile for anyone in the Tarring area. Royle was able to show Bob Parker and Gail Fletcher to a favoured position to watch a Mini leap into the back of a three-ton truck. He was on next.
   "What happens if the other bloke lands on top of you by mistake? Instead of going over you?" Gail asked Royle between assaults on a hamburger without onions.
   "I hit the deck and hope for the best," grinned Royle, fastening his crash helmet. "See you later."
   He was wearing elbow and knee pads outside his clothing. A suit of body armour and heavy limb padding under his garments gave him a stiff, upright gait. Frank Harbin had told him that there were no badges for bruises and Royle had never been ashamed to take expert advice.
   "Isn't he brave?" Gail said to Parker.
   "I don't think brave comes into it," Parker said. "Johnny really doesn't believe anything's going to go wrong."
   "He's certainly wearing enough padding."
   "Well, they don't go looking for extra trouble."
   "I suppose not. Still, I wouldn't do it."
   "Johnny's trouble is he's an incurable optimist. And he likes to make his money quickly."
   According to the script, the shock of another car leaping over him was supposed to make Royle lose control. There was a ramp just past the crossover point to flick his car into a 360o roll. Having watched the other drivers in action, and having been given detailed instructions, Royle felt quite happy about performing the manoeuvre.
   He listened to a final briefing through the driver's window, then started his car. Frank Harbin started to talk to him via an earphone in his hard-hat, which was covered with fur and designed to look like hair in a long-shot. When Royle had his speed just right, Harbin told him to keep his car straight.
   Suddenly, something went wrong. A black shadow on his bonnet became a bang and a jolt and his windscreen went opaque. Royle shot a gloved fist forward. He managed to punch out a hole just before he reached his roll-ramp. He had eased his foot on the accelerator instinctively, but he had sufficient momentum for the ramp to flick his car into a roll onto its side then onto the roof with a crash and a shower of glass chippings.
   Royle had expected to become violently upside down for a few moments through the roll. Finding himself hanging from the seat harness was a disorienting experience initially. The crew had gathered around the car by the time it had occurred to him to release the seat harness and lower himself to the vehicle's battered roof. He wriggled out through the passenger window to cheers of relief from the crowd.
   The other car had landed nose first and crumpled. A team of firemen was using hydraulically operated jaws to force open a mangled door. The other driver, a Geordie called Stan Harker, was trapped by his legs. He had a dramatic crack in his white crash helmet. He seemed undamaged, apart from a transient limp, when he was dragged out of the wreck. Royle offered him a cigarette and accepted a light from a spectator.
   "Go on, you clumsy sod, what happened?" he asked.
   "Bloody engine died, man. Just as I was taking off."
   "Everyone okay?" interrupted Hank Gordon, dashing over after checking with the camera teams. "That was really great, you guys!"
   "You don't want us to do it again?" said Royle. "And get it right this time?"
   "Oh, sure!" laughed Gordon when he realized that Royle was joking.
   A replay of one of the videotapes showed the stunt crew what had happened. The front of Harker's car had sagged out of the air and a wheel had clipped the roof of Royle's vehicle just above the windscreen. There was a good shot of a black-gloved fist flicking out through crazed glass just before the car went into its half-roll. Good luck had seen the two drivers through a nasty moment.
   Amber had joined the spectators just in time to watch the stunt. She was looking a little shaken when Royle rejoined his friends. He was on his lunch break now. The next sequence involved a mad Canadian clinging to the roof of a van as it took a dive into the canal. Royle accepted a kiss of mingled greeting and relief.
   "That looked too real," shuddered Amber.
   "Well, he wasn't supposed to hit me," Royle admitted, "but it worked out better than planned."
   "I'd be worried about catching fire," said Gail. "Like they do on the telly."
   "No chance of that," said Royle. "We've only got a few drops of petrol in a really small tank on the engine. Just enough for the gag. We haven't got ten gallons sloshing around in the back, you know."
   "That's a relief," said Amber. "I was going to stay and watch you. But I've just been having second thoughts."
   "You're not skiving off work, are you?" grinned Royle.
   "I'm in a state of shock." Amber pulled a long face. "I've been made redundant. So I'm not going back this afternoon."
   "That's a blow," said Royle, offering his sympathy.
   "It's a wonder they didn't tell you at five to five on Friday to give you a happy weekend," said Parker.
   "Yeah, well." Despite a show of depression, Amber did not seem too far down in the dumps. "We had a good laugh this morning before we got the news. The personnel manager got home last night and found someone had delivered a couple of cubic yards of concrete. Right in front of his garage. It was nearly solid when he got home."
   "Sounds like someone's not taking redundancy lying down," said Parker.
   "And that's not all. The managers have been getting phone calls in the middle of the night. And some of them have had their tyres slashed. We've had coppers wandering round warning people not to do it this morning."
   "There was nothing like that when they had the redundancies last year," said Gail. "We had a woman in the shop this morning. She reckoned her husband's worried about the union getting everyone out on strike. So are we, if it comes to that. I mean, if her husband's not working, how's she going to be able to afford to have her hair done?"
   "I'll be glad to get away this weekend," said Amber. "If Johnny's still alive."
   "Nice place, Worthing," said Parker.
   "Oh, it's a foursome, is it?" said Royle.
   "We're doing you a favour and sharing the petrol," said Gail. "Isn't that nice of us?"
   "Dam' decent," drawled Royle. "Are we getting some grub, love?" he added to Amber. "Nothing like a good fright to give you an appetite."
   "Oh, yes," Gail added to Bob Parker, "and I'm only going if Johnny's not driving!"

 

25. Character Profile

 

