Under orders, p.23

Under Orders, page 23

 

Under Orders
 


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  “But it was a shooting in broad daylight on a London street.”

  “Mr. Halley, have you any idea how many shootings take place every day on London streets?”

  “No.”

  “Well, it would surprise you. There’s about one shooting a day that results in injury or death. And there’s a gun crime somewhere in London on average every five or six hours. There were more than a dozen armed robberies last week in the Met area alone, and there’s a murder at least every second day.” He paused for effect. “I’m sorry,” he said, “if Miss van der Meer had died, I might have had a few officers in a team to help find the gunman. Thankfully, she didn’t, so I don’t get the resources. We are too busy trying to catch some other poor man’s killer.”

  “But it may be the same person who killed Huw Walker,” I said.

  “Who?”

  “The jockey at Cheltenham.”

  “Oh yes,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll give Gloucestershire police a call.”

  “Ask for Chief Inspector Carlisle,” I said, but he, too, was busy with another case. A child killer had more fascination for the media than the death of a “crooked” jockey.

  “Right,” he said, and hung up.

  I’d better investigate this myself, then.

  •

  MARINA WAS SITTING up in bed, looking much better when I returned to see her at four-thirty. I had brought with me a suitcase of things for her, but I needn’t have bothered.

  She was already wearing a pretty pink nightdress and a matching cotton dressing gown. Her hair was clean and neat and she had applied some makeup. And, I noticed, the stitches had been removed from her eyebrow and lip.

  “You look wonderful,” I said, giving her a kiss. “Where did you get the nightie?”

  “Rosie had it sent over from Rigby and Peller. Isn’t she fantastic?”

  “Absolutely,” I agreed, sitting down on the chair beside the bed. Rosie was beating herself up unnecessarily for allowing Marina to get shot. It wasn’t her fault and no one but she thought so.

  “A policeman did come to see me this morning,” said Marina. “He asked me if I could describe the man who shot me.”

  “And can you?” I asked.

  “No, not really. It all happened so fast. I remember him looking at a map and beckoning me over to him. He was wearing black leathers and a black helmet—you know, one of those with a full front and a dark visor. That’s why I couldn’t see his face. That’s about it.”

  “Are you sure it was a man?”

  “You think it might have been a woman?”

  “It’s possible,” I said.

  “No.” She paused. “I’m pretty good when it comes to spotting women, even if they’re wearing motorcycling leathers.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes. It was a man. If it had been a woman, I would have looked at her bottom.”

  “What for?” I said.

  “To see if it was smaller than mine. Silly boy.”

  “Do you do that all the time?”

  “Of course,” she said. “All women do it.”

  And I thought I was the one who looked at women’s bottoms.

  “What else did the policeman say?” I asked.

  “He asked if I would recognize the motorbike.” She laughed. “I told him it had two wheels, but that didn’t seem to help. I don’t know what type it was. I wouldn’t know if I’d had all day to examine it.”

  “But it was blue,” I said. I didn’t know.

  “No, it wasn’t,” she said. She stopped with her mouth open. She closed it. “It was red. How funny, I didn’t remember before.” She paused for quite a while. “It also had a big red fuel tank with yellow flashes down the side. And the rider had more yellow bits on his trousers, along his thighs.”

  “Could you draw the shape of the yellow flashes?” I asked.

  “Absolutely,” she said. “They were like lightning bolts.”

  “Good girl,” I said. “I’ll get you some paper and a pencil.”

  I went off in search of them and eventually managed to borrow a pad and pen from the nurses’ station. Marina set to work and had soon produced some drawings of the lightning-type flashes on the fuel tank and on the motorcyclist’s leather pants.

  Just as she finished, a nurse came in and told me it was time to go. “The patient must get some rest,” she said, and stood in the open doorway, waiting for me to leave.

  “See you tomorrow, my love,” I said to Marina, giving her a kiss.

  “OK,” she said, yawning. She did look tired, but so much better than yesterday.

