A short novel written in 2010
I want to tell you how I died.
No, I’m not a stand-up comedian, and this isn’t a story of my last performance at some sleazy night-club in Middlesbrough. When I say ‘died,’ I’m referring to the passage of my life from the land of the living to whatever, if anything, follows it; on venturing beyond this mortal toil, being bereft of life, a stiff, or any other of the descriptions used by John Cleese to describe his ‘Norwegian Blue’.
I won’t deny that there’s a bit of a joker in me. I’m usually the first to see the funny side of a situation, or to come up with just the right retort to some idiotic or pretentious remark; at least that’s my opinion of myself. Maybe others merely think I’m just a pompous arrogant pain in the arse; if so, that’s their problem, not mine. Secretly I’m a bit lonely and perhaps a little morbid. They say that those who are funny on the outside are often sad inside; one only has to think of some of the most famous comedians like Tony Hancock or Kenneth Williams.
Enough said on that score. I’m here to tell you how I died.
It all started one evening when Judith and I were sitting listening to some music on the radio, a Beethoven Symphony, I think it was, probably the Seventh, though my memory for such details isn’t all it might be, nor is my interest in Beethoven, though I’ve nothing against the man — a bit of a genius some say. But when I say ‘it all started,’ that really has little to do with my story, because the real start came some months later; but it will do as a hook on which to hang things. And when I say that we were listening to the radio, we weren’t really listening; I was reading that day’s Telegraph, and Judith had some sentimental novel on the go; it had been recommended by one of her coffee-morning friends. The radio was just there, on quietly, and there was nothing worth watching on the television. Ben was studying or revising in his room. It was a typical evening for us: nothing on the telly, and virtually no conversation between us. I’m not really sure why we got married; it just sort of happened — it wasn’t even as if she had been pregnant at the time. We had little in common, different hobbies and different tastes in most things.
I was the manager of a branch of one of the big banks in an ugly suburb of south London. Frankly, I didn’t think my career had any further to go, but we were comfortably off, with a nice detached house in a reasonably classy suburb further out of town with a nice view of the North Downs. It was the sort of area in which my branch of the bank had been located when it first opened; that was before London became the ugly concentric rings of suburbia of different ages that it now is. We had two sons, Ben in the second year of the Sixth Form at the local Comprehensive and hoping to become a Doctor, and Tom (oh, Tom!) who was in his second year at St. Andrews University in Scotland, reading Geography and Meteorology. Our mortgage was by now fairly small, and house prices were on the way up, far faster than inflation, so we didn’t really have any financial problems, or so we thought.
Just the usual suburban boredom, at least it was for me.
Judith spent most weekday mornings entertaining or being entertained by her friends in a coffee circle. In the afternoons she mostly played bridge, though from the few times I had seen her play, she was pretty awful at it. Still, it seemed to keep her amused and the other women didn’t complain so were probably just as bad. I was normally at the bank five days a week, often till quite late, though I’d been cutting down on that recently, passing a lot of the responsibilities over to my deputy, Claude, who was young and keen enough to be fooled by the myth that the world lay at his feet. At least he was quite good at his job and would probably reach heights greater than I might ever expect to attain. You might have guessed that I didn’t like him much, though I was always careful not to show that at work. Indeed, I was always careful to keep all my staff at a professional arm’s length, even though the bank’s Head Office policy encouraged us all to be on first-name terms — it wasn’t like that twenty-five years ago when I joined the Bank; everyone was Mister This or Miss That then; now it was Dave or Tanya.
Most Sunday mornings I went out early with the intention, as Winston Churchill described it, of playing a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose: golf. My usual partner was Josh, a Deputy Chief Inspector of the local Constabulary, and like mine, his career had peaked. He was a very tall man, hence his nickname ‘Shorty’. Sometimes I partnered Wesley, a few years older than me and the Senior partner in a local firm of Solicitors. He was rather gossipy and often revealed information about clients that should never have left the four walls of his office; but he knew we were all discrete, though I never returned the favour by giving them any tittle-tattle I might have picked up in the course of my work. But Shorty was my usual opponent, though occasionally David, my Doctor, joined us for a foursome. We were definitely fair-weather golfers, and the slightest sign of rain found us at the nineteenth downing G-and-Ts or whatever our poison of choice happened to be. We were typical fifty-somethings.
Anyway, that evening, listening (or not listening) to the radio, Judith suddenly put her book down and asked me: “Darling,” — she always started like that when something had been on her mind, probably for several days — “do you think we’ve got enough life insurance?”
“What? I should think so. Why not?”
“Well we were talking about it at Sandie’s coffee morning and afterwards it occurred to me that I’ve got no real income” — she stressed the word — “and if anything happened to you, God perish the thought, I’d not have much to live on.”
“Well, the mortgage would get paid off automatically, so you wouldn’t have to worry about that, and the Bank would give you a pension. I thought we’d already talked about that.”
“Yes, but that was years ago, before the boys came along! Tom’s building up a huge overdraft, as you know, and getting Ben through Medical School will cost a small fortune.”
I think I muttered some sort of agreement that I ought to do something to put her mind at rest, and went back to the cricket reports in the newspaper. But I did do something about it, and some days later arranged a lump sum and a substantial annuity for her in the event of my death. I also set up a bond for Ben, but after what he’d done, I had no intention of helping Tom. He could fend for himself, or go to hell!
Now that’s why I said it all began at that time, because I had made appropriate arrangements for her and the boys if I should prematurely pop off. That’s it; really nothing to do with how I died.
End of preambling waffle on my part.
Some weeks later David phoned me at the Bank to ask if I could manage a round of golf the following Sunday. At the time I thought this a little unusual as I usually went round with Shorty, but I agreed and put him off, telling him I’d got something to talk to David about, which was perfectly true. David seemed normal when we started, if a little pensive. I remembered that I had consulted him three weeks before for my annual health check-up, and I was a little apprehensive that he might have some bad news for me.
At the fourth green my worst fears were realised. I won the hole by a single shot and we went to sit on the bench on the approach to the teeing-off point for hole five. “What’s up Doc?” I asked in a phoney American accent, pretending to waggle a cigar like one of the Marx Brothers.
“You’ll remember your check-up a week or three back,” he said. “Well, there’s some bad news, I’m afraid. I thought this might be the opportunity to tell you, as I didn’t know how you’d want to play it with Judith. And the lads,” he added as an afterthought.
“OK David, tell me the worst,” I half joked.
“My preliminary diagnosis, and it was just preliminary, is that you’re in the early stages of a very rare disease.”
At that point Shorty and Wesley appeared, having just holed out at the fourth. “Please go ahead,” I told them. “We’re just having a chat. See you in the club-house later.”
They passed us and when they were out of earshot, David continued. “There was something in the blood I tested that I couldn’t understand. I tried every medical resource that I could, and eventually I discovered a rare disease that matched the data. There is only one specialist in the world who is an acknowledged expert on the condition, a Chinese professor named Hu Siang at the University of Shanghai. So I contacted him, and I got his reply this week. He told me it’s a very rare condition. There are only a few cases in this country, and a few hundred across the world. Very little is known about it, but the one thing that is known is that it’s invariably fatal. I’m sorry to be so blunt, and I just hope and pray that my diagnosis and Professor Hu’s is wrong. But I thought you’d prefer to be put in the picture now. If you want to tell Judith now, that’s up to you.”
He tried to lighten the conversation, but I was reduced to a state of shock.
“I don’t know about telling Judith. What is this disease? Please tell me more.”
“I carried out those blood tests, as you know, and they revealed some odd carriers on your white blood cells. It wasn’t clear to me what they were until I spoke to a blood specialist who put me in the picture about their possible cause and suggested I contact Professor Hu. For some weeks, months, maybe a year or even two — it depends how advanced it is — you probably won’t notice anything. Then suddenly you’ll get excruciating pains in your muscles and later your joints. Much worse than cramps, gout, rheumatism, backache, you name it. As far as I know, these pains do not respond to normal pain-killers, like morphine, for more than a very short while. Within six months of these symptoms revealing themselves, I’m afraid you’ll be dead. Sorry, but I don’t know of any exceptions and nor has Hu.”
I cradled my head in my hands.
“Sorry to put it so bluntly, old boy... I’m not that good at imparting bad news, and believe me this is bad. I’m afraid you’ll have a lot of pain in those last weeks or months. I’ll do my best to help, but...”
“No, I’m grateful for your honesty. It’s just a bit, well, unbelievable.” But I somehow knew that David was an honest and reliable guy. He had always been so. He was a good doctor and I trusted his every word.
I was in no mood now for golf. I managed to score six on the par-three fifth and things got little better at the later holes. When we arrived at the clubhouse, Wesley and Shorty had already ordered our drinks, we sat down and then came the time where we usually compared scores. Even with my twelve handicap, I managed to reach a three-figure total for the eighteen holes.
