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Authors: Robert Gott

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The Serpent's Sting (33 page)

BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
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For the first time, an ember of anger flared behind his slightly dulled eyes. I gave him what I thought he wanted.

‘You're talking about James Fowler, aren't you?'

‘Ah,' he said, and relaxed. ‘So you do know. That saves time. You don't work for them, though, do you? Not anymore. You see, I am well informed.'

I was tempted to tell him that he was wrong, that I did work for them, but I decided to keep this private shame to myself. I certainly didn't want Mother and Cloris to know.

Cloris had calmed herself since Taylor had begun talking. The tension in her body had eased. The hand that held the syringe, which had been quivering slightly when I'd first seen her, was now steady. Very steady. And I wondered, what did I actually know about Cloris Gilbert? It suddenly occurred to me that I knew very little, and no more than she'd allowed me to know. Before any connections asserted themselves, Albert Taylor spoke again.

‘My target isn't James Fowler. He's not my ace. It's another Intelligence agent. Your brother.'

‘Your information is out of date. Brian isn't an agent. He can't help you.'

Just for a moment, he seemed uncertain, and then the raw sincerity in my voice must have registered with him, and he laughed.

‘I think it's your information that's out of date, Will.'

With sickening certainty, I knew that he was right.

‘How do you know this?'

‘I have friends, Will. Friends I made when I worked for Intelligence — a fact I'm sure you know if you know James Fowler. I've kept a couple of those friends, and they tell me things, because they have secrets, and I know their secrets.'

He glanced at the syringe to underline the nature of some of those secrets.

‘Other people's secrets, Will — their price is above rubies. Gerald and I know what to do with people's secrets.'

Geraldine, who'd barely moved, said, ‘Secrets are money in the bank, Will.'

‘And in this case, it's Intelligence's money. We need our ace, Will. Where is he?'

‘I have no idea.'

Albert Taylor raised the gun, levelled it at my head, and pulled the trigger. The bullet went where it was supposed to go — over my shoulder and into the wall behind me, passing first through a small oil painting that I'd never liked. The noise was staggeringly loud, and the smell of cordite sharp. For a moment, the world was frozen. Cloris made a small sound and looked stricken. The shock of the report had caused her to push the plunger of the syringe, forcing a small amount of heroin into Mother, who uttered a muffled ‘Oh,' and slumped awkwardly. Geraldine checked the syringe, showing no concern, and said, ‘Keep your hand on it.'

Cloris obeyed.

My ears were still ringing. I don't know why Taylor's gunshot failed to alarm me. I was startled by the noise, but strangely unaffected by the possibility that he might have killed me. My failure to panic annoyed him.

‘OK, so you know I won't kill you, but don't make the mistake of believing I won't hurt you.'

He pointed the gun at my knee.

‘Where's your brother?'

My courage, if that's what it was, evaporated. When I spoke, I was aware that my voice had a slight tremor in it, which would have given Taylor immense satisfaction.

‘I was with Brian earlier this evening. We went our separate ways a couple of hours ago. I was expecting him to be here.'

‘I believe you. I think you're too frightened to lie.'

I was frightened. That was humiliatingly true. I wasn't, however, so frightened that I told him the whole truth. Mother had closed her eyes, and was now dozing under the influence of the shot of heroin she'd received. I was grateful for that.

‘Why do you need Brian? I can take whatever demands you have to James Fowler.'

‘But you're not one of theirs, Will, and your brother is. Our plan isn't a simple one. A simple plan won't provide us with enough certainty to guarantee a safe exit into anonymous obscurity. No, no. What we're going to achieve is epic in its scale and ambition, and we're going to need the full resources of Intelligence for it to work, and to gain access to those resources we need lots and lots of bargaining power. There's a reasonable amount of that here in this room.'

He nodded to Mother and Cloris. He didn't indicate that he considered me a useful addition to that power.