  I made my way down to the exit. What a difference a day makes. I didn’t notice anyone at the hospital reception desk who was desperately looking for the intensive care unit as I had been just over twenty-fours hours ago. But, then, I wouldn’t. A crisis doesn’t make you grow a second head or anything; the turmoil is on the inside. Invisible.

  •

  WHEN I HAD been riding, Saturday morning had always been a “work day” in Andrew Woodward’s yard and I assumed that nothing would have changed. On a “work day,” the horses would do “work.” A large string of them would be out on the exercise grounds early, galloping hard to increase their stamina and speed. Preparing a horse for racing was all about developing stamina and speed. High-protein oats, minerals and oils are transformed into strong, firm muscle through regular and demanding training gallops. First lot in the Woodward stable had always gone out at half past seven sharp. Horses need to be made ready with saddles and bridles, with protective bandages on their lower legs and with their coats and tails brushed. There was much to do for the trainer and his assistants prior to the “mount up” order being given; at ten past seven, they would be busy and preoccupied with the horses and the stable staff.

  Which is why, on Saturday morning at ten past seven precisely, I let myself in through the front door of Juliet Burns’s tiny cottage.

  Lambourn is set in a hollow of the Berkshire Downs, appropriately close to the Bronze Age White Horse figure carved into a chalk hill at Uffington. Locally, and for good reason, the area is known as “The Valley of the Racehorse.” Numbering about two thousand, there are almost as many racehorses living in the village as there are people. And the majority of the human residents earn their living either directly or indirectly from their equine neighbors.

  I wasn’t sure what made a village into a town, but if any village deserved it, it was Lambourn. Not many villages I knew had at least a dozen shops, several restaurants, two fish-and-chips shops, four pubs, a leisure center and a fully equipped hospital, even if it was only for the horses. But still no town hall.

  There was only one betting shop. In spite of a roaring trade, it apparently wasn’t very profitable. There were too many winners.

  I had lived here myself for five years, during my racing career, and my face was almost as well known in this community as Saddam Hussein’s was in Baghdad. If I were ever to take up burglary as a career, the one place I would not choose to start would be Lambourn.

  Thankfully, Juliet had not heeded my advice to increase the security of her cottage. Her front-door Yale key was under the stone in the window box, just as before. I turned the lock, put the key back under the stone and stepped into the cottage.

  I stood very still in the hallway, listening for the slightest sound. The house was silent, and from outside there were no shouts from nosy neighbors who might have witnessed my arrival. I closed the door.

  I padded silently up the stairs. It would be just my luck if she was still here, sick in bed. I risked a peep into her bedroom. The bed was empty and unmade. I put my right hand down on the sheet; it was cold.

  I hadn’t put on gloves as I wasn’t worried about fingerprints. I didn’t intend stealing anything, and I’d been in this house only last week, anyway. My right-hand dabs must have already been everywhere.

  I reckoned I had at least twenty minutes before Juliet could possibly come home. I thought that she would probably b
e going out to the gallops with the horses, either seated on one of them or in Andrew Woodward’s old Land Rover. That would give me well over an hour to look around, but I didn’t want to take the chance that she might pop back after the string had left the yard. I gave myself twenty minutes to be out of the place. Better safe than arrested.

  I went across to her wardrobe and opened the door.

  Altogether, I counted a dozen outfits hanging there, many of them in the designer plastic covers so thoughtfully provided to keep the dust off. There were short floral cocktail dresses and long slinky evening gowns, skirts with matching jackets and brightly colored pantsuits, and they didn’t look like fakes or copies to me.

  It was an impressive list, with four Giorgio Armanis, two each from Versace and Gucci, and a scattering of others, all of them from well-known designers that even I had heard of. There were rows of shoes from Jimmy Choo and a shelf of handbags from Fendi. It was a veritable treasure trove. I did a simple mental calculation using some information about prices that I had obtained from Jenny.