“Christ!” Shorty exclaimed. “What came over you?”
“Oh, nothing really. I had my mind on other things.”
“Obviously,” Wesley exclaimed. “What’ve you been telling him, David? There’s to be a new by-pass cutting through his lovely view of the countryside?”
“Something like that.” David fended off the question. It was clearly nobody else’s business at the moment.
“Is that right?” Shorty chipped in. “I’d’ve thought I’d’ve been among the first to know. Bloody government bureaucrats. Never did trust ’em. Especially at Transport. Police have to plan for new roads. Can’t just cut through countryside wherever they want. The Green lot will be out in force protesting, and there’s bugger-all we can do to prevent them. Lock ’em all up and throw away the key, I say.” Shorty always spoke like that: hardly any sentence with a subject contained a verb, and vice versa.
The conversation continued on that subject for a couple more rounds of drinks, and then someone made an excuse about having to get back to the missus and we all left in our separate directions.
The next time I saw David he said that Professor Hu had taken another look at the samples he had sent him and confirmed his diagnosis. “In his experience you have got something called Prokofiev’s Syndrome.”
“Never heard of it! Does it mean I’ve got a propensity to write ballet music about Romeo and Juliet or whatever, eh?” I joked nervously.
“No,” David intervened. “It’s rather more serious than that. Look I won’t beat around the bush. I’ve known you for quite some years, and I know you’ll prefer to hear it straight.”
“Prokofiev’s Syndrome is a very rare condition. There are only a few cases in this country, as I’ve already told you.”
“What do you recommend, then? You said it’s very painful and always fatal.”
“I suggest you sit on it for the moment, though of course sharing the information with your wife is entirely in your hands, and I wouldn’t presume to intervene.” David added that in his opinion I should probably try to carry on as normal a life as I could, but if I noticed any unusual pains I should contact him immediately. He told me that it was not infectious, so the rest of my family was safe, and it wasn’t known to be hereditary.
When I got home I went up to my tiny study and got onto the internet, where I googled ‘Prokofiev’s Syndrome’ and got several thousand hits. I scrolled down to find what looked the most authoritative, which turned out to have been a paper written by Professor Hu. I browsed it, and it seemed to confirm what he’d told me through David. Then I went to another web site, and another, each confirming the story, though some differed in detail. If I had been in the right frame of mind I might have been amused at one report that it originated in the deserts of eastern Siberia, and had been known many years ago as ‘Yaks’ Revenge,’ the Mongols having believed falsely that it came from drinking too much fermented yaks’ milk. Nothing was known of its cause or origin; indeed there was very little solid information on it beyond what I’d already been told. Many of the other web sites I looked at were rehashes or commentaries of Hu’s papers.
With the bad news more or less confirmed, I contemplated how I should handle it with the family. Eventually I decided to say nothing; they would no doubt be distressed when the illness revealed itself, but I’d have to play that by ear. Meanwhile I’d try to remain my usual amusing but boring self.
Nevertheless, I felt that I ought to prepare myself for it somehow.
If death was inevitable, and the last six months were to be shear hell, perhaps suicide was the right option. There was a place in Switzerland where they help people finish themselves off; I could try that. But maybe they wouldn’t let me in, especially as my family didn’t know about it.
Or I could do it myself...
How about taking an overdose of pain-killers with a good washing down of gin or something? No I’d probably cock that up, not taking enough pills, or spewing it all up before it’d had the desired effect. In any case, it wouldn’t be fair on Judith or Ben to find me dead. I could check into a hotel and do it there; but I wouldn’t want some poor chambermaid to have the shock of her life. Why should I turn my problem into her misery?
There was always the Underground; people were always committing suicide there. I could position myself at an appropriate point on a platform and then hurl myself under the next train. But I’d probably chicken out at the last moment and not have the nerve to use the next train. Or I’d fall into the pit under the track — the ‘suicide pit,’ I think they call it — and come out with a hand missing, or something like that. Then I remembered a story I’d seen in a recent issue of one of the local free papers about a young apprentice driver who’d been on his first day on the Jubilee line driving a tube train unsupervised, when someone had thrown himself in front of his train. The driver had been shattered mentally and even after a year was unable to go back to work. I don’t think I could put someone in that situation, however much I was suffering. So not the Underground.
What about a lorry on the motorway? No, much the same considerations applied, even though I had little respect for lorry drivers — they should put their gargantuan cargoes of merchandise onto the railways, with much less stinking and killing pollution and noise.
Doing it myself, I eventually realised, was out: apart from the objections to that plan that I’ve already outlined, I am basically a coward, so none of them would work, I was sure.
Could I get David to give me a lethal injection or whatever? No, that would amount to murder. Why did I even contemplate asking that of a friend? And doctors didn’t do that sort of thing anyway. I seemed to have run out of ideas. Could I rely on the hope that Professor Hu was wrong? Not really. He was the world expert, of course. Perhaps he could give me some suggestions on how to deal with the problem. I phoned him at this Clinic in Shanghai one day, but he had nothing he could offer me; anything he said would be totally unethical and contrary to the Hippocratic Oath. I had definitely reached a dead-end.
One evening Judith had cleared up after our dinner and I had finished wiping up. Ben was upstairs in his room doing his homework, and the pair of us sat in our usual chairs ignoring the television which was, as usual, on mute. “Darling,” she broke the silence. “You know Wesley’s wife, Biddy.” I nodded. “Well, she was saying that Wesley had managed to persuade that old Miss Ellerton, the younger of the two spinsters, to leave her rather lovely set of Royal Doulton porcelain to him when she popped off.”
“Really, the cheeky old sod!”
“And now she’s been admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital with a heart condition and she’s not expected to live much longer.”
“Maybe he said ‘boo’ to her last time she went to see him to change her Will,” I mused.
“Well really, Jim! I thought he was a friend of yours!”
“Sorry, just a joke.” I went back to my newspaper, but the tale she just told to me lingered in the back of my mind along with a few of the other things that concerned me and my condition.
I wasn’t sure why.
Later that evening I started a draft letter to Judith on the computer. I couldn’t find the courage to tell her face-to-face what was happening, so I decided to give the letter, when it was ready, to David, to pass on to her when fate finally struck. I was chickening out, I know, but I couldn’t see any other way.
‘To my darling Judith,’ the letter began, plus a few apologies that sounded all wrong when I read them back.
One Sunday morning a few weeks later, we had our usual foursome of golf, Shorty, David, Wesley and me. The round was uneventful until we sat at our usual table in the clubhouse. Shorty commented to Wesley: “Heard one of your ex-clients is coming out of clink soon.”
“Oh, yes,” Wesley replied disinterestedly though I’m sure he knew damn well who Shorty meant. “And who might that be?”
“Not heard then? ‘Spud’ Battersley. Remember him? Out after only five years for being a good boy, they say.”
“Battersley... Battersley... The name rings a bell.” After a pause, his whole response having been an obvious sham, he said: “Oh yes, I remember. He got eight years for attempted murder, if I recall. So he’s going home, is he?”
“Yes, more’s the pity. Sure he was deeper into that robbery near Gatwick than he’d admitted. I worked on the case. Don’t think he was Mister Big, mind you. Mister Middle-sized, maybe. Never got to the bottom of it all.”
That’s really all I remembered of our conversation at the time, especially as it was my round and the talk had turned to other things when I got back to the table.
I called in casually on Wesley one evening the following week.
“Who’s this Battersley fellow?” I asked. “You remember, the one who has done five years out of eight for attempted murder. Shorty mentioned him the other day.”
“Oh yes, Spud Battersley. Came out yesterday, I believe. Why?” He sounded a little cautious at my questioning.
“Oh, nothing much really. It needn’t concern you. I’d just like to meet the chap. Any chance of you arranging it?”
“Well... I don’t know... Why him? You’re not thinking of having someone bumped off, are you? Or robbing your own bank?”
“No, not exactly,” I laughed, as if it might all be some innocent prank. “I’d just like a chat with him. Could you arrange it for me?”
“I’m not sure that I should. He’s done his time and the word on the block is that he wants to go straight.”
“Even better,” I lied. Then, after an intentional pause, I leant on him: “You know, Judith was telling me of some nice little items of Royal Doulton you might be coming into soon, if you get my meaning.”
“Are you trying to blackmail me, Jim?” he asked sternly.
“The thought wasn’t further from my mind!” I lied again, pretending to be hurt at the suggestion. “I’m doing some background work for the Bank, and I want to sound out the mind of someone who’s really in the know about the criminal’s mind.” I wondered if he’d buy that.
Fortunately he took the bait: “I’ll see what I can do, but he really is trying to kick crime. He’s said to be looking for a genuine job.”
“Fine. If you could get him to e-mail me at this address... if he’s interested in helping others keep away from crime, of course.” I gave Wesley the name of a hotmail account that I’d set up earlier — nice and anonymous.
