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DEATH IS A STRANGER #6


30. Expectations

 

At the inevitable press conference, the police spokesman gave a subtle stress to the possibility of a drugs angle to the shooting, even though nothing of any significance had been found in the derelict factory. Drugs dealers were well known to be armed, dangerous, paranoid and well armed, which added credibility to the story of a police officer finding a gun conveniently concealed on the premises.
   D.S. Erskine's skull had survived intact. His injuries were swollen and painful, and he would be off work for at least a week, but no lasting damage had been done. He had been detained overnight in hospital as a routine precaution.
   Royle slipped out of his flat by the back door when he went to buy an evening paper at ten to five. He found himself mentioned half-way down page four. He was described as a Mr. Royal of Fenton. The brief account contained a bulletin on the injured detective. It confirmed that shots had been fired but not that Mr. Royal had pulled one of the triggers.
   The reporters had given up on him, but Royle found D.S. Orwell on his patio, peering into the kitchen, when he returned from the newsagent. He invited the detective in and offered him a chair and a drink. To his surprise, Orwell looked at the half-full double-flagon of cider on the storage unit, then nodded. Royle filled two half-pint mugs. Orwell emptied his mug in three thirsty gulps and accepted a refill.
   "Do a lot of reading?" he remarked, eyeing the piles of paperbacks and hardbacks on the storage unit. He seemed to be implying that Royle had a lot more time on his hands than a busy detective.
   "Everyone has to have a hobby." Royle fell back on a cliché in order not to waste time on a futile attempt to justify his habits.
   "Some of us are too bloody busy to have hobbies. Anyone you know?" Orwell produced a set of postcard-size photographs from an inside pocket.
   Royle examined the faces closely, but he had to shake his head eventually. "It was like this when Joe Erskine showed me the pictures of Draggo after he had a go at me. I didn't know any of them either. And I didn't get much of a look at this bloke, either."
   "Hmmm!" Orwell frowned. He had been watching Royle's face closely and there had not been the slightest flicker of recognition. "Albert Brewer. Ever heard of him?"
   "Nope," said Royle confidently.
   "Got out of Strangeways three weeks ago. He went down for five years for armed robbery but he behaved himself. He was living less than twenty-five miles from you before he went for his holiday three years ago."
   Royle looked through the photographs again. "No, there's not even someone I know by sight. Like I keep telling you, Yorkshire's a bloody big place. And twenty-five miles is a bloody long way. It's over half-way to Manchester from where I was living in Leeds. Or York, going the other way."
   "He's the brother of T.J. Brewer."
   "I've heard of T.J. Hooker, alias Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in a wig."
   "He was Olly Markham's driver and bodyguard."
   "Markham? Didn't his car blow up last year?"
   "You ever meet him?"
   "Mmm, yeah, come to think of it. He tried to pick a fight with me once. In a pub."
   "And?"
   "And nothing. I was on my way out and he lost interest. I didn't know who he was at the time. Wasn't he done in by that Mulgraham bloke? Along with Lenny Suskin?"
   "Which pub?" Orwell ignored the crack about Lenny Suskin. It was a reference to the grilling that Orwell given Royle when he had been suspected of murdering Suskin.
   "I don't know what it's called. I think it was just off the main road in Welling."
   "That'll be The Orb. What was T.J. doing while Olly was trying to pick a fight with you?"
   "Maybe he was in the bog instead of holding this Olly's hand. I wouldn't know him if you showed me a photo of him. I probably wouldn't know Markham either. His photo was in the papers, but that was ages ago."
   "Hmmm," said Orwell. He had slipped a photograph of T.J. Brewer into the collection to check for a reaction. There was a very slight family resemblance between the brothers. Neither had produced a change in Royle's expression. "When was this fight that didn't happen?"
   "Couldn't say." Royle shrugged. "Must have been before he got blown up. I think he wanted me to go walkies."
   "Yes, that's a classic bit of Markham, wanting someone to go walkies with him."
   "As I said, I was on my way out of the pub and he didn't bother coming after me. So nothing happened. What about Joe Erskine? Maybe he had a run-in with Markham. Or his minder. And what about the drugs they were going on about in the paper?"
   "We both know that's a convenient silly story." Orwell smiled grimly. "Like someone finding a gun in a cistern."
   "Have you ever been chased by a bloke with a shotgun?" Royle smiled back at the detective. "Or shot at?"
   "Not recently," said Orwell, meaning never.
   "If it ever happens to you, maybe you won't think the story sounds quite so silly. If you don't end up collecting a free wooden overcoat. I take it you haven't got this bloke yet. T.J.'s brother?"
   "Albert Brewer? Not yet. But it's only a matter of time. We found seven cartridge cases from your gun but only six bullets, which means one at least hit him and it may still be in him. Someone's going to have to chop it out and patch him up. And not many people are going to want to know a bloke who shot a copper."
   "So you're looking at all the struck-off doctors in the area?"
   "Among other things." Orwell drained his glass. "We'll be in touch again, so stay available."
   Royle watched the detective return to his car, then he strolled back up the stairs to his flat to finish his own cider. Royle felt certain that the police would catch up with Albert Brewer while he was recovering from his bullet wound.
   He knew from personal experience that being shot is very painful at the time and very painful for a long time afterwards. He was feeling quite perky, but only because the pain-killer pills were finally starting to work.
   The doctor had told him to have a quiet night in. His telephone had stopped its persistent muffled ringing. Royle decided not to bother Amber with his troubles if she had not read about him in the evening newspaper. It was the evening for her television serial and time takes the drama out of narrow squeaks.
   After dinner of a pork chop in tomato sauce with chips, baked courgettes and green and red pepper slices, Royle settled down in front of his fan heater with an orange and a book. He had paid 2 for the latest edition of The Good Soldier veyk. The dust jacket was torn but the hardback book itself was complete and in a readable condition.

