© Kevin Chilvers
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Exmoor – May 2007
Hawk bent double, pushed through the gap in the thicket of gorse and wished it had been made by a bigger beast. The thought of what lay ahead dried his mouth as the scent of death grew stronger.
He paused to pull thorns from his sleeve while he examined broken branches. They wept sap: others had been here recently. Scuffed earth confirmed this. Individual footprints were impossible to define.
A clearing bathed in eerie green light appeared ahead. He took a deep breath and crawled the last few yards into a round space in the centre of the thicket.
The child’s body lay in the dirt staring up at knurled branches of aged woody shrub which curved overhead to form a dome roof. He hated dead kids, in fact he hated dead anybody apart from bad guys.
Three sets of booted footprints and a line of paw marks imprinted a trail to the body in otherwise virgin earth. To avoid disturbing them, he took the perimeter route to the far side of the chamber then crossed and knelt beside the remains. Once again the dirt was undisturbed and it was blood free.
The poor lad was naked apart from a leopard-skin loincloth. As the police had said, it looked genuine. He opened the boy’s mouth. Yellow tinge on teeth. No fillings.
The skin on the boy’s chest was cold. When he lifted a hand, the arm was stiff. Rigor mortis. Death occurred within the last day, maybe two because it was cold up here on Exmoor. The post mortem would narrow it down.
A shallow incised cut across the lad’s forehead had scabbed. It fitted with the police’s first impression of some sort of tribal ritual or sexual aberration gone wrong but was this a local crime or was there an international link? Maybe. Maybe not. Too soon to tell.
The neat cut on the head contrasted with several irregular, jagged wounds on the kid’s torso, arms and legs. These showed no sign of healing. He considered rolling the body but decided to leave it and let the forensic guys and girls work their magic. The police had disturbed the scene enough already. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Closed his eyes. The image of the boy remained. He added it to a growing collection as he crawled back through the tunnel.
A short slim woman with incredible green eyes helped him to his feet. Hawk’s insides tingled. He liked the Admiral’s daughter. He liked her a lot, but he’d learnt long ago that a relationship with a work colleague could get innocent people killed in his line of work.
‘Did Constable Willis move the body, Clive?’
Detective Inspector Green of the local force shook his head. ‘No. The lad was obviously dead, so he let him lie.’
Rain tickled Hawk’s skin. Overhead dark clouds scudded over a wild, isolated, lonely heather covered slope topped with rocky crags. Not exactly the picture-postcard view of Exmoor seen in the tourist brochures. Intimidating to most but he’d been in far worse places. ‘Why was Willis up here in the early hours, Clive?’
‘A farmer’s wife reported two suspicious men just after six this morning. He was nearby, so he came up to check. His dog sniffed out the body.’
‘Has anyone else been inside?’
‘Willis, me, the police surgeon. That’s it. My chief ordered me to keep everyone out until you arrived but I didn’t expect a private detective, so what is this all about?’
Hawk glanced at the police constables waiting nearby, took Clive’s elbow and led him to a clear spot where he wouldn’t be overheard. ‘Fair enough. I don’t think it fair to blast in without an explanation but this stays between me and you. For some time it’s been noticed that criminals are using international borders to hide. Your jurisdiction is limited to the UK. Mine is not. I am a retired Royal Marine policeman unofficially employed by the Government as a trouble-shooter to bring them to justice one way or another. The way the boy is dressed and lack of dentistry suggests he’s not been in England long. If it turns out this kid is here legally and his killers are in your jurisdiction you get the case back.’ Hawk grinned. ‘Of course all this comes under the official secrets act so if you tell anyone I’ll have to shoot you.
Clive took a big breath and allowed it to escape through pursed lips. ‘I’ll give you anything you need.’ He shrugged. ‘Anyway, your boss obviously outranks mine.’
‘I’d like to talk to the farmer’s wife. Where can I find her?’
‘A big white farmhouse further up the lane.’
Hawk followed Samantha to their borrowed police Land Rover and drove further up the isolated valley. She raised her voice over a clatter of stones in the wheel arches as the metalled surface morphed into a rutted lane. ‘What did you find in there?’
‘The boy was murdered.’ Hawk described the scene. ‘Unless kid levitated into the thicket, someone killed him elsewhere and swept the place clean when they dumped the body… Ah, this must be the farm.’ He glanced at Samantha. ‘There’s no point in distressing the woman unnecessarily, so we won’t tell her about the dead kid.’