Every evening for a fortnight I checked Hotmail, but nothing. Then eventually I got a very cryptic note from another hotmail account. “Bull, BromCom, Saloon, Fri 1:30 — Wes pal.” It couldn’t be clearer!
Ben, being an intelligent and curious teenager, had an afternoon off school, officially for studying and revising. He had other ideas and he wondered what his father had been doing recently, spending almost every evening on his computer. It wasn’t really like him. Looking for porn? Knowing his father, that was pretty unlikely, however. His dad was currently at work and his mum was playing Bridge until at least four o’clock.
He soon worked out his father’s password: htiduj, ‘Judith’ backwards. What a dumbo, using something so obvious! He checked the recent items list and found one or two things like photographs of the family, financial spreadsheets of his incomings and outgoings — all so boring, and then a file called msg-to-j caught his eye; it appeared to be a Word file. He opened it. He was pretty sure his father wasn’t savvy enough with computers to be able to detect that someone had not only logged onto his user, but also had looked at any specific files.
msg-to-j.doc popped up. It began with “To my darling Judith,” and Ben wondered if he really ought to be reading something that was obviously very personal. He paused a moment pondering his dilemma, but curiosity eventually got the better of him, and he read on.
I pulled into the car park at The Bull Hotel on Bromley Common at about 1:25 the following Friday lunch-time and headed for the Saloon bar. I sat on a stool at the bar and ordered a half of best bitter. A moment or two later a bald-headed man, whether natural or shaved I couldn’t immediately tell, came and sat near to me. “Jim?” he asked.
“I’m Spud. Let’s sit over in that alcove, it’s more private, out of the range of the CCTV cameras.” We took our drinks across and sat down. “You wanted a chat with me, Wes said?”
“Yes.” I paused, not sure how to continue. “I understand you’ve just been released from prison.” I spoke in such a quiet voice that he could hardly hear me.
“True, but didn’t Wes tell you I’m a reformed character now? Whatever it is you want, I’ll have nothing to do with committing any offence. Honestly, believe me, I’m going straight. I know they all say that, but I really do mean it. Mind you, if you’ve got a proper legal job that I could do, I’m all ears.”
“OK, I understand. Nothing illegal.”
“So what is it then?”
“I want someone to kill me. Not you, of course, I understand you’re not interested in any more illegal activities,” I waffled on. “I have been giving this some thought and I’m asking you to find me someone — you must have lots of suitable contacts — someone who would be prepared to do the job for me. It’s my request, it’s my wish; I won’t implicate anyone, especially you, in any way.”
“That’s the bloody weirdest thing anyone’s ever asked me! Are you having me on? You’re not a copper are you? This isn’t a set-up, is it?” He made as if to leave.
“No, no, please hear me out. You see, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve got a fatal disease which is totally incurable and, according to medical opinion, results in a horribly painful death. I’m too much of a coward to face excruciating pain or to kill myself, so I’m trying to find someone who’ll do it for me. I’m in no pain at present, so I don’t want to die yet. But when the time comes and the bad phase of the disease really kicks in, I want to give the signal for someone to kill me quite unexpectedly. I don’t want to see the face of the killer, nor even know that it’s about to happen. Just an unexpected bang or whatever and I’m dead. Do you see what I mean?”
“I think so. You want me to find a killer to get you, once you’ve given the nod; you don’t want to know or see who it is, just something out of the blue, as it were.”
“Exactly. And nobody in my family must see it happen. That’s particularly important, they’ll suffer enough just from my death, so I don’t want them to witness it. Do you think you can fix it for me?”
“Dunno. I’ll have to ask around. How much are you willing to pay?”
“Does a hundred thousand pounds, thirty when the job is agreed, and the rest when I’m dead sound OK?”
“A hundred K. Maybe. How do we get the rest, when you’re dead? Who else is in on this?”
“Nobody else knows anything about it except my doctor, and he’s absolutely professional; he wouldn’t breach a patient’s confidentiality if you paid him a million. And he doesn’t know I’m even thinking of ending it all before the illness does. I’ll arrange to leave the rest of the money with Wesley, to give to you or whoever you want once my death is confirmed. We can sort out the details in due course. Wes doesn’t know anything about all this, so I’ll simply tell him to hand over a sealed envelope or a suitcase to someone with the right credentials — you or whoever.”
“OK. I’ll see about it. If I’m interested I’ll get back to you. Don’t use the same e-mail account as before — never the same one twice, understood? They’re too clever once they’ve got a lead. Use this one instead.” He gave me a scrap of paper. “I’ll send you a short note if and when I’ve made any arrangements. If you don’t hear from me by next Friday, have a game of golf with Wes on Sunday as I believe you usually do and he’ll tell you where we stand. How much have you told him?”
“Nothing. I only asked him to put me in touch with you as a favour. As I said, he knows nothing else.”
“OK. But don’t expect an immediate e-mail from me.”
We both stood up, shook hands and left in silence.
‘To my darling Judith,’ Ben read.
‘I’m sure the news of my death came as a dreadful shock to you and Ben. I’m sorry that I was unable to face you with my problem, but I’m sure David will explain anything you want to know. I was diagnosed with a horrible illness called Prokofiev’s Syndrome that would attack and kill me any time. When the symptoms kicked in, as they now have, they involve a lot of pain to me and would have meant a lot of suffering for you, too, looking after me. So I arranged for an assassin to bump me off unexpectedly, so that I shan’t suffer any more. Unfortunately, it means a large payment had to be made, but at least you’ve got that new insurance on my life, which, by the way, has nothing to do with this matter; I set it up well before I knew anything about the illness.’
The draft letter stopped there. Ben was shocked. Was his father really planning to have himself killed? How could he arrange something like that? He was a decent middle-class businessman who wouldn’t know where to start. Or would he? Could he, Ben, do anything? He wasn’t going to have his father killed, for sure. There must be some other way.
He closed the file, logged off his father’s computer and went to his own room and logged onto his laptop. He googled ‘Prokofiev’s Syndrome’ and discovered much the same information as his father had found.
“You’re being very quiet for a change, Ben,” I said one evening when the three of us had just finished our meal.
“Oh,” he replied without much interest like a typical teenager.
“Anything troubling you?”
“Me? No, not me. Well...” but he said no more.
Judith chipped in: “You’ve not been very perky yourself, Jim, come to that.”
“Oh, I’m OK,” I lied somewhat unconvincingly. Ben stared at me as if he knew something really was on my mind, but I gave nothing away.
“I’m a bit concerned about my career,” Ben rescued me from the predicament. But I had an inkling — I don’t know why, just a tenseness in the air — that he knew something about my illness. “I’m not sure I really want to become a doctor. I don’t think all those years of studying are really for me. I don’t think I’ve got the endurance for the course, and it’ll cost a fortune. I haven’t got the enthusiasm I had when I started on my A-levels. I think something to do with pharmaceuticals might be more interesting. I could still take the same A-level courses, but go for a degree in Chemistry or whatever. I was thinking about asking the Careers Advisor at school.”
“Well, if you’re really set on it... Why don’t you think it over a bit more?” Judith replied placidly, as if they were discussing whether to play the Ace or King of trumps next. “Don’t you think so, darling?”
“Well, yes,” I replied. “There’s a lot going in pharmaceuticals these days.”
Perhaps my inkling was wrong.
Nothing much happened for a few weeks. Almost every day, at some time, Ben checked his father’s computer. He did find one rather curious and rather cryptic e-mail in the inbox for a hotmail account: ‘Bull, BromCom, Saloon, Fri 1:30 — Wes pal.’ Maybe this was from his assassin, but the note was several days old and the Friday named had already passed. Then another appeared some days later, this time from a different account: ‘Vic sta. Sat 24th. Be on 13:34 arr. No Oyster — Wes pal.’ It was clearly from the same person, switching e-mails to hide from snoopers, as would his order not to use an Oyster card, which would be traceable? Could ‘Wes pal’ be his father’s solicitor and occasional golf partner, Wesley? If so, why add ‘pal’? No, it was someone who was a pal of Wesley! Or at least an acquaintance.
Anyway, Ben looked up the train timetable and resolved to be on an earlier arrival at Victoria on the Saturday.
The next day, Ben checked the computer again and found that both incoming e-mails had been deleted; and he could find no evidence of any replies. Even the recycle bin was empty. Perhaps his father was getting more cautious. Someone had warned him to be careful. So the lad resolved to try to access his father’s account more frequently, before he’d had time to delete any further messages. The letter to Judith was being updated often.
I got the train due into London at 13:34. It was three minutes late arriving. Spud was waiting a dozen yards from the barrier and without saying a word we walked out into Buckingham Palace Road.
