by Peter Lovesey
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David turned to face him, his face creased in concern. "They'd take a very grave view of that, Duncan. We invited you along in good faith."
"But no obligation, I thought."
"Look at it from the club's point of view. We're vulnerable now. You're dealing with dangerous men, Duncan. I can't urge you strongly enough to co-operate."
"But if I can't prove that I killed a man?"
"You must think of something. We're willing to be convinced. If you cold shoulder us, or betray us, I can't answer for the consequences."
A sobering end to the evening.
For the next three weeks he got little sleep, and when he did drift off he would wake with nightmares of fingers pressing on his arteries or skene-dhus being thrust between his ribs. He faced a classic dilemma. Either admit he hadn't murdered Sir Jacob Drinkwater-which meant he was a security risk to the club-or concoct some fake evidence, bluff his way in, and spend the rest of his life hoping they wouldn't find him out. Faking evidence wouldn't be easy. They were intelligent men.
"You must think of something," David Hopkins had urged.
Being methodical, he went to the British Newspaper Library and spent many hours rotating the microfilm, studying accounts of Sir Jacob's death. It only depressed him more, reading about the involvement of Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist Squad and MI5 in the official investigation. Nothing he had read, up to and including the final pronouncement in the papers that the death had been ruled a heart attack and the investigation closed, proved helpful to him. How in the world would he be able to acquire the evidence the club insisted on seeing?
More months went by.
Duncan weighed the possibility of pointing out to the members that they'd made a mistake. Surely, he thought (in rare optimistic moments), they would see that it wasn't his fault. He was just an ordinary bloke caught up in something out of his league. He could promise not to say anything to anyone, in return for a guarantee of personal safety. Then he remembered the eyes of some of those people around the table, and he knew how unrealistic that idea was.
One morning in May, out of desperation, he had a brilliant idea. It arose from something David Hopkins had said in the car on the way home from the club: "Do you mean you're a serial killer?" At the time it had sounded preposterous. Now, it could be his salvation. Instead of striving to link himself to the murder of Sir Jacob, he would claim another killing-and show them some evidence they couldn't challenge. He'd satisfy the rules of the club and put everyone at their ease.
The brilliant part was this. He didn't need to kill anyone. He would claim to have murdered some poor wretch who had actually committed suicide. All he needed was a piece of evidence from the scene. Then he'd tell the Perfectionists he was a serial killer who dressed up his murders as suicides. They would be forced to agree how clever he was and admit him to the club. After a time, he'd give up going to the meetings and no one would bother him because they'd think their secrets were safe with him.
It was just a matter of waiting. Somebody, surely, would do away with himself before the July meeting of the club.
Each day Duncan studied The Telegraph, and no suicide-well, no suicide he could claim was a murder-was reported. At the end of June, he found an expensive-looking envelope on his doormat and knew with a sickening certainty who it was from.
The most perfect club in the world
takes pleasure in inviting
Mr. Duncan Driffield
a prime candidate for membership
to present his credentials
after dinner on July 19th, 7:30 for 8pm
Contact will be ade later
This time the wording didn't pamper his ego at all. It filled him with dread. In effect it was a sentence of death. His only chance of a reprieve rested on some fellow creature committing suicide in the next two weeks.
He took to buying three newspapers instead of one, still with no success. It seemed as if there was no way out. Mercifully, and in the nick of time, however, his luck changed. News of a suicide reached him, but not through the press. He was phoned on the afternoon of the 19th by an old civil service colleague, Harry Hitchman. They'd met occasionally since retiring, but they weren't the closest of buddies, so the call came out of the blue.
"Some rather bad news," said Harry. "Remember Billy Fisher?"
"Of course I remember him," said Duncan. "We were in the same office for twelve years. What's happened?"
"He jumped off a hotel balcony last night. Killed himself."
"Billy? I can't believe it!"
"Nor me when I heard. Seems he was being treated for depression. I had no idea. He was always cracking jokes in the office. A bit of a comedian, I always thought."
"They're the people who crack, aren't they? All that funny stuff is just a front. His wife must be devastated."
"That's why I'm phoning round. She's with her sister. She understands that everyone will be wanting to offer sympathy and help if they can, but for the present she'd like to be left to come to terms with this herself."
"Okay." Duncan hesitated. "This happened only last night, you said?"
Already, an idea was forming in his troubled brain.
"Yes. He was staying overnight at some hotel in Mayfair. A reunion of some sort."
"Do you happen to know which one?"
"No. Which hotel."
"The Excelsior . . . 1313. People talk about thirteen being unlucky. It was in Billy's case."
Sad as it was, this had to be Duncan's salvation. Billy Fisher was as suitable a murder victim as he could have wished for. Someone he'd actually worked with. He could think of a motive later-make up some story of an old feud. For once in his life, he needed to throw caution to the winds and act immediately. The police would have sealed Billy's hotel room pending some kind of investigation. Surely a proven perfectionist could think of a way to get inside and pick up some personal item that would pass as evidence that he had murdered his old colleague.
He took the 5:25 to London. Most of the other travellers were going up to town for an evening's entertainment. Duncan sat alone, avoiding eye contact and working out his plan. Through the two-hour journey he was deep in concentration, applying his brain to the challenge. By the time they reached Waterloo, he knew exactly what to do.
A taxi ride brought him to the hotel, a high-rise building near Shepherd Market. He glanced up, counted the wrought-iron balconies until he reached number thirteen, and thought of Billy's leap. Personally, he wouldn't have gone up so high. A fall from the sixth floor would have done the job just as well, and more quickly, too.
