A web of lives, p.17
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       A Web of Lives, p.17

           David Medlycott
 
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Alan did the introductions. Barbara spoke very little English, but she could smile charmingly. Tobin saw that in fact she was older than she at first appeared; she was in her mid-twenties, he thought. Slim, attractive, with brown hair worn long and straight, strong features. She looked back at him with a very direct gaze; her eyes were pale like Alan’s. Teri cleared her throat noisily.

  They were sat round a coffee table in the small lounge of the hotel. Barbara had brought them coffee at Alan’s request while he sorted them out rooms and moved their luggage.

  Alan disappeared into the office and returned after a few minutes carrying a thick, battered manila folder fastened with two heavy rubber bands. He leant across and dropped it into Tobin’s lap.

  ‘You will need that in the days to come, Mr Foy.’

  Tobin’s head came up sharply and then he glowered at Teri. She looked equally surprised.

  ‘Don’t blame her, I’ve always known,’ continued Alan. ‘From the time you arrived in Longalnbury. I’ve always taken an interest in people who don’t use their real names.’ He smiled at his own joke. Barbara, aware that the conversation would now be conducted entirely in English, rose with a sigh and began clearing up around the hotel lobby. ‘And, so, if you know my real name, then you must know some of the family history, I suppose.’

  ‘The basic outline, yes,’ agreed Tobin, he took a deep breath and decided to plunge right in. ‘What went wrong with the robbery?’ He asked, bluntly. ‘How were you involved?’

  ‘Aha! Because I was family,’ replied Alan quite candidly. ‘It was expected, and I was quite happy to go along with that. Didn’t know any different.’ He gathered his thoughts for a moment; Tobin was content to wait, just. ‘I had no father, you see? Don’t know where he went, I think there was a certain amount of doubt as to who he really was, anyway. The men in my growing years were my two uncles, Billy and Sid, and, of course, my cousin, Bernie. They were my heroes!’ Heavy irony there, Tobin noted. ‘I knew they were up to all sorts of things, mostly illegal, and I was too young to get involved. But, it had a sort of glamour. Then, one day, my mother disappeared, ‘she felt I was old enough to cope’. I pieced that much together later, remembering odd things she’d said; she’d planned to leave. Bernie suddenly came to me one Friday night and said ‘did I want to earn some real money?’ I knew what he meant straightaway and jumped at the chance, it meant I was a real man, now! I had come of age!

  ‘All I had to do was meet them in the early hours, driving this van they’d borrowed from another uncle. I would follow them from a certain point and meet in a derelict back lane, take what they gave me and drive off. I was to keep ‘the stuff’ and they would get in touch in a few days and I would meet them again and they would pay me.

  ‘Simple, eh? But, what a total cock-up!’ He shook his head, he still couldn’t believe it.

  ‘They’d heard of this bank where the vault had been pierced accidentally by building works next door, that the builders had kept it a secret and that there was a bit of money inside. I don’t know yet quite how it came about, but when they got there, Billy, Sid and Bernie, there was so much money they couldn’t carry it all. It was shortly after a bank holiday weekend, whether that was part of the reason I don’t know, but, for whatever reason, there was a lot of money in there, more than they’d been told, and they couldn’t carry it all. A lot of it was coins, anyway.

  ‘Anyhow, they broke through the wall and discovered this lot, got so excited and made so much noise in doing it they attracted a night security man. One of them, Billy or Sid, no-one ever found out, shot the poor old fellow. So they all piled out, carrying what they could, leaving behind enough clues to write the story, and drove off. I met them, as arranged, and as I was driving off with the sacks Bernie leapt into the front of the van. I remember his face as he fell in.’ Alan was re-living the scene. ‘So Bernie ended up in a heap on the floor staring up at me, white as a sheet and sweating like a pig. He told me to drive off fast. I could see Billy and Sid running after us, so, I did as I was told. We drove to this bombed out building and down into what had been the basement garage. There were still parts of London that hadn’t been rebuilt after the Second World War then. I can remember it so clearly, it was wet and it stank down there. Bernie was in a hell of a state about everything, crying and beating hell out of the side of the van. He was really worried because they had left the old bloke lying there, dead or alive, they didn’t know which, and hadn’t done anything to help him.