Albert Brewer had been drawn by the noise and the crowds to the free stunt show in Holly Park. He had been surprised initially to recognize Royle among the gang of well-padded performers, but if Royle had not been arrested by customs officials two days earlier, he was clearly out of the cocaine business.
   The alternative career of stuntman fitted very well into Brewer's crystallizing mental picture of a man who responded to a knife attack by arming himself, even if the 'gun' could have been just a novelty cigarette lighter.
   Brewer was standing near one of the canteen vans, about to tackle a hot steak and kidney pie, when he heard a familiar name. A man with the manner of a copper was talking to one of the stuntmen; the Geordie who had been released from a wreck by the fire brigade. Brewer drifted casually after them, taking care not to look in their direction.
   "So what do you reckon to that bloke Royle?" D. S. Erskine was asking. "Is he any good? In your professional opinion."
   "I'm quite happy working with him," said Stan Harker. "He does what the boss tells him and he keeps his head when things go wrong. You saw how he handled himself when I clipped him? And he hit his ramp for the roll, too."
   "Wasn't it supposed to happen like that?" frowned Erskine.
   "Why, no, man!" laughed Harker. "I was supposed to go right over the top of him. I should have landed on my wheels, not cracked the bloody car up."
   "It doesn't seem to have put him off his lunch. Or you, for that matter."
   "It worked out all right in the end." Harker bit into a hamburger with overflowing trimmings. "And we'll get paid that bit more for it. A higher danger factor, you see."
   "So you reckon he knows his job? He's a good stuntman?"
   "He's not exactly a well-known name in the trade. But he's got plenty of nerve and he's reliable. Like I said, he does what he's told, so you know where he's going to be and you can concentrate on what you've got to do. You can't ask for more than that."
   "So you reckon he could have jumped from two hundred feet?" probed Erskine.
   "What's behind all these questions, man?" said Harker suspiciously. "I know you're a copper."
   "Nothing much." Erskine put on his best boyish grin. "It's just that he mentioned he's living off what he made from a couple of high dives, and he looks such an ordinary bloke. How much technique is there in falling two hundred feet?"
   "Depends whether they want a dead fall or you have to thrash about a bit. As long as you've got a nice, still day with nae wind and the airbag's set up proper, there's not much too it, these days. Most of it's having the bottle to take that one big step at the beginning. Your airbag must look like nothing at all from two hundred feet up."
   "You reckon he's got the nerve for it?"
   "Well, you can never be one hundred per cent sure till you see a bloke do it."
   "He reckons he did it twice. And ended up in hospital after the second jump."
   "Working from a height takes different people different ways. Some blokes start thinking how easily they can be killed on the way down. And when they get their money, they don't stop running till their feet catch fire. Other blokes find it so easy, they're prepared to keep on doing it for as long as they've got a film company prepared to pay them ten or fifteen grand a time."
   "That much?"
   "Would you do it for less?"
   "I wouldn't do it all," shuddered Erskine. "You ever done anything like that?"
   "Never as high as that. I've fell off the top of a six-storey building, and I've come out a fourth-floor window. You know, chucked out. It's perfectly safe as long as you get the preparations done just right."
   "Rather you than me!" said Erskine.
   Brewer drifted away as the stuntman began to recite a chapter from his memoirs. Brewer finished the pie and took a can of lager from his raincoat pocket. He would have something interesting to tell Councillor Markham when they met that evening.
   A copper asking questions about Royle was a potentially damning but unwelcome piece of evidence. If he was going to have to do someone in, Brewer would have preferred not to have to kill a man whom the police were watching. Circulating in the crowd, Brewer kept an eye on D.S. Erskine. His interest was rewarded ten minutes later. The detective carried on chatting with Stan Harker for long enough to swamp suspicion in a general interest in his career. Then he moved on to a semi-restricted zone to isolate Royle from his group. Brewer took up a position just within earshot and turned his back on them.
   "Just thought you'd like to know the verdict on your friend Lambert at the inquest," Erskine said. "It was accident, just in case you didn't know."
   "I bet your inspector's well pleased with that," laughed Royle. "Did you come specially to tell me that? Or are you on the lookout for pick-pockets nicking credit cards?"
   "Keeping my eyes open," said Erskine non-committally. "We got the credit card bloke yesterday. He nearly had a heart attack when we arrested him."
   "Did he tell you why he took them back?"
   "He thought he was being clever. And buying time. Hardly anyone spends anywhere near the limit of a credit card most months. The interest's too much of a rip-off. He reckoned the more time between the crime and its discovery when the statement arrived, the more chance he had of getting away with it."
   "But it didn't work out for him?"
   "Thanks to good police work."
   It made sense to warn D.I. Rostov's number one suspect for all violent incidents locally that the police were good at their job. Erskine saw no point in mentioning that the thief had been unlucky enough to have been seen in action and that his description matched that of a man brought to D.S. Orwell's attention just the evening before by a clumsy burglar.
   Hughes and Collier had turned up at the magistrates' court to find that the charges against them had been dropped. After their formal discharge, they had written out cheques to cover the damage caused and gone to work, polishing their excuses for being late. D.S. Orwell had convinced the factory's management that their poor security had been shown up at very little cost. They had been given a chance to tighten things up before their insurance company crucified them with overloaded premiums.
   "There is something you could help us with." Erskine produced a notebook. "We've had a missing person report on Elizabeth Hollister. She stayed with you last October?"
   "For a week," nodded Royle.
   "You told me last year she left on the twenty-third."
   "I'll take your word for it."
   "When did she arrive?"
   "I met her on a Monday, the week before," Royle dug out of his memory.
   "That would be the fifteenth?" Erskine calculated.
   Albert Brewer almost dropped his cigarette to the grass. His brother T.J. had died on that date. He slid backwards a cautious step, still looking away from Royle and Erskine, and concentrated more deeply on the conversation.
   "Whereabouts did you meet her?" Erskine was saying.
   "The Hound's Rest." said Royle.
   "A bit out of your way."
   "It was lunchtime. I think we'd both come off the motorway. I must have been to London for something."
   "According to our information, she left home on Thursday, the eleventh. It took her long enough to get here from Watford. It's only forty miles and it took her four days. You've not heard from her since?"
   "Ah, nope," said Royle. He knew that he would never hear from Betty Hollister again, but he could hardly tell Erskine that he knew that she had died on Monday, October 22nd of the previous year, the victim of a bomb meant to kill him; especially not when Royle had blown up the bomber with some of his own gelignite that same night.
   "What was your relationship with her?" frowned Erskine.
   "It was a bit weird, really. Not kinky weird, though. I'm not into teenage girls. She just moved in with me. So she had somewhere for the D.H.S.S. to send her a Giro, I reckon. She went shopping every morning and did some cleaning. Then she spent the rest of the day watching telly and smoking my fags. And she got the meals. She wasn't in the way and she was making herself useful, so I let her stay. What about her brother in Bristol? Have you checked with him?"
   "I suppose someone else is. I'm just contributing a piece to the larger picture. There's a good chance she's changed her name anyway. Hundreds of kids like her just disappear every year. Most looking for a better life they never find."
   "With her home life, I'm not surprised. They treated her like a slave, she reckoned. And she had a fight with her mum just before she shot off. You know, a serious one."
   "I gather the parents only reported her missing because people kept asking where she is."
   "In case her mother hit her a bit too hard and had to bury her in the back garden?"
   "Something like that. Well!" Erskine put his notebook away. "I'd better find a good spot to watch these idiots diving into the canal."
   "It's not actually the canal," Royle pointed out. "It's that big pond before the locks where the boats can park. British Waterways won't let us use the canal in case we damage it."

