Detective Sergeant Brian Orwell had been up all night and could not stop yawning. First, there had been a report of an explosion; possibly a light aircraft crashing into the River Dane seven miles to the bleak north-west of Shepford. A uniformed patrol had been sent to investigate. After a long silence, one of the constables had reported by telephone from a nearby farmhouse. Their radio had packed up, but they had found a foot at the site of the explosion. Rather shakily, he added that it looked as though someone had blown himself up.
The case became a CID matter. Vehicles had crushed onto the riverside road. A forensic team had rushed to collect samples before the next shower washed the area clean. The foot, in a plastic bag, ended up in the boot of a car with the samples. Photo-flashes had seared the night. Moon-faced constables had waited in their cars, smoking nervously, and wondering whether they could be called upon to search by torchlight for other fragments of the sometime human being, praying that they would not, and knowing that they would.
Orwell had been called away as reluctant searchers were being winkled out of their vehicles. A report of a husband missing from his garden shed had come from Ullwood, eleven miles away by helicopter, but fourteen by road. A bright young copper had been shown a broken pair of glasses and signs of a struggle. He had noticed that part of the wooden floor had been disturbed; and he had found two sticks of gelignite and bomb-making materials neatly packed in polythene lunch boxes. Pieces had begun to fall into place.
Orwell decided that he had found some of the straight edges of the jigsaw puzzle, but the picture remained obscure.
Muddy coffee and a tasteless sandwich helped to wake him up slightly. Orwell scraped a hand over his stubbly cheeks and wondered whether DS Erskine still had the electric razor in his desk. His telephone clanged discordantly. His wife wanted to know whether to expect him back for lunch. Orwell picked up a pencil and said yes. His wife dictated the expected shopping list. He was stuffing the scrap of paper into the breast pocket of his jacket when Joe Erskine sat down beside his desk, looking disgustingly wide awake.
"Preliminary report from the lab," said the younger detective sergeant. "They're pretty sure Mulligan made the bomb that blew that girl up yesterday. Still no identification on her. Or the owner of the car. The forensic mob reckoned we're bloody lucky those perspex number plates didn't melt completely in the fire. And there's too many dentists with too many dental charts and too many bored assistants looking through them to expect anything this week. Maybe if they were on a computer ..."
"Maybe if everything about everyone was on a computer ...," Orwell interrupted sourly.
"Successful criminals would be too bright for thick coppers like us to catch them," Erskine finished. "That only works if the information's kept up to date. According to the records, the owner of the car she was in lives in the middle of a car-park in a shopping precinct. No forwarding address."
"Anything on the gun?"
"Made in the United States. We've not heard anything from them yet, and probably won't get anything useful. I've been getting some interesting things out of the computer, though," Erskine hinted.
"If you lend me your razor, I might listen to you," Orwell said with a sigh. His younger colleague could become tediously enthusiastic when talking about the information that he charmed out of the computer.
Erskine trotted to and from his desk to fetch the shaver. "The thing about computers is they're very useful for sorting patterns out of a mountain of data," Erskine continued. "If they'd put all the information from the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry on a computer instead of writing it all down on a quarter of a million little cards, they might have caught him a lot faster."
"Skip the hobby-horses," groaned Orwell. "What's this pattern of yours?"
"Deaths; violent ones; most of them written off as accidents." Erskine helped himself to one of Orwell's cigarettes and assumed a conspiratorial air. "They seem to come in groups every so often. Over the last five years, there's been four groups. This month's is typical. Wednesday the tenth; Paul Lawson, petty villain, crushed by a juggernaut while dead drunk, but he hadn't been drinking with any of his mates. Monday the fifteenth; Oliver Markham and pals, blown up, question mark. Possibility of arson in view of the intensity of the fire, possible one of them was shot.
"Thursday the eighteenth; Robert Henshall, layabout, sets about someone with his bike chain, falls into a hole, and part of a wall drops or is pushed onto him. Could be a partial footprint on his chest, suggesting he was kicked into the hole. And yesterday, Monday the twenty-second; a young girl, unidentified, blown up. Possibly a mistake because, being female, she doesn't fit the pattern. Now last night; Roy Mulligan, identified by the darning on his sock, blown up with his own explosives miles from anywhere. No sign of a vehicle or even a bike to take him out there."
"Where's the pattern in that?" Orwell said against a loud buzzing noise. He stretched his chin up to tackle his throat with the electric razor.
"Looking at the broad picture, there's a steady escalation," Erskine said patiently. "It starts with vicious little sods who'd cosh your brains out from behind for the loose change in your pockets. Sometimes it breaks down. That's where friend Henshall comes in. But the next step is someone with a bit more class, like Mulligan, and eventually, a couple of times, a professional hit-man. And mixed in with them; young, active men with money. Most of them with no obvious source of income, not a rich father like Markham."
"And where does this get you?" asked Orwell.
"The thing about patterns and theories is they stand and fall on their predictions," Erskine said cryptically.
"Like what?" invited Orwell.
"Like another stiff within a week or two; either a professional killer or an active man between twenty-one and thirty with unexplained money."
"There's a bloody cheerful story to take home to the wife," scoffed Orwell. "Are you going to tell that to KGB?" He inclined his head towards the adjoining office of Detective Inspector Rostov.
"Not yet," replied his younger colleague. "He'll just ask what I propose doing to prevent the next murder."
"You can always ask your bloody computer," grinned Orwell.
Royle slept late. He had put away a couple of pints more than his usual ration the night before. His expedition into the country had left him with a powerful thirst. As he was dressing on a dull, chilly morning, he realized that he would have to make his own breakfast, and his guest would not have bought him a paper on her daily shopping expedition. His life had been reduced to its former simplicity.
Colin Mulgraham had spent an hour and a half in his office by coffee time. After telling his secretary that he would be back in an hour, he reclaimed his car and drove out into thin drizzle. Ten minutes later, he picked up a passenger, who sprinted across the pavement from a department store doorway, fine droplets glistening on his hair and overcoat.