  ‘Bernie was physically sick, out the door of the van, he was in such a state. We sat there till nearly dawn, Bernie moaning, till I said we’d have to move before we were found. So I drove him home and sat and waited for him on the corner over from his house, but he never reappeared. It was starting to get busy and I thought I had better move, so I drove round the back and went in to the house, but he’d gone. I didn’t know what to do, the house was open so I thought I would wait for a while, he might come back. But, after a few hours there was no sign and I was worried that someone in the family might come home. So I drove off. I drove around a bit, killing time until the evening paper came out. There it was, in a big headline, but, the night-watchman was alive, just. That was a relief! If he had died I certainly would have given myself up. Anyway, I knew where they were hiding, I wasn’t supposed to, of course, but they were so stupid they couldn’t keep a secret.

  ‘I drove down to Hastings the next morning and hung around near them all week, driving out of town at night and sleeping in the van and driving back in, in the morning. I followed the story in the papers and knew they were not looking for me, at first. Then they caught Bernie outside his aunt’s in Leytonstone and my name began to crop up in some of the reports, because I hadn’t been seen. That had me panicked, Bernie will have shopped me, I thought.

  ‘Then that following weekend I saw the police build-up around the estate where Billy and Sid were hiding. As I drove back into town on the Sunday morning I just got to the top of the hill as they were taken away. I was devastated. What was I going to do? I was a wanted man! It all just seemed like the end of the world. I hung around the town for a while, but I was a sad and sorry kid.’ He laughed bitterly at the memory.

  Barbara reappeared with some supper. Teri was looking very sleepy and Tobin was struggling to absorb all the detail as Alan talked.

  ‘I was wondering what to do and where to go next, I thought, ‘I can’t run any further I’ve reached the coast’, when I picked up a paper somewhere. It was the Daily Telegraph, I can remember that clearly as I wouldn’t normally read it, even now, but it was on a café seat, I think, or somewhere like that, it was a week old anyway. On the front was a headline about France and I suddenly realised that there was somewhere to go, over the Channel! That’s how naïve I was! I tidied up the van and abandoned it on the sea front and headed for Southampton. But, on the way there, I began to think I was such a wanted criminal that they would have all the major seaports watched, so I stopped off at Newhaven!

  ‘There was a little Liberian registered, Greek coaster tied up there, called I think the Martina, you couldn’t read the name properly as the paint job was so bad. I talked to the Master, he was the only one who spoke English, and gave him some story about running away and wanting a place on a ship. I told him I could pay and showed him a wad of money to prove it! How stupid, eh? I’d kept a little bit of the money from the robbery; they were supposed to pay me after all. He agreed and we sailed that night. And, Christ! It was awful! I was treated so badly, all the filthy jobs and knocked about by the crew.

  ‘Anyhow, I thought I could survive to the Mediterranean, somehow, and thought I would slip away at the first call at Marseilles. But, for some reason, we made an unscheduled call at Cherbourg. I was told that I couldn’t go ashore, obviously, and that they would bring me back some drink if I gave them some money. Which I did and much to my surprise they were back quite soon
with a load of drink. We had a great party and I relaxed a bit. The next thing I knew I came too being sick in a back alley in town the following day.

  ‘I had nothing, bar the filthy clothes I stood up in, no money, no documents. I scavenged and begged for a couple of days, but I was no good at it and getting desperate. I was just thinking about giving myself up and coming home to do my time and whatever else was waiting when this man tapped me on the shoulder. He had seen me several times around the dockyard entrance and wondered what I was doing. He was a Dane, in his early thirties and had arrived in a similar way to me the day before, but intentionally in his case. He reckoned he could look after me and was heading for Paris, could speak French quite well and didn’t seem troubled about my lack of money and identity. Great!