A fine spring day was darkening rapidly when Albert Brewer met Councillor George Markham on the canal bank, eight miles upstream from Holly Park. They walked past a pub called The Archer and a cluster of ancient cottages by a set of locks as they exchanged information.
   Brewer had found out that The Hound's Rest was a pub on the road that ran, fifteen and a half miles later, past the quarry where his brother had died. If Royle had been returning from London on that black Monday, it made more sense for him to carry straight on down the motorway to his home than to break his journey at the Ashley exit.
   The motorway ended two and a half miles further on, less than half a mile from Royle's flat in Fenton, and the beer at The Hound's Rest was overpriced and not much cop. Neither of these drawbacks would be a problem for someone who felt in need of a drink right after he had killed three men.
   Alternatively, Royle could have been in London to establish an alibi. He could have stopped at the pub to receive a report from whoever he had paid to take care of Olly Markham, and incidentally T.J. Brewer and Ryan Naylor. If Royle had given up the cocaine-smuggling business in favour of work as a stuntman, he was still earning large amounts of money for brief periods of risks.
   He could afford to pay a professional killer and Brewer was certain that Royle had hired someone to kill Draggo Lambert. Even if he had paid the same or a different assassin to take care of Olly Markham and his friends, Brewer believed now that Royle was responsible for their deaths.
   Recent experience had shown George Markham just how convincing an accident arranged by a professional could be. A certain amount of circumstantial evidence linked Royle to a blazing car in a worked-out quarry. Royle could have been motivated by a threat from Oliver - who had been notorious for picking fights - or he could have been incited by his former employer. Colin Mulgraham had a history of playing murderous games with young, active and lawless men.
   Markham continued to have his doubts about Royle. The evidence of guilt was not as clear as it had been in the case of Neil Finch, whose replaced records of the misuse of public assets were causing a satisfactory stir in council circles. Having steeled himself to the necessity of commissioning a blackmailer's extermination, Markham knew that it would be an easy next step to sanctioning the death of his son's killer. Even so, he was not happy about being dragged into the execution of a suspected drug smuggler, no matter how well-deserved the penalty. Unlike Finch, Royle was no threat to himself.
   Sensing his companion's reluctance to act, Brewer made noises about further investigation. A member of the district council and a prominent local businessman, he reasoned, could lose everything if he became a partner in murder. He was asking Markham to take too big a step. And so he wrote George Markham off as just a useful source of information from that point on. He was on his own now and perfectly comfortable with his solitude.
   Albert Brewer had started his investigation of his brother's death with an open mind, which had been receptive only to evidence of guilt. A clash with Royle was no long a matter of if, it had become a case of when. Brewer now believed that he had enough cause to take direct, personal action to avenge his brother.

 

26. Worthing

 

Hank Gordon paid Royle off with reluctance at the end of a successful week as a stuntman. He was sorry to see a good member of the team go. Apart from a few bruises, Royle was undamaged and he had enjoyed the work. The highlight of his brief career had been skidding a car under a long lorry to shear the roof off his vehicle like removing the top of a boiled egg.
   Hank Gordon and his circus moved on to Wales to videotape men and machines rolling down mountains. As he was going away for the weekend, Royle took the opportunity to put his own car in for a service, settling the question of who would drive.
   The quartet booked into their seaside hotel on Saturday morning, calling themselves Mr. and Mrs. Drummond and Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher and giving Royle and Parker's addresses. Their rooms at the back of the hotel denied them a sea view but spared them the noise of traffic on the promenade.
   Royle and Amber were crunching apples when Bob Parker and Gail joined them in their room. Parker had been making a few notes on the hotel's service and fittings for Gail's benefit, keeping up the fiction of his job as an agent for a tourist guide.
   "He eats apples and oranges by the ton and reads a lot," Gail quoted to Amber, helping herself from a brown paper bag. "He'll be getting you reading books next."
   "I like apples too," said Amber defensively. "It's just we never seem to get round to buying any."
   "I've got to go and get some petrol," said Parker between assaults on his apple.
   "Sun's out. Let's go and get some sand in our shoes," suggested Royle. "You can catch us up, Bob."
   The party left by the hotel's lobby. Parker watched the others start across the road toward the beach, then he turned away to reclaim his car. He did need some petrol but he also needed a little time to himself to complete a rush job.
   His client was a director of a family wholesale business, which dealt in sweets and tobacco. The target was a cousin, whose forceful personality allowed him to exert an influence on the senior member of the family out of all proportion to his business sense.
   Parker had gained the impression that jealousy was as much a motive for this murder-by-proxy as a desire to protect the business from the pushy cousin, who had proposed a radical and very risky diversification of the company's range of products. Parker had kept his opinion to himself. He was not being paid to make moral judgements, just for success.
   Having made a large dent in a 20 note at a nearby garage, he changed into a set of working clothes. His target had an eleven o'clock appointment with a customer. Parker's client considered the meeting to be no more than an excuse to have a long chat with an old pal followed by lunch on expenses and a game of golf. The client was indignant at the way his cousin was treating Saturday as a working day in order to screw his expenses out of the firm.
   Parker changed into dark green coveralls with a matching duck-billed cap, a straggling blond wig, round glasses and a disciplined, gingery moustache. He was carrying a two-tier toolkit in chipped blue enamel and a black clipboard when he reached his destination. Pens and screwdrivers overflowed in his breast pocket. He was trying to create an impression of an ageing hippy, who crawled into dark, dirty holes at weekends to keep vital machinery functioning.
   He consulted his clipboard and made notes beside the lift of a just post-war office building. His target arrived almost immediately. Parker was looking for a well dressed, fortyish man with a punctuality fetish. The time was two minutes to eleven when he pushed the 4 button in the lift in response to the other's request for floor three. The solid black buttons did not light up and gave no indication that Parker had pressed the wrong one deliberately.
   Parker sneezed into a handkerchief and kept it ready for an action replay, trapping his clipboard with the elbow of his left arm. He was still holding the handkerchief to his nose when he stepped out of the lift at floor two, leaving behind a cloud of invisible, odourless and very lethal gas.
   Stuffing the handkerchief and a miniature respirator back into a pocket, he dumped his props and raced up the stairs. He reached the top floor in time to see the lift doors open. No one got out. Thirty seconds later, the doors started to close again. Parker stabbed at the call button and thrust a foot between the doors as an added precaution. They parted at once. Wearing his respirator again, he heaved at the limp body, moving it forward to keep the doors open and ventilate the lift. There was a fair breeze gusting along the gloomy corridor for just that purpose.
   Parker beat a hasty retreat. He knew better than to spend too much time exposed to the concentrated gas, despite the protection of his respirator. He descended two floors to reclaim his toolkit and clipboard and returned to the stairway, where he shed coveralls, cap and moustache. He enveloped everything in a black plastic refuse sack taken from the toolkit and left the building with unhurried purpose. He took his round glasses off in the next street. A diversion through a department store allowed him to remove the blond wig on a deserted staircase. He was back to being himself again.
   A former C.I.A. agent, who had turned free-lance, had supplied the gas. According to the salesman, the gas stopped the victim's heart then oxidized completely to unremarkable breakdown products within ninety minutes to evade detection by a forensic chemist. It was intended primarily for use in confined spaces, such as lifts, but it could be used in the open air on still days. If released with sufficient care, it just hung in the air, dispersing slowly, waiting for the victim to walk into an invisible cloud of death.
   Parker had been a little sceptical of the second use; but he had watched Draggo Lambert jog into an unseen trap and expire with satisfactory speed after rolling into the water. The accident verdict at his inquest showed that a routine post-mortem examination is not geared to detecting rapid-action, self-destructing poisons of the sort brewed for the C.I.A.
   After his two practical trials, Parker felt that he had added a valuable weapon to his armoury. He had been able to combine a field trial with a favour for a friend, even though Royle had no idea that anything had been done on his behalf. It was a pleasure to do something for the friend who had agreed without a second thought to be the other man in his divorce, and who had helped to stage-manage the 'death' of Lenny Suskin. It was even more of a pleasure to collect a deposit and then a fee from a satisfied client, and turn them into additions to his impressive stamp collection.
   Parker locked his kit in the boot of his car then set off along the front to find Royle and the ladies. The tide was a long way out. Parker picked out three beachcombers, who were gathering sandy shells. He drifted toward them, taking care not to attract their attention. Gail noticed him after a couple of minutes.
   "Must be a very absorbing hobby," Parker remarked. "I've been watching you for ages."
   "Look at these. Aren't they lovely?" Gail offered a handful of assorted shells.
   Royle opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had seen Parker arrive. Inevitably, his friend's business could not be confined to normal working hours. If Parker had been taking a quick look at a job, he would not appreciate a discussion of his movements. The best way to keep his friend's secrets, Royle decided, was to mind his own business.

