Authors: Rodney Hobson
© Rodney Hobson 2013
Rodney Hobson has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
The dark came as a shock. It was obviously expected but there was no way of preparing for it, no way of practising for it.
Nor was there any going back. This might be the only opportunity and there was desperately little time.
The stairs were fairly easy, a regular height that could be taken with a steady step, touching the wall with the left hand to guide round corners. It was the level part at each floor and halfway up each flight that was tricky, the sudden lurch forward when the expected step up was missing.
Then came another shuffle round the corner until a toe end caught the next flight.
It was too risky to try counting the stairs. The important thing was to count the floors, to be sure of getting the right one. Two flat turns to each storey.
There was just enough light from the far end to find the door, to avoid clanging the bar against the wall as it was swapped to the left hand and the key to the right, to find the keyhole with a shaking hand and to turn the key.
The door clinked slightly as it was opened but the chain was not on. The curtains were open yet it still took a few precious seconds to make out the way through the lounge and into the short passage.
The door at the far left of the passage was open. The bedroom was dark and only the vaguest shape could be made out.
Down came the bar with a grunt. A pause for breath, then another blow. Then another, the series building up into a frenzy, striking all over the bed to be sure.
Not a sound came from the shape. The bar fell noiselessly onto the thick carpet.
An elbow caught with a start against something at the side. Eyes that were slowly adjusting to what little light crept through the curtains made out a bedside lamp.
One click of the switch revealed the full horror of what had happened.
“It’s coming to something,” grumbled Nick Foster as he brushed up the leaves. “Coming to something.”
It’s coming to something when you have to put a security barrier up, Foster thought. This is Lincolnshire in the 1990s, for heavens sake. Dull, quiet Lincolnshire. Killiney Court was just a small block of flats in a small town – well, a fairly large block in a fairly large town by Lincolnshire standards, Foster muttered away to himself, but hardly Chicago in the 1930s.
Killiney Court used to be council property but years of neglect, uncaring tenants of an uncaring council, had led to a decision to bulldoze the place. Sleathorpe Properties stepped in at the last minute, picked the place up for a nominal sum and spent millions on refurbishment.
Here was the result: 24 luxury flats, four to each floor, in a solid brick and concrete building. It was a lifestyle that was beyond the hope of most of the surrounding populace but even paradise has its price. Killiney Court had been beset by petty thieving. It had caused tension among the residents as well as complaints that it was easy for envious outsiders to get in.
Hence the new sentry box that was being erected across the entrance. There a guard could sit all day and night, the tedium broken only by occasionally swinging the barrier up and down to let cars in and out of the short narrow drive.
Grumble and rustle, rustle and grumble, Foster edged his way round the bottom of the block. He was in no rush. He was 70 and would die leaning on his broom, though he did not intend that to happen for a long time yet. He had looked 70 since he was 50 and would still look 70 when he was 90.
His hair, though grey, was mainly intact. His face was chubby but lined. His body and clothes were indeterminate, as he hid them under an ill-fitting overall tied loosely at the waist.
The ground level at Killiney Court was open except for the lift in the centre at the back.
“Wind blows right through,” he chuntered. “Brings all the dirt and leaves. Now we’ve got the building mess as well.”
Foster had a point. One workman was drilling into tarmac and concrete while another stood supervising. They were making rather more mess than was necessary. No one, however, paid much attention to Foster’s grumbles, which were in any case directed mainly to himself.
Even the security guard, sitting at his temporary desk under the shelter of the block where he had taken up his duties at the beginning of the week, had learned to turn a deaf ear by the fifth day.
“Just keep an eye on things, Nick, while I nip to the toilet,” he said, easing off the chair and ambling round behind the lifts.
“Toilets aren’t that way,” Foster grumbled to himself. He knew the guard was going for a cigarette. Smoking on duty was a serious sin, a sackable offence. Some of the hoity toity residents didn’t like to return to their palatial mansions to be confronted by a security guard with a cigarette protruding from his mouth, forcing them to run the gauntlet of a ring of smoke.
That was the fifth time the guard had “gone to the toilet” and it was still only midday.
“Friday the thirteenth,” grumbled Foster. Rustle and grumble. “Unlucky for somebody.”
It was 4.30 pm when the first car drove in and the new barrier was raised in earnest for its debut performance. Ray Jones, local businessman, entrepreneur with a finger in a dozen small-time enterprises dotted around the area, steered his BMW towards the barrier. He could afford a Mercedes, he told himself frequently, and others occasionally, but he did not like to display his wealth.
