A Circle of Seagulls by Tony Billinghurst
A Circle of Seagulls by Tony Billinghurst
The postcard from England only bore three words:
“Phone me – Lew.” Sue came into the room with the coffee.
“Who’s that from?” She asked, putting the jug on the table
“Is he still in Weymouth?”
Eric flipped the card over. “Yes.” Eric poured his coffee then phoned his old friend. “How are things in England, Lew?”
“Great – how’s life on Martinique, Eric?”
“So relaxed it’s almost comatose.”
Lew laughed. “I might be able to help you there; I’ve just heard McKenzie’s dead – died in Pentonville prison a couple of weeks ago.”
Eric turned to Sue. “Andy’s dead!”
She grabbed Eric’s arm and shouted at the phone: “Lew, that’s wonderful – absolutely wonderful!”
Eric spoke into the phone, “Lew – you’ve made his wife a very happy widow.”
“And that’s not all, I also heard that McKenzie sold United Arcadia shortly after he was arrested and the buyer wants you to do a job for him.”
“What sort of job?”
“Apparently, the same one McKenzie wanted you to do before you left for Martinique. Eric – word on the street is this fellow’s as bent as a fiddler’s elbow but he pays well.” Lew’s voice faded, “someone’s at the door, I’ll text you his details in a minute. Speak soon.”
Later, Sue went out and Eric checked his texts and phoned Frank Dexter in England.
“Morning – this is Eric Miller; Lew Clarke gave me your number.”
“Ah, Mr Miller. What a coincidence; I heard a rumour about you this morning.”
“Yes; it said that although Andy McKenzie and Sue had been married for years, you met them, he asked you to do a job and suddenly McKenzie’s jailed, you disappear and so does Sue. You’re a lucky man. If McKenzie hadn’t had been so ill, you’d be dead by now.”
“Fascinating – I miss all the gossip out here.”
“Are you still in the security business?”
“If the job’s right.”
“Did Clarke tell you what I want?”
“No – he only told me you’d bought United Arcadia from McKenzie.”
“That’s right – when I bought the company, I kept some of McKenzie’s staff and I want you to investigate one of them.”
“Also, I’m opening an upmarket night club, cabaret, fine dining, that sort of thing. I want Sue McKenzie to head up the opening cabaret. Are you still her agent?”
“Yes, but did Lew Clarke tell you we live in the Caribbean? Sue’s becoming quite a star here.”
“Move back to the UK and I’ll make her a star here as well. I want a yes or no answer by noon tomorrow. The Arcadia job’s urgent, if you want it, you’ll have to get back a.s.a.p.”
Sue returned from the beach with a seashell.
“When are you going to call Lew’s contact?”
“I called him – Lew’s right. Some fellow bought United Arcadia from Andy and he wants a security job done and he’s opening a night club. He wants you to head up the cabaret. He’s pushy, but we could use the money.”
“What’s his name?”
“Frank who?” For a second, she looked frightened.
“Oh!” She went pale.
“You’ve heard of him?” Sue seemed reluctant to answer. “Sue…?”
She spoke quietly. “Yes.”
“We dated for a while.”
“But Lew says he’s a crook.” Before she could answer, Eric interrupted, “it’s not you and bad boys again is it? Sue – your taste in men is abysmal.”
She snatched the chance to get out of the situation.
“Yes, when will I ever learn?”
She took her sun hat off. “It was a long time ago – I broke it off; he was becoming too possessive. Trouble is, Frank didn’t accept being dumped. He turns up now and then and tries to start up again.” Sue ran her hands through her hair. “So, what’s the night club all about?”
“Who knows?” Eric sensed the time wasn’t right to pursue the conversation, so changed the subject and searched for United Arcadia on the internet.
“Did you know United Arcadia runs amusement arcades, lots of them? They’ve got be going out of fashion – is he stupid?”
“No – very sharp.” The sun blazed through the window. Sue pulled the blind down. “I guess he wants it for the same reason Andy did – it’s a cash business. Frank probably launders money from his rackets through it.” She looked for her fan.
Eric pointed. “It’s over there.”
“Arcadia’s a legitimate business except Frank can put his henchmen on its payroll. Their phoney job titles makes their illegal incomes from his rackets look kosher. Thinking about it, I should inherit the money from its sale at the very least. If you hadn’t got Andy jailed, we wouldn’t be together; every cloud has a silver lining.” She fanned herself. “What does Dexter want done?”
“Investigate a member of Arcadia’s staff.”
“Is that easy?”
Eric switched the electric fan on. “Usually. I’ll join the company and sniff around till someone breaks cover. Usually, the one I’m after will be the first to make friends.”