Doing his best to look like one of the guests, he walked briskly through the revolving doors into the spacious, carpeted foyer and over to the lift, which was waiting unoccupied. No one gave him a second glance. It was a huge relief when the door slid across and he was alone and rising.
So far, the plan was working beautifully. He got out at the 12th level and used the stairs to reach the 13th. It was now around 7:30, and he was wary of meeting people on their way out to dinner. He paused on the landing to let a couple pass by him on their way downstairs. They didn't seem to notice him. He moved along, looking for room 1313.
There it was. He had found Billy Fisher's hotel room. No policeman was on duty outside. What a stroke of luck, thought Duncan, it wasn't even as if a man had killed himself in there.
He went back down to the foyer, marched coolly up to the desk and looked at the pigeonhole system where the keys were kept. He'd noticed before how automatically reception staff hand over keys when asked. The key to 1313 was in place. Duncan didn't ask for it. 1311-the room next door-was also available and he was given its key without fuss.
Up on the 13th floor again, he let himself into 1311, taking care not to leave fingerprints. His idea was to get out on the balcony and climb across the short gap to the balcony of 1313. No one would suspect an entry by that route.
The plan had worked brilliantly up to now. The curtains were drawn in 1311. He didn't switch on the light, thinking he could cross to the window and get straight out to the balcony. Unfortunately his foot caught against a suitcase some careless guest had left on the floor. He stumbled, and was horrified to hear a female voice from the bed call out, "Is that you, Elmer?"
Duncan froze. This wasn't part of the plan. The room should have been unoccupied. He'd collected the key from downstairs.
The voice spoke again. "Did you get the necessary, honey? Did you have to go out for it?"
Duncan was in turmoil, his heart thumping. The plan hadn't allowed for this.
"Why don't you put on the light, Elmer?" the voice said. "Now I'm in bed I don't mind. I was only a little shy of being seen undressing."
What could he do? If he spoke, she would scream. Any minute now, she would reach for the bedside switch. The plan had failed. His one precious opportunity of getting off the hook was gone.
"Elmer?" The voice was suspicious now.
In the civil service, there had been a procedure for everything. Duncan's home life was similar-well ordered and structured. Now he was floundering, and next he panicked. Take control, something inside him urged. Take control, man. He groped his way to the source of the sound, snatched up a pillow and smothered the woman's voice. There were muffled sounds, and there was struggling, and he pressed harder. And harder. And finally it all stopped.
He could think again, thank God, but the realisation of what he had done appalled him.
He'd killed someone. He really had killed someone now.
His brain reeled and pulses pounded in his head and he wanted to break down and sob. Some instinct for survival told him to think, think, think.
By now, Elmer must have returned to the hotel to be told the room key had been collected. They'd be opening the door with a master key any minute.
Must get out, he thought.
The balcony exit was still the safest way to go. He crossed the room to the glass doors, slid them across and looked out.
The gap between this balcony and that of 1313 was about a metre-not impossible to bridge, but daunting when you looked down and thought of Billy Fisher hurtling towards the street below. In his agitated state, however Duncan didn't hesitate. He put a foot on the rail and was up and over and across. Just as he'd hoped, the doors to the balcony of 1313 were unfastened. He slid them open and stepped inside. And the light came on.
Room 1313 was full of people. Not policemen or hotel staff, but people who looked familiar, all smiling.
One of them said, "Caught you, Duncan. Caught you good and proper, my old mate." It was Billy Fisher, alive and grinning all over his fat face.
Duncan said, "You're . . ."
"Dead meat? No. You've been taken for a ride, old chum. Have a glass of bubbly, and I'll tell you all about it."
A champagne glass was put in his shaking hand. Everyone closed in, watching his reaction-as if it mattered. Their faces looked strangely familiar.
"Wondering where you've seen them before?" said Billy. "They're actors, mostly, earning a little extra between engagements. You know them better as the Perfectionists. They look different out of evening dress, don't they?"
He knew them now: David Hopkins, the doctor; McPhee, the skene-dhu specialist; Joe Franks, the trunk murderer; Wally Winthrop, the poisoner; and Pitt-Struthers, the martial arts man. In jeans and T-shirts and a little shame-faced at their roles in the deception, they looked totally unthreatening.
"You've got to admit it's a brilliant con," said Billy. "Retirement is so boring. I needed to turn my organising skills to something creative, so I thought this up. Mind, it had to be good to take you in."
"Well, I knew you were up for it from the old days, and Harry Hitchman-where are you, Harry?"
A voice from the background said, "Over here."
"I knew Harry wouldn't mind playing along. So I rigged it up. Did the job properly. Civil service training. Got the cards printed nicely. Rented the private car and the room and hired the actors and stood you all a decent dinner. I was the Hungarian waiter, by the way, but you were too preoccupied with the others to spot me in my false moustache. And when you took it all in as I knew you would-being such a serious-minded guy-it was worth every penny. I wanted to top it with a wonderful finish, so I dreamed up the suicide," he quivered with laughter.
"You knew I'd come up here?"
"It was all laid out for your benefit, old sport. You were totally taken in by the perfect murder gag, and you were bound to look for a get out, so I fabricated one for you. Harry told you I'd jumped off the balcony, and when you asked in which hotel, I knew you took the bait."
"Bastard," said Duncan.
"Yes, I am," said Billy without apology. "It's my second career."
"And the woman in the room next door-is she an actress, too?"
"On, come on," said Duncan. "You've had your fun."
Billy was shaking his head. "We didn't expect you to come through the room next door. Is that how you got on the balcony? Typical Duncan Driffield, going the long way round. Which woman are you talking about?"
From the corridor outside came the sound of hammering on a door.
Duncan covered his ears.
"What's up with him?" said Billy.
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