Ben had arrived at Victoria station just before one o’clock; he wore dull clothes to make him as inconspicuous as possible. He sat on a seat near to the platform exit for the 13:34 arrival, and waited, pretending to read a newspaper. His father arrived a few minutes late and walked out of the concourse with a bald man. Ben trailed him a good distance behind. At Victoria Coach Station, Ben was two places behind them in the ticket queue, his face well covered from any possible recognition by his father, a typical ‘hoodie’. He heard the bald man buy two singles for Oxford, and when Ben reached the desk he realised that his father and the man had left the Coach Station, but not on a coach. He left the queue without getting a ticket. “Sorry,” he told the ticket clerk.
“Just to muddy the water,” Spud told me. “Just in case I’m being tailed. Remember, I’ve just come out of the clink and the fuzz are still looking for most of the money from our last little adventure and also for some of my accomplices. We’re not going anywhere near Oxford.” Then we went to the bus station by the entrance to the train station, bought two tickets from a machine and caught a number 36 bus.
Ben’s heart missed a beat when he saw the two of them board the bus. There was no possibility of getting on the same one as them, so he did what they always did in the cinema (at least in the B-movies he’d seen on television) — he hailed a taxi and told the driver: “Follow that bus!”
“Whatever you say, guv. You could have got the next one, they’re only every few minutes. Where to?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there. Keep behind it whenever it stops. Where’s the bus going?”
“36? New Cross, I think.”
“What’s your fare there?”
“About eighteen quid by the bus route.”
“Here’s twenty. Keep the change. I may just say ‘Stop!’ and jump out. OK?”
We got off the bus in Peckham and walked for five minutes in silence through several dirty streets and across an untended park. When we reached the Barking House II block we took a lift to the fifth floor. Everywhere was the smell of urine and other noxious things. Half the flats seemed to have been boarded up; others had broken windows. Not many people lived there, it seemed, and the whole place was due for dynamiting.
“What a dump!” I said to Spud.
“Yeah. Not very pleasant. Two Coke cans on the balcony floor outside flat 57 — just the right signal,” Spud noted. “If they hadn’t been there we’d have aborted the whole thing. What George Smiley called ‘Moscow Rules.’ Ever read any John Le Carré novels?”
“Bloody good read. You should try it some time... if you live that long.” What a joke!
“I read all of his novels when I was inside; plenty of ‘free’ time then. I liked them all except one, A Naïve And Sentimental Lover.”
We went on to flat 58 where Spud opened the door with a key. The main room stank of substances I’d never experienced before, presumably drugs. I noticed that a telephone was in one corner, its cable not attached to a wall socket but passing out of the open top window of the room. Spud picked up the receiver.
“We’re here. You know the outline; I’ll talk to your client and pass on the relevant details. If you’ve got any questions, ask me and I’ll get him to pass me the answers. OK?”
I could hear nothing coming from the phone.
“Name?” Spud asked. I told him. “Address?” Again I passed on the information. Place of work; regular activities like helping with the weekly shopping; regular activities of any kind.
“OK, but he must realise that my wife and kids must not be aware of what’s going on. That’s fundamental to the whole thing. Just me, that’s it. The job mustn’t be done anywhere near them. And it must come as a complete surprise to me, OK?” Spud relayed the instruction to whoever was at the other end of the phone. Regular activities, outings, business appointments...
“By the way, you’ll find some fairly recent photographs here, of me, my wife Judith, and my son Ben. Remember to tell your man that I’m the target, not them; they are not to be involved at all, not even as witnesses.”
After thirty-five minutes we seemed to have covered everything I could think of. I passed Spud a large envelope containing £30,000 in used five- and ten-pound notes. “Count it when you get home!”
“How do we get the rest?”
“Wesley will have it, though he won’t know what it is, just an anonymous envelope or case. Your man will give you a piece of torn postcard which he’ll find on me, probably in my jacket pocket if that’s what I’m wearing at the time, or my trousers’ pocket. The piece will match a piece that’s with the envelope or suitcase; if he claims to have done the job but hasn’t got the bit of card, he’s lying. You go to Wesley and show him the two pieces. He’ll have the third piece to make a complete postcard, and he’ll give you the envelope or suitcase with the rest of the money. No complete postcard means no more money.”
Spud gave me a scrap of paper with the next e-mail contact address, this time for me to contact if I needed to. If nothing else came up, it would be the contact address I should use to give the go-ahead for the time period, the fortnight window for my killing, to start. That would be the point of no return. The agreement was that on that signal I should be dead, on my terms and specifications, within two weeks.
We left the flat, and Spud put the key to number 58 through the letter-box of 57. I noticed that the telephone cable passed between the small windows of the two flats.
“Go home, or wherever you want. Don’t look back, right? Good luck,” Spud said, and we went our separate ways. I never saw him again.
Ben watched his father and the bald man leave the flat. He had waited, sitting on a broken bench near some rubbish bins in the park. He got bored with the newspaper after a time and got out a cigarette. He watched as the two men disappeared, and waited to see what was going to happen in flat 57. After some minutes a man with long ginger hair, tied into a sort of pony tail appeared, went into 58 and left with the telephone and a few other things. He threw the keys onto the balcony floor.
“Hey wha’ you doin’ man?” said a youth who approached Ben. His face was covered with nauseating pins, rings and other ironmongery; no part was ignored: his lips, nose, ears, eyebrows, tongue, cheeks.
“You ain’t from ’round here. Where dja live, then?” Ben told him. “Fuckin’ rich boy, eh?”
“Wha’ you lookin’ for? Somethin’ stronger than that smoke?”
“Err, no thanks.”
“Well get the fuck off our patch, posh boy!”
Ben got the message and stood up to walk away. He felt like someone on the wrong planet — this wasn’t gentle suburbia.
“You gotta show some respec’ when you visit our patch.”
The youth was getting very aggressive and looked as if he might take a punch at Ben, or something even worse. So Ben ran off across the park, hotly pursued; he was grateful for once that he had been middle-distance running champion in the school sports for his year. Eventually, the obnoxious youth lost him in the shopping centre, where, quite by chance he spied the ginger-haired man; no sign of dad. He got a very close look at the man this time. He was about thirty-five with a distinctive scar on his right cheek and another at the left of his neck. His arms were heavily tattooed; a rough character and not one to be messed with!
Then Ben noticed something odd about his hair. It was dark at the roots. It was obviously dyed.
Several weeks passed and I noticed nothing unusual about my health, until one day I started sneezing. I rushed as quickly as I could to see David, but he quietly said: “Do you know? You’ve got a cold! Nothing more, I’m glad to say.”
Then one night I woke sweating, with aching arms and legs, and a pain in my chest. My God! This must be it! It was early on Sunday, so I didn’t want to disturb David. I took a couple of codeine tablets, and they worked for a while. When I got up, Judith and Ben could see immediately that I wasn’t well. “Not feeling too good this morning,” I told them. “I might pop over to see the doc later. Nothing to worry about.” As if!
After breakfast Ben decided he had to take some action, so he rode his Lambretta across town to see David, who was fortunately up and at home. He parked around the side of the house, just in case his father should appear and see the scooter.
Ben told David: “Dad doesn’t know I’m here, but I’m pretty sure his illness is coming on.”
David was surprised. “Umm... What illness?” he clumsily asked.
“His Prokofiev’s Syndrome. Look, he hasn’t said a thing to any of us in the family about it, but I’ve been doing some research and I know what’s going on.”
“The relationship between a patient and his physician is completely confidential, you know. I’m not in a position to talk to anyone about it, not even you, or your mum, without your dad’s full permission. Do you understand?”
“Yes, of course. I was planning a career in medicine, so I do know the rules! Look, if you won’t talk to me, will you just listen for a moment?”
“I know that dad has consulted you about this illness, I know it’s called Prokofiev’s Syndrome, and I know it’s fatal. It’s not contagious and it’s not hereditary so mum, me and Tom...” — God, Tom! Why hadn’t he contacted his brother? — “... are OK. I also know that it involves a lot of pain, and for that reason...” Ben paused, not sure exactly how to put it, “...dad has arranged for someone to assassinate him, kill him, once the illness starts up in earnest. I don’t know who this person is; I’ve seen him, or one of his gang, once, and he looks a pretty ugly character, probably quite capable of killing his own grandmother if he was paid a couple of quid.”
David was shocked.
Ben continued: “As soon as the illness starts, dad plans to contact the killer who is to do what he has to do within two weeks. He has told the killer that he wants the actual act to come as a complete surprise to him. In other words, it mustn’t happen at home or anything like that, and he doesn’t want to see him coming. Just a shot out of the blue. No warning or anything.”
“Oh my God!” David exclaimed, at a loss as to what he should do next. How was it that Ben knew all this if Jim hadn’t spoken to him about it at all? This was a situation he had never encountered in twenty-five years of practice. “When do you think he will contact this person?” he asked the lad.
“Probably today, but I don’t really know, just guessing. He seemed to get bad overnight. I expect he’ll try to see you today, just to confirm his suspicions. If you do, that’s probably when he’ll make his move.”
