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Harold Blake Walker

Tác giả: Val McDermid
Thể loại: Trinh Thám
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Language: English
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Cập nhật: 2014-12-27 15:25:44 +0700
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Chapter 9
whole day had trickled through my fingers and I didn't seem to be much further forward with anything. Maybe I should follow Shelley's advice and put my share of the business on the market. And not just as a ploy. It was too early in the evening for me to have any¬thing better to do, so I decided to keep an eye on the gravestone grifters. I figured that since they'd both gone indoors, the chances were that they were going to have a bite to eat and a change of clothes before heading out to hit the heartbroken, so I took fifteen minutes to shoot back to my house, pick up my copy of that night's Chroni¬cle from the mat, and throw together a quick sandwich of some rubbery Brie and arugula that was about as crisp as a silk handkerchief. It was the last of the bread too, I men¬tally noted as I binned the wrapper. So much for a night of chopping and slicing and homemade Chinese. I tossed a can of Aqua Libra into my bag along with the film-wrapped sandwich and drove back to my observation post.
Just after seven, the woman emerged alone with one of those expensive anorexic girlie briefcases that have a shoulder strap instead of a handle. She made straight for the car. I waited until she was behind the wheel, then I started my engine and swiftly reversed into the drive of the house behind me. That way I could get on her tail no matter which direction she chose. She turned left out of the car park, and I followed her back to Anson Road and down toward the bottom end of Kingsway, past rows of between-the-wars semis where the vast assortment of what passes for family life in the nineties happened behind closed doors, a world we were completely cut off from as we drifted down the half-empty roads, sealed in our separate boxes.
Luckily we didn't have far to go, since I was acutely aware that there wasn't enough traffic around to cover me adequately. Shortly after we hit Kingsway, she hung a left at some lights and headed deep into the heart of suburban Burnage. Again, luck was on my side, a phenomenon I hadn't been experiencing much of lately. Her destination was on one of the long, wide avenues running parallel to Kingsway, rather than up one of the narrow streets or cul-de-sacs built in an era when nobody expected there would come a day when every household had at least one car. In those choked chicanes, she couldn't have avoided spotting me. When she did slow down, obviously checking out house numbers, I overtook her and parked a few hundred yards ahead, figuring she must be close to her target. I was right. She actually stopped less than twenty yards in front of me and walked straight up the path of a three-bedroom semi with a set of flower beds so neat it was hard to imagine a dan¬delion with enough bottle to sprout there.
I watched her ring the bell. The door opened, but I couldn't see the person behind it. Three sentences and she was in. I flicked through my copy of that evening's Chronicle till I got to the death announcements and read down the column. There it was. "Sheridan. Angela Mary, of Burnage, suddenly on Sunday at Manchester Royal Infir¬mary after a short illness. Beloved wife of Tony, mother of Becky and Richard. Service to be held at Our Lady of the Sorrows, Monday, 2 P.M., followed by committal at Stock-port Crematorium at 3 P.M." With that information and the phone book, it wouldn't be hard to identify the right address. And you could usually tell from the names roughly what age group you were looking at. I'd have guessed that Tony and Angela were probably in their middle to late forties, their kids late teens to early twenties. Perfect targets for the con merchants. Bereft husband young enough to notice an attractive woman, whether consciously or not. Probably enough money in the pot to be able to afford a decent headstone. The thought of it made me sick.
What was worse was the knowledge that even as I was working all this out, Will Alien's accomplice was giving the shattered widower a sales pitch designed to separate him from a large chunk of his cash. I couldn't just sit there and let it happen. On the other hand, I couldn't march up the path and unmask her unless I wanted her and her sleazy sidekick to cover their tracks and leave town fast. I couldn't call the cops; I knew Delia was out of town at a conference, and trying to convince some strange officer that I wasn't a nutter fast enough to get them out here in time to stop it was way beyond my capa¬bilities. I racked my brains. There had to be a way of blowing her out without blowing my cover.
