Nov. 1, Friday night
He was a dead man and he knew it.
As soon as he ceased to be of any use to this bastard, the guy would shoot him.
So Robbie Parsons had to keep on being of use.
He was glad he’d earned his green badge; he was grateful for all of those months of routing and rerouting himself around London that had qualified him to drive a black cab.
Robbie had maps in his mind. He would entertain himself, while cruising around looking for a fare, by setting destinations involving landmarks he would have to either pass or not pass in the course of get- ting to a certain location. Maps in his mind, so no matter where this black guy told him to go (and he’d told him nothing thus far), Robbie knew how to take the longest way round without raising suspicions. The guy behind him wasn’t a Londoner, but then most Londoners knew sod all about London, anyway. He was a South African, or Nigerian, or Kenyan—from Africa, not from one of the islands.
Robbie knew this because he’d been driving every sort of person around for thirty-five years. Still, he wasn’t clever enough to sift through all of the countries in Africa to pin down which one this guy came from. Ordinarily, bits of small talk in the back would float up—a passenger mentioning Cape Town or Nairobi or Victoria Falls, something like that—but his passenger tonight was not interested in small talk. The silence loomed. Robbie had never known silence so heavy.
But then he’d never known silence with a gun in it.
It had been less than an hour ago that he’d been driving down Ebury Street, poking around in Belgravia and turning into Beeston Place where sat the Goring Hotel. He’d seen the doorman looking for a taxi, and past the doorman, the couple he was apparently getting one for, while trying to shield them with a huge umbrella. Not easy in this rain. They were a very handsome pair. Robbie pulled up in front of the Goring and the doorman yanked open the door and ushered in the woman, who was truly beautiful, hair as pale as moonlight, face like a pearl enhanced by her whitish-pink dress. The man was tall and dark and wore a dinner jacket beneath a black cashmere coat. He shoved himself into the cab, shaking the lapels of his coat to get the rain off, but careful not to get it on the woman.
Robbie slid the glass panel open, said over his shoulder, “Your destination, sir?”
“It’s a club in the City. I was told it’s on a hard-to-find street.”
Isn’t it all to the uninitiated?
“The name of the club, sir?”
“The Artemis. A casino?”
“Very exclusive club, sir, one of the best in London. You’re lucky to be getting into it. The waiting list is a year long.”
She said, “Why would anyone wait a whole year to get into a casino?” and then laughed.
“I see your point, madam.”
The man said, “They have all kinds of rules. You have to arrive at an appointed time and you really have to dress for it. Rather strange just to do a spot of gambling.”
Robbie melted into the traffic heading toward Knightsbridge. “I think the Artemis considers itself as more than a casino. I’ve heard about those rules. They don’t want too many people there at any one time and don’t want a lot of cars crowding the driveway.”
“I hope there’s no secret handshake involved,” she said, “because we don’t know it.”
Robbie laughed as he lifted his hand to the panel, thinking it would’ve been easier for Eurydice to find her way back from the Underworld if she’d just flagged down a black cab instead of waiting around for Orpheus. Strange to think of this couple in those terms. Orpheus, right down into the Underworld to bring her back. Robbie just had the feeling this man would do it, for her.
The man tapped on the panel and Robbie opened it again. “You can find this place with just the name?”
“I can, sir, yes.”
“You don’t have a GPS, though.”
Robbie rolled his eyes. “No, sir. We don’t need those.”
“That’s astonishing. Cab drivers in Manhattan—you’ve got to be able to tell them the nearest cross street to your destination. Once I asked the driver to take me to the Waldorf and he’d said, in that grumpy way New York drivers talk, ‘Whatsa cross street?’ Can you beat that?”
The woman said, “I’ve always been amazed at how you drivers know this city.”
Robbie was amazed at her amazement. Her accent said she was a Brit, but his was American, definitely. What kind of service were Americans used to? New York. How could you drive around a city and know it so little? What fun was that, to be a stranger in your own hometown?
Now, having driven away from the Artemis Club, the black cab was in Old Broad Street in the City. The bloke in the back with a gun in his hand.
Robbie tried to be cool. It wasn’t easy. “If you could tell me your destination—?”