‘Our biggest chip, our ace, is your brother, because his lover will move heaven and earth to protect him. My informant is very confident of this.'

My heart began to race. Brian had a lover inside Intelligence? Nigella Fowler sprang to mind. Had Brian fallen for her, just as I'd done? And had she returned the favour?

‘Our demands are extravagant, but fortune favours the bold, or so Thucydides tells us, and I'm an admirer of Thucydides.'

‘So what are these extravagant demands?'

‘I'm glad you asked. You need to know them, because you're a part of them. To use a chess term, our end game is to get to Tasmania, assume new identities, and live quietly and remotely, bothering no one, but not having to be gainfully employed.'

‘Selling drugs and women is hardly gainful employment.'

Cloris looked tense, as if she thought such a remark might provoke Taylor. It didn't.

‘Both of those activities lead to gain, so yes, I'd call them gainful. They are, however, time-consuming and risky, and Gerald and I want a quiet life.'

‘Fresh-faced American soldiers who overdose in my bedroom are a problem I don't need in my life, Will,' said Geraldine.

‘Why did you bring that poor boy's body here?'

Albert Taylor produced a sound that resembled a strangled guffaw.

‘That whole incident told us a lot about you, Will. I thought your solution was brilliant. Criminally creative. We decided against it, though. Initially, we put him in your bath just for fun, really, just to see what would happen next. We thought you might cart him down to the railway tracks. And what happened next was a revelation. Dervian was tidied away, and it takes a great deal of organising and political will to achieve that. That was when we realised that someone in your house was being protected from a public scandal — and I'm afraid it wasn't you or your mother. It was your brother.'

I hadn't allowed the depressing news that Brian was, after all, working for Intelligence — just as I'd suspected he'd been — to overwhelm me. The immediate situation put it in the background. Now, however, I was forced to confront it.

‘Why would Intelligence go so far out of its way to protect Brian?'

‘Love, Will. I told you. Love.'

This seemed so absurd that I couldn't even begin to entertain it as the real motivation for the extraordinary intervention and co-ordination of the various forces that had descended on Mother's house on the night I'd found Anthony Dervian's body in the bath. There was nothing to be gained by challenging Taylor.

‘Supposing you're right,' I said, ‘supposing some well-connected woman's love for my brother can move mountains. How far do you think you'll get before Intelligence finds you and brings you in?'

Taylor sighed deeply.

‘It's not ideal, Will. It's not even close to ideal, but we're taking hostages. I know, it's clumsy and mediaeval, and all sorts of things can go wrong. Hostages have a way of ending up dead. It's much riskier to be the hostage than the hostage-taker. We're counting on Intelligence knowing this, and acting on it.'

He turned the gun suddenly on Cloris. Out of the corner of his eye, he must have seen that her fingers had let go of the syringe, which was still protruding from Mother's arm.

‘Don't take your hand off that until I tell you to.'

There was a vicious edge to his voice that briefly exposed his true nature. A look passed between him and Geraldine, and it must have been potent because Geraldine flinched. She ought to have been watching Cloris more carefully. Clearly, it wasn't a good idea to let Albert Taylor down. I suspected that small transgressions didn't go unpunished. His mood had altered, and when he spoke again, the careful urbanity he'd been exercising had frayed at the edges.

‘We're not doing ambit claims. We want to leave for Tasmania tonight.'

‘Aren't there mines in Bass Strait?'

‘We're not going by sea, you stupid fucking nong. We're flying.'

‘Flying?' I couldn't keep the incredulity out of my voice. ‘Why would they give you an aircraft?'

His impatience began to show.

‘They're not
giving
us an aircraft. They're flying us to Hobart.'

‘But why would they do that?'

‘Because if they don't, she'll die,' he said, pointing at Cloris, ‘your mother will die, you'll die, and your brother will die. That's a big mess to have to clean up, even if it's only your brother they really care about. It will be cheaper to do things our way.'