There was only one thing I could come up with. And that depended on how well the Sheridans got along with their neighbors. If they'd had years of attrition over park¬ing, teenage stereos, and footballs over fences, I'd had it. Squaring my shoulders, I walked up the path of the other half of the Sheridans' semi. The woman who answered the door looked to be in her mid-thirties, thick dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, a face all nose, teeth, and chin. She wore a pair of faded jeans, supermarket trainers, and a Body Shop tee shirt demanding that some part of the planet should be saved. When she registered that it was a stranger on the doorstep, her cheery grin faded to a faint frown. Clearly, I was less interesting than whoever she'd been expecting. I handed her a business card. "I'm sorry to bother you," I started apologetically.
"Private investigator?" she interrupted. "You mean, like on the telly? I didn't know women did that."
Some days, you'd kill for an original response. The way my luck had been running, I was just grateful not to have the door slammed in my face. I smiled, nodded, and plowed on. "I need your help," I said. "How well do you know Mr. Sheridan next door?"
The woman gasped. "He's never murdered her, has he? I know it were sudden like, and God knows they've had their ups and downs, but I can't believe he killed her!"
I closed my eyes momentarily. "It's nothing like that. As far as I'm aware, there's nothing at all suspicious about Mrs. Sheridan's death. Look, can I come in for a minute? This is a bit difficult to explain."
She looked dubious. "How do I know you're who you say you are?"
I spread my hands in a shrug. "Do I look the dangerous type? Believe me, I'm trying to prevent a crime, not take part in one. Mr. Sheridan is about to be robbed unless you can help me here."
She gasped again, her hand flying to her mouth this time. "It's just like the telly," she said, ushering me into a narrow hallway where there was barely room for both of us and the mountain bike that hung on one wall. "What's going on?" she demanded avidly.
"A particularly nasty team of crooks are conning be¬reaved families out of hundreds of pounds," I said, dress¬ing it up in the tabloid style she clearly relished. "They catch them at a weak moment and persuade them to part with cash for cut-price gravestones. Now, I'm very close to completing a watertight case against them, so I don't want to alert them to the fact that their cover's blown. But I can't just sit idly by while poor Mr. Sheridan gets ripped off."
"So you want me to go and tell him there's a crook in his living room?" she asked eagerly.
"Not exactly, no. I want you to pop around in a neigh¬borly sort of way, just to see he's all right, and do what you can to prevent him parting with any money. Say things like, 'If this is a respectable firm, they won't mind you sleeping on this and talking it over with your funeral director.' Don't let on you're at all suspicious, just that you're a cautious sort of person. And that Angela wouldn't have wanted him to rush into anything without consulting other members of the family. You get the idea?"
She nodded. "I've got you. You can count on me." I didn't have a lot of choice, so I just smiled. "I'll get around there right away. I was going to pop around any¬way to see how Tony was doing. We got on really well, me and Angela. She was older than me, of course, but we played ten-pin bowls in the same team every Wednesday. I couldn't get over it when I heard. Burst appendix. You never know the hour or the day, do you? You leave this to me, Kate," she added, glancing at my card again.
We walked down the path together, me heading back to my car and her next door. As we parted, she promised to call me on my mobile to let me know what happened. I was on pins as I sat watching the Sheridans' house. My new sidekick was definitely a bit of a loose cannon, but I couldn't think of anything else I could have done that would have been effective without warning off Alien's partner in crime, particularly since they'd be on their guard after the earlier debacle at Richard's house. About half an hour passed, then the front door opened and my target emerged. Judging by the way she threw her brief-case into the car, she wasn't in the best of moods. I'd had my phone switched off all day to avoid communicating with the office, but I turned it back on as I pulled out behind the woman.
She was back inside the block of flats by the time my new confederate called. "Hiya," she greeted me. "I think it went off all right. I don't think she was suspicious, just brassed off because I was sitting there being dead neg about the whole thing. I just kept saying to Tony he shouldn't make any decision without the kids being there, and that was all the support he needed, really. She real¬ized she wasn't getting anywhere and I wasn't shifting, so she just took herself off."
"You did really well. Do you know what she was calling herself?" I asked when I could get a word in.
"She had these business cards. Greenhalgh and Edwards. Tony showed me after she'd gone. Sarah Sargent, it says her name is. Will you need us to go to court?" she asked, the phone line crackling with excitement.
"Possibly," I hedged. "I really appreciate your help. If the police need your evidence to support a case, I'll let them know where to find you."
"Great! Hey, I think your job's dead exciting, you know. Any time you need a hand again, just call me, okay?"