A dog barked in response to his thump on the heavy iron knocker. After a short delay a plump woman with rosy cheeks opened the door. She beamed a smile and grabbed a huge Newfoundland by the collar. ‘Don’t you go worrying ‘bout Bonnie ‘ere, she’s as soft as Ma’s butter. What can I do for you Mr...?’
‘Hawkins. Simon Hawkins and this is my partner Samantha Kingsley.’
She ushered them into the porch out of the drizzle. ‘I s’pose this about the men I saw.’
‘It is but there’s no need to worry,’ he assured her, instinctively liking the bubbly woman.
‘Come in. You look like you need tea. I’m Martha by the way.’
‘I’m afraid we don’t have time for tea, Martha. Tell me what happened this morning.’
‘Well now, I went up to the field to check on a ewe about four. Tis lambing season you see. There was a car parked beside the gate. We gets the odd tourist up here thinking they’re Ernest Shackleton, but ’tis unusual to see anyone in the early hours, so I wondered what it was doing there. While I was in the field, two men came down the path from the moor...’ Martha ordered the dog to lie down. It ignored her and continued nuzzling his hand. ‘Is Bonny bothering you?’
‘No, she’s fine. What happened next?’
‘They drove along the lane to Henry and Eileen’s house.’
‘Henry and Eileen?’
‘Ay. Professor Henry Beckler and his wife. They’re our neighbours.’
Hawk recognised the name but couldn’t place it. ‘How do you know they went to the professor’s house?’
Martha slapped her thigh and gave a hearty laugh. ‘You’ll see when you go there. Anyway, the car headed back towards the main road…’ she glanced at the clock on the wall and cupped her chin in her hand. ‘Five past six that would be. I remember the time, cos I was frying sausages for breakfast and watching the clock.’
‘Can you describe the men?’
‘Ay. A thin scruffy weasel that needs feeding up a bit, and a bigger man with a face like Bertha.’ Martha chuckled and pointed through the window to a Vietnamese pig in the yard.
‘What about their car?’
‘A blue Mitsubishi Shogun if that’s any help. We have one just like it in the garage. Sorry I can’t help more, but that’s all I can remember.’
‘Everything helps and you noticed more than I would at six in the morning. Detective work is like doing a jigsaw puzzle only you have to find the pieces before you put it together. Were your neighbours in the car with the men?’
‘I couldn’t see. It had tinted windows. But it didn’t seem right, so I called the police station.’
‘Well, I’m glad you did, Martha. Maybe the Becklers will know more.’
They’d traversed three miles of deserted moor when the track swung hard left at the head of the valley, crossed a stone bridge over the stream and passed a carved wooden sign welcoming them to Brook End. The Beckler residence nestled in a bowl at the base of the moor. The rain now fell in a torrent.
Hawk parked in a cobbled courtyard enclosed on three sides by flint-walled stable buildings and climbed from the car. The bleat of sheep filtered down through the blanket of mist and he sympathised with their plight as pulled the collar of his cagoule tighter against the persistent drizzle and dived through open double garage doors set into the centre of the left wing with Samantha on his heels.
There were two Land Rovers parked side by side. One black and one red. They looked new but 01 plates suggested otherwise; a credit to the Becklers. Both cars were unlocked but, apart from a small patch of dried mud on the driver’s mat of the black car, they were clean and uncluttered.
A pedestrian door in the corner in the wall looked like it would take them into the central wing of the house and he was disappointed, but not surprised, when the shiny brass key refused to turn in the rusty iron lock. ‘I guess we’ll have to get wet.’
Huge drops danced on the cobbles as he raced Samantha across the courtyard to an ivy-infested porch set across corner where the other wings met. Samantha beat him but she still looked half-drowned. At least she was smiling.
He tugged a rope attached to an old ship’s bell hanging from a wooden beam and waited. Nobody answered the clang and a gentle push swung the door away from him.
‘Hello! Hello anybody in?’ He stepped into a scullery with a tiled floor.
Two pairs of Wellington boots nestled beneath a Victorian Butler sink. Waterproof Barbour jackets hung beside it on a coat-rack. The waxed material was dry.
An inner door stood wide open. ‘Maybe they’ve gone for a walk.’
‘Without boots and coats in this weather?’
‘Good thought but the men Martha saw came this way and both cars are here. We’d better take a look.’
