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Authors: Andrew Derham

Dead Unlucky

Andrew Derham

 

Dead Unlucky

 

The first Harry Hart novel

 

 

 

Copyright © Andrew Derham 2014

 

All rights reserved. This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, stored in a retrieval system, reproduced, distributed, transferred or lent in any way except as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased.

 

Cover design by SpiffingCovers.com

 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.

A catalogue record for the paperback version of this ebook is available from the British Library.

 

ISBN of paperback book 978-1500544706

 

First published worldwide in 2013

 

 

http://andrewderham.com

 

 

The other Harry Hart novels

 

good girl, bad girl, dead girl

 

The Fifth Commandment

 

 

For

Cyril Stanley White

1899 – 1931

 

With Love and Thanks

 

1

 

 

Harry Hart had prepared himself for a depressing evening, and he would have settled for that. But the moment his boss posed his simple question it began a journey that travelled from merely wretched to absolutely dreadful, via the unlikely road of farce.

‘What can I tempt you with for a starter, Harry?’ really shouldn’t have constituted the trickiest of queries. ‘The shrimps baked in phyllo are exceptionally good here, the spaghetti frutti di mare delicious, and the fried calamari with aioli sauce a specialty of the house, the finest outside of London. We really are spoilt for choice.’

Chief Superintendent Claude Rodgers was certainly proud of his own choice of the seafood restaurant and his pride was lavishly displayed for all to see. And, to be fair to him, it was indeed a rather grand venue, boasting its lacy napkins, fawning waiters and suitably salmon-hued walls.

‘Well they all sound splendid, absolutely marvellous, but I’ll have a bit of squid if there’s any on the menu. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but maybe it’ll remind me to change the ink in my printer when I get back to the office.’ Hart hoped his dinner companions would at least indulge him by smiling politely at his naff little quip, but they couldn’t even manage that. Fair enough, he would have struggled to raise a charitable grin himself.

‘So it’s to be the calamari then, is it? Fine choice, Harry, fine choice.’

‘Actually, I’ll stick with the squid if that’s okay. I’m not so keen on anything too rich, I think it disagrees with me a bit, has a habit of upsetting the ol’ stomach, it does.’ And Harry unhooked his left thumb from the waistband of his trousers and patted the delicate organ to emphasise its frailty. And then he started to sweat; he would have felt more comfortable sitting naked in a pit of cantankerous scorpions than in this swanky place with these fancy folks.

‘Okay, Harry, squid it is,’ sighed Rodgers, trying to make the best of it. ‘But no smothering it with the mountain of horseradish sauce that you usually pile on to bury your food,’ he added, trying to manufacture a joke but actually managing to add to his guest’s embarrassment.

Peeking over her reading glasses, Mrs Rodgers stared at Chief Inspector Harry Hart with a blend of suspicion and disbelief, like she were perusing a being that had just stepped off a spaceship. The fourth member of the quartet was Patricia Luft, and her green eyes didn’t glance at Hart at all but continued the study of her menu with an unbroken concentration which suggested she had not even heard the policemen’s peculiar conversation, and Hart silently thanked her for her kindness.

A moment after the stooping waiter had walked away with their order, respite from purgatory arrived in the form of
Jingle Bells
ringing out on Hart’s mobile phone, a melody temporarily installed to replace
Beethoven’s Fifth
as a gesture to welcome the approaching festive season.
And about ruddy time
, he thought as he pulled the phone from his jacket pocket with a shrug of his shoulders and an apologetic smile all round.

‘Uh huh. Yes, Sergeant Redpath, I’ve got that. Oh dear, that does sound bad,’ he hammed for the benefit of his audience at the table. ‘I’ll be over right away. It’s such a disappointment, as I’ve only just sat down to dinner with the Chief Superintendent and some charming company. No, Sergeant, I was not suggesting that the Chief Superintendent isn’t charming company. Don’t try and be clever, it doesn’t suit you.’ And he dismissed Sergeant Redpath by cutting off the call.