“Make friends? You mean keep away from you – don’t you.”
“No, the opposite. They’ll make friends to keep an eye on me. Didn’t you see ‘The Godfather’ – keep your friends close and your enemies even closer?”
Later, Eric carried the breakfast tray and followed Sue to the kitchen. He brushed her hair out of her eyes.
“Love – going back to England is entirely your call. We’ll do what you want – only think about it, you’ll have to go back to sort Andy’s affairs sooner or later anyway.”
She put her arms around his waist. “True.”
“The recording studios are better in England than here and you’ll be able to finish your new album.”
“That’s true – the album is taking too long here.”
“And it’s safe for me to go back now; McKenzie’s dead.” He took her fan from her hand and fanned her. “Truth is, we’re simply not earning enough here.” Eric patted his brow with his sleeve. “And I can live without another rainy season and this incessant heat.”
To Eric’s surprise, Sue wanted to return, but he was disturbed by her enthusiasm for the cabaret job.
Shortly after dawn on the day they were to leave, they took their final stroll along the beach. Neither spoke. The sky was empty and the beach was deserted. Palm trees swayed gently in the breeze and a swell ran over the rocks and back again. Sue walked along the top of the sand by the driftwood and purslane bushes. Eric held out his hand. She shook her head and pointed to the sand, ironed flat by the waves.
“Seems wrong to make footprints – it’s so perfect.” She sounded sad. “I’d like to come back one day; this place is special, I’ll miss it.”
“Know what you mean; it feels like we’re leaving before the party’s over.” They sauntered to their boat and left.
It was a Tuesday when Eric and Sue docked in Weymouth. As arranged, Lew was waiting on the quay. He tied the boat up for them.
“How was your journey?”
“It’s easier going than coming back – good to see you again, Lew.”
“And you.” He turned to Sue. “Hello again, love; so, which is it this time, Anita or Sue?” He gave her a peck on her cheek.
“Sue – Anita Tregowan’s my stage name.”
Eric looked at his watch. “C’mon, Lew. I’m starving – buy you lunch and we’ll catch up.” They left the harbour, walked up the steep, narrow streets to Hope Square and sat under a tree outside a bistro. The waiter brought the menu and greeted Lew like a long lost friend. After they’d ordered lunch and two bottles of wine, Sue lent forward and patted Lew’s hand.
“Lew, thank’s for telling me where Eric was and keeping an ear out for Andy.”
He raised his glass in acknowledgement, then turned to Eric. “Was Andy McKenzie leaning on you, Eric?”
“Something like that.”
Lew looked at Eric. “Why all the secrecy; why didn’t you tell Sue you were leaving for Martinique?”
“Sue was still married to McKenzie and he was after me. If she didn’t know where I was, she couldn’t tell him. But, if she decided to leave him for me, I had to make sure she’d be able to figure out where I was.”
“And… we’d only met a few times. I wanted it to be solely her decision to leave Andy.” Eric topped Lew’s glass up. “Now Andy’s dead, we’re getting married. Fancy being best man Lew?”
He raised his glass. “You bet – seriously; I’m delighted.”
“Did many people try to find me?”
“A couple, I guess they were McKenzie’s muscle.” Before their meal was served, Sue went to fix her makeup. As soon as she was out of earshot, Lew leant closer. “Eric, I heard Frank Dexter’s been looking all over for Sue… but the last heavies who came here weren’t McKenzie’s goons, they were Dexter’s and it wasn’t Sue they were after, it was you.”
“But I’ve never met Dexter.”
“You might not have, but he and Sue have history, they were engaged at one time and he still carries a torch for her. I’ve heard Dexter’s no pussy cat – word is he is bad news and sounds as if he is in a big way.”
Sue returned; they had lunch, then Lew left. Eric emptied the remains of the second bottle into Sue’s glass.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Frank Dexter before?”
“There’s nothing to tell, anyway we’ve both got pasts – I thought we’d accepted that. I don’t ask about your wives; I thought we trusted each other and were starting from scratch.”
“Yea, but a couple of heavies from your past are taking too much interest in me; I want to know why.” He leaned over the table, put his hand under her chin and raised her head so she was looking at him. “C’mon – how over is it?”
She hesitated, just a little. “Over.”
“So, when we’re married, won’t Dexter give up?”
She threw some bread crumbs to a pigeon. “He didn’t when I married Andy.”
“That’s great,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Eric – Frank’s a nasty piece of work; people who get in his way seem to disappear.”