 

27. Stalemate

 

Amy Strutt was preparing for a Saturday night out in London when her cousin Eddie dropped in to check up on the boyfriend situation. Albert Brewer seemed as firmly planted as ever. Eddie took a hopeful seat at the table but the coffee situation was another dead loss. Amy was too busy getting ready to go out to brew up for him.
   "How's the war of nerves going? At the biscuit factory?" remarked Brewer.
   Eddie pulled a wry face. "We've called a cease fire. It's gone too far. Some of the blokes started slashing tyres instead of just letting them down. Foremen as well as managers. We had the police round. And then they started retaliating, the bastards! Phone calls in the middle of the night on Thursday and last night. A couple of shop stewards and a union bloke got their tyres slashed. They're getting their tyres paid for by the firm but the union isn't coughing up for our lads."
   "Your mates sound a right bunch," grinned Brewer. "You should have been nudging them when they weren't looking and getting them twitching, not leaving evidence around like slashed bloody tyres. There should be nowt for them to show to prove they're being harassed. Some blokes don't deserve to get on."
   "Anyway, it looks like we're flogging dead a donkey now," shrugged Eddie. "The redundancy notices have gone out and they won't even talk to the union blokes now."
   "I suppose the union's still saying they can put everything back the way it was? Everyone keeps his job?"
   "Well, they've got to. It's what they're paid for."
   "Right, I'm ready when you are," said Amy brightly, bouncing out of the bedroom.
   "We're going to have to chuck you out now, me old mate," Brewer remarked to Eddie, driving home the message that he had lost a favourite watering hole.
   Albert Brewer's car kept up with the fastest motorway traffic until he reached his exit point. He left the car in a yard belonging to a friend of a friend in Chelsea and took Amy on by bus to Oxford Street for a look at what was on show in the West End department stores. After lunch, Brewer parked Amy in a hairdressing salon and went off on his own to conduct the main business of the outing.
   A friend of another friend sold him a suitcase filled with slabs of polystyrene foam. Slotted into recesses in the white filler were a short-barrelled, .38-calibre revolver and the separated barrels and stock of a special shotgun. The shotgun had been shortened to give it the same handling characteristics as carbine, and choked again to concentrate the shot. Brewer wanted to wound his pigeon and make him squawk a little before he finished him off. He had got mad in prison. Now, he was about to get even.

 

28. Turkey Shoot

 

Royle crawled out of bed at his usual ten o'clock on Monday morning after an active and enjoyable weekend. Amber was back at the biscuit factory, working out her notice period. Royle was at a loose end.
   He handed over a Scottish 1 note in the paper shop and received change for 50p. When he mentioned the mistake, the woman behind the counter looked surprised. She looked a little put out when Royle told her that he did not keep 50p coins in his wallet, which he was still holding.
   Next door, at the greengrocer's, he bought apples, oranges and a bunch of unblemished yellow bananas. The assistant punched the items into the till, let it work out a total and the amount of change, and gave him change for a 5 note with a bright smile.
   "That was a tenner I gave you," Royle pointed out.
   "Oh, was it, dear?" The assistant turned back to the till and extracted a 5 note.
   "What is this, Mugday?" Royle wondered aloud. "I've been in two shops and I've nearly been done in both of them."
   The assistant smiled at him, taking the remark as a joke. Royle considered dipping his hand into his anorak pocket and wiping the smirk off her face. Then he decided not to bother. He had been wearing his new anorak to his stunt work and over the weekend. Out of habit, he had slipped on an old blue one on an ordinary day - and found himself with a pocketful of gun in a plastic bag.
   He called in at the garage on the way back to Lion Street and received further confirmation that it was not going to be an easy day. His car would need several replacement parts in the near future. The owner of the garage had decided to do nothing until he could ask Royle if he wanted to put the other jobs off until they became absolutely necessary. Royle could only commend him for his business ethics and tell him to get everything that needed doing sorted out as quickly as possible.
   Breakfast over, Royle spend an hour with the carpet sweeper and his miniature vacuum cleaner. Then he caught a bus into Shepford, taking a collection of paperbacks that he had read back to the bookshop on Hope Street to trade them in. He did not suspect that he was being followed again.
   Albert Brewer knew from Draggo Lambert's reports that Royle was in the habit of taking long walks in open spaces like Holly Park or isolated places like the canal bank. If he kept on Royle's tail, he reasoned, it was only a matter of time before Royle led him to an out-of-the-way spot where a few shotgun blasts would go unnoticed.

Carrying a duffle bag heavy with new-to-him books, Royle climbed a double flight of steep steps to the market. He prowled around for a while, then pushed into the warm din of The Royal Oak for some lunch. Albert Brewer followed him after a discreet interval. A hunt in which the prey did not suspect that he was being pursued gave the hunter a sense of power but there was no thrill to the chase.
   Brewer watched Royle order food and drink, then let on to someone outside Brewer's line of vision. He shifted his position and spotted the copper who had been asking the questions about Royle in the park. The copper finished his chat with a local bookie and moved round the bar to join the quarry. Their conversation began with the collection of books in Royle's duffle bag.
   Hearing that Royle's car was out of action, D.S. Erskine offered him a lift home as he had calls to make in the Fenton area. Loose ends from the credit-card case continued to come to light. He also wanted to hear more about the stunt work in Holly Park. It was one of the most interesting things that had happened in the area for a long time.
   Erskine had stopped off in the park as often as duty had allowed, but he had had to be satisfied with second-hand accounts of most of the best of the action. He was also working under orders from D.I. Rostov, who wanted him to keep up an unofficial interest in Royle. Too much violence was happening around Royle. Rostov was trying for a head-start on the next crisis.
   Brewer rushed through his meal and brought his car round to the pub's car park. He lit a cigarette and waited, ready to follow Royle either in the vehicle or on foot. He was becoming bored with the chase now. Draggo Lambert had put his younger cousin on the dreary task of surveillance. He had been able to forget about Royle until the cousin had reported that Royle was vulnerable.
   Young Dave had kept his mouth shut after Draggo had attacked Royle with his knife, presumably out of family loyalty. He might be prepared to do the same for the man who avenged his cousin's death, but Brewer was knew better than to bring a stranger into such a serious business. A couple of lifers of his acquaintance had stressed the value of leaving no living witnesses to murder.

Erskine turned off the main road on the outskirts of town. He followed a narrow lane with tall hedges that lay between a school's playing fields and the grounds of a derelict factory. He parked just short of the factory's side gate.
   "We've had some reports of suspicious characters hanging round her," he remarked to his passenger. "I just want to have a quick look."
   "How suspicious?" said Royle. "Kids sniffing glue? Or blokes ripping the copper pipes out of the walls?"
   "Could even be drugs. It's a nice place for a shooting gallery. It's weatherproof but off the beaten track."
   "Much of that go on round here?"
   "More than enough to keep my bosses unhappy."

