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DEATH IN SMALL CORNERS #5


23. Patterns

 

Detective Inspector Peter Rostov was the grandson of Russian refugees who had fled their homeland during Stalin's reign of terror. Inevitably, he was called 'KGB' by his subordinates; and many of his superiors. He was solidly built and had heavy, Slavic features and apparently infinite reserves of patience. Rostov was a methodical man who rarely took short cuts. He was willing to concede that intuition could play a part in police work; but it was evidence that counted if a case was to be brought before a jury.
   Detective Sergeant Joe Erskine was thirty years old, eight years younger than his superior, and he managed to look positively juvenile when he was wearing his hard-done-by expression. He tapped the green and white computer print-outs back into their folder and pushed to his feet. His expression was one of resignation; as though he had not expected to receive a fair hearing.
   "Computers are excellent for finding patterns," concluded the DI. "But you can push them too far. Haven't you ever seen that famous optical illusion? The set of random black splodges which the brain interprets as a Dalmatian if you turn it the right way up? The human brain is always looking for patterns because that's the way it thinks."
    Erskine put on a that's what I've been saying expression.
   "Or rather, doesn't think" Rostov added. "Didn't you watch Edward de Bono's Thinking Course on the box? When it's found a pattern it likes, the brain stops thinking because it knows how to handle that particular pattern. And that's all your computer's doing. Finding you patterns to stop you thinking about important things."
   Like whether you're going to get any dinner tonight, thought DS Erskine, conscious of an empty feeling at the end of a very long day. At the same time, he could appreciate some of the DI's points. Some cases had to go on the books as accidents because, short of a time machine, there was no way of proving that crime was involved. The evidence just was not there to be found; and no one handed out medals for looking for things that were not there.
   "He must have been a professional hit-man, this guy Suskin," Erskine offered, underlining the prediction from his pattern. His apologetic tone made his last shot a damp squib. "Why else would those two characters from Special Branch have been sniffing around?"
   "We don't even know for sure he's dead," countered the DI.
   "We found his trousers and his shoes, with drag marks on the backs of the heels, with a gun of the right calibre in the cut," Erskine protested. "He wouldn't be running around without any shoes or trousers if he was still alive."
   "It's probable this Suskin is dead," admitted the Inspector. "We don't have a body, but we do have a witness who saw him shot; and got shot at himself while Suskin was bleeding all over his bonnet. But we have no evidence Mulligan didn't blow himself up trying out a new sort of bomb. Possibly demonstrating it to the accomplice who drove him out to the river. Your computer can't prove he was killed by the same bloke that accounted for Suskin. And Henshall, and Markham, and Lawson, and all the rest."
   "Broken glasses, evidence of a struggle in Mulligan's shed," Erskine quoted from Detective Sergeant Orwell's report.
   "Similar disturbance could also have been caused by Mulligan tripping over his own two feet and trying to stop himself falling," Rostov said after yawning mightily. "Bring me evidence and witnesses, and I'll take your patterns more seriously. Now go home and get some sleep, Joe."
   Detective Sergeant Erskine took his folder to the office next door, raised it to head height, and slapped it down onto his desk. A couple of papers flapped away, making a bid for freedom. DS Orwell grinned at him through a long stretch of tired limbs.
   "Don't tell me," he chuckled. "KGB didn't go for your games of Murder. Even though you predicted a professional assassin would get the chop within a week."
   "He prefers to think Mulligan was an own goal. He doesn't like to admit there's someone running around who can stuff dynamite down a bomber's trousers and blow him to about five dozen bits. Passing down the word from the Chief and the Super."
   "According to your theory, it's the same bloke that shot Suskin, so we're looking for him anyway. And when we catch up with him, he'll probably cough the lot. And tell us Mulligan was justifiable homicide."
   "Ah! You think Mr X. knew the girl that got blown up," Erskine said with a grin, pleased that his propaganda campaign was starting to work.
   "It's possible," Orwell said cautiously. "Pity no one's reported the girl missing and none of the dentists have come up with a match to her teeth. Pity we can't find out who owned the car so we can nip round to his place to ask him who he's upset recently."
   "I've still got some possibles from the DHSS to check up on. I think there's a bloody good chance a girl between sixteen and nineteen is signing on."
   "What does that say for our times?" wondered Orwell. "And what if she was just drifting through?"
   "That's what detective work's all about," Erskine said with a superior smile. "Answering questions like that."
   "And mixing every death in a given area into one gigantic conspiracy?" scoffed Orwell.

