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DEATH IN SMALL CORNERS #3


8. Uncle Cliff

 

Two days later, at five past eleven on a grey morning, Royle answered the doorbell and was handed a package and a letter by a whistling postman. He was about to tear the letter open when he noticed that his name was not the one printed above the address visible in the window, and that the return address was the nearest unemployment office.
   "Hoi!" he shouted at the top of the stairs.
   The drone of a vacuum cleaner in his bedroom died to a gurgle.
   "Do we know anyone called Ms E.R. Hollister?"
   Betty rushed into the living-room, looking hot and dusty. "It's me Giro from the Social. Must be," She ripped open the envelope, demolishing it in the process, and studied the amount on the Giro before thrusting it into the hip pocket of her jeans.
   "This is your address, is it?" remarked Royle.
   "Yeah, I went to see them day before yesterday. Told them me mum beat me up and chucked me out. And showed them me bruise. Got them to send me money here. And a bit extra for rent and some clothes."
   "And they believed you?"
   "'Course! I got an honest face. And they could see me mum had knocked me about. That's why they're not going to tell the old bitch where I am if she asks."
   "Amazing! "
   Royle turned his attention to the package. It was addressed to him, and about the size of a thick paperback book: Dune or Catch 22. The wrapping was ordinary brown paper, the address hand-written in square capitals with blue ball-point, and the postmark was an illegible smudge. The vacuum cleaner started again in his bedroom. Royle stripped away brown paper and found a box of thick cardboard. Inside was a stick of rock, cut neatly into three equal pieces, and a card.
   'BANG!' read the capitals on one side of the card. 'WHAT IF THIS HAD BEEN A BOMB?' was printed on the other side.
   Royle frowned at the red-coated sticks. Very few people knew his address, and none of them had a sense of humour that could be described as weird. Perhaps the 'bomb' was a birthday present about a month early. If so, it was the first time for a long time that anyone had remembered the anniversary. He crumpled the card and the wrapping-paper and dropped them into the waste bin. He dumped the box on the storage unit for future reference.

After lunch, Betty switched from Pebble Mill to the second half of an episode of one of ITV's interminable serials. Minor details like a knowledge of the plot seemed unimportant. Her routine involved getting the shopping and cleaning out of the way in the morning so that she could collapse in front of the television in the afternoon.
   She smoked Royle's duty-free Bensons at a rate of two per hour, and drank three cups of either tea or coffee between lunch and dinner. It was not much of a life, but it seemed to keep her happy.
   "It's got Brighton all the way through this rock," Betty announced, having discovered the box in the commercial break before A Plus. "I like a bit of rock."
   There was a thump, a crack, and a crunching of teeth. It occurred to Royle that the rock might have been poisoned if it was not part of a bomb. But the kid had consumed a good inch of it without ill effect and she was breaking one of the sticks into smaller pieces: unless the poison was either slow-acting or cumulative.
   "Want some?" Betty offered the box to her host.
   With a mental shrug, Royle selected the largest of the ragged fragments. Imagination was all right if you were writing rubbish to fill TV screens, but unreasonable fears could stifle a worrier into total inactivity. Royle told himself that he had been reading too much Agatha Christie; and the rock tasted all right.
   Unexpectedly, the telephone rang. The arrangement was that business calls would be made between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning. Prepared for a wrong number, Royle lifted the receiver.
   "This is your Uncle Cliff," a friendly voice with a vaguely northern accent said in response to Royle's number. "When are you coming to see your Auntie Joan and me?"
   "How about this afternoon?" Royle suggested.
   "This afternoon," repeated his despatcher. "Right! What's today? The fifth?"
   "About half-two?" said Royle.
   Both knew that it was October 18th. The date quoted was the number of a rendezvous point. Royle felt like a spy on such occasions.
   "Right, we'll look forward to seeing you," returned 'Uncle Cliff.'
   "We're getting low on fags," Betty mentioned as Royle shrugged into an anorak; the blue one without stripes on the sleeves; and transferred his wallet and keys.
   "Fags," Royle repeated, realizing that they had been disappearing at a fair old rate.