Sue thought that piece of news made Eric look drained. Eventually, he replied. “Don’t worry, love, I sorted McKenzie. I can sort Dexter as well; leave him to me.” Then they sat in silence, neither looking at the other. She threw bread crumbs to the pigeons and he stared into the sky over the Brewery Building at a flock of seagulls flying in endless circles, getting nowhere. Without looking at Sue, he muttered: “I know the feeling.”
As soon as they’d rented an apartment, Eric phoned Frank Dexter again and arranged a meeting.
United Arcadia’s Head Office was in open country and was approached from a motorway slip road. The isolated, rectangular building was surrounded by a water feature like a wide, sunken moat. Besides reception, the only bridges across it carried narrow, one way roads, via security barriers to large shutters in the sides of the building. The perimeter road was edged outside by a chain fence and inside by a row of clipped lavender bushes around small, immaculate lawns. The building and whole compound were swept by security cameras and floodlit at night. Eric parked, pressed the reception intercom but didn’t offer his name.
“I have an appointment with Frank Dexter at 11.” Eric was shown into Dexter’s office. Dexter was sitting behind a huge executive desk; he didn’t get up or greet Frank but pointed to a low, black armchair set in front of him. Eric looked at Dexter, his demeanour was ice cold and his flint grey eyes matched the colour of his hair. As he didn’t speak, Eric started the conversation.
“Who’s the member of staff and why do you want them investigated?”
Dexter didn’t reply but scrutinised Eric’s face; it looked lived in, but not always wisely and try as he might, he couldn’t read Eric’s thoughts which was what Eric intended.
“Why not fire them?”
Still Dexter didn’t reply. Eventually, Dexter lent back in his button back chair. “It’s not that simple.” Even his voice was grey. “In all the years I knew McKenzie, he was paranoid. At one time he thought there was a mole in his organisation spying for a rival concern – that was the person he wanted you to find. When he was arrested, he thought the mole could be a cop as the police knew so much.”
“So, sack the staff and take on new ones.”
Dexter clicked his ballpen, then flicked it aside. “I got rid of most of the people on Arcadia’s payroll, but I can’t get rid of the core ones, it would take time, too long, to train their replacements. Besides, it’s important that Arcadia always runs smoothly.”
“Could the mole be among the ones who went?”
“Why can’t you stop the business and make a clean sweep?”
Dexter started to become annoyed. “That’s none of your business. Simply find the person and quickly.”
“So – let’s get this straight; I’m looking for someone who might or might not exist and who might or might not be in Arcadia?”
“In a nutshell.”
“Then do what?”
“Just find him.”
“How am I supposed to do that? No one can find someone who isn’t there.”
“That’s your problem.” Dexter’s expression changed at the questions and he started to look angry. “Look, Miller – you’re not filling me with confidence. I heard you’re past it – convince me you’re still up to the job.”
Of all of Eric’s many low life clients, this one was in a class of his own and to make matters worse, he was too interested in Sue. Experience had taught him the best way to treat men like Dexter was the same way they treat others, so he didn’t answer for a while. Besides, he was fighting the temptation to break Dexter’s nose there and then. Eventually, Dexter leaned forward and glared at Eric.
“Well, go on then.”
Eric waited a few moments longer. “I’m not about to convince you. With a job like this, only a fool would talk to someone who wasn’t going to get the work. I don’t see you as a fool. You’ve done your research and have already made your decision.” He shifted his gaze from Dexter and looked at the ceiling and continued as if he was thinking aloud. “Of course, you could be seeking where my breaking point is – well, keep needling me and you’ll soon find out.”
Still holding Eric in his cold stare, eventually Dexter responded, “Ok, what’s your fee?”
“Three thousand plus expenses.”
“How long will it take?”
“Difficult to say.”
“Three grand’s a lot of dough and I’m in a hurry” He pointed at Eric. “I only pay on results and you’ve got four weeks, tops. If you don’t give me a name by then, you’re out without a penny – got it?”
Eric waited, then eventually replied emphatically: “I don’t leave jobs unfinished. If I do yours, I need information.” He didn’t wait for Dexter’s response. “I need names, job descriptions, addresses, work history of every employee still here and for anyone who left in the last 6 months. I want their photos and a list of your suspects. I need free rein to go where I like; when I like; I need to be able to report to you and you alone. I need a cover, so tell the staff I’m something like a Business Efficiency Consultant, it’ll explain my questions and sniffing around.”
Dexter showed no emotion as he made notes. “Ok, what name will you use?”
“Not very original.”
“That’s the point, Smiths are difficult to trace.”
Dexter wrote on a pad, tore it off then held it towards Eric so that he had to get up to take it.
“There’s the door entry code – memorise it and don’t take it out of this room. I’ll make it known you have authority to go where you like, except you are not to go into the Accounts Department.”