 

24. Contact

 

Someone rang Royle's doorbell at ten-thirty the following morning. He was dipping into the sports pages of his newspaper and giving his despatcher a chance to ring him if the rush job went through. He was home again, and the old arrangement had been restored. Royle headed downstairs to the front door. The caller was wearing a suit and he had the eyes and manner of a copper. He confirmed Royle's suspicion by producing a warrant card.
   "Detective Sergeant Erskine," he announced. "I'm looking for Elizabeth Hollister."
   Royle began an automatic denial, expecting to be asked about his movements the previous morning. Then the surname registered. "You mean Betty? She's moved on again."
   "She doesn't live here?"
   "No, she's from South London. Watford, I think."
   "Could you describe her?" The detective wrote 'Watford' in his notebook. "Watford? That's North London," he added with a frown.
   "Shows how often I go to Watford," Royle said with a shrug. "What's she look like? About so tall." He held his hand level with his nose. Erskine decided on five feet four inches. "Brown hair, darkish, down to her shoulders. Built like a junior shot-putter. Looks about fifteen, but she reckons she's seventeen and a half."
   "And when did she leave?"
   "Beginning of the week. No, it was the beginning of last week," Royle realized. The amount of unusual activity in the past fortnight had compressed his time sense. "Tuesday morning before last."
   Erskine performed a rapid subtraction. "That would be the twenty-third of October?"
   "I'll take your word for it," Royle shrugged again. "What's up? Have her parents reported her missing at last?"
   "And why would they do that?" Erskine answered one question with another to conceal ignorance.
   "That's why she shot off in the first place; because her mother knocked her about once too often."
   "Naturally, the parents are concerned," improvised Erskine.
   "You could try her brother Jimmy. I think she said he's a taxi-driver in Bristol. But you'll have a hell of a job getting her to go home."
   "So she left here on the twenty-third. How would she be travelling, train or coach?"
   "She touched me for the train fare, but I think she was going to hitch it."
   "Not recommended for young girls."
   "She's the sort that can look after themselves." The sound of a telephone filtered down from Royle's flat. "That's for me. I'm on call."
   "I think that about does it," decided Erskine. "Thanks."
   Royle closed the door as the detective turned away. Back in his flat, he found himself talking to a slightly familiar female voice. Sandy had just received the bad news about Lenny Suskin. Royle found himself in the mind-stretching position of discussing a living man in the past tense when he had just been talking about a dead girl in the present. He suggested that Suskin had had a violent disagreement with his client, or some enemy that neither of them knew. Sandy seemed to favour the latter conclusion.
   When Sandy rang off, Royle told himself to go out and buy a new pair of driving gloves before the copper found out that he had been talking to the number one suspect in the Suskin case.
   Detective Sergeant Erskine crossed another possible off his shortening list and slid into his car. The horse that he was flogging was looking deader and deader. Only a desire to prove to KGB Rostov that sensible use of computers was the modern way of sorting data kept him lashing away. The Hollister girl had looked very promising. But if she had been hitching a lift to Bristol on the Tuesday morning before last, then she could not have been blown up on the Monday.

 

25. Practice

 

Royle's weekend began with a telephone call from someone named Bob. Robert Parker shared Lenny Suskin's Yorkshire accent. He had fixed himself up with a flat in Hetton, on the outskirts of Shepford. He suggested getting together the following week; which was an invitation to meet him at a pub in Shepford at lunchtime on Sunday. Playing spies seemed to be contagious.

Parker had had his hair cut fairly short. His ears were visible for the first time in four or five years. November's first Sunday was a cold, wet day with gusting, gale force winds. But during a lull between downpours, Royle and Parker headed out into the country in Royle's car. Another belt of rain lashed the vehicle and added to the pond at a low-lying corner. A half-remembered public information film flirted through Royle's mind; the one about applying the brakes gently to dry them out after passing through a water splash.
   Parker pointed out a left turn about a mile short of the River Dane. Royle drove on for about five minutes, then stopped on Parker's instructions. Soggy grass on rocky mounds and bare-branched trees and bushes surrounded them on all sides. They sat and smoked for a while, watching the rain whipping against the windscreen as if driven by one of the malevolent psychic forces popular in contemporary horror films. Then a lull overtook them.
   Parker had several one-foot squares of hardboard and a hammer and nails in his attaché case. He nailed one of the white squares to a roadside tree, which had become a natural post in a wire fence. Then he produced two pairs of surgical gloves and advised his companion to get his anorak cleaned in the morning.
   Royle's first two shots with the .45 calibre revolver missed the target completely. Parker fixed him with a superior smirk and suggested that he try again from seven or eight feet instead of twenty yards. Royle managed to put the remaining three shots into the tree; two of them actually through the target. A two-handed grip on the weapon felt very awkward, but it helped to cope with the wrist-breaking kick.
   His instructor took charge of the gun and gave him a practical demonstration to back up his words of theory. In Parker's experience, it was better to let a novice have a go first to get the initial eagerness out of his system before attempting to offer any serious advice. Royle faced the target more confidently when it was his turn again. He managed a couple of shots from fifteen yards before the rain drove them back to the car again. Parker took the opportunity to show his friend how to strip and service the .32 automatic.
   Royle found the smaller weapon much easier to handle and managed a fairly acceptable group with his last four shots at a new target. Parker spotted a car approaching as Royle was fitting a new magazine. They raised the bonnet of Royle's car and assumed baffled expressions. A tarted-up banger with fat rear wheels, its tail stuck up in the air and crewed by young tearaways, raced past them, trailing jeers. Royle waved a routine V-sign after them, confident that the unsamaritans had not spotted the target nailed to the tree.
   The wind started to pick up. Royle fired off the magazine and decided to call it a day. He stood no chance of becoming an expert marksman in one rainy afternoon. But at least he had fired his remaining weapons and gained some basic information on how the guns worked and how to look after them. He had no idea who Mr. X would send against him after Lenny Suskin, but he felt glad that his 'dead' friend would be watching his back while 'Bob Parker' waited for his moustache to grow.
   Royle was starting to feel a little out of his depth. There was a certain temptation to pack up and disappear; which would involve giving up his undemanding and highly paid job. Royle had no delusions of invulnerability. But at the same time, he found it irritating to have someone messing about with his life, especially someone who was using his despatcher to keep track of him. Someone deserved a kicking.