Rendezvous point number five lay on the first-floor deck of the vast shopping complex in the centre of Shepford. The despatcher was in his middle forties, about the same age as Joe Potheroe, and old enough to be Royle's uncle. They retired to the warm clatter of the café for the briefing. Royle took charge of an envelope containing his passport and tickets.
   "What's this, a rush job?" he remarked, stirring sugar into his coffee. "It can't be more than three weeks since the last trip."
   "Business is booming," his despatcher said with a nod. His northern accent remained, but the friendly tone had become business-like. "Must be the party season. Or getting ahead for Christmas."
   Royle glanced at his tickets. He was on the Amsterdam run. Out Friday lunch-time, back on Sunday morning. A couple of days with Sibbi on expenses, and then home wearing a body belt and enough cocaine for about thirty thousand tracks, which the well-heeled would use to burn holes in their nasal membranes.
   "What do you want, eight and cash?" asked the despatcher.
   "Make it the ten," decided Royle. "I'm all right for cash at the moment. And I want them over there, okay?"
   "Okay," The despatcher nodded, which surprised Royle. He had been expecting resistance.
   The fee for a delivery job was ten Kruger Rands, which Royle usually took in coins and cash. Runs at about six-week intervals provided him with a decent income and a golden pension in his Amsterdam bank deposit box to cushion the blow should the Customs and Excise Department catch up with him. His employer, whom he had never met, believed in frequent small shipments to reduce the impact of interception or piracy.
   "Someone got himself nicked?" Royle suggested.
   "Got himself dead," replied the despatcher. "His car blew up at the beginning of the week."
   Royle put on a frown. "Not locally?"
   "Why do you ask?" said his despatcher.
   "A bloke's car blew up out Rotherbridge way. Name of Markham."
   "You knew him?" The despatcher returned Royle's frown and a look of surprise.
   Royle shrugged. "No, I only met him the once. I happened to be in this pub, looking for someone. He reckoned I looked at him the wrong way and he was going to sort me out. But his car blew up before he got round to it."
   "That sounds just like him," the despatcher said with a nod. "It wasn't you helped him on his way?"
   "Funny you should say that," laughed Royle. "A bloke in the pub asked me the same question; almost. Head of the local vigilantes. Sounds like Markham had enough enemies to keep a whole bomb factory happy without me. "
   "He was a bit trigger-happy, but he did his job well. So! There's no problems about the trip?"
   Royle shrugged. "I didn't have anything else planned."
   "You pick up the rest of your spending money at the shop off the Dam Square. The hotel's been told to expect someone else, not Markham; but you'll be using the same recognition code. It's all in there."
   Royle glanced at the envelope. "Burn before reading?"
   "Aye, you know the drill," the despatcher said with a smile. "It just sort of throws you off when you have to change everything at the last minute. You been having a lucky streak recently?"
   "You can't lose them all, mate, law of averages," Royle offered as an explanation of the change in his usual payment arrangements. He had a reputation as a gambler; one who plunged to his limit, but with cash in hand, never credit.
   "Well, good luck. And keep your head down; but not too far down."
   "Inconspicuous, but not furtive," remarked Royle.
   "Right! And I'll probably see you again about the usual time. Unless there's another rush job,"
   The despatcher finished his coffee and left. Royle knew neither his name nor anything about him. Curiosity was not encouraged in his profession. Similarly, the receiver, who took charge of the body belt in England, was another unremarkable face of about the same vintage.
   Royle never saw the person who delivered the belt to his hotel room in Holland. It just appeared in his duffel bag. In the event of discovery, he could offer only two descriptions and a few addresses in Holland in an attempt to lighten his sentence. It was understood that he could divulge this minimum. To part with more information, should more be acquired by accident, would be fatal. The rich rewards of cocaine-dealing could buy influence in many places, including Her Majesty's prisons.
   The despatcher, whose name was Stephen Birch, took the escalator to the ground floor and crossed the main road to the row of telephone boxes beside the main post office. He dialled a London number, let it ring five times, then depressed the receiver rest and dialled again three minutes later.
   "Everything went off all right," he reported.
   "Not that we expected any different," returned Colin Mulgraham, the employer whom he had never seen. Mulgraham preferred to conduct certain types of business by telephone or post.
   "An odd thing; he met Markham shortly before his accident."
   "It's not too much of a coincidence, two couriers meeting if they live fairly close to each other. Race Hill's only about four miles from Fenton."
   "Hmm, yeah," admitted Birch. "I suppose not. He might even have met some of the others without knowing who they are."
   "An exploding car's a good way of fixing someone in your memory," added Mulgraham.
   "He mentioned the local vigilantes think he might have done it. He rubbed Markham up the wrong way."
   "It's a good story," chuckled the mystery voice. Its owner knew that Nails Mulligan had taken care of Olly Markham; which was unfortunate, because Markham had handled Paul Lawson very efficiently. "But I suppose he's the sort that knows how to take care of themselves. Back to the normal routine now."
   "Right," said the despatcher.
   The organizer of the cocaine-smuggling network replaced his receiver and assumed a thoughtful frown. It was a pity that Olly Markham had not lived up to expectations. But the man who called himself just Royle seemed the right sort of material too. Mulgraham found himself hoping that Royle would pass his preliminary examination.

Back in his car, on the top deck of the car-park, Royle committed to memory the short phrase which Olly Markham had used as a recognition code. He touched his lighter to the cigarette paper. It flared, leaving a ghost of grey ash in the ashtray. He could not get over the dead duellist's having been another mule; but, he realized, couriers could come in all shapes and sizes.
   A man who risked his liberty to earn up to twenty-five thousand pounds a year, tax-free, could be expected to make a splash between trips. Olly Markham had splashed by throwing his weight around and fighting duels. Royle preferred to concentrate his hell-raising into holiday periods of about a month. He preferred contrasts in his life. He lacked the stamina to be obnoxious all the year round.

Betty had moved the portable television into the kitchen. She was peeling potatoes when Royle returned to the flat, and watching a space cartoon adventure. Royle dumped a carton of duty-free Bensons on the storage unit and plugged in the kettle to make a mug of coffee.
   "Going away on business tomorrow," he announced. "Back for lunch on Sunday."
   "Oh!" said Betty, looking surprised. "So you really have got a job?"
   "We don't all screw money out of the Social," grinned Royle. "We're not all that bright."
   "They don't give you that much. I hope you like chicken, 'cause that's what we're having for dinner."
   "Fine by me. I got some more cigs, by the way."
   "There's this disco on Friday night," Betty said, an apologetic note creeping into her voice.
   "What, you weren't expecting me to take you?" laughed Royle, spooning instant coffee and sugar into a mug.
   "Nah! You don't mind me going?"
   "I don't get this," admitted Royle. "I thought you were free to come and go as you choose? Now you've adopted me. Or do you want to borrow the price of a ticket?"
   "Nah, it's free for girls."
   "What, then? Do you want me to tell you you can't go so you can go anyway and prove how independent you are?"
   "I don't know. It just sort of seems wrong not asking someone. Perhaps it's that psychology stuff. I always have to ask me dad if I can go anywhere, 'cause me mum won't never give me any money. 'Cept what I can fiddle off the shopping."
   "I've never been a father-figure before," Royle remarked as he poured hot water into his mug.
   "You don't get pissed often enough to be a figure of my father," said Betty. "Oh, if anyone from the Social asks, I'm giving you fifteen quid a week rent. Okay?"
   "On that sort of money, I can afford to give up my job," laughed Royle. "Does that include your grub?"
   "No, I don't reckon it could. But as I'm your housekeeper, that's part of my wages. And I reckon you owe me about a tenner besides."
   "That should just about cover your fags," decided Royle.
   "Oh, yeah! Works out nicely, don't it?" grinned Betty.