The chimes of Big Ben coming up through the floor told Royle that the Peachers had decided to watch News at Ten. The Good Soldier veyk and Blahník had just stolen the colonel's dog and veyk was about to present the animal to poor old Lieutenant Lucá.
   Half way through the next chapter, just after Colonel Kraus had recognized his dog, which the unfortunate Lucá was taking for a walk, Royle heard a splintering crack in his kitchen. He marked his place with the flap of the dust jacket and pushed into the kitchen to investigate an unusual sound.
   The back door was standing open. Famed in the doorway was a man with a gun in his right hand and a crowbar in the left. The intruder pushed the door to with a foot, tucked the crowbar into the belt of his pale trench coat and pushed the top bolt into its socket, all without taking his eyes off Royle. Then he waved Royle back into the living room with a flick of his gun.
   He had not been told to do so, but Royle put his hands up. One of them had been half-raised anyway toward the kitchen light switch. The man's face looked vaguely familiar and the trench coat was a dead giveaway.
   Albert Brewer was in pain and feeling mean. He had been hit by two bullets in the factory. One bullet had grazed his left leg, leaving a raw, aching stripe. The other was still lodged in his body. He had managed to plug his wounds so that he could reach Amy Strutt's flat in the tower block near Welling without alarming her neighbours.
   Having washed his wounds and bandaged them more securely, he had packed his bags and moved out. The rest of his 10,000 would buy him a doctor, who operated without the blessing of the B.M.A., and a place to rest and recuperate until the public had forgotten that he had ever been in the news. But his personal comfort would have to wait until he had taken care of some unfinished business.
   Albert Brewer had just gone into the travel business on a single-client basis. He was planning to sneak himself over to Spain without troubling the Spanish Immigration officials. But first, he was going to provide Royle with a complimentary one-way ticket to oblivion.

 

31. Flying Tonight

 

The man with the gun flicked his eyes round the living room to confirm that Royle was alone. Then he backed into the corner by the left-hand front window. Brewer knocked a book to the floor and took the weight off his injured leg by perching on the arm of the chair.
   "Where's you gun?" he asked in a tight voice.
   "The police have got it," said Royle.
   "Turn your pockets out."
   Royle dropped a handkerchief and a bunch of keys to the floor, then pulled out the linings of his pockets, doing the elephant impression without the trunk.
   "Lift your pullover and turn round. Higher. Turn round again."
   Brewer had been caught out once. He was being more careful the second time around. Royle hoisted his pullover half-way to his armpits and revolved to show that he did not have a gun tucked into his waistband. Brewer took two thin strips of black plastic from his left-hand coat pocket and tossed them over to Royle, who picked them up stiffly and examined them curiously.
   The strips of plastic had a tongue with small, backward-facing teeth at one end and a gate at the other end. The tongue could threaded through the gate and a loop pulled down to any desired diameter. The array of shark-teeth ensured that the tongue would go forward only, not back to allow the loop to slacken.
   Royle realized that they were cable ties, as used by electricians to secure bundles of cables, or by American cops to tie up prisoners. He had heard that the only way to remove a cable tie is to cut it off.
   "Put one round your left leg, just below the knee," ordered Brewer. "Thread the other one through it and fasten it round your right wrist. Then, when you can't leg it, we'll go for a drive and a little chat before you get dead."
   "You expect me to walk like that?" protested Royle.
   "The car's right outside." Brewer turned his thumb over his shoulder. "And I want you hobbled so you can't make no trouble. Get on with it."
   Royle knelt on his right knee and looped one of the cable ties round his left leg. His hand was conveniently close to his left ankle and Parker's gun. He drew it from the holster, flicking off the safety catch, straightened his right arm and pulled the trigger when it was pointing at an off-white trench coat until the weapon stopped firing.
   Brewer toppled backwards across the chair and dropped his gun with a thud that made Royle jump. He pulled at the trigger again before he noticed that the slide was jammed back against an empty magazine. He leapt over to the chair. The intruder was quite dead with a sneer on his pale face.
   Royle eased the man to the floor, avoiding noise, and dragged him into the kitchen, which had non-absorbent, vinyl flooring. When he turned the intruder over, he was surprised to find that the back of the trench coat was undamaged. The small calibre bullets had not pierced the body through and through, and a quick death had prevented significant bleeding.
   The palm of his hand just about covered the holes in the front of the trench coat. Royle felt sure that Bob Parker would not be impressed by a good group from a range of eight feet. His prompt action would receive the expert's approval, however. Royle had recognized a clear threat to his own life and he had taken full advantage of surprise. He used the kitchen scissors to cut the cable tie from his left leg. Then he fetched his driving gloves so that he would not leave fingerprints on the contents of the dead man's pockets.
   He had seen the photograph a few hours earlier and the Yorkshire accent was as good a clue as the trench coat. He was still a little surprised to find the name Albert Brewer on the driving licence. He had been sure that Brewer would go to ground to evade the police dragnet. D.S. Orwell had been very convincing and Royle's weakness for believing experts was well established. But Royle's bravado had turned out to be justified - Brewer had not been up to much.
   He found a set of car keys in the right-hand coat pocket. There was a dark-coloured car parked in the lane behind the house. Royle closed the living room door and darkened the kitchen. There was no one about when he checked the car. One of the keys fitted the boot. Leaving it open, he returned to his kitchen and hoisted the body onto his back, shot side uppermost, like a sack of coal.
   The Peachers' curtains offered a red glow to the night. Royle felt sure that they had heard Brewer's gun fall, but a neighbour dropping one solid object was hardly grounds for an investigation. If they had heard his relatively quiet shots, they had ignored them, too.
   With the body locked in the boot, he was able to bolt his back door and dress for a trip into a chilly May night. He gave the blue anorak with the slashed pocket and red stripes along the sleeves its final outing. He left his flat by the front door and circled the block to the lane.
   Brewer's car started without trouble. Royle drove up to Lawrence Road and turned right and left to put himself on the main road into Shepford. Not quite sure where he was going, he took the Bilcross road and descended through Snapely into Hythe. There was a country pub a mile beyond the town on the road to the north-east. Royle stopped there for a pint and a think.