Brian Rhyss had reached retirement age after a career as a moderately successful criminal. His Boswell Road security van ambush was still considered a classic in the trade. Although no longer on the active list; he could not face another spell inside; he remained on drinking terms with fellow professionals and acted, on occasion, as an intermediary between an insurance company and a gang which had acquired goods that were too difficult to dispose of. It was in this capacity that he had come to the attention of Colin Mulgraham.
Rhyss helped himself to a cigarette from the packet on the dashboard ledge and lit it with a disposable lighter. "I hear Nails Mulligan got his hair cut last night," he remarked. "Right down to his bloody ankles." Rhyss could admire an artist who used gelignite on safes and bank vaults, but he had nothing but contempt for those who murdered with bombs as a sideline. "I hear he's in the frame for that kid that copped it out Shepford way yesterday afternoon. Pity someone didn't get to him a bit sooner."
"I suppose these things can't always happen like clockwork," decided Mulgraham.
"There's a bloke called Lenny Suskin," remarked Rhyss, anticipating his driver's question. "Fancies himself as a bit of a Jackal," he added, reminding Mulgraham that the film of Frederick Forsyth's novel had been on television recently. "Only he doesn't wait for the target to duck before he pulls the bloody trigger."
"Sounds an interesting chap," commented Mulgraham, inviting further details.
Rhyss blew smoke at the windscreen and obliged. "Just been to Africa, I hear. Getting his knees brown. Put one into this wog's bullet-proof uniform from five hundred yards, so I heard. Got out with half the army trying to part his hair with a bullet. Shot Mr. President's popularity right out of the dumps. But he might be feeling a bit too rich to work at the moment. He'll need a bit of geeing up."
Mulgraham made thoughtful noises. Rhyss had deduced that his driver played a deadly game with assassins instead of hiring them for a conventional job. Every single name that he had mentioned had either dropped out of sight permanently or had turned up dead. But Rhyss had no qualms about issuing death-warrants. He aimed The Gent, as he called Mulgraham mentally, only at lone wolves, who lacked close friends and relatives who might feel inclined to seek out those responsible for turning the killer's trade against him.
Mulgraham circled the block. He handed his companion an envelope as the department store came into view again. "Buy your wife some flowers," he suggested.
"Yeah, right," grinned Rhyss, knowing that if he started buying his wife flowers, she would assume that he was up to no good and his life would become hell for a while.
Mulgraham dropped his passenger and headed back to his office. His dummy company had just received a job application from one Leonard Suskin. It was time for a firm of confidential inquiry agents to carry out some discreet research into Suskin's background to find out what sort of an employee he would make.
Mulgraham collected the report the following morning. He learned that Leonard James Suskin did not appear to have a job locally, but seemed comfortably well off. He was divorced, childless, and paid no maintenance to his ex-wife, whom he had divorced because of her adultery with a man called Royle. A photograph of Royle had been included, perhaps to flesh out a rather sparse report.
Mulgraham stared in shock at the picture. The face was unmistakably that of one of his couriers. He had found the means of geeing up Suskin. He wondered whether he could ask for a discount on a labour of love. It was not every day that an assassin was pointed at the man who had broken up his marriage.
The conclusion of the report was a recommendation not to employ Suskin as Special Branch appeared to be interested in him; for a reason unspecified. Mulgraham assumed that ripples from the African job had reached the UK. But, he decided, if Suskin acted quickly, as seemed likely, he would be able to get the job out of the way before the forces of international politics caught up with him.
A small package brought Royle down to the front door at the end of the week. It contained two thousand pounds in ten-pound notes and a photograph. Royle started to laugh as soon as he had uncovered it. He did not have to read the name on the back to identify Lenny Suskin. The game was still in progress, and it had taken an interesting turn.
Royle packed a bag and loaded it into his new car. Then he transferred one of Olly Markham's pearl-handled revolvers and a box of ammunition to the dashboard. His new car was the same make and colour as the bombed vehicle and it wore the same year code in the licence number. The sale had been back-dated two months. The fact that the change of ownership had not reached official records would be ascribed to inefficiency at Swansea if anyone asked.
Royle had spent the money found in Nails Mulligan's shed, topped up by a thousand from his garage roof, on his confusing new car. It looked exactly like the old one, but it had a slightly different smell, and he had to get used to a different set of pedal pressures.
Royle backed to the left out of his garage. His dashboard clock was showing 11:05 as he rolled down Mulberry Street. He turned left, onto Boxbey Road, and then right up Perkin Lane, towards the traffic lights at the sewer repair. Leaving Fenton, he took the road to the south-east. He crossed the railway's cutting on a girder bridge and passed through a short, stone tunnel in the aqueduct, collecting a couple of drips from the canal on his windscreen. He followed the road through Welling, Olly Markham's former haunt, checking frequently for pursuit.
There was no one behind him when he turned towards the north, onto a long, straight stretch of road. He continued his wide circle through Marloe, Alderhey, Denton, Ullwood, former home of Nails Mulligan, and Totridge. He reached Shepford after covering a further three miles to complete his quarter century at the wheel.
The town could offer three decent hotels. Royle chose the Oxford, which was not quite as pretentious as the Grand. One of the faces of the town hall clock was showing twenty to twelve. By tradition, the other three were a minute slower.
Royle made a left turn at the traffic lights. The Oxford Hotel lay a quarter of a mile down the road, opposite a park. Royle registered as David Bedford, a name recalled from a record sleeve, and wrote the number of his car in the box provided; so that he could be notified instantly if somebody bashed into it in the car-park. He was wearing black cords and a matching leather jacket instead of a business suit, but his jacket was genuine leather and looked expensive enough to keep the 'hotel full' apology in cold storage.
He followed a uniformed minion of about his father's age to his second-floor room. The porter was not expecting the tip which Royle would not have offered. Royle had noticed the words 'service included' on the list of tariffs. He made a note of the hotel's telephone number and went out again. He was becoming used to finding a gun when he put his hand into his right side pocket of his anorak. Worried about bunging up the barrel with fluff, he had enclosed the weapon in a plastic bag.