“When I need to tell you, I will. Drive.”
All right, then. He’d drive to some congested area in the West End—Charing Cross or Piccadilly—hoping that might give him an opportunity.
The quickest route would be to go around Bank and head down Walbrook to Upper Thames Street. Then to the Embankment. A route he had no intention of taking. This guy wouldn’t know the difference. Wherever Robbie was going, he wasn’t going in a hurry.
At this hour on a Friday night the closest most congested area would be Piccadilly—from Green Park past the Ritz to Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue with its theaters—so he decided to head in that direction. But first he snaked around and came out on the A40, which he drove along to Holborn Viaduct. In another few minutes he made a right into Snow Hill.
There he slowed down a bit as he looked around for police cars, but all he saw of police presence was a couple of uniforms coming out of the Snow Hill station. All of the police in the City should have been alerted by now. Carefully, he switched his bright lights on and off, on and off, and saw the coppers stop and turn and recede into the distance. The radio was out of commission, of course. The man had seen to that.
“That was a police station back there.”
“Yes, sir, there’s three thousand of them in London. Hard not to come on one.”
The guy moved to one of the jump seats just behind Robbie, stuck the gun through the open panel again and said, “Try.”
Robbie said nothing. He heard the weight shift back to the passenger seat.
“Where are you headed?” the man asked. “West End.”
“As you haven’t given me an address, I’m just driving. As you said.” The man merely grunted.
Jesus, thought Robbie.
Twenty minutes before, Robbie had pulled into the half-moon driveway of the Artemis Club and up to the front door, quite free of other vehicles. You’d have thought the Artemis never had customers, from the
lack of cars. That was undoubtedly because patrons were told when they could come and also because attendants took the cars and drove them to whatever car park the club paid for.
Robbie had braked and was sliding open the glass panel when he was surprised to see an overweight woman in orange coming up the drive, her car possibly having been commandeered by one of the atten- dants. She was huffing up to the front door.
“Is this it?” said the beautiful wife.
“Yes, it is. You’d never know, would you?”
“Very sedate,” she said, as her husband got out and went round to open the door for her. He paid Robbie with a little “keep the change” wave, and it was some change—it was a huge tip. The two of them, looking rich and handsome, stood for a moment as the lady in orange was about to go in the door.
“Oh, I’m freez—” the wife started to say.
But it was the moment that froze. Robbie heard an unfamiliar crack and the husband stumbled before he fell straight down, right on his face. A few seconds later, another crack, and the woman fell beside him. At first perfectly still, she then slowly stretched her arm toward her fallen husband. And then, dead still. Those beautiful people; that beautiful woman: her pale skin and Grace Kelly hair, all blending in with the diaphanous dress—Robbie thought, when he’d seen her in the Goring’s driveway, she was so white and lightweight, so insubstantial that she could have been blown away by the wind and the rain, transparent and spectral.
A ghost, that’s what she’d looked like. Now fallen, a ghost was what she was.
Robbie was completely befuddled; he shoved open his door, started to get out, when a large shadow fell across his path and he was pushed back behind the wheel, as, simultaneously, the intruder’s other hand put the radio out of commission by bringing the gun down on it like a hammer.
The man yanked open the passenger door and piled in. “Drive,” said a deep voice.
That, mate, thought Robbie, as if the words were a broadax breaking through a frozen lake of fear, could be your first mistake.
From Snow Hill he drove to the Embankment, followed that into West End, took Grosvenor Road, turned into Chelsea Bridge Road and up to Sloane Square. On this side of the square there was a taxi rank.
When he saw a police car pulled up at the corner of the King’s Road he considered speeding up or even broadsiding it or running up on the curb. But then not only would he likely be dead, so would the driver of the other car.
Sloane Street was wide and handsome and undisturbed, not a glutted part of London. From where the police car was stopped, he skirted the square to the side that held the rank.
“Sloane Square. Chelsea, one side; Belgravia, the other. That’s the King’s Road up there.”
His passenger said nothing.
There were half a dozen taxis lined up at the rank, which surprised him as it was a wet Friday night, one of those times when people fought over cabs.
