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The thought sickened him, of course, but he knew he had to kill Eleri ap Vaughan. Although this was an unusual name, he had been told there were plenty like it over in Wales and she would not stand out there at all. That is, her name would not stand out there. Eleri herself would stand out wherever she was. In many, many ways Eleri was a delight old and thin-legged but a delight all the same, and probably the most skilled pusher of cocaine to the gentry in Britain. If other countries had gentry this flair would have brought her a world title, not just national. He, as wholesaler, supplied Eleri. And Eleri supplied this golden clientele which she, personally, by skill and charm and reliability, had assembled during quite a distinguished period of years, really. In Wales, 'Eleri' probably meant a clear mountain stream or a female peregrine falcon, something entirely lovely.
The site was a problem. Vine did not want to kill her at home. She lived in a flat block, a damn good flat block where soundproofing was sure to be up to the Institute of Bricks, Mortar and Pelmets' highest standard. But the noise of a shot at night would still travel. And it might take more than one, even close up. For God's sake, who would want a fine old lady like Eleri threshing about in throes? There was no such thing as a fully silenced handgun, and people had come to recognize that popping sound through watching so much crime drama on TV.
The trouble with Eleri was treachery a hellish word, but Keith Vine could not come up with any other. There had been a perfect trade relationship,beautifully profitable to her as well as to Vine and his associates, and then he gets a whisper she is turning away and will take her consignments in future from elsewhere. The first time he heard this and confirmed it as true, he was really hurt. Immediately, he went around to Eleri's place and gave her a bit of a slapping. She had boyfriends off and on, which was part of her wonderful energy and cock-devotion, even so late in life, but none of them was actually living-in at the time and, really, none was so regular that they would come looking for who thumped her.
In any case, the slight battering he gave her was only that, slight, nothing over the top. There had been the noise difficulty to think about then, too. Someone falling or getting knocked against a wall would most likely be heard by neighbours, despite the sound insulation, even someone as lightweight as Eleri. Also, it would have been disgusting to hammer a woman of that age really badly, regardless of what she was doing. Eleri was over sixty, for God's sake, a pensioner. And it would not have made any sense to bang her into a condition where she could not go back to work soon. Wasn't this the whole point of visiting her? Vine had wanted Eleri to continue in her unique role of dealer aboard The Eton Boating Song, but dealing only with stuff supplied by him. God, he gave nobody bigger discounts than Eleri, as recognition of her undoubted flair and established list of superb, faithful customers.
For a while after that visit to her place, Eleri seemed to revert to decency and, as soon as she recovered and had some dental work, she went back to her spot in the bar of the Eton and resumed selling with at least all previous success, and, of course, using supplies from Keith. This floating restaurant and a big new disco-dance hall not far along the dockside were parts of the marina development. It thrilled Keith. Shipping had declined and the port district with it, but now the good aim was to transform all this decay into a cheery entertainment area. The Eton, with its brilliantly loaded and professional regulars, seemed designed especially for Eleri. Keith would call in for a drink now and then to see everything looked fine, and to have a chat with her during quiet spells. He was fond of Eleri, and not just because of the trade aspect.
And then he had a report that she had been making approaches again to outside elements. The stories said a possible London supplier this time. He saw that as damn grave. Vine had heard of something called the domino theory. It said that if one element in an organization went wrong it could bring down all the others, the way a model made with dominoes might collapse because of a single piece toppling. If he did nothing about Eleri, other dealers would drift away to the opposition, too if the opposition looked as though its terms were better, or if the opposition could terrorize them. You had to get your own terrorism going. It was known as pre-empting, if you were lucky. There were rumours that one of the big London outfits had definitely sent a missionary down to feel out the place lately. Nobody had an identification for him, but apparently he was quite a dresser and of true all-round elegance. Metropolitan. Someone gave him the name Lovely Mover. He'd disappeared for the moment, but he would be back. Perhaps more than one. A trend. For a while now London outfits, Manchester outfits, Liverpool outfits had been looking for other selling grounds they could colonize, because things were getting crowded, hot, or both at home. Eleri was the kind of dealer they would all be trying to woo. One or two might have already. This had to be stopped.
Vine went down to the Eton again, just to give Eleri a chance. He would hate to be casual or oppressive. Keith's own girlfriend, Rebecca, would grow as old as this one day, God willing, and he would hate to think of her being ill-treated, never mind how unpresentable she might be by then. If Eleri told him someone had been trying to negotiate but she had turned it down he would be satisfied. That would be honesty, and he certainly did not want to kill a generally pleasant lady of sixty-odd who had come to appreciate late in life that deceit was intolerable.
'Eleri,' he said, 'here's a treat seeing you looking so settled and happy.'