 

9. Crash

 

Leaving the kid with her feet up in front of the television, armed with a packet of duty-free Bensons and a pound of green grapes, Royle strolled out for a pint or two at the nearest of Fenton's six pubs. There was a subdued atmosphere in the vault of The Green Man, the only pub that served draught cider. The police had looked in on the card players a week earlier. They had ignored the crib crowd, who had been playing for fifty pence a corner and always kept their money in their pockets. The crash players, whose thirty-pound kitty had been in plain view, had not been as lucky.
   The four actually holding cards had been hauled into court and fined, and they were feeling very sorry for themselves. They could not say the word 'magistrate' without adding a string of swear words. A notice on the wall in the crash players' corner stated that gambling was illegal, but games of skill played for modest stakes were permitted. The crash crowd had argued, unsuccessfully, that thirty pounds was a very modest sum in the Inflationary Eighties.
   Royle played half a dozen games of pool and put away three pints of cider. He won four and lost two at a fiver a game. The money changed hands in a comically furtive fashion, even though the vault was copper-free. Only the fined crash players failed to see the joke.
   The night was dry, and large rents in the overcast put a nip in the air. Royle zipped himself up in his anorak and raised the hood as he left the warmth of the pub. Hands thrust deep into his pockets, he started across the Worth Road demolition site short cut, wondering what there was for supper. With his guest doing all the cooking, he had started to lose touch with the contents of his fridge.
   Something loomed out of the darkness; a figure was there suddenly when no one had approached him. A swishing noise cut the air. Royle raised an arm to brush back his hood to improve visibility. Something with sharp edges glanced off his forearm. Royle ducked and delivered a combined kick and push with his right foot.
   His attacker crashed back into part of a brick wall and bounced into a partly-filled cellar. His bicycle chain clattered as it skittered across the debris.
   In an everlasting moment, Royle watched a slab of brickwork totter and topple. His attacker started to scream; he drew in a hoarse, sobbing breath to let out a yell; then the segment of wall landed. The impact described itself precisely to Royle. It sounded exactly like about forty pounds of bricks and mortar crunching and squashing human bone and flesh after falling about four feet.
   Royle became aware of an ache in his left forearm. He touched his arm gingerly. The demolition site was as treacherous as the Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles in the dim yellow glow from the unbroken street lights. Royle decided not to stray from the familiar safe path to determine the fate of his attacker. Ankles were sprained at the rate of roughly one per week by daylight crossers. The mugger would not be attacking anyone else in a hurry with a great lump of wall on his chest.
   "That you?" called Betty, her attention fixed on the television, when Royle entered the flat through the back door and the kitchen.
   "No, it's burglars," he replied.
   He shed his anorak in the bedroom. The left leg of his jeans was dark with thin mud. He had stepped into a puddle without noticing and splashed himself half-way to the knee. His left forearm ached, and there were the beginnings of a long bruise, but the skin was unbroken. He was sure that he had felt stickiness trickling inside his sleeve, but he had to admit that his imagination had been working overtime.
   He changed his jeans and left the damp pair hanging up to dry. The fridge offered cold sausages for a sandwich, which he made while a teabag brewed. A crumby plate and a mug in the sink told him that his guest had supped already. The kid liked her grub. The slimming industry would never make a crust out of her, Royle decided.
   Channel Four was showing one of its ancient films. Along with most of the population over the age of twenty-five, Royle had a vague idea of the plot, but he had never actually seen the drama. For once, he stayed with Betty until the death; and discovered that she switched off at the end of the final programme and before the closing dose of commercials.

There was a bruise a couple of inches long and an inch wide on Royle's arm in the morning, but the ache had gone. The discoloured area was sensitive to touch, but it did not trouble him if he left it alone.
   After breakfast and the morning paper, he packed his usual travelling gear into his duffel bag and added his twelve-shilling, 1970 edition of Dune. He had not read the second-hand copy of the 500-page paperback for five years, and the plot was due for refreshment. Betty was compiling a shopping list when he set out for the bus stop. British Rail's ancestors had seen fit to bypass Fenton.
   Betty screwed a tenner out of Royle on his way to the front door, and a half-promise to bring her something from wherever he was going. He had not volunteered his destination, and she had not asked. His first set of tickets would take him to Manchester.

 

10. Orwell

 

The telephone in the CID office at Shepford's main police station began to ring. Detective Sergeant Brian Orwell ignored it, allowing a subordinate to deal with the infernal instrument.
   Detective Constable Mitchell answered with a bored hello. Then a note of interest crept into his voice. Orwell cast a surreptitious glance at him and noted with a sinking heart, the grin on the young DC's square face. Something, about which he wanted to know nothing, had happened on their patch.
   A faint ting told him that DC Mitchell had replaced the receiver. Orwell kept his head down over the papers on his desk, but turned his eyes to the right. If anything, the grin had broadened. A naturally long, thin face drooped further.
   "If it's another stiff, I'm putting my papers in," growled DS Orwell, tugging at a fresh growth of dark brown moustache. He was trying a change of image.
   "Well, they reckon you're on the backside of the hill at thirty-five," grinned Mitchell, who was ten years younger than the sergeant.
   "I don't believe it," groaned Orwell.
   On Wednesday night of the previous week, he had been called out to view the remains of one Paul Lawson; about whom much was suspected in the way of petty crime but nothing had been proved. His alcohol stream containing just enough blood to make it red, Lawson had taken a stroll along Juggernaut Alley; and had been duly squashed by a juggernaut full of tasteless French apples.
   Nobody had admitted seeing Lawson between about tea-time and the time of the accident. The source of the brandy and the reason for his celebration five miles from home remained mysteries.
   Tuesday's trip into the country, after a stormy Monday night, had been less stomach-turning. The fire had reduced Oliver Markham's car to bright and blackened bare metal. Gale force winds, heavy rain, and the dawn activities of some scavenging animal had battered the three skeletons to heaps of loose bones.
   Attempts to find out what Markham and his friends had been up to in the abandoned quarry had come to nothing. His father, Councillor Markham and someone not to be ignored, had been torn between grief, a desire to find his son's killer, if Oliver had been murdered, and a reluctance to allow scandal to touch the family's name. The response from Ryan Naylor's parents had been much the same.
   The forensic team had remarked on the intensity of the fire and the man from the fire brigade had suggested that a fourth party could have saturated the vehicle with petrol before it caught fire. The pathologist had played three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles with ribs and suggested that one of the three men could have been shot with a large-calibre weapon. But the evidence of foul play remained very tenuous.
   "All right, what is it?" Orwell demanded at last.
   "Bobby Henshall, layabout and cheeky sod, found on the demolition site between Beech Street and Sumner Road in Fenton. In a hole with half a brick wall on him. Couple of kids found him."
   "This is a bloody conspiracy," complained Orwell. "Whatever shift I'm on, people keep finding bloody dead bodies."
   "Are we going for a look?" asked DC Mitchell.
   "Have we got any choice?" groaned Orwell.