 

26. Probe

 

The postman rang Royle's bell just before eleven o'clock on Monday morning. He had brought a brown paper-wrapped package, which was too big to pass through the letter-box. One glance at the distinctive, angular capitals of the address told Royle whom it was from.
   Seething noises from the kitchen registered as he reached the top of the stairs. The kettle was boiling. Royle tossed the package at one of the chairs in passing. He warmed the pot, spooned in tea, and added boiling water. He was just glancing at his watch to time the brew when he spotted two suspicious characters lurking in the lane behind the row of houses.
   Royle leaned closer to the net curtains on the window over the sink. The two lurkers were youngish, casually dressed in a black leather jacket and a suede car coat, and they carried themselves with the confidence of men who had seen a fair share of the rough end of life. They were tugging at the door of Royle's garage.
   Royle dashed into the living-room to collect his anorak. Keeping his hand in the right side pocket, gripping the .32 automatic through its plastic bag, he slipped out onto his air raid shelter patio and looked down at the two men. One of them felt eyes burning into the back of his head and turned.
   "What's your game, then?" Royle challenged, wondering whether he should have opened the package; and whether it contained two photographs.
   "And who might you be, squire?" asked the man in the leather jacket. He was in his middle twenties, stocky, and had a square face. He had to be a copper.
   "I'm the bloke who's about to phone the police," returned Royle. "To get you busted for loitering with intent to break into my garage."
   "I think we can save you the cost of a phone call." The other man dipped into the inside pocket of his suede coat and unfolded a warrant card. "Detective Sergeant Erskine. This is DC Mitchell. You'll be Mr. Royle?"
   "And you were here on Friday," said Royle. "Without your under-strapper. How's the kid doing? Betty?"
   "We're here on another inquiry," Erskine said ominously, mounting the steps to Royle's patio. "I understand you used to know one Leonard James Suskin when you lived in Leeds?"
   "Yeah," said Royle noncommittally.
   "I assume you know he was shot last Thursday?"
   "It was on the TV news." Royle's reply was a statement of fact, not an admission.
   "And as you were involved in his divorce, and you weren't exactly pals, you'll understand why we're asking you where you were on Thursday morning. Perhaps we'll be more comfortable inside?" Erskine suggested.
   "I doubt it," countered Royle. "If we go inside, you'll start poking around, and I'll ask you if you've got a warrant. You'll tell me you haven't got one but you can get one. And I'll tell you to go ahead. If we don't go in, we'll save all that messing about."
   "Sounds like you're used to visits from the police, having such a smart answer ready," observed DC Mitchell observed waspishly.
   Royle shrugged. "You see it all the time on the telly. Cops exceeding their authority."
   "Thursday morning?" Erskine said patiently, realizing that he was not going to get much change out of Royle.
   "I was in Shepford."
   "All morning?"
   "Until about half-four that afternoon. Then I came back here."
   "What time did you leave here in the morning?" asked DC Mitchell.
   "I didn't. I was staying in Shepford," returned Royle.
   "Why?" Erskine asked with a frown.
   "Business. It was more convenient to stay in town."
   "What business?" asked Mitchell.
   "My business," retorted Royle.
   "Which hotel?" interrupted Erskine.
   "The Oxford."
   "When did you leave the hotel?"
   "Ten, half-past, something like that."
   "Late sleeper?"
   "Sometimes."
   "Then what?"
   "Shopping, the market and the precinct. And just sort of looking around. I had a pint for lunch, at that pub opposite the church behind the market. The one on Under Grove Street."
   "The Royal Oak?" said DC Mitchell.
   "Yeah, that's it."
   "Any witnesses?"
   "If you mean, did I meet anyone I know; I didn't."
   "You're not thinking of leaving the area?" asked Mitchell.
   "Funny you should say that," returned Royle. "I was just thinking I'd better. Having coppers round every five minutes might start the neighbours talking."
   "I don't think that would be wise," suggested Mitchell.
   "Don't they teach your lot to recognize obvious sarcasm at the Police Academy?" Royle asked DS Erskine.
   "If they do, it's before they remove our brains and our sense of humour," Erskine replied, poker-faced.
   "Is that it?" asked Royle, remembering his tea.
   "For the moment," nodded Erskine. "You wouldn't have any objections to appearing in an identification parade?"
   "As long as it's in the afternoon," said Royle. He was not prepared to get up early for a waste of time.
   "This Suskin," added Erskine, "he was a pretty dangerous character by all accounts. It could have been self-defence. Think about that in the meantime."
   I done it and it were self-defence, Royle thought in Lenny Suskin's Yorkshire accent. Like hell!
   "I didn't kill Lenny," Royle said confidently, looking the detective straight in the eyes and telling the exact truth. "And to save you another trip back here, I was using my business name at the Oxford Hotel. David Bedford."
   "Ah!" said Erskine significantly, adding to his notes.
   "Which isn't a crime, even if you'd like it to be."
   "I suppose you got that from the telly too?" remarked Mitchell. He had taken an instant dislike to Royle.
   "I think I read it in The Guardian," Royle told him with a smile.
   The detectives turned and descended the steps to the lane. They paused for a conference at their cars, which were parked on Mulberry Street.
   "He's a cheeky sod," remarked Mitchell.
   "Someone once told me if a bloke looks you right in the eyes and says he's innocent, he's probably as guilty as hell," mused Erskine.
   "He's a good bet for it. Strolls off with his mate's wife, and then his mate turns up dead on his doorstep after coming here to sort him out," added Mitchell.
   "The divorce was a couple of years ago. Why would Suskin wait so long?"
   "Perhaps he bears long grudges. Or he was trying to reduce the connection. He'd be the number one suspect if friend Royle turned up dead."
   "I can't figure this bloke out," Erskine admitted. "He must have known we'd be back after I called on Friday. He's had a whole weekend to sort out an alibi. All he's got is a bit of a joke; just the sort of nothing you'd expect from a bloke who didn't know he'd need an alibi. And he's not the least bit bothered by us tapping him up."
   "Maybe he's got some bird up his sleeve," suggested Mitchell. "Going to spring her on us if we don't leave him alone."
   "Maybe he's waiting to see if he needs the bird to back him up," said Erskine. "Maybe she's a bit doubtful."
   "Which is why you want me to hang on here to see what he does next," Mitchell said with a nod of understanding.

