A grey morning. Only 8.10, and already a traffic tailback up the steep, slow S-bend of Myron’s Hill. It reached down to the roundabout where Detective Superintendent Yeadings was held up. Not sufficiently bothered to switch to Thames Valley traffic news, he inserted a CD, Vivaldi’s Seasons, and edged a couple of yards farther.
It was the start of the tape – Spring, all perky lamb-frisking – and he wryly wished it had arrived, with early tulips opening in the borders at home. Still another week or two before the colours revealed themselves. Last year the garden centre had let in some rogues which threw his whole display out of kilter. And he’d planned it for Nan’s forty-fifth birthday. Two yellow and three shrieking pink spoiling a swath of Delft Blue hyacinths. Still, the daffs were pushing up well. You couldn’t go wrong with them.
An impatient driver a few cars back was leaning on the horn, as if that could move things on. Locals should be used to a brief build-up here. Traffic would clear in a few minutes.
Wednesday was viewing day at the auctioneer’s at the top of the S-bend. Access to the trade car park at the rear was too narrow. Some articulated van would be executing a sevenpoint turn across both lanes to get in.
He knew Nan would drop in there after the morning school run, looking for a new hall table. By ‘new’, meaning antique. A place to display winter flowers and her sprays of preserved beech leaves.
In the confines of the car, Vivaldi’s strings fiddled on in a fine frenzy, ceased, then gave way to languorous Summer. This tailback was lasting longer than expected. Perhaps roadworks, restricting to single-lane traffic. Or a collision. There was no movement in Yeadings’s own lane, but the counter-flow had started streaming towards him.
He’d be late. It was just as well, he reflected, that the Hoad family deaths were cleared up. Nothing left now but paperwork. And, thankfully, a blank sheet this time for Crown Prosecution.
The traffic flow was normal as Nan Yeadings arrived on foot, having parked in the multi-storey concrete obscenity near the station. Wandering among the ticketed pieces of furniture, pictures, chinaware and knick-knacks on display she felt the usual stirring of excitement tinged with mild guilt which auction rooms always stimulated. She moved in a sort of child-in-toyshop fascination, coveting a long-case clock here, a ship’s bell, a tapestry wall-hanging there: things that belonged to others unknown, and not all of them willingly discarded; objects to which she should have no legitimate access. Maybe these were treasures forced into prostitution through debt or their owner’s death.
Sentimental value: there must be a corner in everyone’s secret heart for something inanimate that had taken on a patina of love.
‘Table,’ she disciplined herself aloud. She wasn’t here to indulge in proxy nostalgia or play Miriam Rothschild buying up the entire collection. Especially since several objects were undeniably naff. She marvelled that there were people who would go for anything, once collecting mania grabbed them.
Having established her feet firmly on the ground and reviewed the major pieces, she decided there were two possible pieces to bid for: one a seventeenth-century rectangular table, of oak darkened by age and slightly scarred, also a fine early Victorian wall-table with fantastic carved legs ending in balled claws and having a scalloped front. It was in good condition, the wood immaculately waxed: burl walnut with intriguing swirls of pattern.
Either could prompt rocketing bids, except that both were large, unsuitable for the average modern house. For their own square hall the first would look imposing, the other enchanting. There must, thought the seldom-churchgoing Nan, be a patron saint for bidders. If so, she would send up a special double-pronged prayer.
She smiled as Shelagh, the auctioneer’s blonde assistant, approached to exchange a few neighbourly words. She mentioned her interest, then departed before further temptation should strike. Tomorrow she would firmly restrict herself to bidding for the tables.
In the auction rooms’ cramped little office Charles Hennigan looked up from his computer.
‘Shelagh, what now?’
‘Sandy’s not turned up. I’ve rung his mobile and it’s switched off.’
‘Try him at home.’
‘I’ve done that, left a message. And both vans are here, so he’s not out collecting.’
‘Get someone else in. There’s stuff to move and the Simpson chinaware still needs ticketing.’
The woman’s lips tightened. Get someone. Like, snatched out of air? Or was she to give birth on the spot? To a large, horny-handed gorilla who could lift four times his own body weight? ‘Easy to say, Charlie.’
He switched on his professional smile, smothering annoyance with treacly charm. ‘You know you can do it.’