In due course, canvas screens were erected around the body, photographs were taken, and the immediate area searched. A crowd of two dozen assembled at the edge of the expanse of rubble to discuss the police activity and to cast inquisitive glances at the ambulance parked in Beech Street. One of the prowling uniformed men found a bicycle chain, which suggested that the dead man had been in a fight. The lump of brickwork was heaved up to ground level and transfered to a van as possible evidence.
   When the body had been removed, zipped into a black plastic sausage on a stretcher, the crowd began to lose interest. Detective Sergeant Orwell set in motion the usual inquiries about Henshall's movements. In due course, his superiors would scan the autopsy evidence and tell him whether the death had been accidental, murder, or of indeterminate cause.
   Accident was preferable because it involved the least paperwork.

 

11. Amsterdam

 

The sun kept breaking through the clouds at Manchester. Heavy rain was falling around Amsterdam. Royle watched it battering the windows of the airport bus as he travelled ten kilometres from Schiphol to the centre of the city. Perhaps it was just a series of unfortunate coincidences, but Amsterdam was one of the wettest places on Earth in his experience.
   He caught a couple of trams instead of walking a further kilometre to the small hotel behind the Prinsengracht. A taxi would have meant a drier, quicker, and more convenient journey, but the tram was much more anonymous. Cyclists were out in force, splashing through the slackening drizzle. Rain and bikes were the two words that summed up Amsterdam for Royie.
   An envelope containing ten one-ounce Kruger Rands was waiting in his hotel room. Royle added the golden coins from the last run. He had been carrying them loose in the ticket pocket of his cords. When the rain stopped, he took a tram to his bank and stored the coins in his safe deposit box. After picking up his Dutch spending money, he ran out of things to do.
   He had arranged to meet Sibbi at her flat at six-thirty in order to give her a little time to unwind after work. Royle went back to his hotel and took his book down to the bar. A quiet read and a couple of beers were as good a way as any of passing a wet Friday afternoon in Amsterdam.
   When he left for the evening, barring accidents, he would not be seeing much of either the book or the hotel until Sunday morning.

 

12. Nails

 

Roy Mulligan recognized the lettering on the package. Part of the wrapping had been cut away clumsily with the kitchen scissors. His twelve-year-old son collected stamps indiscriminately, laying in huge quantities of swaps to exchange when inflation had left them far behind.
   Mulligan opened the package in the shed at the bottom of his long, narrow garden. The rest of the family had been trained not to disturb him when he was potting in his shed. They just buzzed him on the intercom when meals were ready or a major crisis blew up.
   The box inside the brown paper wrapping contained two thousand pounds in tens, and a photograph. On the back of the Polaroid picture was just one name: Royle. Its owner was five feet eleven inches tall, weighed 175 pounds, had jet-black, shortish hair, and was twenty-six years old. The eyes were directed to the side and the head slightly cocked, as though Royle had been looking to the left and listening for traffic coming from the right when photographed.
   Mulligan committed the address to a retentive memory and made a note to look it up in his street guide of the area. He knew that Fenton lay somewhere on the other side of Shepford, but not exactly where.
   Using his pruning knife, he chopped the head out of the photograph and slipped it into the stamp compartment of his wallet. He burned the perimeter. Then he took fifty pounds from the box, wrapped the box in a polythene bag, and stored it in one of the compartments beneath the floor of his hut.
   His unknown client, Mulligan realized, had credited him with the elimination of Oliver Markham. But, as his wife was making noises about their two kids needing winter shoes, Muiligan was prepared to take advantage of a convenient accident.
   He would tell his wife that he had been offered a couple of foreigners and slip her the money. She would assume that he had been using the firm's van for private deliveries; a slightly more acceptably illegal sideline than arson and explosive assassinations.

 

13. Payment

 

Royle shed his body belt in the toilets at Victoria Station at around midday on Sunday. He slipped cocaine worth around forty-five thousand pounds, wrapped in a spare carrier-bag, to his receiver in the buffet. Then, armed with a plastic cup of British Rail coffee, he found himself a seat on the train home.
   Betty was watching University Challenge when he reached the flat. Cooking smells told Royle that she had been busy in the kitchen during the commercial breaks. The table had been set for two, but with one wineglass, and a boat of mint sauce told him that they were having lamb. Royle unloaded his bottle of duty-free whisky and a carton of cigarettes onto the storage unit in the living-room.
   "What d'you get me?" Betty asked confidently.
   Royle handed her a box of chocolates. He had been unable to think of anything more original.
   "Hey, these are great!" his lodger approved. "Dinner in about ten minutes if you want to have a wash and things. Oh, that come for you."
   Royle brought his attention back to the storage unit; and noticed another package. It was about the same size as the one in which the rock had been delivered. He wondered briefly whether there was a genuine bomb this time.
   "When did it come?" he asked casually, raising his voice to compete with applause from the television audience.
   "Saturday morning," replied Betty.
   Royle stripped away brown paper, then looked at the postmark. His package had been through the sorting centre at Shepford; but so did every letter and small parcel posted within six or seven miles of the town. If the sender had dropped it into the box at the end of Royle's street, it would still have made the round trip of eight and a half miles to and from Shepford to travel twenty-five yards to his door.
   Alert for wires, Royle split securing tape with a thumbnail and lifted the lid of the cardboard box. Inside, he found a large number of used one-pound notes, and beneath them, a photograph. Listed on the colour Polaroid snap were a name, a brief physical description, and an address.
   Roy 'Nails' Mulligan was five feet seven inches tall, weighed 135 pounds, had mid-brown hair, was thirty-six years old, and often wore glasses. He lived at 27 Laurel Road in Ullwood; a growing town/village about five miles to the north-east of Shepford.
   There was nothing else either in the box or clinging to the brown paper wrapping. Royle wondered whether there could be a bunch of spies lurking down the street, waiting for a piece of wrongly delivered mail. But his name and address were written quite clearly in the distinctive squarish letters and figures. And there was no return address and therefore no way of letting the sender know that he had forgotten to include a covering note.
   Royle did not know whether he was supposed to deliver some or all of the money to Nails Mulligan; or why; or where. Had he watched the scene played out on television, he would have assumed that his character was a hit-man. But the box contained pound notes amounting to no more than two or three hundred pounds; hardly a sufficient deposit for a fifth-division assassin. A proper professional worked for thousands; lots of them.
   Royle knew that because he knew a professional hit-man called Lenny Suskin.
   He returned the money and the photograph to the box, and replaced the lid before retiring to the bathroom to wash off the grime accumulated during his journey home from Holland.
   He wondered for a while why someone had sent him Mulligan's picture and some money. Nails looked a fairly inoffensive sort. But so did Dr Crippen in photographs, and Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had been able to summon up a fairly paternal smile when not ordering the deaths of millions.
   The nickname was intriguing. Compulsive nail-biting was all that came to mind. Roast lamb, roast potatoes, and two veg pushed the matter from Royle's mind for the moment.

