After a wet weekend, the sun put in an appearance on Monday morning, Royle hid behind a pair of shades when he went out for his paper. He caught a glimpse of a dark green van from the newsagent, and possibly a flash of sun on gold lettering. Back at his first-floor flat, he made himself a bacon sandwich and a mug of tea, and settled down beside the telephone with his paper.
Olly Markham woke at ten, leapt in and out of a shower, and settled down to a more substantial breakfast of cereal, two soft-boiled eggs, toast and marmalade, and Ceylon tea. From his bedroom window, he had spotted T.J. working on the engine of the white Mercedes. His driver generally rose at eight, no matter how late the night before.
Olly glanced through his Telegraph while he was eating, reserving his mail for the second cup of tea. The postman had delivered a couple of bills and three pieces of junk mail; which offered hi-potency vitamin tablets, a subscription to a news magazine at an irresistible reduction, and expensive books with real leather bindings and gold edging on three sides of the pages. Olly reached past them for the parcel.
It was oblong; about six inches by three and a bit, and an inch thick. His address, correct to the postcode, was handwritten in the same square capitals that had been used on the envelope which had contained a photograph of the late Paul Lawson: and, Olly realized, his memory stimulated by the shape of the parcel, the package which he had received the weekend before.
Inside that wrapper of similar brown paper had been a box containing a stick of Brighton rock, which had been divided neatly into three equal pieces, and a puzzling and sinister note telling him that he could have received a bomb. He had given the rock to T.J. and dismissed the present as a pointless practical joke by a friend with a twisted sense of humour. Now, he was no longer sure that it had been sent by a friend. Olly opened the kitchen window.
"Hey, T.J., when did the parcel come?" he called.
"With the rest of the mail," replied his driver. "I know because I met the postman on my way back from the paper shop. I had a listen, but it doesn't seem to be ticking."
"If there's a bang and I'm spread all over the ceiling, you can keep the car," laughed Olly.
"Do I get that in writing?" T.J. approached the kitchen door, wiping his hands on a piece of rag.
"If you come much closer, you can pick your spot on the ceiling." Olly ripped away brown paper and split tape with a kitchen knife. "Well, bugger me!"
"I didn't know you were like that, " grinned T.J. "Bloody hell!"
Olly was holding a thick wad of pound notes. T.J. started to wash his hands mechanically, his attention focussed over his shoulder on the counting.
"There's two hundred quid here," said Olly. "And another photo. A bloke called Nails Mulligan."
"Another lead pipe merchant?"
"You never know. He's a bit older than the last one. Thirty-six. Looks fairly harmless."
"So does a letter-bomb. He must have a photo of you, Olly."
"You mean, if he gets up as early as you, he might be hanging around outside, waiting to bonk me on the head?"
"He'll probably wait till dark. What are you going to do about him?"
"Chances are he doesn't know I've got a photo of him; Which gives us the drop on him. I think I'll have to fight a duel with him. We'll take a turn round to his place to get the lie of the land. We can grab him later on. You'd better put the duelling stuff in the car while we think about it."
"That sounds like Ry," said T.J. as a car roared round to the back of the cottage. "We going to tell him about this?"
"No, let him think we're looking for that cheeky sod from The Orb. Here's a bonus for you." Olly divided the notes and gave T.J. the slightly smaller half. He thrust the rest and the photograph into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"Cheers!" approved T.J. He stuffed the bonus into the hip pocket of his cords and plugged in the kettle to make some more tea. Olly liked to finish his paper before venturing out into the world.
His telephone had not rung by eleven o'clock. Just for something to do, Royle got his car out and retraced the final episode of the pursuit of Joe Potheroe. The stretch of road between a phone-box and the sign that gave the headroom under the canal bridge was free of parked vans. Potheroe had evidently called for petrol and spare keys. He wanted to play games.
Royle decided to let the antiques dealer enjoy his triumph for the rest of the day. Then he would pounce.
Taking the longer way home through Bilcross, feeling wealthy enough not to be bothered by the price of petrol, he reached the temporary traffic lights at the sewer repair, which seemed to have come to a full stop. Inevitably, the lights were against him. A white Mercedes was approaching. Royle pulled up at the stop sign like an obedient motorist and rested his elbow on the window sill. The day was warm enough to allow him to drive around with his window open.
The Mercedes started to turn back to its own side of the road, having cleared the excavation. Then it snatched to a whiplash halt, blocking Royle's path. A man jumped out from the passenger side moments later. Royle expected him to check for damage, assuming that the driver had hit something. The next thing he knew, the man was pointing a large revolver at him and telling him to unlock his passenger door.
The muzzle of the gun looked enormous. Royle decided that it was a .45 calibre, the traditional weapon of the old West. It looked too real to be a replica, and he could see the blunt noses of the cartridges in the chamber. Obeying the order seemed a good idea. Another man got in beside him. The newcomer was holding a much neater automatic pistol; a weapon of convenient pocket size, but adequately lethal at close quarters.
"Drive down to the bottom, slowly, and turn right," ordered Ry Naylor as the Mercedes advanced, out of Royle's way.
"Why?" he asked coolly.
"Because I'll shoot you in the leg if you don't," smirked Ry, making a threat which he could not carry out. "About four shots will break your thigh-bone up a treat. You'll never walk on it again. It'll just be hanging off you. A useless lump of flesh."
"You've convinced me," decided Royle. "Who are you, anyway? And what's your game?
"You mean you don't know?" Ry sounded surprised.
"I wouldn't be asking else," Royle pointed out logically.
"You don't remember Olly? He will be offended. Right."
"Yeah, right." Royle flicked the indicator over for a turn towards the centre of Fenton. "Who's this Olly?"
"In The Orb. Last Wednesday. You insulted him."
"I don't go in anywhere called The Orb," countered Royle. "Hang on. Last Wednesday? He's not the idiot in the white suit? The one that likes to go walkies?"
"He won't like that," chuckled Ry. "He remembers you. The moment he spotted you back there."
"And you were looking for me with your peashooters?" Royle asked with a frown.
"Olly always gets his man."