  ‘He got us into a hostel, cleaned up, new clothes for me and some hot food. He was my hero. So when he came back from a ‘shopping trip’ in the town centre and handed me a wad of money I didn’t query how he had come by it! It got us some spare clothes, a bag each, and train tickets to Paris. I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do, or how I was going to do it, I just knew I couldn’t go back. So, I followed him and …,’ he laughed, ‘ended up signed up in the French Foreign Legion!’

  ‘NEVER!’ exploded Tobin.

  Alan stood up and walked to the window laughing to himself and rubbing his eyes.

  Tobin was pouring them more coffee, ‘the Foreign Legion? The Foreign Legion!’

  Teri was asleep and Barbara had disappeared to start laying up for breakfast in the adjoining café.

  Alan resumed. ‘Yes, and if I thought that ship was awful then I had just committed myself to hell! It really was. It was many times worse than any punishment I could have received at home. I really didn’t think I’d make it. The Legion was brutal! It does occasionally reject a recruit, but that’s considered a failure and the Legion does not fail. You could go absent, but you couldn’t get far as by the time you realised that you needed to escape you were in deep. You’d learnt what would happen if you did. They always seem to find you, and then they punish you! I fought against it … oh … for months; I did desert, I couldn’t take it anymore. Of course, I didn’t get very far at all, and, was given yet another chance, not that it was a choice.’ He returned to his seat, yawning as he sat down.

  ‘I wouldn’t learn the language that was the problem. In our family we were always brought up to hate the French, or anyone foreign, come to that. And in the Legion you have to speak French, and learn to sing the marching songs.’ A wistful look flicked across his face.

  ‘Then, during yet another ‘eight days’, that’s a Legion standard punishment, I met this Belgian who’d joined up after me. He was five years older and an accountant on the run from this girl’s father. He was desperate, he had thought about it and decided that the Legion sounded romantic and he could lose himself in it! Well, he was right about the second bit. But, otherwise, he was worse than me. Anyway, we teamed up. His English was good and he taught me French. I didn’t have to help him with his English, thankfully, because mine was atrocious at the time. But, in the end, through that, I discovered that I was actually very good at languages and, as you know, I can speak quite a few now, passably, as long as I keep up the practice, he even taught me better English! Anyway, from then on I never looked back; and neither did he. We looked after each other, he had the brain and I had found that I had the brawn.’

  Teri by this time was sound asleep and they lifted her feet onto the settee and covered her with a blanket. Tobin was mesmerised by the story and wanted him to continue, tired as he was, it was far too good to stop now. But Alan insisted on a break; they adjourned to the small café attached to the hotel and sat in one corner watching Barbara. Alan was thoughtful.

  ‘This is all in that folder I gave you, which was probably my downfall. I was gathering all that stuff together for you, I thought it might make a good story. There’s a lot of newspaper clippings in there. Which is what I think gave the game away when Rosemary got into my study one day and read some of it’

  ‘Really? I, … we … wondered if Rosemary discovered something from the Brian Dale direction, somehow. Teri reckoned her attitude changed at or very soon after the time when Bernie first appeared on the scene looking for you. Bernie was a minder for some London mob moving drugs into the country who took over Dale’s firm, if you didn’t know.’ Alan shook his head. ‘That’s the link and Dale’s was busted last week, but he escaped, vowing vengeance on you. You didn’t set him up did you?’

  ‘No, he’s done that for himself, I would think. He was into all manner of things when I was there. That was probably one of the most stupid of ideas I’ve ever had in my life, tying up with him, I don’t know what possessed me.’ He shook his head again, in disbelief at his own foolishness. ‘I had nothing concrete on him when I left, but it was plainly obvious from the books that the business wasn’t making money legitimately. So, he was financing things from somewhere else. And, it was well financed. It was crazy; he had trucks travelling around empty, supposedly, for no purpose. Drivers were working over hours without complaint, fiddling their tachographs. Ugh! I got out as soon as I could.

