Authors: J M Gregson
Copyright © J. M. Gregson 1995.
The right of J. M Gregson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published by HarperCollins in 1995.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
An evening in early April. Warm for the time of the year, but with the prospect of a rapid drop in temperature and a still night. All around the sense of nature erupting into growth: spring is pushing forward insistently in the west of England.
Nowhere is more green, and it is a green full of the promises of things to come. In this part of Gloucestershire, the country life still runs strongly, and the weekenders have not taken over the village housing, as they have in the fashionable sectors of the Cotswolds which lie to the north. The smoke rises in slender grey columns from the cottage chimneys as the chill descends with the dew upon the fields. The predominant sound is that of the new lambs searching out their mothers and being answered by the ewes.
The field patterns have not altered as much here as they have on the factory farms further south. For a little while, those with the fancy to do so might imagine themselves transported back in time for a century and more. The illusion would disappear, of course, with the first human presence and the first human activity.
For the greenery in the middle distance is neither pasture nor meadow. The wide avenue of closely mown grass between the rows of trees, the telltale smear of sand at the distant end of the vista, reveal that this is in fact a golf course. There are few people upon it as the early spring darkness approaches. But the solitary figure who eventually appears removes any delusions that this scene is anything but a contemporary one.
He is a tall man, so that he makes good pace, even when he seems to be taking a leisurely course towards the tiny white speck around which his activity revolves. He weaves a rather zigzag track along the green valley between the stands of trees, pausing reflectively beside his trolley for an instant of evaluation after each stroke.
This solitary golfer is upright and grey-haired, well over six feet tall, so that when he settles over the ball to play, he has to stoop a little, making the clubs seem a fraction too short for him. He manifests no outward discontent after an indifferent shot, for time has taught him to be philosophical about his performance. He is over fifty, his shoulders already rounded a little towards the stoop which comes to tall men with age, though he seems lean and well-preserved.
He is that quintessential representative of late twentieth-century working life, a Superintendent of Police.
Superintendent John Lambert was enjoying himself. Although not all of his drives had been perfect, he had not missed a fairway from the tee. And he had hit two good four-irons, watching with satisfaction as the ball flew high and long against the darkening blue of the spring evening.
Above all, he appeared to have the course to himself. The clocks had been put forward scarcely more than a week before, and not many people had yet attuned themselves to the fact that it was possible to play a few holes in the evening. He enjoyed this solitary progress, feeling mind and body unwind after a day spent in the frustrations of bureaucracy.
There were not many better places in the world to be on an evening like this. It was the kind of weather people went to Portugal to enjoy, though they were not always successful in the quest. He would irritate Christine by parading that thought before her once again, when he got home for his belated supper. He hit a long drive from the sixth tee; only at the top of its flight did it move lazily to the right, as the slice he had never quite mastered asserted itself again. But the ball was still on the fairway, and as he moved towards it over the rise of the ground, he caught the last of the sun on the western slopes of the nearby Malverns.
He did not know that he was being watched.
He looked at the lush new green of the fields between him and the Malverns and thought of the father who was dead and of the lines he loved to quote:
Well, it was not yet summer. And if it was as still on the next hole as on this one, he would hear not the beetle but the distant hum of the traffic on the M50. But he wished, with a tender, welcome pain, that the old man was still at his elbow, to approve his progress and quote ‘Gray’s Elegy’ at him whenever the opportunity arose.
The man who watched him across the width of two fairways knew none of this affectionate melancholy. Within the three-sided shed whose floor was scored by the studs of a thousand sheltering golfers, he waited patiently for his man. He had noted with satisfaction that he was alone.
Lambert saw the first evening star and knew that the light would not endure much longer. He used the star as his line on the par three: it shone just to the left of the motionless flag, above the oak tree whose skeleton was still bare as the sap rose within it. If he could hit a gentle six-iron and allow his fade to bring the ball in towards the hole…
There was the harsh ugly sound of a thinned shot. The ball flew at half the height it should have done, curving fast into the deep bunker to the right of the green, burying itself resentfully in the steep wall of sand. ‘You stupid bugger!’ he muttered to himself. There was feeling but little anger in the words; he had played enough to expect at least one of these in a round. Playing alone, he could persuade himself that it was merely a lapse of concentration, rather than a flaw of technique.
He got the ball on to the edge of the green with his sand wedge, but did not bother to putt. He shivered for the first time as he hurried to the next tee. The temperature was falling quickly now: there would be a frost tonight. This hole would have to be his last.
