RUPERT PENDLEY-EVANS had not expected to find the body of a naked man lying on a bathroom floor that evening. But for Rupert Pendley-Evans, life had a habit of taking odd turns.
HE GUIDED his 1200cc motorbike through the gap between the lines of London’s Sunday evening traffic and stopped at the junction. The journey back from his parents’ estate in rural Buckinghamshire was taking longer than usual. To pass the time, he planned his evening ahead. He would take a shower to wash away the grime of the journey, followed by a glass of chilled pinot grigio.
The lights changed, and the traffic began to move. Rupert’s thighs hugged tight to the fuel tank of his BMW. He turned the bike past the two lines of slow-moving cars and took the fork in the road for Vauxhall Bridge. It would lead him across the Thames to the south bank of the river and at long last home. He twitched the throttle, the engine roared, and the bike accelerated up the outside lane, past yet another line of stationary traffic. Rupert glanced to his right as he reached the middle of the bridge. The last rays of July sun silhouetted the upstream London skyline of Battersea and chic Chelsea. It was good to be back in the metropolis after his dutiful two-day visit to the family seat, in the tiny village of Middle Claydon.
He concentrated on the road before him, the final mile of his journey. Ahead, on the south bank of the river, stood the offices of MI6, home to Britain’s secret service. It was housed in an imposing piece of postmodern architecture made famous by several appearances in James Bond films. The setting sun glinted orange on the smoked-glass windows, giving the building a warm, rosy glow, belying its true purpose.
As Rupert reached the far end of the bridge, the lights stayed green, and he leaned into the curve of the road. It detoured around Vauxhall bus station and took him past a huddle of modern high-rise apartment blocks funded by Russian investors. He wove the powerful bike in and out of the five lanes of slow-moving traffic and relished the liberty it afforded him. At the third set of lights, he took a left onto Paton Road. The brutal high-rise landscape gave way to a street of elegant Edwardian villas. The rows of shabby front doors and grimy windows were evidence of a former era of long-faded grandeur. Rupert was resigned to the thought one day they too would be swept away by developers in pursuit of tax-free profits.
Rupert slowed the bike to twenty miles an hour. The street became a narrow corridor, and he was hemmed in on both sides by rows of parked cars. Halfway down, he slowed the bike to a crawl and turned sharply onto the forecourt of number 54. He stopped in front of one of the bay windows of the double-fronted Edwardian villa and cut the engine.
He fumbled with the buckle on his chin strap. When he at last removed the crash helmet, the fresh breeze cooled his matted hair, and he breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long journey. He kicked down the bike’s side stand but stayed seated in the saddle. Even though his home was less than half a mile from the bustle of the Vauxhall traffic interchange, it was quiet and peaceful. Rupert listened to the birds singing in the trees on either side of the street. In this tranquil spot, he could fool himself the polluted London air was somehow purer.
The city was in the middle of an English heat wave, and Rupert’s leather jeans clung to his thighs with sweat. He looked forward to stripping off and standing under the shower. He stood up, dismounted the bike, and took off his gauntlets. He unzipped his heavy leather jacket, and the evening air cooled his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Rupert unhooked his small overnight bag from its mounting points on the fuel tank and strode to the front door. He punched in the security code and entered the communal hallway of the house.
Number 54 Paton Road was divided into three apartments, each with its own front door. There were two smaller apartments on the ground floor and a third spanning the whole of the upper floor of the house. The apartments all shared the communal entrance hall. A grand, sweeping staircase led to the floor above. Rupert stood outside the front door of number 54a and fumbled in the pocket of his leather jacket for his key.
As soon as he entered the apartment, he sensed something was wrong. There was a strange, musty smell, and he could hear the sound of water running somewhere in the semidarkness beyond. He dropped his overnight bag on the floor, set his crash helmet on the oak hall table, and walked down the corridor leading to the back of the apartment.
The sound of running water grew louder as he approached his open bedroom door. Standing on the threshold, he could see why. The ceiling was bowed, and a steady stream of water poured down onto the polished wooden floorboards below.
