Under orders, p.19

Under Orders, page 19

 

Under Orders
 


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  There was little to show that it was the headquarters of a multimillion-pound operation other than the line of expensive cars and big, powerful motorbikes in the small parking lot opposite the entrance. I looked at the cars. The nearest was a dark blue Porsche 911 Carrera, with GL 21 on its license plate. So George was in.

  Shall I be bold? I asked myself. Shall I go in and see him? Why not? Nothing to lose, only my life.

  I pressed the button and waited.

  Eventually, a female voice said “Yes?” from the speaker next to the button.

  “Sid Halley here to see George Lochs,” I said back.

  “Just a minute,” said the voice.

  I waited some more.

  After at least a minute, the voice said, “Do you have an appointment?”

  “No,” I replied. “I was passing and I thought I would drop in to see George. I know him.”

  “Just a minute,” said the voice again.

  I waited. And waited.

  “Take the elevator to the fourth floor,” said the voice and a buzzer sounded.

  I pushed the door open and did as I was told.

  George/Clarence was waiting for me when the elevator door opened. I remembered him from our meeting in Jonny Enstone’s box at Cheltenham. He was lean, almost athletic, with blond hair brushed back, showing a certain receding over the temples. But he was not wearing his suit today. Instead, he sported a dark turtleneck sweater and blue jeans. He hadn’t been expecting guests.

  “Sid Halley,” he said, holding out a hand. “Good to see you again. What brings you to this godforsaken part of north London?”

  Was I suspicious or was there a hint of anxiety in his voice? Or maybe it was irritation?

  “I was passing and I thought I’d come see what your offices looked like.”

  I don’t think he believed me, but it was true.

  “There’s not much to show,” he said.

  He slid a green plastic card through a reader on the wall that unlocked the door to the offices on the fourth floor. He stood aside to allow me in.

  “Have you been in this building long?” I asked.

  “Nearly five years. At first, we were on only one floor, but we’ve gradually expanded and now we occupy the whole place.”

  There were thirty or so staff sitting at open-plan desks along the windows, each with a computer screen shining brightly in front of him or her. It was quiet for a room with so many people. A few hushed conversations were taking place, but the majority were studying screens and tapping quietly on keyboards.

  “On this floor, we have our market managers,” said George in a hushed tone. “Have you seen our website?”

  “Yes,” I said, equally hushed.

  “You know then that you can gamble on just about anything you like, just as long as you can find someone to match your bet. Last year, we managed a wager between two young men concerning which of them would get his respective girlfriend pregnant quickest.” He laughed. “We ended up having to get doctors’ reports to settle it.”

  “That’s crazy,” I said.

  “But most of our markets are less personal than that. The staff here look at the incoming bets and try to match them if the computer doesn’t do it automatically. And there are always special events that need a human brain to sort out. Computers can be very clever, but they like the rules to be absolute. Just yes or no, no maybes.”

  “Where are the computers?” I asked, looking around.

  “Downstairs,” he said. “The first and second floors are full of computer hardware. We have to keep them in climate-controlled conditions, with massive air conditioners.”

  “My computer’s forever crashing,” I said.

  “That’s why we continually back up everything. And we have more than one mainframe machine. They check on each other all the time. It’s very sophisticated.”

  I could sense that George was bragging. He was clearly enjoying showing me how clever he was.

  “Do you do online gaming as well as exchange wagering?”

  “Yes, but not from this office. We have a Gibraltar-based operation for that. More cost-effective.”

  I suspected it was also more tax-effective.

  “Why the interest?” he asked.

  “No real reason,” I said.

  “Is there anything specific you came here to find out?”

  “No. I’m just naturally inquisitive.” And nosy.

  I wandered a little farther down the office.

  “Is this all the staff you have?” I asked.

  “Nooo,” he said, amused. “There are lots more. The accounts department is on the floor below here and there must be fifty personnel there. Then we have the technical staff who live among the machines on the lower floors. Then the ground floor has the company security staff, and a canteen.”

  “Quite a setup,” I said, sounding impressed. And I was.

  “Yes. We operate here twenty-four hours a day every day of the year. There are always duty technicians on standby in case of problems with the machines. We can’t afford for the system to go down. It’s not good for business. Now, is there anything else you want, Sid? I’m very busy.”

  His irritation was beginning to show through more sharply.

  “No,” I said. “Sorry. Many thanks for showing me round.”

  And oh yes, by the way, could I have a hair, please?

  I followed him to the door and could see no convenient blond hairs lying on his dark sweater or helpfully sticking up from his head just waiting to be plucked out. This wasn’t as easy as Marina had suggested, especially one-handed.

  We stopped in the doorway.

  “I see you’re on the front page of The Pump today,” he said.

  I hoped he couldn’t see the sweat that broke out on my forehead.

  “So I saw,” I replied, trying to keep my voice as normal as possible.

  “Are you having any luck with your investigation?” he said.

  “I’m making steady progress,” I lied.

  “Well, I hope you get to the bottom of it. I liked Huw Walker.”

  “How well did you know him?” I asked.

  Suddenly, it was his turn to have a sweaty brow. “Not very well. We spoke a few times.”