The tea looked a little strong when Royle had strained it into a mug, but it tasted all right with milk and sugar. He took the mug over to the telephone and extracted Robert Parker's number from his memory. As the double burps sounded in his ear, he reminded himself not to call his friend 'Lenny', building a habit.
   "Aaah, yeah?" said a voice. Parker alias Suskin had picked up his method of answering the phone from a film; one starring either Paul Newman or Donald Sutherland, he could not recall which.
   "Read any good books lately?" asked Royle.
   "I suppose it's not too late to start," returned Parker.
   "I've had a visit." Royle paused significantly after the word. "I've got some things I want you to look after."
   "See you in about twenty minutes, then?"
   "Right," confirmed Royle.
   The package caught his eye as he retrieved a duffel bag from the storage unit. He ripped away the paper and opened the cardboard box. It contained four thousand pounds in tens and a note telling him to insert in the weekly Shepford Courier the message: 'M, back in circulation again, R' if he was interested in making fifty thousand pounds.
   Royle tucked the note into his wallet and took the duffel bag to his bedroom 'safe' beneath the floorboards. He retrieved a carrier-bag containing the spare ammunition for his pistol and part of his spare cash. After removing about two hundred pounds for living expenses, he added his latest windfall and the .32 calibre pistol, and loaded the carrier-bag into his duffel bag.
   He glanced both ways as he crossed his patio to the steps, and looked up and down the lane as he emerged through the gate from the back yard. No one seemed to be watching him. He failed to engage the catch, allowing the garage door to drop behind him. Unobserved, he slipped his emergency reserve of one thousand pounds from the roof.
   The plastic bag containing Olly Markham's remaining revolver in its box and the cash-box of ammunition crowded into his duffel bag. If the police insisted on searching his flat, he did not want to have to explain two guns and around six thousand pounds in cash.
   A red car crawled reluctantly up to him while Royle was waiting at a set of traffic lights on the outskirts of Fenton. Although the other driver managed to let various other vehicles overtake him, Royle kept track of the red car as he passed through Ashley. He lost track of it in Tarring as he moved twenty yards down the road from a hold-up caused by a lollipop lady to the red light of a pelican crossing.
   Royle overtook a red car just past the post office in Hetton, not realizing that DC Mitchell had chased through side-streets to get in front of him while Royle had been stopping and going in Tarring, and he had led Royle to the next town.
   The fringes of Shepford, warehouses and factories of various sizes, swallowed the procession. Royle tried some gentle evasive manoeuvres; not attempting to shake a tail, just checking for one. The red car followed him along a couple of side-streets and stopped a discreet distance behind him when Royle parked in front of a newsagent to buy an unnecessary packet of cigarettes.
   Royle left his car on the third deck of the Hobard Street car-park. DC Mitchell shadowed him on the other side of the road, having exchanged his leather jacket for a dark green anorak. Royle had to fight against an urge to stare at him during the hundred-yard stroll to Hope Street.
   Royle entered the bookshop and approached Bob Parker whistling a tune which his friend knew that he hated. Taking the hint, Parker ignored him. Royle bought half a dozen second-hand paperbacks, exchanged routine remarks about the weather with the owner of the bookshop, and dropped a remark about having a look at the market.
   He had to recross one of the main roads through the town. The most direct route to the market involved venturing down a narrow alley to a concealed staircase, which climbed twenty-five feet in two legs and an about turn.
   Royle bought half a dozen satsumas, then gave his attention to the apples. The stallholder mentioned his Red Delicious. Two out of the eight of the last batch had been brown and furry beneath their seductive, shiny skins, and the Russells were fairly wooden. Rejecting green and tasteless French Golden Delicious, Royle opted for a couple of pounds of British Coxes. A young man in a dark green anorak watched him out of the corner of an eye as Royle made his purchases, and the ghost of Lenny Suskin kept an eye on both of them.