A minor road drifted away to the north-west about half a mile beyond The Wheatsheaf, according to Brewer's book of road maps. It crossed the railway and the canal, then ran down beside Holly Park into Tarring. Royle pulled over to the side of the road just before he reached the canal bridge. Feeling that he was safely miles from anywhere, he began to search the car.
   There was nothing much in the dashboard of Brewer's car, just a cloth for wiping windows, the book of road maps and a torch. The old suitcases on the back seat contained mainly new clothes. Royle found the box for a transistor radio in one of the suitcases.
   Nosily, he opened the box and found it full of money. He put his find on the front passenger seat and left the suitcases where they were. The boot contained a spare tyre, a standard toolkit, a box of shotgun cartridges and a dead body. Royle thought about dumping the car and its owner somewhere but he realized that the police would become even more interested in him if a pathologist found half a dozen bullets from a second weapon in the body. Albert Brewer had to disappear. An informal burial seemed the best bet. The trouble was, where was no spade in his car's toolkit.
   Thinking about digging reminded Royle that there had been a lot of excavation work going on in Holly Park during his week of stunt work. A small mechanical digger had been chomping away to root out leaky lead pipes to the fountain so that they could be replaced by cheaper plastic ones.
   The workmen had stored their tools in a portable hut near the fountain when they weren't brewing up in it. They had also used the roof as a grandstand when the stunt team had been performing nearby. It was a pity that the council had fitted dismountable bollards in the park's gateways to prevent the entry of unauthorized vehicles.
   As he scouted ahead on foot, pursuing a half-formed idea, Royle reflected that it was also a pity that Albert Brewer had not been more chatty. He had died without tell Royle why he wanted him dead - whether someone had put him up to it, like Draggo Lambert, or it had been his own idea. But that was hardly Albert's fault, Royle admitted.
   The pain of a bullet wound was enough to make anyone sparing with his words and Royle had filled Brewer full of lead at the first opportunity. He had had no choice in the matter while Brewer had been holding a gun on him. The interrogation would have been painful for both parties, Royle realized. Every movement, even breathing too deeply, was sending little jabs of pain through Royle's right side and his arm would have been happier in a sling. The pain-killing tablets were wearing off. He swallowed two more dry and tried to tell himself that they would start to work at once.
   Council workmen had removed a section of fence to let the stunt van speed across the tow path and dive into the passing pond above the locks. The gap was still there. Royle knew that if he could get onto the tow path, he could drive into the park. Unfortunately, two large trees blocked the gap between the stonework of the bridge and the park's boundary wall. There was room enough on the other side of the bridge to get down to the tow path, but it wasn't wide enough under the bridge for a car.
   The road went up and down in a gentle hump over the canal bridge. With the innocent confidence of a novice, Royle worked out that if he could get up enough speed and if he turned left, away from the bridge, at the right moment, he ought to be able to jump the canal.
   It was difficult to judge heights and distances by street lights and a torch, but there seemed to be a drop of at least six feet between the grassy bank on the car's side of the bridge and the flagged edge of the towpath. He picked a spot that gave him a fairly straight departure from the bank, noted a landmark on the other side of the canal, then crossed over on the bridge and wedged his torch at forty-five degrees in the grass as an aiming point. It was a one-shot manoeuvre that was full of ifs. The last one went: if the jump didn't come off, how much damage would a car do to the canal?
   Royle went back to one of Brewer's suitcases and extracted two thick sweaters for added padding under his anorak. He hid one of the suitcases in the roadside bushes. There was no room for it in the boot after he had wedged the body with the other, and he didn't fancy the idea of objects rattling around loose in the back of the car while he was trying to jump a canal.
   There was no traffic in sight and nothing had been past him since he had arrived at the bridge. Royle backed along the road to give himself a decent run. He pulled the seatbelt tight and wedged it at the reel. He hoped that the seat was firmly bolted in position.
   Then he was speeding into the white cones of his headlights.
   The engine raced when he was airborne and plunging at the torch. Royle kept his teeth clenched together and his tongue well back. The impact caught him unawares somehow. His pellet wounds yelled in protest. The wheel snatched to one side. Royle pulled it back and trod on the brakes as he tried to keep the car clear of the park's fence.
   Geronimo! he thought belatedly.
   He retrieved the torch, feeling pleased with himself, and pressed on cautiously. He found himself travelling faster as his confidence grew. The tow path and a grass verge beside the fence were plenty wide enough for a car. The drop to the dark water on his left was just a distraction for the faint-hearted.
   He reached the gap in the fence at the passing pond and turned right carefully. He continued to bear right until he reached an area of bushes and shrubs that would absorb the car's outline. Then he switched off lights and engine. He was surrounded by quiet darkness. He needed a little time to enjoy the peace of a park at night before he got on with the rest of the job.
   It was not a particularly warm night but he was wearing an anorak and two thick jerseys over a light pullover and a tee-shirt. He found a dry spot under a tree about twenty yards from the car and settled down to have a smoke. He was feeling drained after the recent excitement but his pain-killers had started to work.

 

32. Parking Place

 

Moving again after a period of rest gave him a few twinges of pain, but Royle had things to do that would not get done by themselves. The time was half past eleven and the park was quiet again. Some kids had been buzzing around in the distance on motorbikes about half an hour earlier, just for the hell of breaking park regulations without the fear of being caught. If there were any courting couples around, none had wandered his way. Cars were still zooming along the main road through Tarring at odd intervals and the last train south had just rushed behind him on its way to Hythe.
   Royle found that he could see well enough to manage without a torch. His eyes had become accustomed to the orange glow spilling through the trees from the road that crossed the canal. The rising Moon was just a new, thin edge. It was no help to the job in hand, but it would not make Royle embarrassingly visible to any midnight strollers.
   He had heard that some padlocks will spring open if struck in the right place with something solid. He belted the lock on the workmen's hut with a stone a few times, and came to the conclusion that he had been misinformed. By some miracle, Albert Brewer's crowbar was still trapped in the belt of his trench coat.
   The body had been well shaken about by the bumpy ride. Royle was relieved to find that Brewer had not stiffened and wedged himself immovably in the boot of his car. He took the precaution of laying the dead man out neatly on the grass beside the vehicle. He had no idea how fast rigor mortis progressed.
   There was a stretch of disturbed ground where the mechanical digger had missed the line of the lead pipes and it had been forced to back-track. The hump of dark earth became a good two feet wide for about three yards. Wearing borrowed wellies, Royle began to dig out recently turned earth, piling it onto a tarpaulin, working slowly to put the least strain on his damaged right arm and side.

