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Pretend We're Dead
The Tenth Nick Sharman Thriller
By Mark Timlin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 1994 Mark Timlin
All rights reserved.
The phone call came on the morning of my wedding day.
That's what I said. My wedding day. No, don't laugh.
Ten am sharp, Saturday morning, the 12th of May. Only I wasn't. Sharp that is. Anything but.
The original idea had been for me to have my stag night on the Thursday, thus allowing plenty of time for the hangover to consume Friday, then up early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on Saturday morning to get ready for the ceremony that was going to take place at Brixton registry office at noon.
Only I wasn't bright-eyed and bushy-tailed either. Trouble was, the sort of people who'd come to a stag night of mine didn't know when Thursday ended and Friday started. Or stopped for that matter. In fact I hadn't got rid of the last one until about six o'clock on Saturday, just four hours earlier. Then I'd fallen into bed and set two alarm clocks for nine-thirty. Thank God I'd heard them. Dawn would never have forgiven me if I was late.
So there I was at ten o'clock in the morning, standing in the middle of the carpet in my tiny flat, shaking hard enough to register on the Richter scale, and wondering if it had been a good idea to agree to plight my troth for the second time in my life.
After three rings I picked the phone up. The sound of the bell was echoing around my head like a fire alarm. I held the receiver a few inches away from my ear, but said not a word. My mouth was dry and I had an overwhelming desire to throw up.
'May I speak with Nick Sharman?' said a cheery American male voice. A cheery American voice of either sex at that time on my wedding day I did not need. Especially when I just knew that a dead pig was probably in better shape than I was right then.
I grunted. It was a 'yes' kind of grunt. About all I could manage in my condition.
'Good morning. I believe it is morning in London.'
I looked at the curtains that were tightly drawn across my windows. Outside it could have been dark midnight for all the light they let in. In my flat it certainly was, except for a tiny forty-watt bulb in the lamp sitting on top of the dead TV set. Forty watts was all I could handle then. Probably all I could manage for the rest of my life, the way I felt. And it still seemed to be as bright as the Blackpool illuminations.
I grunted again. A sort of non-committal grunt that time.
I assume he took that one for a yes too, or totally ignored it. Either way, he introduced himself. 'My name is Lamar Quinn,' he said just as cheerily. 'I'm calling from Los Angeles, California. It's one am here, and it's been a beautiful day. I'm in the offices of Lifetime Records right now. I trust you've heard of us.'
I'd heard of them. Who hadn't? They were one of the biggest music conglomerates in the world. But I refused to be impressed. A third grunt. What the hell did this geezer want? A weather forecast from London?
'I work here in the royalty department. I'm first vice-president,' said Quinn.
From what I'd gathered about American business practices, there were probably five hundred first vice-presidents at the company. All driving identical BMWs, wearing identical Armani kit, and drinking identical mineral water with lunch.
'And we have a problem,' he continued.
Don't we all, I thought, as I sat on the bed and tried to put my head between my knees and listen to what he was saying at the same time.
'What?' I said. My first intelligible word of the day. Things were looking up.
'Do you remember Dog Soldier?' he asked.
'Sure,' I said, and I did. People of my age do. What age? I hear you ask. The kind of age where you remember Elvis before he got fat, and you've seen every episode of Star Trek at least three times.
Dog Soldier. Jesus, I'd bought all their records when I was a spotty-faced kid. They had been one of the biggest American bands in the world in the late sixties and early seventies.
'And Jay Harrison?'
'Of course,' I said.
Christ! He was Dog Soldier. All hair and cheekbones and Greek God looks and skinny chest. There had been a famous poster of him at the time, wearing a crown of thorns and being crucified on a rough wooden cross. I read somewhere that in 1970 it sold three million copies. I mean, a poster. Shit! I had one myself, hanging on the wall of my bedroom over the record player.
'You know that he died in London in 1972?' said Quinn.
'I know,' I said.
In the bath of heart failure. But it was reckoned that the big H had finally taken its toll of his life. Long after it and the booze had taken their toll of his good looks and talent. He was buried in Highgate cemetery close to Marx's tomb.
'Well,' said Quinn. 'We had a letter from him a month ago. Posted in London W1.'
'Did you?' I said. 'What kind of letter?'
I heard an exhalation of breath down the line. It was so clear that he might have been in the hall outside my flat.
'When Harrison died – to be blunt, Mr Sharman, you couldn't get arrested with a Dog Soldier record. The sales figures were well down. Almost off the graph. But since then we've released a greatest-hits double, and all the earlier albums on CD, plus a lot of in-concert recordings. And then John Sloane made the movie a couple of years ago. Remember it? Just called Dog Soldier?'
I remembered it. I've got it out on video. For old times' sake, I suppose. It was crap.
