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Feather's Miscellany: The Marcham Mystery

Here is a sample chapter from John Waddington-Feather's detective novel The Marcham Mystery,

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Chapter Eighteen

Fielding’s company was called Keighworth Electronics and was not far from Hartley’s home in Ingerworth. In fact, from the factory car-park you could see the hunched nave and tower of Ingerworth Parish Church. As the colonel never arrived at the factory till after lunch, Hartley had time for a quick snifta in his local.

His army experience years before told the inspector the Russians would have been doing some reconnoitering of the area before they made a hit. And knowing their attachment for vodka, he suspected they’d visited the Railway Tavern nearby. He was right. The landlord, Jock Swinford, said three foreigners had been calling in there for the past few weeks; one of them a woman. To his surprise, Jack Rayner was there, too, and stayed drinking with him till he left.

Hartley looked at the clock. Colonel Fielding was fastidious about time-keeping. If he’d been keeping to schedule, he’d have been at the works in half an hour. There was no need to hurry his dram, but finally, the time came for him to go and having said goodbye he left Rayner at the bar.

He went to his car and put on the overcoat and hat Colonel Fielding wore to work. The inspector and colonel were about the same size and the coat fitted well. Then he drove to the factory and pulled into the car-park into Fielding’s lot.

The car-park was isolated, lying to the rear of the main building on some low ground with a bank behind. Trees had been planted on the bank to screen the factory from the road and the council estate beyond. A feed-road left the main road running into the estate along the line of trees, beyond which was some wasteland before you reached the first of the houses. Folks for years had tipped their rubbish on the wasteland, a dog-ridden area now with mounds of builder’s debris spilling onto the road itself. At that time of year it was knee-deep in weeds.

Hartley kept his head well down and his hat pulled over his eyes as he left his car. But as he walked away, his eyes skimmed the bank above him. He caught the glint of a car windscreen on the other side of the trees. There was someone waiting in the shade.

His eyes never left the figure as he walked to the factory, keeping the line of parked cars between himself and the trees till he’d reached the cover of the building. Fielding’s office was on the second floor and open to the line of trees on the bank; in fact, almost level with them. Hartley could see the office staff quite clearly. So could whoever was lurking in the trees. Fielding would have been an easy target sat in his office or when he returned to his car.

Once round the corner and out of sight, Hartley climbed the footpath to the road above. He guessed it was Karpenko hiding there. He didn’t see her at first but saw her car and moved cautiously towards it. Then she suddenly stepped from the shadows and confronted him recognising him at once. She carried a sniper’s rifle and raised it.

He dived behind a tree. A single shot rang out and hit him in the arm. He rolled into the long grass as another shot cracked above him. She’d lost him and he lay still. Then he heard a car door slam and the engine rev. There was a squeal of tyres and as he peered from the grass, he saw her car disappearing down the road.

Staunching the flesh wound in his arm he raced back to his car and radioed HQ telling them what had happened and that she was armed. He guessed where she was heading and took off in pursuit. She was bolting to her hideout at Malby.
He was nearing Skiproyd when Khan got through to him. His sergeant was on his way with an armed unit. Donaldson had issued the warrant and insisted on coming, too. Hartley groaned. He was the last person to direct an operation like this. He’d cock up everything!

It was market day in Skiproyd and the town was packed. It slowed Karpenko as well as Hartley and they could only crawl through, but it did enable Hartley to keep her in sight. Once clear, they sped through the winding lanes towards Malby and all the time he kept relaying to his sergeant where he was.
The road they drove on ran by Gorton Scar, a huge cleft in the hillside. It had once been an underground cavern which had collapsed aeons ago, leaving the black scar open to the sky. All the way from Skiproyd, the sky had been clouding over and thunder threatened. The white limestone walls suddenly turned grey, snaking like clammy veins across the looming fells. Matching the walls, grey sheep punctuated the unlit fields and backed into the rising wind.

The Scar was on him before he knew it as he turned a corner. He caught a glimpse of it through a break in the wall running alongside the road and glanced across, overawed as always by its size. It split the fell completely in two and was deep in shadow as the light thickened. Ledges of limestone crumbled all the way to the summit where screeching ravens wheeled over the broken rock.

By the beck at the bottom ran a solitary track along which a woman hurried. Hartley braked and clambered from his car up the bank at the roadside to the wall at the top. There he could see across to the Scar.

Olga Karpenko had parked her car in a clump of trees to his right. Had he not glanced through that break in the wall, he could so easily have missed her and driven by. She carried only a small bag and there was no sign of her rifle. But what he didn’t see was another car, a sleek Jag, racing behind him. So intent had been his pursuit of Karpenko he’d failed to notice it. It, too, had stopped and its driver had got out, heading like the woman for the Scar.

Hartley climbed the wall and followed cautiously. The nearer he approached the Scar, the more the sky grew black as thunderheads massed over the skyline. The eerie cries of the ravens echoed and re-echoed round the gorge as the wind rose and made its unearthly wailing along the Scar.