His watch was crawling toward half past one by the time Royle had planted Albert Brewer's body and added the last of the surplus earth to a nearby spoil heap, and he was exhausted. He had shed his anorak and both borrowed sweaters in a search for thermal balance. The excavation looked more or less as it had been before - a raw scar awaiting a final rolling and a layer of grass. When the workmen had finished their tidying up, there would be nothing to indicate where Brewer had found his final parking place. But someone was going to get one hell of a shock the next time the pipes to the fountain in Holly Park were repaired. Royle sat in the car for ten minutes and smoked another cigarette. Then he realized that it was twenty to two on a cold morning and time to get moving again.
   He returned to the canal bank and turned right, toward Hythe. Soon, the further trees on his right began to sink with a gentle slope. Just before the section of aqueduct over the road from Tarring to Hythe, Royle stopped the car and made another reconnaissance on foot. If he could get the car down a steep, grassy bank without wrecking it, he would be well on the way to dumping it. He was back to the if-game again.
   He had two choices for the descent. He could either close his eyes, cross his fingers and hope for the best; or he could keep his eyes open, his hands on the wheel and pretend that he was in control of the plunging car.
   It took a considerable effort of will to turn the wheel, rise up a gentle bank and go over the top. The car slid down toward the road, taking very little notice of Royle's attempts to steer. It hit the pavement with a mighty crash and lurched onto the road. When he tried the accelerator, the vehicle picked up speed smoothly. Royle concluded that it had been built in the middle of the week.
   He drove away from Hythe for a couple of minutes, then got out to take a look at the exterior of the vehicle. The front bumper was a bit of a wreck but the car looked all right under street lights at night. The headlights and the rear lights were still working. So were the indicators. The petrol tank was more than a quarter full. He had working wheels. All that he needed was a destination.
   He remembered the busy transport café on the link road from Shepford to the motorway. Keeping his speed just above thirty, Royle plodded through Tarring and into Hetton. Then he turned down Mountjoy Road.
   Bob Parker was alone but not particularly pleased to be woken by his doorbell at five to two in the morning. Outwardly bleary but inwardly alert, he let Royle into the sitting room of his apartment and took a good look at him.
   "You been grave-robbing or something, Johnny?" said Parker. "You look absolutely shagged out."
   Royle spread a newspaper on a chair and crunched onto it. He had given his shoes a rub with a cloth found in the car to get rid of a little mud picked up when he had not been wearing borrowed wellingtons but he had been unable to do much about his jeans. He had acquired stains and damp patches from mid-calf to hips from the sides of Albert Brewer's grave.
   "I had to use this." Royle fished the gun and its holster from his remaining anorak pocket and offered them to Parker. "The bloke that tried to do me this afternoon came back to take me for a ride."
   "I thought he was supposed to be shot up and lying low?"
   "Join the club."
   "So you've planted him? Right, what next?" said Parker efficiently. "Some tidying up?"
   "His car. I want to dump it at the transport café near the motorway. There's some shotgun shells you can have, too."
   "All contributions gratefully received. Okay, you'll need a lift back here from the café. I'll get dressed. There's some Kendal Mint Cake in that jar on the sideboard. You'd better have a couple of bits. You look like you need the energy."
   The rest of the night's work was an easy downhill glide. Royle left Brewer's car at the back of the transport café's car park with the driver's door unlocked and the keys in the ignition. If some joy-rider borrowed it for a burn-up down the motorway, that would help to break the trail even more. Royle felt entitled to one more if to finish things off.
   He was half asleep by the time they reached Parker's home again. Parker allowed him to stretch out on the settee, minus his jeans. Royle took two more of his painkillers to top up the ones that he had taken on arriving in Hetton. He was fast asleep before the blankets arrived. Explanations would have to wait until the morning.

 

33. Questions

 