  “What about?” I asked.

  “Nothing much. About his chances, you know, in passing.”

  “It’s not very sensible for a man in your position to be asking jockeys about their chances in races, is it?”

  He was beginning to get rattled. “There was nothing in it, I assure you.”

  I wasn’t convinced that I could take his assurances at face value.

  I applied more pressure. “Are the Jockey Club aware that you ask jockeys about their chances in races?”

  “Now, look here, Halley, what are you accusing me of?”

  “Nothing,” I said. “It was you who told me that you had talked to Huw Walker about his chances.”

  “I think you ought to go now,” he said.

  He didn’t hold out his hand. I looked into his eyes and could see no farther than his retinas. Whatever he was thinking, he was keeping it to himself.

  I wanted to ask him what he had been doing last Friday evening around eight o’clock. I wanted to know if he had scratch marks on his neck beneath the turtleneck collar of his sweater. And I wanted to know if he had ever owned a .38 revolver.

  Instead, I rode the elevator down and went away.

  •

  BACK AT EBURY Street, I parked the car in the garage. Instead of going straight up to my flat, I walked to the sandwich bar on the corner to get myself a late lunch of smoked salmon on brown bread with a salad.

  I was paying across the counter when my cell phone rang.

  “Hello,” I said, trying to juggle my lunch, the change and the phone in my one real hand.

  A breathless voice at the other end of the line said, “Is that you, Sid?”

  “Yes,” I replied, then, with rising foreboding, “Rosie? What is it?”

/>   “Oh God,” she said, “Marina’s been shot.”

  15

  * * *

  “What?” I said numbly, dropping my change.

  “Marina’s been shot,” Rosie repeated.

  I went cold and stopped feeling my legs.

  “Where?”

  “Here, on the sidewalk outside the Institute.”

  “No,” I said, “where on her body?”

  “In her leg.”

  Thank God, I thought, she’s going to be all right.

  “Where is she now?” I asked.

  “Here, by the ambulance,” said Rosie. “They’re desperately working on her right here on the sidewalk. Oh God, there’s so much blood. It’s everywhere.”

  Maybe my relief was premature. My skin felt clammy.

  “Rosie,” I said urgently, “go ask the ambulance men which hospital they’ll be taking her to.”

  I could hear her asking.

  “St. Thomas’s,” she said.

  “Go with her. I’m on my way there.”

  She hung up. I looked at my phone in disbelief. This can’t be happening. But it was.

  Nature has evolved a mechanism for dealing with fear, or hurt. Adrenaline floods into the bloodstream and hence throughout the body. Muscles are primed to perform, to run, to jump, to escape the danger, to flee from the source of the fear. I could feel the energy coursing around my body. I had felt it all too often before when lying injured on the turf after a bad fall. The desire to run was great. Sometimes, when injured, the urge to flee was so overpowering that injuries could be forgotten. There were well-documented incidents of people who had been horribly maimed in explosions running away from the scene on legs from which the feet had been blown clean away.

  Now, in the sandwich bar, this adrenaline rush had me turning back and forth not knowing if I was picking up my lunch or retrieving my dropped change, or what. For quite a few wasted seconds, I was completely disoriented.

  “Are you all right, mate?” asked the man behind the counter.

  “Fine,” I croaked, hardly able to unclench my teeth.

  I stumbled out of the shop and fairly sprinted back to my car. I pressed the button that opened the garage and yelled at the slowly opening gate to hurry up.

  I drove as quickly as I could to St. Thomas’s Hospital, which is on the other side of the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. “Quickly” is a relative term in London traffic. I screamed at tourists outside Buckingham Palace to get out of the way and cursed queues of taxis in Birdcage Walk. Bus lanes are for buses, and sometimes for taxis, too, but not for cars. I charged along the bus lane on Westminster Bridge and didn’t care if I got a ticket.

  In spite of two jumped traffic lights and numerous near misses, I made it unscathed to the hospital’s emergency entrance. I pulled the car onto the sidewalk and got out.

  “You can’t leave it there,” said a well-meaning soul walking past.

  “Watch,” I said, locking the doors. “It’s an emergency.”

  “They’ll tow it away,” he said.

  Let them, I thought. I wasn’t going to waste time finding a parking meter.

  Oh God, please let Marina be OK. I hadn’t prayed since I was a child, but I did now.

  Please, God, let Marina be all right.

  I ran into the Accident and Emergency Department and found a line of six people at the reception desk.

  I grabbed a passing nurse. “Please,” I said, “where’s Marina van der Meer?”

  “Is she a patient?” asked the nurse, in an Eastern European accent.

  “Yes,” I said. “She was on her way here from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, by ambulance.”

  “Ambulance cases come in over there,” she said, pointing over her shoulder.

  “Thanks.” I ran in the direction she had indicated, towards some closed double doors.

  My progress was blocked by a large young man in a navy blue jersey. HOSPITAL SECURITY was embroidered on each shoulder.

  “Yes, sir,” he said, “can I help you?”

  “Marina van der Meer?” I said, trying to get past him.

  He sidestepped to block my way. “No,” he said, “my name’s Tony. Now, what’s yours?”