After the meal, Royle took the box into his bedroom and counted the contents while Betty was watching the afternoon film on BBC 1. He had been sent 200 in unremarkable used notes. Their condition varied from crisp but creased to dirty and limp. Some had Sellotape bandages repairing splits.
   Royel put his windfall back into the box and dumped it in the chest of drawers until he received the missing instructions. He felt tempted to throw away the box and pocket the cash, but he had almost an embarrassment of paper currency suddenly. The best part of three grand was sandwiched in his garage roof. Most of the money that he had been able to screw out of Joe Potheroe, antiques dealer and sharp practitioner, padded his wallet. And he still had a few guilders left over from the Amsterdam trip.
   He made a mental note to steer clear of the Paradise Club in Shepford. A brief winning streak and then fruitless attempts to get back straight had accounted for most of the cash from the previous Dutch job. Only the expectation of 500 from Joe Potheroe when his deal went through had tempted him to empty his pockets to throw good money after bad in the hope of changing his luck.
   Royle lit a cigarette and drew back his shirt sleeve. The bruise still looked quite bad. He had told Sibbi, his Dutch girl-friend, that he had acquired it at his contact karate class. And she had believed him; which proved how gullible women could be.
   Was it possible, he mused, flying off at a tangent, that Joe Potheroe had set the idiot with the bicycle chain on him? As a protest against Royle's method of collecting debts? Did Potheroe know any junior hit-men? Royle felt tempted to dismiss the notion. But Potheroe was due another call. He still owed Royle one hundred and nineteen pounds.
   Perhaps it would be instructive to take a good look at good old Joe's expression, Royle told himself, when he saw his Nemesis strolling about apparently undamaged and undeterred.

 

14. Kidnapped

 

His doorbell rang on Monday morning while he was reading the paper beside the telephone. Expecting either the postman with more mysterious boxes, or Betty with a tale about forgetting her key, Royle went down to the front door. He found a stranger with a brief-case eyeing the bellpush and wondering whether to press it again. She was about thirty, casually dressed in well-worn corduroy, and she had a weary, patient expression. She looked like an idealist who had found the future just as unpalatable as the past.
   "I'm looking for Betty Hollister," she announced.
   "She's out," returned Royle. "Shopping."
   A shopping expedition was an essential part of the kid's daily routine. Royle rarely went shopping specifically. He usually picked things up on the move as inspiration struck.
   "I'm from the DHSS," the woman explained.
   "Can you prove that?" invited Royle.
   The woman fished about in her handbag, which had been hidden by the brief-case, and produced an identity card in a blue plastic wallet. Her name was Helen Melville.
   "Of course, I wouldn't know whether this is real or from Woolworth's," remarked Royle. "Your great-great-grandfather didn't write Moby Dick, by any chance?"
   "Nobody's asked me that since I was at university," said Ms Melville, looking surprised.
   "Studying sociology, no doubt," murmured Royle. "I suppose you'd better come up and wait. The kid should be back in a few minutes."
   The visitor followed Royle up the stairs and lowered herself onto one of the easy chairs. There was a stool beside it, offering the Radio Times, the TV Times, and a collection of newspapers folded to the television programme page. Her eyes flicked round the livingroom, taking in an instant impression.
   A few rolls of wallpaper and a couple of tins of paint would have done wonders for it, not to mention new covers for the chairs. But it was neat and clean. Wood shone and glass sparkled, and the fruit bowl overflowed with oranges and apples. The occupants of the flat had standards and believed in keeping them flying.
   "There's just the one bedroom in these flats?" remarked Ms Melville, sorting through papers from her brief-case.
   "Right," nodded Royle. Then the significance of the question penetrated. "Was that a roundabout way of asking if I'm knocking the kid off?" he grinned.
   "Well ..." Royle's frankness seemed to have put the visitor at a loss for words. She was saved by footsteps on the stairs and a key turning in the lock.
   Betty dumped a carrier-bag on the dining-table and gave Royle a 'Who's your friend?' look.
   "Someone from the Social to see you," grinned Royle. "Checking up on your moral welfare."
   "Eh?" Betty put on a frown.
   "She wants to know whereabouts you sleep."
   "Oh!" grinned Betty. "I'll be with you in a minute. I just have to put a couple of things in the fridge."
   "Are you one of our clients, Mr., ah?" asked Ms Melville, a trifle waspishly, questioning Royle's right to be lounging around at home on a Monday morning.
   "Royle," he replied, wondering whether his name would be filed as 'Royal' in her memory. "Not me. I'm on call." He glanced at his watch, which was showing 11:02. "Or I was till two minutes ago. I'll leave you to it."
   Royle retired to the bedroom to collect an anorak, not wishing to be tripped up by ignorance of whatever stories the kid had been spinning. He left the flat through the kitchen and the back door, collected his car, and drove four miles.
   Leaving his car behind a supermarket, he crossed the main road through Hythe and approached the rear of Joe Potheroe's shop. The dark green van was parked outside the yard. There was no sign of its owner. Using the set of keys which he had acquired over a week earlier, Royle let himself into the van and started the engine.
   There was no one running after him, waving and shouting, when he turned towards the main road; which did not say much for Potheroe's security precautions. Royle drove half a mile and parked at the far end of the station car-park.
   He walked back to the shop and approached from the rear again. Discarded behind the gate, he found a padlocked chain, which had been severed clumsily with a hacksaw. Potheroe had skidded about quite a bit before getting his cut started. The man himself exploded through the back door of the premises as Royle was clanking his chain, like Marley's ghost.
   "Hello, Joe, what do you know?" Royle said casually. He dropped the chain and looked out into the alley, towards the spot once occupied by a dark green van.
   Potheroe stared blankly for a moment and then registered his loss. "My bloody van!" he gasped.
   "I'm getting fed up with being screwed around, Joe," announced Royle. "I want what you owe me, plus another twenty for the chain. Then I'll tell you where your van is."
   "I haven't got that much," protested Potheroe.
   "Interest at fifty per cent daily will be charged from tomorrow," continued Royle. "My patience is not limitless."
   "That's daylight robbery!" yelped Potheroe.
   "What would you call not paying a bloke back when a deal falls through?" inquired Royle.
   Potheroe tried to wriggle. Royle refused to budge, despite veiled threats of police action. He just mentioned that someone might steal the van while it was standing idle. Burning with stifled rage. Potheroe counted up his cash in hand, then sent his snooty blonde assistant down the road to the bank to bounce a cheque for more.
   Royle reclaimed his car and headed for home with a feeling of achievement. He had made a good start to the week and rid himself of a source of irritation. Joe Potheroe had not been surprised to see him alive; he had been more worried about Royle's next evil idea. Royle could not believe that Potheroe had set the kid with the bicycle chain on him. After all, the kid was dead and his picture had appeared in the Evening Standard. Joe Potheroe would not have come dashing out of his office to meet a killer. He would have run for his life in the opposite direction.
   As people tend to write on walls: Joe Potheroe was innocent, OK!