It was a still night, so the sound of a car pulling up outside was impossible to ignore. I tensed, thinking it must be Brian, about to blunder in and deliver himself into Taylor's hands. Neither Taylor nor Geraldine showed any sign of alarm, however, and when Mrs Ferrell entered the room it became clear why. She pushed me roughly out of the way, although I wasn't actually in her way. She was just stamping her authority on the situation.

‘Everything's ready,' she said.

Her presence calmed Taylor's nerves, and he returned to his cool, unhurried demeanour.

‘Hostages might seem clumsy and mediaeval, Will, but it was an efficient means of negotiating on a grand scale. Look at Edward the Third. He snaffled King John of France and his two sons, and ended up with half of France.'

‘Get on with it, Bert,' Mrs Ferrell said. Taylor smiled at her indulgently.

‘Mrs Ferrell isn't interested in English history. Here's what's going to happen, Will. We're taking your mother — or, rather, Mrs Ferrell is taking your mother — and I'm staying here with Geraldine. When your brother shows up, he's going to make the necessary telephone calls. He's coming with us to an airfield, and the three of us are flying down to Tassie. All the while, your mother's life will depend on everyone co-operating. You see now why we need your dear old mum. Brian needs a reason to come along quietly.'

‘This is madness. It's too elaborate.'

‘That's its strength. Simplicity breaks too easily. Besides, we have simplified it a little. We're leaving you and Cloris here — dead or alive, that's up to them.'

‘Who shot a bolt into the old lady?' Mrs Ferrell asked.

‘It was an accident,' Geraldine said. ‘She didn't get much. She'll wake if you slap her.'

‘Good. I'm not lugging her scrawny arse over my shoulder.'

This brief exchange must have penetrated Mother's doze, because her eyes opened.

‘Pull the needle out, girlie,' Mrs Ferrell said to Cloris. As delicately as she could, Cloris withdrew the needle from Mother's arm. Mother stirred, and uttered a sound that was redolent of pleasure. It was wildly inappropriate. Mrs Ferrell took the syringe from Cloris, who was in a daze, as if her body had decided that now was the time to go into shock.

‘Let's get her up,' Mrs Ferrell said, as she put the syringe carefully on the mantelpiece. She and Geraldine then lifted Mother to her feet, and although she swayed a little, she managed to stay upright. Mrs Ferrell retrieved the syringe.

‘We don't want your poor old mum to be distressed,' Taylor said, ‘so we'll keep her happily sedated on heroin until everything is sorted out. If it takes too long, she'll be addicted, and that would be a dreadful thing.'

‘Mrs Ferrell is a trained nurse,' Geraldine said. ‘No one needs to get hurt, Will. As soon as I get my £1000 from you, and as soon as Bert's finances are organised, we'll send word to Mrs Ferrell to let your mother go.'

‘We'll have Brian with us, of course, and we'll let him go then, too.'

There was no point explaining that I didn't have £1000 and that I couldn't raise that amount of money in only a few days — if at all. I could see that Albert Taylor's plan had been conceived by somebody whose brain had been addled by drugs. It couldn't possibly succeed, even if they planned to control Brian by using heroin. It was the stuff of fantasy. Still, stage one was going smoothly enough. Taylor had us pinned to the spot with his revolver, and Geraldine and Mrs Ferrell half-walked, half-carried Mother to the waiting car. Geraldine returned, and said that Mrs Ferrell was just topping Mother up a little. ‘She doesn't want an unruly passenger.'

The engine started, and the car drove away.

‘Where are you taking her?'

‘I'm sorry to say,' Taylor said, ‘it's not very salubrious. Not at all what your mother is used to.' He laughed. ‘Maybe she could get a bit of paid work while she's there. We have some very odd clients, don't we, Gerald? They ask for all manner of things. There's bound to be some Yank with a mother complex who'd jump at the chance to fuck your mother.'

BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
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