"Death is like a fisherman, who traps fish in his net and leaves them for a while in the water; the fish is still swimming, but the net is around him, and the fisherman will draw him up -- when he thinks fit."
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenyev
It was a very tight shot, and Lenny Suskin knew that he would get very few clear chances. Lying in a pool of deepest black shadow, he tried to ignore the sweat rolling off his body and took another pull from his water-bottle. Small dust devils, desiccated by the raging African sun, twirled in deserted side-streets. A cheering throng lined the broad main road through the capital city. Suskin could just see the centre of the reviewing stand. He was lying on a rooftop three hundred and fifty yards away, aiming through a narrow slit formed by two taller buildings at the edge of the square.
In its initial form, the job had seemed very attractive. The president-for-life of the one-party state had wanted an assassination attempt to boost his flagging popularity. Suskin had been warned that the country's security forces would not be informed of the arrangement; which was why he had insisted on a fee of one hundred thousand pounds, all paid in advance. And then the hints had started. What if he went for a head-shot instead of hitting the president's bullet-proof jacket? Suskin had played along with the lighthearted suggestions, but his own hints that a kill would cost another hundred grand, also in advance, had not been taken up.
Soon after accepting the contract, he had started to pick up whispers. Villages in remote areas were being encouraged to buy community television sets on generous terms. The capital's main court-house was being tarted up. The country's Chief Justice had cancelled a holiday up-country due to begin right after the Independence Day celebrations. It did not take a genius to work out that there was a show trial in the offing: with a white face in the dock. Thus Suskin had made two sets of arrangements for getting into and out of the country, one of which had been leaked to his clients. The second set had brought him to his firing position on the afternoon of the Young Pioneers' Parade, two days before Independence Day.
Another group of diminutive marchers in dark green uniforms reached the reviewing stand. The president, looking slightly bulkier than usual in a uniform with a double Ramtex lining, lifted a meaty hand to the scrambled egg on his cap. A cheer from the crowd drowned the shot. With a look of utter amazement on his fleshy face, the president spun half round and dived into the inviting lap of an admiral's plump wife, who was sitting directly behind him.
Suskin slung the rifle on his back and hurried across the roof. He threw a coiled rope into space and abseiled forty feet down the side of the building to his waiting motorbike. A roar of anger from the square seemed to be triggered by the pressure of his thumb on the electric starter. The crowd had just realized that the attempt to assassinate its beloved president had failed, and shock had turned to rage.
A helicopter had climbed into the painfully blue sky by the time Suskin reached the outskirts of the capital city. The shanty town was deserted. Its inhabitants had turned out to watch the parade, drawn by rumours of free beer afterwards. Suskin stopped in the shade of a hut made of flattened tins and polythene sheeting. Resting his rifle against the edge of the low roof, he sighted up at the helicopter. His second shot crippled the tail rotor, putting the machine into what the United States Army termed a 'zero survivability situation.' As the machine spun in helpless circles on its plunge to destruction, Suskin roared out into the bush. Within minutes, he was surrounded by parched scrubland and the city was dwindling like a vision behind him.
He tacked left, right, and left again to take an easier path on crumbling ground to the crest of a steep hill. There was a ball of dust heading in his approximate direction, and several more could be seen radiating out from the city. Some bright spark had decided to send troops to cover the half-dozen stretches of flat, uncluttered ground within easy reach of the city in case the assassin had planned a quick getaway by air. Suskin had a fair lead, but he had to reach his pick-up point before one of the old-fashioned but still lethal jets of the minute but still deadly air force could be scrambled.
Half a mile from the landing-strip, he noticed a ball of dust converging from his left. Another helicopter had spotted him and it had vectored in a force from one of the garrison outposts. Suskin's pilot had started his engines and was beginning to drift along the dusty, reddish strip. Suskin ducked out of the rifle, letting it bounce away. He overtook the aircraft, then laid the bike down and skidded to a stop.
A black wing passed over his head. Suskin pushed to his feet and scrambled through the choking dust cloud raised by the quickening propellors. He jumped and squirmed aboard the aircraft. Its wheels were off the ground by the time he had reached the vacant right-hand seat in the cockpit and found the ends of the belt. Snaking gently to increase the volume of his dust cloud, the pilot flashed white teeth in a bronzed face as he grinned at his passenger.
"Nearly missed the bus, Lenny," he chuckled. He was a South African known only as Boz, who had a reputation for always getting his clients home. "Give them a good show?"
"Not quite the one some of them wanted, but good enough," Suskin replied with a nod.
"Hell of a way to earn your living," added the pilot. "If those monkeys had got a little closer, man, they'd have been cutting your fingers off one by one to get the money back. After the trial."
Suskin pulled the ring of a chilled can of beer to lay the dust in his throat. "Well, there's only two ways to make a lot of money these days," he decided. "Win the football pools or take a few risks."
If the jets did not get them, and Boz did not hit a tree while flying very low to avoid unfriendly radar; then the risks had been worth while.
Oliver Markham watched the Customs officer with a practised and perfect blend of innocence and anxiety. Markham was dressed casually, but his corduroy suit cut through the damp afternoon with sharp creases. The Customs officer found a toy car and an empty Smarties tube in the back of the Jeep. They confirmed his impression that the owner of the vehicle was a young, married man who had escaped to Holland to recall his lost bachelor days for a weekend. He had already spotted presents suitable for a wife and a boy of two or three; and a bottle of duty-free Scotch for Dad.
Passed as harmless and his luggage chalk-crossed, Markham drove twelve miles to Ipswich and stopped on the third deck of a car-park. Unobserved, he lifted his bulky pullover and released the straps of his body belt. He dumped it under his seat, along with the plastic wallet containing his working passport and the alternative documents for the Jeep. Then he fitted the crook-lock to clutch pedal and steering-wheel and walked to a nearby pub for some lunch.