Councillor George Markham had been enjoying a long weekend break in London with his live-in ladyfriend. Arlette Knight had been campaigning for a look at the big city for a couple of weeks and subconscious spirit messages had warned Markham that it might not be wise to be around the Shepford area while Albert Brewer was on the rampage. When Detective Inspector Rostov caught up with him at the council offices on Tuesday morning, Markham greeted him with wary cordiality and ignorance of the reason for his visit. He had been too busy keeping Arlette entertained to bother with provincial news of a minor gun battle.
   "I was wondering if you could possibly help me with some information about an Albert Brewer, sir," began Rostov when he had been shown to a chair. "I believe you know him," he added, leaving no room for a denial.
   "Ah, Albert, yes," said Markham cautiously.
   "Is there something wrong, sir?" Rostov's radar was picking up a tendency to twitch in the man on the other side of the posh desk.
   "Ah, no." Markham dropped a paperclip, which he had semi-straightened. "It's just that now I always associate any unexpected visit from the police with bad news. Such as Roger Halsey brought me last year."
   "Yes, of course." Rostov took note of Markham's dropping the name of his boss as well as the paperclip. "But our interest in Brewer can hardly be unexpected."
   "Oh? Why?" Markham frowned at him.
   "Well, he was shooting at a police officer yesterday."
   "Good Lord!" Markham did not have to feign disbelief. "Shooting? At a police officer?"
   "Perhaps it wasn't on the news in London," Rostov said with mild sarcasm.
   "If it was, I must have missed it."
   "Perhaps we tend to overestimate the importance of events in our own small corner of the world. Could you tell me why Brewer contacted you, sir?"
   "You must know his brother used to work for me?"
   "Mmm, yes." Rostov noted another reference to Markham's personal tragedy of the previous year and a reminder that he was on tricky ground.
   "T.J. took every opportunity to visit Albert in prison, which he appreciated greatly. He was down here, well, to take a look at where T.J. spent his last days."
   "Can you think of anything he might have said that would explain him shooting at D.S. Erskine? Or a man called Royle?"
   "Ah, no." Markham found himself straightening the paperclip again. He knew that he had reacted to the name Royle. "Erskine?" he frowned, attempting to lay a false trail. "Wasn't he one of the officers who investigated my son's murder?"
   "Not until the later stages, sir. How well off would you say Brewer is?"
   "I shouldn't think 'well off' applies to a man who's just out of prison, Inspector," frowned Markham. He received a blank, K.G.B. stare and an open invitation to break the silence in his own time. "Well, his clothes looked quite new. Nothing too expensive but smart enough. And he has a car."
   "You didn't give him any help in that direction?"
   "Ah, no. I thought he might ask for money, but he didn't."
   "We think he may have come into his share from the job that sent him to prison. Does that sound right to you?"
   "Yes, that could be. As I said, I was half expecting him to ask for money, perhaps as a loan, or even a job. But he didn't seem to be feeling the pinch."
   "When did you see him last?"
   "I think I ran into him about the middle of last week."
   "Have you any idea where he might be now?"
   "You mean you haven't arrested him yet?" Markham was horrified.
   "We expect to very soon," said Rostov confidently. "How soon depends on the co-operation we get from the public."
   "Well, he said he was looking for bed and breakfast accommodation at a pub the first time I saw him. Perhaps in Hythe or Ashley. But I suppose he could hardly stay on there under the circumstances."
   "I was wondering if he might be hiding out in the cottage on your estate, sir. Where his brother used to live. Without your knowledge, of course."
   "No, the cottage is occupied. We have a gardener living there now. No, I really couldn't say where he might be, Inspector. Shot at a police officer, you said? He mean he missed him?" Markham caught up with a significant turn of phrase.
   "With a shotgun. He wounded D.S. Erskine and the other man but they'll survive. We're quite content to charge Brewer with attempted murder. If we can find him before he causes any more trouble."
   "I see," frowned Markham. The paperclip broke under the stress of repeated flexing. "I'm sorry, Inspector, but I really have no idea where he could be. I was under the impression that he was just visiting the area for a short time. He never gave any signs of such a strong grudge against the police."
   "We'd appreciate a ring if you do think of anything useful, sir." Rostov pushed to his feet. The chair had a steel frame and padded arms. The seat was too squashy for his tastes.
   Markham shook the caller's hand and showed him to the door. He had not been too surprised to hear that Brewer had been using Royle for target practice but the news that a police officer had been involved had stunned him. He had assumed that Brewer had more sense.
   He had not been shocked enough to let his tongue run away, however. His association with Albert Brewer would not stand terribly close scrutiny, especially if the interrogator knew his job and he was determined to get as close to the truth as possible.
   Rostov left the office with the impression that he had been told most of the truth but that Councillor Markham had played down his association with the murderous brother of a former employee. It was the done thing for a man in his position to give a helping hand to a criminal who had 'paid his debt to society', as the cliché went. But being pally with a potential killer was something else entirely.
   The reaction of Amy Strutt, Brewer's former girlfriend, to a visit from the police had been more straightforward shock and no shiftiness. She had been hurt by Brewer's abrupt departure, and then relieved to see the back of him when she had found out what sort of man had moved in with her. It would be a long time, Rostov told himself, before she was as trusting again.
   Her cousin had seemed quite pleased with the news that Brewer was a thoroughly bad lot. In fact, it was Edward Hubbart who had phoned Shepford C.I.D. to tell them where Brewer had been living. D.S. Orwell, who had interviewed the cousins, assumed that Eddie was working off his resentment at being cut off from Amy's hospitality.
   What he did not know was that Eddie and his colleagues at the biscuit factory were agreed that they had been stupid to take advice from a crook. All of the trouble at the factory would have been averted, and maybe the redundancies too, if Brewer had not turned up. He had become their scapegoat and they wanted to make as much trouble as possible for him. Helping to put him in gaol was the most trouble that they could manage.
   Brewer with money would be the devil's own job to find, Rostov thought, as he headed back to Shepford police station. Looking on the bright side, a criminal on the run has just one sort of friend - greedy. The sooner his money ran out, the sooner he would run out of people willing to hide him. And if he had to buy expensive medical attention too, his time on the run would be even shorter.
   Rostov found himself hoping that Royle had managed to put one of his random shots somewhere vital so that Brewer's friends would be forced to dump the fugitive at a hospital to save his life. It would be cheaper for the taxpayer if he died on them and the friends buried him somewhere, but Rostov liked tidy solutions. He wanted people who shot at police officers in gaol where they could serve as an example to trigger-happy others.

 

34. Time Waster

 