He bought a couple of paperbacks at the newsagent further down the block, then crossed the road to the telephone boxes at the corner of the park. His first call was a message telling his despatcher how to contact him in the event of a rush job. The second was to a Bleching number. Then he went back to the hotel to wait.
Royle was sitting in the coffee lounge with one of his paperbacks when the call came through. Lunch-time had come and gone, and he had descended from his room for afternoon tea. The waiter with the telephone confirmed chat he was Mr Bedford, plugged in the instrument, and ghosted away.
Royle lifted the receiver. "You have a call for Bedford?" he invited.
"Putting you through, sir," said the hotel's operator.
"Mr Bedford?" said a suspicious voice.
"Speaking," Royle confirmed, giving a short answer and no clues.
"You wanted me to call you about Julie?" Lenny Suskin dropped the name of his ex-wife as a sort of password.
"I got a photo of you through the post," replied Royle.
"You got one of me?" Suskin sounded baffled. "I've been trying to get in touch with you to tell you the same thing. What's going on, Johnny?"
"There's something I'd like to talk to you about. Did you get some train fare with the photo?"
"Couple of grand," returned Suskin casually.
"How do you fancy an off-season trip to Eastbourne? I'll meet you at that café near Julie's favourite Martello tower about half-twelve tomorrow morning."
"See you there," agreed Suskin.
Strong, gusting winds were battering spray against the chalk cliffs on a grey morning. Lenny Suskin, looking damp and bedraggled, closed the café door in a lull and paused to flatten his tangled hair. He was of average height, stocky, and he had longish, mid-brown hair, which he combed forward into a fringe and straight down on either side from a central parting. Bushy sideburns ran right down to his jaw.
Spotting Royle lounging unobtrusively against the far wall, Suskin crossed the café, impaling the waitress with an appraising stare on the move. He ordered double hamburger and chips, and coffee for two as he removed his anorak, then he gave his attention to Royle, who slid a Polaroid photograph across the plastic-topped table.
"Is this some kind of wind-up, Johnny?" Suskin asked, studying a picture of himself emerging from his local butcher.
"A two-grand wind-up?" returned Royle. "You weren't followed, were you?"
"What, me?" scoffed Suskin. "What's going on?"
"Someone's been sending me photos and cash," Royle explained. "Yours is the third."
"Any point in asking what happened to the other two?"
"I should cross them off your Christmas card list. They had a go at me before I'd figured out what was going on."
"Self-defence and a hell of a lot of luck?" grinned Suskin.
"Someone's playing a game with me. He's setting me up, but he's also giving me a chance to take the others out first. And sending me cash for protection expenses."
"But it took you till number three to work out what was going on?" laughed Suskin. "And now you've got a real grudge fight. Yours truly against the former best mate who ran off with his wife. Well, he can't be that clever if he doesn't know Julie had the hottest pants in town. And I talked you into giving my private detective evidence of adultery. She got the shock of her life when I booted her out and told her I was getting a divorce."
"I know, you keep telling me," nodded Royle. "She seemed quite surprised when I booted her out for cheating on me. Ever hear from her now?"
"Funny you should say that. I thought I'd given her the slip. But I had another threatening letter a week or two ago. Some nonsense about her being out of work and wanting some maintenance. In fact, things are a bit warm generally at the moment. I took a fairly dodgy job. High risk for high reward. And bloody hard to get in and out. Especially out."
"And did you?" Royle asked as the assassin's food and the coffee arrived. Royle had lunched already.
Suskin smiled at the waitress, then applied HP Sauce to his chips and tomato ketchup to his hamburgers. Royle stirred sugar into his second cup of coffee.
"I got out about thirty seconds ahead of a bunch of angry dark-skinned gents," Suskin said with a smile. "Anxious to find out how much lead they could pump into me before I croaked. Leaping into the moving plane, and all that."
"You should be in films. Stunt man," suggested Royle.
"Doesn't pay as well. And I'm bloody sure a couple of characters from Special Branch have been sniffing around me. They can't have anything on me yet; but you never know if they keep digging. My client wanted to be shot in his bullet-proof vest, but some of his mates wanted one between his eyes. They're a little peevish at the moment."
"I saw that on TV. So that was you, was it? Maybe you should take your two grand and scarper," suggested Royle.
"Maybe," nodded Suskin. "But I'm interested. This bloke just sending me a cardboard box full of cash and a photo. Sort of saying: 'I know what you do. Get on with it, enjoy yourself, and there'll be more when the job's done.'"
"Except you don't work that way."
"Right." Suskin nodded and loaded his mouth with chips.
Royle turned to watch the sea as the assassin tackled his food. Large waves were rolling in, and exploding if the wind caught them as they broke. The café's picture window was speckled with either rain or salt spray, but the town had attracted a ration of Saturday visitors, hardy souls come to view the fortifications built during the Napoleonic Wars and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution museum unobstructed by summer crowds.
Suskin cleaned his plate with a slice of bread and butter, then offered a cigarette packet. The waitress, who looked full of Eastern promise, took his plate and an order for more coffee.
"So," said Suskin, "what's the brilliant plan?"
"First step, I've moved out of my flat," returned Royle. "He'd expect that."
"The bloke playing games with you," nodded Suskin. "Yes, things are stacked fairly heavily against you. I know you by sight, so I'm not going to let you stroll up to me and stick a knife in me. You'll have to try dropping something heavy on me from a great height. I wonder how long it'll take him to realize I'm not playing."
"Couple of days?" hazarded Royle. "It's a bit of a cheek, expecting you to knock someone off for just two grand. Especially when you'd be the number one suspect."
"Oh, I'd be very subtle," protested the assassin. "A nice accident. I hope you've got plenty of books in your hotel room, Johnny."
They chatted for a further half-hour before they went their separate ways. The great divorce conspiracy had turned them into strangers to maintain credibility. Suskin carried on up the coast to visit a lady friend. Royle took a look around the town and bought some more books before returning to Shepford.
His telephone woke Royle the following morning. He assumed that he had overslept and that his despatcher was calling. Then he realized that he could not remember being disturbed by cleaners anxious to do him.
