Solomon sipped some beer and dried his mouth with the back of his hand. He was very angry.
‘Time passes. The cheque is cashed, factories are built, and a phone rings in Whitehall. It’s an international call, from Washington, DC. Did we know that a rich industrialist who makes plastic things also deals in large quantities of opium from Asia? Good heavens, no, we didn’t know that, thanks ever so much for letting us know, love to the wife and kids. Panic. Rich industrialist is now sitting on a large lump of our money and employing three thousand of our citizens.’
At this point, Solomon seemed to run out of energy, as if the effort of controlling his fury was too much for him. But I couldn’t wait.
‘So a committee of not particularly wise men and women put their fat heads together and decide on possible courses of action. The list includes doing nothing, doing nothing, doing nothing, or dialling 999 and asking for PC Plod. The only thing they are sure about is they do not like that last course.’
‘And O’Neal . . . ?’
‘O’Neal gets the job. Surveillance. Containment. Damage Control. Give it any flipping name you like.’ For Solomon, ‘flipping’ constituted strong language. ‘None of this, of course, has anything whatsoever to do with Alexander Woolf.’
‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘Where is Woolf now?’ Solomon glanced at his watch.
‘At this moment, he is in seat number 6C on a British Airways 747 from Washington to London. If he’s got any sense, he’ll have chosen the Beef Wellington. He may be a fish man, but I doubt it.’
‘And the film?’
‘While You Were Sleeping.’
‘I’m impressed,’ I said.
‘God is in the detail, master. Just because it’s a bad job doesn’t mean I have to do it badly.’
We supped some beer in a relaxed silence. But I had to ask him.
‘Yours to command, master.’
‘Do you mind explaining where I come into all this?’ He looked at me with the beginnings of a ‘you tell me’ expression, so I hurried on. ‘I mean, who wants him dead, and why make it look as if I’m the killer?’
Solomon drained his glass.
‘Don’t know the why,’ he said. ‘As for the who, we rather think it might be the CIA.’
During the night I tossed a little, and turned a little more, and twice got up to record some idiotic monologues about the state of play on my tax-efficient dictaphone. There were things about the whole business that bothered me, and things that scared me, but it was Sarah Woolf who kept coming into my head and refusing to leave.
I was not in love with her, you understand. How could I be? After all, I’d only spent a couple of hours in her company, and none of those had been under very relaxing circumstances. No. I was definitely not in love with her. It takes more than a pair of bright grey eyes and pillows of dark-brown, wavy hair to get me going.
For God’s sake.
At nine o’clock the next morning I was pulling on the Garrick tie and the under-buttoned blazer, and at half past nine I was ringing the enquiries bell at the National Westminster Bank in Swiss Cottage. I had no clear plan of action in mind, but I thought it might be good for morale to look my bank manager in the eye for the first time in ten years, even if the money in my account wasn’t mine.
I was shown into a waiting-room outside the manager’s office, and given a plastic cup of plastic coffee which was far too hot to drink until, in the space of a hundredth of a second, it suddenly became far too cold. I was trying to get rid of it behind a rubber plant when a nine-year-old boy with ginger hair stuck his head out of the door, beckoned me in, and announced himself as Graham Halkerston, Branch Manager.
‘So, what can I do for you, Mr Lang?’ he said, settling himself behind a young, ginger-haired desk.
I struck what I thought was a big business pose in the chair opposite him, and straightened my tie.
‘Well, Mr Halkerston,’ I said, ‘I am concerned about a sum of money, recently transferred to my account.’
He glanced down at a computer print-out on the desk. ‘Would that be a remittance on the seventh of April?’
‘Seventh of April,’ I repeated carefully, trying hard not to muddle it up with other payments of thirty thousand pounds I’d received that month. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That sounds like the one.’
‘Twenty-nine thousand, four hundred and eleven pounds and seventy-six pence. Were you thinking of transferring the money, Mr Lang? Because we have a variety of high-yielding accounts that would suit your needs.’
‘Yes. Ease of access, high interest, sixty day bonus, it’s up to you.’
It seemed strange somehow, hearing a human being use phrases like that. Until that point in my life, I’d only ever seen them on advertising billboards.
