Beyond the splash of the headlights, the night was an all-absorbing velvet shroud. Flat, Kentish farmland sprawled out beyond the concrete and wire fences on both sides of the minor road. Guy Duggleby had followed the route south from Ashford countless times in his thirty-five years, but he never felt confident about locating the turn-off for Horton Grand. The village's signpost had succumbed to the combined forces of wet rot and a gale fifteen years before and it had not been replaced.
Guy knew that he had to look out for some trees on the left but he could never remember whether he wanted the first or the second clump. It was one of those annoying pieces of vital information that refuse to stick in the memory. If he took the wrong turning, he would make a fool of himself. One of the two roads petered out in a field – at a strategic point on a shallow hill at which the ground no longer became boggy after heavy rain.
Guy followed the cat's eyes round a sweeping left-hand curve. In the distance, he could see a billowing, darker shape against the clear, star-filled sky. Decision time was approaching at forty-five miles per hour.
"Have they got round to putting up a sign for you yet?" he passed casually over his left shoulder to his passengers.
"Not for us," replied Jeff Jenner. "The local authority reckons it can't afford one – even though they've shoved the rates up again."
"The farmer's put one up, though," added Nicki, Jeff's wife. "After he got up one morning and found three caravans parked by the stream."
"Gypsies?" said Guy.
"Holiday-makers," replied Nicki. "They were quite indignant when he told them to move on."
"Not very politely," chuckled Jeff.
"In the end, he had to call the police to frighten them away when they threatened to chuck him in the stream," finished Nicki. "They seemed to think his farm was open to the public because he's got what looks like a bit of public road rather than a muddy track."
"Cheeky sods!" laughed Guy.
He had allowed his speed to slacken gradually during the brief conversation. The first stand of a dozen trees raced up to them. Guy's headlights picked out a large sign. Neat letters, drawn a foot high in white paint, informed him that there was NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY to Higher Gilbert's Farm.
Problem solved, thought Guy.
He made a mental note to include a figure ‘2' somewhere on the Jaguar's dashboard. Perhaps a neat engraving in the walnut facing would do the job.
"Last lap," he added aloud as he made the correct left turn into a narrower lane, which ran between straggling hedges.
The Jenners' country retreat lay a mile and a quarter further on through an even deeper gloom.
"Home for half ten," remarked Jeff, glancing at the dashboard clock. "Think we ought to keep this chauffeur on, love?"
"He's crashed seven cars that we know about," Nicki pointed out. "I don't fancy being in number eight."
"You can always get out and walk any time you feel like it," said Guy, contriving to sound hurt.
"Knowing you, you wouldn't stop first," laughed Nicki.
Guy made two right turns among the lane's routine snaking. The lane crossed a mediaeval stone bridge with an incongruous weight restriction sign. Nothing big enough to threaten it seemed likely to be able to negotiate the approaches.
Beyond the narrow ribbon of black, slow-moving water were modern bungalows with roofs of green slate. Half-timbered houses crouched irregularly in a double line at the heart of the village. Guy turned right again at the pub, heading towards Dorn Wood. Grey stones, turned a murky shade of yellow by the widely-spaced street lights, took over as the building material of choice.
"Are you for coffee?" asked Jeff as Guy drifted to a halt at the Jenners' wrought-iron gate. "If you've got any room left after that huge meal we had."
"I had plenty of time to digest it at the cinema," said Guy. "And it might help to keep me awake."
"Sure you don't want to stay the night?" invited Nicki. "It won't take a minute to make up the spare bed."
"Thanks anyway, but I think I'll sneak up on the family," Guy decided. "I can manage another thirty-nine miles. You go on. I'll catch you up. I just want to take a look at the exhaust. I think your road bashed it a couple of times."
"I'll put the kettle on," said Nicki.
"About time you got yourself a new car," added Jeff.
"Sure!" scoffed Guy. He was a roving representative of his family's light engineering business and he liked to divide his life into periods of work and periods of pleasure in order to devote his full attention to the task in hand. Thus he assigned eight or nine months of the year to the concentrated slog of drumming up a year's work for the small factory. After necessary office work, he devoted the rest to spending his commission and pursuing other interests. The comfort and familiarity of his ageing Jaguar helped to ease him through the many thousands of miles on motorways and lesser roads.
Leaving their friend shining a torch at the underside of his car, the Jenners clicked through the garden gate and hurried five yards to their country front door. It was a chilly evening towards the end of a wet spring. A sense of wrongness tugged at Jeff as soon as he had opened the door. His fingers travelled automatically to the switch. The hall light made the couple blink.
There was a man on the staircase, sitting on the third step – a man with a gun, which was pointing at the Jenners with an unwavering aim. Jeff sad Nicki came to an uncertain halt just beyond the doormat.
"Keep coming," invited the man with the gun. He seemed quite young to the Jenners, perhaps ten years younger than their early thirties, and he spoke with an unconcerned air of absolute authority. "Kitchen." The gun twitched to the youngster's left.
He meant the room which the Jenners called their living room. The kitchen proper was to be found beyond the door in the coral-strand wallpaper.
"What's your game?" asked Jeff, letting his voice rise as if out of control but hoping to warn Guy.
He left the front door ajar, instead of closed to as he would normally do, as another signal that all was not well. Jeff led Nicki down the hall, trying to keep his body between the gun and his wife. The weapon looked very unwieldy and off-balance with its long, black, sound suppressor. Someone else switched on the living room light.
"Just get in here and don't screw us around," said an older voice with an American accent.
