Authors: Nick Oldham
âYeah . . . Ooh, Dad, you're an angel.' She kissed him.
âAnd who the hell is John?' His eyebrows rose.
Leanne stood up abruptly. Red embarrassment shot up her neck and attacked her face like nettle rash. âNobody,' she said petulantly.
âOK,' he backed off, holding out his hand. She slid hers into his and they squeezed each other's fingers. âI'll pick you up, no probs. I'll take you, if your mum doesn't want to.'
âThanks, Dad, that'd be brill. Love you.' She bounded off happily.
Henry settled back reflectively. In the distance he heard the front doorbell chime. Voices grew gradually louder until Kate appeared in front of Karl Donaldson, the big American from the FBI in London.
âHenry, Karl's come to see you,' she said coldly. She stepped aside and forced a smile on to her face. âTea, coffee, beer?' she asked Donaldson.
âDo you have water?'
âFlavoured? Fizzy? Still? Or from the tap?'
âFlavoured and still would be nice.'
âI'll get it.' She rounded the big man, glancing ever so quickly at her husband. The two men watched her go. Donaldson looked at Henry. âEverything OK?'
Henry cleared his throat nervously. âYeah . . . Take a pew.' Donaldson sat on the two-seater sofa, almost filling it with his size, which was all muscle. He placed a black briefcase on his knees.
âI see,' said Donaldson.
âYes, icy,' Henry confirmed.
Donaldson chuckled, but stopped abruptly and put his face straight when Kate reappeared with his tumbler of water, then went with a cob on.
âAnyway â how are you?'
âOK.' Henry winced to get some sympathy. âGot a pain in the side, but it'll be reet,' he said, adopting a broad Lancashire accent. âAm pissed off with you in some way for putting me into bat with FB, though.'
Donaldson looked contrite for a moment, then said, âBusiness is business.'
âYeah, I know. So why are you here?'
Donaldson flicked open the catches of his briefcase and lifted the lid. âGot some information for you. Haven't told anyone else yet. Hot off the press.'
Henry almost said, âWhoa, not a good idea,' but his natural inquisitiveness got in the way.
Donaldson extracted a brown manila file and opened it. There was nothing written on the front of it to indicate its content. âFast-track ballistics, remember?' He leafed through a few pages. âConfirmed for sure that the STAR pistol the guy held to your head is the same weapon that killed Zeke and Marty Cragg. Also the weapon that killed my first undercover operative in Mendoza's gang. The same weapon was also used in four other killings across Europe. All four are individuals who either crossed or were rivals of Mendoza.'
âOK â same gun, but how do you know that Mendoza put the contracts out?'
âYou know I've been working more or less full time on Mendoza ever since Zeke was murdered. I now have an informant quite high up Mendoza's chain of command who keeps feeding me tit-bits. I'm nurturing him slowly, but he may be of limited value because of his position. He only knows so much, even though he's quite an important player.'
âWhy is he giving you stuff?'
âAh-hah, good question. His motives are not yet clear to me and I don't trust the bastard . . . Anyway, no one else knows about him, got that Henry? I'm only telling you because I trust you.'
Henry nodded. It would go no further.
âThat means Mendoza's hit man has taken out at least nine people?'
âMore probably, but we just haven't made the links â yet.'
âAnd I had him â and he got away,' Henry said, punishing himself.
âDon't feel too bad, pal, we'll get him somehow . . . I've got some more information.' He fished out another sheet from the file, then looked at Henry. âYour CSI's dusted your car, the car the hit man was using, and the weapons and anything else they thought this guy had touched and lifted some very useful fingerprints, together with some low-copy DNA samples, which I fed into our system.' He paused for a moment for effect. It worked. Henry sat bolt upright. âWe've identified the bastard.'
âYes!' blurted Henry as though Blackpool FC had just won the FA cup.
âHe has about fifty aliases but was born Paul Verner in 1960 in Nottingham, England.'