“How can you be sure the mole isn’t there?”
“They’re all my own people, I brought them from my old head office. When will you start?”
“Be here at 8.30. The office closes at 5 pm, I don’t allow people in the building after then. I’ll have the information you need tomorrow and your I.D. tag. I’ll find you an office.”
Eric studied the paper, screwed it up and dropped it on Dexter’s desk, then turned to go.
“And Miller, we’ll talk tomorrow about Sue McKenzie’s fees for the cabaret – she still uses Anita Tregowan as her stage name?”
“Yes – see you tomorrow, and don’t forget, it’s not Miller, it’s Smith.”
The following day, Eric was given a small office next to the janitor’s cupboard. It was the dump for broken furniture. As he was arranging what he could use of it there was a knock on his door. A girl greeted him. She had streaked hair and eyebrows applied with a paint roller.
‘“Ello, I’m T’rees, I gotta show you around like. What’s your name?”
“Ooh, get you – well, Mr Smith, do you wanna go now?”
Eric picked up a note pad. “Ok, where do we start?”
“Mr Dexter’s office – you’ve gotta collect an envelope of ‘im.” As they left the office, T’rees said, “So, what do you do then?”
“I’m a Business Efficiency Consultant.”
“What’s that, time an’ motion like?”
“That sort of thing.”
“Bet you’re not very popular, then.”
Eric winced as they walked along the corridors and T’rees continued to murder the English language. At Dexter’s office, he was handed a large envelope. The first document in it was a memo telling all staff that Eric Smith was heading a new efficiency initiative and instructed all to give him their full co-operation. As T’rees insisted on introducing him as “the new time an’ motion bloke,” he decided to play up to the title and went to the stationery room to collect a clipboard and stopwatch.
T’ree’s observation was correct, Eric wasn’t popular, but within a few days, he’d narrowed his suspects down to four, two of which were Dexter’s suggestions. As he couldn’t find anything to nail any of them, he started to make it obvious he was targeting them to see if one of them would panic and break cover, but they didn’t. Days passed and Eric was beginning to think there wasn’t a mole to be found when he received a note from Frank Dexter ordering him to his office. He took a long lunch first, then went.
As soon as he entered the room, Dexter demanded: “How far have you got?”
Eric told him the four names.
“I gave you two of those. How much longer are you going to be?”
“One can’t say, these things take time.”
“I’m not paying you to take time – if you can’t find him by the end of next week – you’re out – savvy? Now, get a move on.” As Eric got to the door, Dexter got up from his desk. “You haven’t told me how much Sue McKenzie will charge for the cabaret?” Eric was expecting the question.
“When do you plan to open?” Eric asked casually.
“End of August.”
“Ah, that’s a shame, she’s heavily booked in August and September.”
“Well, unbook her then – I want her to headline the cabaret.”
As Eric opened the door, he turned to Dexter, “I’ll think about it, Dexter, but right now, I’m rather busy.”
As he was now under pressure, Eric turned the pressure up even more on his suspects and as he’d predicted, one evening as he walked to the car park, one of the four approached him.
“Eric, fancy a drink sometime?”
He turned. “Garry isn’t it?”
“Right – I think we need to have a chat, don’t you – Crocker’s Bar, Brunswick Street at 8.30 tonight?”
Eric kept a straight face. “Crocker’s at 8.30 it is, look forward to it.”
Crocker’s Bar was down a side street, on a corner. It’s one of those places that comes alive after dark and was a haven for night people; the dealers, the damaged and depressed, the street walkers and street cleaners, the lonely and insomniacs and those who needed somewhere inconspicuous to meet people they shouldn’t know. When Eric arrived, Garry wasn’t there. He bought a beer, chose a table where he could see the door; opened his newspaper and pretended to read. The man at the next table sat motionless and inanimate, staring into his glass. The barman collected the empty glasses without speaking and wiped the tables with a grubby cloth. Taxis lit the room as they passed the window. Shortly, Garry arrived. The barman took a bottle from the shelf, marked the label with a felt tip and handed it over with two shot glasses. Garry crossed the room, set a glass in front of Eric, sat, filled the two glasses, then raised his in a mock toast.
“So, have you found who you’re looking for yet?”
Eric didn’t show any emotion. “What makes you think I’m looking for anyone?”
“Well, you’re sure as hell not a Business Efficiency Expert – are you?” Garry took a sip, all the time looking at Eric.
Eric rapidly summed up his options and decided to take a chance. Returning Garry’s look, he said: “Yes.”
“When was that then?”
Eric took his time again. “5.45 this evening.”
“So, who is it?”