The Jenners turned to see two men standing by the chest of drawers, both in their forties and well dressed. The youngster with the gun could manage only fashionable. The chalk stripes on his washed-out blue suit looked strangely distorted, as if the garment had been designed by Victor Vasarely.
"Jeff!" gasped Nicki Jenner, her mouth falling open.
A gentle tornado had caressed the room. Every drawer and cupboard gaped, but their contents had not been tipped out.
One of the intruders was short and wide, and he had a black moustache, which formed a sinister pencil line along his full top lip. The Jenners took in jet black hair and bushy eyebrows, which met above his nose. He was the American. He was holding a pair of dark blue passports.
"Who are you?" demanded his companion, a man with a long, thin face, taking his hand away from the light switch. He was the tallest person in the room. His accent belonged to the London area, like the youngster's.
Jeff Jenner opened his mouth; then closed it again, thrown off balance by a totally unreasonable question. "More to the point," he managed then he had collected his thoughts, "who the bloody hell are you and that are you doing here?" And what's Guy doing? he asked himself.
"We're asking the questions," said the youngster curtly, stepping into the room. His gun robbed the words of their unconscious Gestapo humour.
"Your wallet," said the thin-faced man. "And the handbag."
Jeff surrendered his dark brown notecase, reaching slowly and carefully into his heavy tweed jacket. It was not a time for heroics or non-co-operation. The intruder tucked Nicki's handbag under his arm and went through the wallet, looking at credit cards, a cheque card, the blood donor's certificate book and an old identity card issued to go with a travel season ticket. Jeff had retained it because it could offer a photograph to anyone who doubted his identity. Nicki's handbag and her wallet received a similar scrutiny.
"He's Jeff Jenner all right," said the Londoner.
"That's what these say," nodded the American with the moustache, tapping the passports.
"But he can't be. He looks nothing like him," continued the Londoner. "He's not tall enough. And his hair's lighter. What are you doing here?"
"We live here!" insisted Nicki.
"Not according to your driver's licence," said the Londoner.
"We live there too," said Nicki, referring to their flat in London.
"Rich bastards," said the youngster with the gun. It was just an observation. There was no emotion in his voice. Jeff Jenner felt cold suddenly, colder than the unoccupied chill of the house.
"When's the last time you were in France?" said the stocky American, looking through one of the passports.
Jeff exchanged glances with his wife, who shook her head. The tense atmosphere in the room did not promote clear thought.
"Six months ago?" said Jeff. "The beginning of last December."
"That's right," confirmed the American.
"They must know him," decided the Londoner. "If he gave this place as his address."
"Know who?" asked Jeff.
"Shall I unload this shotgun, or that?" called Guy Duggleby's well-bred voice from the front door.
The youngster in the strange, chalk-striped suit spun round to cover the living room door with his unwieldy silenced pistol.
"You jerk!" said the American in a soft snarl. "Out!"
The tactical withdrawal through the kitchen and then the back door went off swiftly and smoothly, as if well rehearsed. Suddenly, the uninvited guests were no longer there. Jeff and Nicki Jenner just stood and stared at the kitchen door as it swung closed under the influence of gravity and a little subsidence.
"Have they gone?" said Guy, poking his head into the room. "You two had better sit down. You look positively bleached."
The Jenners drifted over to the settee and sat down, looking bewildered. Guy carried on across the living room and disappeared into the kitchen. The back door closed and a solid bolt slid into its socket with a reassuring thump. His face set in a thoughtful expression, Guy returned to pour out three generous measures of brandy. Three damp glasses and a whisky bottle out of its appointed piece told him that the visitors had also been sampling the Jenners' hospitality.
"They got clean away, which is probably best for all concerned," said Guy, distributing glasses. "Here, get outside of this."
"How are you doing?" Jeff asked his wife.
"I've just about got over the shock," said Nicki with a thin smile. "Anyone have any idea who they were?"
"We might have found out if Guy hadn't frightened them away with his imaginary shotgun," said Jeff.
"Want me to run after them and tell them it was all a joke?" suggested Guy as he pushed into the kitchen to put the kettle on for their coffee.
"Not tonight," said Nicki.
"Did you get a look at them?" called Jeff.
"No one I know," called Guy. "And I had a bloody good look at them through the gap in the curtains before I saw them off. That shotgun wasn't really loaded, by the way."
"What's the point of imagining an unloaded shotgun?" demanded Nicki.
"You know Guy, he'd rather bluff you than hold a winning hand," said Jeff.
Guy decided not to mention the neat, .25 calibre automatic pistol in his jacket pocket – a trophy from a trip to the United States. He had been indulging in some target practice at a quiet spot on his way home. Jeff's warning had sent him to the Jaguar's dashboard to retrieve the weapon.
"Do you think you could manage sketches of those three?" he called as he spooned ground coffee into the filtering device taking extra care not to spill the dark grains onto the worktop.
"I don't see why not." Nicki handed her glass to Jeff and crossed the living room to the chest of drawers in search of a sketch pad and charcoal drawing sticks. Having located her drawing materials, she carried on round the room until she had closed every other drawer and cupboard door. "There doesn't seem to be anything missing," she added to Jeff.
"They say you feel violated after a burglary," he observed. "But this looks like they were looking for something in their own home. Nothing smashed up."
"You're like the tart, JJ," Guy called from the kitchen. "Didn't know she'd been raped till the cheque bounced. I should have a look upstairs before you relax."
The Jenners left the room at a trot. They returned a few minutes later, looking relieved. The house was small, just two up, two down and the bathroom extension tacked on to the back. Checking for losses took very little time. Guy was sitting at the dining table, adding milk from a bottle to a steaming cup of filtered coffee. Two more cups, a bowl of sugar and an open tin of shortbread fingers had also arrived from the kitchen.
