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Authors: Robert Ryan

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BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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Coyle had made it to the Austin parked nearby and crouched down beside it. The windscreen shattered, but the glass imploded harmlessly into the car. He had three shots left. He thought about reloading, but now he heard the crunch of gears and an engine revving.

They were speeding off.

He stood and, bracing his right hand by cupping the butt of the S&W, he loosed the remaining bullets at the fast-disappearing motor car. Its rear window vanished in a glistening shower of glinting glass and sparks flew from the bodywork, but it kept going in a straight line, hardly deviating. He hadn’t hit the driver.

Should he give chase?

No, they were idiots. He’d clocked them, they’d clocked him; the rulebook said you abandoned the pretence and slipped away. You lived to fight another day. The only damage would have been that Coyle would know for certain that there was an opposition, confirming his suspicions by shooting at him. Amateurs.

He reloaded as he walked, not looking up until he was almost upon Gibson.

His partner was standing, gun limp at his side, staring down at his stomach and the rapidly growing red flower blooming across it.

‘Oh, Jesus, no.’ Coyle was with him in three big strides, just time enough to catch him as he crumpled to the ground.

The MI5 man was dead before they got him upstairs. The bullet had nicked something major and, from the way the colour drained from his skin and the light faded from his eyes, Watson knew there was massive internal bleeding.
It might be a blessing
, he thought. He had seen too many slow deaths from penetrating abdominal wounds in his time at the front. PAWs could take you quickily and easily, or make you suffer every step of the way towards eventual oblivion. Watson knew which he’d prefer.

Watson, Coyle, Mason the doorman and Churchill, all to some degree speckled in Gibson’s blood, stood in silence, waiting on a Lazarus moment that was never going to arrive.

Watson risked a glance at Coyle, but his face was set, granite-like, his breathing rapid and shallow. It was not a good sign. Already the Irishman was figuring out how to compartmentalize his grief, bottle it for another day, setting up the kind of internal conflict that Watson had spent the last six months trying to resolve – teaching soldiers to bear the unbearable.

‘I’m sorry—’ Churchill began, breaking the silence.

‘Shut up,’ Coyle snapped. ‘Sir, don’t say anything.’

Watson had seen Churchill explode at a lesser insult, but the man remained impassive. He had been through enough combat to make allowances. He’d probably give Coyle that one, perhaps another, before reminding him of his place.

‘Oh, fuck,’ muttered Coyle in a thick voice. ‘Fuck it all.’

After a few long moments, Churchill crossed to the pitchers and poured a healthy three inches of brandy into a glass. He offered it to Coyle who took it. ‘I was the one who was meant to break the partnership, ye silly man.’ He raised the glass. ‘
Go maire
sibh bhur saol nua.

The brandy disappeared in a blur of movement and Coyle held out the glass for a refill. Churchill took it with a slow, deliberate movement. Watson could tell Coyle was pushing his luck, treating the MP as his footman.

The Irishman turned to Mason. ‘Get back downstairs. There’ll be police after all that in the streets. Tell them it was a training exercise with live firing. Any damage will be paid for by the Special Branch. Understood?’

Mason nodded and left, buttoning up his coat to hide the worst of the bloodstains.

Watson looked at the unfortunate Gibson once more. ‘You think it was me meant to be laid out there?’ he asked nobody in particular.

‘I can see no other explanation,’ said Coyle. ‘I would hazard a guess that, whatever you are planning to do for Mr Churchill here, there are some who would rather you didn’t.’

Watson nodded, trying to come to terms with the idea that men were intent on killing him. He had been in danger before, of course. Everyone who ventured into the trenches was in the firing line, but out there, it was mostly fate that decided whether the sniper chose you as the recipient of a precious high-velocity round or if a whizz-bang dropped on your head or the gas got to you before you could get your mask on. To be on a death list, that was something very different. It was personal. Watson wished, not for the first time, that Holmes was with him, for he had spent a considerable time dodging Colonel Moran’s bullets.

Coyle took the second brandy from Churchill. ‘Who knew that Major Watson was coming here today?’

Churchill thought for a second. ‘The Steering Committee for this project. Macfie and Wilson of the Royal Naval Air Service and William Tritton, the senior engineer. Kell, of course. And you two.’

‘Holmes?’ asked Watson.

Churchill thought for a second. ‘Not specifically about today, no. Knew you were to be involved. But he—’

‘And they all know about the flight from Hainault?’ Coyle interrupted. ‘All the same people?’