"Like the Mounties? So where are we going?" Royle checked his mirror again. Predictably, the white Mercedes was right behind him.
"Somewhere quiet. Olly wants to fight a duel."
"You hold me down while he thumps me?" suggested Royle, thinking about a hard left turn and sliding across the seat to crush into his passenger. The man with the gun looked about twenty-two or -three. He had a cheeky face, black hair, and his fashionably slim frame was encased in a very smart suit with that season's precise width of lapel.
"That would be very unsporting," chuckled Ry. "No, he really wants to fight a duel."
"You've got some swords in your wagon too?" Royle asked incredulously.
"Pistols," corrected Ry. "Olly's into fast-draw at the moment. You'll both strap on shooting-irons, march ten paces, turn, and when you get the signal, draw and fire."
"You're kidding," mocked Royle
"You'll find out," Ry said confidently.
"Fight a duel with those forty-five cannons? Like a couple of Wild West gunslingers?"
"And what if I blow him away? You and your other mate use me for target practice?"
"Hardly sporting," drawled Ry. "No, if Olly gets blown away, that's his hard luck. Nothing to do with us. Honour satisfied, and all that. Not that it's likely. Olly's a crack shot," he added, building up Olly's image so that the victim would be too afraid to draw and submit to debagging as a preferable alternative. "You shouldn't have insulted him; but that's your hard luck."
Royle took out his cigarette packet, then realized that he should have asked for permission. That was the rule on TV. But his passenger did not seem to mind, safe behind the deterrent of his gun. Royle lit a cigarette and digested the tale. He could not help but think that it was a practical joke of sorts. White Suit and his pals looked rich enough and spoilt enough to razz up the peasants with games with guns; but he could not see Olly fighting a genuine duel with real bullets.
Perhaps the passenger in the other car was loading the forty-fives with blanks, and Olly was planning to tape a blood capsule under his shirt. So that when Royle beat him to the draw, or managed a shot on target, there would be buckets of red, sticky liquid exploding through Olly's shirt; and the sucker would flee, convinced that he had killed someone.
Alternatively, Royle could slap on his brakes, bounce his escort's head off the windscreen, take the gun away, and throw him out of the car. His pals were unlikely to start shooting, even with blanks, with witnesses around.
As he had nothing else planned for the morning, Royle decided to go along with the game for a while. Eventually, as planned for Joe Potheroe, he would pounce. Perhaps he could arrange for his gun to go off accidentally, proving that it contained blanks. Or perhaps, when Olly's pals told him that the duellist was dead, he could boot him in the groin to find out if he was faking. The possibilities were endless.
Royle turned left out of Ashley, the next town on the Shepford road. The houses on either side of the road thinned and were left behind. Eight and a half miles beyond Ashley, the procession crossed the River Dane at Ottabridge and kept going. The road travelled through farmland and then began to climb into rocky, wind-swept pastures for hardy sheep. Apart from marching electricity pylons with their ponderous cables, and neat, dry-stone walls, there was very little evidence of human presence.
Royle lit another cigarette and glanced at his watch. He had been driving for twenty-five minutes. His passenger ground the stub of a long, slim cigar into the ashtray. He had gone through amusing contortions to light it one-handed while keeping the gun trained on his driver. Royle had reserved his laughter, saving it for later.
A horn sounded behind them. Royle looked at his mirror. The white Mercedes was signalling a right turn.
"Take the next right," ordered Ry.
Royle slowed, and turned onto a track; two strips of rocky earth with a Mohican sprout of limp grass between them. It curved round a low hill, turning back on itself to run parallel to the road. Royle found himself descending into a blind canyon which looked like an abandoned and overgrown quarry.
"All change," remarked his passenger.
Royle set the handbrake, switched off the ignition, and pocketed the key out of habit. One of the men from the other car was wearing a plum-coloured waistcoat and a holstered revolver. Royle took a good look at him, but the face failed to ring any bells.
"Remember me?" Olly Markham asked in a mocking tone.
Royle shrugged. "Not really." He tried, without success, to spot the bulge of a blood capsule as Olly shed his waistcoat to reveal a pale pink shirt.
T.J. tossed a holster to Royle. He buckled it on over his anorak and tied the trailing thongs around his right thigh, adjusting the height of the pearl handle of the revolver to a point midway between wrist and elbow. He had read somewhere that such was the proper position for a gun-slinger's weapon. Then he took the revolver out of its holster and looked at the chamber. The four holes that he could see were empty.
"These are double action," grinned Olly. "That means they fire when you pull the trigger. You don't have to cock the hammer first."
Royle squeezed his trigger a couple of times, aiming the gun at the rocky ground. Sure enough, the hammer rose and fell on empty chambers. Olly whistled at him. When Royle looked up, Olly's hand dropped to his side and rose again, holding a gun. The movement was smooth, efficient, and very fast.
"Ry's told you about the duel," Olly grinned at Royle. "But we're going to let you have a bit of practice. With an empty gun, of course, in case you shoot yourself in the foot."
Royle tried a few fast draws, not making too much of an effort to succeed. He managed to drop the gun once, and fired it before he cleared the holster a couple of times. Then Olly grew tired of laughing at his ineptitude and started to worry about damage to the weapon if Royle dropped it again.
"Load him up, T.J.," he ordered.
Olly's driver took the pistol from Royle and slid six fat cartridges into the chamber. They looked real enough; domes of lead projected beyond brassy cases; but Royle concluded that the 'bullets' were made of some material that would become dust when the blanks were fired. Keeping up the illusion, the one called Ry trained his small automatic on Royle to warn him that he would be dropped in his tracks if he tried any funny business; which seemed to rule out a premature draw and the firing of a blank to end the charade; if Ry had real bullets in his gun. Then inspiration struck.
"Are these real bullets?" Royle asked, tapping the butt of his gun. "They looked a bit phoney to me."
"When did you ever see a real bullet?" scoffed T.J., his accent revealing that he had been born to the east of the Pennines.
"This peasant thinks we're playing games!" whooped Olly. "He's too thick to realize he's in the presence of gentlemen. Watch. See that Coke tin over there?"
