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About the Author
Martin Stratford is an assistant director in local government for children and families. He is a member of the P. G. Wodehouse Society.
Read an Excerpt
By Martin Stratford
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2010 Martin Stratford
All rights reserved.
THE MAN WHO had engineered the two murders stood in the shadows fifteen feet back from the mouth of the alley. He wore an old raincoat with the collar turned up and a hat pulled down low over his eyes. This was partly to hide his face, but also to keep out the icy wind that blew between the buildings. He was holding a pair of night-vision binoculars to his eyes and stood patiently watching and waiting. In one pocket of his coat was a mobile phone, stolen that morning, and in the other a bottle of whisky. In the unlikely event of anyone using the alley at 10.30 on a Wednesday evening, he could swiftly swap the binoculars for the bottle and would slump down against the wall. The chances were that whoever came along would walk by quickly without giving him a second glance.
The alley opened out on to a small square in the entertainment section of the City of Havenchester, situated on the north-west coast of England. The square had a grassed over centre, a sprinkling of seats and five trees. It was crossed by three paths and was popular in the daytime with office and shop workers alike as a pleasant sun trap for eating lunch away from the noise and fumes of the traffic that flowed sluggishly through the city centre. In the centre of the grass was a statue of the Duke of Wellington – after whom the square was named – sitting stoically on his horse and no doubt wondering why God had invented pigeons. A mixture of offices and shops lined the square, with a small independent cinema lurking in one corner. The alley divided two blocks of Edwardian houses that had been converted into offices and were dark and unused at that time of night. Directly across the square from the alley was a restaurant that served good, unpretentious food and drink and had an accordingly discerning regular clientele. It was called Little Italy, a fact proclaimed by a modest illuminated sign over the front window.
From the watcher's position in the alley, it was possible to see in through the wide front window of the restaurant, unadorned apart from a single menu placed at eye level on the right-hand side by the door. With the binoculars, it was almost possible to lip read the two women who sat at the last table to the left of the window. He was not concerned about what they were saying; he only wanted to ensure that it would be the last conversation that they ever had. The elder of the two women beckoned to the waitress and the man tensed for a moment, but they were only ordering coffee and he relaxed again, leaning his shoulder against the damp dark wall.
In the restaurant, Julie Cooper took a sip of her unsweetened black coffee, swept her long black hair back over her shoulder and smiled with great affection at her companion.
'At least we'll be able to do this more often again, now that it's all over.'
'Yes, I've missed our dinners together, and our shopping expeditions.' Joyce Kemp, Julie's aunt and godmother, raised her coffee cup and chinked it against her niece's. 'Here's to more good meals.'
'And to more shopping.'
'Even better.' Joyce was Julie's mother's younger sister and when the elder sister had died shortly after giving birth to Julie, she had been both companion and surrogate mother to the child when Julie's father was away. They were now each other's only remaining close relatives. Joyce had smooth, pale-blonde hair cut in a page boy style, twinkling blue eyes and a heart-shaped face. She was small boned and looked fragile, but had an inner spirit and resilience that made her a capable and formidable businesswoman.
Julie reached one hand across the table and squeezed the other woman's hand.
'It's been so good to talk to you, Aunt Jo. I think that's what I've missed most over the past eighteen months, not having someone I could trust and confide in when I needed to.'
Joyce nodded. Her niece was a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police having been fast tracked into the CID from university and promoted after spending over a year undercover, infiltrating one of London's biggest drug distribution networks, and a further six months following a series of arrests working on the court cases. Operation Snowball, which indicated that someone in the Met had a sense of humour, had ended two days before at the Old Bailey with the conviction of Theodore Jarrow, the head of the organization. Joyce had not questioned Julie too closely about that time and could only imagine what an enormous strain on her twenty-five-year-old niece it must have been. Although Julie's name and picture had been kept out of the papers, Joyce had gleaned enough from the story and the things that Julie had said to gain some impression of the stress of living a fictitious existence on a daily basis, knowing that a wrong word or a single slip could mean exposure and probably a painful death. At least that was all behind her now.
Whilst growing up, Julie had often spent time at her aunt's flat, or on holiday with her, and the close bond that had been created had developed their relationship into that of close friends as well as relatives, particularly as Julie grew older. Even as an adult, Julie had still enjoyed visits to her aunt and one of the worst elements of her work undercover had been that she was unable to continue that contact, both in order to maintain her cover and to avoid bringing her aunt into danger. She now had a month's leave and was determined to make up for the past year and a half of stress and uncertainty.