âYep. He had a string of juvenile cautions here, then his family moved to New York where his father was in engineering. But young Paul continued his wayward ways and fell into gangland pretty easily by all accounts. He got his first murder charge when he was seventeen. He was acquitted and never appeared at court since, but we know he went to work as a Mob-enforcer, graduating to full-scale hit man.'
âFrom bloody Nottingham?'
âYep â full of outlaws, Nottingham.'
âAh, Robin Hood, nice one. But Nottingham? I can't believe that.'
âHe's been arrested several times on murder counts, but always walked before trial. Intimidated witnesses, usual story. He disappeared from view about three years ago, which pretty much ties in with the first dead body in Europe. France, actually.'
âGone working for Mendoza?'
âOn contract, to coin a phrase. We think things were getting too hot for him Stateside . . . he was under intense investigation following the murder of a loan shark in Brooklyn, then went to ground. Not been seen since â until this.'
âThe family he worked for in the US have strong links with their Sicilian clan, who have strong trading links with Mendoza. We think his services were offered to Mendoza and being a Brit, with a British accent, he fitted in pretty well with the European scene.'
âThe circle completes,' said Henry.
âAnd now he's here involved in some business for Mendoza and the American mob â and you interrupted him.'
âYeah, it makes sense. Let me get this: Wickson gets involved in drug importation on behalf of the Yanks. He upsets them in some way. So Mendoza sends in Verner to do the business for his American criminal colleagues.'
âThat could be it.'
Henry sank in his chair. âHe left a phone message for me.'
Donaldson's mouth opened. âHe what?'
Henry fetched the cordless house phone and replayed the message for Donaldson's ears. The tanned American went pale as he handed the phone back to Henry. âYou need protection.'
Henry shook his head. âI think he'll be too busy to be worried about me. I've just pissed him off, that's all. He'll get over me.'
Donaldson did not look convinced.
âAny photos of him?'
âA few.' He reached in the case and handed Henry a stack which he skimmed through. One was a police mugshot from years ago, the others mainly grainy black and white surveillance shots taken from a distance. A couple could have been used for press release, maybe.
His eyes narrowed. âYou said you haven't shown these to anyone else yet, or told anyone this info. Do you have your own agenda here?' Henry was thinking that the American might want to play his own game with this. It would not have surprised him. That was often how it worked, even within the same police force, never mind across other agencies which sometimes had conflicting objectives.
âNo. I want the guy as much as your lot.'
âI take it you'll be immediately handing this stuff over to FB, then?' Henry smirked.
âAll I'm saying is that I have no agenda that conflicts with your force. I want him brought to justice.'
Henry nodded acquiescence, knowing that the information would not be passed straight away to Lancashire officers, even though he did not know why not.
âSo why tell me?'
âI wanted you to know what you've been up against. But, yeah, I'd appreciate it if you let me tell FB what he needs to know, when he needs to know it.'
Henry nodded and thought: Knowledge is power.
Leanne's youth club was located in a building in the centre of town, close to the Winter Gardens complex, which held unpleasant memories for Henry. He drove her in the firm's Astra, determined to get as much use from it as possible whilst his own was still being repaired. When she realized he intended to convey her in it as opposed to her mother's spic 'n' span Renault Clio, she threw a wobbler.
âI am not going in that heap of dirt.'
âIt's the only way you'll get down to town, unless you want to go by public transport.'
âI will not be seen dead in it.'
âHave you got your bus fare?'
âIn that case you must drop me off around the corner because I'll die of embarrassment if any of my friends see me climbing out of this.' Her face and screwed-up mouth said it all.
âGet in and stop whining.'
The car set off in a cloud of dark-blue smoke. Leanne shrank into her seat and hid her face behind her hands. âOh my God,' she said like one of the actors in
, âthis is so uncool.'
âIt's a bloody car,' Henry said, enjoying himself perversely, âand it almost works.'
He drove her into town and dropped her off as requested, around the corner from the youth club. As he pulled into the side of the road, and just before Leanne alighted, Henry checked his rear-view mirror and saw Tara Wickson's Mercedes. The car swished past with Tara at the wheel, giving Henry no sideways glance at all, not seeming to notice him.