Olly turned half away from Royle and drew his revolver. Using a two-handed grip, he took careful aim. Ry and T.J. turned their heads to look at the target. In a moment of revelation, Royle realized that his chance meeting with Olly, and it could be nothing other than chance, precluded rigging up a Coke tin which jumped when a blank was fired. That required wiring to a small explosive charge, or a sound trigger of the sort used by special effects men in films.
If Olly managed to hit the Coke tin with a real bullet, then the duel was for real as well; and Johnny Royle was in a lot of trouble. As Olly settled into a stable aiming position, Royle slipped the gun from his holster and aimed it at his opponent's body.
The two explosions came more or less together. Royle did not see what happened to the Coke tin. He felt a painful jolt to his right wrist. Olly was thrown away from him. Royle shifted his aim and fired at T.J., who looked the more dangerous of the survivors. He too was spun off his feet. Ry had realized what was happening and was bringing his automatic to bear on the cad who had broken the rules. Indignation rather than fear was surging through him when the heavy bullet crashed into and out of his rib-cage.
Olly was still moving in an aimless sort of way. Royle pointed the gun at him and put another round through his shirt. The other two had sagged into final immobility. There was an acrid haze in the air; and smoke curling from the barrel of his revolver. Royle blew it away in unconscious compliance with the approved Western practice.
He checked the duellist and his seconds for a neck pulse, resting his other fingers on the collar-bone as a point of reference. Olly and his pals were stone-dead; which struck Royle as an inappropriate metaphor. The three bodies were still warm and floppy. As he had shot them at a range of around four yards, he was surprised neither that he had hit them nor that the bullets had passed clean through them. But that he had hit something vital with a generally aimed shot seemed extreme good fortune.
Royle stuffed the gun back into his holster and tried to massage away the pain in his right wrist. He had jarred it as badly once before; when he had swung a pickaxe handle at a head and hit an unyielding brick wall instead. He lit a cigarette, wondering what to do next. He felt a little shaken at having underestimated so badly the seriousness of Olly's intent.
Had not the duellist and his pals been so full of the game, and anticipating too much the kill to come, then he would have been the inconvenient body, posing problems of disposal. Perhaps, if they had played the game before, as seemed likely from their state of preparedness, their victim had been too petrified to deviate from their rules. But self-preservation in an unequal contest made its own rules. As Olly and his pals had learned to their cost.
Reaching a decision, Royle collected the guns and dragged the bodies over to the white Mercedes. He put Olly behind the wheel, T.J. in the front passenger seat, and sprawled Ry in the back. An examination of the boot revealed two one-gallon tins of petrol, and a cash-box full of ammunition under the tool-kit. He had found a polished wooden box for the .45 revolvers on the back seat of the car.
Royle stowed the guns and ammunition in his own car, then splashed petrol around in the interior of the Mercedes, having dimped his cigarette. He syphoned a couple of gallons out of the tank to soak further the bodies and the upholstery, and then another gallon for luck. Stepping out of range of the heavy, choking fumes, he lit a petrol-soaked rag and tossed it into the car.
There was a heavy thud, not a clean explosion, and tongues of flame rolled through the open windows to become dense black smoke. Royle hurried back to his own vehicle and returned to the road. He looked back, but failed to see a column of solid smoke rising behind the hill. He concluded that the wind was deflecting or dispersing the smoke.
He had been taken to a fairly isolated spot. If no one spotted the fire, and the next shower of rain washed away the blood on the grass, and if the bodies were burned badly enough, it was possible that a pathologist would not be able to tell that the trio had been shot before they died. But whatever happened, Royle was confident that there was nothing to connect him with three mysterious deaths miles from anywhere. It had been a strange morning. It had been a bit of a strange month. People had started picking on him all of a sudden; but none of them was getting away with it.
Driving homewards, alone and unthreatened, Royle had to struggle against the sense of unreality behind his feelings of euphoria. He was not in the habit of killing three men before lunch. As he started up the hill just outside Poulfield, he realized that he was feeling quite hungry. Four miles further on, with his dashboard clock approaching twelve-thirty, he started to signal a left turn. There was a pub called The Hound's Rest towards the bottom of the hill. His mouth felt as dry as Death Valley at noon.
Royle took his foot off the accelerator as the pub sign approached too rapidly. He realized that he had been doing close to seventy-five on the long, gentle slopes down from Poul Crest. Excessive speed could arouse suspicion later on; when the police found a burnt-out car with three bodies in it. He made a gentle turn into the car-park and stopped near the side-door of the pub.
He ordered a pint and turned his attention to the plastic cabinet of sandwiches. A toaster swallowed his order, sealed edges, and singed ribs onto the triangles of bread. The dozen people in the pub were a chatty bunch. One of the men at the bar tried to draw Royle into a conversation as he was paying for his lunch. Royle told him that he was not much of a betting man and did not really fancy anything for the one forty-five.
To escape questions about what sort of man he was, Royle took his pint and the plate of sandwiches out to one of the tables near the big oak tree. None of the others believed in open-air eating in October, but there was a warm breeze, and the sun was beaming down from a patch of blue sky which was big enough to make a waistcoat for a Yorkshireman, as his friend Lenny Suskin would have said.
Royle had noticed the figure on the stone wall while turning into the car-park. A pair of eyes began to burn into the left side of his face as he started on the sandwiches. Royle looked up. The girl looked about fifteen. She was quite solidly built and wearing jeans of faded and patched dark blue denim, a grubby white blouse, and a pale blue top. Her hair was mid-brown, and probably wavy when it was not lank, greasy, and in need of a wash. Royle assumed that she had drifted in off the motorway, which lay half a mile further on.
"You going to eat all them sarnies?" she demanded, having attracted Royle's attention satisfactorily.
"Wouldn't have bought them else," he returned laconically.
"You ever think about the starving millions?"
"About as often as they think about me."
"I wouldn't say no to a sarnie," said the girl, dropping a heavy hint along with her London-area origins.
"Plenty more on sale inside," returned Royle.
