Vorpal blade, p.1

Vorpal Blade, page 1

 

Vorpal Blade
 


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Vorpal Blade


  COLIN FORBES

  THE VORPAL BLADE

  SIMON & SCHUSTER

  A V I A C OM C O M P A NY

  First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2002

  An imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  A Viacom Company

  Copyright © Colin Forbes, 2002

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention

  No reproduction without permission

  ® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved

  Pocket Books & Design is a registered trademark of

  Simon & Schuster Inc

  The right of Colin Forbes to be identified as author of this work

  has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the

  Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  13579 10 8642

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  Africa House

  64-78 Kinssway

  London WC2B 6AH

  www, simonsays.co.uk

  Simon & Schuster Australia Sydney

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  Hardback ISBN 0-7432-2052-8 Trade Paperback ISBN 0-7432-2085-4

  Typeset by Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

  Polmont, Stirlingshire Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press

  Author's Note

  All the characters portrayed are creatures of the author's imagination and bear no relationship to any living person. The same principle of pure invention applies to all residences, villages and apartments in both the USA and Europe. Also to companies.

  Prologue

  'How do you know the body was Adam Holgate's - if the head was missing?' Tweed asked.

  It was a misty night in London. December was being ushered in with normal weather. Tweed sat beside Chief Superintendent Roy Buchanan, who drove the unmarked police Volvo expertly through the almost deserted streets. The windscreen wipers went whip-whap, keeping the view clear. Seated in the back, Paula Grey, Tweed's trusted assistant, wanted to ask questions but kept quiet.

  'Simple,' Buchanan replied. 'I unzipped the body bag wide enough to feel inside his jacket. He was carrying his security pass with photo for ACTIL, the huge organization he worked for after he walked out on you.'

  'Holgate didn't take much vital information from us,' Paula commented. 'He never entered our building in Park Crescent. Howard at least had sufficient sense to post him inside the Communications section further along the Crescent.'

  'Bray, where the body was discovered, is close to the Thames,' Tweed remarked. 'What the devil was Holgate doing out in such a remote spot? Dragged out of the river, I gather. Is that right?'

  'Not exactly. The corpse had been swept into a shallow creek. Chap walking his dog found him, used his mobile to call the Yard.'

  'And you arranged for it to be sent to Professor Saafeld's place in Holland Park. Presumably because he is the most distinguished pathologist we have.'

  'I did.' Buchanan's voice was grim. 'It was a particularly brutal murder and I wanted the best man to do the autopsy. I phoned you, picked you up on my way. Holgate was yours once.'

  'Doesn't make sense,' remarked Bob Newman, international correspondent, who sat beside Paula. 'Removing the head suggests an attempt to delay identification. Yet the killer leaves the security pass inside his pocket.'

  'No sense at all,' Buchanan agreed. 'This one worries me.'

  He glanced at Tweed, who was a man of uncertain age and medium height, sturdily built inside his dark overcoat. His thick hair was dark, his face clean-shaven, with a strong nose on which he perched his horn-rim glasses. Couldn't tell anything from his expression and you could pass him in the street without noticing him, a trait which he found helpful in his capacity as Deputy Director of the SIS.

  Buchanan was taller, lean and lanky, and in his forties. He sported a trim moustache and a stern look which disconcerted his many subordinates. In Tweed's shrewd opinion he was the most competent policeman in the country. The two men trusted each other completely.

  'Nearly there,' Buchanan remarked. 'Holland Park is a nice area with some good houses.' He swung off into a side road, pulled up in front of an entrance with tall wrought-iron gates. The mansion was concealed behind dark evergreen trees and shrubs bordering the short drive. Tweed jumped out and went to the speakphone, a metal grille let into one of the stone pillars, and pressed a button.

  'Tweed here with Roy Buchanan.'

  'About time,' a gruff voice replied as the gates swung open. On either side new eight-foot-high railings spanned a low wall. London these days had become a jungle of crime and its inhabitants had installed every form of protection -glare lights which illuminated as soon as you approached a doorway, strong grilles over lower windows, the most sophisticated burglar alarms. It was as though the great city was under siege. Which in a way it was.

  They walked up the drive, Buchanan's long legs striding ahead of them. Saafeld's home and workplace was a handsome square house built of stone and three storeys high. Tweed noticed the basement windows had been bricked up since his last visit. What have we come to? he thought as one of the double doors opened when the glare light came on, almost blinding Paula, who shielded her eyes.

  'Come inside,' growled Saafeld. 'Don't just stand there.'

  He's in a bad mood, Paula thought. Never known him to be like this before. Saafeld was a short, powerfully built man in his late fifties. His hair was turning white but his complexion was ruddy, his movements swift. They entered a large hall with a wood-block floor and various doors leading off it.

  Saafeld's expression became amiable as he greeted Paula with a hug. He held her at length. Five feet six tall, she had long well-coiffured dark hair which touched her shoulders, well-shaped bone structure, a chin which hinted at stubbornness. Her blue eyes missed nothing, and when she smiled many men would do anything for her. Slim, with a good figure, she wore a dark two-piece suit and a silk scarf round her long neck. Releasing her, Saafeld turned and glared from under bushy eyes at the men.