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Great. For the time being, Mr Halkerston, my needs are simply for you to keep the money in a room with a decent lock on the door.’ He stared back at me blankly. ‘I’m more interested to know the origins of this transfer.’ His face went from blank to highly blank. ‘Who gave me this money, Mr Halkerston?’
I could tell that unsolicited donations were not a regular feature of banking life, and it took a few more moments of blankness, followed by some paper-rustling, before Halkerston was back at the net.
‘The payment was made in cash,’ he said, ‘so I have no actual record of the origin. If you’ll hold on a second, I can get a copy of the credit slip.’ He pressed an intercom button and asked for Ginny, who duly trundled in bearing a folder. While Halkerston browsed through it, I had to wonder how Ginny could hold her head up under the weight of cosmetics smeared all over her face. Underneath it all, she may have been quite pretty. Or she may have been Dirk Bogarde. I will never know.
‘Here we are,’ said Halkerston. ‘The name of the payer has been left out, but there is a signature. Offer. Or possibly Offee. T Offee, that’s it.’
Paulie’s chambers were in the Middle Temple, which I remembered him telling me was somewhere near Fleet Street, and I got there eventually with the help of a black cab. It’s not the way I usually travel, but while I was at the bank I decided there was no harm in withdrawing a couple of hundred pounds worth of my blood money for expenses.
Paulie himself was in court on a hit-and-run case, playing his part as a human brake-pad on the wheels of justice, so I had no special entree to the chambers of Milton Crowley Spencer. Instead, I had to submit to the clerk’s interrogation on the nature of my ‘problem’ and by the time he’d finished, I felt worse than I’ve ever done in any venereal clinic.
Not that I’ve been to a lot of venereal clinics.
Having passed the preliminary means test, I was then left to cool my heels in a waiting-room filled with back numbers of Expressions, the journal for American Express cardholders. So I sat there and read about bespoke trouser-makers in Jermyn Street, and sock-weavers in Northampton, and hat-growers in Panama, and how likely it was that Kerry Packer would win the Veuve Cliquot Polo Championship at Smith’s Lawn this year, and generally caught up on all the big stories happening behind the news, until the clerk came back and raised a pert couple of eyebrows at me.
I was ushered into a large, oak-panelled room, with shelves of Regina versus The Rest Of The World on three walls, and a row of wooden filing cabinets along the fourth. There was a photograph on the desk of three teenage children, who looked as if they’d been bought from a catalogue, and next to it, a signed picture of Denis Thatcher. I was chewing on the peculiar fact that both these photographs were pointing outwards from the desk, when a connecting door opened, and I was suddenly in the presence of Spencer.
And quite a presence it was. He was a taller version of Rex Harrison, with greying hair, half-moon spectacles and a shirt so white it must have been running off the mains. I didn’t actually see him start the clock as he sat down.
‘Mr Fincham, sorry to keep you, do have a seat.’
He gestured around the room, as if inviting me to take my pick, but there was only one chair. I sat down, and immediately jumped to my feet again as the chair let out a scream of creaking, tearing wood. It was so loud, and so agonised, that I could picture people in the street outside stopping, and looking up at the window, and wondering about calling a policeman. Spencer didn’t seem to notice it.
‘Don’t think I’ve seen you at the club,’ he said, smiling expensively.
I sat down again, to another roar from the chair, and tried to find a position which might allow our conversation to be more or less audible above the howling woodwork.
‘Club?’ I said, and then looked down as he gestured at my tie. ‘Ah, you mean the Garrick?’
He nodded, still smiling.
‘No, well,’ I said, ‘I don’t get up to town as often as I’d like.’ I waved my hand in a way that implied a couple of thousand acres in Wiltshire and plenty of labradors. He nodded, as if he could picture the place exactly, and might pop over for a spot of lunch the next time he was in the neighbourhood.
‘Now then,’ he said, ‘how can I help?’
‘Well, this is rather delicate . . .’ I began.
‘Mr Fincham,’ he interrupted smoothly, ‘if the day ever comes when a client comes to me and says that the matter upon which he or she requires my advice is not delicate, I shall hang up my wig for good.’ From the look on his face, I could see that I was meant to take this as a witticism. All I could think was that it had probably cost me thirty quid.