Albert Brewer watched from the end of the lane as Royle and the copper got out of the car and entered the grounds of the factory. Without making a firm commitment to action, he rolled down the lane and parked beyond the factory's gates. His trench coat concealed a canvas sling on his left shoulder that was joined by a hook at his right hip. The sling allowed him to hang the shotgun by the trigger guard. He could carry the weapon, concealed by his coat, without using his hands.
   The place looked ideal. A body could lie in the factory until its stink revealed its presence. The copper was an unwelcome complication. Everyone knows that the police make that bit more of an effort when one of their own gets the chop. But individual shotgun pellets do not leave a trail back to the particular weapon that fires them and Brewer had a low opinion of the investigative powers of the Shepford police force. They had got the wrong man for his brother's murder - and no one at all for the murder of Draggo Lambert.
   As he moved toward the building, Brewer realized that a second body would provide a welcome diversion. The police would never know if Royle had been the prime target and the copper had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or vice versa. Things were shaping up very nicely.
   Brewer slid round a half-open door and used the corner of a short entrance hall for cover. Royle and Erskine were twenty yards away across a rubble-strewn machine shop, pulling faces over a crisp packet with a faint pong of aromatic solvents.
   Brewer slid two cartridges into the shotgun and eased it closed, muffling the click of the latch with his coat. He considered attracting the attention of the two men, then decided to do it with the gun. Raising it to his shoulder, he turned the corner and took aim at Royle.
   There was an object under his right foot. Brewer pushed it away and found his foot skidding after it on a patch of grease. His finger tightened on the trigger as he struggled for balance. An explosion and a crash demolished one of the surviving frosted light globes.
   Royle and Erskine jerked round and saw a figure starting to aim a shotgun in their approximate direction. They turned to run directly away from the threat. A hail of pellets crashed into a wall as they leapt through a doorway.
   They were in a stairwell and the only way to go was up. Two fridges, a mattress, a battered pram and other discarded household junk blocked the passage to the ground-floor exit. A door at first-floor level was locked.
   Feet pounded after them. Pellets chipped paint from the walls as Brewer tried for a lucky ricochet. The next door was locked. Royle and Erskine panted up to the next landing, trying to put some distance between themselves and their pursuer. Erskine held his personal radio to his mouth and gasped out his call sign.
   No reply came from the radio. They ran out of stairs at the fourth floor. They charged a door together. It flew away from them and crashed against the wall. Their momentum carried them along a short length of corridor and through a doorless arch into open space.
   Mouths wide open, painfully dry, Royle and Erskine breathed vast quantities of air in and out as they paused to take stock of their position. The door to the fire escape had been nailed shut inexpertly but thoroughly. The untarnished heads and bent shanks were clearly visible against dark brown paint. A double row of pillars, too thin to hide a man, ran the length of the workroom to a jungle of benches, boxes, roomless doors and other junk at the far end. The sound of a shotgun discharging below sent them dashing for cover.
   Erskine found his mind racing in helpless circles but he refused to face the possibility of personal extinction just yet. His radio seemed to have packed up, perhaps because it had whacked against something in the mad dash for the stairs. There had to be some way out.
   "I wonder if we could get up on the roof?" he panted in a hoarse whisper.
   The grimy skylights were within reach of a tower of debris, but if they had not been painted shut, they were protected by wire mesh screwed to the frames.
   "What would we do up there?" said Royle between deep gulps of air. "We're four floors up, you know."
   "That shouldn't worry a stuntman like you." Erskine amazed himself by being able to make a joke in what could be the last minute of his life.
   "It worries me if there's nothing soft on the ground." Royle dropped into his part automatically.
   "I don't know about you, but I think we've run out of places to go," Erskine decided. "About all we can do is split up and try to jump him. Maybe I can use one of those doors as a shield and keep his attention while you clobber him."
   "These doors are only hardboard shells. He'd blow a hole in you and the door both."
   "In that case, I'm open to suggestions," said Erskine grimly as the shotgun bellowed again. "What the hell's he doing?"
   "Firing round corners to make sure we don't drop something on him?" Royle pointed to a gloomy corner. "There's a room over there. Let's check it out."
   The fugitives found themselves in a small, evil-smelling lavatory. The window was a foot tall and six inches wide, and painted shut. Erskine balanced on cracked porcelain and tried the skylight.
   "This bastard's nailed shut too," he reported. "I think we've run out of places to go now. I don't think we've got time to get this wire mesh off."
   Royle spun back to the door; and suddenly realized what it was in his anorak pocket that kept banging against his hip. "If I told you I could lay my hands on a gun so we could give him something to think about, I suppose you'd arrest me?"
   "If you know where there's a gun, I'll tell any story you want," Erskine assured him.
   Royle dug into his left-hand anorak pocket and produced the Trojan pistol in its plastic bag. "You could have spotted this in the cistern while you were looking at the window."
   "Why the hell didn't you get that out before?" demanded Erskine.
   "I forgot about it. Yeah, really. All I could think about was getting away from that nutter."
   "You forgot you had a gun in your pocket?"
   "I know it sounds daft." Royle shrugged. "But I was too busy looking for a way out of here."
   "Where did you get this." Erskine hurried back into the workroom to look for a defensible space. He identified and released the safety catch. He worked the slide to load a round into the breech, ejecting the cartridge already there.
   The shotgun roared again below them. Albert Brewer was taking his time and working on his victims' nerves, knowing now that he had them trapped.
   "Bought it off a bloke on a film set in Spain," improvised Royle, sticking fairly close to the truth. A man in a Spanish bar had offered to sell him a gun. "I was there for a week last month and I was going to drive to Nice for another week. And you must have heard all these stories on the news about armed bandits robbing tourists in southern France."
   "Maybe. But why are you carrying it about over here? Not that I'm complaining."
   "I shoved it in my pocket in case that Draggo bloke had another go at me. If he whipped his knife out, I was going to whip that out and tell him to get stuffed. This is the first time I've had this anorak on in over a week."
   "I've always wondered whether you had anything to do with him ending up in the canal."
   "You and your K.G.B. inspector both. I suppose it's your job to call people bloody liars but I'm getting a bit pissed off with it. You don't think I teleported myself back here from Amsterdam? 'Beam me to the cut, Scottie!'"
   "I suppose people do have real accidents. You didn't lend this gun to someone for a frightening job that went wrong?"
   "If you're after a death-bed confession, hard bloody luck. I had sod all to do with Draggo ending up in the canal. I'm surprised you're not trying to put me in the frame for the Great Train Robbery too."
   "Coppers are born with suspicious minds. What he doing?"
   Another muffled explosion seeped through the floor.
   "Maybe he's not sure how far we ran up the stairs. And he's popping off into a few dark corners, just to be on the safe side. Look; if Draggo had wrapped his car round a lamp post, would you have come looking for me?"
   "I suppose not," Erskine admitted. He moved into the shelter of a bench that seemed to be made of solid wood with a metal top. His radio was still dead.
   "Well, then!" Royle took cover beside him.
   "Unless there was evidence another car shoved him into it. Which would be a doddle for an experienced stunt driver."
   "Is there the smallest scrap of evidence someone shoved Draggo in the canal? Evidence, not wishful thinking?"
   "To be honest, no."
   "Well, then!"
   "Can we forget Draggo for the moment? That character's going to be coming up the stairs to our floor any moment. Have you ever used this gun?" Erskine banged his radio on the floor in a desperate attempt to knock some displaced item back into alignment. It still refused to work.
   "I did a bit of target practice when I bought it. Are we in a dead spot for your radio?"
   "I don't know. Are you any good with the gun?"
   "The bloke who showed me how it works, he said I can always use it as a club if the other bloke gets close enough."
   "I've done some firearms training so I'll hang on to it. What was it in a plastic bag for?" Erskine was surprised in passing by his own calmness and ability to focus on details. It was the weapon, of course. It made all the difference between the terror of certain extinction and the ability to hold the gunman at a safe distance. It was a more reliable aid to survival than his defective radio.
   "Stops fluff getting in the works," said Royle.
   "And water, if it was in a cistern. Is it fully loaded?"
   "I think there's twelve rounds in the magazine."
   "That sounds like you were ready to use it on friend Draggo." Erskine removed the magazine to check that it was full and reloaded the ejected cartridge.
   "The bloke I got it off, he said, 'Waving an unloaded gun around can get you killed.' That's why I bought a full clip of ammo too."
   "He sounds a bit like your late, lamented pal Lenny Suskin." Erskine found himself shaking with delayed relief. He had just collided with the possibility of having to bluff an armed man with an empty pistol. He was safely past that nightmare now.
   "This bloke reckoned he'd worked on some cop shows for American telly. Ones with off-duty cops around as advisors," improvised Royle.
   Erskine caught a movement at the doorway across the workroom. "Look out, he's here."
   Shotgun pellets flew at random and shattered an already cracked window. Crouched behind a bench, Erskine held the pistol in a two-handed grip, left hand cupping and supporting his right hand. Royle kept his head down and waited. There was nothing else for him to do. He had been reduced to the role of unarmed war correspondent.
   "All right, you bastards. You've got nowhere else to go so you must be in here," Albert Brewer called. He advanced into the workroom, the muzzle of his shotgun searching for targets.
   "I'm a police officer," began Erskine.
   "Big deal!" yelled Brewer.
   "And I have to warn you I am armed. Put that gun down."
   "Nice try, pity it's just bollocks," sneered Brewer.
   He felt a surge of confidence. He had been following with caution in case Royle was carrying a real pistol, not a novelty cigarette lighter. The lack of return fire told Brewer that Royle was unarmed. The copper's warning had to be a bluff born of sheer desperation.
   A spasm of cramp stabbed at Royle's left leg. He had to straighten it right away. He kicked over a box of empty soft drink cans. Brewer fired at the noise. Red-hot needles stabbed at Royle's arm and right side. He shot up into the air, drawing breath for a yell of pain; which was aborted when his head slammed into the underside of the workbench. Coloured shapes exploded in front of his eyes.
   From a long way away, he heard Erskine shout, "Armed police! Put that shotgun down!"
   Brewer just laughed, refusing to believe him. It was a rotten bluff. It was a pathetic bluff. It was an insult. Brewer fired at the second voice. Erskine let out a thin shriek.
   Something bounced off Royle's right leg and clattered to the floor. He scrambled out from under the bench and found the gun beneath his hand. Brewer was reloading his shotgun. Royle rested his right hand on the bench and tried to put every shot through the same hole in the other man's chest.
   He told himself to reserve one bullet for emergencies. An empty weapon, he remembered from one of Bob Parker's occasional lectures, is just so much scrap iron. Unfortunately, his eyes were watering furiously as he blasted away. His vision was still playing tricks from the bang on his head and the target would not keep still. He fired two more shots after the man in the trenchcoat had ducked out of sight into the stairway, trying for hits with lucky ricochets off the brickwork. Then there was nothing to shoot at.