Jones, late fifties, stocky, heavily greying and slightly round-shouldered, waved peremptorily at the lone sentinel, now half way through his allotted shift and seated proudly, if a little uncomfortably, in his bright new sentry box. He pressed a button and the barrier swung up, just a little too late to avoid forcing Jones to slow almost to a halt.
Jones gave him a sharp look that meant “get the timing right”, then he swung away into his parking slot down the left hand side of the block and under the high surrounding wall. As he got out and clicked the remote control key to lock the car, he heard a loud peep from another vehicle following him in.
The second car was a Mercedes. Scott Warren’s signal had alerted the guard, who this time swung up the barrier far too soon. This incident annoyed Jones twice over: he hated people to misuse their horns and that guard, who would have to be paid out of the community fees, had got the timing on the barrier wrong again. Jones liked things in their proper place at their proper times just as God had intended them.
“Evening, Ray,” Warren called cheerily from his open window as he drove past to his own bay two further on. Jones stood and watched the younger man with a mixture of contempt and annoyance.
He waited until Warren was getting out of the car and was caught in that awkward position with the door open, one leg out on the ground and one still in the well in front of the seat – the momentary pause before the driver summons the extra ounce of energy to rise to his feet.
“Christian names are for Christians,” Jones remarked bluntly, “and horns are for warning other road users, not for greeting all and sundry.”
Warren gave just a hint of being put out by this rebuke, then he sprang to his feet with a forced laugh. He was 30 years younger, tall, fit, well built and still tanned from a late summer holiday.
“What an old fusspot you are, Ray,” he returned, deliberately using the familiar tone of address that he knew irked Jones. “What do they teach you at church on a Sunday night? Hate thy neighbour? Don’t be so stuffy. It’s all first names now.”
Yet for all his bluster, Warren was clearly the lesser of the two men and both knew it.
There is a thin line between smugness and charisma and Jones was on the right side of it. He had a presence that Warren would never have, especially now Warren was struggling to fabricate the natural air that had come so readily when he and Jones had first met.
Warren ran one of those newfangled high tech operations that Jones fervently believed would never really catch on: his own small video recording company. Despite his reservations, Jones had backed it personally, hoping for a quick profit before the fad inevitably died a natural death.
Warren had shown a bit more respect then, when he needed the money. All that equipment was expensive and Jones had slowly turned the screw until Warren was finally reduced to grovelling for it.
Still, the operation had started to make its mark. Warren had contacts in London, from where most of the work emanated – work that could be done anywhere in the country, whizzed down high speed telephone wires or delivered in bubble wrapped packages by express couriers. The investment was beginning to come good and Jones had finally got a small dividend. It was a start, but not enough and not quickly enough.
The two men walked together nearly to the lift, side by side but a good yard apart. The awkwardness was broken when Jones spotted a third vehicle approaching down Killiney Road. As the car turned into the drive, the barrier swung up, nicely timed so that the Ford Mondeo eased through without having to change speed. The guard was getting the hang of it.
Joanna Stevens was a tall, handsome woman in her early 30s, as was readily apparent when she stepped from her car, which she parked on the opposite side from the two men. Warren hesitated and watched as Jones strode across to her.
Warren disliked the woman intensely but viewed her with trepidation. She was a jumped up little brat who interfered too much, who thought she knew it all but who hadn’t the guts to drive a sports car. She dressed old for her age, too. Yet he almost feared her, for her command of figures was quite awesome and he was obliged to put his books at her mercy because Jones insisted on it as a condition of his investment.
Jones, on the other hand, held Stevens in great respect. She had saved him from one or two dubious investments and brought into line those company owners who thought they could take his money and do what they liked with it. Jones admired her choice of car, too: like him, she drove a less expensive vehicle than she could afford, avoiding attention by not flaunting her status.
Warren strained to hear what was being said but Jones spoke in low tones until the heathen videoman, as Jones called him behind his back, gave up and took the lift that had stood open and waiting for him for several seconds. The conversation between Jones and Stevens was, though, as Warren feared.
“Next week I want you to crawl through Warren’s books,” Jones said quietly but deliberately. “I think he is concealing something serious.”
“You think he is hiding profits from you?” Stevens replied, more as a statement than a question.
“That, or he is in big trouble and manufactured this year’s profit to appease me. I suspect the latter.”
Steven nodded her agreement as they walked towards the lift that Warren had taken up. It had returned already. Warren must have considerately pressed the ground floor button as he vacated it, probably hoping that the lift’s reappearance would cut short the conversation. Stevens and Jones moved towards it in silence. Foster leaned on his brush and watched. The security guard was heading back towards the sweeper.