"If they did take anything, it's something we won't miss in a hurry," said Nicki. "You should have let me do that," she added when she noticed the cups.
"You're supposed to be making some sketches," Guy reminded her. "While we try and make some sense of this."
The Jenners joined him at the table. Nicki slid an ashtray over to Guy. His hosts had been moderate smokers until the great parenthood fiasco. Having taken in all the propaganda about the effects of smoking on an unborn child, Nicki had decided to break the habit before becoming pregnant. Jeff had been shamed into following her example.
They had given Nature every chance to take advantage of the situation for three years. Then they had concluded that one of them was infertile. Prolonged failure had dulled the urge to found a dynasty by then. They had not bothered to find out if their suspicion was correct, and if it was, which was infertile. But the great effort had not been entirely wasted. Neither had backslid into the ranks of smokers.
Guy lit a long, thin cigar and took a notebook from the right inside pocket of his jacket. He believed in thinking on paper at the start of a problem. "Right, what have we got? Three men. If you locked up properly here, one of them knows a bit about burglary."
"Which means he's either a crook or a spy," said Nicki, sketching busily.
"Or a locksmith, or an associate of crooks like an ex-copper, or someone in the security business, or someone who's taken the Open University course in case he locks himself out of his house," listed Guy. "The two older blokes, they look as if they've been around a bit. And their clothes suggested they're used to quite a bit of money. The young lad seemed to know how to handle the gun. And himself. Could be ex-army. And having him along proved Adolph and Bertie don't like getting their hands dirty."
"Which one has the moustache?" chuckled Nicki.
"It'll have to be Adolph, Bertie's too English for a Yank." said Jeff.
"Which makes the young one something beginning with C. Claud." Nicki added name-labels to her sketches.
"I take it you didn't dash over to the phone box out there and scream for the police?" said Jeff, making a statement out of his question. "And we're not going to now?"
Guy shrugged. "I don't see much point. They'll be well away from here by now. And there's only evidence of identification to put them here. Juries tend to want a bit more than that after all these TV programmes that prove a dozen witnesses will give you twelve different versions of an accident."
"Fingerprints," said Nicki. "Theirs should be all over the place. We can't have messed up all of them with ours."
"Didn't you notice they were all wearing gloves?" Guy asked her with a smile.
"No," said Nicki, surprised.
"Light-coloured supermarket washing-up gloves."
"One of them was smoking," said Jeff. "I caught a whiff of it as soon as I opened the front door. I've only just realized what it was."
"Was it some obscure and exotic tobacco?" said Guy. "Which you could recognize in a smell test like some latter-day Sherlock Holmes?"
"Just an average cigarette, I think."
"So there's no point in looking for ash to turn over to a real Sherlock Holmes-type expert on the subject? And what could the police charge them with anyway? They didn't break anything and there's only our word they entered the place. They'll have hidden the shooting iron. And they didn't try to rob you, or blackmail you or even threaten you."
"And they shoved off before we found out that they wanted," added Jeff. "Not really worth getting the local bobby out of bed."
"But there's no reason why we shouldn't follow up their visit," said Guy. "We've got three nice pictures. And the number of their car."
"How did you get that?" frowned Nicki.
"There was a dark green Land Rover parked down the lane. About ten years old, but they were built to last. I took a little look around before I made my dramatic entrance. That was probably what I heard driving off as I bolted the back door."
"I didn't hear it," said Jeff.
"Me neither," added Nicki.
"You two would make lousy witnesses," chuckled Guy. "You didn't even notice their gloves."
"There was a bloke pointing a gun at us," protested Jeff.
"I know," smiled Guy. "That's why he was there. All you were supposed to see was his gun."
"What about these, then?" Nicki slid her sketches across the table.
"That's there they were a little unlucky," Guy admitted. "They didn't know one of you is a trained observer. But I bet you couldn't tell me that colour shoes any of them was wearing. All you saw was their faces."
Nicki Jenner creased her tanned features into a fierce scowl of concentration, then she had to admit that Guy was right. "Even so," she added, "we know that they look like, the sound of their voices and the number of their car. That must prove beyond any reasonable doubt they were here. If I were a copper, I'd arrest them on that evidence and worry about that to charge them with later."
"The next thing we have to consider is why they were here," said Guy, moving to the next item on his notebook agenda.
"They wanted Jeff," said Nicki, darting an uncertain glance at her husband. "But then they didn't."
"Unravel that for me," invited Guy. "I didn't hear too much of what was said."
"They were looking for someone called Jeff Jenner," Nicki said slowly. "But he's taller than Jeff, and his hair's darker – no, lighter."
"And he's just been to France," added her husband.
"And who does that sound like?" asked Guy.
"Bloody Toby!" said the Jenners together.
"Toby Ryun up to his old tricks again," nodded Guy. "Pretending to be Jeff again. And making quite a good job of it."
"What's he got himself into now?" wondered Jeff.
"It must be something to do with gambling," said Guy. "He reckons using your name is a sort of good luck charm that ends a losing streak. And Adolph and Bertie could be professional gamblers. They look like fairly successful ones, too. I wonder if Toby's been helping his luck a little?"
"You think he might have got in over his head?" said Nicki with a worried frown. "He's a bit of an idiot at times, but he wouldn't cheat if it's serious."
"I can't really see him getting into that sort of trouble," said Guy. "He usually plays with what he can afford to lose. Which is pretty heavy gravy, by anyone's standards."
"And he's got his old man to pick up the pieces if he hits a really bad streak," added Jeff.