Royle spent most of his Tuesday morning asleep on Robert Parker's settee. He woke up long enough to drink a cup of coffee, swallow two more pain-killers and eat a bacon sandwich. Breakfast over, Parker took the grave-robber jeans to the launderette to wash off the mud. Royle came to life again at midday, moving slowly and cautiously. After a non-alcoholic lunch of chicken and chips from a local Chinese takeaway and a good wash round his bandages, he let Parker drive him to Eastgate General to get his dressings changed.
   Just after two o'clock, Parker dropped him off at the mouth of the lane behind Lion Street. As he was climbing up to his air raid shelter patio, Royle remembered that the lock on the back door had been crowbarred. A key would not draw the bolts. He set out on the long trek to the front door, wondering if Amber knew about his adventure.
   A million-pound jewel robbery with lots of violence in London was keeping a small shooting near Shepford well down in the news ratings. The local television news had shown a picture of Albert Brewer, but it had placed the emphasis of the story on the shooting of a police officer, not the mysterious Mr. Royal, whom the reporters had been unable to contact.
   Gail and Amber used their television for entertainment, not to watch the news, and they rarely bought a newspaper. Royle and Amber had finished their weekend by arranging to go out that evening. Royle imagined himself having to do a semi-strip to show off his bandages to convince her that he had been attack by a maniac with a shotgun.
   A man got out of a car as he was unlocking the front door left-handed. Royle ignored him for the moment. He had spotted the strange vehicle and recognized the occupant as D.S. Orwell. So many people were trying to stab him or shoot him that his powers of observation were becoming more acute of necessity.
   "Where have you been?" Orwell demanded as he marched up behind Royle. "I've been ringing your bell all morning."
   "In hiding." Royle held the door open for him.
   Orwell waved him on ahead. Royle led the way up the stairs and into his flat. He was just about to offer the visitor a chair when he spotted a gun on the floor.
   "Drink?" he asked, pointing to the bottles on the storage unit. He gave the gun a flick with his foot to kick it under the low skirts of the loose cover on one of the armchairs.
   "If you're having one, I'll join you," nodded Orwell.
   "Have a seat."
   Royle circled his usual armchair to the storage unit - and nearly trod on the gun. He decided to leave it where it was for the moment rather than spend the rest of the afternoon playing football with it. Both chairs were facing the television. When he had handed Orwell a half-pint mug of still cider, Royle turned his chair to face the visitor and covered the gun at the same time. Then he lowered himself carefully into a sitting position. He was more comfortable standing up.
   "You look like you need a doctor," remarked Orwell.
   "I'm too ill to go and see a doctor," Royle told him with a pale grin. "How's Joe Erskine doing? Cheers!"
   "Cheers! He looks like he needs a doctor too. We've found Brewer's car. Out of petrol near Salisbury."
   "Pity he didn't have enough petrol to get to Land's End. Or about ten yards past it. You've not got him yet?"
   "It's just a matter of time. The point is, we think he might take another crack at you. When someone's hauled the bullet out of him and he's feeling better."
   "What's this leading up to? You taking me into protective custody?"
   "Not exactly. The way we see it, you have two options. You can either go back into hiding or you can stay here."
   "The old tiger-hunt scene? You lot up a tree waiting to pick him off when he comes back for the goat? No prizes for guessing who's the goat."
   "Naturally, we can't force you to put your life at risk."
   "I'm surprised your K.G.B. inspector didn't come round and bloody well dare me to stay put."
   "No matter what our personal feelings, we're not allowed to put members of the public into dangerous situations without their full agreement."
   "When does the stake-out start? And for how long?"
   "If you're staying here, eight o'clock tonight. We can't see him coming round here while it's still light. We'll review the situation after a couple of weeks if nothing's happened."
   "As long as he's not stuck in bed for a fortnight getting over his bullet."
   "A man with a bullet in him carves a pretty broad trail. And people have been known to drop a few indiscreet hints to stop the police making such bloody nuisances of themselves looking for him. Brewer shot a copper and we don't like that."
   "But members of the public are fair game?"
   "You know we don't appreciate remarks like that?"
   "Your trouble is you take everything too seriously. You haven't got a twisted sense of humour like the rest of us."
   "Perhaps we don't find Brewer running round with a shotgun very funny," said Orwell grimly. "And you'd do well to take him a bit more seriously."
   "He's not up to much. He made a pig's ear of one go at me. What chance has he got with you lot bodyguarding me? And how do you know he's not after Joe Erskine?"
   "Because he was seen talking to Alan Lambert - before and after he tried to stick a knife in you. Any idea why?"
   "I suppose you won't appreciate it if I suggest your K.G.B. inspector hired him to bump me off?"
   "Not much, no."
   "All I can think of is someone playing games. Like that Mulgraham bloke last year."
   "You and Joe Erskine both. Think about it and let me know if you come up with anything. Another thing we won't appreciate is you trying to shake your escorts, just for fun."
   "Are these watchdogs going to be armed?"
   "Yes, that's another thing - are you?"
   "If you want to search the place, you can keep any guns you find," Royle offered confidently, taking a small, calculated gamble that the detective would not look under his armchair.
   Orwell stared at him for a long moment, then put on a grim smile. "Just how much does it take to bother you?"
   "If your name was Albert Brewer and you were holding a gun instead of an empty glass, I'd be bothered," said Royle. "But you're a cop and you haven't got a gun, so what's there to worry about?"
   Orwell decided to go rather than try for a snappy retort. He left behind his card with a telephone number, which Royle was requested to use to report his destination when he went out.
   After watching the detective drive away, Royle rolled the armchair out of the way and picked up the gun with his handkerchief. The weapon was a .38-calibre revolver with a two-inch barrel of the sort waved around on television by American cops. If there was an assassin on the way, Royle told himself, and he managed to get through the police picket, it would be useful to have a final line of defence.
   He deposited the gun in his hiding place under one of the storage units and refilled his mug. He was not supposed to drink after taking the pain-killers, but a spot of cider wasn't really drinking. He was just about to sit down again when he remembered the state of his back door.
   Two of the screws on the Yale lock had rusted away to pins without threads. The other two had pulled out of rotten wood. The lock had been held in place mainly by successive coats of paint. It was a miracle that a strong gust of wind had not blown it off. Albert Brewer's crowbar had crunched a neat trench in rotten wood.
   Something was missing. Royle thought it over. Then he realized that he had not seen the box for Brewer's radio for a long time. He remembered taking it back to Parker's flat after dumping Albert Brewer's car. He would have to give Bob Parker a ring to tell him to put it somewhere safe.
   His next call would be to someone who could supply a new back door. It would be sensible to get some catches with proper locks fitted to the windows too, to make sure that anyone trying to break in had to make a lot of noise. Another thing that he had to do was find out if the garage had finished messing about with his car. It was turning into a busy and expensive afternoon, but Albert Brewer would be picking up all of his bills.

 

35. Forward Planning

 

A month later, on the longest day of the year, Amber Drummond took a Friday lunchtime bus ride back to Tarring and called in at the travel agency. She returned to the biscuit factory in an optimistic frame of mind. She would be made redundant at the end of the month, in a week's time, but she was on the track of another job in the same line of work. Instead of telling a computer about biscuits, the successful applicant would be telling Tarring Travel's computer about people going on holiday.
   Royle had lost the police presence. He had made such a game out of trying to spot his watchdogs that Amber had absorbed his lack of concern for his own safety. She had been alarmed and fascinated to hear that a man might be trying to kill Royle for either sport or a lot of money, but the sheer normality of the days that followed had pushed thoughts of danger from her mind.
   She also knew that the police were in the habit of hauling Royle in for questioning when murders were reported locally. He had given her non-incriminating highlights of his alleged involvement in the Suskin and Lambert cases. As he seemed to be on chatting terms with most of Shepford C.I.D., Amber had assumed that he was no longer under suspicion.
   D.C.I. Halsey had taken the decision to stop protecting Royle. He believed that Albert Brewer had either died of his wounds or he had been smuggled abroad, perhaps to Spain. After examining Brewer's abandoned car, the forensic technician had suggested that a wounded man, or Brewer's body, might have been hidden in the boot but it was only his impression. He had found nothing definite, like bloodstains.
   In the meantime, Brewer had been spotted all over the country by helpful members of the public but, like sightings of Lord Lucan and Elvis Presley, nothing had come of any of the reports. The lack of whispers from the underworld tended to suggest that Brewer had been consigned to a lonely grave and forgotten.
   D.C.I. Halsey had conveyed both opinions to Councillor George Markham at Race Hill golf club. Being in possession of inside information, Markham had started to consider a third possibility - that Royle had caught up with Brewer. Markham was starting to wonder whether to buy another assassination to ensure his own safety.
   If Brewer had accused Royle of murdering his brother, Oliver Markham and Ryan Naylor; if Royle had questioned Brewer before killing him and he had admitted sharing his suspicions with George Markham; if Royle had killed four men in cold blood or just Albert Brewer in self-defence; if he was level-headed enough to play a waiting game - then Markham could see the merits of Royle's letting the dust settle a little more before striking at another threat called George Markham. The possibilities multiplied frighteningly without hope of confirmation.
   The more he thought about the Royle problem, the more Markham related his position to that of a bomb disposal officer, who could hear a clockwork fuse ticking but who had no idea whether it had been set to run for three weeks or three seconds. He had once heard a bomb disposal officer say on television that the instruction manual advises men in that situation to work faster.
   Markham knew from experience that he could defuse his own personal time bomb by proxy. Albert Brewer had left him a legacy of information. Markham found himself applying the past tense to Brewer automatically. All that he needed were the resolution to use that information - and 15,000 to spare.
   After assassin's fees, he had been left with 17,000 from the sale of his Braxell Plastics shares. He had watched the price of his subsequent investment climb from 52p to 78p. By the time he had paid capital gains tax, his original investment would have shrunk to less than half of its original value with no allowance for inflation.
   Markham wondered if he could set his assassination fees against tax as a business expense. After all, if he ended up dead or in gaol, the Treasury would lose a sizable annual contribution. But even if he had to stand the full expense, he would have been worse off if he had been forced to pay Neil Finch his first blackmail instalment of 50,000.
   Finch's rescripted posthumous disclosures about misuse of council resources had been dismissed as either spite or matters not proven after some conscience money had been paid, but Markham's rivals were treading very warily. He now had an unusual amount of room to manoeuvre to rebuild his investment capital.
   George Markham had discovered that things could go very well for him if he gave them a prod in the right direction. And getting rid of a drug smuggler, who might also be a dangerous killer, could be seen as a public duty.