When he returned, half an hour later, the Jeep's number plates had been changed back to the original ones, and there was an envelope under the seat cushion.
Markham was twenty-four years old and single. He had a rich father who had given up all hope of his son's earning a living in the business world. Olly existed on an allowance; which he sweetened with the payments that he received for importing cocaine worth a total of three to four hundred thousand pounds during the course of an average year.
A windscreen wiper flicked greasy droplets from toughened glass. Detective Sergeant Brian Orwell looked out into a grey autumn afternoon and yawned. He had been called out at five-thirty that morning to look at the aftermath of a break-in at a hi-fi shop. Half a dozen video recorders and the video-club's stock of cassettes had taken a walk. The thieves had done a very neat job on the alarm system after bashing an untidy hole through the wall from the adjoining dress shop. Orwell had been visiting known fences and generally going through the motions of detection all day.
Their adenoidal radio voice asked for a position report. Orwell unhooked the microphone and on the dashboard and relayed the information supplied by his driver, Detective Constable Mitchell. They had caught up to a dirty red van at a set of traffic lights. Suddenly, the van took off and raced into a right turn against the lights. The driver had realized that he had a police car behind him. Mitchell snapped on the siren and followed the van.
Orwell relayed its number and course. Wonder of wonders, a panda car turned out of a side-street and blocked the van's path. It snatched to a halt. The driver went one way, pursued by a uniformed constable. His passenger went the other way, chased by DC Mitchell.
Detective Sergeant Orwell went home at the end of a fourteen-hour day feeling like an exhausted Jack the Lad. The thieves had been driving their haul around all day. Their buyer had become nervous and had told them to hang loose until some of the heat died down. Looking very hard done by, the thieves had stewed in their respective interview rooms, and then admitted four similar raids and divulged the name of their buyer, responding to lingering resentment at his acquiring the heavy end of the proceeds.
The files of unsolved cases were threatening to send the first-floor detectives' office crashing down to ground level. Sheer dumb luck had solved the day's case, not brilliant police work. But being in the right place at the right time had to count for something. Brian Orwell felt entitled to his mild glow of achievement.
A showpiece secretary showed Colin Mulgraham into a starkly efficient fourth-floor office. Bronze-glass excluded the sounds of London's traffic and presented a mirror to potential spies in the building opposite. Mulgraham was Something In The City. He specialized in high-tech, high-risk ventures, and expected high yields. He was twenty-nine years old, exactly the right weight for his height, an expert marksman with bow, rifle, pistol, and shotgun, he played squash ruthlessly and golf from scratch, and he believed in ending a relationship with a woman the moment it began to pall.
The most important elements of his life were novelty and excitement, which he combined in an expensive, dangerous and recklessly illegal hobby, which had become a personal statement.
Marvin T. Wysoky made an entrance from his executive washroom as the visitor reached the easy chairs in the jungle corner of the office. Wysoky looked like a corporate robot which had just been removed from its box, polished to perfection, and released to sell the Vista Video Corporation's products to a potential investor.
Lavishly printed brochures on art paper had been scattered to maximum effect on the glass-topped coffee-table. VVC was developing large screen, flat televisions for wall-mounting, which were a step towards a screen capable of showing Cinemascope films on videocassette in their full glory. Mulgraham took note of the young vice-president's bright and decisive manner, and decided that he had just inhaled a track of corporate cocaine; possibly imported by one of Mulgraham's own team of mules. VVC looked like his kind of company.
The street was hollow: deserted, but full of the noise of the traffic on the main road beyond a row of tired houses. The small car-park beside the white-painted pub was half full, but casual parking kept Royle out. He drove on, and turned into the next side-street. The doors and windows of the houses on his left were filled with breeze blocks. Behind the low, brick wall on his right, a grassy slope rolled down to a three-storey barrack block of flats. When he regained the corner on foot, Royle noticed that someone with a paintbrush had changed the name board on the wall from SIDALL STREET to SODALL STREET; perhaps as an acid comment on the line of soon-to-be demolished houses.
The afternoon was chilly and threatened rain. October had never been one of his favourite months. Royle hurried to the side-door of the pub, expecting to be drenched. He was looking for someone, and his manhunt had turned into a wild-goose chase. A smell of stale beer mixed with cigarette smoke slapped him in the face with a gush of warm, damp air as he opened the door. Royle lit a cigarette and fought back with his own smoke.
He bought a half-pint of bitter and continued his scan. None of the faces or backs looked familiar. He was a long way from his usual haunts, and he had made few acquaintances in the district. His line of business did not encourage friends who might comment on sudden absences and regular trips abroad.
A quick check of two more rooms told him that Joe Potheroe had not dropped in at The Orb for a Wednesday afternoon pint. The chance had been slim, but Royle had nothing better to do. He was short of money, and tracking down Potheroe offered the best hope of restocking his wallet. He had tried phoning his prey's shop, but Mr. Potheroe seemed to be out permanently; if Joe's snooty bitch of an assistant could be believed.
Out and not expected back for some considerable time. It sounded like a tale offered to all creditors.
"Who are you staring at?" challenged a voice.
Royle brought his vision to a focus from a general contemplation of one corner of the room. The speaker was wearing a white suit, pink shirt, black tie, and an ounce or two of gold in the form of a pendant and chunky cuff-links.
"Are you staring at me?" demanded the man in the white suit. He was about Royle's age, mid-twenties, and looked fairly fit.
"I've got better things to do," Royle drawled provocatively.
"Care to go walkies?" suggested the man, tossing his carefully styled blond waves towards the door to the car park.
"Brought your lead?" Royle misunderstood deliberately an invitation to do battle.
"I'll have you," stated White Suit.