‘Well, that’s very comforting,’ I said, acknowledging the joke. We smiled comfortably at each other. ‘The fact is,’ I went on, ‘that a friend of mine told me recently that you had been extremely helpful in introducing him to some people with unusual skills.’
There was a pause, as I’d rather suspected there might be. ‘I see,’ said Spencer. His smile faded slightly, the glasses came off, and the chin lifted five degrees. ‘Might I be favoured with the name of this friend of yours?’
‘I’d rather not say just at the moment. He told me that he needed . . . a sort of bodyguard, someone who would be prepared to carry out some fairly unorthodox duties, and that you furnished him with some names.’
Spencer leaned back in his chair and surveyed me. Head to toe. I could tell that the interview was already over, and that now he was just deciding on the most elegant way of telling me. After a while, he took in a slow breath through his finely wrought nose.
‘It is possible,’ he said, ‘that you have misunderstood the services we offer here, Mr Fincham. We are a firm of barristers. Advocates. We argue cases before the bench. That is our function. We are not, and this I think is where the confusion may have arisen, an employment agency. If your friend obtained satisfaction here, then I am glad. But I hope and believe that it had more to do with the legal advice we were able to offer than with any recommendations on the engagement of staff.’ In his mouth, ‘staff’ had a rather nasty sound to it. ‘Might it not be preferable for you to contact your friend in order to secure whatever information it is you require?’
‘Well that’s the problem,’ I said. ‘My friend has gone away.’ There was a pause, and Spencer blinked slowly. There is something strangely insulting about a slow blink. I know, because I use it myself.
‘You are welcome to use the telephone in the clerk’s office.’
‘He didn’t leave a number.’
‘Then, alas, Mr Fincham, you are in difficulty. Now, if you will excuse me . . .’ He slid the glasses back on to his nose and busied himself with some papers on his desk.
‘My friend wanted someone,’ I said, ‘who would be prepared to kill someone.’
Off came the glasses, up went the chin. ‘Indeed.’
A long pause.
‘Indeed,’ he said again. ‘That in itself being an unlawful act, it is highly improbable that he would have received any assistance from an employee of this firm, Mr Fincham . . .’
‘He assured me that you were most helpful . . .’
‘Mr Fincham, I shall be candid.’ The voice had stiffened considerably, and I realised that Spencer would be good fun to watch in court. ‘The suspicion has formed in my mind that you may be acting here in the capacity of agent provocateur.’ The French accent was confident and immaculate. He had a villa in Provence, natch. ‘From what motive, I cannot tell,’ he continued. ‘Nor am I particularly interested. I do, however, decline to say anything further to you.’
‘Unless you’re in the presence of a lawyer.’
‘Good day to you, Mr Fincham.’ Glasses on.
‘My friend also told me that you handled the payment of his new employee.’
No answer. I knew there weren’t going to be any more answers from Mr Spencer, but I thought I’d press on anyway. ‘My friend told me that you signed the credit slip yourself,’ I said. ‘In your own hand.’
‘I am rapidly tiring of news of your friend, Mr Fincham. I repeat, good day to you.’
I got to my feet and moved towards the door. The chair screamed its relief.
‘Does the offer of the telephone still stand?’ He didn’t even look up.
‘The cost of the call will be added to your bill.’
‘Bill for what?’ I said. ‘You haven’t given me anything.’
‘I have given you my time, Mr Fincham. If you have no desire to make use of it, that is entirely your concern.’
I opened the door.
‘Well, thanks anyway, Mr Spencer. By the way . . .’ I waited until he had looked up. ‘There’s some ugly talk at the Garrick that you cheat at bridge. I told the chaps that it was all rubbish and tommy-rot, but you know what these things are like. Chaps get an idea in their head. Thought you ought to know.’
Pathetic. But all I could think of at the time.
The clerk sensed that I was not a terribly grata persona, and warned me, peevishly, to expect a bill for services in the next few days.
I thanked him for his kindness and turned towards the staircase. As I did so, I noticed that someone else was now treading my path through back numbers of Expressions, the journal for American Express card-holders.
Short fat men in grey suits: this is a large category.