Rupert cursed and ran back up the hallway to retrieve a bucket from the hall cupboard. He returned to the bedroom and placed the bucket under the stream of water. He watched it fill with alarmingly rapidity and cursed again.
Rupert had never met the new resident upstairs at number 54c Paton Road. He knew it had changed hands a few months ago, while he was away working for four weeks in the Middle East. He had planned to introduce himself when he returned, but somehow he never found the time. Rupert wished it could have been in better circumstances.
He went out of the apartment to the main staircase and sprinted up the stairs two at a time. The half-glazed door of number 54c was directly in front of him. Rupert rang the bell. After a short pause, he banged hard on the door for good measure. When he still got no response, he tried the doorknob to confirm the door was locked. He pressed his ear to the glass and listened intently. He could hear the sound of running water After banging on the door one last time, he stood back and breathed heavily. Perhaps the tenant had fallen asleep in the bath. Perhaps he had drowned.
Rupert raised his hand and felt the solid wood frame of the door. It would take a lot to open it His only option was to break the door’s beautiful stained glass panel. He looked around. To his left was a jumble of flattened cardboard boxes, some discarded packing materials, and three full refuse sacks piled against the wall. He needed something that would help him break the glass safely. On the right, tucked in the corner, was a black metal fire extinguisher. Perfect. Rupert picked it up and tested its weight in his hands. Holding it horizontally, he rested its base against the panel. It was a shame to destroy the glass, he thought. But it was a choice between that and a collapsed bedroom ceiling.
The glass gave way with a satisfying crack. Rupert set down the fire extinguisher and picked up a piece of the discarded packaging material. He wrapped it around his hand and cleared shards of glass from the gaping hole in the door. He reached in cautiously and felt for the catch. It turned easily, and the door swung open. Rupert stepped over the broken glass into the hallway of number 54c.
A series of white spotlights in the ceiling illuminated the corridor. Their light reflected off the white walls of the hallway. The sound of running water was loud and came from a doorway down the corridor. He strode down the hallway and stood on the threshold of the bathroom at number 54c. That was when he saw the body.
The man was naked, lying prostrate on the floor. Water from the overflowing bath lapped around him. Rupert stepped into the bathroom, turned off the water, and crouched down beside the body. He lifted the man’s arm and felt for a pulse. The man was alive but unconscious. Rupert reached into the pocket of his leather jacket for his mobile.
“Hello? Ambulance please.” While he waited to be connected, Rupert assessed the situation. The man’s head rested at the foot of the washbasin, his feet stretched out toward the doorway. His short, curly black hair was matted with congealed blood. Some of it turned the pool of water in which he lay a sickening red. The man looked to be about thirty years old and well over six feet tall. He had an athletic, muscular build. Rupert leaned forward to take a closer look at the head wound. He noticed the man’s well-defined cheekbones and his perfect, kiss-shaped lips. Pretty cute, all in all.
Before he could get too distracted, a voice in his ear announced he was connected to the ambulance service.
“Hello? Yes, my name’s Rupert Pendley-Evans. I’m at apartment 54c Paton Road, in Vauxhall. It’s the one upstairs to mine. There’s a guy here unconscious with a head wound. I think he slipped and fell in the bathroom.”
Rupert gave his details and as much information about the unknown man as he could provide. He ended the call, stood up, and took a couple of bath towels from a shelf in the corner. He knelt on the floor and did his best to wrap them around the motionless naked body. The man stirred, sending small ripples of movement across his muscular shoulders. He tried to pull himself up and groaned loudly.
“Hey, fella,” said Rupert. He leaned close to the man’s well-defined cheekbones. “Don’t try to move just yet. Looks like you’ve had a helluva bang on the head.”
The man whispered something, and Rupert leaned closer.
“I can’t hear you,” said Rupert. “Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way.”
“I’m freezing,” whispered the kiss-shaped lips. The man’s body shook in a spasm of shivering to confirm the statement.