  I looked at his face. He wasn’t exactly smiling.

  “Look,” I said, “I’m trying to find Marina van der Meer. She was being brought here by ambulance.”

  “An emergency?” he asked.

  “Yes, yes,” I said, “she’s been shot.”

  “Where?” he asked.

  “In the leg.”

  “No, where was she shot?”

  “In the leg,” I said again.

  “No,” he repeated, “where in London was she shot?”

  “Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” I said. What on earth does it matter? I thought.

  “She may have gone to Guy’s,” he said.

  “The ambulance men said they were bringing her here.”

  “You just wait here a moment, Mr.… what did you say your name was?”

  “Halley,” I said. “Sid Halley.”

  “You just wait here a moment and I’ll see. Members of the public aren’t allowed in this section—unless they come by ambulance, of course.” He almost laughed. I didn’t.

  He disappeared through the double doors and let them swing back together. I pushed one open and looked through. There was not much to see. The corridor stretched ahead for about ten yards and met another corridor in a T junction. The walls were painted in two tones, the upper half cream and the lower blue. Perversely, it reminded me of the corridors in my primary school in Liverpool.

  Tony, the friendly security guard, reappeared from the left and strode towards me. “No one of that name has been admitted,” he said.

  There was a clatter behind him and a gurney surrounded by medical staff was wheeled quickly by from right to left. I only had a glimpse of the person on it and I couldn’t tell if it was Marina. Then a dazed-looking Rosie came into view.

  “Rosie,” I shouted. She didn’t hear.

  Tony, the guard, started to say something but I pushed past him and ran down the corridor.

  “Oi!” he shouted. “You can’t go in there.”

  But I had already turned the corner.

  “Rosie,” I shouted again.

  She turned. “Oh, Sid, thank God you’re here!” She was crying and seemed to be in a state of near collapse.

  “Where’s Marina?” I asked urgently.

  “In there,” she said, looking at some doors on the right.

  There was a round glass window and, with trepidation, I looked through it.

  Marina lay very still on a gurney, with about six people rushing around her. There were two bags of blood on poles with plastic tubes running to needles on the backs of each of her hands. I could see a pool of blood down near the foot of the gurney—it was as though the blood was going straight through her.

  “What are you two doing here?” asked a voice.

  I turned to see a stern-looking nurse in a blue uniform with what appeared to be a green dishcloth on her head.

  “You’ll have to go back to the waiting room,” she said.

  “But that’s Marina in there,” I said, turning back to the window. If anything, the activity had intensified. One of the staff was putting a tube down her throat. Her face looked horribly gray.

  “I don’t care if it’s the Queen of Sheba,” said the nurse. “You can’t stay here. You’ll be in the way.” She mellowed. “Come on, I’ll show you where you can wait. You’ll be told what’s happening as soon as we know.”

  Rosie and I allowed ourselves to be taken by the arms and led down the corridor. We went around several corners and were shown into a room with FAMILY WAITING ROOM painted on the door.

  “Now, stay here, and someone will be along to see you.”

  I mumbled “Thank you” but seemed to have lost control of my face. All I could see was the image of Marina so helpless and vulnerable on that gurney. “Please, God, let her live
.”

  I sat down heavily on one of the chairs. I’d again lost control of my legs, too.

  “I’ll send someone in with a cup of tea,” said the nurse. “Now, wait here.”

  I nodded. I don’t think I could have moved even if I had wanted to. All I could think about was whether Marina was going to be all right. Rosie sat with her head in her hands. She had been awfully close to the action, both on the sidewalk and in the ambulance.

  After a few minutes, a kindly lady in an apron brought us cups of tea. Strong, full of milk and with at least two sugars, just as I didn’t take it. Delicious.

  “What happened?” I finally said to Rosie.

  She looked up at me. Her eyes were red from crying and she had a hangdog expression.

  “I’m so sorry, Sid,” she said. “We only went outside for a bit of air.”

  “It’s all right, Rosie. It wasn’t your fault.”

  But I could see that she thought it was.

  “Tell me what happened.”

  “It was all so fast,” she said. “We were going to walk once round the square, but had gone only a few yards when a motorcyclist pulled up and sat there on his machine looking at a map. He beckoned us over to him, pointing at the map. I couldn’t hear what he said due to the noise of the engine. Marina went over to him and he just shot her. I think the gun was under the map.”

  “Could you describe the motorcyclist?” I asked her. “Would you be able to identify him again?”

  “No, I don’t think so,” she replied slowly. “He was wearing a crash helmet—you know, one of those ones that covers the whole face. That’s partly why I couldn’t hear what he said.”

  “How about the motorbike?” I asked.

  “It was just … just a motorbike,” she said. “I don’t know what type.”

  She paused and I could tell she was replaying the scene in her mind.

  “At first, I didn’t realize she had been shot. I mean, I didn’t hear a gunshot or anything. Marina doubled up and grabbed her knee and the motorcycle roared away. Then there was all the blood. It literally spurted out of her leg all over the place.”

  I looked at her dark pants and I could see that they were covered with Marina’s blood.

 
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