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Louis L’Amour

Tác giả: Val McDermid
Thể loại: Trinh Thám
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Chapter 18
sk people what they think of when they hear the name Liverpool and they'll tell you first about the Scouse sense of humor, then about the city's violent image. Tonight, Alexis definitely wasn't seeing the funny side. I'd barely got out of my car before she was in my face, the three inches she has on me suddenly seeming a lot more. Her tempestuous bush of black hair rose around her head like Medusa on a bad hair day and her dark eyes stared angrily at me from under the lowering ledges of her brows. "What in the name of God are you playing at?" she demanded.
"Alexis, please stop shouting at me," I said quietly but firmly. "You know how it winds me up."
"Winds you up? Winds you up? You put me and Chris in jeopardy and you expect me to care about winding you up?" She was so close now I could feel the warmth of her breath on my mouth.
"We'll talk about it inside," I said. "And I mean talk, not shout." I ducked under the hand that was moving toward my shoulder, swiveled on the balls of my feet, and walked smartly up the path. It was follow me or lose me.
Alexis was right behind me as I opened the inside door and marched into the kitchen. Mercifully, she was silent. Without asking, I headed for the fridge freezer and made us both stiff drinks. I pushed hers down the worktop toward her and after a long moment, she picked it up and took a deep swallow. "Can we start again?" I asked.
"I hired you to make some discreet inquiries and cover our backs, not stir up a hornet's nest," Alexis said, normal volume resumed.
"My professional opinion is that talking to other women in the same position as you is not exposing you to any danger, particularly since I have not identified you as my client to any of the women I have spoken to," I said formally, trying to take the heat out of the situation. I knew it was fear not fury that really lay behind her dis¬play. In her stressed-out-place, I'd probably have behaved in exactly the same way, best friend or not. "I had a per¬fectly credible cover story."
"Yeah, I heard that load of toffee about lesbian history," Alexis said derisively, lighting a cigarette. She knows I hate smoking in my kitchen, but she clearly reckoned this was one time she was going to get away with it. "No flam¬ing wonder you set off more alarm bells than all the bur¬glars in Greater Manchester. It's not on, girl. I asked you to make sure we weren't going to be exposed because of Sarah Blackstone's murder. I didn't expect you to go around putting the fear of God into half the lesbian mothers in Manchester. What the hell did you think you were playing at?"
It was a good question, and one I didn't have an answer for yet. The one thing I knew for sure was that this wasn't the right time to tell Alexis that Sarah Blackstone had added her mystery ingredient to the primordial soup. I was far from certain there was ever going to be a right time, but I know a wrong one when I see it. "Who told you anyway?" I stalled.
"Jude Webster rang me. She assumed that because you had the names and addresses of all the women involved that you were kosher. But she thought she'd better warn me in case I didn't want Chris bothered in her condition. So what's the game?"
Inspiration had provided me with an attempt at an answer. "I wanted to make sure none of them knew Black-stone's real identity," I said. "If they had, they might have contacted her at her home under her real name, and there could be a record of that. A letter, an entry in an address book. I need to be certain that there isn't a chink in the armor that could lead the police back to this group of women if they get suspicious about the burglar theory and start routine background inquiries." I spread my hands in front of me and tried for wide-eyed innocence.
Alexis looked doubtful. "But they're not going to, are they? I've been keeping an eye on the local papers, and there's no sign the police are even thinking it might have been anything more than a burglary that went wrong. What makes you think it was?"
I shrugged. "If anybody she worked with had found out what she was up to, they had a great motive for get¬ting rid of her. A scandal like this associated with the IVF unit at St. Hilda's would have the place closed down overnight." This was thinner than Kate Moss, but given what I couldn't tell Alexis, it was the best I could do.
"Hey, I know it's hard getting a decent job these days, but I can't get my head around the idea of somebody
knocking off a doctor just to avoid signing on," Alexis protested. Her anger had evaporated now I had anes¬thetized her fears and her sense of humor had kicked in.
"Heat of the moment? She's arguing with somebody? They grab a knife?"
"I suppose," Alexis conceded. "Okay, I accept you did what you did with the best of motives. Only, it stops here, all right? No more terrorizing poor innocent women, all right?"
That's the trouble when friends become clients. You lose the power to ignore them.
Midnight, and we were arranged tastefully around the outer office of Mortensen and Brannigan. As soon as Richard had mentioned the f-word to Tony Tambo, the manager of Manassas had insisted that we meet some¬where nobody from clubland could possibly see him talk¬ing to a woman who'd already been publicly asking questions on the subject. Otherwise, fly-posting was defi¬nitely off the agenda. He'd vetoed a rendezvous in a Chi-nese restaurant, a casino, an all-night caff in the industrial zone over in Trafford Park, and the motorway services area. Richard's house was off-limits because it was next door to mine. But the office was okay. I couldn't work out the logic in that until Richard explained.
"Now they've converted the building next door to yours into a student hall of residence, if anybody sees Tony coming out of your building, they'll assume he's been having a leg-over with some teenage raver," he said.