Rupert leaned across and massaged the broad back and shoulders. He hoped it would stimulate the man’s circulation. A set of long black eyelashes flickered open and revealed dark brown eyes.
“Who are you?” asked the man.
Rupert paused before he replied; the eyes held him captivated with their intensity.
“Hey, welcome back,” said Rupert with a sense of relief. “My name’s Rupert. I’m your guardian angel from the apartment downstairs. An apartment that’s now flooded with your bathwater. What’s your name?”
“Luke,” replied the man. He grimaced with pain. “Jeez. My head feels like it’s been run over by a steamroller. And this water’s freezing my balls off.”
“I don’t think you should move until the ambulance gets here,” replied Rupert. “I’m a journalist, not a medic. So I don’t really know what I’m doing. And I don’t want to risk doing you damage if I try to get you up.”
“Then I’ll do it myself,” replied Luke somewhat petulantly. He levered himself partway into a sitting position and leaned against the side of the bath. He looked at Rupert, and his eyes twinkled with an air of triumph. They partly closed for a moment, and Luke’s head lolled from side to side. Rupert caught him before he fell. With difficulty, Rupert held him upright while he sat alongside him and looped his arm over Luke’s shoulder.
“Thank you, guardian angel,” said Luke, and he rested his head on Rupert’s shoulder. He turned his face, and his intense brown eyes stared at Rupert once more.
“What beautiful blue eyes you have,” said Luke. He shook his head and winced with pain. “Oh shit. Inappropriate. The stupid American’s opened his mouth. Forget I said it.” His eyelids drifted shut, and the deep brown eyes disappeared from view.
“Luke? Luke?” said Rupert. “Oh shit. Stay conscious for me.” He gently massaged the American’s arm and shoulders. “I need you to stay awake until the ambulance comes.”
The long black eyelashes flickered, and Luke reopened his eyes.
“That’s better,” said Rupert. “Stay with me. You’ve had a head injury. You’ve got to keep awake. Talk to me. What’s your last name?”
“Diamond. Luke Diamond.” The long black eyelashes flickered shut. Rupert massaged Luke’s shoulders again.
“Hey, Luke Diamond,” said Rupert. “Don’t drift off. Have you got any family I can contact? Is there a friend I should call?”
Luke slowly turned his head from side to side. “Don’t bother.” He leaned his head back against the side of the bath. “You don’t need to call anyone. Okay?”
Before Rupert could reply, a door buzzer sounded insistently.
“That’ll be the ambulance,” said Rupert. “Is your entry phone by the front door?”
Luke said nothing but nodded his head.
“I’m going to lay you back on the floor for a moment,” said Rupert. “Don’t try to get up again. And don’t go to sleep.”
He gently lowered Luke onto the tiled floor of the bathroom. He reached up to the rail beside the bath, pulled down another towel, and wrapped it around the American’s body. Luke mumbled something indistinct, and Rupert leaned in close to hear.
“What was that?” asked Rupert gently.
“I meant what I said,” repeated Luke. “You have beautiful eyes.” He stared intently at Rupert and sighed. “But you should keep away, handsome blue-eyed Englishman. I know I’m just trouble.” The rosebud lips curved upward into a smile.
“I don’t believe that for a second.” Rupert stood and looked down at Luke. “Don’t go away now,” he said and headed out of the bathroom to let in the ambulance crew.
THE DOOR of the boathouse creaked open, and the beam of a flashlight shone around the darkness of the interior. After a few moments, the bluish glow settled on a light switch fixed to the wall on the right of the door. A young man entered and walked across the wooden floor. He flipped the switch, and the fluorescent lights suspended from the roof beams flickered and hummed into life.
He walked back to the door, pulled it shut, and locked it. After removing the key and carefully placing it on the floor to the side of the door, he looked up at the roof beams and used the flashlight to confirm his memory of their layout. Satisfied, he removed the rucksack from his back and set it down on the floor.
The young man wore a smart pair of black trousers and a white shirt, on top of which was a blue sweatshirt. It bore the logo London University in white lettering on its front. He wore a pair of earphones attached to a small electronic device fixed on his belt loop.