He was almost at the green when he saw the man signalling from the shelter. He recognized him immediately, for they had met here before. It was a rendezvous more safe from prying eyes than the obscurest city warehouse. That was important to both of them, but particularly to the man who came towards him now without a word of greeting. Secrecy was more than important to him: it might represent the difference between life and death.
Once he was sure that Lambert had seen him, he slipped back into the shelter of the battered hut like a guilty thing. His shiftiness was habitual, but on this occasion it was justified. Had he been seen in conversation with a senior policeman, he would have been in extreme danger.
Lambert gave no sign that he had noticed this presence, playing his own small part in the little charade of deception for the watchers that could surely not be present in this quiet place. He went towards the unseen visitor with a mixture of revulsion and excitement.
Revulsion because this man was a snout; a grass; an informer; whatever was the latest word which the criminal faction and the police who fought it agreed upon. No one likes a grass, even when he is bringing valuable information to the fight against crime. He is the worst sort of mercenary, the one who sells his treachery for money.
But the superintendent felt excitement as well as he trudged with studious deliberation towards the peeling blue paint of the hut. He was an old-fashioned thief-taker, in an era when superintendents were increasingly regarded as senior, desk-bound management. He was a hunter, and the adrenaline rose at the prospect of information which might take him nearer to a quarry.
Charlie Pegg would not have risked his neck by coming here unless he had something to offer. There was an understanding between the two men which had been built over years of discreet exchange. A jaded perception of their worth to each other had grown now into a grudging respect.
Lambert bent to the wheel of his trolley, pretending to make a small adjustment, feeling ridiculous as he was drawn into the snout’s world of sly contrivance. He found himself speaking from the side of his mouth as he said, ‘Well, Charlie? You’ve got something for me?’
There was no reply until he had eased himself into the open-sided shed and perched himself on the single bench which was all the shelter afforded. He squeezed his right side against the boards of the hut’s side, automatically avoiding any physical contact with the man beside him. It was as though the man was a carrier for the disease of betrayal, so that even to touch him might bring the risk of defilement.
‘It’s worth money, this, Mr Lambert. Big money.’ The wheedling tone made the claim an appeal, not a statement. A man like this might bring much gold to a detective, but he had the mien as well as the appearance of a mendicant, not a salesman.
‘We’ll decide how much it’s worth in due course, Charlie. You know how it works—you should do by now.’
The man beside him nodded. Even that small gesture was furtive, as if it might somehow betray him in the semi-darkness of the hut; his eyes darted from side to side before he spoke again. ‘You’ve looked after me well enough in the past, Mr Lambert. I trust you, you know.’
In the other, larger section of his life, Charlie Pegg was an excellent craftsman, reliable in his work. His customers found him a likeable man; to at least two people, he was even lovable. But in the role he had here, he was like an ill-treated dog, fawning hopefully at the feet of a stranger.
Lambert wanted suddenly to be rid of him. There seemed no escape from his bad breath in the narrow confines of this strange meeting place. He said, ‘The sooner this is over the better, for both of us.’ He peered round the edge of the shed, as if he expected men were going to appear from the gathering darkness; perhaps he was catching Pegg’s mannerisms.
It was enough to hasten on his informant. ‘I’m going to get Berridge for you, Mr Lambert. Something big, this time.’
‘How big?’ Lambert studied the scratch on the toe of his left golf shoe, as if it were of more interest to him than what was coming next. He concealed his excitement at the mention of that name. No one afforded a snout a high sense of his value; that was one of the first CID precepts he had learned, twenty years and more ago.
‘Very big. The biggest.’
‘We need evidence, Charlie. You know that. Witnesses, probably. That’s what you need to deliver, to get much of a price.’
‘I’ll give you evidence. And some other names. Perhaps next time. There’s going to be a big deal made, you see.’
Lambert pursed his lips, pretending to give consideration to whether he intended to go ahead with this at all. But he knew he did: the name had been enough to ensure that.
‘Berridge, you say. Dangerous man for you to tangle with, Charlie. We want him, I won’t deny it. And you say that you can deliver him to us. But what crime, Charlie? We want him put away for a long time.’
‘Me too, Mr Lambert.’ Pegg leaned forward, turning to look up more directly into the superintendent’s face. He dropped his voice. ‘I need him away for a long time, too, don’t I?’
‘You will if he finds out you were involved.’ Lambert smiled grimly, turning the screw a little, trying to ensure that this pathetic specimen spilled everything in his desperate desire to protect his skin.
Pegg nodded vigorously. He looked outside automatically to ensure that the fairway was indeed deserted, unconsciously savouring this rare moment of melodrama in his uneventful life. He had to moisten his lips to deliver the important phrase.
‘You’ll get him this time, Mr Lambert. It’s murder, you see.’