"And I bet he wouldn't mind that," I said dryly.
"Show me a man over thirty who'd object to people making that assumption and I'll show you a liar," Richard replied wistfully.
So we were sitting with the blinds drawn, the only light coming from the standard lamp in the corner and Shel¬ley's desk lamp. Tony Tambo was hunched into one cor¬ner of the sofa, somehow managing to make his six feet of muscles look half their usual size. Although it was cold enough in the office for me to have kept my jacket on, the slanting light revealed a sheen of sweat on skin the color of a cooked chestnut that covered Tony's shaved skull. He was wearing immaculate taupe chinos, black Wannabes, a black silk tee shirt that seemed molded to his pectorals, and a beige jacket whose soft folds revealed it was made of some mixture of expensive natural materials like silk and cashmere.
It's a mystery to me, silk. For centuries, it was a rare, exotic fabric, worn only by the seriously rich. Then, almost overnight, somewhere around 1992, it was every¬where. From Marks and Spencer to market stalls, you couldn't get away from the stuff. Kids on council estates living on benefits were suddenly wearing silk shirts. What I want to know is where it all came from. Were the Chi¬nese giving silk worms fertility drugs? Had they been stockpiling it since the Boxer Rebellion? Or is there some deeper, darker secret lurking behind the silk explosion? And why does nobody know the answer? One of these days, I'm going to drive over to Macclesfield, grip the curator of the Silk Museum by the throat, and demand an answer.
I was sitting in an armchair at right angles to the oppo¬site end of the sofa from Tony. Richard was in Shelley's chair, his feet on the desk. The pool of light illuminated him to somewhere around mid-thigh, then he disap¬peared into darkness. The whole scenario looked like a straight lift from a bad French cop movie. I decided pretty quickly that there weren't going to be any subtitles to help me out. The questions were down to me.
"I really appreciate you talking to me, Tony," I said.
"Yeah, well," he mumbled. "I ain't said nothing yet. It's edgy out there right now, you know? Stability's gone, know what I mean? It's not a good time to stick your head above the parapet, people are too twitchy."
"Anything you tell me, nobody's going to know it came from you," I tried.
He snorted. "So you say. But if some bruiser's got you up against the wall, how do I know you ain't going to give him me?"
"You don't know for sure." I gestured around the office, which we've spent enough on to impress corporate clients. "But I didn't get a gaff like this by dropping people in the shit. Anyway, in my experience, if some bruiser's got you up against the wall, he's going to do what he's going to do. So there's not a lot of point in giving him any more bodies. It doesn't save you any grief."
He gave me a long, slow head-to-toe look. "What's your interest?" He eventually said.
"I'm working for Dan Druff and the Scabby Heided Bairns." Sometimes you need to give a bit to get a lot.
"They got well unlucky," Tony observed.
"How do you mean? What have they done to deserve what they're getting?"
"Nothing. Like I said, they just got unlucky. Any war of attrition, somebody always has to be made an example of. To keep the rest in line. Dan and the Bairns just drew the short straw, that's all. Nothing personal. Least, I don't think it is. I haven't heard anything that says it is."
"So who's making the example of the boys?"
Tony took a packet of Camels out of his pocket and lit up without asking permission. I said nothing, but walked through into my office, took the saucer out from under a Venus flytrap that wasn't ever going to dish out any more lip, and pointedly slid it down the coffee table so it was in front of Tony. Richard took that as a sign and straight¬ened up in the chair, using the desktop to roll a joint. Shelley was going to be well pleased in the morning to find tobacco shreds all over her paperwork. "So what's happening in the music business?" I asked, getting bored with all this mannered posturing we were playing at. "Who's making a bid for a piece of the action?"
"I don't think it's a piece of the action they want," Tony said in a sigh of smoke. "I think they want the lion's share."
"Tell me about it," I said.
"It started a couple of months ago. There was a wave of cowboy fly-posting. Nobody seemed to know who was behind it. It wasn't the usual small-time gangsters trying to muscle in. So one or two of the major players decided to have a go at the bands and the venues who were having their posters put up by the cowboys. The intention was to find out who was behind it, but also to put the frighteners on the bands and the venues, so they'd come back to heel and abandon this new team."
Tony paused, staring into the middle distance. "So what happened?" I asked.
"They took a beating," he said simply.
"What happened?"
"They sent a team of enforcers along to one of the gigs. They found themselves staring down the barrels of a half a dozen sawn-off shotguns. Not the kind of thing you argue with. So they went off to get tooled up themselves. By the time they came back, the cops were waiting and the whole vanload got arrested. And not a one of the door crew got lifted." Tony shook his head, as if he still couldn't quite comprehend it.
I was taken aback. I couldn't remember a time when Manchester villains had ever called the police in to sort out an internal matter. Whoever was trying for a takeover bid was so far outside the rules it must be impossible for the resident villains to know what the hell was coming around the next corner. "So what happened?" I asked.
