Authors: Stella Rimington
Tags: #Mystery, #Espionage, #England, #Memoir
‘Don’t be sorry. I’m all right now, Liz, and so is Daisy. She’s at a very good school here and doing well. Mrs Ryan collects her every day, and looks after her until I get home. Don’t be fooled by the white hair – she’s quite feisty. But I like that. And I’ve come to rely on her – it’s busy at the office, believe it or not.’
‘So Michael Binding was telling me.’
Judith gave a knowing smile. ‘I know you’ve never been keen on him, Liz. Nor me. He hasn’t changed much but at least he lets us get on with it – I think he’s got enough on his plate with the politicians not to interfere too much. Have you seen Dave?’
‘Not yet. They told me he was away on a case.’
Judith nodded. ‘Yes, he seems to think he’s onto something new.’ Her handsome, composed face suddenly broke into an unrestrained grin. ‘Dave’s so glad you’re here. And so am I. There really is a lot more going on than people in London realise. I don’t know what you’re feeling about this posting, but I promise you one thing. You won’t be bored.’
‘They could easily stop it doing that,’ said Technical Ted Poyser to his two companions, as the gate closed behind them with a long drawn-out squeal, then crashed shut.
‘Good job they didn’t. Or we wouldn’t know there was anything going on.’
‘If there is,’ said Ted sardonically.
Ted had decided they would go into the gatehouse in daylight, dressed to look like National Trust visitors, letting themselves in with the key Robinson had provided. So Maureen Hayes had dropped them off in the village and they had walked the mile or so to the house, carrying their equipment in large rucksacks.
In the office, Ted, the service’s master of all things electronic, didn’t look remotely like an average National Trust member. But now his long black dyed hair was tucked inside a woolly hat with a pom-pom on top, which also hid his gold earring; he had discarded his black leather jacket and biker’s boots in favour of a green anorak; and his costume of walking trousers and knee socks was finished off with brown walking shoes. The whole ensemble looked OK at a distance.
‘I wouldn’t mind a few days here,’ said John Forrest as he finished unpacking his drills and looked out of the dining room window at the wide bay. The tide was in now, and the little football-like heads of seals were popping up inquisitively from the ripples.
‘Well we haven’t got a few days,’ replied Ted, ‘so let’s get on with it.’
A couple of hours later, after some muted drilling and hammering, Ted was on the phone to the office at Palace Barracks. ‘There’s a woman with a dog just coming up to the gate now. How’s the focus?’
‘Clear as a bell,’ came back the answer. ‘But hang on there till a car comes past – we need to check the angle.’
A minute or two later a small hatchback came out, driven by a woman with a small child in a car seat at the back. ‘You need to adjust the angle. The number plates are out of the frame. Just a few degrees down and to the left.’ Ted relayed the instruction to John Forrest in the loft, the adjustment was made and the OK given.
As the team started to pack up they heard the engine of another car coming down the track. Ted stood at the side of the dining room window, half-concealed by the curtain, and watched as a red Vauxhall Vectra with racing tyres slowed as it reached the gate. There were two men sitting in front, and another in the back seat, but from the house he couldn’t see their faces. As the gate clanged shut and the car drove away he thumbed in a number on his phone. ‘Did you get that?’
‘Brilliant,’ said the voice at the other end. ‘Front seat, clear enough for
magazine. But we’re not going to be able to get the rear seat passengers, I’m afraid.’
The camera at the gatehouse had been busy. There were photographs of walkers, and several of a black Toyota hybrid car which came and went and had been identified by Phil Robinson as belonging to the holiday tenants who had taken a fortnight’s let. But Liz was staring at several pictures of a red Vauxhall.
‘The owner is called Malone,’ said Dave Armstrong, standing behind her and looking over her shoulder. ‘That’s him driving. He has form.’
‘What kind of form?’ asked Liz, still looking at the photographs of the car.
‘Six years in the eighties for the attempted murder of an RUC officer. He left his fingerprints all over a bomb that didn’t go off underneath the policeman’s car. After that he was more careful. We couldn’t get him on terrorism, but he’s got a list of convictions for violence. A GBH charge when he worked as a doorman in a nightclub in Cookstown, a couple of domestics when his wife got fed up and rang the police. Lately he’s calmed down. He’s middle-aged, like we’ll all be soon.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ said Liz.