Arches led left and right into the each wing of the house. He chose left into the middle section of the stable block which consisted of a large open plan lounge and kitchen, separated by a counter. Half a cup of cold tea and a crystal glass of brown liquid rested on a coffee table between two armchairs. These were positioned either side of a stone fireplace in one corner. Logs stacked in recesses gave the place cosy country theme. A pad and pen rested beside the glass. He sniffed the contents. ‘Brandy.’ A copy of Danielle Steel’s “Miracle” had fallen to the floor beside the other chair. Otherwise, the house was clean and tidy. He placed his hand close to a pile of ash in the grate; it was cold.
His eyes wandered along the wall. Although windows overlooked the courtyard, there was no sign of the door to the workshop. It had been sealed and papered over. Photographs featured the couple at social events they were looking at each other with a sparkle in their eyes and held hand in many. Other pictures showed the professor at numerous award ceremonies mixing with famous faces. Together they depicted a well-respected professional man who had seen success in his career, and an ageing couple who looked very much in love after a long successful, but apparently childless marriage.
There was no window in the rear wall, but an arch in the far corner led into a conservatory. It was an impressive room built across the width of the cottage at the rear. Double-glazed patio doors provided a view over a tidy garden. The rain had stopped and sunlight knifed through the cloud like a searchlight. It lifted the mist and exposed a steep hill to the top of the moor. ‘What a magnificent view.’
Samantha wrapped her hand round his bicep. ‘It’s a magnificent house, but we’re here to find out what happened to the child.’
The room had been converted to a study with floor to ceiling bookshelves lining the inner wall.
He read some of the titles on the bookshelves. Most were leather-bound medical tomes and Professor Henry Beckler was the author of a good number of them.
‘That’s why Professor Beckler’s name is familiar. I’ve seen him on the news. He’s Britain’s leading authoritity on genetics.’
Samantha picked a few screwed up balls of paper from a waste bin and smoothed them out. ‘Beckler was writing a speech.’
Hawk read over her shoulder. Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. I bring to you today the results of five-year radical research that will change medicine as we know it and save many thousands of lives. ‘He didn’t get far but it looks like he’s going to announce something important.’
Samantha delved into drawers in an antique walnut desk. ‘Just stationary. Nothing interesting except…’ she looked at him. ‘We there are no personal papers.’
‘Uncanny. I was thinking exactly the same thing. Perhaps he keeps them in his bedroom.’
‘Then let’s look in the other wing.’
The corridor had four doors.
Samantha opened the nearest. She rummaged through housed towels and spare bedding stacked on shelves and shook her head. It’s the airing cupboard.’
Something clicked and Hawk peered in. A modern water and central heating boiler emitted a soft roar. The thermostat pointer settled at a comfortable twenty-four degrees centigrade.
A luxurious bathroom needed no more than a glance. It was immaculate. Two toothbrushes hung in a rack over the shiny sink, a pair of dry towels hung on a rail and razor and foam sat on a shelf beside a sink. So far there nothing to suggest Beckler saw the child’s murderers. The track from Martha’s house offered no room to turn before Brook End, so perhaps they’d chosen the wrong way. It could explain the delay before she saw them drive towards the main road.
Two doors remained and he was still unsure if they had found anything useful. The nearest was a guest room: the bed unmade and devoid of personal items, but the last, the master bedroom on the end of the block, was the Becklers’ domain. Glass sliding doors in the outer wall opened to a private patio with an impressive vista over wild moorland and hills. The bed was made, the room show-house tidy and a faint scent of roses filled the space.
Samantha slid back mirrored doors on the wardrobe and revealed a space big enough for another room. The walk-in cupboard was divided, his on one side with drawer units and hanging space containing three suits and numerous casual, but smart trousers and shirts; hers on the other with more hanging space filled with flowery dresses, formal eveningwear and a collection of low-heeled shoes. A cushioned box between them provided a seat.
Hawk lifted the hinged lid, scanned a pile of blankets and shut it again. ‘We’ve missed something.’
‘Like this?’ Samantha’s face crinkled in a smug grin and she pointed beneath a line of hanging dresses. ‘Do you think Beckler has the key with him?’
A recess in wall housed a foot-square modern Chubb safe.
‘More likely he’s hidden it in the house.’
‘You search here and I’ll look in the study.’