"So what are we going to do?" asked Nicki.
"I'll do some digging," decided Guy. "See if I can't find out who your visitors are. I should be able to do something with their car number. I know a bloke who knows a copper. And once we know where to ask, we should be able to see if anyone recognises Nicki's excellent portraits. You haven't signed them, love."
"I don't want anyone finding out who drew them," retorted Nicki. "You don't think they'll be back in the morning, do you, Guy?"
"I doubt it. They'll be streaking off somewhere to an alibi. Finding no trace of Toby here will have confused them somewhat. And they'll expect the police to be lurking about."
"But they won't be?" said Jeff.
"You can call them if you want," said Guy. "Don't let me stop you. But it might be an idea to find out what Toby's been up to first. And you might be dropping yourselves into trouble."
"Us!" protested Nicki.
"Stop and think a minute," grinned Guy. "It's a pretty thin story. Armed men dropping in to ask you about someone impersonating Jeff. The police are bound to think you know a lot more than you're telling. And have you down the station. To make statements on the face of it, to give you the third degree when they've got you trapped."
"Yeah, I wouldn't put that past them," said Jeff. "They're a bloody suspicious lot. But then, they're paid to be."
"Right!" Guy drained his cup and pushed the drawings back across the table. "Give those a spray with that fixer stuff to stop them smearing and I'll be pushing on. It'll probably take most of the morning to go through my latest batch of orders with my esteemed relatives. Then I'll head back to the big city. That's where we'll find all the answers."
"What about phoning Toby and asking him what he's been up to?" suggested Nicki.
"You can try it," said Guy. "I shouldn't expect too much success, though."
"All right, I will." Nicki went into the hall to use the telephone.
"I think we'll move back to town," Jeff said to Guy. "We're a bit out of the way here if more of Toby's friends call. I'd like a chat with him myself. To warn him the next time he calls himself Jeff Jenner, he's going to get a bloody good thumping. If not from his pals, then from me."
"You'll have to catch up with him first," chuckled Guy. "I'm willing to bet he's strolling around somewhere, blissfully ignorant of all the fuss he's caused. If you're worried at all," he added in a lower tone, "I can put you up at the family pile for the night."
"Thanks for the offer," murmured Jeff. "But as you said, they're not likely to be back in a hurry. Not if they think they have to establish a decent alibi. And I don't want to worry Nicki unduly. Any luck?" he added as his wife returned.
"Not much." Nicki rejoined them at to the table. "The porter at his block of flats said Mr. Ryun is out with his cousin Belinda. Which means Toby's disappeared off somewhere and he doesn't know where or for how long."
"Oh, well," said Guy. "I'll drop round at your place in town tomorrow evening with whatever news I have."
"Come for dinner," suggested Nicki.
"Thanks, I will," Guy told her with a smile. He thought very highly of Nicki's cooking. "Any particular time?"
"Half six for a quarter to seven kick off," said Jeff firmly. "If you're late and you find me dead of hunger, you'll be expected to chip in for the funeral expenses."
"I'll get one of the lads in the workshop to knock you out a nice set of brass handles, JJ," grinned Guy. "See you tomorrow. Make sure you lock up properly. Ah, thanks, love." Guy took charge of the preservative-sprayed sketches, which Nicki had rolled up into a relay-race baton.
Jeff escorted the guest to the front door. As Guy's car moved off into the night, he set the deadlock and slotted a bolt into place, then he added the chain for good measure. Then he made a tour of the ground-floor windows, making sure that the catches were locked and beginning to wish that they had invested in shutters.
"You're sure we're doing the right thing, not calling the police'?" said Nicki from the doorway as her husband checked the kitchen. She felt more comfortable with Jeff in sight.
Jeff shrugged. "There's not much to show them now. No signs of forced entry. We've closed all the drawers and cupboards. And Guy's gone. That wouldn't please them too much, a witness dashing off without talking to them. No, all they could do is thrash about a bit, which wouldn't get them very far. And that wouldn't put them in a very good mood at this time of night."
"It's that they're paid for."
"And as Guy said, we might be dropping Toby into even more trouble than he's already in."
"I can't see Toby getting mixed up in anything crooked. Except by pure accident."
"If you're really worried, I can still phone them."
"Perhaps if we lock up so they can't get in without breaking something. And sleep with the phone extension under the pillow."
"That should do it," nodded Jeff. "But as Guy said, they'll have shot off to establish an alibi, just in case they need one. And they're bound to assume this place will be crawling with cops for ages..."
"Assuming we've done what normal people would do in the circumstances," Nicki finished. "Like call the police. We should have borrowed Guy's imaginary shotgun."
"Not if the place is crawling with imaginary cops," laughed Jeff.
Contrary to expectation, the intruders did not streak off too far. Billy Kemp, the young bodyguard, drove for ten minutes at a respectable pace then he pulled in to the side of the road half a mile beyond the village of Newston.
"This okay?" he asked. "There's no one following us."
"Never thought there would be," said Lucky Cotton, the long-faced Londoner. He reached up and switched on the Land Rover's interior light. "Well, what do you make of that?" he added, turning half round in his seat to look at his partner, who was sprawled on the right rear bench seat. As Guy Duggleby had deduced, they were indeed professional gamblers.
"I reckon we're looking for a wise guy," growled Rolf Weinbaum, scratching an itch at the corner of his mouth, just beyond the end of his slimline moustache. He had spent six months of his forty-three years in and around New York and he had returned home with the accent. "But we've got to get that green stuff back. And quick. Before that son of a bitch tries to spend any of it."