Leanne leapt out of the offensive Astra, slammed the door and stalked away without a thank you. Henry could not believe how short her skirt was and how she dared show so much midriff. He almost dragged her back home to get her redressed in a sack, but said to himself, No, no, it's OK, don't get wound up . . . she's growing up. It's fine, but if that John lays a finger on her, he's dead meat.
He set off, slotting in a couple of cars behind Tara's Merc. To head to Poulton, she should have gone left at the next junction. She turned right.
Henry could do nothing else but follow her.
It was in his blood, the instinct of a cop.
Henry knew for a fact that the general public did not expect to be followed. People like himself, who had, for some part of their lives, led a clandestine existence, did expect to be tailed and knew what to look for. This is why he found it slightly amusing on one hand and worrying on the other that Tara Wickson had no idea who was behind her. He could have attached his car to her rear bumper with a tow rope and she would have been none the wiser. The worrying thing was that he found out that someone was following him.
He had not been sure at first. He thought it was just coincidence, but his entrails tightened up when it went beyond coincidence and, as James Bond would say, into enemy action.
Which put him in a predicament.
He wanted to know where Tara was going, which meant he would lose her if he took action to shake his tail.
Unless the follower was after her and not him.
For the moment he decided to stick with Tara.
She drove across the one-way system near to the Winter Gardens and weaved through various roads down on to the promenade. Once on the seafront she turned right and headed north, moving quite quickly and racing through lights on amber. Henry managed to stay with her, as did the vehicle three cars behind him. He saw it was a plain Vauxhall Cavalier, grey coloured, the sort of car that blended into the background. There was one man in it, just a dark shape hunched at the wheel.
Henry held his breath and gritted his teeth.
Could this be Verner?
Tara carried on up to North Shore, then turned right into the car park of the Hilton Hotel, a red-brick monstrosity overlooking the promenade.
Henry, several cars behind, sailed past and glimpsed her screeching into a parking space and jumping out of the car. Henry drove on to the roundabout at Gynn Square and kept left to stay on the prom.
Three cars behind him was the Cavalier â staying with him.
He needed to be sure. He drove on, the tram tracks on his left running parallel with the road. The remnants of last year's illuminations were still strung from lamppost to lamppost. He was heading towards Bispham. So what better place in the world was there, he thought, to see if he really was being followed?
At the next set of traffic lights, he turned into Red Bank, Bispham's main shopping street. Further down the road was a Sainsbury's supermarket. He checked his mirror. The Cavalier had made it through the lights.
Henry swung a right into Sainsbury's car park. He hurtled round it and slotted into a space at the far side, jumping out of the car and running at a crouch, using other parked cars for cover, back towards the main road.
If his tail was of any standard, he would not come in behind him, but would find somewhere to hole up with a view of the exit and pick up the follow when Henry re-emerged on to the road.
Henry ducked low and watched the Cavalier glide slowly past down Red Bank. He kept hidden behind a Transit van. The driver of the Cavalier strained to look across the car park and Henry saw his face quite clearly. Some relief flooded into him. It was not Verner. That was reassuring, but nothing else was. He thought he recognized the driver, but was not sure. He wondered if it had anything to do with John Lloyd Wickson.
The Cavalier went out of sight. Henry stayed where he was, the Transit keeping him out of sight of the road.
A couple of minutes later, it reappeared, cruising slowly. It went past the car park and pulled in fifty metres up the road.
Henry wiped a nervous hand across his face.
He vaulted the low wall separating the supermarket car park from the footpath and walked smartly up Red Bank towards the prom.
Straight in, he thought. He did not have time to mess about.
Within seconds he was at the rear nearside of the Cavalier. Two more strides and he was at the passenger door. He tried the handle â locked â and contented himself by squatting down on his haunches and tapping on the window with his knuckles and giving the driver one of his best, nastiest smiles.