As he staggered on, Inspector Hartley began to feel his age. The flesh wound in his arm was beginning to throb and his heart pounded madly. He had to stop at the entrance of the gorge to regain his breath and, as if at a signal, an oppressive silence fell. The wind dropped and the ravens ceased calling but the silence didn’t last long. A blinding flash of lightning fractured the sky, then another, followed by a deafening peal of thunder. Then came the deluge.

Hartley hurried under the overhang for shelter, but in the gloom he could barely make out the rough track, and he’d lost the woman completely. He could hear nothing, too, except the steady hiss of rain, which poured down the rock-face and dripped onto him. Within minutes he was soaked and chilled to the bone.

He knew the Scar well and moved along the face to a cave. There he’d wait for Kahn and the rest. They would be armed. He was not.

He knew Olga Karpenko couldn’t get far. The gorge was a dead-end. There was just a solid wall of rock at the end which climbers practised on. Unless she scaled that, she’d have to turn back.

He reached the cave and sat down exhausted on one of the boulders strewn about. Curtains of rain siling down outside shut out the view. It was almost pitch-black inside and he began stamping his feet to get some warmth into them. Suddenly, he was startled by a woman’s voice behind him. He turned and walking from the shadows was Olga Karpenko, holding a pistol.

“Full marks to your policeman-plodding, inspector. Like the British bulldog, you never let go, do you?”
He was surprised to see she’d changed into a track-suit and wore light climbing boots. But the greatest change was her hair. It was a different colour and style and she’d had it cut short. It changed her whole appearance. Then he realised she was wearing a wig. But for her voice he’d scarcely have recognised her.

She stood staring a moment, eyeing him with her cold eyes, but he said nothing. Only the incessant rain and the thunder broke the silence. When the lightning flashed it lit up their faces, otherwise they stood facing each other in shadow.
“What do you propose doing?” said Hartley at length, holding his arm and nodding at her gun. “I hope you’re not going to be so foolish as to use that. There’s only myself here – and I’m winged.”

“Winged? Oh, I see. I’m losing my touch,” she said. “I meant to kill you back at the factory. You were lucky then, but I’m afraid your luck’s run out now. This time I’ll make sure.” She gave a hollow laugh enjoying watching him suffer. “You’ve always been a loner, haven’t you? And you’re a loner now at the end, Hartley,” she said, then she raised her gun.

“You’re wrong there,” Hartley shouted back. “I’ve a partner. If you kill me, my sergeant will get you and if he doesn’t someone else will. You’ll be hunted down wherever you are. Touch one copper, touch us all.”

His remark amused her and she lowered her gun momentarily. “You English!” she said. “Such amateurs. Plodders. All pretending to be Sherlock Holmes. But times have changed, inspector. We live in a professional world and the KGB was very professional. It still is but under another name. Names may change, politics may change, but people do not. We’re all in life for what we can get out of it. Once I return to Mother Russia, Mandy Rayner disappears and Olga Karpenko comes back to life – under yet another name, of course, and she’ll live happily ever after on the pickings she’s made in the stupid west.”

Hartley let her talk on, his mind racing. His feet had gone cold again and it wasn’t the weather this time. He’d a sick feeling in his stomach right where she pointed her gun, but he knew he had to keep her talking somehow till the others arrived. If they arrived at all!

“Since you’re going to kill me and I haven’t long to live, perhaps you’d answer some questions that have been puzzling me,” he said.

She gave a cold thin smile. “Be quick,” she said. “I haven’t much time.”

“First, how are you going to get out of here? There’s only one way out and my men will be coming that way.” He nodded to the track behind.

“I shall climb out. There’s a car waiting for me on the Buckton road – and a ship leaving tonight for St Petersburg from Hull,” she replied.

“A bit of a package tour?” quipped Hartley but she missed the humour. “And next, who killed Marcham and Willoughby? Was it you – or your two friends who met such a sticky end in Bradford?”

“I honestly don’t know, inspector. And that was what worried me for a time. Someone was beating us to it,” she said smiling. “But not now. I was lucky. I had a puncture on my way to see Costanza. The devil looks after his own. It should have been Costanza who died, but the other two fools had to get drunk and bungled it. He got them first. I came late, and left immediately when I saw what had happened.”

As he listened, Hartley marvelled that such an intelligent and beautiful woman had become such a killing machine, such a devil, programmed by a political system to simply hate and kill. She looked at her watch. “I must go. My driver is waiting,” she said. “Who killed Marcham and Willoughby must remain a mystery for both of us.”

She raised her gun again and Hartley looked down it into her cold eyes. Then suddenly a shot rang out and she crumpled, falling on her side to the ground. She turned and fired back. He heard her shot go past and hit its target behind him. Then he flung himself behind one of the boulders.

After a few moments, he peered round it. Olga Karpenko lay motionless on the floor. Staggering towards him from the mouth of cave came Jack Rayner, holding his chest. He reached the Russian then stood over her firing again and again till his pistol was empty. Then he, too, dropped to the ground.


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