  ‘I was approached by Customs and Excise, but they already knew more than I did, they’d been watching him for ages and still couldn’t hang anything on him. It was luck, as much as anything on Dale’s part. Anyhow, I couldn’t afford to risk getting mixed up with them or any other official body! Unlike you I couldn’t justify my change of name.’

  Tobin broke in, ‘my information, which comes from a pretty good source, has it that the Drugs Squad knew nothing of Dale until they tailed Bernie there when he was looking for you. There’s been an unholy row, apparently, when the Squad busted the Dale yard under the noses of Customs and Excise.’

  ‘That’s interesting,’ said Alan, thoughtfully. ‘I did hear that someone was looking for me a few weeks ago and just laughed it off. But, I guessed the game was up in some way and began to prepare to get out. I always knew it could, would, happen, eventually.

  ‘I only needed a few more days when I actually saw Bernie in Newcastle Central Station and I knew then I had to go that weekend. I abandoned any attempt to clear up matters in any detail with anyone, finalise any transfers that were needed, all that sort of thing. When you’re in a rush all those last minute jobs suddenly seem less important. It was a shame that I couldn’t get that done though, as I reckoned there might be a risk of confiscation, or at least a freezing, of any remaining assets. There’s not that much left in England, in fact. It’s all safely hidden away; but, ironically, I hid it from Rosemary’s grasp. So make sure you tell people, will you? And if you let me know the details I’ll try and square it up for them. All being well.’

  ‘Anyway,’ Tobin was anxious to get back to the story, ‘you and your Belgian friend got yourselves sorted out.’ He prompted.

  ‘Yes. That’s about it really. I settled down in the Legion and did quite well; saw a lot of life and a lot of places and found a new family. It sounds a bit trite, perhaps, but the Legion does become your family, I found the true loyalties there that I’d not had in my previous life, I went from no brothers to many.’ That wistful look came over him again as he dawdled with his spoon in his coffee. This was a side of Alan Harper that Tobin hadn’t seen before.

  He waited, but no further information was forthcoming. ‘So where did Alain Martin come from then?’

  ‘Oh. That was the name the Legion gave me, it was just an invention. The legion, if they want to, will protect you and not let on that you are there, if any one comes looking and if that’s what you want. I was interviewed several times by the Dieuxieme Bureau, we all were, they don’t want serious criminals in their ranks and will refuse you, or throw you out into the arms of the waiting law, if they find out. Otherwise, they’ve got you! That was what happened to my friend the Dane, ‘Dan’. He just di
sappeared one day after a round of these interviews. So, a month after signing up, and they did try and put me off, by the way, there was just me and eight of the others left. Most were turned down at the signing up and the medical, one left before we left Marseilles, and then Dan.

  ‘There weren’t many Brit’s in the Legion then, I didn’t come across many for the first year, but then, I didn’t want to! I decided that I had to be someone else and some other nationality. So, with the typically pragmatic French offer that after so long in the Legion you are eligible for French nationality, under your Legion name, I was only too willing to become French. Jimmy Mitchell, Englishman, ceased to be on the same day as Alain Martin, French citizen, was born.

  ‘In the end I did fifteen years, three lots of five, and came out as a sergeant of 2 REP., Regiment Etrengére Parachutist. I was deeply disillusioned by then. A lot of us were. Times had changed quicker than we had. There were a whole load more Brit’s joining as well. Times change. But, that is a whole different story. The Legion was different to the one I joined, so I left. But I still miss it, you know; I’ve been out now longer than I was in, but it truly was the best part of my life. At least the last fourteen years were!’

  ‘Then what?’

  ‘It’s all in there!’ Said Alan, wearily, pointing at the folder.