He started with the walnut desk. It looked antique and maybe there was a secret compartment. After emptying the drawers, he pulled them clear and checked the base. Nothing taped to the wood. He replaced the drawers and examined the bookshelves. These were fastened to walls. He walked the line and looked for wear on the spines to find books that were constantly withdrawn. Nothing obvious.
He returned to the lounge and dismantled the stacks of logs. Great for spiders, but not flush with keys. Where else. Somewhere accessible but well hidden. He scanned the room. Prehaps the kitchen. The fridge.
A clash of cool air flooded out as he opened the door and pulled out two cartons of milk, one open; a fresh salmon marinating in a dish of lemon and tarragon and various jars of pickles and dressings. He opened them. No key. He replaced the food and repeated the exercise with the freezer compartment; same result.
He emptied every cupboard and drawer and exhausted all possible hiding places without success. Where else? Taped to the back of the photos. Nope. Not in the lounge. That left the study. Hawk pictured the wall of books and groaned. Finding a safe was one thing, but a key was a different matter entirely. He could almost hear the shelves groaning under the weight of books; each one was a potential hiding place.
An hour later the floor looked like a model of Monument Valley. He removed the last book and flicked through the pages. No cut out middles. No key. Nothing. He added it to a pile and sat surrounded by stacked books.
‘Have you checked the toilet cistern?’ He asked when Samantha slumped down beside him and reported a similar failure.
‘Of course. Women watch movies too you know.’
“Ouch!” He set about re-populating the library. When he’d finished he returned to the lounge feeling incredibly weary.
‘Perhaps Beckler keeps the key in his car,’ Samantha said.
He pictured the garage, slapped his forehead, levered himself to his feet and groaned. Asafa Powell would have been amazed at his speed as he sprinted out of the cottage.
‘Hidden in plain sight,’ he said, returning less than a minute later waving the brass key from the rusty lock. He slid it into the slot on the safe, glanced at Samantha, swallowed hard and twisted.
The tumblers moved with a soft click. He swung safe door open and revealed two shelves. He emptied them and spread the contents over the carpet: official looking papers, a jewellery box and a pile of twenty pound notes. ‘A couple of grand cash here and, according to these statements, Henry and Eileen have over a million in savings.’ He pocketed the latest statement, returned everything else, locked the safe and was thinking hard as he followed Samantha out to the cobbled yard. ‘Something’s odd here. I’ve a bad feeling, Samantha’
She stood and looked around. ‘Maybe they wern’t here when the men came. They could have gone away for a few days.’
‘Both cars are in the garage.’
‘Perhaps a friend picked them up.’
‘Perhaps, but the front door was open, there’s fresh fish in the fridge, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and the heating is set to twenty-four degrees centigrade.’
On the way out, he returned to the garage, replaced the safe key in the rusty lock and collected a laminated card he’d seen in the glove compartment of one of the Land Rovers. He showed her a parking permit for the Stone Foundation for Medical Research. ‘I know it’s Saturday, but we’d better check out Beckler’s workplace.’
‘Excellent! There’s a security guard on duty so we don’t have to call anyone in to open up.’ Hawk said, parking beside a Ford Fiesta that had seen better days outside a three-storey building that reminded him of a 1960s secondary school.
He mounted a set of wide shallow steps to a pair of glass fronted doors. A sign above welcomed them to the Stone Foundation for Medical Research. It opened when he tugged the handle and admitted them to an open-plan foyer illuminated by subtle high-level lighting.
In contrast to the boring exterior, clusters of comfortable chairs surrounded low tables to form islands between mobile notice boards displaying the history of medicine. There was no one behind the half-moon reception desk that occupied the space front and centre. He glanced at Samantha, raised his eyebrows and crossed to the counter.
Warning bells rang in his brain. ‘Keep a lookout, he snapped,’ and slid behind the barrier to examine an electrical panel. The lid hung open. ‘Someone’s disabled the security and fire-alarm systems.’
Samantha pointed to a floor plan on a wall beside two elevators. ‘Beckler’s laboratory is on the top floor.’ She aimed a finger at the call button.
Hawk intercepted her hand. ‘No. Where is the security guard?’
‘Maybe there’s a fault and he’s investigating. That would explain the open panel or maybe he’s doing rounds.’
‘Leaving the front door unlocked and why are both lifts at ground level?’ Hawk slid a Beretta from his shoulder holster and pushed through a heavy wooden door with a porthole style window. He stood for a moment. The place was quieter than a Carthusian Monastery during evening prayer.