"Good-morning, Mr Bedford," said a voice with a Yorkshire accent and a hint of sarcastic chuckle in the background. "About Julie. Call the number you used yesterday." Lenny Suskin came from Leeds and he had retained his accent despite occasional attempts to smooth it into a less distinctive hybrid.
"Aaah, yeah," said Royle, struggling to wake up. "Give me about ten minutes."
"Someone not out of bed yet?" chuckled Suskin, who knew that his friend was an habitual late riser. "Ten minutes."
The telephone began to purr into his ear. Royle replaced the receiver and struggled into his clothes. Washed and curious, he crossed the road to the telephone-boxes at the corner of the park.
Suskin's answering service in Bleching was a woman called Sandy. She sounded about Royle's age; and like someone worth getting to know on the telephone. But the man himself answered as soon as the ringing started.
"Something up?" asked Royle.
"As far as you're concerned," agreed Suskin. "I had a special delivery letter this morning. Shoved through the door. With one of your photos in it. And guess what was on the back? Your hotel and your room number. Someone has a very efficient intelligence service."
"Time for me to move on again," decided Royle.
"It's hardly worth telling you to keep in touch, the way things are going," chuckled Suskin. "Your friend must be getting a bit impatient by now. I mean, it's been two whole days, and I'm supposed to be a professional."
"Yeah," agreed Royle, not particularly amused.
Royle returned to his hotel and found that breakfast was still being served at eight-fifty on a Sunday morning. Only two people knew where he was, he decided, as he tackled egg, bacon, sausage, and tomato. He had given his phone number to his despatcher and Lenny Suskin's answering service. And he was certain that he had not been followed from the flat in Fenton to Shepford.
Assuming that his car had not been bugged, that he had not been followed by a whole army of people to prevent him spotting a tail, and that agents had not visited every hotel and bed-and-breakfast pub for miles around, the leak had to be his despatcher. There was one sure way to test his theory.
Royle packed up and settled his bill after breakfast. He drove into the centre of Shepford, booked a room at the Albert Lodge, and passed on his new telephone number to his despatcher. After sending the same information to Suskin via Sandy from a call-box, he settled back with his library to await developments.
Two hours later, Sandy called to tell him that a young boy had delivered another address to Suskin's flat. On being offered a tip of one pound, the youngster had remembered that the man who had given him the envelope was youngish, well-dressed, wore sun-glasses and a bushy moustache, and drove a silver-grey Jaguar with the previous year's letter on the number plate.
By no stretch of the imagination could Royle's despatcher be called youngish. His weathered face showed every one of his approximately forty-five years; and a few more besides. Royle could not believe that he had thousands of pounds to spend on hired killers. He was just another employee, like Royle. His despatcher had to be a link to someone else; either actively or innocently; if he was not being followed. Royle decided to cut the despatcher out of the chain by becoming unavailable for a few days.
On Monday morning, Royle moved back up the road to the Oxford Hotel. His reception was more immediately cordial than before. He had become a valued former customer, who had paid in fraud-free cash on booking out and had not pinched any of the towels or ashtrays from his room.
After transmitting his new position to Suskin, Royle left a message for his despatcher, telling him that he would be on the move for the next few days, and that giving him a phone number was impractical. The message-taker hummed to himself in a throaty voice, then told Royle that he had to keep in touch because a special order was coming up. Royle offered to phone the message service at about ten-thirty every day to find out if he was needed. He was surprised to find his compromise accepted.
At eleven o'clock on the following morning, Sandy asked him to phone her back. Royle dashed through the persistent light rain to the rank of call-boxes, wondering whether the performance was really necessary. Lenny Suskin had received another message; by first-class post this time. Royle had moved again to an unknown address, and the client wanted to meet Suskin. He had been invited to put in an appearance at The Balcony, a club, well-known for its gloomy intimacy, which lay just off Dean Street in the sleazy part of London, W1. The client seemed to be getting impatient.
Suskin was quite amused to hear about the rain in Shepford. While not exactly flooded with late autumn sun, Bleching was enjoying a mild and dry morning. Suskin replaced the receiver and lit a thoughtful cigarette. Sandy arched carefully plucked eyebrows at him. She was thirty-two years old, four years older than Suskin, twice married and once divorced but on her own again, and she ran a confidential letter office and answering service from her council flat.
"Sounds like your mate's in a lot of bother," she remarked.
"Yeah," agreed Suskin. "Doing anything tonight?"
"Depends," Sandy said cautiously.
"Oh, you can keep your clothes on," grinned Suskin. "And there'll be a tenner in it. And a couple of drinks."
"Yeah, okay," Sandy agreed. "Throw in dinner and you're on."
The stripper was well into the heavyweight division. Someone near Lenny Suskin kept going on about 'all that meat and no gravy' in a happy babble. Nothing very startling ever happened in The Balcony, but it was tarted up like a den of vice to make the out-of-town punters think that they had found a club which hovered on the fringes of legality. Reasonably priced drinks were poured from expensive bottles. The clients assumed that they were not being ripped off; but the owners of the labels would have been interested to learn what was being passed off as their products.
Suskin had been waiting for ten minutes and had barely touched his whisky and ginger ale. His client was late, but Suskin put his tardiness down to natural caution. Then he became aware of someone behind his left arm.
"I see you got my message. No, don't turn around." The voice sounded young and accustomed to giving orders.
"Someone's been sending me photos," Suskin returned, turning his head back to face the stage. "Can't think why."
"Is that why you've done nothing about them?"
"That's not the way I do business."
"Okay, so how do you do business?" the voice invited in an intimate murmur.
"The proper way to do business is to discuss the job with the client and set a price."
"How you do the job is entirely your affair," Colin Mulgraham said impatiently. "All we need discuss is the price."
"Do you want an accident or an example?" returned Suskin.
"I don't follow you," said Mulgraham.
"Do you want others to know what happened and tremble in their boots?" Suskin explained. "Or a quiet departure?"
"I'm not bothered," Mulgraham decided.