 

15. Outrage

 

Royle kept some books to read again in the distant future. When he had built up a pile of a dozen or so inferior products of the imagination, he took them to the large bookshop in Shepford and traded them in, two for one, at the second-hand section.
   Betty invited herself along for the ride into town. She seemed quite happy with the outcome of her interview with the woman from the DHSS and she wanted to take a look at the shops. She even offered to drive. Royle was surprised to learn that she knew how. A boy-friend had taught her, she explained, in return for entertainment on the back seat, but she had never got round to applying for a provisional licence. Her mother had frightened the boy-friend away before she had started to think about taking her test. And Royle had no L-plates anyway.
   They left the car on an expanse of tarmac which a cash-and-carry had provided for its customers, and arranged to meet again in an hour. Royle acquired a new supply of reading material and looked in a lot of windows. The kid was waiting for him, sitting on the wall, when he got back to the car-park. Having deposited a Marks & Spencer carrier-bag in the boot with his books, Betty drew Royle's attention to a convenient pub with a communicating car-park. Royle realized that the time was around one-fifteen.
   A small crowd had aimed itself at the television. Betty ordered a pie, crisps, and coffee, then settled down to absorb a reduced ration of Pebble Mill. As one forty-five approached and a singer was performing on a windy Birmingham lawn, she picked up the car keys, which Royle had dumped casually on the table.
   "Want me to bring the car round?" she offered.
   "You insured?" countered Royle.
   "I'm not going to hit anything," scoffed Betty.
   Royle reserved judgement and followed her out of the pub. He stopped at the short stretch of roadway between the two car-parks. Betty made her way confidently along a line of cars. She had no trouble with the door. The engine started first time. She found first gear and started to move forward smoothly. Then a blast of sound and air lunged at Royle.
   His car had rammed the back of a van. Royle dashed towards it, crunching on hail-stones of glass. His car had a swollen appearance. Every window had gone, and the roof bulged. The kid didn't have a face any more; just gleaming white bone set in a halo of raw, oozing meat.
   Someone else reached the car; and turned away, retching. There could be no doubt that Betty Hollister's life had been snuffed out in one violent instant. Royle became aware of a reek of liquor behind the suffocating stench of spent explosive, and small blue flames, ignited by a hot exhaust. He was standing in a puddle of whisky which had leaked from the van, and his shoes were on fire.
   He retreated quickly. Someone shouted a warning about a second bomb. People ran in a strange stillness which included footsteps and the sounds of the city, but no human voices. The car caught fire. It seemed to be the season for Viking funerals. Flames rushed downhill to start the first screams. Royle's shoes had gone out. Sirens began to approach from the fire station in the centre of the town. A car blew up, providing the expected second explosion.
   Royle remembered the gun and the spare clip under the back seat of his vehicle. If the fire set the ammunition off, there would be even more fun and games. He noticed a man struggling to remove a camera from its case, all thumbs, but hoping to take a picture which the newspapers would buy. Royle turned his back and walked away. One of his rules for a quiet life was no publicity.
   It was a pity about the kid, he thought, as he slipped away. But she had not had much of a life, and her future had looked fairly empty. Perhaps she was better off out of it.
   The bomb had been meant for him. There could be no doubt about that. But Betty's cheek and his own indulgent amusement had sealed her fate.
   Royle turned two corners in quick succession, adopting the hesitant, backward-glancing progress of those who had heard the explosions but were too embarrassed to rush to the scene of the commotion like uninhibited peasants in case the cause turned out to be trivial.
   He ran through a list of priorities in his mind. Someone was trying to kill him, but he had a certain amount of time in hand. An autopsy would be required to determine the age and sex of the body in the car. Betty had been in a terrible state after the explosion. A fire would make matters infinitely worse if concern about further bombs delayed the fire brigade.
   He had to disappear until he could determine the identity of the assassin. Money and a means of self-defence were needed; which meant the three grand in the roof of his garage and the gun under his bedroom floorboards. The weapon in the back of his car would set the police thinking, especially if they managed to trace it back to the late Olly Markham. But the registered owner of the bombed vehicle was a mythical being who lived at an address which had been wiped off the map by a crane with a huge, iron wrecking-ball. Royle had made the occasional trip to Holland in the car, and one of the rules of the game was never travel under your own name. His own alternative identity had been useful, but it would have to go.
   Tidying up mechanically, Royle took out his false driving-licence and tore it into small pieces. He sprinkled them into three litter-bins and a lidless dustbin on his way to the bus stop. If the police could find any fingerprints on the car, good luck to them, he decided. Royle's were not on file anywhere; to the best of his knowledge. He usually wore his driving gloves in the car, and the fire would not leave much behind.
   The books: the assistant in the shop had counted a dozen in and half a dozen out without taking too much notice of either the customer or his selections. The police would not get much change out of the charred remains. He and Betty had attracted very little attention in the pub. It was more likely that the police would assume that she had been looking round the cash-and-carry. The car was in their car-park.
   As for himself: he was known to have a car. He would have to acquire a similar vehicle in his own name before people noticed its absence.
   Royle joined the queue at the bus stop telling himself that he could not be connected with the bombed car. He was in the clear; apart from the small matter of someone trying to kill him.