"Promises, promises," mocked Royle, wondering whether the flanking pals of Welling's best-dressed man were in a fighting mood too. Rearranging a few faces seemed a good way of working off the frustration of not catching up with Joe Potheroe.
"Olly! There you are!" squealed a female voice.
Two elegant women brushed past Royle to pay court to the man in the white suit, and deflected his thoughts from the stares of an insolent peasant with comical red stripes down the sleeves of his dark blue anorak.
Royle drained his glass of indifferent beer and decided to give up for the day. Joe Potheroe's shop observed Wednesday half-day closing, and the man himself was most likely out and about, swindling some poor sucker. Royle decided to make a nuisance of himself in the shop the following day. Potheroe was sure to come running if the snooty bitch told him that some bolshy sod was demanding money and frightening the customers away.
Customers? Mugs, more like, Royle thought as he left the pub, tugging on his driving gloves. Half of them did not know what they were buying, and the rest paid inflated prices for junk described as antiques.
Wondering whether to take a flask of tea and some sandwiches to make a siege of it, Royle returned to his car. Polystyrene chip trays slid along the pavement like albino tortoises. Loosened by the gusting wind, a slate skittered down the roof of a derelict house and exploded at the kerb. Royle gave himself a pat on the back for being clever enough to park on the opposite side of the road.
An old woman with a pink umbrella and a large, brown leather handbag tottered over to him as he was unlocking his door.
"No consideration, you motorists," she screeched.
Royle ignored her on principle.
"You park right in front of our flats. Never ask permission. You're always in the way."
"In the way of who?" scoffed Royle, opening his door.
The woman struck the roof of his car with her umbrella to underline her point. "Everyone!"
"You can pack that in for a start, you old bag," warned Royle, worried about his bodywork.
"You cheeky young bugger!" The umbrella's second swing was aimed at Royle. "No respect, you kids."
Royle stepped back, out of range, taking the driver's door to its open limit. His persecutor advanced another step and swung at him again, working off old grievances. Royle caught the descending umbrella and twisted. Having freed it from the woman's grasp, he threw it over the car, into the road. He expected the confrontation to end with him reversing his car to the end of the street while the woman retrieved her umbrella. But he had failed to allow for aged stubbornness.
The solid, brown leather handbag came hurtling towards him, flying out to the limit of its strap. Royle stuck out a fist, becoming annoyed. The woman's forearm slammed into the blocking fist. Her handbag flew out of her grasp. She gasped with pain and clutched at her arm with her left hand; then she aimed a kick at his shin. Despite her age, she was full of fight.
Goaded, Royle unleashed a hammering right cross. A shock of satisfaction travelled up his arm to the shoulder. The woman snapped back and toppled over the low wall, like a bundle of old rags, and rolled down the sloping lawn. Royle slid into his car and started the engine. He backed across to the pavement opposite, crunching over the pink umbrella, and made a one-point turn.
There was no arguing with some people.
Oliver Markham brushed a flake of ash from the lapel of his too-perfect white suit as Simone and Janice settled themselves beside him. He was aware of envious eyes taking in his elegant companions. T.J., his driver and bodyguard, lounged to the bar to fetch drinks for the girls. Pernod and lemonade was the fashion of the moment. Olly realized that one pair of eyes was missing. Their owner had been fairly tall, with shortish, dark hair and a sneering face. He had been laughing at Oliver Markham. That was not permitted. Olly nudged his other satellite with a hand-made shoe.
"That fellow in the blue anorak with red stripes. Find out who he is," he ordered.
"Okay," grinned Ryan Naylor, anticipating sport to come. He too lounged over to the bar and beckoned the landlord, who hurried over immediately. Like Olly, Ry had a wealthy and influential father. Unlike Olly, he had money of his own from legitimate sources. "Who was the cheeky sod who tried to pick a fight with Olly?" he asked.
"Never seen him before, Mr. Naylor," returned the landlord. "First time in. He's not from round here."
"You might ask around. See if anyone knows him?" Ry dressed up the order as a polite suggestion.
The landlord's second report confirmed his first. Royle had visited the pub for the first time, and no one knew him. Olly Markham left The Orb with a scowl of frustration on his round face. He waved a brief salute to the girls as they sped away in Simone's salmon pink Aston Martin to do some totally unnecessary shopping. Falling in with his silent mood, T.J. and Ry climbed into Olly's white Mercedes and waited for their leader to decide on the entertainment for the remainder of the afternoon.
"The range, I think," decided Olly, tapping the back of the driver's seat. He liked to spread out in the back.
T.J. turned right across the main road and headed for the Markham estate. Olly's father, Councillor Markham, had done very well for himself. His son lived in a cottage in the grounds of a modest country house and had had a long bunker constructed behind his cottage. Here, he indulged his passion for guns. Ry, in the front passenger seat, turned round to offer Olly a long, slim cigar. He too was a gun-nut. But he was careful never to out-shoot Olly Markham. Olly did not like being bested; or insulted by smart alecs in anoraks with trendy stripes on the sleeves.
A six-mile drive took them from the small town of Welling to the fringes of Race Hill. T.J. turned left between gateless granite columns, and left again almost immediately to park behind the cottage. Concrete steps set into a grassy hump, which ran parallel to the estate's boundary wall, led down to a steel door. Olly produced an oblong of white plastic. It was a credit card-sized, but neither printed nor embossed. He inserted it into a slot in the frame. The door clicked and moved away from him. Lights flickered into life automatically.
T.J. switched on the space heaters to push back the October chill, then collected three pairs of sound-proof ear-muffs from a rack on the left-hand wall. Olly inserted his plastic card into a slot beside the cocktail cabinet. A large panel clicked back and slid to the left. Olly twisted a combination dial, then tugged open a square door.