  'For God's sake, you won't believe it. I've been raided. Come into the morgue . . .'

  Crossing the hall he produced a code card and descended stone steps to a heavy door, in which he inserted the card. They walked into a small room protected by armoured glass from floor to ceiling. Once inside, Saafeld closed the outer door, inserted his card into another slot, and they followed him into a large room below ground. The morgue.

  Paula's nostrils were immediately assailed by a familiar odour. Formalin. Used for preserving specimens and bodies. Along one wall were rows of large metal drawers where the bodies were stored. A large metal-topped table in the middle of the room was empty. Above it hung cameras suspended from telescopic arms. Saafeld pointed at the empty table.

  'The body was there when they came and took it away - the body from Bray,' he rasped.

  'Who took it away?' Tweed asked quietly.

  'A delegation led by your friend, Tweed, Mr Nathan Bloody Morgan of Special Branch.'

  'On what authority?' Tweed asked, still quietly.

  'He had an official document from the local Chief Constable authorizing the body's immediate return to Maidenhead. On top of that,' he fumed, 'there was a brief letter from the Home Secretary confirming the order. I had to let them walk off with the body immediately. I said they came with a delegation: Nathan Morgan had arrived with a team of paramedics, an ambulance, plus two thuggish Special Branch officers to back him up. It's outrageous.'

  'It's also sinister. Why is the government involved? The whole operation reeks of a cover-up. Had you time to start the autopsy?'

  'No. I had examined the body for fibres and other debris. I omitted to tell Morgan about this. He was aggressive
in checking whether I had taken any photographs.' Saafeld smiled grimly. 'I told him no, although I have two sets of colour prints. Then I shouted at him, told him to get the hell out of my house, that I was going to complain, nail his hide to the wall. He didn't like that. Tried to take back the documents but I refused to let him have them.'

  'You had finished the photography?'

  'Yes. Luckily my assistants had gone home so I took the photos myself. No witnesses. Here they are, with a set you can take with you, but keep them out of sight.'

  Tweed began pacing round the spacious room, thinking. Saafeld unlocked a drawer, took out a large cardboard-backed envelope. Paula held out her hand. 'May I?'

  Saafeld hesitated. 'They're pretty grisly.'

  She smiled. 'If I faint you can catch me, but I don't think I'll give you the pleasure,' she teased.

  First she put on the latex gloves he handed her to avoid her fingerprints appearing on them. Then, very carefully, she extracted the colour prints, arranged them on the metal table top. Newman moved close to her shoulder and sucked in his breath.

  Holgate's headless body had been laid out on a white plastic sheet covering the table, arms and hands stretched close to his sides. He was still clothed in a crumpled blue suit and Paula realized why. Saafeld had wanted the first photos taken to avoid the risk of disturbing the top of the body.

  Above the collar and tie protruded the thick stump of most of his neck. Surprisingly the flesh was hardly ragged where the body had been decapitated, coated with brownish-coloured dried blood. His head had been cut off just below the chin, she surmised.

  She examined the other colour prints. Saafeld had taken pictures from every angle. Looking at the first print she had felt slightly queasy: she had known Holgate as a distant acquaintance. Bending forward she swallowed to avoid the others detecting her reaction. She was aware that Buchanan was standing close to her.

  'Like a glass of water?' he whispered.

  She shook her head, went back to the first print she had looked at. It was the most detailed version. She frowned, stood up straight, still staring at the print.

  'Come to any conclusions?' Tweed asked Saafeld.

  'Yes. I'm sure a knife wasn't the killing instrument.

  Sawing through the neck would have left the stump very ragged - to say nothing of what a job it would have been. I suspect an axe was used, an axe with a very sharp blade. The severing just below the chin is so clean. The killer must have been very strong to decapitate with one blow, which I think is what was done. I turned over the body before replacing it on its back. There was a stream of coagulated blood, which suggested to me the killer's first act was to strike the victim hard on the back of the head with the blunt end of the axe. I also believe the killer is right-handed, but that's an assumption.'

  'Professor.' Paula turned to face him. 'Would you mind if I examined this print under a strong magnifying glass?'

  Saafeld didn't ask her why. He led her to another table where a large instrument with a small gun-like projection holding a lens was perched. Close to it was an adjustable secretary's chair. As Paula sat down, peered through the eyepiece and adjusted the chair's height, Saafeld placed a metal plate on a rack behind and below the eyepiece. Then he positioned the print on top of the plate.

  'That will hold the print stable,' he explained. 'That small wheel to the right adjusts the magnification. It is very sensitive.'

  Having said that he walked back to where the others waited, a gesture which Paula appreciated. It was more difficult to concentrate with someone hovering over you. The wheel controlling the magnification was sensitive - so much so she removed the latex glove from one hand to operate it.