The girl just looked at him. Royle shrugged and took a long pull at his pint, drinking left-handed. His right wrist still felt mildly sprained.
"You wouldn't miss one of them, you mean sod," complained the girl.
"One's not much of a meal," Royle decided.
"I'll have two, then," The girl shrugged, telling him that she was prepared to do him that favour.
"You're a bit of a cheeky sod, you know that?" said Royle.
"You don't get nothing if you don't ask," The girl shrugged again. "How about it?"
Royle realized that he was feeling on top of the world. Getting the best of three armed men had bucked him up no end. He was in a mood to let the kid get away with her cheek. He fished a pound note out of a pocket and weighed it down with the superfluous ashtray. A light breeze was blowing across the car-park, stirring fallen leaves with its pleasantly warm breath.
The girl slid off the wall and approached the table cautiously, as if expecting Royle to snatch the note away. She had a bulging holdall slung over her left shoulder. "I fancy something to drink as well," she remarked.
"They won't serve you," Royle pointed out.
"I don't like beer," returned the girl, a triumphant note creeping into her voice as she scored a point off him under her private set of rules. "They do coffee and soup for lunch."
Royle shrugged and fished out another pound note.
The girl did not thank him. She just accepted her due and hurried into the pub, taking her holdall with her. She emerged carrying a tray, on which were sausages and mash, a bowl of tomato soup, a chunk of French bread, and a cup of coffee covered with a saucer. The food disappeared rapidly, as if the girl had not eaten for some time.
"Got a fag?" she asked, taking the saucer off her coffee.
"You old enough to smoke?" countered Royle.
"Been smoking since I was eleven," the girl assured him.
"That can't have been too long ago."
"I'm nineteen. Nearly."
"Not very nearly, I'll bet," Royle surrender the cigarette.
"Seventeen. And a half," the girl added with a shrug. "Are you giving me a lift?"
"A lift as well as a free lunch?" Royle objected.
"Go on, you rotten sod. It's not going to do you no harm."
"How do you know I'm going your way?"
"I'm not going nowhere special."
"Does your mother know you're conning people out of a lunch and bullying them into giving you lifts?"
"That old cow!" said the girl vehemently.
"That's not a nice thing to say about your mum."
"The old bitch," The girl tugged up the left side of her blouse to show an area of yellow and black a few inches above her waist. "She done that."
"So you're running away from home?" divined Royle.
"Wouldn't you?" countered the girl. "Me dad got drunk. Again. And he tried to feel me up. Again. So I give him a knee in the goolies. But me mum come in and said it was my fault for leading him on. And she started to knock me about. So I bloody hit her with a chair. It didn't break, you know. Not like they do on the telly. And while she was spark out, I packed up and scarpered with the rent money. She'd have bloody killed me if I hadn't."
"If you've got the rent money, you could have bought your own lunch," Royle pointed out.
"That's for emergencies, not spending," the girl countered. "No point in wasting it if you can get someone else to pay for you."
"Can't argue with that," Royle admitted.
"Well, has my hard-luck story touched your heart? Are you giving one of Society's victims a lift into town?"
"I'm only going as far as Fenton. But I suppose you can get a bus into Shepford. Got some pals there, or something?"
"Nah, but there's bound to be a squat or something. You see 'em on the telly all the time. And when you've got an address, you can screw some money out of the Social."
"Got it all worked out, haven't you?" laughed Royle.
"That's the way they do it on telly," The girl shrugged again. "Are you giving me a lift, or what?"
Royle shrugged in reply. "I suppose so."
"You can call me Betty, short for Elizabeth. Are you going to drink up so I can take the tray back?"
"What's the rush?"
"I wanna get fixed up with somewhere before it gets dark, or it starts raining again."
Royle finished his pint. The girl loaded the dishes onto the tray and took them over to the pub. She hurried back; to find Royle sitting at the table, finishing his cigarette. Her expression suggested that she was surprised to see him. Royle fished out his keys and led her to the car. Betty made herself comfortable and dumped her holdall on the floor, between her feet.
"Just in case you're thinking of trying anything on," she remarked conversationally, "I've got a knife."
"Yeah?" returned Royle. "What did you do, nick the bread knife with the rent money?"
"This ain't no bread knife," Betty unzipped the side pocket of her holdall and retrieved the weapon. It turned out to be a lock-knife with a three-inch blade. It looked like a cheap foreign job with a stainless steel blade which would go blunt as soon as it was used. But someone had filed away the step in the back of the blade so that it could be stabbed its full length into an enemy's body.
"It's all very well dragging that around," chuckled Royle. "But have you got the nerve to use it?"
"Try anything and you'll soon find out," warned Betty.
"Not till you've had a bath, love," Royle had noticed a thin, sour smell behind the masking cigarette smoke.
"It's amazing what you can do when you're pushed," added the girl, apparently unaware of the remark. "She's built like a bloody wrestler, me mum. She's always knocking us about, me dad and me. That's why our Jimmy buggered off to Bristol. We're like one of them problem families they put in plays on the telly. Except me dad's got a job. So's me mum. All that lifting builds her muscles up. She has to hold herself back when she hits us so's not to bloody kill us. But this time, she really hurt me. So I picked up this chair and bashed her one. She hit the floor like a ton of wet cement. And a cup bounced off the kitchen table. Didn't break, though. Funny that, isn't it?"
"They only break if you've got time to tell them not to," offered Royle.
"Yeah," The girl released the blade and snapped the knife shut. "Got another fag?" she asked, dropping the knife back into her holdall.
Royle offered his pocket.
"Okay if I take one for Ron?" Betty extracted two cigarettes and put one in an empty packet, which she kept in her jacket pocket. "Duty-free, these?"
"From a bloke who travels a lot," The cigarettes had disappeared on the way to a duty-free shop. Both Royle and his supplier knew their history, but there was no point in telling the world. "You're a cheeky sod. You know that?"
"It's the only way to get on these days," said Betty, unabashed. "This bloke on telly said everyone loves a lovable rogue. You gotta admire his cheek; they say that."