Keeping his poker face, Eric replied: “You.”
Garry smiled and gave Eric a round of mock applause. “Well done, Mr Smith, or is it Miller, I’m a little confused?”
Eric looked surprised but quickly countered, “And you’ve just confirmed what you’re doing – you’re a cop.”
“Excellent, Sherlock – how did you deduce that?”
“Most people wouldn’t have found my real name so quickly but a cop could.”
Garry looked relieved; then they both sat in silence waiting for the other to make the next move. Eventually, Garry spoke. “Let’s put our cards on the table and stop playing silly sods. I’m pretty sure I know what you’re doing and I think you know what I’m doing. You’re trying to find a mole – am I right? Eric drained his glass, refilled it and evaded the question.
Garry continued, “Why did you tell me what you’re doing?” Garry looked around to make sure no one was listening, then said, “I haven’t much time and I need you to do me a favour.”
“Don’t find me.”
“Why would I do that? I take it the whisky is on your expenses – would it be good for my fee as well? If I don’t give Dexter your name by the end of next week, I’m out on my ear.”
“There’s a reason for the urgency. Look – I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I went undercover in Arcadia to get evidence against Andy McKenzie. We weren’t getting anywhere until we got an anonymous tip off and were able to arrest him. My job was done and I was about to be recalled when Frank Dexter bought Arcadia and as we’ve been unable to nail him in the past as well, I was left in place.” Garry stopped talking as two men walked past the table.
“And you haven’t got anywhere yet?” Eric queried.
Garry shook his head. “Dexter’s devious and ambitious – he’s expanding his empire. The reason he’s putting pressure on you is he’s about to start a joint venture with an outfit in Nigeria to get into the drugs game. He daren’t do that with a mole in place.”
“I didn’t know Nigeria’s a producer.”
“It’s not, it’s a transit route. I need to stay in place to stop that deal from happening.”
Eric put his glass down and leaned closer to Garry. “Look, Garry, or whatever your name is, I need the fee and it’s a matter of professional pride to complete a job. If I start failing, the work evaporates – it’s that simple.”
“I can’t do anything about your fee, all I’m asking is to give me as much time as possible. If Frank Dexter gets into drugs, there’ll be no stopping him.”
Eric sat back. “I’ll think about it.”
Garry reached for the bottle and topped their glasses up again. He glanced at the two men who were sitting close to them.
“Eric, I didn’t want to do this. If I can’t persuade you to act in the common good, I can tell you that if I’m pulled from this job, I’ll be back at my desk with enough time on my hands to look into all sorts of things, things like your second wife’s death.”
Eric fought to keep a straight face and control his anger. “You’re playing a very dirty game.”
Garry shrugged his shoulders. “We both work in a cesspit; we do whatever it takes.” Garry took another swig from his glass. Eric sensed a slight change in his demeanour, maybe a whisky fuelled change. “You know, Eric, I’d love a job where I could say ‘I made that’ at the end of a day. The best you and I can do in a day’s work is to stop some evil bastard from ruining someone else’s day.” Eric started to warm to Garry, it was as if they each recognised a kindred spirit. Garry continued, “You know what I do as a hobby? Marquetry – I’m making a panel of the Three Graces at the moment; – it satisfies a need, – odd isn’t it?” Eric knew exactly what Garry meant.
“No, not odd.”
Garry lifted his glass in recognition, but this time, the toast wasn’t a mocking one. “Look, I think we can help each other. You probably know Dexter’s opening a night club and he wants McKenzie’s widow…what is she… your fiancé to work there, don’t you?”
“Well, if I were you, I’d want him well out of the way and I may be able to help you do it.”
Garry dropped his voice to a near whisper. “Dexter has a number of rackets, each one’s ring fenced so if one goes down, it won’t take the others with it but, the only thing that does link them is United Arcadia.”
“Think I can see where you’re going with this.”
“The point is, Arcadia’s a legitimate business, that’s why we haven’t touched it so far, but it’s the only weak link in Dexter’s operation. Dexter’s income from his rackets is erratic. If he laundered it through Arcadia as it comes, Arcadia would perform differently from other slot arcade businesses and the Inland Revenue would investigate it. To avoid that, Dexter records Arcadia’s real takings in a hand written ledger.
“Bit Dickensian isn’t it?”
“No – it’s smart – there’s no way we can hack it. He calls it the Blue Book. To Arcadia’s true takings in the Blue Book, Dexter gradually adds proportional illegal profits from his rackets. It’s those figures which form Arcadia’s computerised accounts – the ones that are audited. He’s clever and patient, but if we can find the Blue Book, we’ve got him and all his rackets.
“So, where is the Blue Book?”