He drove past the line as slowly as he could without giving rise to suspicion. As he passed the taxis, Robbie switched on the FOR HIRE part of his sign, then switched it off again. He did this twice more as he looked out of the passenger’s window to see if he knew any of the drivers. He recognized Brendan Small, if not an actual friend, a good acquaintance; he also thought he knew another driver—James somebody, couldn’t think of his last name. But he didn’t think they’d spotted him. He knew he couldn’t go round the square again, so he had to depend on this single try.
He glanced in his side-view mirror and saw that Brendan was out of his cab, standing by the driver’s door and apparently staring in the direction of the King’s Road, which Robbie had just entered. Past Peter Jones, past a bus stop where several people, clearly tired of waiting for the number 22 or number 19, were trying to flag down a cab.
He killed the FOR HIRE sign, but that didn’t seem to deter them. One or two watched the back of his retreating cab with a “How dare you?” look. Taking umbrage, Londoners were so good at that.
Something caught Robbie’s attention in the mirror. There was a light winking two cars behind him. It was a black cab and the FOR HIRE sign was going on and off. Brendan! You old bugger, you, you’re answering my signal. Then he saw that behind Brendan another cab was turning his sign on and off. And behind that, there was yet another cab. No wonder the people at the bus stop were going crazy: it wasn’t just Robbie, but also three other cabs with their signs lit up refusing to stop when people tried flagging them down.
How long would they follow? All he could do was consider his next move—getting from the King’s Road to South Ken, then Mayfair around the Green Park Tube station and the Ritz. When the fellow behind him suddenly said, “All right, all right!”—as if Robbie had been arguing with him all along—Robbie jumped.
“We’ve been long enough driving that nobody could be following—” Not unless you consider three black cabs nobody.
Greenwich, bloody hell. With its long lonely stretches of cavernous parkland, its scattering of terraced houses and empty playgrounds. “An address, sir?”
“You’ll get that when we get to Greenwich.” Bugger all.
He wondered if London cabbies were as good as he thought they were, which was the best in Europe. Best in the world, even. Forget America; we’re clearly beyond that. Ask the passenger for a cross street? Don’t make me larf.
Robbie thought about all of the thousands of miles he and the other knowledge boys had to drive around London on their mopeds learning not just every street within a six-mile radius, but all of the theaters, like the ones on Shaftesbury Avenue, and in proper order, no, let’s not forget that; every bloody point of interest, every memorial, every monument—all of it etched on the mind. He could have crosshatched a sheet of paper with streets, monuments, restaurants and sports venues without referring to an outside source.
Many years before, he had done this test for sixteen months before he’d sat in a cab with an examiner. He’d had a bad moment when the examiner had directed him to go from Marylebone to St. Pancras without taking Euston Road or even going round Euston Station. The area they were in was a web of one-way streets and public works. There literally wasn’t any way through all of this without using Euston Road.
“Can’t be done,” Robbie had said.
“Really? So what do you do, lad, if you’ve a fare that has to catch the two o’clock Eurostar?”
“I wouldn’t be in this part of Marylebone in the first place.”
The examiner liked that; it was by way of being a right answer. Then he had posed a series of, if not actually trick questions, questions that took a lot of thinking outside the box.
He thought of all of this driving along the King’s Road. He turned into the Fulham Road toward the Old Brompton Road. What he was doing was going back, running a course parallel to the way they had come. His passenger must have been paying some sort of attention, for he said, as they passed the South Ken Tube station, “Thought South Kensington was where we came from.”
“Right. It’s a very large area. This is the section that borders Mayfair.”
“Mayfair? I just told you to take me to Greenwich, didn’t I?”
Robbie said smoothly, “Yes, but to get there, we have to go through part of Mayfair. And you need to give me an address. Greenwich is an even bigger area. I have to cross the river and need to know which bridge to take.”
“Take the nearest one.”
The first cab, which was probably Brendan, was right on his tail, and the driver had switched off the FOR HIRE sign. The others, if they were
back there, had too, but Robbie couldn’t tell which were in his entourage and which were regular cabs with passengers.