"'Just because they say it doesn't make it true. Watch a lot of telly, do you?"
"Not much else you can do when you're broke. Me mum takes all the money I get from the Social. I have to nick me dad's fags."
"Me mum scares them off. And they're only after one thing. Me mum says she'll kill me if I get knocked up."
"So where are you running away to eventually? Middle of London?"
"Joke!" scoffed Betty. "London's full of kids with no jobs and nowhere to go. And pimps waiting to make a bomb out of teenage kids. Till you get knocked up or worn out."
"Got all the answers, some people," commented Royle.
"Most of them," returned Betty modestly.
"I could drop you here," said Royle as they approached the centre of Ashley. "Save you a mile and a half's bus fare."
"You got your own place?" asked Betty. "Flat or something?"
"Flat," nodded Royle. "Why?"
"What you said about a bath. I could do with one."
"Hang about," laughed Royle. "You've done bloody well out of me already. I'm not bloody adopting you."
"Not for nothing."
"What, are you going to pay for the bath out of your rent money?"
"No, I'll do something for you. I'll cook your tea for you. I'm a bloody good cook, you know. Me lazy cow of a mum made me do it all. If I wasn't working, that was my job."
"I'm not a bad cook myself," remarked Royle modestly.
"Don't be such a mean sod."
"And what happens if the lovable rogue waltzes off with my telly, or something else that's not nailed down?"
"I wouldn't do that to a mate," protested Betty.
"Oh, I'm your mate now?" laughed Royle. "And a lovable rogue wouldn't admit she's going to bugger off with the TV. She'd just do it and expect you to be dead chuffed about it."
"Come on, don't be a mean sod. It's not going to hurt you if I have one lousy bath. You can search me after to make sure I haven't nicked the bloody soap."
Royle reached Fenton and stopped in front of his garage. What the hell, he thought as he applied the handbrake. If the kid did rip something off, he would still be well in the black. He had the best part of three thousand pounds stashed in the roof of his garage. And there was nothing much worth nicking in the flat. Living with the possibility of coming unstuck on one of his cocaine-smuggling trips, he had built himself a temporary nest from which he could fly without regrets if needs be.
"We're here, then?" Betty said brightly.
Royle nodded. "Right. All change."
The words had a familiar ring. They had been among Ry Naylor's last.
Royle put his car away, then led the way into the back yard, up the steps, and onto the roof of his air raid shelter patio. He unlocked the kitchen door and showed the visitor into the living-room of his first-floor flat.
"Bathroom," he said, pointing to the half-open door on the left.
"Towels?" said Betty practically, stepping into the small room. She noticed toothpaste splashes on the sink surround, a cobweb in one corner, and a frosted window in need of cleaning. "No thick black ring round the bath," she observed.
"Someone must have nicked it," said Royle, opening the cupboard over the hot water tank. "Towels."
"Right," Betty tested the temperature of the hot water. "I reckon I can manage now."
"Right," said Royle.
He left her to it, wondering what to do with the guns. The cowboy forty-fives were a bit of a liability. They were big, bulky, and flash with their pearl handles. And they kicked like a star striker. His right wrist still knew that he had fired four shots. Perhaps he could sell them to a gun-nut. With their fancy box, they had to be worth a few bob.
Royle retired to his garage. He managed to open the cylinders of the revolvers and removed the cartridges, spent and unfired. There was a cleaning kit in the polished box. He pushed the cleaning rod through the barrels and chambers, then applied a light, preservative film of oil. The guns looked almost like toys when he had returned them to their nose-to-tail recesses in the box. He wrapped the box and the cash-box of ammunition in a plastic bag and stashed them in the hole at the back of the garage. It was not much of a hiding-place, but he did not expect anyone to come looking.
He hid one of the automatics and one of the spare clips under the back seat of the car. Wiped clean of external fingerprints, nobody could prove that he knew about it. The car had been through at least four pairs of hands before he had bought it. He felt tempted to put the other automatic in his pocket. It was nice and neat, and it did not make too much of a bulge; certainly no more than the combination of wallet and cigarette packet: but he had to allow for Sod's Law.
If he was carrying a gun, some interfering idiot was bound to find out by accident and scream for the Law. And that meant a long time inside if they grabbed him. British judges get very shirty with people who wander around with concealed firearms; unless they are rich and spoilt like Olly and his pals. Their sort get away with everything; until they run into somebody like Royle.
The best place for gun number four was under the loose floorboard in his bedroom. Again, he could plead ignorance. Some pretty dodgy characters had rented the flat. And lots of others no one knew much about. As a fairly dodgy character himself, Royle felt slightly more secure now that he had his own private arsenal.
Having concealed the gun and the remaining two ammunition clips, Royle worked the dusty lino back into place. He had to wash his hands in the kitchen. Water noises and splashing issued from the bathroom. He strolled down to the off-licence to buy a couple of bottles of wine, taking the opportunity to dispose of the spent cartridges down a shattered drain on the demolition site.
Home again, he made himself a cup of coffee and took it into the living-room. He had his feet up and was deep in a collection of Agatha Christie novels when the visitor emerged from the bathroom wearing two towels; a large pink one around her body and a smaller striped turban on her head.
"I thought I'd do some washing," she remarked. "Anywhere I can hang it up?"
"Out back," said Royle. "The pegs are in the cabinet on the left of the kitchen door. Bottom drawer."
Betty found the washing-up bowl in the sink and used it to transport a mound of soggy fabric to the line, which ran to a pole at the edge of the air raid shelter patio. She made herself a cup of instant coffee, switched on the television, and flopped into a chair to dry her hair, her feet enjoying the warm gale from the fan heater. It was one of those days when it feels colder indoors than out.
"Got a fag?" she asked in the casual suggestion that was her closest approach to a request.
Royle pointed to the storage unit against the bedroom wall. "Top drawer."
Betty heaved herself to her feet. The drawer scraped open. "I'd better take a packet," she decided, wrestling with the wrapping on a carton of duty-frees which had never seen the inside of a duty-free shop. "It's gonna get up your nose if I keep asking you for ciggies."