“That’s the problem – we don’t know.” Garry waited as Eric finished his beer, then asked, “Have you heard of Frank’s twin brother, Alan?”
Eric raised his eyebrows. “No.”
“The Dexter twins were partners from the time they were stealing kid’s pocket money. Frank’s the older one by a few minutes. Since birth, they’ve had a love-hate relationship.”
“Often the way with twins.”
“Although they look alike, Frank is patient, careful and methodical but Alan is impetuous and careless. They were partners until last January when they had a massive row. Frank threw Alan out. Alan has sworn to get even – he hates his brother now. He’d know where the Blue Book is.”
“Yea, but for obvious reasons, I can’t ask him for it – but you could.”
Eric’s head was spinning. Realising the situation had changed, he had to figure out his next move and needed a few minutes to think. “I need the loo – be back in a second.”
Eric took his time, made a decision then returned. “Ok, where’s Alan now?”
Garry took Eric’s newspaper, wrote an address and phone number on it and pushed it back across the table.
Eric thought for a moment. “Look, if I do help you, I need you to help me. My first wife’s new man is a cop. She’s been bending his ear and he’s muckraking about my second wife’s death. My wife died in an accident. I want it left that way, Ok?”
Garry leaned closer. “Eric, you know I can’t make promises, but the coroner recorded her death as accidental and I might be able to put that little problem to rest for you.”
Eric nodded by way of thanks and they exchanged mobile numbers.
“Let’s only talk out of work hours – and don’t forget, the name’s Smith.”
Garry got up and picked up the bottle. “Good to work with you, Eric.”
Eric made an appointment to see Alan. His office was on the third floor of a dilapidated ‘60’s office block. The lift was broken and the stairwell stank like a public toilet. As Eric climbed the graffiti covered stairs, he tried to visualise Alan Dexter. When he entered his office, he wasn’t far wrong. It was immediately obvious the Dexter’s were brothers, except that Alan was overweight and unlike his brother’s frigid, focused expression, a boy stared out of his podgy face.
Alan’s office was stale and untidy. His battered desk was surrounded by two huge television sets, both playing racing channels. There was a blackboard covered in chalk scribble, a coat stand, binocular case and a brown fedora. His desk had two phones, a laptop, three dirty coffee mugs and whatever else was on it was buried under numerous newspapers. Alan greeted Eric without taking the cigarette from his mouth.
“What’s of our mutual interest then Mr Smith?” he mumbled. His yellow fingers matched his teeth.
“I’ve been commissioned by Arcadia to do a special job and I’ve learned you’d like to take your brother down a peg or two.”
“What special job?”
“I bet. Do I look that stupid? It’s to have a go at me.”
“No, it’s nothing to do with you.”
Alan took numerous short puffs and peered through the cloud of smoke. “Why would you want to help me against my brother?”
“Firstly, the job Frank wants me to do isn’t in my interests and he’s arranged it so I can’t get out of it. Secondly, for the fee you’ll pay me.”
“What sort of a peg would that be and what size fee?” He flicked his ash near his ashtray.
“Frank off to jail for a long stretch; five thousand fee and no comebacks for you.”
Alan lit another cigarette from his old one. “Oh yea, try that and he’ll tear you apart.”
“Maybe, but there’s an opportunity which’ll only be around for a few days and I’m in a position to exploit it.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t, and I don’t know if I can trust you either, but for a while, our interests coincide. We’d be stupid to con each other and what’s more, my loyalty is to the client who pays me.”
Alan blew smoke into the air. “If Frank’s employed you, he’ll pay you; he’s your client.”
“Not if you pay me first…” It took a while for the point to sink in.
“Five grand’s a lot of bread; the job sounds more like two grand’s worth to me.”
Eric stood up and slowly buttoned his coat as if he was about to leave. “Five grand – cash. I’m taking the risks, not you.”
“Cash? I can’t lay my hands on that much change at short notice. I could do three and a half at a push.”
“Push harder and make it four. The risks to me aren’t worth less.”
Alan blew more smoke, then seemed to make a snap decision. “Ok, but if he doesn’t go down, the deal’s off.”
“Agreed, but two conditions. The four thousand is at the readies, I don’t want any homemade notes and I need a little help from you.”
“I need to know where the Blue Book is.”
Alan peered through the smoke. “It’s in a safe behind a painting in the Accounts Department”
“Yea, of a racehorse Frank owned.”
“And the safe?”
“Top of the range, six digit combination wall safe.”
“What’s the code?”
“No idea, Frank would’ve changed it the second I left. It won’t be easy to crack, it’s a Congrieve H28. When we bought the office, Frank asked some faces which safes were the hardest to crack, they all said Congrieve H28’s; so, that’s what he got.”