  ‘Maybe, but your voice is far better than any piece of paper. I’ll understand this far better having heard it first. You weren’t going anywhere were you?’

  ‘Not at four thirty in the morning.’

  ‘Well, then.’

  Alan continued. ‘I bummed around the south coast, of France, working in the yachting harbours for a couple of months till the end of the summer. I heard more English then than I had heard for the previous fifteen years! I’d forgotten a lot of it. I actually had difficulty with my own native language.

  ‘From there I wandered up into the Alps for the winter and worked teaching skiing. I couldn’t work for the national school, but joined one of the little ones and that’s how I came to be in Les Deux Alpes. I’ve kept a place near there ever since.’

  ‘Down in the valley?’

  ‘Yes, in Venosc. You have been hunting, haven’t you? Arnaud is one of only two who know of my two lives. He’s Dutch, ex-Legion, of course. The other person who knows is Bernard, my Belgian friend. He only did his five years in the Legion and left and went back to the girl he’d left behind and married her. Isn’t that a happy tale? They’re still together, with three more children and he works for her father who is a very wealthy and powerful man in industry. Bernard is his business manager, having been accountant to the company for many years.’

  ‘He started you with the exciting life of accountancy?’

  ‘It’s not done me any harm!’ Tobin looked suitably contrite. ‘Yes, along the way he did. Strangely, I developed the interest while in the Legion, not in those first five years while he was there. He forecast to me then that ‘accountants would take over the world’. I laughed like everyone else, but made a note of it. And wasn’t I right to do so, because he was almost right back then.

  ‘To continue. I left the Alps and found Bernard and began working for his father-in-law’s firms as a truck driver. You see? I learnt a lot of useful skills in the Legion! And, I’ll tell you something that only Bernard knows; I got married!’

  ‘You what?!’ Cried Tobin.

  ‘Yes. Fabulous she was, till we were married. It only lasted six months. She disappeared, we eventually got divorced. But, we’re friends, now. I spent a year working in Belgium, based in Belgium. I was driving over to England a lot; truckloads of imported food. A lot of it went to Scotland from Italy; and one of the routes went near Longalnbury. That’s how I found it.’ He stood up and stretched. He looked about the café. ‘Seeing as it’s getting light let’s walk and buy a paper and see if there are any new developments.’

  As they walked Alan chatted about life in France and how he was set to return to it. ‘You see it is so relaxed. Even the rush hour has style!’ They walked past several shops that sold newspapers, or would when they were available, it was still very early. Alan enjoyed giving Tobin a guided tour of his favourite city. They strolled past the Ecolle Militaire and on under the Eiffel Tower and out on to the banks of the Seine. The walk relaxed Alan and the fresh morning air, before the city came to life, seemed to wake him up. As they walked he began to talk of the Legion once again.

  ‘It probably took me about a year to sort myself out in the Legion, to redeem myself in some eyes. But, I did it. The training was harsh, unnecessarily so really. Certainly the boys these days don’t realise how lucky they are!

  ‘After signing my five year contract, which I did after they had played a tape in English to explain that there was no turning back after I’d signed, I was bundled in with several others, all different nationalities and we spent a night in a barren dormitory. Then we took the train to Marseilles. Bas-fort Saint-Nicolas. There was quite a large number, they weren’t quite as choosy then! They accumulated in Marseilles and every ten or so days were shipped out. People knew I was English and all English are called ‘Johnny’. There was no risk of confusion, though. I was amazed that I was the only Brit there, at the time. Out of all that lot. I didn’t want to be English of course, but that was going to be a long way in the future. Alan Martin was actually meant to be an English name, they were the first names of two boys who I knew well. What gave me the idea of being French eventually was when I discovered my first name had been filled in in the French style, Alain. And then the surname was always pronounced in the French, as well, ‘Martang’. So I was on the way to becoming French. Though it was my friend Bernard who had the idea.