'I need to spend a few days on business next week, apart from that I can have the rest of your leave off with you – if you want me to.'
'That will be great.' Julie smiled at the older woman. 'I just want to relax. Take the boat out, go diving, chill out.'
Both women were expert sailors and scuba divers and Joyce owned a motor boat that she kept moored at a marina a few miles up the coast. The coast immediately north of Havenchester was lined with coves and caves as well as a number of small islands that provided plenty of interest for skilled sailors and divers.
'It sounds wonderful.' Joyce returned her smile. 'It would have been even better later in the year, but we've dived at this time of year before.'
'Yes; I'm afraid I couldn't arrange for the legal system to organize its timetable in a way that was better suited for a holiday.'
'We could go abroad somewhere.'
'No.' Julie shook her head firmly. 'I've been living a lie for eighteen months; I want to spend the next four weeks as myself in a place that's familiar. I suppose I need to touch base with my real life again – if that doesn't sound odd.'
'Of course not, darling. We'll do exactly as you want.' Joyce squeezed her hand. 'But are you sure you want to spend your time with an old broad like me – haven't you got a nice hunk you can turn to for a romantic interlude?'
Julie grinned and squeezed back.
'Old broad be damned – your mental age is lower than mine sometimes. And as for romance, the sort of men I've been mixing with lately aren't the type I'd want a relationship with – most of them only want women for one thing.' For a moment her mind slipped back into the fictitious life she had been living and she shivered suddenly.
'Sometimes I think I'd rather have a normal straightforward job, like yours.'
'Even the antique business has its criminal side, you know. Stolen goods, faked masterpieces, there's plenty of opportunity for the enterprising crook.'
'OK, I accept your life is as eventful as mine.' Julie finished her coffee.
'I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Let's go back to the flat – we have a long day's shopping ahead of us tomorrow.' Joyce signalled to the waiter, not realizing that she was also signalling the start of something else.
In the alley, the man was speaking into the mobile phone.
'They are about to leave – get ready.' He watched the two women put on their coats and walk towards the door. For the first time he felt real tension as the time for action was approaching. He waited for Joyce to open the door. The sound of the bell echoed faintly across the square to the alley.
The motor bike came out of a side road that led into a narrow lane which ran by the side of the cinema. The two women had turned left out of the restaurant and were walking past the darkened shops next door. They walked side by side, continuing to map out their plans for the weeks ahead, heads slightly bowed against the wind, taking no notice of the motor bike coming towards them, gleaming black and gold in the street lights. The bike was not speeding, the two black-clad and black-helmeted figures riding on it not drawing attention to themselves.
As the bike approached closer to Julie and Joyce, the pillion rider unzipped the front of his jacket and pulled out a silenced pistol. Joyce was on the outside of the pavement, nearest to the road and Julie had turned towards her aunt, responding to something she had said. She heard the first shot as an anonymous plop. Joyce staggered and gave a low moan. There were two more shots that sent Joyce reeling backwards across the pavement as Julie looked at her, her own body frozen for a moment in horror and shock. Relief at the end of a long and dangerous operation had left Julie unprepared and had slowed her reflexes. Time seemed suspended for a moment as the bike drew level and the next bullet entered Julie's chest, spinning her round. The next plop merged with a blazing pain in her forehead and everything went black. Julie didn't hear the final shot that hit her again in the chest as she fell back limply and heavily against the grille covering a shop window, the back of her head smacking against the silvery metal. The pillion passenger was twisting round and had fired the last shot behind him. He faced forward again, replaced the gun inside his jacket and the bike moved on steadily, turned down into the road at the next corner of the square and was lost to sight.
In the alley, the man nodded in brief satisfaction to himself, noticing with mild surprise that his mouth felt dry from the tension. He turned and walked without haste back down the dark passageway away from the square. The alley doglegged and then it merged with another quiet street. He dumped the whisky bottle in a litter bin and walked on towards the car-park where he had left his Transit van. There were a few other pedestrians about, but nobody paid the slightest attention to him, just another person protecting their face against the chill wind and drizzling rain.
Back in the square, Julie and Joyce lay motionless on the pavement. Julie was slumped against the shop window, blood oozing through the front of her coat from the two holes in her chest and more blood trickling down her face from the wound in her forehead. Joyce lay on her back, arms outstretched, eyes open and staring sightlessly up into the night sky.