“Set the building on fire – he’d grab the book and run.”
Alan shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t; the safe is fire resistant, he’d leave it where it is and collect it when the fire is out.”
“And there are no copies of the book?”
“No.” Alan’s ashtray was overflowing, but he stubbed his cigarette out in it, then they both sat in silence. After a while, Alan got up and walked to the grimy window. He spoke as if he was thinking to himself. “Security’s tight – if anyone raids the place, by the time they cross the compound, accounts will have destroyed the book. To stand any chance, you’d need someone on the inside to guard the safe. Is that what you were thinking of doing?”
Eric tried to look convincing. “Something like that.”
Alan went back to his desk, picked up a cola can and shook it. It was empty. He crushed it and flicked it towards his waste bin. It was Eric’s turn to think aloud. “Is the account’s door code different from the rest of the building?”
“Would Frank have changed it when you left?”
Alan’s face lit up and he pointed at Eric. “He might not have.” He picked up a pad, wrote a number and handed it to Eric. “The accounts crew aren’t always in first thing – worth a try.” Eric’s attitude changed when he took the note and saw the scars on Alan’s knuckles.
“On the same system as the rest of the building; no problem there. So, haven’t the police got enough evidence to get a search warrant?”
Eric wasn’t about to walk into that trap. “No idea – I’m not a cop.”
Alan adopted a knowing look. “They’d get a search warrant if they thought there was a gun there – a very illegal one.”
“No, but there could be. I happen to know where there’s a Berretta 9000, it was the one that killed that security guard in Brighton a couple of years back. The chaps are thinking it’s too hot now and want it out of circulation. I could get it. Have you got clearance to move about the building?”
“Yes, everywhere except accounts.”
“Ok – how about this for a plan? A parcel post is delivered at 11 am. If you went to the goods inward dock, that’s door 3, immediately after the van left and put another parcel in containing the gun, it might get mixed up.”
“Nah – someone’d open it, I’d stand no chance.”
Alan smiled and shook his head. “No, they wouldn’t. I could address the parcel to a fictional department and a non-existent employee. No one uses their initiative; it’s drummed into them to do their job and mind their own business about everyone else. I’ve known mail addressed like that to lie around for days before it’s opened. If you could deliver the parcel, have the police on standby and get to accounts to guard the safe – it might work.”
“Frank would deny any knowledge of the gun.”
“Course he would, but the cops would have their excuse to search the building and find the book.” He sat back and looked pleased with himself. As Eric thought it over, he was inclined to think the look was justified.
“Sounds good to me, I’ll check the accounts door code first thing tomorrow; let you know one way or the other. You make sure you can get the gun and the cash.” He leaned over and picked up a paper from the floor. “Call me on this number when you’re ready. Any day better than another for the job?”
Alan was looking through his desk drawers, presumably for more smokes. “Friday. Frank usually visits his other interests on Fridays; he sometimes takes the accounts manager with him.” Although the meeting was over, Eric sat in deep thought.
“Problem?” Alan asked.
Eric wrinkled his forehead. “Yea – it won’t take Frank long to realise who set him up, he could still get at me from the nick. I’m too exposed.” After a while, he’d made a decision. “Ok. Wrap the gun in a small package, I need to be able to put it in my pocket and you wrap both packets yourself – I don’t want any mistakes, my ass is hanging out on this job. Don’t forget – that’s two parcels – no dosh and I’m a free agent – comprende?”
Alan pointed at Eric. “I’ve had a thought as well.” Eric tried not to look surprised. “Frank’ll be able to claim the parcel’s been sent in error, the cops won’t be able to pin the gun on him.”
Eric pursed his lips as he thought. “Ok, right – use your printer and make a delivery note. Head it ‘Mr F. Dexter. United Arcadia’ – add Arcadia’s address – date it sometime last week, ‘Goods as requested.’ For heaven’s sake, don’t put anything else on it, then wrap it in the parcel. That’ll sort it.”
Eric got in early the following morning, went to accounts and tried the keypad with Alan’s code. The door opened. He quickly closed it and as he turned, a secretary walked around the corner. She looked formidable; her lipstick matched her scarlet talons.
“What are you doing here – this is a restricted area?”
Eric instantly switched on his most beguiling smile, drew himself to his full height, pushed back his shoulders and went on a charm offensive.
“I am so sorry – I’m new here, I’m lost; trying to find stationery; all these corridors look the same, I’ve wandered all over the place.”
It worked. The secretary came towards Eric and smiled back. “I know,” she said, her voice now saccharine sweet, “I kept getting lost myself when I first came here. Downstairs, turn left, third door on the right. You are?”