   Royle strolled back to the steps, but turned right towards the side-streets behind the shopping precinct when he reached the bottom. The main road and his car lay to the left. He was hoping to whisper a destination to Parker, and then lose his shadow in a fairly healthy crowd of Monday afternoon shoppers. But moments after leaving the steps, Parker caught up with him.
   "Who was that following you, Johnny?" he chuckled.
   "Copper," returned Royle. "You mean he isn't now?"
   "Poor sod got himself mugged." Parker displayed a wallet. He took out the money and threw the well-worn brown leather wallet into a convenient dustbin. "What's to do'"
   "I had that copper and his boss round my place asking where I was when you got topped. The one that was round on Friday, asking about the kid."
   "So they caught up with you after all," laughed Parker. "What a big surprise that must have been."
   "It's all right for you, bloody laughing," returned Royle. "You're dead and out of it. They must have got my name from that Melville woman at the DHSS. Anyway, I want you to look after this." He worked the carrier-bag out of his large-capacity duffel bag past apples and satsumas. "The shooting-irons and my spare cash. I don't want to have to explain them."
   "You should have given them to me yesterday."
   "I didn't want to give up my protection on the off chance the fuzz would come round."
   Parker shrugged. "Oh, well. Is there enough spare cash to skip on?"
   "I've counted it," grinned Royle. "And this came with four grand this morning."
   "The balance of my blown-off job," remarked Parker, studying the note. "He's stiffed you for two grand. You still playing?"
   "I reckon I know too much," decided Royle. "I don't think I've got a choice."
   "And I wouldn't stand for losing a half share in fifty grand," added Parker.
   "Those coppers said you're a dangerous character," chuckled Royle. "They told me to think about pleading self-defence."
   "When they've got a witness saw someone shoot me in the back in cold blood?" scoffed Parker. "That's premeditation any way you look at it."
   "They didn't mention the witness. And there's no harm in trying it on." Royle shrugged. "One of them, not the one you slugged, he seems quite bright."
   "You've got to watch out for the bright ones, they're dangerous," warned Parker. "Don't talk yourself into any corners. And you'll get the blame for slugging his mate. He was following you."
   "I wish you hadn't told me that now. I might have trouble keeping my face straight."
   "You'd best get off to the paper's office to tell your fifty-grand pal you're in circulation," decided Parker. "Keep in touch."
   Swinging the carrier-bag by its substantial plastic handle as if it contained harmless groceries, Parker peeled away and merged with the crowds. Royle crossed the precinct to Marks & Spencer, and descended to the food hall to fill the void in his duffel bag.
   He called in at the offices of the Shepford Courier on his way back to the car-park, where he was assured that his message would be in the personal column when the newspaper came out on Wednesday morning. The red car picked him up again as he emerged from the car-park and headed back to Fenton.
   Detective Constable Mitchell had a slight swelling behind his right ear. It was painful only if he explored it with his fingers. Probably by accident, the mugger had hit him just hard enough to knock him out for a couple of minutes. He had even found his wallet in a nearby dustbin. The money had gone, about twenty pounds, but not his credit cards; which suggested an opportunist after pocket money, not someone more organized who could use, or had the contacts to dispose of, credit cards.
   Having to report the incident had made Mitchell feel a proper wally, but it had been beyond his control, and he felt a need to cover himself in case Royle had abandoned his car and disappeared. His colleagues would do a lot of laughing at him, but he had escaped remarkably lightly. Mitchell had seen his fair share of men and women who had been badly injured by thieves who had used almost hysterical force without provocation.