Short fat men in grey suits whose scrotums I have held in a hotel bar in Amsterdam: this is a very small category.
Tiny, in fact.
Take a straw and throw it up into the air, you shall see by that which way the wind is.
To follow somebody, without them knowing that you’re doing it, is not the doddle they make it seem in films. I’ve had some experience of professional following, and a lot more experience of professional going back to the office and saying ‘we lost him’. Unless your quarry is deaf, tunnel-sighted and lame, you need at least a dozen people and fifteen thousand quids-worth of short-wave radio to make a decent go of it.
The problem with McCluskey was that he was, in the jargon phrase, ‘a player’ - somebody who knows that they are a possible target, and has some idea of what to do about it. I couldn’t risk getting too close, and the only way to avoid that was by running; hanging back on the straights, sprinting flat-out as he rounded corners, pulling up in time to avoid him if he doubled back. None of this would have been countenanced by a professional outfit, of course, because it ignored the possibility that he had someone else watching his back, who might begin to wonder at this sprinting, shuffling, window-shopping lunatic.
The first stretch was easy enough. McCluskey waddled his way from Fleet Street along towards the Strand, but when he reached the Savoy, he skipped across the road and headed north into Covent Garden. There he dawdled amongst the myriad pointless shops, and stood for five minutes watching a juggler outside the Actors Church. Refreshed, he set off at a brisk pace towards St Martin’s Lane, crossed over on his way to Leicester Square, and then sold me a dummy by suddenly turning south into Trafalgar Square.
By the time we reached the bottom of the Haymarket, the sweat was pouring off me and I was praying for him to hail a taxi. He didn’t do it until he got to Lower Regent Street, and I caught another one an agonising twenty seconds later.
Well, obviously it was another one. Even the amateur follower knows that you don’t get into the same taxi as the person you’re following.
I threw myself into the seat and shouted at the driver to ‘follow that cab’, and then realised what a strange thing that is to say in real life. The cabbie didn’t seem to find it so.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘is he sleeping with your wife, or are you sleeping with his?’
I laughed as though this was the grandest thing I’d heard in years, which is what you have to do with cabbies if you want them to take you to the right place by the right route.
McCluskey got out at the Ritz, but he must have told his driver to stay and keep the meter running. I left him for three minutes before doing the same with my cab, but, as I opened the door, McCluskey came scooting back out and we were off again.
We crawled along Piccadilly for a while, and then turned right into some narrow empty streets that I didn’t know at all. This was the sort of territory where skilled craftspeople hand build underpants for American Express card-holders.
I leaned forward to tell the driver not to get too close, but he’d done this sort of thing before, or seen it done on :television, and he hung back a good distance.
McCluskey’s cab came to rest in Cork Street. I saw him pay his driver, and I told my man to trickle past and drop me two hundred yards further down the street.
The meter said six pounds, so I passed a ten pound note through the window and watched a fifteen-second production of ‘I’m Not Sure I’ve Got Change For That’, starring licensed cab driver 99102, before getting out and heading back down the street.
In those fifteen seconds, McCluskey had vanished. I’d just followed him for twenty minutes and five miles, and lost him in the last two hundred yards. Which, I suppose, served me right for being mean with the tip.
Cork Street is nothing but art galleries, mostly with large front windows, and one of the things I’ve noticed about windows is that they’re just as good for seeing out of as they are for seeing in through. I couldn’t go pressing my nose against every art gallery until I found him, so I decided to take a chance. I judged the spot where McCluskey had dismounted, and turned for the nearest door.
It was locked.
I was standing there looking at my watch, trying to work out what an art gallery’s opening hours might be if twelve wasn’t one of them, when a blonde girl wearing a neat black shift appeared out of the gloom and slipped the latch. She opened the door with a welcoming smile, and suddenly I seemed to have no choice but to step inside, my hopes of finding McCluskey ebbing away with every second.
Keeping one eye on the front window, I sank back into the relative darkness of the shop. Apart from the blonde, there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the place, which wasn’t all that surprising when I looked at the paintings.
‘Do. you know Terence Glass?’ she asked, handing me a card and price list. She was a frightfully pukka young thing. ‘Yes, I do,’ I said. ‘I’ve got three of his, as a matter of fact.’ Well, I mean. Sometimes you’ve just got to have a go, haven’t you?