I drove over to David’s in the Audi. I was a bit queasy, from the drugs and the illness, I supposed. David’s wife, Hannah, opened the door. “Hello, Jim,” she cheerfully greeted me. “What a coincidence,” she added mystifyingly, and went through to tell David I was here.
“Jim’s here,” Hannah said.
“Oh, God,” Ben exclaimed. “You didn’t tell him that I was here, did you?”
“Well no, not exactly.”
“Good, I’ll disappear then. Thanks for your time,” he told David and vanished by the back door.
Hannah showed me into the drawing room and left. “What did she mean ‘what a coincidence’?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing much. We were just talking about you over breakfast.”
“No. Nothing that matters, just tittle-tattle. Why?”
“Well, I think it’s started, the full illness, I mean.”
“Oh God, no!” When he had composed himself he said: “I’ll have to do some more tests. Come through to my surgery and I’ll see what your blood looks like. Professor Hu told me exactly what symptoms to look for, so I should be able to give you the answer this morning.”
“I don’t want to wreck your Sunday.”
“No, no problem!” Then he called out to Hannah: “Can you leave us alone this morning, please, darling. If anyone phones or calls, I’m not available. If it’s a patient tell them to call NHS Direct.”
“Yes dear, no problem.”
At that point I thought I heard the sound of a motor scooter leaving, sounding like Ben’s, but I guessed I must have been mistaken.
“Tom? It’s me, Ben. How are you? Look, I’ve got something very important to tell you about dad.”
“I’m OK. What’s your urgent news then?” he replied in a very disinterested voice.
“You mustn’t let on to him or to mum that you know anything about it. That’s absolutely vital, because he doesn’t know that I know, and mum doesn’t know anything about it at all.”
“What are you drivelling on about?”
“Dad’s got some disease that’s fatal; he could die at any time.”
“Serve the old fart right!” Tom had never got on with his father; the feeling was mutual though never discussed at home. It’s origin was way back when Tom was still at school.
“Look, I’m not kidding. I think you should come home, at least for mum’s sake.”
“Forget it. Just call me when they’re going to read the Will, not that I expect to get anything. Cheers, bro’. Look after yourself and mum. See you!” and the phone conversation ended.
David took several blood samples, examining some under a microscope, and adding various chemicals in carefully measured quantities to others. He said very little for some two hours, and then made a couple of telephone calls. The first was presumably to a colleague in England, and I could hear little of what he was saying in the next room. The second seemed to require him to shout into the phone: “I want to speak to Professor Hu, please.” Why is it that English people always shout at foreigners?
After a few minutes conversing with the Professor, he came back into the room I was in. “There’s little doubt about it, I’m afraid. Professor Hu says the symptoms are typical of this stage of the illness. He recommends that you take the pain-killers that I’ll prescribe for you, and that you lead as normal a life as you can. If the discomfort becomes too great, you’ll probably need to go into a clinic where they can make you as comfortable as possible...” His voice tailed off as he couldn’t find the right words to say ‘...until you die.’
He gave me some pills; no more than eight a day were recommended; there were a dozen in the pot. He also gave me a prescription for some more. “Come back when you need any more, or if these aren’t strong enough.”
He asked me how much I’d told Judith and Ben. “Nothing, except that I wasn’t feeling well.”
“When will you tell them?”
“I... I don’t know. I haven’t decided. I’ll leave it for a while.” I wasn’t going to let David know of my plans. However, I did tell him that I would like to leave a letter for him to give to Judith when I finally died.
“Sure. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do, both on a medical and a personal front.”
“Thanks, David. You’re a real comfort. Meanwhile, say nothing to her or Ben.”
“Good luck. I hope it’s not too bad, too painful for you.”
Ben continued monitoring his father’s computer on a daily basis, sometimes more than once in a day.
The letter to his mother was changing almost daily, sometimes adding more information, sometimes removing it. What finally seemed to be the last version appeared on the same day as an e-mail, presumably to Wes’s pal: ‘The two weeks start next Monday 5th. Wish me luck!’
I waited for a few days before e-mailing Spud. It was a very brief note: ‘The two weeks start next Monday 5th. Wish me luck!’
Then I made some final changes to the letter to Judith, printed it, signed it with kisses, and sealed it in a plain white envelope. I wrote ‘For Judith’ on the front and quickly drove over to David’s. He was out when I arrived, but I gave it to Hannah, saying: “Ask David to keep this in a safe place. Tell him that it’s from me for when the inevitable occurs.”
“What do you mean, ‘the inevitable’?”
“Please don’t ask me any more, and don’t ask David either. He’ll understand. Please, Hannah, please.”
Ben read the final version of the letter on his father's computer:
‘My darling Judith,
‘I’m sure that my sudden death came as an awful shock to you and Ben. I’m sorry that I was unable to face you with my problem, but David has promised to explain anything you want to know. I was diagnosed with a horrible illness called Prokofiev’s Syndrome that would attack and kill me any time. David says it’s always fatal and he has spoken to the world expert who is a Professor in China.
When the symptoms kicked in, as they now have, they involve a lot of pain to me which is why I’ve been taking so many pills lately. This would also have meant a lot of suffering for you, too. So I arranged for someone to bump me off so that I shan’t suffer any more, and nor will you having to look after me. This person has agreed to kill me at an unexpected moment, so that I will just go quickly without knowing when it would happen. You know how squeamish I am! Unfortunately, it means a large payment had to be made, but at least you’ve got that insurance on my life, which, by the way, has nothing to do with this matter; I set it up well before I knew anything about the illness.
‘I’m sorry I haven’t had the courage to talk to you about it. I hope you can pick up the pieces of your life, and I’m sure the boys will help. They both have a lot of strength, I know.
‘I hope you will eventually find yourself a new partner, so that the rest of your life won’t be lonely.
‘Take care, my darling.
‘With all my love,’
All that was absent was his signature. Ben managed to stifle a tear.
Spud received the e-mail and alerted his ginger-haired friend. He reminded him of the conditions: Jim’s killing was to be totally unforeseen by him; none of his family was to see the killing; the fragment of postcard was to be taken from the body — jacket or trousers — and handed over to Spud as soon as possible, but he was to make sure he wasn’t being followed; he would be paid the balance of his ‘earnings’ within a couple of days, a little longer if the Police got too close for comfort, but the money was guaranteed.
If nothing else I had to carry on as usual. I didn’t want Judith or Ben to have any idea that I was going to be killed. It should just be a shock, which was the best way. No tearful goodbyes. They should soon get over it. Judith and I had never been that close, despite the impression we gave our friends; Ben was a pretty resilient and intelligent lad; and Tom, well we’d hardly spoken for several years, so I’m sure he wouldn’t grieve for me. As for my friends, they would forget all about me within weeks, except for the odd joke at the Golf Club — ‘Remember old Jim who did blah, blah, blah...’ ‘Ha, ha, ha!’.
Ben decided that if he was to do anything useful to help his father, who, it was clear, could be killed at any time, he would need more than just his brain-power, cunning and bodily strength. He wasn’t going to see his dad killed, even if that was his wish. He had to get a gun so that he could be an unseen bodyguard for his dad. But from where?
He eventually decided to go to one of the nastiest pupils at his school, who was into all sorts of anti-social activities, drugs, violence — you name it! The boy was Hughie Rushton, nominally from the Fifth form, though his attendance at school was rare, to say the least. He traced him through one of his cronies, and approached him in one of the local closed railway stations where he usually hung out, dealing in cannabis or whatever he could get his hands on. Entrance to the station was via a broken panel in the fence that boarded up the derelict site.
“Hi, Hughie!” he cheerily called when he saw him.
“Eh? Ain’t you in the Sixth?”
“Right. Ben’s the name. Look, I need a favour. That’s why I’ve come to see you.”
“I don’t do no-one favours; I just collect on them! Savvy?”
“Yeah, I know. I understand. Think of this more as a business deal.”
“Need some weed, crack, or what?”
“No. I need a gun, a pistol, a shooter. No questions asked, no lies told, get me?”
“Fuckin’ Christ! A shooter. You, Mister Clean-Boy from the Sixth? What for?”
“I said no questions. Can you do it?”
Rushton was thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe,” he cautiously replied. “It’ll cost you.”
“A thousand, maybe.”
“Seven fifty and you get it back, no questions asked.”
“A used gun ain’t no good to no-one. Bullets leave marks on it. Can’t be used twice. Chuck it down the drain or whatever. Just get rid of it, preferably somewhere where it won’t get found.”
“OK. Seven hundred and fifty quid? When can you get it by?”
“Yeah, OK, seven fifty. Give me a couple of weeks to make enquiries.”
“Two weeks is too long. I need it in two days or it’s no deal.”
Before leaving work on the Friday before my last two weeks — maximum — of life began, I called my deputy, Claude, into my office.