Eric held out his I.D. tag as far as the lanyard would permit. “Eric Smith – Business Efficiency Initiative.” Eric couldn’t see her I.D. tag. “And you are?”
“I’m accounts, we don’t have I.D. tags – Gillian Whelan;” she stepped even closer and dropped her voice the best part of an octave, “any problems, you give me a call Eric, extension 214… be very pleased to help.”
“Oh, I will, thank you, Gillian.”
Eric returned to his office and rummaged through the broken furniture. He pulled a large chewed up dictionary from under a desk, held it in one hand but it was too heavy, so threw it back. After more burrowing, he found a box file, opened it, ripped the papers and index out and threw them behind a cabinet. Holding the file by its corners with three fingers, he went to stationery and got a large marker pen and paper. On returning to his office, he wrapped the file as a parcel then wrote on it in large letters: “E. Smith. Business Efficiency Initiative. Office G17,” tucked it under his arm and left for the day.
That night, Eric phoned Garry to tell him the plan was on. A few minutes later, Alan called Eric to say the gun parcel would be addressed to J. Ainsworth. Maintenance Dept. They decided to start their campaign on Friday at 11 am.
Garry agreed to handle the police raid and to guard the safe in accounts. As they finished their conversation, Eric asked: “Know what the weather forecast for Friday is Garry?”
A few moments later, Garry replied: “Cloud and intermittent showers.”
“Great. Check the parcel carefully for prints, you never know what goodies you’ll find.”
“Where will you be after 11.30 on Friday, in case we need to speak?”
“No idea, probably visiting some aged relative who’s seriously ill.”
“What relative is that?”
“No idea – I haven’t decided yet.”
On Friday morning, Eric, wearing his old raincoat, drove to Alan’s office and collected two small parcels, one thick, one thin. On his way to Arcadia, he pulled into a layby, switched the engine off, tore the thin package open, and counted 200, £20 notes. He put that in his jacket pocket and the thick parcel in his inside raincoat pocket, then turned the radio on and relaxed. At ten o’clock, he drove towards Arcadia and parked in a farm gateway and waited for the parcel delivery van to pass. It was on time. He allowed 15 minutes more, then drove to Arcadia’s entry barrier. He punched in the passcode, drove to the door 3 barrier, punched in the code again. Nothing happened. He did it again. A few seconds later, a metallic voice addressed him.
“Are you alone in your car Mr Smith?”
“When the barrier rises, drive forward, wait for the door to open, go in and stop on the yellow hatching on the floor and turn your engine off. Open the boot and all your doors then stand away from the car.”
The roller shutter closed behind him. He was in a wide, ill lit passageway that crossed from one side of the building to the other. There were metal doors set at the walls along either side. Above each door was a lamp. He was trapped in. Eventually, a green light lit above door number 4 and the voice addressed him from the P.A.
“Door 4 is open. Bring your parcel into the room. Leave your car as it is.”
Eric picked up the box file parcel from the passenger seat and making a show of it being light, holding it with one hand by its corner with the address facing out, slowly walked to door 4, taking care the surveillance cameras could read the address. It was important that anyone watching would think he was considering how long it would take internal mail to deliver it to his office. The small room was cold and bare. The floor, walls and ceiling were concrete – there were no windows. The light was recessed into the ceiling. It was like being in a tomb. Besides a trolley, the only other furniture was a kitchen chair. The electric door closed and locked behind him. The voice addressed him again.
“There is a hatch in the wall facing you – when it opens, place the parcel inside.” The hatch slid up and Eric, standing as close as possible, shielding himself from the camera, flicked the parcel from his raincoat pocket in before placing the box file on top. The voice continued.
“Please return to your car. You may close its doors and start your engine. Wait for the shutters in front of you to open and the red traffic light to turn green. The electric door lock opened and he left the premises. The exit barriers opened automatically. Rather than turning to the staff car park, he left the compound, drove to the bridge over the motorway and waited. To his relief, he saw a number of approaching flashing blue lights. It was a convoy of police vehicles. He waited until they left the motorway for the slip road, switched his engine on and went home. Sue was loading the washing machine when he arrived. She looked surprised.
“Hello, love, you’re back early – everything, all right?”
“Yes, fine – I only went in to wrap up a few details.”
“Really? Have you sorted Frank’s problem already; he paid you yet?”
Eric suppressed a smile and took out the money from his pocket. “Oh, Dexter you mean, yes, problem solved and paid in full; seemed very satisfied with the service.” Then he muttered; “For now.”
Copyright Tony Billinghurst 2021