"Those two have got to know him," decided Cotton.
"If he knows the address of their place right down to the postcode, damn right they do," agreed Weinbaum.
"We should have asked at the hotel. Did he have a proper passport or was he using one of those sixty-hour identity cards? Anyone can get one of those. All you need is a photo of yourself and a bit of cheek."
"We could have asked that lot who he is," said Billy Kemp in his usual emotionless voice. "That other geezer wouldn't have used his shotgun with the woman there. Bloody hell, he wouldn't have used it anyway. It's okay blasting bunnies and birds, but doing a bloke's something else."
"Well, anyway," said Cotton. "I reckon we've done a bit of good. What would you do if some bum borrows your name and gets the likes of us chasing after you?"
"Kick his head in," growled Weinbaum between puffs at a squat, green cigar. His name was as genuine as his accent. He had borrowed it from a New York pool hustler.
"Right," nodded Cotton with a thin smile. "They won't phone him, they'll want to see him. Maybe not to kick his head in, but definitely to have a go at him face-to-face for dropping them in dead lumber."
"So?" grunted Weinbaum.
"So it's late. And it'll be later by the time they get rid of the bluebottles. They won't be doing anything tonight. But if we tickle them up in the morning, they should go running straight to the bloke with the green stuff. All we have to do is follow them and collect."
"It's not that easy to follow someone with only one motor," observed Kemp. "What if they spot us? And phone nine double nine?"
Billy Kemp was not afraid to chip in to the conversation when he thought that he could make a useful contribution. He was young, fit and hard, and a former soldier. A bullying corporal had gone too far once too often with his personal brand of harassment. Kemp had spent some time in the glasshouse before his dishonourable discharge. The corporal had spent roughly the same length of time in hospital. As well as an expert marksman, Kemp was a graduate with honours from his unarmed combat courses.
"What we need in an electronic assist," said Weinbaum, taking advantage of his North American orientation. "If we bug their car, we won't have to stay on top of it."
"I know a bloke. Back in the Smoke," Kemp volunteered.
"The same bloke that taught you to do locks?" said Cotton.
"Right," nodded Kemp. "He's a sort of private eye. He can hire us a magnetic transmitter to stick on their car and a direction-finding receiver. He's got a load of stuff like that."
"Okay then," said Cotton. "You get the bug and the other thing and we'll get back here early. And follow them to their pal."
"Early?" groaned Weinbaum. "Mornings and me don't mix."
"If we don't get that green stuff back, you could be seeing every morning for a long time to come," said Cotton. "They kick you out of bed very early in Wormwood Scrubs. That's if Scotty and Jobbo don't catch up with us first."
"I know, I know," groaned Weinbaum. "If they find out we've been borrowing their loot, we might end up propping up the daisies." He liked to distort slang phrases to reinforce his American accent with apparent unfamiliarity with English usage.
"That's something to take seriously," cautioned Cotton. "That Jobbo's a bloody mad sod. Doesn't know his own strength. And they've put a lot of time and money into their scheme. If we screw it up for them, they're going to come looking for us... What do the Yanks call it?"
"Loaded for bear," supplied Weinbaum. "What about him?" He aimed a thumb towards the driver's seat. "Our one-man army corps?"
Billy Kemp shrugged. "There's only one of me. And I have to sleep sometime. If this Jobbo bloke's going to have a go at you, the odds are on his side. He can chose where and when he makes his move. In five minutes or five weeks. Day or night."
"Knowing bloody Jobbo, it'll be five seconds," interrupted Cotton.
"Okay, let's lose the negative mental attitude," said Weinbaum. "All we have to do is do a good job tomorrow and we're in the clear."
Jeff Jenner was not an early riser by nature, despite his wife's best efforts to create the habit. It was not unknown for him to open his eyes at half-past seven and find himself well rested and wide awake, but he usually closed them again and slept on for a further hour.
In the greenish gloom of the larger bedroom of their country retreat, the events of the previous night came flooding back. He glanced at his wife automatically. Nicki was still curled up and fast asleep. Jeff slid carefully out of the bed and dressed quickly. Feeling a bit of an idiot, he sneaked into the other bedroom, which served as Nicki's cluttered studio, and eased open one of the drawers of an ancient chest.
Tucked away at the back, out of range of a casual burrow in the junk, was a flick-knife. It was a souvenir from a holiday in Spain – bought more as a toy and an interesting curio than as a weapon. Sharpening pencils had dulled the blade but it still looked suitably menacing. Jeff tucked it firmly into his right palm and rested his thumb on the trigger button, The knife was one of the sort that fires the blade through a 180o arc from the handle to the open and locked position. He made a mental note not to close his fingers over the handle until he had released the blade.
As he checked the windows, Jeff's mind churned through the standard flick-knife debate – was it better to carry the weapon with the blade out, ready for use, or should he reserve the sudden appearance of four inches of slightly blunt stainless steel to surprise an intruder and thereby gain a small advantage. The latter, he decided. If the intruders were armed, they might shoot on sight at a man with a knife, just to be on the safe side.
He had wedged or balanced slivers of matchstick at strategic points on all of the doors and all but one of the windows. Nothing bigger than a rat could crawl through the louvred window of the bathroom, and the glass panes could not be removed to allow an arm to reach for the catch, which was locked anyway. His markers would not keep intruders out, but they would provide a useful warning to beware or to phone the police – if the intruders were hiding in the cellar, if they gave him time to dial, if they had not cut the phone wires...
That's enough of that! Jeff Jenner cut short his catalogue of potential crises.