His back slid against the wall as he climbed wide concrete steps while peering up the next flight at each turn. He checked through a wired glass porthole in a firedoor on the first landing. The carpeted corridor was empty, heavy with silence, classrooms on either side deserted.
He returned to the stairwell and, placing his feet deliberately to avoid scuffing, continued to the next floor. Offices here were as dead as the classrooms below but it was the weekend. Perhaps the guard was one of those slipshod types and was doing rounds as Samantha suggested. Better safe than sorry.
He returned to the stairs, gestured with a raised thumb and led Samantha silently up to the top level; the floor with the professor’s laboratory.
A bad taste settled in his mouth as he peered through the glass but a wall across a narrow passage blocked his view. ‘Different layout,’ he whispered. "Ready". Samantha nodded. He eased open the door.
Samantha wrinkled her nose and whispered. ‘Something’s burning.’
An acrid stench of burnt plastic tainted the air. ‘You mean was burning. There’s no smoke. Watch my back.’
He stepped through, raised the gun and swept his aim to either side. Lino, not carpet on this floor. Must tread carefully to avoid squeaks. A featureless door to his left opened into a long narrow cupboard. It held cleaning equipment. He pointed right. The corridor crossed to the front of the building where a window overlooked the carpark. The corridor turned through a right angle and ran the length of the building. Not even a cockroach added life to the place. Only three doors set farther apart than the lower floors. It made sense. Laboratories needed bigger rooms. With Samantha on his shoulder he crept to the first door.
It was locked. A small box mounted on the wall reminded him of the machine the cashier at a supermarket used to swipe his credit card. A nameplate said Professor G. Randall. He moved on, passed the middle door with another box on the wall but a different name.
Beckler’s laboratory was at the far end; where the smell was strongest.
The door lay open. He paused ten yards short. His own breathing loud in the oppressive silence.
Stepping cautiously, he dropped into a crouch and aimed his gun at the door now only an arm’s length ahead; Samantha’s presence behind him sensed rather than heard. He peeked round the frame.
The door was undamaged; unlike the rest of the room.
It reminded Hawk of his school science lab, except the vast array of scientific equipment arranged on solid looking wooden benches was more sophisticated and expensive. He raised a finger to his lips and ducked inside, gun rapidly sweeping all corners and moving to view behind the furniture. No one was there – well not living anyway. He waved Samantha inside.
The security guard, recognisable from his crumpled uniform, lay face down on the floor. The source of the burning odour was beside him: a scorched ring of Lino beneath a pile of ash and cremated paper.
Avoiding a pool of congealed blood, he holstered his gun and knelt. Not worth checking for a pulse. The killer had pulped the back of the guard’s head with a fire extinguisher that lay beside the body. He took a pen and gently sifted the papers. They crumble to ash. None of the documents had survived sufficiently to read.
‘Where did all this paper come from?’
Hawk glanced over his shoulder as Samantha wrinkled her face. He pointed to the corner. ‘The filing cabinets, I guess. Whoever did this emptied each file and fed the individual sheets onto the fire.’
He took out his mobile phone and dialled. ‘Clive! There’s a minor complication in the case. We have another body.’
He ended the call and phoned the admiral.
A police patrol car screeched to a halt outside with lights flashing and horns blaring. Pretty pointless. The corpse wasn’t going anywhere. Two constables piled out and raced up the steps. Hawk identified himself and suggested they guard the door and control access. A scene of crime team arrived next and dragged boxes of gear from the back of a white van. They were still setting up a workshop on one side of the foyer when Clive burst through the door.
Hawk waited until the Chief Inspector caught his breath and, as he led him up the stairs, told him what they’d found at the professor’s house.
After Clive had examined the scene in the lab they returned to the foyer. Clive shuffled his feet and sighed. ‘This is gonna cause a hell of a stink. The professor is a friend of my chief.’
‘He’s also a friend of the Prime Minister.’ The voice boomed around the foyer as a short, grey haired, wiry man stormed towards them. ‘I presume it’s too early to know what happened.’
‘Clive, meet my boss, Admiral Sir George Kingsley, head of undercover customs operations,’ Hawk said. ‘Well, George, we don’t need an autopsy to confirm the security guard was murdered, but we’ll have to wait for forensics for the rest. In the meantime we need info on Professor Henry Beckler and his research.’