  She turned the wheel very slowly forwards, then back a bit. The section of truncated neck the lens was aimed at suddenly jumped out at her with startling clarity. She studied what she saw, to be sure. Then she swivelled the chair round to face the others.

  'Professor, I'm sure the axe has a notch in the blade. Triangular with the apex deepest in the neck, widest at the edge. I expect you've already observed it.'

  'I haven't.'

  Saafeld walked rapidly towards her. She slipped off the stool, being careful not to move the wheel. Saafeld took her place, put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, peered in the eyepiece. Taking off the glasses, he stood up, stared at Paula and then Tweed.

  'I've told you before, Tweed, Paula is very smart. I'd take her on my staff any time she got tired of working for a slave driver. There is a notch . . .'

  Newman looked through the magnifier next, then Tweed and finally Buchanan, who had to adjust the seat to allow for his extra height. He spent at least one minute gazing at what he saw, then stood up slowly from the stool, ran a finger across his trim moustache. It was a mannerism Paula had observed before when a fresh development occurred in a case.

  'This is very important,' he began. 'If we ever find the murder weapon, that notch will identify it. I'm surprised the killer hasn't noticed it.'

  'Probably has,' Paula said. 'Doesn't care.'

  'We ought to get moving,' Buchanan said, checking his watch.

  Saafeld, wearing latex gloves, had unlocked the drawer again. He fished out two cardboard-backed envelopes. In one he placed the colour print they had been examining. In another he inserted the duplicate. He handed one envelope to Tweed.

  'Expect you'd like this,' he said gruffly. He gave the other envelope to Buchanan. 'This might help as you pursue your investigation.'

  'Thank you. It may turn out to be invaluable . . .'

  'Want to take you somewhere,' Buchanan said as he drove the car away from Holland Park. 'Take a couple of hours.'

  'Where to?' Tweed asked.

  'Bray. Where the body was discovered. May be our last chance now this Chief Constable has grabbed the case. We won't be expected this evening.'

  'Then now is the time to go,' Tweed agreed.

  No one spoke until they had left the suburbs behind, were passing through Windsor. It was no longer raining, the sky had cleared and by the faint light of a new moon Paula saw the massive silhouette of Windsor Castle. Soon they were in open country, the road bordered by flat fields and black leafless trees like skeletons.

  'Will we see anything in the dark?' Paula wondered aloud.

  'I have four powerful torches. Tweed, open the glove compartment. One for each of us.'

  Paula tested hers by shining it on the floor. She glanced out of the window, saw more sullen fields, more naked trees.

  'One thing I can't understand,' she called out. 'Saafeld said the killer's first move is to hit his victim on the back of the head with the blunt end of the axe. I think his theory holds water. But then how on earth is he able to cut off the head so neatly with one blow? The body would have to be on its back, the neck resting on some kind of execution block.'

  'I'd thought of that myself,' Tweed agreed. 'It's a puzzle.'

  Buchanan had just swung off to the right away from the main road and down a narrow lane. 'We're approaching Bray,' he informed them.

  'How close is it to the river?' Tweed enquired.

  'About a mile. Bray is the last genuine village before you approach London. The rest of the old villages higher up the river have been wiped out by so-called developers. And this is Bray.'

  In his headlights Paula saw fine old large houses built long ago. The road curved back and forth. All the houses were close to the road. Lights shone behind curtained windows but no sign of any people.

  'When we're almost through Bray we turn off. to the river, to the scene of the crime,' Buchanan continued his commentary.

  'I haven't seen any shops,' Paula remarked.

  'Because there aren't any. The last one closed down ages ago. The locals drive to Maidenhead to shop at supermarkets. Sign of the times.'

  He turned right again down an even narrower lane lined with hedges. The surface became rough and Bray was a distant memory. More fields on both sides, the grass long. When he stopped the car, parking it on
the verge, Paula was struck by the sudden silence. She stepped out. The silence was eerie, punctuated only by the occasional drip of water off trees and a vague sound of the gushing river.

  'I'll lead the way,' Buchanan told them as he locked the car and switched on his torch.

  He had advanced some way into the field when a uniformed policeman appeared. Behind him crime scene tape had been strung round a large area, supported by small branches dug into the soggy ground. Paula was glad she'd put on knee-length boots before leaving Park Crescent.

  'Can't come here,' snapped the policeman rudely. 'Police.'

  'Yes, we can,' Buchanan barked back. 'I'm from the Yard and I've arranged for the body to be transported to a pathologist. Look at this folder.'

  He was holding the folder close to the policeman, shining his torch on it. The policeman reached out to take it but Buchanan kept a firm grip.

  'Nobody said you was comin' out,' the policeman objected.

  'Get out of my way - and lift that tape so my assistants can get through. I'm short of time. Move it, man.'

  The dull-faced policeman lifted the tape and they followed Buchanan who was striding out as the sound of the river became louder. The river was in full flood. Hands inside the pockets of his old Gannex raincoat, Tweed joined Paula and Buchanan at the river's edge.

  'Who discovered the body?' he asked again.

 
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