"As I'm bound to be the number one suspect, it's going to cost you fifteen grand," murmured Suskin. "Nine up front, six behind."
"If I get the balance of the deposit to you, will you get on with it?" Mulgraham said, still impatient.
"The matter will be advanced to the research stage," Suskin said with a nod, quoting a former CIA man of his acquaintance.
"Good!" said the voice behind him. "Stay put for a further half-hour."
"I ought to charge extra for having to put up with this," commented Suskin as the stripper shed the last piece of glitter and slid her pink mass behind a curtain.
The presence had gone. Lights brightened slightly to produce a red glow; like the emergency lighting in a submarine. Sandy drifted to his table as the comedian bounced on stage to turn the air bluer than the fog of cigarette smoke. Suskin pushed a warm brandy across to her.
"Dead suspicious bloke," she remarked. "Trying to look every way at once. But he looked right through me when I gave him the eye. Must have thought I was a tart."
"Get the number of his car?" interrupted Suskin.
"'Course!" groaned Sandy. She handed him a scrap of paper. "Silver Jag; big, bushy moustache; shades. Sound familiar?"
Suskin nodded. "Sounds like the bloke that gave the kid my mate's new address on Sunday."
"Can we go now?"
"The man said to wait for half an hour."
"Sod that for a game of soldiers," Sandy said firmly. "You promised me some dinner. And he's buggered off now."
"Yeah, right," agreed Suskin. "I don't think I could take much more of this place. The excitement's a real killer."
21. Low Dive
Despite a number of hints, a nightcap and breakfast were not included in the package. In view of their business arrangement, Suskin decided not to push his luck. He dropped Sandy off at her flat, then headed for home. He liked to think that he had a sixth sense which warned him of impending danger. Hunches had steered him clear of trouble in the past. But he was experiencing neither a crawling sensation between his shoulder-blades nor a throbbing in his bullet-scarred left thigh as he stepped out of his car to open the garage door.
A rapidly moving shadow told him that all was not well. Suskin folded and twisted back into his car. Something heavy smashed against the roof instead of his head. Suskin lashed out with a foot; and caught a sensitive area. Seeking to take advantage of his attacker's pain, he lunged out of the car; only to receive a numbing blow on his left shoulder. He sagged. A reinforced toe-cap slammed against his thigh.
Suskin went with his fall, then threw himself into a roll. His eyes were becoming accustomed to the deep shadows beyond the beams of his headlights. The man who had received the boot in the groin was starting to take an interest in the proceedings again. His companion was aiming another blow with his crowbar as Suskin regained his feet.
Suskin stepped outside the blow, caught the arm, and heaved. A face met a brick garage wall at speed. The wall came off better. Suskin retrieved the flat .25 automatic from the holster above his left ankle and aimed it at the other man, holding the weapon up to catch any available light on the dull metal of the barrel.
"Drop that," he warned as the man advanced with his crowbar raised.
Driven by pain and rage, or perhaps too stupid to perceive the threat, the man continued to advance. Suskin fired twice. The explosions were quiet coughs. Running out of momentum, the man sagged forward and released his weapon. His face hit the tarmac with a hollow slap. The crowbar clattered into the shadows.
A curtain moved away from a bedroom window, spilling an almost solid beam of light. Suskin spotted a soft drink can near a heap of discarded boxes and other junk. He picked it up and heaved it in the approximate direction of the window, which had begun to open. Tin-plated steel clanged against the wall. The window shot downwards and the curtains joined again. The occupant of the house did not want to attract further missiles from the drunks in the alley.
The other man had rebounded from the garage wall. He was lying flat on his back with dark blood pouring from his nose and a deep cut over his left eye. After putting his car away, Suskin had a quick look around. He found a strange car parked at the end of the row of garages.
Suskin kicked his second attacker's leg; hard; but failed to provoke a reaction. Then he crouched and explored the intruder's pockets. The keys in the jacket fitted the strange car. Suskin backed it to the dead man and crammed him into the boot. He sprawled the other one on the back seat after tying his hands behind his back with PVC tape.
Ghostly groaning noises reached him as Suskin ended a short journey at a lay-by. On his left, beyond the fence, a grassy bank ran down to the broad, wind-rippled expanse of the reservoir. Suskin turned round to shine a torch into his attacker's eyes.
"Right, what's your game?" he demanded. "And if you don't speak up, you'll get more than your nose broken."
"Your wife hired us," said the man groggily. "She didn't like you ignoring her. We were supposed to remind you she's got bills to pay."
"My ex-wife, do you mean?" returned Suskin. A sudden rush of anger flowed through him as he moved out onto the road again. "The one I divorced because she ran off with one of my mates?"
"She left that bit out," groaned the prisoner.
"Did she really?" snarled Suskin. "And it didn't occur to you to find out?"
Suskin made a left turn. When the car was travelling in a straight line again, he bailed out. The vehicle rushed down the slope and onto the jetty used by summer power-boaters. About half-way along, a slight curvature in its path brought it to the side of the planked surface. The car dipped and landed on its back in the water with a tremendous splash.
Suskin headed for home at a trot. Travelling across country instead of following the looping road, he had about a mile to cover. His ex-wife had never found out what he did for a living. She thought that he was a fairly harmless wheeler-dealer, who did most of his business by telephone and made the occasional trip abroad as much for the duty-free allowance and nights out with colleagues as on business.
If she had suspected the truth, she would not have set second-division crowbar merchants on him, Suskin decided. Julie was sly enough to make as complete a list as memory would allow of his trips abroad, leave it with someone trustworthy with instructions to open the envelope in the event of her sudden death, and then blackmail her ex-husband. And enjoy blackmailing him.
She was due a few lumps when the heat died down, Suskin decided.
His life was becoming full of complications. First, there was the Special Branch interest. Then some mysterious character was trying to get him to take out Johnny Royle for no particular reason. And now his ex-wife was hiring idiots to stir his brains with crowbars. Perhaps the time had come for some simplification.