His hand reached without thought for a Heckler and Koch MP-5 submachine-gun, which one of T.J.'s friends had supplied. Then he changed his mind. "Set up the fast-draw gear, T.J.," he ordered. "Bash open a couple of cans, Ry."
"Okay," said Ry, hiding his disappointment. He loved to fire an automatic weapon and watch the target shred.
"We must keep an eye open for that ill-bred lout," Olly added in a lazy drawl.
"Got plans for him?" suggested Ry, offering a can of lager.
"I think he owes me satisfaction," decided Olly. "I don't suppose he's a gentleman, but I feel entitled to a duel."
"For real? Fast-draw?" gasped Ry eagerly. "Can we get away with it?"
"We'll take him out to the back of beyond for the duel," nodded Olly. "And we can shove him down a hole afterwards. No one will ever find him."
"It's a bit tough on him if he's never fired a gun before," suggested Ry.
Olly shrugged and smiled gently. "He should have thought about that before he insulted me."
"Yeah, I suppose it is his own silly fault," agreed Ry. "What if he won't draw?"
"We'll have to debag the coward at the very least and leave him to find his own way home," grinned Olly.
"At least," approved Ry.
T.J. breathed a silent sigh of relief when he realized that the 'duel' would end only in humiliation for Olly's opponent. He had been hired to keep an eye on Markham Junior. Olly's father admitted that his son and trouble went inevitably together. T.J.'s job included counselling caution; and when that failed, covering up.
Olly was not under permanent observation, however. He was able to make his cocaine smuggling during T.J.'s visits to his family; which included trips to see his brother in Strangeways Prison. The round trip from West Sussex to Manchester was always good for at least one overnight stay for both of them.
Royle reached a set of temporary traffic lights on Perkin Lane as he approached his home of the moment. The other side of the road had been excavated to allow a collapsing Victorian sewer to be relined. There was nobody coming the other way, but a woman in a brand-new Sierra had stopped in front of him, forcing Royle to wait for the lights, which took a very long time to change. He fished out a cigarette, and while he was working the cigar lighter, he noticed something on the floor at the passenger side. The sight of shiny brown leather reminded him that he had heard the handbag hit something. Evidently, it had landed in his car.
An impatient sod honked his horn behind him. The lights had changed. Royle raised his left hand with two fingers extended, then he moved off. The other car tried to overtake him, but the driver got a nasty fright at the end of the road, when a bus turned onto their downstroke of the T-junction and swung out across the white line. Royle indicated left, the squeal of hastily-applied brakes making music in his ears, and turned onto Boxbey Road. At the end of a block of shops on the main road through Fenton, he turned right, and right again to the row of lock-up garages behind his street. He switched on the car's interior light to push back the gloom of the garage and the murky, clouded afternoon.
The handbag reeked of face powder from a compact which had burst open. Royle had a poke about inside out of idle curiosity. His car registration number had been written in large and shaky numbers and figures on a scrap of paper. The old bag had intended reporting him to the police, Royle realized. Not that they would have been able to do anything. He had been parked quite legally; which would have given the old woman another grievance.
It was a pity, but he had done some deserving copper out of a spot of severe GBH of the ear-'ole. The piece of paper became a twist of black ash when Royle applied his cigarette lighter to it.
There was a large envelope in the zippable compartment behind the handbag proper. It was made of thin cardboard rather than brown paper, and the flap tucked into a slot in the back. Royle opened it; and drew out six oblong plastic bags. 'BARCLAYS BANK LIMITED' was printed across the top of one of them, and below a self-adhesive label: '£500 in £10 notes (50 notes) £500'. With the calm of total surprise, Royle looked at the other bags.
They were all the same; all filled with brown notes which had a picture of Florence Nightingale on the back, all wearing a cashier's stamp and two signatures on the label, all with 'UNFIT FOR RE-ISSUE' deleted as applicable, and all printed with a message telling the bank staff that it was important to insert the notes face uppermost with the Queen's portrait on the right. Royle was holding three grand in his driving gloves.
He had read about old women getting their bags snatched and losing their life savings. But he had never expected to meet one stupid enough, or so mistrustful of banks, as to carry three thousand pounds around with her. The woman had looked around sixty; not even the age of his grandmother, who juggled her pension around a bank account, a National Girobank account, and a building society, so that she could have a bit of a natter with the counter clerks when she paid money in and drew it out. As her bank did not charge pensioners for its services, she paid most of her bills by cheque, and used a small calculator with a permanent memory to keep her records straight.
There was nothing special about Grandma Frost, but she had managed to take the developments of the Computer Age in her stride, and she had virtually abandoned cash transactions. And she made sure that everyone knew it. There was less chance of getting beaten up by some young tearaway, she believed, if they knew that she did not carry spending money.
Royle wondered briefly what was wrong with a woman who carried so much cash around with her. Then he turned his thoughts to the business of disposing of it. He removed a dozen notes from one of the bags to relieve his current financial embarrassment. The garage had a layered roof. Successive tenants had applied several coverings of roofing felt to seal leaks. If he stood on the door sill of his car and reached up, Royle found that he could just slip the plastic bags into a pocket of roofing felt where part of the original wooden roof had rotted away. A supermarket carrier-bag had blown into the garage. Royle dropped the handbag into it and wondered where to dump it.
Contractors were levelling some antique terraced houses a couple of streets away. Royle often took a short cut across the devastated land. And the job had come to a halt, he recalled. It was something to do with a bonus dispute. He locked his garage and set out in that direction, the carrier-bag tucked under his arm. Fairly deep holes existed in the rubble where cellars had not been filled in completely. Royle dropped the carrier-bag into one of them on the move. It disappeared from view satisfactorily. He turned left, towards the main road through Fenton. He fancied a nice, thick steak smothered in onions and mushrooms for his tea; now that he could afford to be extravagant.