 

29. Patching Up

 

A strange silence fell in the workshop as the echoes of shots faded and the metallic pattering of ejected cartridge cases ceased.
   "You okay?" grunted Erskine, realizing that he was not dead yet and, with a handkerchief pressed to his brow to stop the blood running into his eyes, not blind.
   Royle wiped his streaming eyes, cleared his throat, spat. His nose and mouth were full of the bite of spent powder. His ears were ringing from the explosions of the shots. He became aware of discrete aches in his right arm, right side and the top of his head. There was blood on his anorak, leaking through a collection of neat holes.
   "Shit! Look at that! The bugger's ruined," he complained.
   His wounds did not feel particularly mortal and they were trivial compared to the damage caused by the crossbow bolt that had impaled his right shoulder the previous autumn and ruined another anorak. The replacement had been written off just six months later.
   "You look like an explosion in a tomato ketchup factory," Royle added to Erskine.
   "Where's he got to?" Erskine peeped cautiously over the bench. He too was partially deaf after the long succession of explosions nearby.
   "Scarpered."
   Albert Brewer had gone, leaving behind his shotgun and a few spots of blood. Erskine pushed to his feet. His handkerchief was saturated and sticky. He had to tilt his head to keep the blood clear of his eyes. He had heard that scalp wounds bleed like a burst water main. He knew now that they do indeed pour out blood.
   "You'd better give me the gun. Is it empty?" Erskine had lost count of the shots that Royle had fired.
   Royle pressed the magazine release and caught it as it fell out of the handle of the pistol. "Four in the maga, and another one up the spout." He replaced the magazine and de-cocked the hammer before he surrendered the weapon. "Safety off. You've got five chances at him if he's waiting to ambush us."
   "You mean you missed him with half a dozen shots? From less than fifteen yards?" Erskine said incredulously. He noticed that Royle seemed to be shouting too, proving that they had both been deafened by all the shooting.
   "I never said I'm any good with it," Royle protested as he dabbed with his handkerchief at his watering eyes. "And I was seeing two of him. I tried to shoot between them."
   Erskine moved quickly across the workroom and looked out into the staircase slowly and carefully. There was no one in sight. He could see dusty spots of blood on the floor near the shotgun. He took care not to add his own blood to them as he looked at the weapon. He realized that he needed another pair of hands. Holding a handkerchief to his wound with one hand and clutching the pistol in the other left him unable to find out if the shotgun was still loaded.
   Royle solved the problem by picking up the shotgun and pressing the release. He broke the weapon slowly. "Both fired," he remarked after looking at the cartridges. "This is no use if we've got no spares."
   "Okay, bring it with you," said Erskine. "Don't tread in the blood. Maybe you didn't miss him after all. Oh, and thanks for saving my life."
   "I was saving my own life at the time so you don't have to be too grateful."
   "I wonder if anyone's heard all the shooting and phoned the police?"
   "I can't hear any sirens. And we're a bit out of the way. Still," Royle put on a twisted smile, "you'd better not wave that around when we get out of here in case a police sniper picks you off."
   "We'd better get down to the car and report in. And I've got a first-aid kit in it, which we both need. Have you got any more ammo for this gun?"
   "Not on me. It was for frightening Draggo, not starting World War Three."
   "If you've got any more at home, you'd better ditch it in the canal or somewhere safe. First chance you get. Okay?"
   "Yeah, okay. It's not much use without the gun anyway. Look at the state of this bloody anorak!"
   "You really don't have any nerves, do you?" Erskine was feeling shaky but he told himself it was a psychological reaction rather than a physical one and something to be ignored. "There's been a bloke trying to bloody kill you and all you can think about is a few holes in your anorak. What about the holes in your skin? He could have put you in a wooden box."
   "I can grow plenty of skin. I can't grow new clothes. And he wasn't up to much anyway."
   "Okay, let's get out of here. I'll go first. He may have gone but keep your eyes open."
   They started down the stairs with Erskine in the lead, sweeping the area ahead with the muzzle of Royle's pistol. He had to force himself to open his attention span out from a tight focus on himself. Now that the excitement was over, Royle seemed totally unaffected by what had happened to them, which irritated Erskine profoundly. Royle, the stuntman, was through the incident and getting on with his life again. Erskine, the professional dealer with trouble, was in pain, confused and still scared to death. Worse, part of Royle's unconcern seemed to be due to an assumption that Erskine was in control of the situation.
   "Anyway," Erskine added, determined not to be left too far behind in the cool-customer stakes, "you can always make a pocket for the one that got slashed out of what's left of this anorak."
   "That's life all over," laughed Royle. "One anorak gets slashed so the other gets holes blown in it to make another pocket. You ever get the feeling you should have stayed in bed?"
   "That's where I wish I was right now."
   "What d'you reckon that mad sod was doing here?"
   "He could have something stashed here. Drugs, maybe. He might have thought we were business rivals trying to rip him off. Or he could be a watchdog. I'd better get the Drug Squad out here."
   "It's going to take them six months to search this wreck," remarked Royle.
   Moving from cover to cover, alert for an ambush, Erskine charted a course down the stairs and across the ground-floor workroom. He spent five minutes looking out at the open ground in front of the factory before he felt ready to make the dash for his car. Royle watched their rear, the shotgun resting on his left shoulder as just a heavy ornament.
   There was no one around when they reached the lane. It was a Monday afternoon in May and hundreds of children and their teachers were gathered in and around the buildings on the far side of the playing field. None of them seemed to have noticed the gun battle next door.
   Erskine felt both relieved and outraged. He would not have to fend off hordes of screaming kids and try to keep them out of the factory building. At the same time, he was dismayed to learn that his body could have lain undiscovered in the factory until someone investigated the abandoned car; which could have been stolen and dumped elsewhere...
   It was not a line of thought to follow for any great distance, he told himself.
   Erskine put the pistol on the roof of his car, within easy reach, and tried his radio again. It was still dead. "Useless bloody thing," he remarked.