  I knew that good assistant trainers were hard to find these days and that they could command quite high salaries, especially compared to only a few years ago, but I again wondered how Juliet Burns had obtained the means to have nearly thirty thousand pounds’ worth of clothes and accessories in her wardrobe.

  I remembered the morning I had brought her back here, the morning when Bill had died. She had been very keen for me to leave her jacket on the bed and not hang it up. But at that time, I hadn’t realized what I’d been looking at.

  I took my camera out of my pocket and took some shots through the open wardrobe door. I didn’t want to disturb things more than I needed to. If, as I imagined, these dresses were Juliet’s pride and joy, then she would know exactly in which order they were hung up, and the exact position of every shoe and handbag. I didn’t want her to know I’d been here. Not yet, anyway.

  I closed the wardrobe door carefully and looked around the rest of the bedroom. There wasn’t much that I hadn’t seen on my previous visit. I looked in the drawers in her dressing table, but there was nothing unusual. I discovered no hidden cache of jewels, no boxes of bearer bonds.

  There were bedside cabinets on either side of the double bed. In one, I found a pair of men’s boxer shorts and a rolled-up pair of men’s socks. In the other, there were some condoms, hidden in a Jimmy Choo shoe box, together with a couple of raunchy paperbacks. I smiled. So much for the tomboy exterior.

  I went into the bathroom. Two toothbrushes stood in a cup on a glass shelf, but otherwise there was nothing of interest. I looked in her medicine cabinet, but there were only the usual things: tampons, painkillers and adhesive bandages. I took care to put everything back as I had found it.

  I made a last check of the bedroom and noticed Juliet’s hairbrush on her dressing table. Among its mass of black bristles were some hairs that had conveniently been pulled out with the follicles still attached. I took a photograph.

  I had a plastic bag in my pocket that I had brought with me, just in case. I removed at least a dozen of the hairs and placed them in the bag. I put the brush back in the same position I had found it and went downstairs.

  I glanced at my watch. I had already used up ten minutes, half my time.

  I searched the kitchen, but there was nothing of interest there. The small fridge in the corner contained some skim milk, a package of bacon, a bunch of black grapes that looked past their best and a row of six eggs in the door. No champagne, no caviar and no incriminating hypodermic syringes full of dope.

  The wastebasket under the sink was empty and I didn’t dare go outside to rummage through the trash. There were too many eyes that might have been watching. Such a shame. I had discovered all sorts of secrets in people’s trash cans.

  I went through to the small sitting room. A laptop computer sat on the floor next to the sofa. Computers can be funny things. They have a habit of remembering everything done to them, so I was particularly wary of leaving any telltale signs that might indicate to Juliet that I had been there.

  I opened the lid of the machine. It was on, but in hibernation mode. I woke it up, and I was busy sifting through the recent document list in Word when there was a noise from the front door. I froze. I racked my brains for a credible story to tell Juliet to explain why I was kneeling on her sitting-room floor, going through the private files on her computer.

  The noise came again. A metallic clink. And again.

  I quickly moved behind the sitting-room door and looked through the crack by the hinges into the hallway. A letter came through the letter slot in the front door and the slot cover closed with a metallic clink. The letter joined some magazines already on the doormat. The postman! I heard him move away. I chanced a look out of the sitting-room window and could see him going next door.

  I started breathing again and my heartbeat began to return to normal.

  I looked at my watch. My time was up.

  I went back to Juliet’s computer. How I would have loved to have had all day to search through the digital maze inside it. No wonder a suspect’s computer is the first thing the police seize after an arrest. These days, personal computer records are the window on a person’s life. Try as we might to delete the stuff we don’t wish others to read, our computers still remember it and they can be coaxed and persuaded into giving up our most intimate secrets. In most circumstances, a wife cannot be forced to give evidence against her husband, or vice versa. There is no such protection for a defendant against his computer. Far from being a friend, the machine on the desk can be a villain’s worst enemy.