She looked again at the photographs. She could see the two figures in the front seat clearly but the back seat passenger was not identifiable.
‘Who is the other guy in the front seat?’
‘Don’t know,’ said Dave.
‘What do you think’s going on down there?’ she asked.
Dave shrugged. ‘Hard to say. But I doubt it’s above board.’
‘Do we know who really owns the farmhouse?’ asked Liz.
‘It’s a company in Belfast. I’ve got the directors’ names, but none of them has a trace in the files.’ His face brightened. ‘I was planning to go out there this morning to have a snoop around. Why don’t you come too? It will give you a chance to see a bit of the country around Belfast and get yourself orientated.’
‘Are you talking about trespassing on private property?’
‘Of course not,’ he said, though from the glint in his eyes Liz was sure that was exactly what he was proposing. ‘There’s a public track that runs from the gatehouse up to a small parking place, then a footpath leads round the headland. It’s used quite a lot by dog walkers. We should be able to get a good look at the farmhouse from there.’
She was surprised how quickly they moved out of the city into countryside. A dreary grey sky hung like a lead lining above them. A gusty wind was throwing rain against the windscreen in short, erratic bursts and as Dave came up behind a slow agricultural truck, spray from its wheels engulfed them.
‘Not a great day for a stroll in the country,’ said Liz, ruefully contemplating her walking shoes and wondering if they really were waterproof.
Yet half an hour later when they had reached the Irish Sea and were driving along a shoreline that seemed entirely deserted, a watery sun had broken through and was sparkling on the waves. ‘Pretty?’ asked Dave mildly.
Liz nodded. ‘I hadn’t realised how beautiful the countryside round here is,’ she said.
‘Neither had I. I thought it would be all council estates with “Up the IRA” and “Brits Out” painted on the walls.’
Through the long thin village street, Dave turned sharp left round the bay, along the lane and over a narrow bridge from where they could see the closed gate into the National Trust estate.
‘How are we going to get in?’ said Liz. ‘Don’t we need a gadget to open the gate?’
‘Got one,’ said Dave, slowing down and fishing in his pocket. ‘Ted made a copy of the one Phil Robinson lent us.’
They passed in front of the stone gatehouse, with its high pitched gable. The black car was parked outside, indicating that the paying visitors were at home.
‘Do we know who lives in the farmhouse?’ asked Liz.
‘Phil Robinson thought an old lady leased it, presumably from the company in Belfast.’ He paused. ‘I wonder if anyone’s there now.’
The wind had picked up and now that the rain had passed the temperature had fallen. Liz, shivering in her city raincoat, resolved to go shopping for some outdoor clothes as she followed Dave, warm in his fleece-lined parka. The footpath ran from the small car park through a stand of pine trees towards the sea. Seagulls were swooping over the water and a flock of small birds was picking something off the low bushes, keeping just ahead of Liz and Dave as they walked. The path led parallel to a dry-stone wall that had crumbled over the years. Beyond the wall Liz could see the foundations of what must have once been an enormous house, the centrepiece of the estate. The path stopped at the corner of the stone wall, but Dave kept walking on.
‘Are we still on the public footpath?’ queried Liz.
‘As far as I know,’ said Dave, as they crested a mound and suddenly faced a farmhouse, less than a hundred yards away. It was a long two storey-structure with neatly painted stucco sides. The roof tiles had been re-laid recently and had yet to lose their gloss. Behind the house at one side was an outbuilding, a squat windowless brick structure about the size of a double garage.
Dave took a small pair of binoculars from his pocket but suddenly swung round and faced the sea, still with his binoculars to his eyes. Then quickly dropping them back in his pocket he turned towards Liz, threw both arms around her and kissed her full on the lips. Before she could begin to object he kissed her again.
What the hell was Dave up to? Furious, Liz was about to dig an indignant fist into his ribs, then slap his face for good measure, when Dave disengaged just enough to whisper, ‘Someone’s coming.’
She understood, and hugged him back fiercely, feeling more than a little ridiculous.
Then a voice rang out. ‘This isn’t a Lover’s Lane.’
Dave and Liz let go of each other and turned together to face a man in a long waxed coat. He was tall and lean, with short greying hair, square features and rimless glasses. Behind him stood a shorter, dark-skinned man in a black leather jacket. His hands were deep in his pockets, and he was looking at them with dull, expressionless eyes. Liz felt pretty sure she knew what was in the pockets, and her backbone crawled.