‘I’m so sorry ladies, Sir. I hope you’ll understand that something urgent’s come up and I’ll have to be leaving right away. As the old song goes,
When constabulary duty’s to be done, a policeman’s lot is not an ’appy one
.’ But, in truth, the imperfectly stifled sigh of relief squeezing itself through Chief Inspector Hart’s lips suggested he wasn’t actually too un’appy to be rising from the dinner table.

His superior glared at him as though he were being insolent and deliberately awkward by walking out on them just so he could pursue pressing police work when he should actually be lingering to admire his boss’s generosity. Mrs Rodgers was doubtful – it all seemed a touch too neat having to disappear like that and she thought Harry Hart wasn’t above pulling a fast one. Patricia Luft’s raised eyebrows and wan smile told of her genuine disappointment that he was leaving.

Relieved to be hurrying out of the place and away from a situation which demanded the deployment of a multitude of social graces he knew he could never muster, Hart was prodding the display on his mobile the moment his shoe hit the pavement.

‘I told you to ring me at seven sharp and it’s gone a quarter past,’ he chastened Redpath. ‘And a murder! A ruddy murder, I ask you! You could have come up with something more imaginative than that, Darren. One little favour is all I wanted and it’s too much trouble for you to put a bit of thought into it. Suppose the Chief had happened to enquire about the nature of the momentous duty that had me scurrying off to leave him, his lovely wife and that Mrs Luft deprived of my scintillating company and stranded as a threesome? How would I have explained to him in the morning that it wasn’t actually a murder after all, Sir, it turned out to be a flasher in the park and that blundering Redpath got the felony confused with a brutal killing in an alley? Shame about missing the dinner you splashed out a fortune on just because of a false alarm.’

At last Redpath got a word in.

‘But it
is
a murder. You can’t seriously think I’d fritter away my evening off by spending it on the phone just to help you bale out of the Chief’s matchmaking ceremony. There’s a corpse lying in an alley off Green Drive with its head caved in.’

A pause waited in the chilly air while Hart processed the news.

‘Right. I’ll make it there as soon as I can, in about half an hour I expect. And by the way, Darren.’

‘Sir?’

‘What’s calamari for heaven’s sake?’

‘Just a fancy name for squid.’

Hart winced as he pondered why the cloying atmosphere of a posh restaurant should have conspired with the presence of the pretty Mrs Luft to compel his wits to fly out the window. ‘I had a feeling you’d say that.’

Hart was none too chuffed with his bungling performance in the restaurant. But he would have been a darn sight more put out if he had known his bizarre conversation with the Chief would come close to killing him.

2

 

 

A couple of hours before Redpath made his phone call to Hart, Sue Avery hadn’t been able to resist a smile as she shut the office door behind her and stepped into the street. There was plenty to be cheerful about, what with Christmas coming up, and she could have no inkling that she would shortly be hauling Harry Hart away from his miserable encounter in the swish seafood restaurant. In fact, she was picturing an altogether different scene, the image of her mother in the front room, her forefinger wagging in front of the teenager’s nodding head.

‘I don’t mind you going that way in the summer, when the days are longer. And on your way to work after breakfast, that’s okay. But it’s dark in the evening at this time of year,’ her mum would remind Sue, as though the girl wouldn’t have noticed. ‘And the muggers use mobile phones nowadays, so if they spot you going into an alley like that they ring their friend at the other end and you find yourself trapped in the middle.’ And then the finger working overtime as the forebodings of doom and disaster became ever more colourful. ‘There are men about, Sue. Men who are not quite normal. Men who prey on young girls like you and they might make a grab for your bag or your phone. Or ... or ... they might, well, you know ... it could be even worse than that ...’ And then the finger would freeze in midair as the tale became too embarrassing for the telling.