  Basic training was unbelievable once we started. We lived in a ruin, by today’s standards, but had to keep it as if it was a palace! Inspections were hell, intentionally. If the NCO’s couldn’t find a fault, it was even worse because they would make one by throwing someone’s kit out of the window and then the whole room was punished, viciously. Training was hard physical labour, the food was abominable and quite insufficient. If you weren’t in the first few to get to it there was nothing left, or nothing fit to eat. Anyway, I got through it, by being physically harder than the others, or most of them, and I took my friend along as well. Not that he was soft. He was very tough and incredibly fit, but, not instinctively aggressive enough. But, he was well liked, because he could help the thicker ones with all sorts of problems, including their fitness. He was also able to make up the shortfalls of the medics as he was very well read in so many ways that his amateur knowledge far exceeded that of the so called professionals! So, we got by. I was still rebellious mind. And then one day I was called into the office and it was suggested that I might like to try another course, my French was still atrocious, and so I didn’t really know what I was agreeing to until Bernard explained that I signed for the parachute course! He had to sign as well, by volunteering. But, it was flattering in a way that he followed. As it was when two of the others then decided they’d like to come with us. So, four of us, English, Belgian, German and a Spaniard set off, thinking we were getting out of that hell hole. Ha!!’

  They were walking on the left bank of the Seine, now, and daily life was beginning to emerge, the first workers hurrying along the pavements, with the smell of bread in the air. Tobin thought he would forever associate the early morning smell of bread with France. They stopped and, elbows resting on the railing, gazed over the river in the early morning light.

  ‘Anyway, to cut a very long story short, I made it. I did the parachute jumps, no hesitation, the combat, the forced marches, the whole lot! I suppose they guessed right. If I had so much to think of I would just have to get on with it and stop being a pain in the arse. I graduated from there in the top six. I had arrived and was sent to the 2éme REP.’

  ‘Did you do much parachuting? Jump into any battles?’ A
sked Tobin.

  ‘No! Just training jumps really, we just ran around the mountains chasing shadows. Wills-o-the-wisp most of them. There were two campaigns in Africa … .’ His voice faded as memories returned. ‘ Well, it’s different, now.

  ‘By the time I’d finished my first five years, I’d been through corporal school and passed out high again. That was even worse than basic training, but I did it. What else could I do? Quite a few left around the same time, they had done their five years and that was enough. It would have been for me, too, but nowhere to go, so I signed on again. Another five years. But, it was slightly, easier in some ways, experience and promotion helped. And so it went on. There was a change in policy with the arrival of a new commander and that made things a lot more interesting. 2eme REP was to become an elite regiment with all manner of specialities. I became Caporal Chef, that’s when you wear a black Kepi, then made sergeant just before the end of my second term. So I signed on for a third. I shouldn’t have, really, as I wasn’t entirely happy. Things were changing, life was changing. I was changing! But, I did it. My French identity was beckoning by this time and I was ready for a change. Bernard had some things lined up for me, if I wanted them, but I just wanted a break.’

  Tobin was enthralled. They turned and walked back, in silence, the way they had come. Alan eventually bought the newspaper and scanned the pages quickly. ‘Nothing new there.’ He said and folded the paper under his arm.

  Brian Dale woke dreaming of his boyhood boxer dog. Bernie, slumped in the back seat, was snoring, making spluttering, gurgling sounds as he slept. Dale checked his watch and glanced out of the car at the awakening streets around him and saw Tobin standing outside a shop. He sat up sharply; Bernie heaved a deep, guttural snort as the motion of the car disturbed him. As Dale watched Tobin was joined by Alan Harper. Dale looked round at the man in the back seat and found he was still asleep. The gun was resting in his lap. There was not going to be another opportunity, Dale reached across gently as he watched the two men walk off down the street. Bernie’s eyes opened slightly and saw the reaching hand in front of him, his sharp intake of breath was too noisy and Dale’s attention immediately turned into the car. The reaching hand became a fist and, propelled by Dale’s straightening body, struck Bernie in the face below his right eye, causing him to recoil back against the car, all the injuries and pain that he had carried for the past twenty four hours causing him to cry out and rendering him helpless.