Neither of the bedroom windows had been disturbed. Jeff sneaked downstairs. Each of the ground-floor matches was still in place. Chuckling softly in self-mockery tinged with a little relief, he tucked the flick-knife into his pocket. He put the kettle on a low light and carried on to the bathroom extension. He was feeling quite comfortable, but he knew that by the time a wash and shave had woken his skin and a cup of tea had roused his digestive system, he would be ready for breakfast.
"Who chucked you out of bed?" laughed his wife's voice as Jeff was transferring bacon to a plate in the oven. The grill pan clanked as he twitched in surprise.
"That you creeping up on me again?" he complained.
A chair scraped on the lino behind him and Nicki's voice deepened into a sinister chuckle. "What's for breakfast?" she added, having cleared a path to the bathroom.
"Stuff," said Jeff unhelpfully.
Nicki gave him a good-morning kiss in passing to tell him that a husband who made the breakfast was both clever and considerate, and he could have the job for life if he wanted it.
Two men were watching his house from the edge of Down Wood as Jeff Jenner poured out the last of the tea in the large pot. A slight undulation in the furlong of flattened grass and sprouting bushes hid the ground floor of the house. Billy Kemp had climbed to a perch at a fork in a dead elm tree and he was peering through a pair of binoculars.
"They've just about finished their breakfast now," he reported. "I wouldn't kick her out of bed."
"Hmm!" grunted Rolf Weinbaum, who saw no point in discussing the merits of unavailable women. He had tried to convince himself that the morning was just a better lit development of the previous night but he still felt heavy and out of place. His body functioned best between noon and about four or five o'clock in the morning, and it could not be fooled into accepting seven-fifty a.m. as any sort of acceptable time to awake, never mind out and about.
"Are we getting back to the car, then?" suggested Kemp.
"Yeah, okay," growled Weinbaum.
The Land Rover had been parked ten minutes' walk away for the best part of an hour and a half. Billy Kemp had had no qualms about slipping through a day that was just an hour old to plant the hired electronic tracking device on the Jenners' car. The ex-soldier had a sixth sense, which warned him whenever he was under observation.
He could slip smoothly across open ground, pausing to become a shapeless hump when a casual glance was turned in his direction, and knowing by instinct when it was safe to continue. His talent had not been put to the test so early on that particular Thursday morning, but he had scouted the area thoroughly before approaching the house, just in case some tired copper was waiting in ambush.
Cotton and Weinbaum had been switching the receiver on at intervals to assure themselves that the cheeping transmitter was still sending out its pulses. And then a restless Weinbaum had set off along the path at the edge of Down Wood to find out what, if anything, was happening at the Jenner house. He and Kemp had arrived in time to see the wife drawing back the bedroom curtains.
Heavy rain had fallen in the night. Billy Kemp had been sensible enough to wear waterproof, tree-climbing outer garments. Rolf Weinbaum's pale biscuit-coloured suit acquired a further dusting of dark, wet spots as he and Kemp retraced the rambling track at the fringe of the wood.
"They're up," said Weinbaum as they bounced into the back of the vehicle.
"Having their breakfast," added Kemp.
"We'll give them a few more minutes to sort themselves out," decided Lucky Cotton. "Then you can phone them."
"I'm phoning them?" said Weinbaum.
"I reckon your Yank accent ought to get them thinking about gangsters and stir them up a bit," grinned Cotton. "Are we having some coffee?"
Billy Kemp took the hint and unscrewed the cap of a large vacuum flask. Weinbaum fortified black coffee with half an inch of Canadian Club. His companions settled for milk and sugar. They half-listened to the Today programme on Radio Four, each leaving it to the others to start a conversation.
Eventually, Cotton drained his cup and nodded to Kemp, who started the engine and drove up the road to a crossing. There was a telephone box beside the signpost. Weinbaum heaved himself through the Land Rover's rear door and reached into his trouser pocket for change.
When a ringing noise began, Nicki Jenner glanced at her husband but made no move to leave the table. "Phone," she remarked to no one in particular.
"It's all right. Don't strain yourself," said Jeff with false solicitude. "I'll get it." He pushed through into the hall and perched on the chair beside the coat rack. "Hello?" he said cautiously, deciding against giving his number to the caller – who, presumably, knew it anyway.
"Remember me, Jenner?" hissed an American snarl. "A certain hotel in the south of France? It wasn't too smart ducking out like that. Some friends of mine want to talk to you. They'll be there in a couple of hours. Get smart, pal. Stay put. You won't like what happens if you get them any madder."
Before Jeff could say anything, he heard a loud click. Then the telephone began to purr into his ear.
"Who was it?" asked Nicki as he returned to the kitchen. "Jeff?" she added sharply, catching her husband's thoughtful frown.
"A Yank. Something about a hotel in the south of France. Toby's playmates are coming here for a word with him. If we don't stay to talk to them, they're going to get even madder."
"They're not going to be too pleased when they find he isn't here. We're not staying, I hope?"
"I certainly don't fancy the idea," Jeff admitted. "But where do we go now? If we go back to town, they'll find us there. I don't think they'll actually try anything physical at first, but they'll keep pestering us. I'd better phone Guy."
The Duggleby family home was a country house set in five acres of grounds. It was two hundred years old and stood on the outskirts of Failsham, in Sussex. The first owner had acquired his wealth just too late for the personal services of Capability Brown, but the grounds had been designed by one of the expert's disciples. It had been considered a triumph of man's mastery over Nature for a long time. Now, some experts cited it as a prime example of the destruction of a natural landscape by an owner with more money than sense – or good taste.