He had almost reached his front door before he started to wonder about surveillance and whether it would be wiser to approach his flat from the rear. A youngster on the bus had been listening to the story of the bombing from the local commercial radio station. The IRA was getting the blame, and officers from New Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Squad were on their way to investigate.
   Royle wished them the best of luck as he decided that a bomb was essentially a coward's weapon. The killer had planted it and scuttled away to a safe distance. He had not used a radio trigger because he would have seen Betty get into the car, not Royle. And he was nearly at his front door anyway.
   "Oh, Mr Royle, this come for you." His downstairs neighbour caught him half-way up the stairs. "It come through our letter-box. We was meaning to give it to you; but you know how it is. I hope it's not urgent."
   "You put it somewhere handy and it becomes invisible," commented Royle, accepting the envelope from a hand with slim fingers and chipped, red, nail varnish. "Cheers."
   He carried the letter into his bedroom and dropped it on the floor while he retrieved the automatic pistol and the spare ammunition clips from his 'safe' under the floorboards. He felt irrationally more secure with the additional slight weight in his anorak pocket; even though a gun was not much protection against a bomb.
   It would be a good idea, he decided, to take his gun to somewhere out of the way and fire it a few times to get the feel of the weapon. He had used a gun only once before, seeing off Olly Markham and his seconds, and shooting a .32 automatic had to be completely different from handling a .45 cannon.
   There was no stamp on the envelope, just the distinctive capitals which had brought him a stick of Brighton rock and then 200 and a photograph of Nails Mulligan. Royle ripped the envelope open, and pieces started to fall into place. There was a photograph inside, with familiar details on the back. The face matched the one in the Evening Standard of the young man who had been crushed by a lump of wall on the demolition site two streets away.
   The envelope lacked a stamp because it had been delivered by hand; to the letter-box on the right of the front door instead of the left; perhaps on the previous Thursday night. Someone had arranged the confrontation between young thug and potential victim; and he had had the good manners to provide the victim with information on the thug as well as vice versa.
   Despite the serious nature of his predicament, Royle managed a small smile. The game master had a certain style. Even if the photograph had been delivered on time, Royle doubted whether it would have affected his encounter with Robert Henshall. But he would have known what to do about Nails Mulligan. Incorrect delivery and his neighbour's absent-mindedness had cost Betty her life.
   The flat, Royle decided, was as safe a place as any to wait out the daylight hours. He took another look at the photograph of the bomber and fixed the address in his memory. Nails no longer looked so harmless. Royle's A to Z of the area had gone up in smoke with his car, but there was an older one with loose pages in one of the drawers of the storage unit.
   Having fixed the position of Laurel Road in Ullwood, Royle consulted his newspaper. There was nothing much on television. He switched on the radio for news flashes, poured himself a large measure of duty-free whisky, and settled down to continue Dune. It was a pity about the half-dozen books that he had lost with his car. He had no new reading material.

 

16. Nailed

 

Rumblings of hunger sent Royle into the kitchen in search of food. He was cooking for himself again. The kid had been parked on him for just a week, but it seemed much longer. When he had loaded a meal into the oven to warm up, he took a tour of the flat, looking for traces of Betty Hollister. There was an extra toothbrush in the bathroom, and an orange face-cloth. The clothes in her holdall were equally anonymous. Royle found neither name-tags on the garments nor documents in the bag. Betty's possessions could have belonged to anyone.
   Fed and feeling dangerous, Royle slipped out into a dark night. The regional television news had featured the IRA outrage in the centre of Shepford. Nothing was known about the driver of the bombed car. Hints had been dropped about an IRA bomber scoring an own goal. The victim had been called 'he' throughout. Nails Mulligan, Royle decided, would be feeling smug and safe.
   He passed a skip on his way to the main road. The new owners of a shop were having it refitted. Royle lobbed the kid's holdall into the skip in passing. The owners of the shop had resigned themselves to receiving contributions from neighbours and passers by. Betty's holdall would be buried by morning.
   The bus covered four miles in ten minutes, picking up and setting down a handful of passengers. Royle had lost his own wheels, but he had found the keys of Joe Potheroe's van in his anorak. He chinned himself on the gate of the yard behind the shop. The van was there. Royle climbed the gate and drew the bolts. He backed into the alley and pulled the gate to. Ullwood lay eight miles to the north-east.