“I am withdrawing a rather large sum of money, £70,000 from my account. I am telling you this in complete confidence, you understand, and also so that you can witness that nothing untoward is going on. I want you to say nothing to my wife if she asks; you don’t know anything about it. Obviously Head Office are likely to query this withdrawal, and you may be called upon to vouch for its authenticity and correctness. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, of course. That’s no problem. Do you want me to count the money?”
“If you like, of course.”
“No, Jim. I think I can trust you,” he grinned.
“Thanks, Claude. Umm... In the event of my being unable to continue my responsibilities here, I have sent a letter to the Bank’s Head of Human Resources recommending that you take over here.”
He was lost for words for several seconds. “Thanks, Jim. But why?”
“You’ll find out in due course. I’m sorry I can’t say any more than that. Have a good weekend, and don’t worry! I’ll probably see you on Monday.”
I put the money into several large envelopes which then went into a suitcase. I carried it to my car and drove straight to Wesley’s office which was a few hundred yards along the High Street; I knew that he usually worked late on a Friday. He was so scatter-brained that he usually had more to do than should fill any normal working week.
He was there. He was surprised to see me. “A bit early for a round of golf, isn’t it?” he joked. Noticing the suitcase he asked: “Going on hols? Or just a dirty weekend?”
“Neither. I want you to look after this for me, please, as a favour to an old friend. It’s locked and there’s no key. Listen: here is a piece of a postcard. Some time in the near future, someone will come in with two other pieces of the same card. Give the case to that person, and only them. And they must have the rest of the card, the other two pieces.”
“This is all very Agatha Christie!”
“It’s no joke, believe me. Remember, not a word about it to anyone — not to Biddy, not to Judith, and especially not to Shorty or any of his companions. OK?”
“OK, but this is all very mysterious. What are you up to?”
“All will be revealed in due course. Meanwhile you may hear some news that will shock you. Just remember, if anyone asks, that you don’t know anything about the suitcase. The only person who you can say anything to is the bearer of the other two-thirds of that card. OK?”
“Yes. You’re not up to anything, well, illegal, are you?”
“You’re a fine one to ask that, Wes, old man. Remember Miss Ellerton’s Royal Doulton? No, you won’t be arrested as an accomplice, I promise. Just lock that case away for the present, please, Wes. Its contents are quite valuable. Thanks!”
Two days after placing his order for the revolver, Ben got his gun with two bullets. Rushton explained how to load it, release the safety catch, and fire it. Ben handed over the agreed sum mostly in used twenty-pound notes, and departed the way he had come, through the broken fence.
My considered plan of action was to carry on my life as regularly as I could. No changes to my routine. Life, for what it was now worth, was to be as usual. So on the first day of my self-imposed sentence, I left for the bank at the usual time, parked my car in its usual place behind the Bank and went inside. Claude was already there. He seemed almost surprised to see me.
“Good weekend?” I asked him.
“Yes, thanks. Pretty much as usual.”
“Pretty uneventful.” Not surprising from someone so dull.
I phoned David: “Did Hannah gave you the envelope for Judith?”
“Yes. She wanted to know what it was all about, but I just told her I didn’t know, and just to keep quiet about it.”
The ginger-haired man had already started to plan his actions. He would spend the first three days tailing his quarry, to establish when and where he was most likely to be alone. If that went well, he would possibly carry out his main task the following day; that gave him a good buffer of time in which to act.
He had already seen Jim leave home for work on the Monday morning; he thought of planting a bomb under his car, but then he probably couldn’t get the vital piece of postcard — his pay cheque— which would most likely be destroyed. He could stage a car crash, but then he himself might be injured, which wouldn’t help at all. Finally he resolved to shoot the man from behind at close quarters, and the rest of his attention during those first days was concentrated on finding a suitable time and place. He already had a suitable gun.
What the ginger-haired man didn’t know was that he too was being stalked. Ben had left for school on his motor scooter a little earlier than usual, and then parked it in a corner of the local Tesco store’s car park; he chose Tesco because his mother almost never went there, preferring Sainsbury’s, so she wouldn’t happen to notice it. Having parked and secured his scooter he had run back home and entered the back garden through a small alley behind it. He had watched his father leave, and then had seen Ginger, as he’d begun to call him to himself, follow dad’s car. He had made a note of the registration number of Ginger’s car, a dirty ten-year-old white Ford Escort, that no-one would look twice at, and hoped to God that the killing wasn’t going to occur before his father got to work.
Ben parked down the High Street and saw Ginger’s Escort, with Ginger at the wheel, between himself and the bank. He got out his mobile phone and called school. “Sorry, Mrs. Gaskell, I shan’t be in for a few days. I’ve come down with the ’flu. Please tell my teachers I’ll try to catch up as soon as I’m better. I didn’t want to come in and spread it to other people.”
“Yes, certainly. You just keep warm and take plenty of citrus fruit for the vitamin C. We’ll see you soon.” That should give him an alibi for the next few days.
It was very boring watching someone who was doing nothing except watch someone else. Ben went into a café from which Ginger’s car was visible. He worried that when he went to the toilet, Ginger would have made a move, but all appeared to be well. Eventually the barman came up to him and asked: “How much longer are you going to make that coffee last? Anyway, shouldn’t you be at school?”
“I’ve got a day off for revision,” he lied. “OK, I’ll be off in a minute.”
“You seem to have been watching that man in the car across the road for ages. Any reason?”
“Yeah. I think he’s a hired assassin,” Ben told him truthfully, but the idea sounded so preposterous that the barman just laughed and went back to washing cups and plates. The kid was clearly losing his marbles, but at least he looked harmless.
“And I suppose you work for MI5?” the barman mused.
“I’m doing work experience with them. But now that you’ve blown my cover, I’ll have to kill you!”
“Oh, thank you, double-O six-and-a-half!”
At lunchtime I usually ate some sandwiches that Judith prepared me, just as she did for Ben. ‘Keep to the usual routine,’ I kept telling myself. So I did. I had a working lunch, care of her.
By midday Ginger hadn’t strayed from his car. Ben had crossed the road to another café, to observe him from a different vantage point. In any case he was getting sick of the same brew of coffee. He couldn’t eat his packed lunch there, so he ordered an all-day breakfast. Suddenly Ginger got out of his car and came across to the same café as Ben!
He ordered a coffee and a ham sandwich to take away, used the toilet and returned to his observations from his car. He’d had to hope that Jim hadn’t left the bank in the meantime; but he guessed that he hadn’t.
By late afternoon, Ben had changed his own vantage point several times, eventually sitting on a bench just in view of the bank and Ginger’s car. He bought an evening paper, but despite reading almost every article in it, he couldn’t even remember what the page-one headline story was about.
It was equally boring for Ginger, but at least he had had more experience of observing intended targets.
It was Ginger who noticed first. Around half-past five, Jim came out of the main door of the bank, preceded by several other employees. He went straight to his car, leaving Claude to lock up, and drove directly for home. Ginger started his car and followed him almost immediately, but Ben had to run to where he had left his scooter. He fumbled — all thumbs — while undoing the lock and eventually raced back up the High Street, hoping that all his effort that day hadn’t been a waste of time, and that Ginger hadn’t forced his father off the road and shot him.
But luckily Jim was a careful driver, fairly slow; and Ginger was just observing for the time being, like Ben.
I had survived the first day so far, without any problem. I hadn’t noticed anyone strange around, although my office didn’t have much of a view of the street. I had watched most of the customers; nothing unusual there, a few regulars, a few others but they all seemed to be genuine. Although I was very nervous about the situation I had generated for myself, I was curious to see what might happen, all the same.
Now I was home, the killer wouldn’t attack; that was outside his terms of the contract. With luck, I’d have a quiet, ‘normal’ evening.
And so it was. Ben got home just after me, and we sat down to the meal Judith had prepared. Then Ben went to his room and Judith and I watched a film on television. At about eleven Ben called down “Good night” as usual and soon afterwards we retired to bed.
I heard a few odd noises outside, but decided eventually that they were no more than the wind in the trees and other events that I could easily explain — cats and the like.
For Ginger the Tuesday and Wednesday were most frustrating. He had never been so bored in his life. Jim did nothing significantly different from Monday.
Pretty much the same applied to Ben. He shared a few jokes with the first barman, who kept calling him James Bond. Otherwise, nothing changed.
Ginger decided that he had to try something different. Monday to Friday routines were too fraught with problems, as his victim clearly had such a regular, dull and predictable life that he could think of nothing to exploit. He didn’t even go out in the evenings, despite having been watched between leaving work and seeing the bedroom lights go out around midnight. Perhaps the weekend would prove more fruitful.
I began to wonder if the hit-man would strike as agreed. I had thought that if he saw my usual routine — and presumably he was keeping watch on me — he would see where the opportunity could occur. But then I began to worry that my predictability might prove to him that I was never in a suitable place for him to act. Should I vary my routine? What if he wasn’t on constant watch? I hadn’t seen anybody acting suspiciously, but then I wasn’t a particularly observant person, so how would I recognise someone suspicious?