The man from the alley collected his Transit van from the multi-storey car-park where it was just another anonymous vehicle amongst all the rest. As he drove down the ramp, he could hear sirens faintly in the distance and coming nearer. He wondered idly whether they were going to Wellington Square. He drove sedately through the city, careful not to attract attention. Traffic was busy enough to maintain the van's anonymity to the many CCTV cameras stationed strategically throughout the city but not enough to cause him any major delays. The city had recently mimicked London and introduced congestion charging, but that didn't apply in the evening so he hadn't left a record in that system. Not that it would have mattered; he had purchased the van legitimately the day before from another part of the country and using false documents that had been kept aside for some time, ready for any emergency should it arise. After twenty minutes, he was in the outskirts of the city, suburban housing mixed with local shops and some open countryside. Shortly afterwards he turned off on to a narrower, unlit road that delved deep into the wooded countryside that lay to the north. He was pleased to note in a strangely detached way that he felt perfectly calm now and was whistling softly to himself.
An hour after the shooting, he had left Havenchester well behind and was driving through the enveloping blackness of unlit country roads. Only an occasional headlight coming towards him from the opposite direction and providing brief moments of additional illumination broke the illusion that he was alone in the night. He was nearly at his destination and glanced briefly at his watch. He'd made good time and only hoped that the buggers were there ahead of him and hadn't got lost. He had everything planned out exactly, but you couldn't always rely on other people.
He turned off the road just ahead of the lights of a small village and, after a few minutes, arrived at the entrance to a disused airfield. His headlights illuminated a pair of broken wire-mesh gates which hung open, only half secured to posts that could have been templates for the tower at Pisa. His headlights carved the way through the dark, the van bumping up and down as he followed the old potholed road, now liberally spotted with grass and weeds and even the occasional bush, towards the main hangar. He drove inside and let out a small sigh of relief as the headlights revealed the motor bike and the two figures standing beside it. They had removed their helmets, which hung on the handle bars on each side of the bike like a pair of monstrous ear-rings. He pulled up and switched off the engine, leaving the headlights on so that they could see what they were doing. He wouldn't be there long enough to flatten the battery.
'Hi.' One of the bikers gave him a brief wave. 'Worked like a charm, didn't it?'
'It did indeed.' He got out of the van, bringing with him a briefcase from underneath the passenger seat. It had been a small, calculated risk to leave the case in the van in the car-park, but he hadn't wanted to carry it around with him whilst supervising the hit. At night a man with a briefcase was more memorable – and more likely to be a target for muggers – than one carrying nothing. He put the case on the bonnet of the van and the locks clicked sharply in the night air. In his peripheral vision he saw the two bikers moving towards him in anticipation. 'And you have earned yourselves a bonus.' His tone was conversational as he lifted the silenced gun that was the only thing in the case, turned swiftly and shot the nearest biker through the head. The second man reacted far too slowly. As his companion was toppling bonelessly to the ground, he tried to open his jacket to get at his gun, but was dead before his hand reached the zip.
The man from the alley walked over to the two bikers. There was no need to check their pulses, both had a neat red-rimmed hole in the middle of their forehead and both stared up at the gloom of the hangar roof with frozen shock in their open eyes. Allowing himself a moment's satisfaction, he returned to the van, put the gun back in the case, closed it and replaced it in the vehicle. Then he walked round to the back and opened the rear doors. There were two rolls of canvas and some rope inside. Each biker was carefully wrapped up and secured inside a shroud of canvas and the two parcels put inside the van. He then lowered a wide plank from the back of the van and rolled the bike up inside, securing it with two more lengths of rope. He satisfied himself that the bike wouldn't sway around, took the helmets off the handlebars and tossed them down beside the bodies of their owners. He then pushed the plank back into the van and closed and locked the doors. The man was sweating slightly, but he knew it was only through exertion, not worry. The whole of phase two had gone remarkably smoothly.
Only phase three remained. There was an old mine two miles away that he had reconnoitred that morning. The entrance to it had been secured with a rusty old padlock that he had already removed on his first visit and replaced with a new one that he had purchased himself from a superstore. Fifty yards in from the mine entrance was a short side passage full of rubble and other junk. An ideal place to dispose of his load and then he was finished for the night. All in all it had been a very satisfactory evening. You couldn't beat careful planning, and he felt particular satisfaction that he had been able to work out the plan and put it into operation in such a short time-scale.
Excerpted from Double Jeopardy by Martin Stratford. Copyright © 2010 Martin Stratford. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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