‘Some do,’ Churchill confirmed. ‘Not all.’

Coyle blew out his cheeks. ‘Where were you flying the major to?’

Watson looked puzzled.

‘Me and Gibson, we was told to drop you at Hainault Farm airfield,’ explained Coyle. ‘The RNAS were to take over from that point.’

There they were again, the navy, footprints all over the place. But why take over an estate in Suffolk for naval manoeuvres? Unless it had a large lake. That could be the answer.

‘So,’ Coyle continued, ‘we never knew your final destination. We didn’t have to. Then, at least.’ Coyle turned his attention to Churchill. ‘Sir, I’ll be needing to know where you were flying the major to.’

‘Why’s that?’ asked Churchill suspiciously, pouring himself a brandy.

‘Because I’m not daft enough to take yer man out to the airfield now the plan is compromised. We’ll go by road. In our own sweet time. And before you ask, I won’t be telling you the route or the time we will get there. You tell these people to expect him when we arrive.’

‘Time is pressing,’ Churchill reminded him. ‘You don’t understand the politics involved.’

Coyle pointed at his deceased colleague. ‘I understand something got my friend here killed. And don’t you start with an Irishman about how messy politics can get. Just tell me where to deliver the major, please, sir, and I’ll get him there in one piece. The rest is up to you.’

Churchill hesitated for a moment and Watson pre-empted him. ‘It’s in Suffolk.’

The MP glared at him. ‘Yes. It’s a place called Elveden Forest. It’s Lord Iveagh’s country estate—’

Coyle began chuckling, although it was a sound devoid of mirth.

‘What’s so funny?’ asked Churchill, irritated at the man’s manners.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Iveagh, you say? I think I paid for a good portion of that land.’ Before Watson could voice the obvious question, he added, ‘It’s Guinness money, isn’t it, sir?’

‘It is,’ confirmed Churchill. ‘And the earl is being very generous.’

‘Aye, he is that,’ said Coyle in all seriousness. ‘A great man for the good works, is Edward Guinness. So, as I say, you telegram your man up there and tell him we’re on our way. I’ll call in to Kell now and then, just so you know we’re still alive.’

As if to emphasize the mortal threat, he took out the pistol from his belt and checked the cylinder. ‘We’d best be moving along. I’m going to change cars. The Deasy is too conspicuous now.’

‘There is a vehicle that goes with this apartment, garaged nearby,’ offered Churchill. ‘I’ve never used it, but the keys are in the hallway. It’s a Vauxhall.’

‘The Prince Henry?’ asked Coyle hopefully.

‘I believe so. Will that do?’

‘Nicely,’ nodded Coyle. ‘And another thing, sir.’

‘Yes?’

‘I’d like to attend the funeral.’ He looked down at the dead man. ‘Captain Gibson. Royal Engineers.’ In death, he would revert to his old army rank. Watson doubted there was an equivalent of full military honours for spies.

‘Of course. I’ll make the arrangements.’

‘Just a moment,’ said Watson. ‘I’d like to know why he died.’

‘You’re the doctor,’ said Coyle. ‘But I suspect that’ll be the bullet in his stomach.’

But Churchill knew what he meant. Watson wanted to know what was so important, so secret, as to start a gunfight in central London. Churchill shook his head solemnly. ‘That’s up to Swinton. I can’t—’

‘Then you’ll have to do without my services. The game has changed somewhat since our earlier conversation.’ It was Holmes’s turn to point at poor Gibson. ‘I want to know what cost this man his life and, it seems, might cost me mine. And what is so important that you have imprisoned Sherlock Holmes. If the country—’

‘Enough, damn it.’ Churchill looked enquiringly at Coyle.

The Irishman gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘Oh, don’t worry about me, sir, the less I know the better. My job is to get the major to the estate. That’s good enough for me.’

Churchill frowned, not a pretty sight as his features folded in on themselves. ‘Very well, Watson,’ he said at last. ‘Follow me.’

‘Where to?’

‘The library.’

Coyle took off his bloodstained jacket and began to unbutton his shirt. ‘And I’ll be sending for a change of clothes for both of us, Major. There’s no sense in going back to your place, eh? There might be eyes on it.’

