They stood frozen like rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming Land-Rover. As her eyes accommodated the glare, Mrs Pargeter saw that in his other hand Stan the Stapler held a snub-nosed automatic pistol.
She was astonished at the speed with which Truffler Mason moved. Projecting himself suddenly forward, he curled over into a ball, somersaulted, and scissored his legs around Stan the Stapler’s as his body straightened out. The torch went flying from Stan’s hand and Truffler reached up to seize the wrist that held the gun.
A brief struggle ensued, before the weapon was wrenched free and sent scuttering away into the passage. Then Stan the Stapler was lifted high, immobilized from behind by the lock Truffler had on his arms. The thug gurgled in a grotesque parody of terrified speech.
‘Well done, Truffler!’ Mrs Pargeter congratulated in an excited whisper. ‘Brilliant!’
But Ankle-Deep Arkwright didn’t seem to agree. ‘Let him go, you fool. He’s on our side.’
‘Stan’s been helping me. They were going to let me starve down here. He’s the one who’s been bringing me food.’
Truffler wasn’t convinced. He didn’t release his hold. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Yes,’ Mrs Pargeter chipped in, ‘what do you mean? Stan hasn’t behaved in a very friendly way to me. There’s a long history there, anyway, between him and Mr Pargeter. Going right back to what happened in Streatham.’
Stan the Stapler’s gurgles redoubled at the mention of the word, but Ankle-Deep Arkwright protested, ‘No, people got him all wrong over Streatham. Because Stan can’t talk, he never got the chance to explain what really happened. Yes, he thought Julian Embridge was OK — a lot of us did, Jack the Knife and all — and by the time we realized he was a bad ’un, your husband’d already been sent down. Led to a lot of misunderstandings for a lot of people, that did.’
‘Then why was Stan the Stapler so surly with me from the moment I arrived here?’
‘Because, Mrs P., he was afraid of you. He thought you thought the worst of him — he thought you believed all that stuff about him helping Julian Embridge shop your old man. He was embarrassed, like, that’s all.’
‘But if he’s on your side, Ank, why on earth didn’t he just set you free?’
‘Because he’s afraid of what they’d do to him. Anyway, even if we got away, we wouldn’t get far. They’d either deal with us themselves or shop us to the police. We’ve both got records as long as a gorilla’s arm, enough to get us put away for a two-figure stretch if anyone grassed.’
‘But, for goodness’ sake, who are they?’ Mrs Pargeter pleaded.
The answer to her question came immediately, though not in the form she would have chosen. It was supplied visually, as two men burst in through the doorway. One brandished a baseball bat, the other an automatic weapon as snub-nosed as Stan the Stapler’s but even more bulky.
The baseball bat crashed down on the back of Truffler’s skull. He collapsed like a handless glove-puppet, releasing Stan, who turned, pale with fear, to face the assailants, then backed away with his hands up to join Mrs Pargeter and Ankle-Deep Arkwright.
One of the men switched on the light and the room was flooded with searing whiteness. Mrs Pargeter blinked a couple of times and then, with horror, recognized the two men who had wheeled away Jenny Hargreaves’ body.
She knew now that they weren’t real ambulance men. She knew also that they had disposed of Jenny’s body in some nameless way. She didn’t feel encouraged about the way they were likely to treat people who got in their way.
Nor did their first words inspire in her any greater confidence.
‘Shall we just shoot them straight away?’ asked the first ambulance man.
‘Yes. We’ll have to do it sometime. Let’s get it over with.’
The one with the gun gestured the three of them to back against the wall, then looked down at the unconscious Truffler Mason.
‘Better sort out this one first,’ he growled and brought the snout of his weapon down against Truffler’s unprotected temple.
‘Stop!’ Mrs Pargeter prepared to scream, but was amazed to hear the word spoken before she had even drawn breath.
The sound came from the doorway where, armed with a machine-gun, stood Dr Potter.