Guy's maternal grandfather had decided at the age of thirteen that he was going to become rich enough to be able to live in Wilmington House. The motoring boom of the Twenties and Thirties, the demands of a country at war again and the same ambition in Guy's father had driven them to expand their specialist engineering business until the company had been able to take Wilmington House off the hands of its impoverished owners. Allen-Duggleby, Ltd. had acquired its new headquarters in the year of the foundation of the National Health Service.
Brian Allen had retired the following year at the age of sixty-six, having achieved his life's ambition. He had enjoyed the life of a country squire at the big house for five years, leaving the running of the business to his son-in-law. Peter Duggleby had fathered two sons and two daughters, all of whom had joined the family business after university and worked their way up from the bottom on a merit basis. Their father believed that an understanding of a business can be achieved only by trying a variety of the jobs involved. He also refused to carry passengers, even if they were family.
Guy had a talent for selling and he loved to travel. He was not the sort who can settle into a nine-to-five job with four weeks' holiday on top of national holidays. Fortunately, his relatives were prepared to allow him to set a target for orders, work all hours until he had filled that portion of the company's capacity, and then disappear for up to a month to recover.
Two business flats had been split off from the top floor of the east wing of Wilmington House. Guy lived in one of them when he was in the area. His sister Joan occupied the other. The twins, Tom and Mary, were both married and had set up homes in Failsham. The rest of the family lived in the west wing. The centre of the house had become offices and larger rooms for meetings and conferences.
On that Thursday morning, Guy had reached a peak in his sleep cycle. He was very close to wakening when a double ringing pushed him to the brink. Without opening his eyes, he stretched out an arm to his bedside cabinet. "Ah, yes?" he grunted into the receiver.
"Is that Guy? Or a camel with a hangover?" asked a vaguely familiar voice.
"It's the middle of the night. How the hell should I know?" Guy protested sleepily.
"It's gone eight," laughed Jeff Jenner. "Listen, are you awake yet?"
"Listen to what? Or am I supposed to be able to hear something?" returned Guy, being awkward.
"I had a threatening phone call just now," said Jeff, plunging to the heart of the matter. "From a Yank. Something about Toby ducking out of a hotel in the south of France and annoying some pals of his. He said they're coming to talk to us. They'll be here in a couple of hours and we're to stay put till they arrive."
"Ah!" said Guy significantly.
"So that do we do?"
"Evaporate. Bloody quick."
"But where? They'll find our place in town easily enough."
"I suppose you can camp at my place to save you a hotel bill. As long as you promise to keep your sticky mitts off my best wine."
"Thanks, Guy. What about the blokes on their way here?"
"I should have a word with that woman on your left. Mrs. Marney. Mention, very casually, you saw some suspicious characters hanging around last night. Ask her to keep an eye on the place in case they nick the family silver. Make a joke out of it. Those Yanks won't dare get up to much with her twitching her curtains next door."
"That's a good idea," approved Jeff.
"Not bad for the middle of the night. I really don't think you have anything to worry about."
"That's that I keep telling Nicki."
"And trying to believe yourself?" chuckled Guy. "I'll be at the flat in time for that dinner you promised me. So you can tell your dear wife she's not getting out of it. Any other little problems you want solved?"
"Well...," drawled Jeff.
"Give me another ring when I'm properly awake. Cheers, JJ," Guy reached out and dropped the receiver back into place. Then he squirmed back into the shelter of his duvet and waited for sleep to overtake him again.
"Did you get all that?" Jeff Jenner asked his wife, who was sitting on his lap with her head against his in order to hear Guy Duggleby's contribution to the conversation.
"I'll have a word with Mrs. Marney while you pack," said Nicki. "With any luck, I won't be gone more than half an hour."
Joyce Marney had a tendency to go on and on about obscure aspects of life in Horton Grand, and to report in great detail on triumphs and tragedies in the lives of people whom the Jenners knew vaguely or not at all.
"I know, I'll take her some of those strawberries," added Nicki, providing herself with an excuse to call on their neighbour. Not that one was needed – Mrs. Marney was glad of a chat at any hour of the day. "I'll tell her you bought far too many."
"I can't trust my hubby to buy anything," said Jeff in a high-pitched whine. "He goes absolutely mad when I give him a shopping bag. Send him out for half a pound of mince and he comes back with a frozen side of beef. And then he tells me how much we've saved..."
"If that wasn't absolutely true, I'd laugh," said Nicki as she headed for the kitchen.
Lucky Cotton stifled a yawn. Rolf Weinbaum was slumped along one of the rear seats of the Land Rover, snoring gently. Only their one-man army and driver, Billy Kemp, was alert and watching the monitoring device for the bug stuck to the Jenners' car.
The receiver was the size of a miniature cassette recorder. A red light glowed to show that it was switched on. The needle of a dial in the upper half hovered at about the centre mark, indicating that the transmitter lay directly behind the Land Rover. There was also an audio signal, but it had been turned down at Rolf Weinbaum's request. Its monotonous bleeping had been getting on his nerves.
"I think they're on the road now," Kemp warned when he noticed a deflection of the needle.
"About time," yawned Cotton. He reached over to flick the switch below the dial.
The cheeping of the audio signal was strengthening to warn them that the Jenners' car was approaching their position. Billy Kemp started the Land Rover and moved up to the crossroads. He waited at the signpost, pretending to consult a map, until the Jenners had swept across his bows. He turned left to follow the red Rover. The quarry had rounded a bend and moved out of sight, but the small transmitter continued to report its position.
"Are we going at bloody last?" rasped Weinbaum from the rear seat.