  I sent Juliet’s laptop back into hibernation and returned it to its original spot on the floor.

  Then I opened the front door wide and took a quick look either way down the road. The postman was a good hundred yards away by now and moving farther away with every step. There was no one else visible, so I quickly pulled the door closed behind me and walked steadily to my car. I had parked on the grass verge fifty yards farther out of the village, with the car facing away from Juliet’s cottage. I climbed in and sat in the driver’s seat. My hand was shaking. I was getting too old for this cloak-and-dagger stuff.

  I checked for the umpteenth time that I had not left behind my camera or the plastic bag containing the hairs. Satisfied that I had them both, I set off for London.

  •

  BY THE TIME I got back, I was tired. At six that morning, the journey from my flat to Lambourn had only taken about an hour, but the return had been a nightmare. Three hours of stop-and-go traffic due to major road construction on the approach to London. The M4 had been one long queue from well before Slough.

  I changed out of my housebreaking black jeans, dark sweater and loafers and into gray pants, collared blue shirt and black leather slip-on shoes. I snapped a recharged battery into my arm and made myself a cup of strong coffee to recharge the rest of me.

  Marina phoned. “Please come get me out of here,” she said. “I can’t stand daytime TV.”

  “I’ll be in later,” I said, “and I’ll bring you a book.”

  “I want to come home.”

  “Bed rest, that’s what the doctor said.”

  How strange, I thought. All my riding life, it had been me who had tried to ignore well-intentioned doctors’ advice, with Jenny sounding just as I had done. It had been me that had been caught working out on an exercise bike after being told by my surgeon to rest in bed after he had removed my spleen. And it had been me that had once tried to chip away a plaster cast with a kitchen knife before my ankle bones had fully mended.

  I told her to stay put for the moment and I would see what could be done.

  At lunchtime, I took the tube to Lincoln’s Inn Fields with my precious parcel to give to Rosie. I had phoned her at home and she had agreed to give up some of her Saturday afternoon to analyze the hairs.

  While she went upstairs to her laboratory, I took my camera around the corner to Kingsway to a photography sh
op. They had one of those machines that will convert digital images into prints while you wait, so I made two sets of all the pictures stored on the camera’s memory card. There were some of the police search of Bill Burton’s house after his arrest and some through the window of the den on the day he died. There were several of poor Marina’s face being stitched up, six images of a wardrobe full of designer gear and, finally, a crisp close-up of a hairbrush with hairs among its bristles.

  There was no sign of Rosie when I returned, so I sat in the reception area under the gaze of the ever-present Institute security and read leaflets about why it was so vital to give money for cancer research, and why early diagnosis of cancer was so important. By the time Rosie reappeared, I had not only emptied all the cash in my pockets into a Cancer Research UK collection box but I was beginning to examine my body for lumps and bumps in intimate places.

  “Jackpot!” she called out as she emerged from the elevator. She was almost jumping up and down with excitement. “In fact, double jackpot.”

  “Why double?” I asked.

  “I tested all the hairs in the bag separately,” she said. “They’re from two different people. Most of them are from the woman who licked the envelope the other night.”

  “And?” I said.

  “One of them is from the man who attacked Marina last week.”

  18

  * * *

  “You’re a bastard,” said Chris Beecher. “You used me.”

  He was right, on both counts.

  It was Saturday afternoon and I had telephoned him while I watched the racing from Kempton on television.

  “You didn’t have to run the piece,” I said.

  “Wish now we hadn’t. Wasn’t so much of a scoop after all, was it?”

  “How do you know?” I said.

  “Worked it out, didn’t I?” He was a bright chap. “No bloody police reaction, was there? Bloody Paddy O’Fitch. Why do I ever listen to him?”

  “Can I come see you?” I asked.

  “What do you want me to write for you this time, you bastard?”

  “You can write what you like,” I said. “However, I may have a real scoop for you after all.”

 
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