"Bloody considerate of you," chuckled Royle.
Betty helped herself to his lighter, then returned to her chair and her coffee. "Read a lot, do you?"
"A fair bit."
"That's something I never got into," admitted the visitor. "About all me mum and dad ever read is the Radio Times and the TV Times. And I never found a book I can get into."
"There's millions about," Royle pointed out. "There's bound to be one you'd like."
"I never thought of that. But if I started reading a book, I'd get a clip round the ear off me mum. Get some bloody work done, you lazy little cow, she'd say. I s'pose I'd have a high visibility factor, like that Yank on the telly kept saying. You know, doing something different from them. Not gawping at the goggle-box. What do you want for your tea?"
"There's some chops in the fridge," Royle put his book aside for the moment. Betty was too much of a distraction.
"Chops?" she repeated incredulously. "Bloody hell! Bangers and baked beans. And bloody fish fingers. That's all me brother lives on. And if there's no one to cook for him, me old man goes down the chip shop or the takeaway."
"Hey!" realized Royle. "If you're making my tea, that means you've invited your bloody self too."
"Well, me things won't be dry much before tea-time," Betty pointed out. "Strange that, innit? This is the first decent day we've had for weeks. I suppose you could call it destiny. What else you got?"
"Spuds, of course. And some carrots ..."
"Carrots!" laughed Betty.
"I like carrots," said Royle defensively.
Betty blew smoke at the talking head on the television. She seemed to treat the box as a necessary background, like talking wallpaper. "None of my mob would know what a carrot looks like if I didn't dish 'em up now and again. Mushy peas from the bloody chippie. Drowned in vinegar. That's more their style."
"I can't stand mushy peas."
"Me neither. Got any tomatoes?"
"Tins in the cupboard. Couple of onions. And there's some mushrooms and half a green pepper in the fridge."
"Bloody hell! Me dad won't look at a mushroom," Betty's voice became a gruff snarl. "Bloody fungus, they are. Like what grows on your Auntie Jane's walls where the rain comes in," She beamed at Royle. "I'm gonna make a meal to remember. Like that bloke on telly's always saying. Got any stuffing?"
"Packets in the kitchen cabinet. And there's some wine."
"Can't stand the taste of that stuff," Betty pulled a face. "It makes me want to be sick. I think it must be psychological. There was a programme about it on the telly. Me dad gets randy when he's had a drink and he starts on me. And me mum always blames me for leading him on. Taking advantage of his condition. Christ! If I don't fancy him sober, why does she think he turns me on when he's stinking drunk? I think it's called aversion therapy. Putting people off things; like smoking. But it's booze with me. He puts me right off it."
"You ought to be on telly yourself," decided Royle. "You talk like one of those self-made professors."
"It's amazing what you can pick up if you've got nothing better to do than watch telly. But you can never be sure you've got it straight if there's no one to explain things to you. This programme isn't bad usually."
The visitor gave her attention to the television. Royle returned to The Mystery of the Blue Train. The day was becoming stranger by the hour.
Betty strolled to and from the kitchen, wearing her pink towel like a sarong, making preparations and putting dishes into the oven. She took her washing in at the end of the short afternoon, in the commercial break before the early evening news, and completed the drying job in front of the fan heater. She had made herself quite at home and she had started to leave her mark on the neighbours. Some old bag, she told Royle, had been staring at her, but she had rushed indoors when the vision in the pink towel had waved an energetic V-sign and made as if to throw something.
Royle just shrugged, unconcerned. Being polite to nosy neighbours figured very low on his list of priorities. No doubt there would be gossip and odd looks thrown his way the next time he showed his face, but Royle could live with them.
Betty retired to Royle's bedroom to dress. Wearing ice-blue jeans and a dark green jumper, and keeping half an eye on the television, she served pork chops in tomato sauce, baked potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and dollops of sage and onion stuffing. As advertised, it was a meal to remember. She accepted Royle's appreciation with an I-told-you-so grin and collapsed in front of the television with coffee and a cigarette, telling him that she would do the washing-up later.
"Look at that!" she laughed.
"What's that?" Royle looked up from his book. It was strange, but he had noticed that a person watching television assumed that everyone else in the room was watching too.
"He didn't have much of a part," chuckled Betty. "Done in before the credit titles. Didn't even get a chance to say a bleedin' word. I wonder how much he got paid for that?"
"Union rate," decided Royle. "Probably enough to make what you screw out of the Social look like lunch money."
"Nice work if you can get it," commented Betty.
Royle drew the curtains on a black night and glanced at his visitor. Reading his mind, Betty patted the arm of her chair and announced: "This is like them chairs Michael Bentine was advertising on telly, isn't it? You can pull it out to make a single bed."
"No kidding," returned Royle.
"Come on, I won't be in the way if I kip down here on this," Betty told him.
"How do you know I want you kipping down here?" countered Royle.
"If you want to bring a bird back, just tell me to get lost. I'll go and kip in the car."
"That's bloody decent of you," laughed Royle.
The matter rested there. Royle was intrigued by the kid's nerve and the way she was manipulating him by taking advantage of his indifference. She was filling vacant areas around him, space for which he had no use: the passenger seat of his car, the bath while he was busy hiding guns and buying wine, and the other armchair.
She had cost him a lunch, a packet of cigarettes, and the food and fuel to cook her share of the dinner. But she had tackled the cooking and she had promised to do the washing-up. And the meal had been first-class. As long as she did not get underfoot, it really did not matter to him whether she stayed or moved on to her squat in Shepford.
Around half-past eleven, the guest made two cups of tea, then converted her chair into a bed. She had found the spare sheets and blankets. Royle drank his tea and decided not to pursue a fourth or fifth repeat of an episode of The New Avengers to its well-worn conclusion, even if it did feature the pair who were to go on to become Bodie and Doyle in The Professionals. Betty was made of sterner stuff.
Yawning, Royle padded across the living-room, wondering when he had opened the curtains. He was sure that he had drawn them the night before.
"Tea or coffee?" called a voice from the kitchen. "And what do you want for breakfast? You don't half look a sight in the morning."