3. Juggernaut Alley
A chilly and damp night had fallen. Simone Carver's pink Aston Martin was parked behind Olly Markham's cottage, beside the bright orange, souped-up Mini that belonged to her friend Carol Vickers, who had been recruited to keep T.J. company. Olly unwound an arm from Janice Wallace's silky-smooth shoulders and pushed up from the low, yielding sofa. It was the right time to give the party a little lift.
Olly poured out the last of the champagne and slid another bottle into the cooler. "We could do with some more ice," he remarked as he headed for the kitchen.
"Right," said T.J., releasing his bear-hug on Carol to follow his leader.
Olly opened the back door and looked out into the uninviting night. Misty drizzle filled the air. T.J. passed his charge an umbrella. Navigating by the light spilling through the net curtains on the kitchen window, Olly set a course across the tarmacked yard, heading for a particular tree beyond the two cars. A faint slither alerted him.
He started to turn as a figure uncoiled from behind the Mini, right arm raised. Olly jabbed the umbrella into the other's face, then booted him in the groin. The man collapsed, folded, groaning and retching. Olly silenced him with another kick to the face. A head clanged against the flank of the Mini, then thudded onto wet tarmac. The kitchen door opened. T.J. stood framed in the doorway, peering out into the night.
"You okay?" he called softly.
"Over here. Bring a torch," ordered Olly.
T.J. disappeared for a moment, then he trotted over to join Olly, following his own white oval of torchlight. The unconscious man was around twenty, a fairly average sort in damp denims and rubber-soled boots. A length of lead pipe was attached to his right wrist with a loop of nylon string.
"What's going on?" T.J. invited.
"This bastard tried to put a dent in my skull," Olly returned in an unconcerned drawl, fighting to keep his voice steady. He was trembling gently with mingled fear and anger. "No, shine the torch on his face again. Seen him before?"
"No one I know," said T.J. He swung the beam back to probe the trees along the estate's boundary wall.
"Remember that photo that came in the post a couple of days ago?" mused Olly, crouching to search the unconscious man's pockets. "Just a name, a description, and an address?"
"Could be him," admitted T.J. "Lawson, that was his name."
"That's what it says on his UB40X," said Olly, examining a folded piece of dog-eared official card. "So that's what one looks like."
"What do we do with him? Turn him over to the fuzz so the local magistrates can slap his wrist?"
"Let's hang onto him for the moment," decided Olly. "I think he deserves a sharper lesson. I don't know quite what, right this minute; something to teach him never to try and part my hair with a lead pipe. Tie him up and give him a gag. You can dump him in the garage for the moment."
"There's those handcuffs Ry had when he was trying to work out how Houdini escaped from them," suggested T.J.
"So they are going to come in useful!" marvelled Olly.
He resumed his broken journey, leaving T.J. to deal with the prisoner. Olly kept his supply of brightener in a hole which he had drilled into an ancient oak tree. His father tried to keep him on a fairly tight financial rein, but he was sufficiently generous to enable Olly to afford to take part of his cocaine-smuggling wages in kind, and at trade price.
By the light of the miniature torch on his key-ring, Olly inserted a T-shaped ornament into an apparently random split in the ragged bark and turned it through a right angle. When he pulled, a two-inch plug of wood emerged, followed by a length of linen thread to which were tied half a dozen small glass vials with polythene caps. Olly detached one of them, then allowed the others to slide back down the inch-wide tunnel.
"Here's the man with the nose-candy," laughed Simone when Olly rejoined the party. "We were afraid you'd got lost in the rain."
"Bloody nearly," chuckled Olly. "Are we going to be liberated and make it ladies last?"
"Like hell!" drawled Janice. "I've got your silver spoon, darling."
Olly rolled a small mound of white dust onto the toy-like spoon. T.J. slipped into the room with a supply of ice for the champagne cooler as Janice was inhaling vigorously. He gave the host a significant nod as he dropped ice into the silver bucket. Janice passed the spoon to Simone. T.J. stripped away foil and wire, and eased the cork out of the bottle. He preferred the blurring of alcohol to the lucidity of cocaine.
Ry plugged in the large television and connected the games console for a round of Space War. Watching T.J. sipping champagne, perched on the arm of an easy chair, Olly felt a brilliant idea explode into his cocaine-brightened mind.
Allowing Ry and the girls to take the first turns in the video battle, he caught T.J.'s eye and nodded to the kitchen door. They slipped out of the cottage and headed for the garage, Olly carrying a bottle and a polythene funnel. Their prisoner was awake, but unable to rise to greet them. The beam of a camping lantern showed that his hands were cuffed around the leg of the solid workbench, and a length of rope tied the handcuffs on his ankles to the socket of a sturdy bolt.
"Good-evening, Mr Lawson," Olly said pleasantly. "Want to tell us what your game is? Or do we break a few of your arms?"
"It come through the post," Lawson admitted when the gag had been removed. "A picture of you with your name and address. And a hundred quid in cash. The note said I'd get another two ton if."
"If you bonked me on the head with your piece of pipe," finished Olly. "So giving me a headache is worth three hundred pounds to someone. I wonder who?"
"There was just this photo, nothing else," volunteered the prisoner. "I burned the photo, like the note said."
"So you don't know who's behind this little lark," mused Olly, reviewing a mental list of enemies. "Pity. Oh, sorry! I'm forgetting my manners. You must have a drink."
Lawson was still struggling to digest the offer of hospitality when the funnel was rammed into his mouth and cooking brandy started to burn a path down his throat. T.J. pinched his nostrils to force him to gulp air through his mouth between swallows.
One-third of the bottle disappeared down the funnel over a period of several minutes to prevent a sudden rush of spirit shocking the victim's digestive system into vomiting it straight back. Olly offered his cigarette case to T.J. and sparked his gold lighter into life. He smoked half of his cigarette, then flicked it through the open garage door into a puddle. The drizzle had stopped.