  As the two friends crossed the first carriageway toward the hotel and stood by the vegetable seller setting up her stall in front of the Metro station stairs, Tobin thought aloud, ‘So, where to from here?’

  ‘That’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. Enjoy some independence, John, start something new!’ Tobin just frowned.

  They crossed the second carriageway, Tobin remembering to look the correct way, and entered the hotel. They could hear girlish chatter and laughter from the back. Tobin caught Alan listening with a smile of real contentment on his face. He wiped it away as soon as he was aware of Tobin’s gaze.

  ‘Coffee or tea?’ He asked as he ducked behind the counter. ‘’Ullo!’ He called to the back room.

  ‘Hallo!’ Came in unison and the chatter continued.

  Settled back in the armchairs in the lounge Tobin tried one final prompt for some more history.

  ‘I had a really busy year working out of Bruges,’ explained Alan. ‘I had regular trips to England and while I was back at base I was studying, with Bernard’s help, for accounting qualifications. Fortunately I don’t need much sleep. That was when I had the idea of becoming Alan Harper.

  ‘While in Belgium I was approached by an ex-Legion officer who was recruiting mercenaries for various places and he had traced me. I wanted no more of it, I’d done my share; although the last thing you call a Legionnaire is a mercenary! But, we met quite often while he was there, socially, for drinks and so on, and he was the one who told me how to go about getting a false identity in England. This was a Frenchman, remember! So, I did it. Every time I went over the channel I raced to my destination, usually Scotland, and then spent some time on the business of creating Alan Harper. It was quite easy then, but the regulations have been tightened up since.

  ‘I finally made the move to Britain and finished my qualifications in Nottingham and moved to my favourite little backwater of Longalnbury. It was just a game to start with. If anything went wrong I could always dissolve into my ‘real’ persona of Alain Martin and run. But, nothing went wrong. Quite the opposite in fact and before I knew it I was settling in. Mind you, I made that mistake again; getting married! I shan’t try to tell you what that was like, although something,’ he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the chatter from the back room, ‘has worked out all right, in the end.

  ‘Sadly there’s still loose ends that I can’t get at now to tie up, that’s my regret. And, I suppose, I’ll find myself facing a string of criminal charges if I should set foot back there.’

  ‘Can’t they extradite you?’

  ‘I’m a Frenchman, don’t forget!’ The accent returned and he gave a typically Gallic shrug. ‘What benefit would there be? Everything I’ve done as Alan Harper is perfectly legal.’

  ‘Except being Alan Harper.’

  ‘Well, yes. True. But, other than that …... and a minor involvement in a robbery. And, as I told you, I’ve paid my dues many times over.’

  ‘Except you didn’t pay them to the right country!’

  ‘That’s also very true!’ They both laughed. ‘You know, when that expression ‘get a life’ became popular I used to think that you and I could give them a few lessons. It’s not quite what they might think!’

  It was so relaxing, Tobin thought, being in this city and in the company of the one man who had shown any kind of empathy. He knew why now, of course. They had had more in common than Tobin would ever have realised three weeks before.

  ‘Where’s that coffee?’ muttered Alan as he rose and went to the office. Tobin ambled after him to the reception desk by the main door and listened to the mild remonstration from within the office. Although he spoke no French it was quite clear what the subject of discussion was, as Teri came out of the office laughing and joined him on his side of the desk. Barbara appeared with an irate look upon her face followed by Alan with a wry smile on his. They all stopped and looked at each other as they saw the silliness of the situation.