Once through the sudden jolt of shock, Royle remembered that he was no longer alone. He ran fingers through tangled hair as a reflex. "Tea and some of that bacon," he decided, drawing conclusions from the air on his way to the bathroom.
Someone had been busy. His shaving mirror gleamed, and the white toothpaste splashes had failed to survive until his next sprint round with a damp cloth. Having breakfast made for him was a treat. The last time had been in Amsterdam, at Sibbi's place.
Royle took the short cut across the demolition site and bought a paper at the newsagent on the main road. Then he settled down beside the telephone with his breakfast. He was not expecting a call, but there was always the chance.
Betty was rattling around in the kitchen. She returned to the living-room, lit a cigarette, and dropped onto her chair bed with a sheet of paper and a ball-point. A few minutes later, she approached Royle and showed him a shopping list.
"Fifteen quid should cover it," she announced.
"I believe you," Royle returned the sheet of paper after a quick scan. "Oh! You want fifteen quid off me," he added into a growing silence. He surrendered two notes.
"If you're going out, I might need a key," hinted his guest.
"Yeah," Royle detached the spare key from his collection.
"You don't have to tell me if you'll be here for lunch," added Betty. "If you are, I'll make you some. If you're not, I won't bother."
"Okay, fair enough," Royle glanced at his watch.
Eleven o'clock had gone, and with it the possibility of a business telephone call. He had some pouncing to do. The lights at the sewer repair were red, as usual. Nothing was approaching. Royle splashed past on the wrong side of the road. For some perverse reason, half a dozen men were toiling away in light drizzle after a fine day off.
The car-park at The Orb was half-full, but better organization had left room for Royle. He ordered strong cider. The landlord whipped the top off a bottle, then he looked Royle up and down. "I see he didn't catch up with you," he remarked.
"Who's that?" Royle dropped a pound note onto the bar.
"Markham," The landlord turned to the till.
"I don't know any Markhams," Royle returned after a moment's thought, confident of his ignorance.
"You got right up his nose the other day; last time you was in," The landlord piled change into a neat tower.
"Oh! You mean the idiot in the white suit? Him with the big mouth? Thought I was staring at him? He soon went off the boil."
"He's wearing a wooden overcoat now. Him and his mates. Car blew up. Out Rotherbridge way,"
"Yeah?" said Royle, not particularly interested. "Seen Joe Potheroe at all?"
The landlord glanced up at the clock, then peeled back a cuff to double-check. "He should be in any minute. You buying or selling?"
"We've got this deal going," said Royle obliquely.
"I wouldn't mind a piece of his action," sighed the landlord. "Fancy being able to pick up something for a few quid knowing it's worth bloody hundreds."
"Yeah," said Royle with a sceptical smile, which the landlord misinterpreted as agreement.
"You don't know how close you come," the landlord added.
"To what?" Royle lit one of his duty-free Bensons.
"Markham. Vicious little sod, he were. Get on the wrong side of him and you'd had it. Him and his mates, Ry and T.J. You're bloody lucky they didn't catch up with you."
"Bit of dentistry with a brick?" Royle suggested sceptically.
"If you was lucky," the landlord said darkly. "His sort get away with it because they don't bloody care. And they've got money. Get on the wrong side of them and they keep after you, no matter what. Tomorrow, next year, or five years from now. They keep score, you see. He had his little red book. Get yourself in that and you'd had it," " Yeah?" said Royle.
"You was lucky, though. No one knew you. So you couldn't go in Chairman bloody Olly's little red book. But he asked."
"So how come you know me?"
"Good memory for faces. You don't see many blokes laugh at Markham. Not for long when they find out who he is. Was."
"You mean, you could have told the plastic surgeon how to put my face back together if he'd caught me?" laughed Royle.
"Something like that," Grinning, the landlord, helping himself to a glass of mild. "Shepherd out with his dog found them this morning."
"You said the car blew up?" Royle said with a frown. "Was this Markham into bombs?"
"You couldn't say what he was into," The landlord shrugged. "And there wasn't that much left of the car. There was a fire too, and they were more or less cremated. The police found Markham's ID bracelet. That's how they knew it was him. But they're double-checking just the same. There was just these loose bones rattling round in the car. Good bloody riddance; if he's gone."
"What, you mean it might be like you see on telly? Markham picks up a tramp, has a bit of a fire, gets the body IDed from his bracelet, and collects his own life insurance?"
"I wouldn't put it past him. Still, he can't come round here again, chucking his bloody weight around. Not if he's supposed to be dead."
"So you win both ways?" Royle concluded.
"There's plenty not sorry to see the back of him. And there's them as says he were a grand lad. But I suppose it takes all sorts."
The landlord moved away to serve another early customer. Royle became aware of someone lurking at his elbow. The man was of average height, fortyish, and powerfully built. His overall was streaked with black oil and lighter stains, which could have been cement or plaster. His left hand surrounded a pint mug and he was holding a pipe in his right hand. Royle decided that the man's forearm was twice the size of his own.
"I see someone beat us to it," remarked the stranger.
"Yeah?" Royle invited through a frown of puzzlement. "Beat you to what?"
"Markham. Sorted him out a treat," the man said through a broad grin. "Charlie Grafton," He wedged the pipe between his brown teeth and offered a meaty hand. "Good to meet someone who stood up to him."
Royle submitted to a minor crushing. "How do you mean? Sorted Markham out?"
"We've been waiting for him to make that one wrong move," continued Grafton, following a prepared line of thought. "Then we'd have had him."
"I don't get you," Royle said with a frown.
"Too many like him, these days. Vandals, muggers, doing old-age pensioners for a few easy quid. They did one the other day, just at the back of here. Proper miserable old cow. Remember that Monty Python film on telly? The Hell's Grannies? She was like that; always picking a fight. Still, it's the principle of the thing. It's too easy to get away with it. And if they do get caught, it's a slap on the wrist from the courts. Bloody social workers, saying it's not their fault. But some of them don't get away with it. This kid, he had a go at my mate's uncle. Seventy-eight, he is. Broke the pool old bloke's leg and nicked six quid and a lighter. Two years' probation, he got. I ask you,"
"A joke, isn't it?" agreed Royle.