‘Sorry,’ said Dave, in an uncanny approximation of an Ulster accent. ‘The footpath just seemed to disappear.’
The man looked at Dave, then moved onto Liz, giving her a probing stare, a soulless once-over that had nothing to do with her being a woman – she might as well have been a piece of machinery for all the emotion in the man’s eyes.
The man pointed sharply in the direction from which they’d come. ‘The footpath’s there. This is private. Didn’t you see the notice?’ There was no trace of an Ulster or an Irish accent, but something flat about his pronunciation didn’t sound English. The man looked back at Dave. ‘You’re on my land.’
‘Not for long,’ said Dave. ‘Our apologies.’ He took Liz’s arm and started walking quickly back towards the corner of the wall.
They went along in silence until they were well down the path towards the beach. Then Dave stopped and looked behind them. ‘That shorter, heavy-set guy followed us to make sure we left,’ he said. ‘Did you recognise him? He’s the man in the front seat in a couple of those pictures.’
‘Not exactly a pleasant encounter.’
‘I’ll say. But what does he expect? If there is a sign, I didn’t see it.’
As they retraced their steps to the car park, Dave said, ‘Still, it had its upside.’
‘You mean we got a sight of the inhabitants?’
Dave shook his head, then gave a grin. ‘No. I was thinking of our clinch. Wait till I tell them back in Thames House. My stock will go through the roof.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ said Liz. She added with a smile, ‘That was strictly business and don’t you forget it, Dave Armstrong.’
It had been almost two weeks since her arrival, and Liz was finding a rhythm to life, driving to the office each morning and returning against the rush-hour traffic at six – if she was lucky – or at seven or even eight when there was lots to do.
She had settled in to her flat, unpacking the few belongings she had brought with her, which she had supplemented by the odd find at the Saturday flea market, so the place was beginning to look slightly more lived in. Not that she had done it single-handed – one afternoon, Mrs Ryan, Daisy’s childminder, had bearded her in the hall. ‘Would you be needing a cleaner, Miss Carlyle?’
‘I hadn’t really thought.’
Mrs Ryan said, ‘I’d think about it if I were you, miss. You work hard – you’re just as bad as Mrs Spratt. You need to take it easy when you’ve got a minute to relax, like. And not be worrying about washing your smalls and vacuuming your sitting room.’
Liz smiled, seeing the truth of this. ‘Would you know of someone?’
‘I’d do it myself, miss,’ the woman said firmly. ‘It won’t take long at all, and I’ll charge you just the same as I do Mrs Spratt.’
‘Well, if you’re sure you have time—’
Mrs Ryan waved this away with a hand. ‘Time’s the one thing I have got, miss. My poor husband’s been with his maker these last five years, and I’ve only my son Danny to look after, and he’s out at work all day. I’ve more than enough time.’
So now Liz was living in unaccustomed cleanliness and order, which she had to admit to herself was rather pleasant, though she did miss the homely untidiness of her Kentish Town flat. She hadn’t done anything about letting it. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to.
Judith had asked her down to supper, after Daisy was in bed, and the two women had stayed up late, catching up with each other. Liz had reciprocated Judith’s hospitality by cooking a big Sunday lunch for her and Daisy. How eventful Judith’s recent life had been, thought Liz, and how well she had picked herself up from her husband’s disgrace and their failed marriage. What had Liz to report in return? Nothing really, in terms of change to her private life. There was still no one man in her life, no marriage, no children; only the solace of doing work she enjoyed and knew she was good at.
The sole news of Charles she had heard came in a letter from her mother and it was not what she wanted to hear. Her mother and Edward had been to have supper with him, and Charles seemed very well. Her mother went on that Charles was busy again with his garden, and that he had help from one of his neighbours – that nice woman Alison who’d been at the funeral. Alison had also been a big help with the boys, apparently, and Sam, who was not starting boarding until the following September, went every day after school to Alison’s house for his tea and to do his homework until Charles came home from work. Such a good arrangement, wrote Susan Carlyle enthusiastically; it must make life so much easier for Charles. I bet, thought Liz grumpily. I wonder what this Alison woman is getting out of it. There was no mention in her mother’s letter of whether Charles had asked after Liz, which made her not so much grumpy, as sad.