George dialled a number on his mobile and moved out of earshot.
Hawk continued his conversation with Clive. ‘We need a trace on the pale blue Mitsubishi. It has tinted windows but I’ve no idea about the registration.’
Clive gagged. ‘Do you know how many hits that’s going to get?’
Hawk rested a hand on the inspector’s shoulder. ‘Think of the overtime.’
George ended his call and addressed Hawk. ‘Clive can deal with this. Collect Samantha and come with me: we have to meet someone.’
As the Admirals chauffeur weaved his Bentley through the traffic on Exeter’s ring road, Hawk told George everything they’d found so far.
When he’d finished, the admiral rested back into his seat and cupped his hands over his nose. ‘What do you think happened, Hawk?’
‘Too soon to tell but the two men the farmer’s wife saw were on the moor where the kid’s body was found and they drove to Beckler’s house. There’s no place to turn on the track so the question is, did they purposely go to see him or just take a wrong turn?’
George glanced at the Chief Inspector. ‘Clive is correct. It will most certainly create a stink if Beckler is linked to the deaths. I’ve met Henry at a number of charity dinners and he’s always come across as a kind, gentle, modest man of high intellect. He’s well respected in the elite social circles and is not someone I’d suspect of murder.’
‘I have the same impression from looking around his house. Hopefully, the child’s post mortem and forensics from both scenes will tell us more, George.’
The Bentley passed through a suburb near Exeter’s University and turned off the road in front of a pair of electrically controlled gates. They swung open as they arrived. A gravel drive took them between manicured gardens to a large modern house set in extensive grounds.
‘Who are we meeting?’
‘The Director of the Stone Foundation.’
Damien Winter was a lean man with wisps of hair that clung to his balding head like kelp to rocks in a storm. He showed them into a study which obviously doubled as his den. The colour drained from Damian’s skin as George told him about Beckler’s lab. He didn’t mention the dead child.
Winter started to pull himself from the chair. ’I’d better get there at once. Is Henry all right?’
Hawk spoke. ’The professor isn’t there, Mr Winter, and there’s nothing you can do until the police have finished gathering evidence. Henry was writing a speech. It looks like he was about to announce something important.’
‘He is going to release results from a five-year research project to the GMC at their conference in London next Wednesday.’
‘So what is his new discovery?’
‘Something to do with genetics, but outside that I have absolutely no idea. Henry conducted the experiments in total secrecy. He was terrified the pharmaceutical giants would learn the details and copy his research before he could make it public. Only he and his assistant have access to the lab.’
‘We’ll ask him for details then.’
‘I’m not sure he can help you. Jason Holloway is an odd job’s man, not a scientist. He may have an idea what went on, but I doubt he’d know the technical details. That’s the way Henry wanted it.’
‘What about the security guards? They have access to the lab.’
‘They do but everything is locked away at night and Henry encrypts all information using his own special code.’
‘It sounds like he’s paranoid.’
‘Oh, he’s not, Mr Hawkins. All the major pharmaceutical companies have tried to entice him to work exclusively for them with eye-watering packages. Henry rejected them as always and insisted his discoveries be freely available to help everyone. Henry did tell me his discovery will revolutionise medicine as we know it and save thousands of lives. If a company could publish first and patented something like that, they would make billions.’
‘Did the professor seem normal when you last saw him?’
‘A little nervous but he’s worried about his speech. Henry is not a vain man and he doesn’t like speaking in public, but apart from that he was his normal jovial self when I spoke to him yesterday.’
‘When did he announce his work was complete?’
‘About two months ago. He would have preferred to leave it to the last minute, but the GMC have a closing date for entries into the conference.’
‘Then we’d better speak to Jason Holloway. Do you have his address?’
There was no vehicular access to Jason Holloway’s rented flat, so they drove back to the hotel and Hawk went on foot.
He found the rambling Edwardian house behind the high street. The unlocked main door took him into a lobby and he read the labels beside a double row of bell pushes. He couldn’t see the lab assistant’s name.
‘I’m the landlord. Can I help you?’
An old man clutched the doorframe of the opposite flat with knurled hands. ‘Maybe: I am looking for Jason Holloway.’
‘He upped sticks and moved out yesterday.’
‘Did he leave a forwarding address?’
‘Nope. He paid his rent and climbed into a taxi.’
‘What about his things?’