"What now?" asked T.J., unlocking the handcuffs.
"He's going for a crawl," chuckled Olly, watching with interest as the prisoner tried to stand. "Along Juggernaut Alley."
"Not a very long one," laughed T.J. "We're not inviting Ry along too?"
"He's a bit rocky about the duel," Olly decided. "I don't think he'd go along with this."
"You're serious about the duel?" T.J. asked as he loaded the prisoner into the back of Olly's Jeep.
"We'll probably end up debagging him," said his master regretfully. "But if I see him again, we're going to have that cheeky sod. I'll drive. You've had more to drink than me."
Accepting the logic of the argument, T.J. climbed into the back of the Jeep to control the prisoner.
Juggernaut Alley was a narrow stretch of road, which heavy lorries off the motorway used as a short cut. Local residents were always complaining about the speed and size of the vehicles that used it, and forming human barriers on the thirty-yard straight stretch between two long bends. But, despite showers of petitions and more direct protests, nothing seemed likely to happen until the money became available to build a long-planned link road.
Olly coasted to a halt at the start of the first of the long curves. Looking back about three-quarters of a mile, he could see the descent ramp from the motorway, which dipped into a hollow at the roundabout, then climbed a gentle hill to approach juggernaut Alley.
Headlights and a large, dark shape started down the ramp. The driver changed down to tackle the hill.
Olly rolled round the bend to the straight section. T.J. unloaded the passenger. Olly moved down to the next curve. Lawson was making vague swimming movements on the wet tarmac. Olly could not decide whether Lawson knew what was happening to him. He seemed lost in an alcoholic fog.
The lorry rounded the bend at speed. Olly and T.J. heard a distinct double thump, the squeal of tortured rubber, and a crash of breaking glass as the lorry rammed something solid. Olly accelerated out of the second bend, circling back to his home.
"Sounds like friend Lawson won't be bonking anyone with a lead pipe in future," he remarked.
"Now someone's actually been killed, they might do something about the reckless driving along there," chuckled T.J. "Perhaps even start on the link road."
"That would please my old man," laughed Olly. "He'd get his slice of the action from the contractors."
"I suppose that's what they mean by every cloud having a silver lining," decided T.J. "Tell you what, you'd better burn that photo of Lawson."
"At the top of my list, old boy," drawled Olly, who was not a man to acknowledge that someone else had thought of something vital.
Waves of housing developments had converted a series of discrete villages into adjoining small towns. Royle drove four miles the following morning, passing through Bilcross and Snapely, and meeting the canal at Hythe. Joe Potheroe's junk-shop wore a gilt sign which proclaimed that it belonged to 'Jos Potheroe, Ltd.'. Potheroe had been flash enough to turn himself into a limited company. The single word 'ANTIQUES' in easily legible script and a telephone number adorned the front window. Royle had not met Potheroe's assistant in the flesh, but he had put an accurate mental picture to the telephone voice.
She was tall, skinny, thirtyish, and had a long, straight nose which was ideal for looking down. Her heels made her a good two inches taller than Royle. Her beak nailed him like the sight on the end of a rifle. There was a bad smell under the well-developed hooter, and Royle gave himself one guess as to the source. Someone had been warned to expect him.
"Joe about?" demanded Royle, coarsening his accent deliberately to play the offensive peasant.
"Mister Potheroe is out at the moment, sir," returned the blonde icily, stressing the title. "May I help you?"
"Yeah, why not?" agreed Royle. "You can give me the bread he owes me."
"I'm afraid that's something you'll have to take up with Mr. Potheroe," said the assistant stiffly, implying that she did not turn over the takings to any smart alec who strolled in off the street.
"Chance would be a fine thing," grinned Royle, looking her over in a detached sort of way. She was a bit flat-chested, but her legs were not too bad. Even so, he decided, she was one that he would kick out of bed. "Old Joe's about as easy to find as a white face down Andrews Street," he added, inspection over. "Tell you what, I'll wait."
Royle lowered himself onto a flimsy, bow-legged chair with calculated recklessness. The blonde fired a few more daggers past her nose, then retired to the office. Net curtains gave it a measure of privacy, but thanks to a window at the back of the shop, Royle could see the assistant's outline as she picked up the telephone and flipped her attention between prodding at the keys and keeping an eye on him to make sure that he did not walk out with something.
There was a strange, glossy, perfumy smell in the shop. Royle assumed that it belonged to some exotic furniture polish. You could not put a shine on valuable old wood with anything you could buy in the supermarket, he reasoned. Exclusive prices demanded an exclusive polish; which was probably not much different from the stuff in the supermarket, but packaged in a fancy tin at a fancy price.
Royle lit a cigarette. The blonde assistant was still using the telephone, trying to track down Joe Potheroe to warn him that one of the lower classes was lying in ambush. Royle tapped ash neatly into a vase which was decorated with unlikely flowers in repulsive shades of hard green and sickly purple.
The assistant contacted her boss eventually and returned to the body of the shop. She provided Royle with an ashtray and a disapproving sniff. He blew smoke at the stock and watched her prowling round the shelves and display cabinets with a bright yellow duster and a black and white-feathered tickling stick.
A gilt skeleton clock began to chime the quarter hour. Royle had been watching its works in action for about five minutes and had come to the conclusion that it was about the only thing worth having in the whole shop; even though he was reasonably sure that a couple of the gear wheels were plastic, not brass.
The clock did not have a price ticket; in fact, nothing in sight was priced; which saved inflating new labels to keep up with the state of the economy and allowed the quality of the customer's suit to be taken into consideration; or the authenticity of her fur coat.