His first priority was to change the barrel and firing pin of his personal pop-gun. They were the only direct link between himself and the two slugs in the body in the boot of the sunken car. He should have shot the other one too. Giving him the illusion that escape was possible from the sinking car had been an expression of Suskin's anger at the sneak attack. He was not normally given to such sadistic gestures. A quick, clean kill was his motto. A concussed man with his hands taped behind his back had no chance. But he had not been a very nice person, and Suskin did not feel like wasting sympathy on him.
There was an icy wind blowing towards the reservoir, nipping at his temples and cooling his hot anger. Suskin was surprised to find just how charged and irritated he felt, and how painful his left shoulder had become now that the burst of adrenaline had ebbed and allowed his body to take notice of distracting aches. And his leg was throbbing where it had been kicked. He had been in the wars; and he knew it.
It was a real turn-up, he told himself, someone actually being paid to have a go at him. But the outcome had been just the same as the conclusion of one of his own jobs; he was walking away from it. Or trotting away from it, he thought, slowing to a walk to cushion the impacts to his damaged shoulder and thigh.
But he had been more of a handful than the crowbar merchants had been expecting, as both of them had learned in the brief time they had taken to die. The unexpected in the form of Suskin's ankle gun had proved decisive. His attackers had not done their homework. And they had paid the price of incompetence.
Yet it was unsettling to have someone sent to get him, even if the object had been to administer a severe beating. Royle was taking his brushes with death very coolly, but Johnny Royle had always had a lot of nerve. If anything, he tended to err on the side of overconfidence because he did not believe in worrying about trouble until it appeared on his doorstep. He reacted to his circumstances instead of following one of a number of prepared plans when the trouble started. One day, he would jump in the wrong direction.
Royle had helped to set up the alibi for Suskin's first job; the first and only time that he had taken care of someone known to him. Royle had invited two birds back to his flat for the intimate party and had laid on a generous spread of food and drink. Suskin had pretended to crash out first. Royle had fed Suskin's bird a powdered sleeping-tablet in a sausage roll. Then Royle and his bird had put them to bed and continued the party on their own.
Suskin had ducked out of the window and made the round trip in record time. When he returned to the flat, Royle and his bird had been larking about still on the settee in the living-room. Suskin had taken a sleeping tablet himself to enhance the illusion. He had been the last to wake up the following morning, much to the amusement of the others.
The police had given him a routine pull a couple of days later, as part of a programme of interviews with everybody who had not been on friendly terms with the deceased. His alibi had been probed and he had heard nothing more. He assumed that the police had had better suspects available.
Suskin had learned one important lesson from his first job; always hit strangers to avoid police interest which could be recalled in the future. But he had made one rather large mistake. He had started to date Royle's bird. And three months later, he had married Julie Crawford. The marriage had lasted eleven months. Then Royle had helped to bring it to a speedy conclusion. Now, two years later, his ex-wife had got tired of working for a living and she was trying to make trouble for him again.
The police had not approached him again since his first job. But if they heard that Lenny Suskin was lying in hospital, broken and bruised as a result of a violent assault, or that bodies riddled with bullets had turned up in close proximity to his usual haunts, that would bring them running. And there was the Special Branch interest to consider.
Maybe it was time for Royle to do his mate Lenny a final favour. One that would do both of them a lot of good.
A telephone's ringing shocked Royle out of sleep on the last day of the month. October was on the way out. Complete disorientation lasted a few moments, then his strange surroundings became a hotel room in Shepford rather than the bedroom of his flat in Fenton, and the telephone was an easy stretch away.
"Been reading yourself to sleep again?" mocked a voice with a Yorkshire accent. "Happy Halloween, Johnny."
"I suppose you've been up since dawn?" groaned Royle.
"If you're going shopping today, I might see you," continued Lenny Suskin. "Don't forget it's early closing day."
After about ten seconds of blank silence, Royle made the connection. "In about twenty minutes?"
"Right, then," agreed Suskin.
Shaved and looking fairly alert, Royle left his car in the cash-and-carry's car park and walked through the ranks of electrical necessities to the rear entrance. The bookshop lay two streets away. Having acquired a couple of second-hand paperbacks, he took Suskin two doors down Hope Street and allowed him to buy breakfast at Ryan's Café.
"You're a fifteen-grand job," Suskin remarked as he tasted his coffee. "There was seven more waiting for me on the doormat when I eventually got home last night." He went on to tell Royle about his meeting with the client and the fun and games at his garage.
"You have been enjoying yourself," chuckled Royle. "Get anything from the number of your client's car?"
"An obliging computer says it belongs to a firm called Jay and Bee Systems, Ltd. I had a look at their office before I came down here."
"What, this morning?" Royle asked with a frown.
"About one o'clock this morning. It was a bit dusty, but the chair behind the desk and the phone were clean enough. No recent papers. Not very much goes on there. It's just a convenient address for someone."
"So we're not much further on?"
"Looks like you and me are going to have to lock horns, as they say in all the best Westerns. And it might be an idea to let you win."
"Yeah?" Royle frowned and sliced another corner from his bacon sandwich.
"Lenny Suskin is getting a bit too hot. And if you get another photo through the post, it might be useful to have a friendly ghost around to watch your back."
"What would you like me to do?" grinned Royle. "Stab you to death on the front steps of the town hall? A touch of the Julius Caesars?"
"I'd prefer to go missing, believed killed," Suskin decided.
"How attached are you to your motor? I've got a couple of forty-five revolvers stashed away. I could shoot your car up a bit, and you could bleed a bit. And we could maybe run it off the road."
"That's a bit strong, isn't it? My bloody car?"
"Is it worth fifteen grand?" countered Royle.
"Yeah," admitted Suskin, "I suppose I'm still well ahead."
"I seem to remember someone telling me that possessions are excess baggage in a crisis," added Royle. "The survivor drops them and concentrates on saving his life, not his luggage."
"Your memory's too bloody good, Johnny," complained Suskin.
"We might as well do it today," grinned Royle. "Unless you've got any packing you want to do."
"Hang about!" protested Suskin. "I want to fix up somewhere to lay low for a while. And another set of wheels. Let's make it tomorrow, shall we?"