On Thursday morning while we were having breakfast, the telephone rang. It was David. “Jim!” he almost shouted down the phone.
“Hello David. How are you?”
“Fine, over the moon for you. I’ve got some great news! I had a phone call and an e-mail this morning from Professor Hu. He told me that apparently an American clinic where they were following some alternative approach to his has discovered a treatment for Prokofiev’s!”
I was flabbergasted. “What? A cure?” I shouted back almost hysterically, then added “Ben, Judith, this is private, please,” and they left the room.
Ben showed little interest in eating his breakfast. He was still tired and hadn’t woken up properly. But when his father shouted “A cure?” his ears pricked up. Was this really true? Were they talking about his father’s illness? He had to know more and strained his ears to hear the rest of the conversation, or at least his father’s contribution.
Today he resolved to keep close tabs on his father rather than on watching Ginger.
“Yes, a cure for Prokofiev’s Syndrome. Professor Hu only heard about it last night our time, and he spoke to the head of this American clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, who was absolutely convinced that he had struck oil. Hu has asked for a supply of the medicine to be sent by courier directly to me and in a couple of days I can begin the treatment.”
“How do you know it’s genuine if Hu didn’t know they were working on it?” I asked.
“He said that the Americans hadn’t published any papers yet because they were hoping to make a lot of money from the treatment, which doesn’t come cheap, by the way. However, Hu had met the head of the clinic at a conference a couple of years ago, and he got the impression then that they might have been onto something. Now they have registered the drugs and are willing to go public.”
“When can I see you? This really changes things. It’s rather important, you see.”
“Tomorrow morning? I’ll call you if the package arrives from the States, and you can come then, or come anyway if you wish.”
“Can’t we make it today?”
“Well, I need to go through all the papers that Professor Hu has e-mailed me, so there wouldn’t be too much we could talk about. And in any case I’ve got a surgery this morning and a couple of home visits this afternoon. But it’s great news, eh?”
“Yeah, great,” but I’m sure I didn’t sound as enthusiastic as I was expected to. “OK, tomorrow, about eleven?”
“That’d be fine. Bye.”
I made the decision on the spot that I wouldn’t venture outside the house that day, so calling my wife and son back into the room I asked Judith if she was planning to go out today.
“I’ve got to get some shopping at Sainsbury’s this morning, and I’m supposed to be playing bridge at Sandie’s this afternoon. Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I just thought we could spend the day together. Can’t the groceries wait? And you could put Sandie off, couldn’t you?”
“Not if you want something for tonight’s meal. And I’ve promised Sandie. Sorry, darling. It would be nice, but some other time, eh?”
Ben quickly understood what his father wanted: not to be left alone because of the possibility that the assassin might kill him; his plans had now completely changed and he needed to get the whole deal cancelled because it appeared that David had told him he probably wasn’t going to die from Prokofiev’s Syndrome.
“Aren’t you going to work today then?” Ben asked.
“Umm... no. I feel like a day off.”
“Well I could stay at home if you want some company, dad. We could have a chat, and I’ve got my A-levels coming up so I could do some revision.”
A rescuer! “That’s a good idea, Ben. I’d appreciate your company, and we could talk about your plans for switching from medicine to pharmacology.”
“Yeah. Good idea.”
No-one could guess how relieved I was.
We finished breakfast and Ben helped his mother wash up. Then he phoned school and without pressing the enter button of his mobile, he held a fake conversation with the school secretary, pretending to explain that he was spending the day at home revising for his A-levels. His father looked convinced by the charade.
I went up to my room and logged onto the computer. I found the latest e-mail address, the one to which I had sent the go-ahead some days ago, and typed in: “Urgent. Call your man off! Fee will still be paid. J.” I hoped Spud or someone with him would see it.
Then I phoned Wesley. I asked him if I could get into contact with Spud urgently, just in case the e-mail route failed.
“I’ll try to get him to call you. Mobile or home number?”
“Home, no, use the mobile in case someone’s listening or answers it before I can get to it.” I waited an hour, getting under Judith’s feet and becoming more agitated by the minute. Then I went up and checked the computer. No response. I called Wes again.
“I haven’t heard from Spud. Did you contact him?”
“Yes. Just wait.”
“I haven’t got the time to wait. Call him again,” I ordered poor Wesley, “and tell him to get back to me. This is very important, believe me!”
“What time are you going out, mum,” Ben asked.
“In about an hour. Why?”
“Oh, nothing much. I’m just popping out. Can you wait till I get back, please?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Oh, nothing much. I shan’t be long.”
He went out into the garden and carefully looked around. He could see no sign of Ginger. He got his scooter out of the garage and made a grand tour of all the local streets, looking for the dirty white Escort. No sign of it anywhere, so he went into the town centre and looked all along the High Street. Nothing. He even popped into the café where the barman worked who called him James Bond.
“Any sign of that bloke or his car?” he asked after the trivialities of his welcome were over.
“Nope! You’ll have to report to ‘M’ that you’ve lost his trail! No flirting with Miss Moneypenny, though.”
So he rode home, having looked round the minor streets near the High Street, just in case Ginger was somewhere nearby.
I heard Ben coming back and he told Judith she might go out now if she had to. She commented to Ben, in an inquiring voice: “Mrs Gaskell phoned from school asking how you were. I said you were fine, and I thought you’d rung her earlier about having the day off for revision or something. She said she thought you had the ’flu.”
“Oh, silly old bat! She’s always getting things in a muddle; probably confused me with someone else,” Ben dismissed the subject.
“Darling,” Judith chastised him, “you should be more respectful.”
Judith took her shopping bags and left in her Astra.
“OK, dad?” Ben asked. “How are those aches and pains you’ve been having?”
“Good of you to ask,” I replied. “The drugs I’ve been prescribed are working fairly well. Anyway, you’ve been very secretive lately, if you don’t mind my saying. Is everything OK at school?”
“You don’t seem to have been doing much revision lately, not as much as I thought you would have to. I hope you’re going to do well enough to get into a good University.”
“Good. Both your mother and I want you to succeed, especially after the disappointment of your brother.”
“Tom’s doing all right. I spoke to him only a few days ago and he seemed fine.”
“Did he say anything about me or your mother, like asking how we were when you spoke to him?”
“No, afraid not.”
“Pity. I hope we don’t lose you too!”
Ginger had decided that after three very fruitless days he wouldn’t bother being bored for another. So he didn’t go on stalking duty. Instead he decided that the weekend might hold more luck. He had heard from Spud who had learnt from Wesley that sometimes Jim and some others went out on Sunday mornings for a round of golf. So he decided to suss out the local course where they played.
The place was almost deserted on a Thursday morning, so he made as if to just take a walk. “No problem with that,” said the course manager. “Thinking of joining?” He hoped the answer would be ‘no’ as the man looked rather unlike their usual clientèle — scarred, tattooed, dyed ginger hair and rather unkempt wasn’t the usual suburban look, but then it was the Committee that decided on new membership applications.
“Possibly. What’s the annual fee?”
“£500. There’s no charge for just taking a look though.”
Ginger headed for the first tee and followed the course from there. The first two greens were too close to the clubhouse and the third and fourth were rather too open, with few trees or bushes for cover. The fifth was more promising, as was the sixth, but it was the long par-five seventh that interested him most. It had a copse to the left of the fairway, with plenty of undergrowth. He examined it in close detail for a number of suitable vantage points for shooting someone coming down the fairway, trying to estimate roughly where they’d stop after their first shot. Two lonely golfers were the only people he saw, so he had to make do with their efforts to gauge the optimum site to hide. What was more, the same copse provided cover for the long eleventh hole which was on its other side. So if he couldn’t manage anything at the seventh, he would have another chance at the eleventh. Very convenient!
He checked out the remaining holes and couldn’t find anything better. So the seventh or eleventh it would have to be. If all else failed the medium par-four fifteenth would be a back-up. However another advantage of his chosen pair was that a narrow lane passed nearby and would provide cover for his car, and a quick get-away path for when he’d done the job.
He took a final look at the copse and then made off, calling “I’ll think about it” to the manager as he passed the clubhouse.
My mobile rang; it was Spud. “Excuse me a moment, please, Ben. This is rather private.”
“Yeah.” He left the room closing the door behind him, but I wasn’t absolutely convinced he had gone upstairs. Nevertheless I went back to the phone. “Yes, thanks for ringing me back.”
“What the fuck are you up to, using the phone?” Spud shouted at me. “What’s so urgent?”
“You must call your man off. They’ve found a cure for the disease I’ve got. I just want to go back to living my life.”
“I can’t call anyone off! Once a job is started, it’s mum all the way till it’s over. Do you get me?”
“You mean you can’t contact him?”
“So what can I do? You’ll still get the fee, I promise.”
“I don’t know. You started all this. You get your way out of it.” And with that he hung up.