A reception committee was waiting for Royle in Fenton. Detective Sergeant Erskine had been ambushed by Detective Inspector Rostov and informed loudly that he should have hauled the prime suspect back to the station to make a written statement instead of taking his usual short cuts. If it was not down on paper, Royle could tell him any old silly story, then change his mind and claim that any discrepancies were a result of simple misunderstandings.
   Erskine was feeling angry; at KGB Rostov for making him look a wally in front of DS Orwell, at himself for letting himself be caught cutting corners, and at DC Mitchell for allowing himself to be mugged and losing track of Royle long enough for him to have arranged an alibi. But he kept his anger behind a blank mask as he slid out of his car. Royle had stopped in front of his garage.
   "Got a warrant yet?" asked Royle. The red car had followed him down the lane to box him in.
   "We'd like the clothes you were wearing last Thursday and your car," Erskine returned shortly.
   "And I'm quite within my rights to tell you to go fish," Royle said calmly.
   "And we want you down the station to make a statement," added Erskine as though Royle had kept his mouth shut.
   "Are you arresting me?" asked Royle. "If so, I want to see the warrant."
   "No," admitted Erskine.
   "In that case, I don't have to go anywhere," remarked Royle, weathering the storm well.
   "That could be construed as obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty," growled DC Mitchell behind him.
   "Not in this country," replied Royle, lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke at the grey sky. "You've been watching too many American cop shows."
   "Read that in The Guardian, did you?" sneered Mitchell, who did not seem to be feeling his bonk on the head.
   "No, I think it was in the TV Times," Royle said with a smile.
   "Life could become very awkward if you don't co-operate," suggested Erskine. He was starting to remind Royle of a teacher who had always been full of veiled threats.
   Royle strolled over to lean on his garage door, taking up a position which allowed him to see both police officers. "I hope you realize all these threats of police harassment are going down on my pocket tape recorder," he announced.
   "No decent person refuses to help the police," Erskine added with a note of patience.
   "I suppose that makes me indecent," said Royle, trying to look offended. "How long do you want the car for?"
   "You can have it back tomorrow afternoon," said Erskine, feeling relieved. He had not been looking forward to having to kidnap the car on a doubtful legal pretext, relying on suspicion instead of solid evidence.
   "The trouble is, once you've got it, it might become very difficult to winkle it out of your clutches," mused Royle.
   "Life is full of ups and downs," observed DC Mitchell. "Especially for awkward sods."
   "I suppose you want to search my place for the gun as well?" added Royle.
   "With your permission, we'd like to have a look around," nodded Erskine. "And take away certain items of clothing for forensic examination."
   "Don't you know? Every hit-man with any sense slings the gun when the job's done," Royle pointed out, collecting his duffel bag from the car.
   "Did that come from the TV Times too?" Mitchell asked, holding out a hand for the duffel bag.
   Royle decided to allow him to carry it into the flat. "No," he replied, "that's from watching gangster films. The Mafia and like that. If I behave like a good citizen, are you going to get off my back?"
   "We don't make deals like that," said Erskine. "But if you're a good citizen, perhaps you'll tell me why your car isn't registered in your name?" He consulted his notebook. "According to our information, it belongs to one David Purchase of Tunbridge Wells."
   "And what does he have to say about it?" invited Royle.
   "We haven't been able to contact him yet," admitted Erskine.
   "He could be the bloke who sold it to the chain of garages I bought it from." Royle shrugged. "I don't know him."
   "Could be a cock-up at Swansea, I suppose," said Erskine.
   "We'll check on it," added Mitchell ominously.
   "I'll bet," chuckled Royle. He locked his car and tossed the keys to DS Erskine. "I want receipts for everything. Not that it'll do you any good. Like I told you this morning, I didn't kill Lenny Suskin. And the only way you'll prove I did is to plant evidence on me. But you wouldn't dream of doing that, would you?"
   "Us, sir? Perish the thought," said Erskine. "Your car looks pretty clean."
   "I put it through the car wash when I filled up yesterday," Royle said with a smile.
   "I suppose you hoovered the inside as well?" commented Mitchell.