 

36. Contract Renewed

 

Bob Parker telephoned his answering service in the middle of the morning of the penultimate Sunday in June. Jackie Webb made a couple of cracks about his late call meaning that he had enjoyed a night on the tiles, then she passed on a number and instructions to dial it between twelve and one and ask about concert tickets. Parker copied the information onto a square of card with a feeling that history was repeating itself. He found it hard to believe that two different people in the Alderhey area would want to buy an assassination in just six weeks.
   At ten past twelve, while Gail was busy in the extension kitchen preparing lunch, Parker subtracted his current security figure and dialled his future client's number. The telephone at the other end just rang and rang. Following a hunch, he subtracted 399 and tried again.
   "I'm calling about your concert tickets," he said when a male voice replied.
   "Ah, good," said George Markham, who had taken over the site office at Markham Construction's Alderhey housing development a second time. "I wasn't quite sure if the same procedure would reach you again."
   "It shouldn't have, but I thought your number looked familiar," said Parker.
   "I'd like to meet you as soon as possible to discuss another, ah, job. I have the deposit ready. I wonder if you could manage it this afternoon?"
   "How about your bus shelter at five?" said Parker.
   "That would be excellent," approved Markham.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Parker dropped Gail off in Fenton, where they were to have tea with Amber and Royle. He continued along the main road in the direction of Race Hill. A mile and a half past the Markham Estate, he turned left onto the road that gave access to the rear gate. There was a rumble of thunder in the air but the sun was still glinting from the glass of Councillor Markham's bus shelter in a sun-pit. Parker, suitably disguised in a wig and his incredible moustache, dropped onto a canvas chair and accepted a bulky manilla envelope.
   "Nine thousand pounds," said Markham. "The man's name is Royle and he lives at Flat B, twenty-eight Lion Street in Fenton. That's five miles from here, back towards Shepford. I don't have a photograph, but he lives there alone and there shouldn't be any problem in identifying him."
   "Another blackmailer?" said Parker, doing a magnificent job of hiding sandbagging shock.
   "I don't know if the news reached your part of the world but a man called Brewer tried to kill Royle last month. He's sure Royle killed his brother and my son last October."
   "How about you? Is that what you think?"
   "I don't know," Markham admitted. "The evidence is very thin. But the point is, Brewer paid a man called Lambert to attack Royle to provoke a reaction. Lambert is dead now and no one has heard anything of Brewer since he tried to kill Royle and a policeman."
   "Heavy," remarked Parker.
   "The thing is, I'm worried in case Royle made Brewer talk before he killed him and he thinks he has to kill me too to protect himself. He may think I'm liable to carry on where Brewer left off."
   "Sounds a dangerous sort of bloke, this Royle." Parker struggled valiantly against an urge to laugh.
   "A simple shooting will do. Brewer was wounded when he attacked Royle. The police don't know how badly. They'll just assume Brewer recovered and came back to finish the job."
   "It'll be a bit of a struggle doing anything before about next Wednesday," Parker warned, creating space.
   "That might be for the best. I think I'd prefer to be out of the area when it happens. I'm going to a conference at the end of the week."
   "Suppose I ring you on Wednesday night? To let you know it's on for sure on Friday or Saturday?"
   "Yes, that sounds ideal."
   "Watch your back till then."
   "I have this." Markham opened the mouth of the padded bag on the arm of his chair to reveal a .22-calibre target pistol. "It belonged to my son. I've been practising. But I think my greatest protection lies in not exposing myself unnecessarily."
   "Good thinking," nodded Parker. "Don't let him get near enough for you to have to use that."
   Parker left the estate reflecting that the last time he had been paid to kill Royle, the client had ended up dead.