‘Three of his what?’ she said. Doesn’t always work, of course.
‘Good heavens,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know he painted. Sarah,’ she called out, ‘did you know that Terence painted?’
From the back half of the gallery, a cool American voice came back. ‘Terry has never painted in his life. Hardly write his own name.’
I looked up just as Sarah Woolf came through the archway, immaculate in a dog-tooth skirt and jacket, and pushing that gentle bow wave of Fleur de Fleurs. But she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking towards the front of the gallery.
I turned, followed her gaze, and saw McCluskey standing in the open doorway.
‘But this gentleman claims he’s got three . . .’ said the blonde, laughing.
McCluskey was moving quickly towards Sarah, his right hand sliding across his chest towards the inside of his coat. I pushed the blonde away with my right arm, heard her gasp something polite, and at the same moment McCluskey turned his head towards me.
As he swung his body round, I aimed a round-house kick to his stomach, and to block it, he had to pull his right hand down from his coat. The kick connected, and for a moment, McCluskey’s feet left the floor. His head came forward as he gasped for breath, and I moved behind him and slipped my left arm around his neck. The blonde was screaming ‘oh my God’ in a very posh accent, and scrabbling for the phone on the table, but Sarah stayed where she was, arms rigid at her sides. I shouted at her to run, but she either didn’t hear me, or didn’t want to hear me. As I tightened my grip round McCluskey’s neck, he fought to get his fingers between the crook of my elbow and his throat. No chance of that.
I put my right elbow on McCluskey’s shoulder, and my right hand at the back of his head. My left hand slipped into the crook of my right elbow, and there I was, the model in diagram (c) in the chapter headed ‘Neck-Breaking: The Basics’.
As McCluskey kicked and struggled, I eased my left forearm back and my right hand forward - and he stopped kicking very quickly. He stopped kicking because he suddenly knew what I knew, and wanted him to know - that with a few extra pounds of pressure, I could end his life.
I’m not absolutely sure, but I think that was when the gun went off.
I don’t remember the actual feeling of being hit. Just the flatness of the sound in the gallery, and the smell of burnt whatever it is they use nowadays.
At first I thought it was McCluskey she’d shot, and I started to swear at her because I had everything under control, and anyway, I’d told her to get out of here. And then I thought Christ, I must be sweating a lot, because I could feel it running down my side, trickling wetly into my waistband. I looked up, and realised that Sarah was going to fire again. Or maybe she already had. McCluskey had wriggled free and I seemed to be falling back against one of the paintings.
‘You stupid bitch,’ I think I said, ‘I’m . . . on your side. This is him . . . the one . . . he’s the one . . . to kill your father. Fuck.’
The fuck was because everything was starting to go strange now. Light, sound, action.
Sarah was standing right over me, and I suppose, maybe, if circumstances had been different, I’d have been enjoying her legs. But they weren’t different. They were the same. And all I could look at now was the gun.
‘That would be very strange, Mr Lang,’ she said. ‘He could do that at home.’ I suddenly couldn’t make anything of this. Lots of things were wrong, very wrong, the numbness down my left side being not the least of them. Sarah knelt down next to me and put the muzzle of the gun under my chin.
‘This,’ she jerked a thumb towards McCluskey, ‘is my father.’
As I can’t remember any more, I assume I must have blacked out.
‘How are you feeling?’
It’s a question you’re bound to get asked when you’re lying on your back in a hospital bed, but I wish she hadn’t asked it all the same. My brain was scrambled to the point where you usually have to summon the waiter and ask for a refund, and it would have made more sense for me to be asking her how I felt. But she was a nurse, and therefore unlikely to be trying to kill me, so I decided to like her for the time being.
With a mighty effort, I ungummed my lips and croaked back at her, ‘Fine.’
‘That’s good,’ she said. ‘Doctor will be along to see you shortly.’ She patted the back of my hand and disappeared.
I closed my eyes for a few moments, and when I opened them it was dark outside. A white coat was standing over me, and despite the fact that its wearer looked young enough to be my bank manager, I could only assume he was a doctor. He gave me my wrist back, although I wasn’t aware that he’d been holding it, and jotted something down on a clipboard. ‘How are you feeling?’