"Okay," I said. Anything to get out from under. But she insisted on giving me her name and phone number before I could finally disengage. I wondered how glamorous she'd find the job when she had to do a fifteen-hour sur¬veillance in a freezing van in the dead of winter with a plastic bucket to pee in and no guarantee that she'd get the pictures she needed to avoid having to do the whole thing all over again the next day.
I started my engine. I didn't think the con merchants would be having another shot tonight. But I still had miles to go before I could sleep. A little burglary, perhaps, and then a visit to clubland for a nightcap. Given that I wasn't dressed for either pursuit, it seemed like a good excuse to head for home. Maybe I could even squeeze in a couple of hours sleep before I had to go about my noctur¬nal business.
Never mind mice and men. Every time I made a plan these days it seemed to go more off track than a blind¬folded unicyclist. I hadn't taken more than a couple of steps toward my bungalow when I heard another car door open and I saw a figure move in my direction through the dusk. I automatically moved into position, ready for fight or flight, arms hanging loosely at my side, shoulder bag clutched firmly, prepared to swing it in a tight arc, all my weight on the balls of my feet, ready to kick, pivot, or run. I waited for the figure to approach, tensed for battle.
It was just as well I'm the kind who looks before she leaps into action. I don't think Detective Constable Linda Shaw would have been too impressed with a flying kick to the abdomen. "DC Shaw?" I said, surprised and baffled as she stepped into a pool of sodium orange.
"Ms. Brannigan," she acknowledged, looking more than a little sheepish. "I wonder if we might have a word?" Looming up in the gloom behind her, I noticed a burly bloke with more than a passing resemblance to Mike Tyson. I sincerely hoped we weren't going to get into the "nice cop, nasty cop" routine. I had a funny feel¬ing I wouldn't come off best.
"Sure, come on in and have a brew," I said.
She cleared her throat. "Actually, we'd prefer it if you came down to the station," she said, her embarrassment growing by the sentence.
Now I was completely bewildered. The one and only time I'd met Linda Shaw, she'd been one of Detective Inspector Cliff Jackson's gophers on a murder case I'd been hired to investigate. There was a bit of history between me and Jackson that meant every time our paths crossed, we both ended up with sore heads, but Linda Shaw had acted as the perfect buffer zone, keeping the pair of us far enough apart to ensure that the job got done without another murder being added to the case's tally. I'd liked her, not least because she was her own woman, seemingly determined not to let Jackson's abrasive bull-headedness rub off on her. What I couldn't work out was why she was trying to drag me off to a police station for questioning. For once, I wasn't doing anything that involved tap dancing over a policeman's toes. That might change when I got properly stuck in to the investigation of Alexis's murdered doctor, but even if it did, the detec¬tives I'd be irritating were forty miles away on the other side of the Pennines. "Why?" I asked mildly.
"We've got some questions we'd like to ask you." By now, Linda wasn't even pretending to meet my eye. She was pointedly staring somewhere over my left shoulder.
"So come in, have a brew, and we'll see if I can answer them," I repeated. I call it the irregular verb theory of life; I am firm, you are stubborn, he/she is a pigheaded, rigid, anally retentive stick-in-the mud.
"Like DC Shaw said, we'd like you to come down the station," her oppo rumbled. It was like listening to Vesu¬vius by stethoscope. Only with a Liverpudlian accent instead of an Italian one.
I sighed. "We can do this one of two ways. Either you can come into the house and ask me what you've got to ask me, or you can arrest me and we'll go down to the sta¬tion and I don't say a word until my brief arrives. You choose." I gave the pair of them my sweetest smile, some¬how choking down the anger. I knew whose hand was behind this. It had Cliff Jackson's sadistic fingerprints all over it.
Linda breathed out hard through her nose and com¬pressed her lips into a thin line. I imagined she was think¬ing about the rocket Cliff Jackson was going to fire at her when she got back to base without me meekly following at her heels. That wasn't my problem, and I wasn't going to be guilt-tripped into behaving as if it was. When I made no response, Linda shrugged and said, "We'd better have that brew, then."
The pair of them followed me down the path and into the house. I pointed at the living room, told them they were having coffee and brewed it up in the kitchen, des¬perately trying to figure out why Jackson had sent a team around to hassle me. I dripped a pot of coffee while I thought about it, laying milk, sugar, mugs, and spoons on a tray at the same time. By the time the coffee was done, I was no nearer an answer. I was going to have to opt for the obvious and ask Linda Shaw.