'Yes, like that,' she replied. Eleri gave him a bit of a smile but it was formal. He did not blame her too much for this. She might be nervy if she had negotiations going. And, in any case, it was never going to be totally the same between them again after that punishment afternoon. He thought the teeth were extremely tidy.
'Business bright?' he asked.
'Can't go wrong, Keith.'
'Let's keep it like that,' he said.
Oh, God, Eleri, confess, confess. Don't force me into it, old love.
'See any new faces?' he asked.
'Not really. Just long-term customers or friends, I'd prefer to call them.'
'Exactly,' Vine said. You're fucking dead, Eleri. He thought he could see how and where to do it.
Apparently, the Eton was a one-time China clipper sailing vessel called Imperial Majesty in those more triumphant days -- you saw a falling-away everywhere. Now, it had been converted to a restaurant and bar and given this new name, which contained a social class aspect, obviously, and a tone of merriment, which Keith was in favour of, if it was going to be a restaurant at all. The vessel was moored at a spot where marina development and the skeletons of old docks buildings lay alongside one another. The ruins would be properly demolished soon and replaced, but they could be handy for him now.
The Eton stayed open until 2 or 3 a.m., like real big city nightlife. Customers loved its maritime flavour, with flags of many nations flapping above, and portholes. People could come out on deck after their meal and lean on the rail gazing at the dockside, like a Caribbean cruise. This restaurant had quite a reputation octopus, nearly raw veg, wine always free from bits of cork the whole carry-on that would appeal to Eleri's kind of regulars. They could get a good feed and pick up some stuff for afterwards all at the same time. This was the sort of beautiful, honest, all-round money these folk possessed, and they had to be looked after. Eleri's client roll was so good it would be a kind of memorial to her, like the one in that famed film a few years ago, Schindler's List.
She had a certain table in a corner of the bar where she always sat with a rum and black in front of her, her sign she was trading the way priests switched on the light outside a confessional box. The management kept that table for her it did not matter how busy the place was because Eleri was recognized as a distinguished feature, and she brought in so many eaters and quality drinkers. The thing was, some of her customers had actually been to that famed college, Eton, or said so, and would be wearing the special tie. They were brought up on that Boating Song, the way Keith was brought up on 'Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son', and 'Eskimo Nell'.
Sometimes Eleri would go home to her own place after work, sometimes to a man friend's. The men must be very understanding if they did not mind her turning up at 3 or 4 a.m. and climbing into bed, her breath full of rum and black. Vine had done a study of her ways. He did this for everyone he had regular business with. Dossiers could turn out crucial. Eleri came and went by taxi. There was a late-night rank on the dockside halfway between the Eton and Magenta, the new disco. Eleri would walk to the taxis when she finished. That took her between what used to be a customs store and the Seamen's Union buildings in the old days. Both were boarded up and roofless now, sad sights, Keith thought, but some of the boarding had been ripped away by weather or vandals and he could wait for her there. He had come armed tonight. In the shoulder pouch which he had made himself he carried a .38 revolver. There was a silencer in his pocket, to be fitted just before. If he could get her into one of the buildings he would move the body afterwards take her to another abandoned office or workshop on the docks. It would be an error to leave Eleri so close to the Eton after he had been seen talking to her there tonight. About these disposal details, he would have liked to consult Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur, a cop paid plump retainers by Vine's firm. Col would know this sort of thing right through, although from the other side, obviously. But there was no time to get round to Harpur's house in Arthur Street. And if Vine telephoned at this hour there would probably be no answer because Harpur would be in bed with that girl student who half lived there since the terrible death of his wife, ears thigh-stopped.
Vine went down the Eton's boarding ramp, walked over to the old customs building and found himself a fair niche in one of the doorways which had no door or boarding. He listened. Although these places were used now and then by winos and/or tarts, he heard no bottle clinks or snoring or gasps. Vine unbuttoned the holster but did not bring the gun out yet. With the silencer on it was too big for the holster or his pocket, and he did not want to hold it while he waited. That would seem so damn threatening. He found it strange to be lurking here, waiting to finish someone, in what remained of a building that had been for years to do with law and order. Probably, if only you could discover them, this old construction would be the centre of many wonderful historic tales. Someone ought to write a book about a customs house.
At a little before 3 a.m. he saw Eleri coming, that very jaunty, businesslike walk, so terrific for sixty. When he visited her, he had not damaged her legs. He touched the open flap of the holster, then, as she passed, reached out and grabbed Eleri around the chin and mouth so she could not shout. He dragged her into the doorway. It was easy. He had known it would be, she was so light. Possibly the new teeth were still strange to her and she did not even bite him. 'I'm so fucking disappointed in you, Eleri,' he said, his mouth against her ear.