When they had gone, Coyle crouched down and held the hand of his friend, the skin already unnaturally cool, the blood on the captain’s fingers rapidly crusting over. ‘And when I’ve delivered the major, I’ll come back here and I promise you I’ll tear this fuckin’ town down brick by brick until I found who did this and then I’ll crucify the bastards. All right? But forgive me if I don’t think on you for a few days, because that’d slow me up, Harry, and you wouldn’t want that, would you? Gotta have all me wits about me to make sure the doc gets where he is goin’. Finish the job, that’s what you’d want, isn’t it?’ He leaned over and kissed Gibson’s forehead. ‘And besides, I reckon I’ll be seeing you on the other side soon enough.’

FOURTEEN

 

Miss Pillbody picked her way gingerly over the shingle, towards a churlish North Sea that refused to shake off its perpetual greyness, even for the summer sun. Small clouds bustled across the sky above her, as if late for some appointment or other, while gulls screeched vague warnings at her. Miss Pillbody turned back and waved, before hitching her skirt a few inches up her calf as she stepped onto the sandier foreshore. Beyond that, the waves licked hungrily around the steel posts that supported the coils of rusty barbed wire, designed to stop small boats being landed.

Booth and Ross were sitting on the low concrete wall of a machine-gun position, which, for the moment, was devoid of both machine gun and gunners. In the dunes behind them were two tall watchtowers, manned by units of the Eastern Command’s Home Service Defence Force twenty-four hours a day. Should the Germans decide the Norfolk coast was a convenient place to strike at the heart of London – unlikely, granted – then the HSDF would hold them off until reserve troops could be rushed up from Colchester to reinforce them at positions like these.

‘Tell me, are your intentions towards Miss Pillbody strictly honourable, Lieutenant?’ Ross asked, examining the extravagantly striped pebble he held between thumb and forefinger.

Booth let out an exasperated laugh. ‘Is that any of your business?’

‘We Americans can be blunt. We like to know where we stand.’ The colours of the stone he had chosen were remarkable – creams, blues, browns – and he considered taking it home. ‘
Are
they honourable?’

Booth raised an eyebrow. ‘Are yours?’

‘I’m very fond of her,’ said Ross, tossing the pebble back into the anonymity of the masses and picking up another.
Very fond of the insight
she gives me into the village
, he thought.
Very fond at how jealous my presence in her company clearly makes you
.

Booth laughed. ‘Spoken like a true, mealy-mouthed cad.’

‘I’m not here to stop your fun, Lieutenant.’

‘We’ll come to that.’

‘What?’

‘Why exactly you are here.’

Ross took out a silver flask and offered it to Booth. After a fleeting hesitation the lieutenant took it and drank. It was followed by a rasping cough. ‘Whisky. Little early in the morning for me. I was expecting brandy.’

Ross raised the flask and took a deep slug. ‘Brandy is soporific. This stuff gives you a jolt.’ He watched two terns wheel in the sky, their narrow wings impossibly long and elegant. ‘So, we find ourselves in a fine pickle, eh?’

They had both turned up to invite Miss Pillbody out on a picnic, Ross on a tandem, Booth in a Morris he had borrowed from the estate. This had amused and no doubt flattered her, and she had come up with what she considered a most pleasing solution – both would take her out. So they had motored to the coast, picking up extra provisions on the way at the market in Norwich.

‘Well, don’t worry,’ said Booth. ‘One of us won’t be around for much longer.’

‘Oh?’ Ross ran a thumb over his pebble, feeling the sea-sharpened ridges of its whorled surface.

Booth showed his teeth in an unattractive smile, one that hinted at some sly victory. ‘I did some checking up on you. You aren’t who you say you are.’

Ross was careful not to betray any emotion.

‘You are a writer, yes, but also a journalist.’

Ross relaxed a little. ‘
Ex
-journalist.’

‘But only very recently.’ Booth took a smaller hit of the fiery liquor and grimaced with pleasure as it caught his throat.

‘Your point being?’

‘What are the odds of a hack—’

‘Former
hack.’

‘—turning up at one of the country’s most top-secret installations?’

‘Should you be telling me that?’

‘I’m sure you’ve been in the pubs, Mr Ross. And you know what we did to Miss Pillbody and all the local farmers. Of course it is something hush-hush.’

That phrase again. ‘So you don’t think I am here because I got off the fence and want to write the book that’ll bring America’s boys to Europe? You think I want to know what is going one behind your trees and your barriers?’

BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
12.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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