"The kid's not laughing now," Grafton said confidentially. "Fell down some steps after he cashed his Giro at the post office. Broke his bloody ankle. And when the plaster come off, bugger me if he didn't do exactly the same all over again. That kid's watching his step now. And so are his mates."
"One way of doing it," grinned Royle. "You must have been in a long queue to sort out Olly and his mates. He must have had a pretty full little red book with his short fuse."
"You were number one on his hit list," hinted Grafton. "His sort can't let anyone laugh at them. He was all set to make a proper example of you when he found out who you was. I suppose that would make it self-defence."
"The bloke behind the bar said something about his car blowing up," Royle pointed out. "Sounds like an own goal."
"Yeah, maybe," grinned Grafton. "Funny how he went looking for you, and you're the one still coming in here. I just thought I'd let you know there's a few more around not going to let the yobs run riot. No matter who their dad is."
"Sounds like blowing himself up was the best thing he could have done," Royle drained his glass. "Well, must get on."
"See you," Grafton said with a nod, expressing a hope as well as a farewell. "All the best."
Royle doubted whether he would be seeing much of Charlie Grafton in the future. He had never been one for joining movements, and he did not fancy becoming involved with a bunch of vigilantes. He was too much of a lone wolf.
A dark green van with gold lettering on the sides was turning into the car-park as he reached the side door of the pub. It squealed to an abrupt halt, then clunked into reverse.
Here we go again, thought Royle.
The chase was on. By the time Royle had nosed his car out onto the main road, the van had disappeared. He turned left at the estate agent and building society office. He was rewarded with a glimpse of a green vehicle making a right turn further down the road.
Joe Potheroe just beat the traffic lights at the edge of Welling, amber-gambling and feeling quite pleased with himself, but the stretch of road down to the aqueduct was straight and offered no escape. A leaden weight crashed to the bottom of his stomach as Royle's car caught him up.
The second slow-motion chase lasted ten minutes. Realizing that he stood no chance of losing Royle, and wishing to cause himself a minimum of inconvenience, Potheroe slowed as he reached the outskirts of Hythe and made for the yard behind his shop. He stepped out of the van, locked it carefully, and handed the keys to Royle with an expression of resignation.
"Spare keys, eh?" remarked Royle. "So much for my hostage. Got any more?"
Potheroe shook his head, trying for an honest expression.
"Yeah?" Royle said sceptically as he returned the keys.
Potheroe's eyes bulged as his tormentor rattled a steel chain out of a cardboard box. Royle threaded it through the driver's door handle, wrapped it round the rear door handles, passed it through the passenger door handle, and applied a large padlock at the rear of the vehicle to secure the ends.
"I got stuff in there!" Potheroe protested.
"I got a hole in my wallet," returned Royle coolly. "Two-fifty quid deep."
With a sigh, Potheroe produced a wad of notes from his hip pocket. He counted off twenty fives and handed them to Royle.
"Right," Royle counted the notes and stuffed them into his inside pocket.
"'Ere, what about this bloody chain?" protested Potheroe. The smooth accent that he used on customers dried up when he was annoyed.
"You still owe me another one fifty," Royle pointed out, looking at the remaining paper in Potheroe's hand. "There's only about thirty quid here. And I need it," Royle plucked the notes out of his hand and counted. "Thirty-one. One nineteen you owe me. And if you bugger me about much more, I'm going to start charging interest."
"This isn't fair!" wailed Potheroe.
"We've been through all this before," returned Royle, unmoved. "You were fast enough grabbing my money in the first place. You've only got yourself to blame if it's got stuck to your fingers. I think I've been very patient."
Royle returned to his car, leaving Potheroe staring blankly at the shiny new chain with its business-like, inch-and-a-half links. He lit a cigarette before getting into the car. For some perverse reason, the lighter slipped through his fingers as he was putting it away. Something pinged off his windscreen as he bent down to retrieve the lighter. Another missile scraped a puff of brick dust from the wall of the antique dealer's yard.
Royle ducked into his car to deprive the sniper of a target. Kids with airguns sometimes got fed up of shooting at gulls and sparrows, or cats and dogs, and turned to human targets. Perhaps Charlie Grafton and his vigilantes had a point, Royle decided, as he set off for his flat and whatever his lodger had in store for lunch.
Betty was watching the television news and polishing the living-room furniture. There was a faint lingering of violently assaulted dust in the air. Someone had been very busy.
"Omelettes for lunch. I'll do your room on Thursday," announced the girl, squirting polish onto her cloth and applying it to the television. "Kitchen tomorrow."
"Anyone would think you like doing housework," Royle remarked as he lowered himself into an armchair.
"I don't mind doing it," Betty shrugged. "But in me own time. Not with me old bag of a mum moaning at me to do it."
Royle found the shopping list on the arm of his chair, and a supermarket receipt which showed a final total of £14.32½. He did not expect any change from the housekeeping.
"Borrowed the vacuum off the woman down below," continued Betty. "I told her you're my cousin."
"Yeah?" said Royle. A vague mental picture formed in his mind. The couple in the ground-floor flat were both dark and on the small side; an example of likes attracting. Royle hardly ever saw them, and he was not sure that he would recognize his neighbours on either side.
"And a bloke come to read the electric meter,"
"Any good news?" invited Royle.
"I saw a smashing anorak in the Army Surplus. Waterproof, quilted lining, only fifteen quid."
"Did you buy it?" "You couldn't lend me fifteen quid?"
"Lend?" laughed Royle, taking his eyes from the television screen to direct an incredulous stare at his guest. "You mean I'll get it back?"
"Yeah, if you're lucky," the girl said with a nod.
"I should be that lucky!" laughed Royle. He found the collection of pound notes which represented Joe Potheroe's final offering.
"I could do with a pair of shoes as well," suggested Betty. "Pay you back."
"Here," Royle tossed her the roll of green paper. He could afford to find out how big a mug she thought he was.