The bell over the shop's door joined in discordantly with the clock's final pings. A man in an overcoat and bowler hat entered, carrying a brief-case and a neatly rolled umbrella. He held a brief conversation in hospital murmurs with the blonde assistant. Then they approached Royle; to look at the vase which he had been using as an ashtray.
The assistant painted a glowing picture of the craftsmanship and history of the vase, giving it an irresistible build-up. The customer nodded in all the right plates, eager to be convinced that he was showing good taste. Then the price was mentioned. Royle lifted both eyebrows, acquiring a new sort of respect for Joe Potheroe.
You had to admire the cheek of someone who could ask that sort of price for a piece of ghastly junk, he told himself.
The telephone in the office began to ring. "Excuse me, I'll be right back," the blonde said with a reassuring smile.
"Not jumping in ahead of you, am I?" the man mentioned to Royle in a plummy voice which contained a hint of apology.
"No; actually, I'm waiting for Potheroe," Royle returned with a distant smile, smoothing his accent to give himself a veneer of education and to place himself on a higher social plane than a mere shopkeeper like Joe Potheroe. "Rather a horror, isn't it?" he drawled, nodding to the vase.
"A fine example of the style," said the customer, repeating the sales propaganda. "A good investment."
"Until you try and sell it again," Royle said with a scornful smile. "And it's ugly. If you're looking for an investment, why not pick something you can stand to look at? I mean, what if a friend of yours told you he'd bought a really exquisite piece. But when he showed it to you, it turned out to be something like this horror?"
"It's a very fine piece," the snooty assistant interpolated indignantly, returning from the office to find sabotage being carried out under her generous nose.
"You'd say it's very nice, or something like that," continued Royle, ignoring the interruption. "But inside, you'd be thinking: 'Did he actually pay out good money for something as revolting as that?' I mean, don't those colours turn your stomach? Be honest."
"Well, they aren't the most attractive," admitted the customer.
"The only reason this is a 'valuable investment piece'," stated Royle, "is because some mug has been conned into wasting a small fortune on it and he doesn't want to take a loss. Helped by the people who make a profit out of his sort." He cast a significant glance at the assistant.
"I suppose it is rather brash," the customer admitted, allowing his true feelings to break through.
"Right!" approved Royle, cutting across the assistant's protests. "You're starting to see it for what it is, not the price tag. It's a fairly routine vase that's spoilt with bad decoration in appalling colours. It's ugly; there's no other word for it. The sort of thing a wally would buy if he didn't know any better."
"I take your point," nodded the customer, not quite sure what a wally was, but aware that it was a term of belittlement. "It's more the wife's line, china," he added, shedding further responsibility.
"That's the trouble with some women," decided Royle. "Flatter their intelligence and you're well on the way to palming off bad taste dressed up as art. Especially if they've seen so-called experts on TV telling them how valuable similar junk is."
"Take your point," nodded the customer. "I've really had my eye on that skeleton clock."
The blonde assistant assumed a superior smirk, knowing that the clock was more expensive than the vase.
"Some of those gear wheels are plastic," said Royle significantly. "I think it would be more at home in Woolworth's."
"Plastic?" repeated the customer, looking shocked. "Well, I'll think about it," he added non-committally to the assistant.
She watched him leave the shop, following him to the door with a dazed expression. Then she glared at Royle.
"I hope Joe's not going to be much longer," he remarked, innocently, lighting another cigarette.
The blonde rushed into the office to make more telephone calls. She returned wearing a haughty expression and carrying a wad of blue notes. "Mr. Potheroe won't be back before lunch-time," she announced. "But he's agreed to let you have fifty pounds on account."
"On account of he ain't gonna give me no more?" suggested Royle, returning to the role of uncouth peasant.
"On condition you stop haunting the shop," the assistant added firmly.
Royle flicked more ash into the green and purple vase and rose to his feet. He held out a hand and accepted the bribe. "Want a receipt?" he asked after counting up to ten.
"Yes," decided the assistant.
"I'll give it to Joe when I see him," smiled Royle. "See you, love."
Royle left the shop and climbed into his car, which was parked opposite the front door. He made a great show of driving away, but he took four right turns to circle the block and rejoin the main road through Hythe further back. The assistant, he assumed, would be on the telephone again to tell her boss that the coast was clear.
Sure enough, about five minutes after Royle had stubbed out his cigarette, a dark green van with gold lettering on its sides bowled past him, heading for the shop. Royle started his engine and moved out from the kerb. He tapped his horn a couple of times as the van signalled a left turn into the alley beside the shop.
Joe Potheroe experienced a violent jolt of panic when he checked his mirror as he slowed down. Royle was right behind him. Instinctively, he trod on the accelerator. Royle kept on his tail. Potheroe turned right at the lights, even though his left indicators were flashing. Royle followed him.
The chase deserved a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the slowest ever. There were no screaming tyres and scattering pedestrians. Potheroe was too afraid of the consequences to risk driving recklessly enough to stand any chance of losing his nemesis. And Royle was content to wait for the pursuit to reach a natural conclusion. They nosed up and down side-streets, but Potheroe never drove fast enough to leave Royle without the time and road space to make a turn, and he lacked sufficient cunning to give him the slip at a set of traffic lights.
They circled to Welling. Just past The Orb, Potheroe turned onto a road which led to the wooded and farmland area to the south of the town. In a no man's land between roadside houses, he began to slow down for no obvious reason. Royle applied his brakes, wondering what was to come next. He passed his quarry and parked in front of him.
When Royle approached the van, Potheroe was sitting behind the wheel with an expression of resignation. Royle tried the passenger door; and found it open. He slid onto the seat, leaving the door ajar in case Potheroe tried to run for it; but his quarry seemed to have admitted defeat.
"What do you know, Joe?" Royle asked casually, lighting a cigarette.