As he approached the crowded pavements of Green Park Tube station and the Ritz Hotel, Robbie turned on the FOR HIRE sign, looked in his side-view mirror to see the cab behind do the same, and beyond that two other cabs between cars in busy Piccadilly were also alight.
At least a dozen hands shot up in the air, couples from the Ritz, black ties and velvet, and before their astonished eyes, Robbie, then Brendan plowed on by. As did the two other FOR HIRE cabs. This was unthinkable: a whole crowd of people were now yelling; some were running. A small mob of Londoners, incensed that here were cabbies violating a cardinal rule.
Robbie’s passenger—kidnapper, more to the point—twisted round and stared out of the back window at the fracas, which was now becoming a police fracas. There were uniforms around the Ritz and at least one police car had joined in.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Don’t know.” Robbie was delighted with the now stalled traffic. “For God’s sake, get moving!”
“We’re stuck in traffic, aren’t we?” A couple of well-dressed middle-aged men had caught up with their cab and were banging on a window. Unfortunately, space opened and he had to drive forward. All the way down Piccadilly to the Circus, cars moved out of the way, right and left, as if every driver in front of him felt cold steel plugged against his neck.
Any other time, he thought glumly, nobody would have given an inch. You’d think he had the bloody Queen in his cab. He rounded Piccadilly Circus as far as Shaftesbury Avenue, where a hundred theatergoers should be wanting cabs if he weren’t too late.
“So how far’s Greenwich?”
A week away, he wanted to say. “Half hour, depending on traffic.”
Covent Garden, to Aldwych and the Strand. From here he could see Waterloo Bridge, but then so could the SOB behind him. Robbie guessed he’d better take it. There were plenty of places to get lost in in Southwark and Greenwich or wherever Wyatt Earp back there wanted to go.
Robbie was really mad at himself for missing his chance with the Met at the Ritz. If only he’d wedged his cab in a little between curb and cars, or if only . . . if only, if only. Moreover, he’d now lost his pals, who had probably got jammed up with the cops.
“This is Waterloo Bridge,” he said. Might as well point out the landmarks.
“Let’s get the hell across it.”
Southwark at the other end was heavily populated. They’d be passing Waterloo Station, the Old Vic. Robbie idled at a light directly behind a new dove-gray Mercedes. What about a little accident? Just a rear-ender, maybe? That would bring the cops. It would also bring a furious owner, barreling out of the driver’s seat, back to the cab. And the gun. No, Robbie couldn’t involve anyone else.
The light changed. The pristine Merc moved on. Robbie moved too.
The traffic fanned out near Waterloo Station and Robbie was about to take a left when the voice from the rear seat said, “Here.”
Sharply, Robbie turned. “What?” “Here. Drive into Waterloo.”
“Waterloo Station? But you said Greenwich.” “No. Here.”
Robbie shook his head and pulled into the station.
Was this it, then? Robbie swallowed hard. The chips he’d eaten two hours ago threatened to make a return visit. They were hard in his stomach, like fear.
He was stopped in the line of cabs under the station’s long arch.
A hand thrust money through the open panel. It was not holding the gun. Two fifty-quid notes fluttered onto the seat. “Keep the change. You’re a helluva good driver.” The rear door opened and his passenger was gone.
Robbie sat frozen as the guy moved through the glass doors, faded fast into the crowd. For such a big man he was agile.
Not death, but a compliment.
Robbie was so dazed by the fact of being alive, he forgot for a moment that he’d just dropped off a killer. Do something, arsehole, don’t just sit here! he ordered himself. Ignoring the protests of the taxi rank chief, Robbie left his cab and ran inside, searching for the police. Had all the bloody cops in Waterloo taken a hike? He ran back outside and along the line of cabs, looking for drivers he knew. He found Brendan Small.
“He’s gone into the station. We’ve got to do something.” “What the hell’s going on, Rob?”
“Who else was following?”
“Don’t know. They just took it up.”
“My radio’s out,” said Robbie. “We’ve got to find him. He’s over six feet, black guy. Gray overcoat, red scarf. He killed two people in front of the Artemis Club.”
“What?” Brendan’s eyes grew wide. “He kills two people, then takes a train?”
From The Knowledge. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2018 by Martha Grimes.
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