   "No, I did that the other week," said Royle. "It doesn't need it yet. Anyway, you can't hoover off bloodstains, and that's what you're interested in."
   "How do you know what we're interested in'" scoffed Mitchell.
   "I used to watch Z Cars and Softly Cars on the telly," said Royle. "And I have this vivid imagination. Are we going in? It looks like the rain's on again."
   DC Mitchell unloaded the duffel bag onto the dining table, and seemed disappointed that it contained only food, fruit, and books. Royle ate an apple and watched the detectives prowling around his flat. Then he made himself a cup of tea. Mitchell exuded triumph when he found Royle's 'safe' under the bedroom floor; and almost comical disappointment when it proved to be empty.
   Erskine took charge of two pairs of jeans from the laundry heap and two pairs of shoes; Royle could not remember which he had been wearing the previous Thursday; and the ticket for the anorak, which he had handed in at the dry-cleaner's after buying his newspaper that morning.
   As a reward for not making too much of a mess, Royle allowed the detectives to sample his duty-free whisky before they inspected his garage. Mitchell, the ferret, found the hole at the back, in which Royle had kept the revolvers, and a couple of pouches in the roof; all depressingly empty.
   Playing the good and co-operative citizen, Royle drove his car into Shepford, forming the meat in a police car sandwich. He spent half an hour in an interview room, being grilled by a detective sergeant called Orwell, who looked as though he had had a couple of sleepless nights on top of a hard life. Royle's remarks about Big Brother and 1984 were not appreciated. Then DC Mitchell brought him a mug of tea and left him to stew with just a taciturn uniformed constable for company.
   Royle had taken the precaution of bringing a book, and he had more than enough cigarettes to last out a long siege, thanks to his stop on the outskirts of Shepford to check for pursuit. A team of two had a go at him after his break.
   His interrogators failed to identify themselves. They were aged thirty-five to forty, their hair was going grey at different rates, they were smartly dressed, and they exuded an awareness of their own power. Royle refused to be impressed by their 'good cop, bad cop' routine. He had seen much better on television. They questioned him about his association with Leonard James Suskin. Royle gave accurate answers up to about the time of Suskin's divorce, then he maintained that he had not seen Suskin since.
   He gained the impression that his interrogators wanted confirmation that Suskin was dead, and that they would pin a medal on him if he admitted the crime. But Royle concluded that a medal would not be much use to a man serving life for murder, or even a shorter stretch for manslaughter. More hints about self-defence failed to move him. Eventually, the Special Branch team lost interest.
   A huge uniformed sergeant led Royle along several corridors and into a yard. His escort's air of solemnity, and the way that he kept hold of Royle's arm to stop him making a break for it, made Royle scan the group in the yard for rifles. It was almost as if he were being delivered to a firing-squad. Royle soon spotted the coppers in the line for the identification parade; they were the ones who were not squinting at him.
   Royle took the shortest route and tagged on at the right-hand end of the line while he was being told that he could stand anywhere he chose. He knew the drill, he had seen it on television often enough. A rather subdued, middle-aged man was escorted into the yard. Royle thought he was first in line, but the man started at the other end.
   Royle got the impression that the other civilians were trying so hard not to look at him now that they were telling the witness telepathically that 'him on the end done it!'
   The witness reached Royle. They looked at each other. Not a flicker of recognition passed between them. The witness turned away, apologizing, and telling a uniformed chief inspector that he really had not had time to get much of a look at the killer.
   Royle assumed that he had met the man who needed a new windscreen. He had been too busy aiming to miss to look at the driver's face.
   Royle was taken back to the interview room by the sergeant. His next visitor was Detective Sergeant Orwell, who had brought his statement, typed out in triplicate. Royle read through the top copy, then Orwell went through it with him, practically line by line, giving him every opportunity to change it or to make additions. But Royle was quite happy with his story. Eventually, he was allowed to autograph all three pieces of paper. A uniformed constable drove him home. Royle felt quite pleased with the way the afternoon had gone.