The assassin found Royle on his own when he got back to Fenton. Gail and Amber had gone out to buy some ice cream. "I've just been given a job," Parker announced, dropping onto one of the camping chairs that Royle had bought to cope with an increased circle of friends. Markham's bus-shelter chairs were striped red and white. Royle had chosen powder blue and white. "The target's someone you know."
   "Yeah?" said Royle blankly.
   "In fact, I'm talking to him right now. My client thinks you did a free job on Albert and he's next on the list."
   "Someone dug Brewer up?"
   "Not yet, old son." Grinning, Parker gave a rapid account of George Markham's motives, ending with the pleasant news that he was the last of a series of assassins aimed at Royle.
   "Well, that's almost good news," admitted Royle. "But I don't know what Markham's panicking about. I had to shoot Brewer before he could tell me anything. I did what you told me - I didn't give the sod a chance."
   "So why not ring up Mr. Markham and tell him that? He might even believe you. Or I can return the favour you did me when you killed Lenny Suskin, if you want to terminate Johnny Royle and start again with a clean sheet."
   "I can't disappear. I haven't got an alternative identity ready and waiting. And what about going to the seaside with Amber for the summer?"
   "With your new beach chairs? Well, you've got a big problem, me old love. If I don't push the button on you, he'll only get someone else. But if you get him first, there's bound to be trouble. Two dead Markhams in one year will be too much for the cops to swallow."
   "Great! So what do I do?" said Royle.
   "Keep well away from him for a start. He's playing cowboys and Indians with shadows. Like you and the cops with Brewer for the last few weeks. And he's got a gun. The jury might not believe him if he pleads self-defence, but it won't do you much good if he sends you for a burn-up at the local crematorium."
   "I reckon I'd better find out what this Markham bloke looks like and where he hangs out. So I can try and make sure I don't run into the bugger by accident."
   "Good thinking."
   "But then what?" Royle added with a frown.
   "If you don't want to get out of his range," grinned Parker, "say hop off to Holland or Spain for a couple of years, you're going to have to pull a bloody clever stroke on him, Johnny."

 

37. "Keep Smiling..."

 

Two days later, on Tuesday morning, the postman delivered a large envelope marked PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL with George Markham's mail. The first class stamp wore a Shepford postmark. Inside a good quality, white, A5-size envelope, he found a sheet of cardboard as stiffening and a Polaroid photograph.
   Markham assumed that the photograph had been sent by his assassin for some reason. It showed a rather ordinary, slimline rifle cartridge lying on a featureless surface. As a novice in such matters, Markham was unable to type it as a .223-calibre Remington round of the sort used by many modern assault rifles and short-range sniper rifles.
   He examined the bullet with a magnifying glass in case someone had engraved the name ROYLE on it. No one had. There had to be some sort of message in the photograph but Markham left for his company's offices in Boxbey unable to decide what the message could be.

Royle tapped out George Markham's home number at six-thirty that evening. A woman with a very pleasant voice answered the telephone. Royle asked for Councillor Markham. He was playing a bad actor playing an East-End gangster.
   "George Markham, good evening," said the man himself in his best telephone voice.
   "Get the photo, John?" said Royle. The words came out as: 'Git the pha-a, Jun?'
   Markham struggled to decipher the message through several seconds of blank silence. "The photograph, do you mean?" he asked uncertainly when Royle had repeated the message.
   "S'right, John," said Royle, leaning heavily on the name. "Gor a messige for ya. To pass on to Al Brewer. Johnny Royle's taken out a twenty-grand life policy. To pay for an open contract. Posthumous, like. If he croaks before his time, the bullet in the photo gets delivered by rifle. Know that I mean, John? Not all of it. Just the lead bit at the end - if you take my meaning? You still there?"
   "Ah, yes," said Markham weakly, wondering whether Brewer had made another attempt on Royle's life, which meant that he was alive and he had not been made to talk.
   "So do us a favour if Al drops in, John. Give him the photo and tell him if he touches Johnny Royle, he won't have to worry about saving up for his old age. And if he buys a hit on Johnny, the hit-man will push the button on Al next for Johnny's twenty grand. Him or anyone else that points the finger at Johnny. Got that?"
   "Ah, yes," mumbled Markham.
   "Keep smiling, John!" Royle replaced the receiver and turned to Parker for an opinion.
   "I think there was a touch of the Harold Steptoes in there somewhere," laughed the assassin. "You laid it on a bit thick, Johnny. But he must be quaking in his boots now."
   "What are you going to do if he asks for his deposit back tomorrow night?" grinned Royle.
   "I think I'll ring off while he's still grateful he managed to call me off," laughed Parker. "But I might just mention if you haven't come head to head with Brewer, it's safe for him to leave things as they are."
   "When in doubt, do nowt?" Royle imitated the Yorkshire accent that Parker had all but shed.
   "And I could tell him you've never killed anyone that wasn't self-defence."
   "You could tell him my life story while you're at it."
   "That would give him a few laughs. So you're serious about bombing off to the seaside with Amber for the summer?"
   "She wants a bit of adventure. And it gets her out of your way. Gives you a clear run at Gail."
   "I wonder how long it'll take her to get fed up with you? Have you noticed, it's always the bird that chucks you, not the other way round?"
   "Like Julie?" Royle suggested with a sly grin.
   "If you're going to fight, fight dirty," Parker said with an automatic grimace at any mention of his ex-wife's name. "Maybe we'll come and visit you for the odd weekend or week. If the weather's nice."
   "You can certainly afford it. How much was Markham's deposit?"
   "About as much as you had in that box for the radio."
   "You had a look in that, did you?"
   "I thought it was a tip," grinned Parker. "For letting you crash at my place and dragging your muddy pants to the launderette. What are you having for your tea? It smells bloody good. You're going to make some lucky girl very happy, me old mate."
   "It's a chicken casserole," surrendered Royle. "If you're stopping, you can set the table. And open a bottle of wine."
   Another testing time had ended in a stand-off rather than out-right victory. George Markham had protected himself by staying in the background and paying others to do his dirty work for him. He had taken full advantage of the aggressor's tactical edge, his own wealth and his influential position.
   Royle had reacted to circumstances created by others, relying on a combination of good luck and no witnesses at awkward moments. He had been able to force a draw against a man fighting from a superior position because he could accept a draw as an equitable solution to their differences.
   He could live with George Markham's suspicions. Having less to lose in material and status terms, his fall would be the softer and easier to survive. Royle was young enough to come back from a non-fatal mistake. Councillor George Markham would become lost in bitter memories if he had to start again.
   "Tell you something," remarked Royle as he spooned chicken pieces and an exotic range of vegetables onto two hot plates, "you've done bloody well out of me recently. You had twenty-five grand and all those Krugers off Mulgraham last year. And now you've collected nine grand from this councillor bloke just for making a couple of phone calls."
   "That's life all over, Johnny," mocked Parker, refilling his glass with Bulgarian white wine after approving an unfamiliar brand. "Some of us are destined to be foot-sloggers and some of us will always travel first class."

 


 

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