I walked through the living room door, dumped the tray on the coffee table in front of the detectives, and took the initiative. "This had better be good, Linda," I said. "I have had a bitch of a week, and it's only Tuesday. Tell me why I'm sitting here talking to you instead of running myself a long hot bath."
Linda flashed a quick look at her partner, who was enjoying himself far too much to help her out. He leaned forward and poured out three mugs of coffee. Looking like she'd bitten into a pickled lemon, Linda said, "We've received an allegation which my inspector felt merited investigation."
"From whom? About whom?" I demanded, best gram¬mar on show.
She poured milk into her coffee and made a major pro¬duction number out of stirring it. "Our informant alleges that you have engaged in a campaign of threats against the life of one Richard Barclay."
I was beyond speech. I was beyond movement. I sat with my mouth open, hand halfway toward a mug of cof¬fee, like a Damien Hirst installation floating motionless in formaldehyde.
"The complainant alleges that this harassment has included placing false death announcements in the local press. We have verified that such an advert has appeared. And now Mr. Barclay appears to have gone missing," the male detective asserted, sitting back in his seat, legs wide apart, arm along the back of the sofa, asserting himself all over my living room.
Anger kicked in. "And this informant. It wouldn't be an anonymous tip-off, would it?"
He looked at her, his face puzzled, hers resigned. "You know we can't disclose that," Linda said wearily. "But we have been trying without success to contact Mr. Barclay since nine this morning, and as my colleague says, we have confirmed that a death announcement was placed in the Chronicle containing false information. It does appear that you have some explaining to do, Ms. Brannigan." Any more apologetic and you could have used her voice as a doormat.
I'd had enough. "Bollocks," I said. "We both know what's really happening here. You get an anonymous tip-off and your boss rubs his hands with glee. Oh goody, a borderline legitimate excuse to nip around and make Brannigan's life a misery. You've got no evidence that any crime has taken place. Even if somebody did place a bull¬shit ad in the Chronicle, and The Times too for all I know or care, you've got nothing to indicate it's anything other than a practical joke or that it's anything at all to do with me." My voice rose in outrage. I knew I was on firm ground; I'd paid for the Chronicle announcement cash on the nail, making sure I popped in at lunchtime when the classified ads department is at its busiest.
"It's our duty to investigate serious allegations," the Tyson look-alike rumbled. "And so far you haven't explained why anyone would want to accuse you of a serious crime like this. I mean, it's not the sort of thing most people do unless they've got a good reason for it. Like knowing about some crime you've committed, Ms. Brannigan."
I stood up. I was inches away from really giving them something to arrest me for. "Right," I said, furious. "Out. Now. Never mind finishing your coffee. This is bullshit and you know it. You want to talk to Richard, sit outside on your asses and waste the taxpayers' money until he comes home. The reason you haven't been able to contact him, soft lad, is because he's a rock journalist. He doesn't answer his phone to the likes of you, and right now, he's probably sitting in some dive listening to a very bad band desperate to attract his attention. He'll be in the perfect mood to deal with this crap when he gets home. Now you," I added, leaning forward and pointing straight between his astonished eyes, "are new in my life, so you probably don't know there's a hidden agenda here."
I swung around to point at Linda, who was also on her feet and edging toward the door. "But you should know better, lady. Now walk, before I have to drag Ruth Hunter away from her favorite TV cop to slap you with a suit for harassment. Bugger off and bother some proper villains. Or don't you know any? Are you kicking your heels waiting for me to provide you with enough evidence to arrest some?"
Linda was halfway through the door by the time I'd finished my tirade. Her sidekick looked from me to her and back again before deciding that he'd better follow her and find out what the real story was here. I didn't bother seeing them out.
I couldn't believe Linda Shaw had let herself be sucked into Cliff Jackson's spiteful little game. But then, he was the boss, she had a career to think about, and women don't climb the career ladder in the police force by telling their bosses to shove their stupid vendettas where the perverts shove their gerbils. And as for their anonymous source-that cheeky, malicious little toad Will Alien was going to pay for ruining my evening. If he thought he could frighten me off with a bit of police harassment, he was in for the rudest shock of his life.
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