He kept on writing.
‘Well you shouldn’t be. You’ve been shot. Lost quite a bit of blood, but that’s not a problem. You were lucky. Passed through your armpit.’ He made it sound as if the whole thing was my own silly fault. Which, in a way, it was.
‘Where am I?’ I said. ‘Hospital.’
He went away.
Later, a very fat woman came in with a trolley and put a plate of something brown and foul-smelling on a table beside me. I couldn’t imagine what I’d ever done to her, but whatever it was, it must have been bad.
She obviously realised that she’d over-reacted, because half an hour later she came and took the plate away again. Before she left, she told me where I was. The Middlesex Hospital, William Hoyle Ward.
My first proper visitor was Solomon. He came in, looking steady and eternal, sat down on the bed and chucked a paper bag of grapes on to the table.
‘How are you feeling?’
A definite pattern was emerging here.
‘I feel,’ I said, ‘almost exactly as if I’ve been shot, I’m now lying in a hospital trying to recover, and a Jewish policeman is sitting on my foot.’ He shifted his weight slightly along the bed.
‘They tell me you were lucky, master.’ I popped a grape.
‘Lucky as in . . . ?’
‘As in it being only a couple of inches away from your heart.’
‘Or a couple of inches away from missing me altogether. Depends on your point of view.’
He nodded, considering this.
‘What’s yours?’ he said, after a while. ‘What’s my what?’
‘Point of view.’
We looked at each other.
‘That England should play a flat back four against Holland,’ I said.
Solomon lifted himself off the bed and started to unpeel his raincoat, and I could hardly blame him. The temperature must have been in the nineties, and there seemed to be far, far too much air in the room. It was bunched and crowded, and in your face and eyes, and it made you think the room was a rush-hour tube train, and a lot of extra air had managed to sneak in just as the doors were closing.
I’d asked a nurse if she could turn the temperature down a little, but she’d told me that the heating was controlled by a computer in Reading. If I was the sort of person who writes letters to The Daily Telegraph, I’d have written a letter to The Daily Telegraph.
Solomon hung his coat on the back of the door.
‘Well now, sir,’ he said, ‘believe it or not the ladies and gentlemen who pay my wages have asked me to extract from you an explanation as to how you came to be lying on the floor of a prestigious West End art gallery, with a bullet hole in your chest.’
‘Arm, if you prefer, pit. Now will you tell me, master, or am I going to have to hold a pillow over your face until you co-operate?’
‘Well,’ I said, thinking that we may as well get down to business, ‘I presume you know that McCluskey is Woolf.’ I hadn’t presumed any such thing, of course. I just wanted to sound efficient. It was obvious from Solomon’s expression that he hadn’t known, so I pressed on. ‘I follow McCluskey to the gallery, thinking he might be there to do something unpleasant to Sarah. I bop him, get shot by Sarah, who then tells me that the boppee was, in fact, her father, Alexander Woolf.’
Solomon nodded calmly, the way he always did when he heard weird stuff.
‘Whereas you,’ he said eventually, ‘had him down as a man who had offered you money to kill Alexander Woolf?’
‘And you assumed, master, as I’m sure many would in your position, that when a man asks you to kill someone, the someone is not going to turn out to be the man himself.’
‘It’s not the way we do it on planet Earth, certainly.’
‘Hmm.’ Solomon had drifted over to the window where he seemed captivated by the Post Office Tower.
‘That’s it, is it?’ I said. ‘"Hmm"? The Ministry of Defence report on this is going to consist of "Hmm", bound in leather with a gold seal and signed by the Cabinet?’
Solomon didn’t answer, but just kept staring at the Post Office Tower.
‘Well then,’ I said, ‘tell me this. What’s happened to Woolfs major and minor? How did I get here? Who rang the ambulance? Did they stay with me until it came?’
‘Have you ever eaten at that restaurant, the one that goes round and round at the top . . . ?’
‘David, for Christ’s sake . . .’
‘The person who actually rang for the ambulance was a Mr Terence Glass, owner of the gallery in which you were shot, and putter-in of a claim to have your blood removed from his floor at the Ministry’s expense.’