"You can't have scared them as much as you thought," chuckled Cotton. "They'll be on their way in five minutes, you said. Forty-five minutes, more like. That's ten quid you owe me."
"Screw you," muttered Weinbaum. "Wake me up for lunch."
"Don't you want a bet on where they're going?"
"It's obvious," yawned Weinbaum.
"Where do you reckon they're heading, Mr Cotton?" asked their driver.
Cotton shrugged. "Could be anywhere. Could somewhere local, could be miles away."
"London," grunted Weinbaum.
"Aha! The oracle speaks," chuckled Cotton. "Want that ten quid you one me on that?"
"Twenty. I might as well make a profit on the deal," said Weinbaum. "Now will you shut the hell up and let a guy grab some sleep?"
"You're a proper charmer in the morning," laughed Cotton. "Twenty quid on London, then?"
"Hang on, what's your side of the bet?"
"I reckon the man's local. The other Jeff Jenner."
"In that case, I say they go more than fifty miles. Twenty quid on that. Okay?"
"Okay, I'll buy that."
Billy Kemp allowed himself a faint smile. His employers were always making bets but he had never seen any money change hands. They either kept a mental account or they forgot the score at the end of each day.
Mile after mile slipped by. Kemp held the Land Rover between half and three-quarters of a mile behind the Jenners. There was one awkward moment then he swept round a corner to find the gates of a level crossing closing in front of him. Lucky Cotton cursed individually each of the fifty-six wagons that made up the goods train. The weakening audio signal reached a feeble mutter, then it faded completely. After reaching the stop on the left, the needle flicked back to the centre of the directional dial and remained there.
Urged on by Cotton, Kemp shot across the lines as soon as the barrier had lifted clear of the car. Three minutes of hard driving later, the needle drifted to the left and the cheeping of the audio signal began again.
The small convoy reached Lewisham. "Have we done fifty miles yet?" asked Rolf Weinbaum. "We're been going for hours."
"At least," confirmed the driver.
"Heh, heh!" chuckled Weinbaum, coming back to life. He rubbed delicately at the inside corners of his eyes with his index fingers. "Time for lunch yet?"
"It's only just gone ten," replied Cotton.
"The number of quids you owe me," remarked Weinbaum.
Billy Kemp moved closer to the Jenners' red Rover. He had been warned that the transmitter's signal would fall off in built-up areas. The procession travelled through New Cross, Camberwell and Kennington, across the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge and roughly westwards.
"Jeff," said Nicki Jenner as they reached Victoria Street.
"Hmm?" invited her husband.
"We're being followed."
"Oh, yeah?" chuckled Jeff.
"No, really, we are. That green Land Rover's been two or three cars behind us for the last ten minutes."
"Maybe they're just going in the same general direction."
"Maybe they're following us," insisted Nicki.
"Okay, let's find out." Jeff flicked his indicator switch and turned left, towards the coach station.
The car behind him continued straight on. A taxi turned left to follow them – and so did the Land Rover. Jeff turned right, towards Belgravia. The Land Rover was held up for a few moments by the traffic, but it also turned right.
"Well?" demanded Nicki, both worried and triumphant.
"Even if you're paranoid," admitted her husband, "they can still be after you."
"What are we going to do about it?"
"We can try to lose them."
"This isn't America. If we try racing them, we'll either hit something or get arrested."
"So we do something subtle," said Jeff, watching the green shape in his mirror. "Have you got your seat belt fastened?"
"Yes, of course." Nicki checked the magnetic buckle. "Jeff, what are you going to do?"
"Nothing drastic," chuckled Jeff.
He drifted down to a traffic light, then amber-gambled an abrupt left turn. The Rover shot along a length of empty street, then turned right. Jeff took the third turning on the left, went right again, and turned left finally onto the King's Road. He made as much speed as possible into Chelsea, then he headed north, aiming for Guy Duggleby's corner of Kensington Gardens.
"Well?" he remarked to his wife. "Anything illegal or drastic?"
"Aren't you clever?" beamed Nicki in mock admiration. She turned round in her seat and scanned the road behind them. "I think you really have lost them."
"Now we'll get to Guy's place as fast as possible without attracting the law."
"Do you think they've been following us all the way from Horton Grand?" frowned Nicki. "No, they can't have. We'd have spotted them sooner. Wouldn't we?"
"We came along some pretty empty stretches of road. Anyone following us would have stuck out like a sore thumb."
"In that case, how did they get onto us?"
Jeff shrugged. "If it's them and they really were following us, there's probably some very reasonable explanation."
"Right," mocked Nicki. "All we have to do is think of it."
Half a mile away, Lucky Cotton thumped. the monitor for the transmitter stuck to the Jenners' car. The red light continued to burn, proving that the batteries in the receiver had not run down. A vague chirrup emerged from the device, but the needle of the directional dial remained obstinately at the mid-point of the scale, no matter which way the receiver was turned.
"The bastard! He's got away," muttered Cotton.
"So much for your bloody bug," snarled Weinbaum.
Billy Kemp shrugged. "It's the buildings. Like I said, they're blocking the signal. Like I said, you have to stay close in town."
"He must have spotted us," decided Cotton.
"My private eye mate reckons you need six vehicles to do a proper job of following someone without getting spotted," offered Kemp. "Different sorts of vans as well as cars."
"You're a big help!" snarled Weinbaum.
"So what now, Mr. Cotton?" asked Kemp.
"About all we can do is go to their place, wait for them to come home and ask them where they've been," Cotton decided. "Stop at that phone box over there. I'll know their address when I see it again."
"Maybe we can get a drink? And something to eat?" suggested Weinbaum, finding a bright side to the disaster.