"Run out of bloody petrol," Potheroe said in a puzzled tone. He was in his middle forties, with a froth of thinning, almost transparent blond hair which made him look even balder. His usual confident energy seemed to have deserted him.
Royle reached over to remove the ignition key. "We've got some business to discuss," he remarked.
"I told you, the deal fell through," Potheroe returned apologetically, tugging at his ginger moustache.
Royle fired a smoke ring at the windscreen. He had been celebrating, and Potheroe had found him in a weak moment. For once, while making the Amsterdam run, a Customs officer had approached him as he was strolling through the green channel and had asked him to submit to a routine search of his baggage. Royle had shrugged and turned to accompany him, asking casually whether he had any choice.
That was his strong point; staying cool in a crisis. A trained observer would note that he was relaxed because he had no worries, not because he had been sucking a Valium tablet on the plane. Royle had never been one for worrying about difficulties before they arose.
Rooting through his duffel bag in a small office with discreetly frosted windows, the Customs officer had found some used socks and underwear in a plastic bag, which was helping to protect the corners of a hardback copy of Stand On Zanzibar. The bus ticket between 'context (14)' and 'the happening world (9)' received a routine inspection. A fancy tube protected a duty-free bottle of Glenfiddich. There was also a carton of duty-free Bensons with one packet removed. Royle had been wearing his plastic snakes of cocaine in a body belt.
The Customs officer had taken a good look at the book, as if expecting to find the middles of the pages cut out to make a hiding-place an inch and a half deep. Then he had admitted that he too was a bit of a science fiction freak; but the thought of tackling a five-hundred-page book was a little daunting. Royle had told him that he was on his second trip through the work, and had assured him that it was worth the journey.
They had chatted for a few minutes, swapping favourite authors and titles, and the Customs officer had cadged one of Royle's duty-free cigarettes to smoke in the privacy of their little room. He had not been in too much of a hurry to pick on his next victim because he and his colleagues had been working without enthusiasm in support of a pay claim.
Parting on good terms, Royle had taken the Tube to the centre of London, shed the body belt and collected his fee, and caught a train home. Potheroe had caught him well-lubricated in his local pub and had talked him into a deal which was supposed to double his investment inside a week. Royle had parted with two hundred and fifty pounds.
Potheroe had kept out of his way for a week. He had been evasive for a further week, putting Royle off with assurances that the deal was taking a little longer than anticipated. At the beginning of the third week, he had surrendered one hundred and fifty pounds under the threat of rearrangement of his lightly bearded face. More had been promised 'soon.'
Royle had mentioned that he expected three hundred and fifty pounds more. Potheroe had tried to argue, but Royle was having none of it. If his money had been returned immediately with an expression of regret, he would have shrugged off the failed deal. But Potheroe had lied to him and messed him about. And that was going to cost him. Royle had a stubborn streak a mile wide, and a deaf ear to turn towards sharp practitioners.
Royle blew another smoke ring into the silence of the van. Potheroe had had a further three days' grace to think up stories to explain his poverty.
"Didn't Jane give you another fifty quid?" he protested. "That's us nearly straight now."
"Not straight enough," decided Royle.
"It's a bad time of year for me."
"It's even worse for me. I've got this bloke who owes me money." Royle remained unmoved.
Potheroe sighed and produced money from his hip pocket. He managed forty-five pounds, and emptied his wallet to add a further five. "Happy now?" he said with a sigh.
"The way I see it, you've been using my investment as working capital," returned Royle. "Otherwise, you'd have been able to pay it all back in one chunk instead of three instalments. Which means I'm entitled to my share of the other deals. I'll settle for the two-fifty we agreed on in the first place."
"That's not fair!" protested Potheroe.
"And I suppose you screwing me around is?" suggested Royle. "Come on, get out."
"What for?" Potheroe asked fearfully.
"I'm going to lock the van," said Royle.
Half expecting to be beaten up, Potheroe climbed out of the van and watched Royle lock up. Having tested the rear doors, Royle dropped the keys into his side pocket.
"Right," he said, "two-fifty quid, Joe."
"What about the van?" complained Potheroe, holding out a hopeful hand for the keys.
"It's a hostage," Royle told him with an uncompromising smile.
"But I need it for work," protested Potheroe. "It's got valuable stuff in it."
"It's not much good to you out of petrol, is it?" Royle pointed out.
Leaving the antiques dealer gaping after him, Royle returned to his car and drove away. If he cut straight across country, on the B-class road under the canal and over the railway, he was about two miles from his home in Fenton.
He decided to have fish and chips for lunch. There was a short queue in the shop, waiting for the chips to brown. The man in front of him had bought a lunch-time edition of the Evening Standard. Reading over his shoulder, Royle noticed an item about an attack on a woman pensioner right outside her home. The mugger had knocked her down and taken her handbag, which, in the opinion of her neighbours, had not contained more than a couple of pounds as it had been stolen the day before she drew her pension.
The woman had landed face down in a puddle caused by a blocked drain. She had drowned while unconscious. There was no mention of three thousand missing pounds, just an appeal for witnesses who had been in the vicinity of Sodall Street, Welling, at the time in question. Royle wondered whether a reporter on the spot had copied down the street name from a distance, or a typographical error had turned Sidall into the version that appeared on the name board.
He still could not get over the old bag's lugging three grand around with her. It was so stupid; unless she had been working some sort of fiddle. Perhaps she had told the Social Security people that she had no savings. Perhaps she had been screwing more out of them in supplementary benefit than she would have earned in interest on her three grand. The notion made a lot of sense.
"Ready to turn the page?" demanded the owner of the paper, cutting across Royle's thoughts.
"Yeah, go ahead," he said casually. "There's not that much between the adverts, is there?"
The man grunted and stuffed his paper into a pocket as the queue began to move.