After watching the two Special Branch men begin their twenty-five-mile drive back to London, Detective Inspector Rostov called a conference in his office. He put on his best blank, patient expression and addressed one word to his subordinates.
   Detective Sergeant Erskine returned the empty stare, as if he had tuned out English, expecting Russian. DS Orwell, as senior man, responded to: "Well?"
   "If he's not going to admit it, we'll need some very strong evidence from Forensic," Orwell said with a shrug. "I'd say he could have done it. He's got the bottle. And he fits the description from the bloke who saw Suskin shot. Mind you, so does anyone with two arms, two legs, and a head. He could have been there as easily as messing about in Shepford. But Jack McGregor's sure Royle's never seen our witness before, even though the man we want shot at him from no more than six yards. And the only motive we can come up with is self-defence."
   "What about Suskin's ex-wife?" Rostov invited.
   "She's looking a better bet," offered Erskine. "She's been getting quite stroppy about maintenance. Suskin won't pay her any, and she reckons she can't manage on unemployment benefit. They dragged a couple of characters out of the reservoir at the back of Suskin's place. One of them was a private eye; recently employed by a Mrs. Julie Suskin. Just to talk to him. He got half-way out of the car with his arms taped behind his back before he got stuck. The other bloke was in the boot; shot dead. Which confirms Suskin was a pretty dangerous character."
   "If he's dead," commented Rostov. "Has the wife got any insurance on him?"
   "A five-grand policy she took out about six months ago," said Orwell, proving that he was as hot on research as Joe Erskine, the computer kid. "She's approached the company, but they don't want to know without a body. Which must have got right up Mrs. S's nose."
   "We'll have another look at her," decided Rostov. "Maybe she hired someone else. But let's not forget friend Royle. Pity they'd cleaned that anorak he took in this morning."
   "Strange he waited till this morning," commented Erskine.
   "You're sure it's the one he was wearing last Thursday?"
   "Dark blue with red stripes down the sleeves is what the receptionist at the Oxford Hotel said. His other one, the one he's wearing, hasn't got any stripes."
   "Nothing known about him? Royle?"
   "CRO and the Collator came up with a big blank."
   "What about Mitchell?" said Rostov, flying off at a tangent. "Has he been to hospital?"
   "Been and come back," said Orwell. "A bit of a sore head but otherwise undamaged. He was bloody lucky."
   "That's something," said Rostov. "So that's your best offer; Royle self-defence or one of Suskin's ex-wife's heavies?"
   "I'm sure Special Branch could tell us a lot they won't," said Erskine defensively. "It might have been political."
   "That," declared Rostov severely, "is the easy way out. And how many professional killers use pearl-handled cowboy revolvers?"
   "General Blood and Guts Patton did," murmured Erskine.
   The two sergeants returned to their office, knowing that their Superintendent would be even more unhappy when Rostov reported to him. The Press had been getting at him, asking pointed questions about the lack of progress in the murder inquiry.
   "I wish someone would tell Special Branch we're on their side," Erskine remarked, pushing the office door with his foot. "What do you think about this Royle, Brian?"
   "I can't get over how calm he is," admitted Orwell. "Any normal person would be getting scared or screaming police harassment by now. If he did it, he's convinced he made a perfect job of covering his tracks. And if he didn't, I'm bloody sure he knows something. And another thing; he can't be the bloke behind your games of Murder. He's only been in the area for eighteen months. Your killings have been going on for three times as long."
   "Maybe he's a one-off," Erskine admitted.
   Orwell shrugged. "Well, it's all down to Forensic now. Unless a surprise witness comes forward or Royle coughs."
   Erskine started to shuffle the paperwork on his desk. Orwell lit a cigarette and blew smoke into space. His father had met two murderers while serving his time with the London Metropolitan Police. Orwell had not knowingly met a killer; murder was still a fairly rare event in Great Britain.
   One of the murderers, his father had told him, had been a frightened young man, emotionally still a boy, who had been pushed too far and slipped over the edge in an irrational moment. He had been so worried by the consequences of a reckless action, and overcome with guilt, that he had been placed under twenty-four-hour-a-day observation to prevent him from committing suicide.
   In the event, he had been found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter. The diminution of responsibility had lightened his burden of guilt dramatically, and he had made every effort to learn two or three trades during his sentence in order to make something of the latter part of his life.
   The other murderer had been a mature man of about thirty-five; which was pretty much Brian Orwell's current age. That man had felt threatened and he had removed the source of the threat as casually as someone might swat a fly, and with as little thought for the consequences. He had denied the crime, of course, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt.
   Orwell's father had been struck by the man's air of unconcerned, his almost uninvolved calm during the preliminary questioning. He had not been incapable of emotion, however. If provoked, he became angry, and he could enjoy a good laugh at his captors' expense.
   A psychiatrist had examined him and pronounced him sane. But he had also suggested that there was something extraordinary about the man's moral sense. To him, good and evil were not opposites, they were bound up with a modifying force akin to expedience. Thus an action which was evil yet expedient could be as natural as a good but inexpedient one was ridiculous.
   The man had been sentenced to death and he had not given up his life without a struggle. He had injured four warders during his last days, one very seriously, and he had been hanged tied to a chair because he had refused absolutely to co-operate with his own destruction. Something about Royle had brought back Orwell's father's description of his exceptional killer.
   DS Orwell had gained the distinct impression that, in Royle's case, they were dealing with a man who played by his own set of rules, and modified them without notice when expedient. But Orwell knew that there is a lot of distance between suspecting a man of having an abnormal moral sense and proving him guilty of murder.


 

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