"There was a lot of unhappy people around. I don't have to draw pictures, do I? So they decided they'd go down one of the venues. Out of working hours, so the door crew wouldn't be around. They figured a good wrecking job would sort things out. They'd hardly got the door broken down when the cops arrived with an even bigger team and nailed the fucking lot of them. They couldn't believe it. I mean, you're talking people who've got coppers on their teams. Where do you think they get the extra door muscle on Friday and Saturday nights? But there they were being faced down by a fuck¬ing busload of coppers in riot gear. You can't get that kind of a turnout when it all goes off in the badlands on a hot summer's night!" Tony crushed out his cigarette and pulled another one out of the pack.
"So, whoever is behind all of this has got a bit of pull?" It was more of a statement than a question.
"You could say that."
"Who is it, Tony?" I asked.
A drift of smoke from Richard's joint hid Tony's face for a moment. When it passed, his dark eyes met mine. I could see worry, but also a kind of calculation. I felt as if I was being weighed in the balance. I'd wondered why Tony had agreed to talk to me. It hadn't seemed enough that he was an old mate of Richard's. Now I realized what the hidden agenda was. Like his buddies, Tony had been comfortable with the way things were run in the city. Like a lot of other people, he wasn't comfortable with what was happening now. They'd tried to sort it out themselves in the conventional ways, and that hadn't worked. Now Tony was wondering if he'd found a cleaner way of get¬ting the new team off the patch. "Somebody came to see me a couple of weeks ago," he said obliquely. "A pair of somebodies, to be precise. Very heavy-duty somebodies. They told me that if I wanted Manassas to carry on being a successful club, I should hand my promotions over to them. I told them I didn't negotiate with messengers and that if they wanted my business, the boss man had better get off his butt and talk face to face."
I nodded. I liked his style. It was a gamble, but he was on his own turf, so it wasn't likely to have been too expen¬sive. "And?"
"They went away. Two nights later, I was walking from my car to my front door when three guys jumped me. They put a sack over my head and threw me in the back of a van. They drove me around for a while. Felt like we were going in circles. Then they tipped me out in a ware¬house. And I met the boss."
"Who is it, Tony?" I asked softly. He wasn't talking to me anymore. He was talking to himself.
"Peter Lovell. Detective Inspector Peter Lovell. Of the Vice Squad. He's due to retire next year. So he's setting himself up in business now to make sure he can replace all his bribes with a nice little earner."
There was a long pause. Then eventually I said, "What's he like, this Lovell?"
"You ask the police press office, they'll probably tell
you he's a model copper. He's got commendations, the lot. The top brass don't want to know the truth, do they? Long as their cleanup rate looks okay to the police com¬mittee, everything's hunky-dory. But this Lovell, he's a real bastard. He's on the take with all the serious teams that really run the vice in this city. The faces behind the class-act brothels, the boss porn men, the mucky movie boys, they're all paying Lovell's wages. But he makes it look good by picking up plenty of the small fry. Street girls, rent boys, any small-time operators that think they can live off the crumbs from the top lads' tables. When¬ever Lovell needs a good body, they're his for the taking, there to make him look like a hero in the Chronicle. But he never touches anybody serious." Tony's voice was bitter with contempt.
"What about his private life? He married?"
"Divorced. No kids."
Tony shook his head, his mouth twisting in a grimace. "Word is, he likes fresh meat. And his paymasters know it. Soon as they get some nice new recruit who's managed to avoid being raped, they give her to Lovell to break her in. Not too young, though. Not below about fourteen. He wouldn't like people to think he was a pervert." He spat out the word as if it tasted as unpleasant as Lovell himself.
I took a deep breath. It was going to be a real pleasure to nail this bastard. "How many people know he's the face behind the fly-posting invasion?"
"Not many," Tony said. "It's not common knowledge, take it from me. One or two of the big players on the music scene, not more than that. That's the only reason there's not a war on the streets right now. They're keeping the lid on it, because as long as Lovell's still on the force, he can screw us all one way or another. But some¬body's got to put a stop to him. Or else there's going to be blood and teeth on the floor."
I stood up. "I'm going to have to think about this, Tony," was all I said. We all knew what I meant.
He lit his cigarette and jammed it into the corner of his mouth. "Yeah," he muttered, unfolding his body from the sofa and making for the door.
"I'll be in touch," I said.
He jerked to a stop and half-turned. "No way," he said. "You want to talk, get Richard to call me and we'll set something up. I don't want you anywhere near Manassas, you hear?"
I heard. He walked out the door and I moved over to the window, snapping the standard lamp off as I went. I pulled the blind back a couple of inches and gazed down three stories to the shiny wet street below. A taxi sat at the traffic lights, its diesel ticking noisily above the back¬ground hum of the city. The lights changed and the taxi juddered off.
"I've never worked for gangsters before," I remarked as I watched Tony dodge out of the front door and double back past the student residence.
"It can't be that different. Some of your other clients have been just as dodgy, only they were wearing suits."
"There's one crucial difference," I said. "With straight clients, if you succeed, they pay. With gangsters, unless you succeed, you pay. I'm not sure I can afford the price."
Richard put an arm around my shoulders. "Better not fail then, Brannigan."
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