‘Jason only had a rucksack. He asked for the station if that’s any help.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ Hawk headed for the door, turned back. Have you cleaned his room yet?’
The old guy shook his head.
‘Can I take a look?’
‘Sure. Top floor on the left. It’s not locked.’
It was a drab place lit by a bar lightbulb. A foot-wide border of bare floorboards showed around the edge of a rug that was wearing thin. The single bed squeezed under sloping eves, a wardrobe and chest of drawers looked like they came from a second-hand furniture shop and a wooden chair in front of a fifties style school desk beneath a draughty window. He lifted the mattress but nothing had fallen into the cracks. Same beneath the bed. The wardrobe and drawers were empty. No bathroom; that was on the next floor down and shared. It was like Jason had never existed. He turned to leave, changed his mind and returned to the desk. Once it would have been etched with graffiti carved from bored kids but it had been sanded smooth and varnished. Hawk knelt, peered along the surface and detected faint indentations. Jason wrote with a heavy hand. He tore pages from his notebook and took rubbings. A phone number repeated many times. Once he’d finished, he called Clive, gave him the phone number and asked him to dig out any information they had on Holloway and his parents.
Clive arrived at the hotel an hour later. ‘Jason was seen boarding a train to London. After that he disappeared. A forensic team is stripping his flat and the Met are looking for him, but he could have gone anywhere.’
‘Perhaps he’ll run to mum and dad,’ Samantha said.’
Clive shook his head. ‘Jason’s mother was eighteen-years-old when he was born. She raised him alone. She died four years ago and the father is unknown.’
Clive’s phone trilled. He stabbed a button, scribbled notes as he listened. ‘Okay. Thanks.’ He ended the call.
‘The telephone number you found in Jason’s flat belongs to an unregistered mobile located in Mombasa, Kenya.’
‘Are we watching the airports?’ George asked.
‘Of course. And all the ports. Jason is still in the country…’ Clive’s phone rang again. The blood drained as he listened. ‘Shit! We have a bigger problem. Henry may be guilty after all. He boarded a flight to Amsterdam with his wife early this morning.’
Dew covered the grass runway at Redhill aerodrome when the Beech Baron landed at 0900h the next morning. George’s chauffeur waited in the Bentley.
‘So apart from a lift to Gatwick, why do you want me along?’ George asked.
Hawk secured the plane. ‘I want to review the CCTV footage from the boarding gate for Beckler’s flight.’
‘That makes sense, but I still don’t see where I fit in.’
‘I need your clout, George. I airport security are hardly likely to allow me to view the tapes without a warrant.’
‘You have a valid point. Will this prove Henry is innocent?’
‘I don’t know yet. Flying to Amsterdam straight after the security guards murder looks suspicious but things we found in his house yesterday don’t suggest he planned a trip away.’
The chauffeur dropped them at the terminal and the admiral went in search of a customer service desk. Five minutes later, they were all huddled around the airport security director’s computer. It was obvious from the recording that the boarding-gate CCTV cameras were mounted behind the check-in desk.
‘Which woman checked the Becklers in, Marion?’
The security director pointed. ‘The one on the left.’
Hawk focused on the flight attendant as each passenger handed her a passport and flight ticket. She did something on the computer before returning the items and waving them through with a smile.
‘Can we see what she’s doing on the computer?’ Hawk asked.
‘I’m afraid not. The cameras are designed to watch the passengers, not the flight attendants, so we can only look at the stored results of her actions.’
‘She looks nervous. See how she keeps glancing at the cameras?’ Samantha said.
‘What do you know about her, Marion?’ Hawk asked.
The director tapped a button and read from the computer screen. ‘Susan Houghton is a single mother and has worked for the airline for ten-years. She has an exemplary record.’
The queue dwindled and the air hostess glanced at her watch. A late straggler puffed up to the gate and Susan checked him in and then did something else on the computer for a couple of minutes. Once she’d finished, she shut the door to the ramp and walked briskly across the concourse.
‘Is she working today?’
‘No, she has two weeks leave.’
‘When did she book it?’
Marion checked. ‘Last weekend.’
‘We need to speak to her. As you see, Henry and Eileen Beckler did not board the plane but Miss Houghton booked them onto the flight.’
The security director glanced at the admiral and winced. ‘I’m so sorry, George. There will be a full investigation and I’ll let you know the outcome.’