'And frankly the sales are way up again. Higher than a lot of contemporary hit acts,' Quinn went on. 'All his share of the royalties are still being held by us. There's been some squabbling over it. Some! That's an understatement. All sorts of people have popped up claiming to have married Harrison, or to have had his children, or to have signed contracts at some time or other. We have a dozen law suits running currently. The money hasn't been touched, and there's a lot of it. Millions of dollars. The letter said that he was alive and wanted what was owing.'
'Wild,' I said.
'Precisely. And a big headache for us. We talked to Chris Kennedy-Sloane in London. He's done a lot of work for us over the past few years in the UK. We asked for his advice and he suggested that we, I, spoke to you.'
'About whether or not you'll try to find out who sent the letter. If it was Jay Harrison or an impostor. That's what you do, isn't it? You're a private eye.'
'That's what I do,' I agreed. 'But not today. I'm getting married in an hour or so.'
'Married! Congratulations. That's great to hear,' said Quinn as if he'd known me for years. But before his enthusiasm got too much for him he was all business again. 'Do you have a fax number?'
'No,' I replied.
'Oh,' he said. He sounded put out. As if everyone should have a fax number. Preferably from birth. Preferably tattooed somewhere prominently on their body.
'Anyway, I'm off for a couple of days. Honeymoon, you know,' I said.
'Sure. I had mine in Acapulco.'
'In my case it's in Hastings,' I said.
'Is that in England?'
'Well I hope you have a good time and the weather keeps fine.'
There it was, the bloody weather again.
'So do I,' I said. 'And I'm sure it will. But do you think there's anything to this letter?'
'We don't know. But we have to check. This sort of thing happens all the time when a company has a deceased artist on its roster. Especially when it's a big name. Presley, Hendrix, Buddy Holly. But of course there's always been a certain mystery about Harrison's death. I'm sure you're familiar with the story ...'
'Remind me,' I said.
'Well, he died over in London, thousands of miles away from home. There was no post-mortem. Like I said, at the time very few people cared. The only witness was his then girlfriend, Kim Major. She died less than a year later from a drugs overdose herself. The doctor who signed Jay Harrison's death certificate is also dead. It was a closed-casket funeral within a few days. No one from his family or any other friends attended. By that time he'd alienated the former, and there were very few of the latter. None at all in Europe. There have been rumours for years that Harrison is still alive.'
'Dig him up,' I said.
'Rumours, Mr Sharman. No evidence. Your British authorities take some convincing before they'll supply an exhumation certificate.'
I grunted again.
'So I'd like to fax over a copy of the letter and the envelope, plus some background information.'
'Doesn't Kennedy-Sloane have a fax number?' I said.
Probably several, I thought.
'Then send the stuff through to him. I'll collect it when I get back next week.'
'You'll take the job then?'
'Sure,' I said. Why not? I was getting married. Becoming a responsible citizen. I needed the money. And I suppose I'll never forget that poster that used to hang in my room.
'Do you know my rates?' I asked.
'Chris tells us you charge a thousand pounds sterling per day, plus expenses. We'll arrange for you to pick up the money from him. And please. Remember that these enquiries are strictly confidential. Have a nice day, Mr Sharman, and enjoy your wedding. We'll speak again soon.' And he broke the connection.
I looked at the dead phone in my hand. A grand a day. Very good, Chris. A tasty little wedding present.
And then I remembered that I had to get dressed.CHAPTER 2
I'd bought a navy blue, single-breasted suit from Paul Smith for the occasion. And teamed it with a soft, white, Oxford cotton shirt with a button-down, roll collar, a dark blue knitted tie, a new pair of wool-mix socks from Marks and Sparks, and a favourite old pair of black loafers that I'd polished to a brilliant shine. I'd figured that a new pair of shoes would be a disaster. Who needed sore feet at their own wedding?
I showered, shaved and got dressed in my new suit, and when I looked into the mirror I didn't look half bad, if I do say so myself. Much better than I deserved after the caning I'd given to the twenty-year-old Scotch the night before.
Waiting by the door was my suitcase packed for the honeymoon. We were going to Hastings for a couple of days, like I'd told the American. I knew exactly why. Dawn had spent her childhood holidays there. She said the town was old and a bit past it, but with plenty of front. She also said it reminded her of me. I didn't quite know how to take that. I'd suggested Spain for a week, but Dawn hated flying. So I'd booked a couple of nights at the best hotel in Hastings, and we were due to drive down there after the reception.
I lit a cigarette, and looked at my watch. By then it was almost eleven, and I was getting a bit worried about my best man. I hadn't heard a word from him, and my last clear recollection of the night before had been that he would give me a call about ten-thirty to make sure that I was still alive. After that, everything was a blur.
My best man's name was Chas. He was a reporter for a tabloid Sunday paper now, but I'd met him when he wrote for the South London Press, and he'd become involved in a couple of cases of mine over the past year or so. So involved, in fact, that he'd nearly been killed by a rogue copper the previous autumn. He was OK now. Except that sometimes he went all quiet and introverted, like he was looking back down a long, dark tunnel where monsters lurked. It was at those times that I worried about him, but he said they were getting fewer and fewer and I had to believe him.