   Royle took the radio out of his hand, held it out at arm's length and dropped it onto hard-packed gravel.
   "Making sure of it?" said Erskine.
   "You never know." Royle shrugged. "Try it now."
   The radio seemed to be receiving after a fashion, throwing out hiccups of distorted speech. Erskine pressed the transmit button and tried to contact the local C.A.D. room. None of the bursts of sound from the radio seemed to be a reply. Just as he was deciding to look for a phone box, a police car turned into the lane, roared up to his vehicle and snatched to a halt.
   Royle had raided the first-aid kit and provided Erskine with a huge pad of reddening cotton wool and an inexpert turban of gauze. Erskine's scalp wounds were still bleeding freely. Royle's injuries had slowed to a thick trickle.
   "Give me your radio," Erskine told a shocked constable, who was just staring at his bandaged head. He was feeling weak and a little faint, but he had a job to do.

D.I. Rostov, driven by D.C. Mitchell, arrived just in time to have a few words with Erskine before the ambulance left. Rostov sent Mitchell back to Shepford in Erskine's car to get the shotgun fingerprinted. There was a description of the gunman in circulation, but he was thought to have a vehicle. A trail of widely separated blood spots stopped just past the gate of the abandoned factory. What the hunters needed was a positive identification from fingerprints, then a photograph and biographical information to tell them just how dangerous their quarry was.
   Rostov found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to thank Royle for saving the life of one of his men. It was obvious that the words stuck in his throat. He believed that Royle was trouble and that he owed Erskine an apology for involving the detective in his violent life. Royle had accepted the thanks gracefully and Rostov had accepted the story about finding the pistol in a cistern without comment. It had become part of the official record.

Royle's injuries were described officially as slight. The pellets had shed most of their momentum fighting through a wooden screen. Just the same, Royle had to put up with injections of local anaesthetic and the duty doctor in the accident and emergency department saying, 'One more from the lead mine,' every time a pellet clunked into a kidney dish.
   D.S. Erskine had been wounded with more force by three pellets, which had struck the steel top of the workbench and skimmed across its surface instead of bouncing over his head. The pellets had cut grooves in his scalp and he had been wheeled off to the X-ray department to be checked for a possible skull fracture.
   Bandaged and wearing a theatre gown instead of his bloody clothes, Royle sprawled on the bed in his cubicle and let D.S. Orwell extract a detailed account of his ordeal. Orwell's long face settled into a stony expression when Royle insisted that he could not identify the gunman.
   When not running away from him or taking shelter under the doubtful protection of the bench, he had been seeing stars through eyes filled with tears of pain. Royle had a bruised area on the top of his head to back up the story. Further, he had no idea why anyone would want to kill him; if he had been the target.
   "After all," he pointed out after another sip of tea, "people try and knock off coppers too. I bet you guys have got lots more enemies than me. He could have been after Sergeant Erskine. Or he could have had something hidden in the factory and he didn't want us poking around in there."
   "Except you've got a history of people having a go at you," said Orwell. "Remember Draggo Lambert?"
   "I remember him all right. But do you remember that the first time I met him was when he tried to mug me? He started it."
   "What if there's more to it than that? What if someone else set him on you?"
   "Well, I don't know who. You're the detective, pal. You've had long enough to find out."
   "Maybe if we fit this latest bloke into the picture, we'll start to get somewhere," suggested Orwell grimly.
   "If that's supposed to make me break down and confess to something, hard luck," laughed Royle.
   "Bit of a saint, are we, sir?"
   "It won't bother me if you find out why people are trying to kill me. If they are. I'd like to know myself."
   "He had a Yorkshire accent. Where is it you're from?"
   "Big place, Yorkshire. And I haven't lived there for ages."
   "We're going to catch up with this character very quickly. Especially if you managed to put a hole or two in him."
   "I hope you string him up by his thumbs. Or he bleeds to death. Can I go home now? I'm shagged out and I've got a headache. And I bet I can get a doctor to say I'm in no shape to answer more questions."
   "I suppose so. But we'll want to talk to you again."
   "Surprise, surprise."
   "There's a bunch of reporters hanging around outside if you feel like becoming a hero. We'd rather you didn't talk to them but we can't stop you. Sign these."
   "They can get stuffed for a start." Royle put a shaky signature on each page of Orwell's handwritten notes. "Say ta-ra to Joe Erskine for me. He can have your bloody reporters all to himself."
   D.S. Orwell turned left out of the cubicle and followed the signs to the hospital's X-ray department. Erskine's head had been rebandaged professionally. He was slumped in a chair, also wearing a theatre gown, drinking hot, sweet tea and looking exhausted.
   "What's the verdict?" said Orwell. "A brain transplant?"
   "They're still developing the films but they say it's just a precaution. Any news?"
   "Nothing yet. No reports of some character in a trench coat bleeding all over the place. What's all this rubbish about finding a gun in the cistern in a bog?"
   "Our good luck," said Erskine firmly.
   "Come off it, Joe. That sort of luck is a bit too bloody good. He was carrying it round with him, wasn't he?"
   "If we hadn't found it in that cistern, you'd have been going to a funeral, Brian. Think about that. There's absolutely no doubt that bloke was going to kill us."
   "Okay, if you put it like that. But if that gun's got any history, we can't just leave it there."
   "I'm sure Royle knows that. What about him? Are we giving him a watchdog?"
   "I phoned K.G.B. about that. He reckons not yet. He reckons the bloke's going to be lying low for a while if he's been wounded. He's probably in the same sort of shape as you and your friend Royle. You sure you don't want a watchdog yourself, Joe?"
   "I didn't recognize him, I'm sure of that. If he was after one of us, it wasn't me. Unless he's doing a favour for a friend."
   "Maybe you'd better stay away from this Royle bloke in future. He's trouble."
   "Tell that to K.G.B. It's all his fault. He told me to keep up an interest in Royle. And since when are we supposed to run away from trouble?"
   "No one said anything about running away," said Orwell patiently. "But who says you have to be standing right next to the bomb when it goes off?"