Listening through the kitchen door, Ben got the gist of what was being said and guessed, wrongly, that it was Wesley on the line. However he was right in his conclusion that his father had been left in a hopeless position, unable to stop the assassination that he had ordered.
He silently ran upstairs to his room, expecting his father to emerge from the drawing room. After a few minutes he went rather noisily downstairs and started making some clattering noises in the kitchen so that his father would know he was there.
I heard Ben in the kitchen and went out there.
“Coffee?” he asked me. “I fancy some.”
“Good idea. Make mine strong, please, and black.” I was in no mood for the watery milky liquid that Judith usually produced, but which probably tasted like nectar to her coffee-morning brigade.
“Not some of mum’s gnat’s pee then? I prefer mine strong too, but I daren’t tell her,” he grinned. “Who was that on the phone?”
“Oh, just an acquaintance. Nobody you know. And please don’t use language like that; you’ll end up like your brother!”
“Sorry. What is it between you and Tom? He always clams up when I try to ask him about it.”
“We had an argument about his future career some time ago — I thought you knew — I suggested that accountancy would be a good career for him, rather than science. But he insisted on meteorology. The argument escalated and he used some really foul language towards me. I wasn’t going to stand for that and told him so. He swore at me again, so I slapped his face. He punched me in the stomach, which was most unpleasant, not to mention painful. It was only the intervention of your mother that let him stay in this house and for us to help him get into University. I was really in the mood to throw him out!”
“I knew you’d argued about his courses, but I hadn’t realised you’d had a punch-up.”
“Well, that’s what it was all about. He and I haven’t exchanged a word since then. I’m sorry if you feel we’ve kept it from you. We’ve tried to be fair with you, and if you want to change your University course, that’s up to you. We don’t want both our sons to be aloof from us. Your mum and I want you, and Tom for that matter, to be happy.”
“Thanks for telling me that, dad.” There was a long pause. “Changing the subject, is there anything else you’ve been keeping from me?”
Oh God! Was he getting at the major dilemma I was in? “What do you mean?”
“You’ve been taking a lot of pain-killers lately. And I heard you talking to the doctor earlier and you seemed excited about a cure for something. Also, you’ve arranged to see him tomorrow morning. Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I had resolved not to tell anyone anything, but Ben seemed to know something about it. “Well, I’ve got an illness which can be quite painful, and the doctor told me that there’s now a cure available, so that’s why I got quite excited. It’s nothing for you to worry about. OK?” Would he buy that?
Ben wondered if he should leave it at that. He could push his luck and get his father to open up completely; then he could take his perceived duty to protect him much more easily, by helping him plan his activities, because he knew that Ginger was somewhere out there with a mission to kill him. He also guessed from his father’s nervousness and from what he’d overheard in the kitchen that he had been unable to get the message to the killer that his mission was off. Perhaps he could find Ginger and explain everything; but he might not be believed and that might endanger him too. He possibly knew more than his dad about who the killer was. The alternative was to accept his father’s word at face value, and not push him any further. They drank their coffee in silence. Ben reluctantly stayed quiet, after all he could always raise the subject some other time if he wanted to, but if he came clean on all he knew, he couldn’t retract it.
Judith returned from Sainsbury’s. She spent ten minutes putting everything away in the freezer, fridge or wherever it belonged — she was always so organised with things. Then she asked: “Coffee, anyone?”
“Thanks, darling, but we’ve just washed up the cups from having one ourselves. Can I make a cup for you?”
“Oh that would be so nice. I can put my feet up for a few minutes.”
The rest of the day continued in much the same trivial fashion; Judith made some cakes, Ben went to his room to revise, and I just mooched about.
Several times Ben walked or drove his scooter around the neighbourhood, to see if there was any sign of Ginger or his car. But each time he drew a blank. Perhaps he was waiting for the weekend when he could catch Jim alone somewhere.
Friday morning went by just as a typical Saturday morning would have until about ten-thirty, when Jim started to get ready for his appointment with David. At the same time, Ben said he was popping out to the library to search for something that he couldn’t find on the internet. He left home on his scooter just before his father, scouted the area looking for Ginger’s car, and then waited near to their house until Jim left. He tailed him at a suitable distance, always prepared to react if Ginger appeared. But nothing happened.
His father went into the doctor’s house and remained for about an hour, Ben watching all the time. Nothing happened.
David filled me in on the latest he had about Prokofiev’s Syndrome, and most of it sounded quite promising. The American team had first developed a pain-killer that worked during the severe stage of the illness. It also had the effect of prolonging life, apparently, though they couldn’t be certain initially as there were so few people who they had been able to experiment on.
They then managed to modify the proteins in the pain-killer so that it attached itself to the carriers on the white blood cells. This was a major breakthrough and quickly led to a medicine that would actually stop the disease spreading, and, given several blood transfusions, the patient recovered completely.
David showed me his latest message from Professor Hu, which manifested high praise on the American Clinic.
My only concern was that everyone was being over-optimistic, given the small number of patients who had been given the treatment. Still, better a half-full glass than a half-empty one.
Saturday was totally uneventful, the whole family staying in all day. But gradually I was hoping that Spud had contacted his man and that I could lower my guard and resume a normal life.
“I’m off for a round of golf with the chaps,” I announced at the end of breakfast on Sunday. Ben spluttered. “You OK, old chap?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m OK. The coffee went down the wrong hole.” But I could see that something was troubling him.
It hadn’t occurred to Ben that his father might be so incautious that he would go out alone, even if he was to team up with some of his cronies. Perhaps he had heard from someone that the message had got through to the assassin.
But then maybe not, so Ben decided that, for the time being, he would remain as bodyguard to his father. As soon as Jim had left the house Ben jumped onto his Lambretta and followed him to the golf club. He saw his father greeting his three friends, and they went into the lounge of the clubhouse until their turn came up to start playing. Ben guessed that they would be safe in there, so he scouted round. There was no sign of Ginger or his Escort, but, Ben supposed, there wouldn’t be, not if he had an ounce of sense.
Ben realised that he couldn’t simply stalk his father. He couldn’t get close enough to him to be of any use because most of the golf links were open undulating land and he would easily be seen and, of course, recognised. He had to think differently. If Ginger was planning to attack there, what would he do? Assuming he’d had some hint that his victim might be there, he would have scouted out the land to find an area with lots of undergrowth, close enough to one of the fairways to be able to shoot him at quite close range and then escape.
Luckily Ben had a large-scale Ordnance Survey map of the area in the carrier of his scooter; it had been there since he was given the machine by his parents. And of course it showed which areas were wooded and which were open. It was clear from the map that a track ran behind the boundary fence quite close to a wooded area that formed part of the golf course. If he had been Ginger, he’d hide there.
Ben rode his scooter out onto the road and found where the track left it. He slowly negotiated the potholes and bumps of the track, stopping frequently to see exactly where he was in relation to the wood. About two-hundred yards from there he stopped, turned off the engine and hid the scooter in the undergrowth. He walked along the muddy track keeping as out-of-sight as he could, until he came to the boundary fence near to the wood.
There, tucked into a small area that served as a passing place for traffic in the opposite direction, he saw Ginger’s Escort. There was no-one in it fortunately, or he’d have been caught. He scouted around looking for any sign of Ginger, but there was nobody in sight, and just the sound of a few golfers on the seventh and eleventh fairways.
Ben went back to the car and released the air from all the tyres. At least Ginger wouldn’t be able to escape that way very easily. He went back into the large copse and, as silently as he could, watched for any sign of Ginger. One moment he nearly jumped out of his skin when a golf ball skimmed past him and hit a nearby tree.
“You lost that one,” someone called from quite nearby. “Must be out of bounds.”
“I’ll drop from over here,” said another voice.
Shorty and I started our round when our turn came up, with David and Wes following. I scored par at the first hole, and a birdie at the second; Shorty got two pars.
“Doing better than a few weeks ago,” Shorty observed as we both birdied the fifth. “Don’t know what came over you that day! Ever hear any more about that new by-pass?”
“No. Nothing at all. Judith usually picks up gossip at her hen-dos. Can’t have been anything in it.”
Ben continued looking out for Ginger. Suddenly he saw a man with very short hair, in his mid-thirties, his right cheek scarred as was the left side of his neck. His arms were covered with tattoos. It was Ginger, who had cut off almost all his hair! ‘Bye-bye, Ginger,’ Ben thought.
As he watched he heard the familiar voice of his father’s friend DCI ‘Shorty’ and that of his father too.
“Watch for those bushes!” said Shorty. “Can jump out at you!”
“OK. I know how misleading this part of the terrain can be.”
Two guns were drawn and pointed at their targets.
A single shot rang out from beside the seventh fairway and echoed across the valley. A man fell to the ground.
Some physicists hypothesise that whenever a universe encounters a choice between possibilities, another universe comes into existence; one universe takes one option, the other follows the alternative course...
...Here are four of the possible universes...