I'd thought that the call from America had been him checking in early. I looked at my watch again, and decided to call him up. I didn't want anything going wrong. The plan for the day was as follows. My wife-to-be, Dawn, was going to be collected from her flat in Wandsworth by one of a pair of brothers I knew who bought and sold American cars for a living. As a sideline they hired out the white Cadillac convertibles they owned for weddings.
Dawn and I had gone down to have a squint at the motors and choose which one she wanted for her big day, and she'd fallen in love with an oversized 1984 five-litre Chevrolet Caprice station wagon that they'd imported from California, and bought the damn thing. Just like that. Three and a half grand's worth. And that's not counting insurance. When I protested, she told me tartly that it was her own money, and that the boys had thrown in car tax and a T-shirt. Christ! I ask you. You buy a car and all you get is one lousy T-shirt. That morning, the Chevy Caprice was parked outside my front door, next to my E-Type, like a cart horse next to a thoroughbred racer. Chas was due to come round, dump his Ford Sierra, and we'd drive to Brixton in the Chevy. Then he was going to take it on to where the reception was being held. As it was a full nine-seater, there'd be plenty of room for anyone who turned up without a motor. Me? I'd be off with the blushing bride in the Caddy.
And talking of blushing, Dawn was getting married in scarlet. From the skin outwards. We'd choked over the thought of a white dress, and I'd told her that full black, which was her first choice, was a little too funereal for our nuptials, even if it was second time for both of us. So we'd settled for fire-engine red.
Dawn was, if plans had gone smoothly, getting dressed right now. She shared a flat with her friend Tracey, who was going to be matron of honour. My daughter Judith, who was going to be our one and only bridesmaid, had been fetched down from Scotland by my ex-wife, Laura, and was staying the night with them. Laura was safely ensconced at the Connaught, where she always stayed when she was down in London, now that she was married to a seriously rich dentist with a large private practice in Aberdeen.
With me so far?
Tracey had arranged a hen night for the Friday night, at the local boozer in Wandsworth that she and Dawn both used. I was supposed to believe that Judith was going to be cosily tucked up in bed by nine with a good book and a mug of Bovril. Fat chance. I knew that plans were afoot to sneak her into the pub. Plans that I wasn't supposed to know anything about. Of course I'd sussed that one out early, but was prepared to turn a blind eye. Judith was thirteen after all, and these days kids grow up fast. And it was a rare occasion. But I also knew that if her mother ever found out where she'd been, my life would be a misery henceforth. Laura was good at making people's lives a misery. I should know, I was married to her for long enough.
As I was about to pick up the telephone, it rang, and I jumped. My nerves were raw. I didn't let it ring twice.
'Hello,' I said.
'Nick?' The voice seemed to come from far away.
'Yeah. What's happening?'
'I'm getting married this morning. You're the best man.'
'Oh God. For a moment I thought I'd dreamt the whole thing and I could go back to sleep.'
'Don't do this to me, Chas,' I said.
'Sorry. I'm almost ready.'
'You don't sound like you're almost out of bed, and I'm getting hitched in ...' I looked at my watch, '... sixty-two minutes exactly.'
'Nick. Don't worry. I'll be there.'
'No, Chas. Be here.'
'That's what I mean.'
'Thirty minutes tops.'
Chas lived in Docklands. A cute little development by Tobacco Wharf. He was going to have to move his arse to do it.
'Do you want me to meet you at the registry office?' I said. 'It's closer.'
'No. Trust me. I'll be there.'
'Don't forget the ring,' I said. But he was gone.
I put the receiver down carefully and made the second big mistake of the day. I went over to my little collection of bottles and poured out a stiff Jack Daniel's.
Oh yeah – the first had been taking the Jay Harrison case, but I didn't know it yet.CHAPTER 3
I went over to the window, drew the curtains back and winced at the brightness outside. I stood for half an hour, thirty-five minutes, three-quarters of an hour, smoking cigarettes, sipping at my JD and chewing on my fingernails. Finally at ten to twelve I saw Chas's red Sierra tear up the road and screech to a halt in front of my house. I shook my head sadly and went downstairs to meet him.
He looked like a wreck inside a smart suit. His face was pale and his hair had obviously been plastered down with water. He stood by his car and shrugged apologetically. 'Come on,' I said. 'We're going to be late.'
I got into the Caprice and started it up. I leant over and opened the passenger door, and Chas joined me on the wide bench seat. 'Sorry, Nick,' he said. 'It took me longer than I thought to get here.'
'Forget it,' I replied. 'Got the ring?'
His face crumpled.
'Chas,' I said. 'If you've lost it ...'
He started patting his pockets and I saw him relax as he reached into one and pulled out the twenty-four carat I'd bought for Dawn. 'No problem,' he said.
I stuck the column change into reverse and pulled smoothly out into the street, put the car into drive and headed for Brixton.
Excerpted from Pretend We're Dead by Mark Timlin. Copyright © 1994 Mark Timlin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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