"Okay." Royle shrugged. "You know where Briarley is? About three or four miles north of here?"
"I'll find it."
"I'll meet you about a mile along the road from Briarley to Bowcross. There's a bit of a wood and a bridge across a stream. Just past there. About half-eleven tomorrow morning. Unless it's pissing down. If it is, ring me at the hotel and we'll sort something else out."
"Right," nodded Suskin. "You can tell me where you got the forty-fives later. I'd better get moving. I've got a lot of sorting out to get done before tomorrow. It's good to have a mate you can rely on, Johnny."
"I'm looking forward to having a friendly ghost to watch my back," grinned Royle. "See you, Lenny."
Colin Mulgraham let himself into the offices of Charger Services and wound back the videotape. Two people had visited the office next door since he had reset the video-recorder; only one of them authorized to be there. The second was his receiver, delivering a body belt. After watching the first shadowy figure prowling dreamily round the office in slow motion, like the. Six Million Dollar Man in a hurry, Mulgraham realized that he looked an awful lot like his hired assassin.
Suskin, he assumed, was trying to find out something about his client. Meeting him had been an error of judgement, but his interest would die when he had completed his contract.
Mulgraham had lost contact with Royle, apart from his daily calls to the message service. He decided to give the assassin a couple of days' grace before offering a helping hand; by supplying the time and place of a meeting between Royle and the despatcher. He had made noises about a special order, and Royle seemed cool enough to contemplate making a trip to Holland while dodging an assassin.
As he crawled through his hatch to the offices of Jay and Bee Systems to recover the body belt of cocaine, Mulgraham found himself hoping that Royle would be able to take Suskin by surprise. His sympathies lay with a talented amateur; like himself.
He would be terribly disappointed if Royle proved not to be the right material; as let down as he had felt on hearing the news of Olly Markham's death. A lot of time, money, and nervous energy went into the selection of a worthy opponent for his occasional duels.
Mulgraham had once been attacked by a thief with a knife. As he had been carrying a large sum of money, he had resisted. Desperation had brought him out on top at the end of an untidy brawl, and he had felt fully justified in killing his assailant with his own knife.
Afterwards, when the emotional surge of battle had faded, he had been able to pull off a risky deal with a new assurance. His brush with death had reminded him of his mortality and had given him the resolution to take the occasional big risks required to make his brief existence comfortable and interesting. But Mulgraham was not suicidal. When he fought one of his duels, he was always careful to shade the odds in his own favour.
Thursday began grey and chilly. Light drizzle was falling as Royle left the Oxford Hotel, zipped up in the blue anorak with red stripes on the sleeves. The weather forecast had predicted that the temperature would rise no higher than the middle fifties of the rest of the week. Royle had booked out of his hotel. With any luck, he would be able to return to his flat. But if the drizzle had discouraged Lenny Suskin, he would make a routine change of bolt-hole.
He drove out to Totridge, then turned towards the River Dane. Briarley lay four miles away. He turned left again at the centre of the village. Suskin was waiting at the side of the road, just beyond the stream, as arranged. He was wearing a lightweight cagoule and he looked in need of warming up. Royle turned onto a side-road, which was used mainly by farm vehicles, and stopped out of sight of the road to Bowcross.
"Nice day for it," remarked Suskin, catching him up.
Royle opened the passenger door and offered his friend a cigarette. "Great," he agreed. "How are we going to work this?"
Suskin stripped off his driving gloves and pulled on a thin surgical glove. "Bring the piece?"
"In the dash," said Royle, nodding towards it.
Suskin opened the dashboard locker and took out a heavy object wrapped in a piece of white tee-shirt and enclosed in a polythene bag. "This cost a few bob," he decided, running a professional eye over the weapon. "And it's been through the hands of a gunsmith to silk up the action. Where did you get it? If it's not a rude question."
"Christmas cracker," Royle returned with a poker face.
Suskin had told him on more than one occasion that anyone who confessed his crimes was an idiot, no matter how good a friend his confidant seemed. But Suskin knew that Royle would tell his tale after a token period of reticence.
"Yeah, I suppose I had that coming," grinned Suskin. He turned his thoughts to the job in hand. "I got a hypodermic off this junkie I know. Used to be quite a nice girl. On the game now, of course." He tapped his inside pocket gently. "I've got a couple of samples of Suskin Group A in self-sealing plastic bags. I was playing Dracula with my arm while I was waiting for you. We'll shoot the car up a bit with your popgun. And splash a bit of blood around inside."
"It's a bit on the thin side," observed Royle. "I don't know how much blood you've got there, but unless it's about three or four pints, you could easily have walked away from the pile-up. Maybe you should have robbed a blood bank."
"One snag," grinned Suskin. "When they collect the stuff at a blood bank, they mix it with preservatives and things. Now wouldn't that look funny on a forensic report?"
"Yeah," nodded Royle. "All right, it's your funeral."
"And I've got this sandbag. We'll put the last shot through the windscreen, lined up with about where my heart would be. If a bullet went into the car and they can't find it, it's reasonable to suppose it stayed in me."
"Okay, let's do it," decided Royle. "What are the operating gloves for?"
"I don't want gun oil soaking into the leather of my driving gloves," explained Suskin. "I suppose it's a bit late in your case."
"Just a bit," admitted Royle.
"You'd better get a new pair tomorrow," advised Suskin. "In case the fuzz give you a tug. Checking up on my enemies. Especially the sod that wrecked my marriage."
"They don't know where I am," grinned Royle.
"Do it anyway," insisted Suskin.
He loaded the revolver and went back to the road. They had a good view in either direction, and nothing was coming. Using a two-handed grip, Suskin fired four shots into his car. Two hit the boot, and two went through the back window and blew exit holes in the windscreen. Then he returned to the vehicle, strapped himself in securely and put on a crash helmet.
Once he had worked up some speed, Suskin stamped on the brakes. His car skidded off the wet road and rammed a tree on the left at about twenty miles per hour. Miraculously, the doubly punctured and crazed windscreen remained in place.