‘On the contrary, Marion. There is more at stake here, so I’d prefer you keep this as quiet as possible. Give Hawk the woman’s details and he’ll take it from here.’
The middle-aged woman tapped more keys. A printer whirred and she handed Hawk a piece of paper.
Forty minutes later, Hawk descended stone steps to a basement flat in a three-storey Victorian house in Croydon. Colourful pot plants chased away the dreariness in the concrete well beneath the window. Susan Houghton was a woman who made the best of what she had.
‘I’ll talk to the neighbours,’ Samantha said.
Hawk knocked on a front door set beneath the steps to the flat above. There was no answer. It took a moment to pick the Yale lock. The shadowed hall carried the scent of meadow flowers. Light filtered in through an open door to his right and the plop of water dropping into accentuated the silence.
A door on his left led to an under-stair cupboard with gas meter and a collection of cleaning materials arranged neatly on shelves.
Hawk raised his voice. ‘Miss Houghton?’ Still no reply.
‘Perhaps she’s taken her daughter on holiday,’ George said.
Hawk wasn’t as sure as he stepped into a tidy but cramped kitchen and was relieved to find it empty. Dust swirled in shaft of sunlight which streamed in through a window overlooking the street. A bowl in the sink was filled to the brim. He tightened the tap to stop a drip and switched his attention to the fridge. Two cartons of milk, salad in a bowl that still looked crisp and an open packet of ham with three missing slices. He sniffed at the milk, glanced over his shoulder at George and Samantha and noted the warning screaming through his brain. ‘Would you leave fresh food and milk if you’re going away?’
He returned to the hall and paused outside the door opposite. He twisted the handle and paused. This is like playing Russia roulette. He pushed the door open.
It was a tiny bathroom with a sink squeezed between the wall and an enamelled bath/shower, combination. He stared at the scrubbed porcelain and was relieved to see the room was empty.
‘It looks as if Ms Houghton has also, er… done a runner.’
‘I hope you’re right, George.’ A long narrow living room was next. It stretched to the back of the house. His eyes settled on toys tidied into a box beside patio doors with a view over a postage stamp garden surrounded by a high wood panelled fence. A plastic bicycle lay abandoned on its side on the mowed lawn. Photos on the wall above an electric fire tracked the life of a little girl from birth to her third birthday. Hawk stared at the smiling child and someone parked an arctic truck on his chest. He hoped his gut was wrong and homed in on a black leather shoulder bag stuffed into a space beside the sofa.
The zip on Ms Houghton’s workbag slid open without a struggle. He tipped the contents onto the seat, whistled softly and picked up two passports by their edges. He flipped them both open, studied the photos on the second pages and held them up so George could see. They belonged to Henry and Eileen Beckler. Hawk slipped them into his pocket. Everything else he scooped back into the bag and replaced it beside the sofa.
A rap with his knuckles on the final door elicited no response. He glanced at George. ‘Every connection we’ve followed so far has ended in a dead end.’ He really didn’t want to open that door.
‘Ms Houghton has probably gone away until the fuss dies down.’ George said.
Hawk dragged in a slow breath and reached for the doorknob - it was locked. He paused, alarm bells were ringing in his head. He removed his hand and kicked the door. Wood splintered and it crashed back against the wall.
The room was empty, the double bed made. Two more passports sat in a drawer beside the bed. They belonged to Susan Houghton and her daughter.
George peered over his shoulder. ‘I’ll put out an alert and see if we can trace them.’
Hawk climbed to his feet, suddenly weary as he pushed past the admiral and trudged out of the flat.
Outside, he sat on the step, and rested his head in his hands.
George laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Are you all right, Hawk?’
Hawk looked up at him and shook his head. ‘Too many kids.’
Samantha joined him. ‘Houghton is friends with a woman two houses down. She has a kid the same age. Apparently, Susan’s been dating a doctor for the last month.’
‘Not an airline pilot?’
Samantha nudged his arm. ‘Ha ha.’ Susan’s daughter has a kidney problem and has regular dialysis at a clinic. She probably met him there. I’ve got a description and a first name so I’ll see if I can speak to him.’
‘And what will you do now?’ George asked.
Hawk climbed wearily to his feet and threw George a wry smile. ‘Leave you two to tidy up here. I’ve got to fly back to Exeter and watch a pathologist slice up a dead boy. Then perhaps we can get these bastards before anyone else dies.’