He turned back to his keyboard, flicked on to Sotheby’s list. Sucking her cheeks in, Shelagh made a beeline to her car. Rout the blasted man out, lying abed when needed at work. Batter on the oaf’s door until he’d no choice but to answer. And if someone reported to Charlie that she too had gone AWOL, he could deal with that problem himself.
Sandy Craddock, auctioneer’s porter and amateur antiques fancier, heard the car draw up and, through ancient net curtains, watched Shelagh’s approach with concern. When the doorbell shrilled he was flat on the floor below the window. The damn woman rang three times, finally keeping her finger on the bell for at least half a minute. He lay on for a further five while he pictured her rounding the outer wall, trying windows and kitchen door. When finally the car started up and drove away he stood, dusted his knees off and swore out loud.
It would be no lie to claim he was sick. He felt like shit. Already he’d thrown up his breakfast by the dusty laurel hedge behind the auction rooms. From the van’s driving seat he’d seen what happened: the man in the baseball cap starting to cross from the opposite side, threading between traffic, and the biker, appearing from nowhere, simply mowing him down; to vanish in a snarl of acceleration.
Over in a second. Enough to shake anyone. But it wasn’t until, hovering behind the gawkers, he’d picked up the distinctive cap and got blood on his hands, that it hit him.
He’d known instinctively. This had been meant for him.
He had cowered among the scanty shrubs behind Charlie’s office window to puke his heart out. When the shudders ceased, with hunched shoulders, chin buried in roll-neck sweater, and still in a cold sweat, he rammed his wool cap down to his eyes and trudged off uphill, bent on getting lost. He reached home to find the bloodied baseball cap still clenched in one hand. It took a lifetime of shuddering to fit his key in the lock.
Last night, when that message came up on his screen it had given him cause to wonder. But he hadn’t believed it. An empty threat. No one could get to him. Nobody knew who ‘Proteus’ was. The words, ‘I know where you live’, were hollow. They couldn’t know that. Not even where he worked. Surely?
But there’d been this attempt. Someone out to kill him.
So had he been spied on, followed? And murdered by proxy?
One thing he knew for sure: it was no accident. The biker had headed straight for his victim. Only, because of the distinctive baseball cap, he’d got it wrong. Distance and speed had concealed the difference in age. Warren was slighter, younger, but both had inherited Alicia’s height and hawklike features. So now the poor bastard was possibly dead, in place of his half-brother.
Except that, to be strictly factual, Sandy himself was the bastard, fathered by an anonymous redhead, when Alicia had been barely sixteen.
Which accounted for his abandoned childhood, raised by a strait-laced grandmother, from whom eventually he’d inherited this house, an ex-council semi. Alicia had floated off to an easier life, and at twenty-three married a middle-aged academic with investments. Andrew Laing, Ph.D., had died three years back, from a subdural haematoma, leaving Warren Laing as their sole legitimate, pampered offspring.
Sandy Craddock groaned aloud, hardness like an icy stone inside his chest. It would have been himself on the morgue slab, if it hadn’t been for that ambiguous baseball cap.
Alicia, never highly imaginative, had sent them one each at Christmas. She’d bought them in Miami, where she’d gone to soak up sun. It was only last week that she’d mentioned, during Sandy’s annual phone call, that both brothers had the same. Which was enough for him to bin his own. He’d gone straight out and bought this navy woollen knitted thing to cover his cropped red hair and keep out the morning chill.
He’d only ever worn his cap as a sop to Alicia, and he despised himself for sucking up to her. It had been a hideous thing, electric blue, with a golden eagle on the front crossed by a bolt of scarlet lightning. Over the weeks since Christmas, everyone at work had known him by it. It wouldn’t have been hard for the attacker to pick him out, walking up the hill to the auction rooms. But today he’d driven in, having taken Hennigan’s van home last night, for an early morning pick-up.
So, while he’d sat unobserved in the parked van, for some screwy reason it had been Warren Laing walking up the hill, right into it. Wrong person, in the right place at the right time. And certainly right enough for Sandy, surviving and observing the attack, unseen.
It was deliberate. That biker had meant to kill. And, although the paramedics had been doing their best, he could still have pulled it off. The body had flown through the air for ten yards and landed against the auction rooms’ wall. Judging by the bloodied cap, his head had caught the brunt of it.
Don’t ask him yet to pity the poor idiot landing in it like that. All he could think of was, they missed me this time, but what’ll they do once they know they got the wrong man?
PAYBACK. Copyright © 2007 by Clare Curzon. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.