"I reckon we'd better put a hole in the side window," Suskin decided as he removed his crash-helmet. "The windscreen might shatter if we do any more to it."
"Hey, look out! There's someone coming," warned Royle.
A car approaching from the direction of Bowcross had crested a rise and was sinking out of sight into a long, shallow dip in the road.
"Change of plan," said Suskin, throwing his crash-helmet onto the grass behind his car. "Let me think."
Royle took a final drag from his cigarette and flicked it into the sodden roadside shrubbery. He was holding the gun, wrapped in a rag to keep it dry, and wishing for better weather. The raw day was nipping his fingers through the thin leather of his driving gloves, and he could have done with thicker socks.
"Right, got it!" said Suskin.
After a rapid explanation, Suskin got back behind the wheel of his car. Grinning, Royle took the gun into the trees.
The other car approached them at speed. It slowed when the driver noticed a dark blue vehicle on the grass verge with its nose crumpled against a tree. Suskin opened his door and lurched to the road, a vivid bloodstain splashed across his pale face. The other driver squealed to a halt.
Suskin staggered over to the other car. An explosion hurled him onto the bonnet. Red droplets splashed onto the windscreen. Some were flicked away immediately by the wipers, but others remained outside their arcs.
Then Royle stepped out of cover, a sinister, hooded figure, with his jersey pulled up over his nose and his anorak collar turned up as a secondary mask for the lower part of his face. The driver of the other car was watching in horror as Suskin slid off his bonnet, leaving behind a liquid red smear.
Royle extended his arms, copying Suskin's two-handed grip, took careful aim, and fired the pistol. The heavy bullet crashed in through the windscreen, a foot from their witness's head, and out through a rear side window.
Heart racing, the fortuitous spectator fumbled for reverse, then put his foot down. The car screamed back down the road in a cloud of smoke. An involuntary skid turned it right round. The driver raced up through his forward gears, fleeing for his life, trying to keep his eyes on the road, not the crazed hole in his windscreen.
"That went off quite well," said Royle, trotting over to his friend.
"Drag me to the side of the road," ordered Suskin, running through the plot in his mind like a film director. "Then bring your car here and drag me into the back."
Royle followed the script with the body. When he had drive his car to where Suskin lay, he spread a large plastic sheet on the floor and the back seat of his car to protect them from his passenger's wet and bloody garments.
"There's a change of clothes in the back of my car," Suskin added when Royle had dragged him from the verge to the back of his vehicle. "Don't forget the sandbag in the boot. And my crash-helmet."
"It's all right for some, being bloody dead," Royle called as he completed the tidying-up operation. "Someone else has to do all the bloody work. What did you think of my shooting?"
"Not bad for an amateur. I was expecting you to miss the car and put one in me by accident," Suskin admitted.
"Hark at the expert!" scoffed Royle, well pleased with his effort.
Suskin had stripped off his bloodstained garments and he was mopping his face with a piece of rag soaked in sweet tea when Royle had turned round and he was moving away from the scene of the crime. Satisfied with the clean-up job, Suskin dried himself and pulled on a tee-shirt and a tent-like greenish jersey. Then he changed from jeans to a pair of slimfit grey flannels, which were fifteen years out of fashion. He had even packed spare shoes and socks.
"A complete change of clothing for a new identity," he remarked to Royle as he checked through the pockets of his discarded garments.
"Not bad for the spur of the moment," applauded Royle.
"In my business, you have to be ready to drop everything and disappear," Suskin told him through a grin. "There's always the chance something might go wrong, no matter how clever you are. I'm really three people; or I was till you junked Lenny Suskin. From now on, you'll have to remember to call me Bob. Short for Robert Parker."
"A genuine alternative identity?"
"Bank account, passport, the lot."
"There's nothing like being prepared, I suppose. Has Julie got any life insurance on you?"
"I had a fifty-grand policy," laughed Suskin. "But I packed it in when she started playing around. I'm not sure she knows that. Thinks I'm using it to save up for my old age."
"So where do we go now?" Royle asked as he turned right through Totridge, retracing his journey.
"I've got my second car parked at Hobard Street in Shepford," Suskin returned. "And I've booked myself a room at the Grand."
"Nothing but the best?"
"What do you expect on a nine-grand job?"
"I thought you said fifteen?"
"He's not going to send the other six grand to the corpse of a bloke that failed, Johnny," scoffed Suskin.
Suskin crouched behind the driving mirror, combed his mid-brown hair back, and gave it a touch of hair spray to keep it in place. Royle watched him with interest. Suskin normally wore a fringe to within a quarter of an inch of his eyebrows. He looked completely different with a vast expanse of naked forehead. An electric shaver buzzed into life, then started to chew at hair. Suskin's sideburns retreated to about half-way down his ears.
The road recrossed the canal a mile and a half from the centre of Totridge, on the diffuse perimeter of Shepford. Suskin opened his window and heaved a cheap cloth tote bag into space. It just cleared the stone parapet of the bridge.
"My shoes and a pair of lightly bloodstained jeans," he remarked. "Weighed down with the gun. I'll get rid of the rest where they won't be found."
"You expect those to be found?" Royle said with a frown.
"Canals and rivers are usual places for dumping things. Especially off bridges. Some police diver's going to take a look sooner or later."
"Why not let them find all your clothes?"
"A small matter of no bullet holes in the upper garments."
"Couldn't you have used the sandbag as a sort of tailor's dummy to put a hole in the right place?"
"You get body tissue as well as blood carried out at the exit wound with a big bullet."
"You're prepared to lose a bit of blood, but you want your skin in one piece?" Royle realized.
"That's about the size of it," nodded Suskin. "Keep it simple. The police have got my car, shot up and crashed. And an eye-witness account of the driver getting blown away; as told by a bloke with blood on his bonnet and a bullet hole in his windscreen."
"As long as the rain doesn't wash all the blood off."
"It won't wash the bullet hole off, Johnny. And there's a gun for them to find. Shoes with scraped heels where you dragged me. That's more than enough to start a murder investigation."