Royle found Laurel Road without difficulty and drove past the Mulligan residence. There was a light burning in the hall, and another at the back. He made two left turns. The house behind Mulligan's was in darkness. Royle backed into the drive. High, straggling hedges separated the house from its neighbours. Royle slipped round to the garden at the back. He had no particular plan in mind; but if the worst came to the worst, he could always stroll into the Mulligan residence with a scarf over his face and remove the man of the house at gunpoint.
   The shed at the bottom of Mulligan's garden spilled yellowish light through a grimy window. Royle picked at the woven boundary fence to make himself a spyhole. Nails was pottering about in his shed. He had an electric percolator in bits on his workbench. Royle ducked through a gap in the hedge to the neighbouring garden and climbed a three-foot fence into Mulligan's garden.
   Torch in his right hand, gun in the left, Royle pushed straight into the shed. Mulligan was turning towards the intruder when the heavy-duty torch caught him behind the left ear. His glasses fell off as he sagged to the floor. Royle roped the bomber's left wrist to his right ankle and his right wrist to his left ankle. After applying a gag, he searched the unconscious man. The presence of his own face in the wallet was proof enough that he had coshed the right man.
   Reasoning that Mulligan would keep the tools of his trade in his retreat, Royle looked over the hut. The workbench had drawers, and the walls were lined with shelves and cupboards. But they were too public. Royle had noticed an upstairs light go on and off during his approach. Mulligan did not live alone. The other occupants of the house would come poking about in the shed when they wanted tools, screws, and other bits and pieces.
   Under the wooden floor, which was made up of lino-covered squares, he found a set of polythene lunch boxes. Royle stripped off sealing PVC tape. Nails had stored five half-pound sticks of gelignite, a box of detonators, coils of fuse, and a familiar size of cardboard box stuffed with ten-pound notes.
   Royle cut off a length of fuse and touched his lighter to it. It burned slowly but steadily. He wrapped three detonators in a handkerchief and buttoned them into one of Mulligan's pockets. He put a coil of fuse into another. Royle took personal charge of the money and found a carrier-bag for three sticks of gelignite. He was just checking that he had everything when a loud buzzing noise delivered a heart-stopping jolt to his nervous system.
   The buzzing cut into the night again. Royle's eyes searched urgently; and stopped when they found the red light on the intercom unit on the workbench. He depressed the black bar below the speaker grill and responded with an abstracted "Mmm?"
   "Your programme's on in ten minutes, Dad," said a young voice.
   "Mm hm," Royle replied, trying to convey wordless gratitude.
   Mulligan was still limp and unco-operative. Royle picked him up by his belt and heaved him out into the night. Half of the ten minutes had gone by the time he regained Joe Potheroe's van. He loaded Mulligan into the back and put the gelignite into the dashboard. Reason told him that the explosive was safe and stable if handled gently. Imagination wondered what the police would make of another IRA own goal in the van of an allegedly respectable dealer in antiques.

Roy Mulligan woke feeling cold, sick, and cramped. Someone was shining a torch into his eyes and slapping his face. Something was digging an unyielding sharp edge into his back. Royle had tied him to a concrete fence post. Satisfied that the prisoner was awake, Royle shone the torch on his own face.
   "Recognize me?" the hunter asked with a grim smile.
   The prisoner was still gagged, but the horror in his eyes was sufficient answer.
   "You owe me one motor," Royle continued in a conversational tone. "What did you do to it?"
   Mulligan had a good cough when the gag was removed. "An electronic counter," he admitted when Royle raised a hand to a slapping position. "The first time you used the car triggered it. The clock ran down whenever the engine was running."
   "Very clever. Only Betty Hollister, age seventeen and a half, was driving when it ran out," Royle told him. "Bad research. So I thought I'd broaden your education by letting you find out what it feels like to get blown up."
   Royle flicked his lighter into life and touched it to a length of fuse, holding it in front of the prisoner's eyes so that he could see what was happening. The fuse started to fizz. Royle released it and walked away, checking his footing with the torch. He knew from that great educator his television set that one walks away from an explosive charge. A person who runs could trip and break an ankle, and fail to crawl out of range.
   He had also watched a blaster at work once, blowing out tree roots, and had learned how to crimp a detonator onto a length of fuse. He had used a Phillips screwdriver from Potheroe's tool-kit to prod a hole in one of the sticks of gelignite to take the detonator. All three sticks were taped together, and bound to Nails Mulligan's chest.
   Royle reached an outcrop of rock and took shelter. The length of the fuse had been a guess. Mulligan was thrashing around frantically, making grunting noises and trying to release himself. Suddenly, he went limp. Royle shone his torch on him. The man had fainted. The assassin had been unable to face his own death. It did not seem right that he should miss it.
   Taking a gamble, Royle rushed over to Mulligan. There was still over a foot of fuse left. He snipped away the burning end and threw it over the fence, towards the River Dane. He was just wondering whether to get some water to throw into his prisoner's face when a random scrap of information popped into his mind. In the old bare-knuckle days, seconds had been in the habit of biting the earlobes of fighters to rouse them from a daze.
   Royle applied the secateurs which he had acquired in the shed to Mulligan's right ear and snipped a vertical cut in the lobe. Nails woke up with a rush. Royle cut the fuse down to six inches. He touched his lighter to it and retired to his outcrop of rock. He heard Mulligan thrashing about and grunting right up to the big bang.
   The concrete post had gone, but there was not much of a crater. Most of Nails Mulligan had gone too. It was a standard comedy death, Royle told himself, to blow up somebody and leave just a smoking pair of boots behind. All that was left of Mulligan was a piece of trouser leg attached to one of his shoes; which was not smoking. It was a pity, but he would not be able to tell Royle how he felt after being blown up by his own gelignite.
   Feeling quite satisfied with his night's work, Royle returned to his borrowed van and headed back to Joe Potheroe's shop, wondering whether the antiques dealer would notice the loss of a gallon of petrol. He remembered later, on the bus back to Fenton, that he had been meaning to ask Nails about his nickname. His curiosity would have to remain unsatisfied, he told himself. It was rather dark to go scrambling about looking for one of his fingers to find out if the nail had been bitten down to the quick.


 

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