An ambulance was delivering elderly out-patients to addresses as far out as Boxbey. Royle cadged a lift, feeling as stiff and sore as the oldest, most arthritic passenger. He was wearing a borrowed overall and carrying his bloodstained clothing in two carrier bags. He had seen none of the reporters, but he felt sure that they were lurking about somewhere close.
   The ambulance dropped him at the end of Mulberry Street in Fenton. His fellow passengers had noticed the bloodstained stuffing hanging out of the anorak in one of his carrier bags. Showing true British reserve, they had ignored him.
   Royle turned into the lane behind the houses on the eastern side of Lion Street and entered his flat via the air raid shelter and his kitchen. His telephone was emitting muffled rings, which were supposed to be too faint to invite burglars into an empty flat. When he glanced out of a window at the front, he noticed two cars parked hopefully outside. Some of the reporters knew where he lived. The caller gave up. Royle took the opportunity to phone Bob Parker to tell him about his latest brush with death.
   "I've just been hearing about you on the radio," laughed Parker, assuming that there was nothing much wrong with Royle if he sounded all right on the telephone. "I heard you'd been shot at. You and a copper. Are you in hospital?"
   "Nah, I'm out again. Just some second-hand shotgun pellets. Can you lend me a gun? In case this bloke has another go or someone else tries it? The cops have got my Trojan. I had to use it to chase the bloke off."
   "You're sure you're not calling from the nick? This isn't your one phone call?"
   "I'll tell you all about it when we meet."
   "We can take a stroll along the canal. See you at the aqueduct at your end of Hythe. Quarter of an hour?"
   His telephone resumed its muffled ringing as soon as Royle replaced the receiver. He ignored it and went into the bedroom in search of clothing. Having emptied the pockets, he dumped his jeans with his underpants in the bath to soak out the bloodstains. His shoes and socks were untouched.
   The wreck of his tee-shirt could be used as a cleaning rag, but he decided to ditch it along with his collection of slashed and shot blue anoraks. Although retired from the drugs trade, he had made a useful amount out of his stunt work and he could afford to throw some of it at the clothing industry.

Parker had been waiting for five minutes when Royle reached the top of the steps to the aqueduct on the outskirts of Hythe, having been lucky with the buses. Royle perched on the stone parapet, taking care to keep his trunk upright. He related the details of his exercise in survival then invited comments from an expert.
   "Well, you are a proper pillock, Johnny!" chuckled Parker. "Fancy giving your piece to that copper."
   "He said he's an expert marksman," protested Royle. "And you know what you say when I do some target practice."
   "What, your best bet is to get close enough to hit the other bloke with your gun? That's just the luck of the draw, me old love. Some blokes can't shoot for toffee and others don't have the guts to pretend to be a stuntman when they don't know the first thing about it. You know what your trouble is? You think all you have to do is follow what an expert tells you and everything will be all right. It's going to get you into a lot of bother one day."
   "Oh, sod off. It's all right you being wise now, expert."
   "Fair enough. But you've got to learn an important lesson from this, Johnny. If someone's trying to kill you, blow him away as soon as you get a clear shot at him. If you can, you shoot him in the back, and try and get him in the head from close range. And you put four or five rounds into him. What you don't do is give him any sort of warning, especially nothing like that armed police crap."
   "Well, yeah, I suppose I should have guessed he'd do that," Royle admitted. "You see them doing it on telly all the time. But in real life! With that bloke coming after us with a shotgun! I suppose he was just following his training because he couldn't think of anything better to do."
   "And letting that bloke shoot him after he'd popped off at you, Johnny! Your copper mate's a bit bloody clueless."
   "Probably the first time anyone ever shot at him."
   "Oh, hark at him!" crowed Parker. "You've only been shot at twice. And you got hit both bloody times. I suppose you reckon you're an expert on being shot at now?"
   "I reckon I could get an O-Level in it."
   "You'd be better off with a bullet-proof vest and a tin hat, old son. Still, I suppose that copper owes you one now. It was his stupid fault you got lead poisoning."
   "I don't know if it's safe to hang around to collect."
   "Getting a bit hot for you here?" grinned Parker.
   "I suppose it can't take the cops long to catch up with him if he's been shot. Oh, yeah. Can you use two clips of thirty-two ammo? D.S. Erskine warned me to get rid of it."
   "Might come in useful. Anyway, the piece you wanted. This is a Bauer Model S.B. A twenty-five auto with a six-round magazine. It looks like a novelty cigarette lighter but it kills okay at close range. I brought you a leg holster. Keeps it just above your ankle. Make sure your trouser legs are a bit long and they're not too tight. And watch yourself when you sit down. So you don't know who's trying to blow you away?" Parker handed over the replacement pistol in a padded mailing bag.
   "If he's after me, he's no sportsman, that's for sure." Royle knelt down to strap the holster above his left ankle, keeping his trunk straight. The painkillers were not doing their job too well and the bandages had the same effect as a corset.
   "If they do catch him, he might tell them why he wants you dead," said Parker. "Which is another good reason for legging it. Or are you going to move in with me for a while? I suppose I've got room."
   "Room?" scoffed Royle. "Do I get a free bike to get about your wide-open spaces? Thanks, but I'll stick to my place. And what can this bloke know? Or more important, what can he prove about me?"
   "You've never been someone to worry about trouble before it drops on your doorstep, have you? I hope you know what you're doing, old son."
   "I know, you'll put that on my gravestone," grinned Royle.
   "Well, you know where I am if you get in too deep, old son," said Parker. "As long as I'm not out when you call."

 


 

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