This sort of chat had comprised their ritual for the past few weeks, while Sue’s dad was upstairs getting changed before dinner. And because she was a courteous and respectful daughter she received every one of her mum’s lectures with dutiful politeness. Then she instantly binned them so she could knock a couple of minutes off her walk home from the office.

It was only a short alley, no more than a couple of hundred yards at most, and streetlights glowed orange at both ends. True, it was murky halfway along where it kinked a little, black really, and there were straggly bushes on the grass verges that ran along either side where rapists and robbers could lie in wait. But Sue reasoned that if a woman worried about things like that all her life then she’d never even venture out of her front door.

So just a day after enduring her mother’s most recent sermon, Sue blithely disregarded the counsel yet again and turned out of Green Drive and into the alley, tugging up the collar of her coat to repulse the chilly December wind that now assaulted her back as she veered off the pavement.

And, in a way, Sue’s confidence in her safety was justified because no noiseless predators were poised crouching within the leafy shade, no evil eyes were fixed on her shapely form as her polished and traditionally-proper office shoes clip-clopped along the grey-black tarmac.

But the advice Sue had received from her mother day after day hadn’t turned out to be completely batty either, because nobody wants to stare into the ghastly scene Sue stumbled upon that evening, and if she had heeded the relentless guidance then her bright blue eyes would have been spared the sight.

As Sue trudged through the dingiest bit of the alley her head was bowed down a little because it made her feel just a tad warmer to be hunched up against the weather as she clutched the top of her coat against her throat. And because those blue eyes were pointed to the ground she saw something lying on the verge, sticking out of the bushes on her left as they shivered in the breeze.

She carried on walking past the object for a yard or so because the realisation didn’t sink in immediately. Even when she stopped and thought about it for a second, she pushed the idea out of her head. It couldn’t have been! And although she knew it couldn’t have been
that
lying there on the grass, she was nosey enough to want to find out exactly what it was and so she twisted around to have a peek. But her first thought had turned out to be spot on: there really was an arm poking out between the ragged clumps of rhododendron bushes.

Of course, that revelation should have been sufficient for the young woman – after all, if you see an arm sticking out of the shrubbery in a dark alley then you’ve witnessed quite enough already, you really shouldn’t feel the need to go threshing around in the undergrowth to find out more. But curiosity overcame reason and logic and so a trembling Sue took a few paces back towards the outstretched limb.

The arm was covered by a dark coat, although the garment’s exact colour was impossible to perceive in that miserly light, but the hand was ungloved. It was a right hand, and the fingers were curled slightly so that the wrist and the tips of the nails rested on the grass and held the palm a little off the ground.

The coat sleeve trailed out of sight into the blackness of the bushes so Sue stepped onto the verge timidly, as though she were afraid of waking a sleeping child, and placed her sensible shoes to either side of the protruding limb. She bent over and inserted her hands into the vegetation, pulling the twiggy branches apart with a motion like the breaststroke. Water shook itself free of the bushes as they stirred; even though it had not been raining, a soggy mist drenched the air and everything it enveloped. She peered through the grey leaves that danced in front of her eyes and made out the image of a prostrate body forming the shape of the Cross. The cadaver lay on its belly in the gloom with both its arms splayed at ninety degrees to the torso, and its legs stretched out together.

The corpse certainly belonged to a man – it was unbumpy and uncurvy and dressed in men’s shoes and trousers. It wasn’t easy to glimpse any finer points in that dimness, and Sue had to push her head right through the soaking foliage to see anything else at all. She could just detect the ghostly pallor of the man’s left cheek which reflected a little of the sallow glimmer from his face as his head rested on its side. And then there was the head itself. There was a crinkly circle of skull missing, like a coconut that had been staved in with a hammer, and Sue could make out the brains inside.

Even in her horror she somehow possessed an awareness that she should not vomit next to the body; throwing up just there would make her guilty of an unforgivable act of defilement. So Sue lurched towards the verge on the other side of the alleyway but didn’t quite make it and was sick on the tarmac path, little specks of yellow spattering her nice black office shoes.

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