He sat down cross-legged on the floor and unbuckled the canvas cover of the rucksack. He reached into the bag and took out a coil of rope, a small, squat candle, and a box of matches. The rope he placed to one side. Then he put the candle on the floor in front of him and used the matches to light it.
The young man closed his eyes, placed the palms of his hands on the floor in front of him, and leaned in toward the flickering candle. He began to chant a series of phrases. Slowly and quietly at first, his mutterings virtually inaudible. The incoherent chant became faster and faster. All the while, the young man rocked on his hands, backward and forward, in front of the candle.
After several minutes of rapid chanting and rocking, he stopped, straightened his back, and clapped his hands three times. He opened his eyes wide, leaned forward, and put the palm of his right hand on top of the candle to extinguish the flame. He looked around the interior of the boathouse for a few moments and rubbed the palms of his hands together.
The young man stood up and walked the length of the boathouse to pick up a stepladder that leaned against the wall at the far end. He walked back to where he had sat and set the stepladder beneath a roof beam. He bent down and gathered up the coil of rope, then set his foot on the first rung of the stepladder with the rope thrown across his shoulder.
The stepladder rocked slightly as he climbed to the upper steps. The young man reached to the beam above his head and threw the coil of rope over it. He pulled down on the free end and took up the slack. Carefully, he stood upright on the stepladder, pulled on the rope until the noose he had created at the other end was against his neck, and adjusted its length.
He let the coiled end of the rope drop to the ground. He made one last adjustment to the height of the noose and climbed back down the stepladder. Once he’d retrieved the coil of rope, he carried it over to an iron ring set into the brick wall of the boathouse. He passed the free end of the rope through the ring, carefully took up the slack on the rope, and tied a double loop to secure it.
For one last time, he walked back to the stepladder, climbed to the top, and assessed the height of the noose. Satisfied, he placed the noose over his head and tightened it around his neck. With his right hand, he made the sign of the cross in front of him.
Then he kicked away the ladder.
THE HEAVYSET man walked briskly along the bank of the River Thames. His thick-soled Army boots crunched on the gravel footpath. It was after ten at night, and there was no one else around.
He approached the side door of the university boathouse and set down the heavy canvas bag he had been carrying. From the pocket of his blue overalls, he pulled out a large metal ring of keys. He flicked them over in his hand, until he found the one he was looking for. The key slipped into the lock and turned easily. The man reached into the canvas bag at his feet and pulled out a pair of blue latex gloves.
He put on the gloves, pushed the door open, and surveyed the scene in front of him. Sighing, he stepped inside and carefully closed and locked the door. He looked to his right, bent down, and retrieved the key the young suicide victim had laid there earlier. Putting the key in his pocket, he stood and strode across the floor of the boathouse to the corpse. He lifted one of the suspended figure’s arms and felt its pulse.
After a little over a minute, he dropped the arm, reached into the pocket of his overalls, pulled out a mobile phone, and called a number. While he waited, he walked across to a small black plastic globe mounted on the wall and gently pulled it from its mounting. He walked back to his canvas bag and crouched down on his haunches. A voice spoke in the earpiece of the phone.
“Yes, I’m at Chiswick now,” the man responded. “The boy used the boathouse just as we planned. I’ve retrieved the camera. Did you get everything?”
The man shoved the black plastic globe into his canvas bag.
“Yes, it’s complete,” said the voice on the other end. “We witnessed the event. It was exactly as scripted. No deviations. Please send my congratulations to the doctors. The procedure is flawless. It’s now time to apply it to a larger cast of characters.”
The man pressed a button on the monitor in his hand. The screen revealed an image of the interior of the boathouse, showing the moment the young man had entered fifty minutes before.
“Of course,” said the man. “That goes without saying. Pass my gratitude and condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Templeton. Their son proved himself a worthy sacrifice to the battle.”
He turned and looked back at the boathouse.
“I’ll clean house here. Then I’ll come back with the video of the event for the doctors to see. They’ll be very pleased with their work.”