  The first movement came from the girl behind the counter, Barbara’s eyes suddenly widened as she looked over Tobin and Teri’s shoulders. The front doors burst open, slamming into Tobin’s back and pushing him into the front of the counter. He dropped to his knees crying out as he rolled onto the floor. Looking up he saw the rumpled figure standing in the doorway. It was Brian Dale, his face pale and covered in several days’ stubble. The eyes were bloodshot, staring wildly and sunken deep into grey sockets. His normally immaculate hair was unkempt and his clothing, also normally a source of great pride, was crumpled and grimy. He was staring straight at Alan, his breath heaving in his chest, as his right arm came slowly up from his side. Tobin knew he had seen that small silver revolver before, he had heard it, too. The arm was extended now, swaying up and down with the heavy breathing. As it swung up Alan dropped behind the counter, pulling Barbara with him. Dale’s reflexes were slow; the gun came down and fired. The bullet ploughed into the counter top. The recoil from the gun caught Dale off balance and he rocked back pulling the trigger again. This time the bullet hit the wall high up near the ceiling. His left hand reached out to steady himself on the edge of the open door. As he gripped it Tobin, still lying at its foot, kicked the door shut with a powerful shove, his back braced against the counter. Dale was trapped momentarily in the doors and dropped the gun. Tobin grabbed for his arm as the gun fell and tried to pull him down, but the closing door had pushed Dale outside the threshold and Tobin found himse
lf lying on his back swinging on the end of the big man’s arm. He maintained his grip of the hand as he rolled over and Dale was forced to follow to avoid having his wrist badly twisted. Tobin lashed out with his feet at the looming figure coming back through the door, but Dale was already off balance and landed on Tobin’s chest knees first.

  The force of the air expelled from his chest caught the back of Tobin’s throat and made him cough and retch. Dale stood up gasping for breath, reached down for the gun and grabbed Teri, who was standing at the counter, rooted to the spot, eyes wide with terror and both hands to her mouth. He dragged her to the door and opened it. Tobin tried to crawl after him.

  ‘Leave him, John. He won’t hurt her,’ ordered Alan, standing again behind the counter. Barbara was nowhere to be seen. Tobin watched from the open doorway as Dale backed to the top of the steps with Teri clamped in the crook of his left arm, the gun resting on her shoulder pointing at her head.

  A figure appeared on the pavement behind them, both hands drawn back to one side. Bernie had a short piece of scaffolding tube gripped in both hands and Tobin watched, horrified, as the tube appeared from behind Bernie’s head, as if in slow motion. It swung horizontally, with all the force the big man could put behind it. He grimaced and grunted as the effort hurt his damaged ribs and the trajectory of the pipe dropped a little as Bernie bent at the waist. The pipe clipped Dale’s right shoulder and lost a bit of its force before connecting with the base of his skull.

  The pipe bounced off Dale and narrowly missed Teri as his grip of her eased. Bernie gave another cry of pain and released his grip to clutch at his injured side. The tube sailed up into the air, hitting the side of the building and a balcony and clattered to the pavement some distance away. Bernie was groaning, clutching his injured ribs, his eyes squeezed shut and sweat breaking out on his ashen face. Teri was trying to crawl out from under the collapsed body of Dale. Alan rushed out on to the pavement as Bernie opened his eyes, panicked, turned and began a loping run across the pavement. He squeezed between two parked cars at the edge of the busy street as Tobin shouted at him. He looked to his right and ran out into the street. The big, fast moving old Citroën saloon, coming from his left, had no chance of avoiding the running figure. It gathered him up in a scooping motion, rolling him over the bonnet and up the windscreen before the limp figure slid sideways over the passenger door and down between the Citroen and another parked car rolling him along till he fell between two more parked cars.

  Alan hauled Teri out from beneath Dale and carried her into the hotel. Even at that early hour the pavement began to fill with sightseers standing in a small huddle staring at the bleeding figure on the path. Tobin could hear sirens approaching and crawled back into the lobby and sat with his back to the door as tyres screeched outside and urgent commands could be heard amid raised, excited voices.

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