The Unlikely Spy

Excerpt

Beatrice Pymm died because she missed the last bus to Ipswich.

Twenty minutes before her death she stood at the dreary bus stop and read the timetable in the dim light of the village’s single street lamp. In a few months the lamp would be extinguished to conform with the blackout regulations. Beatrice Pymm would never know of the blackout.

For now, the lamp burned just brightly enough for Beatrice to read the faded timetable. To see it better she stood on tiptoe and ran down the numbers with the end of a paint-smudged forefinger. Her late mother always complained bitterly about the paint. She thought it unladylike for one’s hand to be forever soiled. She had wanted Beatrice to take up a neater hobby — music, volunteer work, even writing, though Beatrice’s mother didn’t hold with writers.

“Damn,” Beatrice muttered, forefinger still glued to the timetable. Normally she was punctual to a fault. In a life without financial responsibility, without friends, without family, she had erected a rigorous personal schedule. Today, she had strayed from it — painted too long, started back too late.

She removed her hand from the timetable and brought it to her cheek, squeezing her face into a look of worry. Your father’s face, her mother had always said with despair — a broad flat forehead, a large noble nose, a receding chin. At just thirty, hair prematurely shot with gray.

She worried about what to do. Her home in Ipswich was at least five miles away, too far to walk. In the early evening there might still be light traffic on the road. Perhaps someone would give her a lift.

She let out a longfrustrated sigh. Her breath froze, hovered before her face, then drifted away on a cold wind from the marsh. The clouds shattered and a bright moon shone through. Beatrice looked up and saw a halo of ice floating around it. She shivered, feeling the cold for the first time.

She picked up her things: a leather rucksack, a canvas, a battered easel. She had spent the day painting along the estuary of the River Orwell. Painting was her only love and the landscape of East Anglia her only subject matter. It did lead to a certain repetitiveness in her work. Her mother liked to see people in art — street scenes, crowded cafés. Once she even suggested Beatrice spend some time in France to pursue her painting. Beatrice refused. She loved the marshlands and the dikes, the estuaries and the broads, the fen land north of Cambridge, the rolling pastures of Suffolk.

She reluctantly set out toward home, pounding along the side of the road at a good pace despite the weight of her things. She wore a mannish cotton shirt, smudged like her fingers, a heavy sweater that made her feel like a toy bear, a reefer coat too long in the sleeves, trousers tucked inside Wellington boots. She moved beyond the sphere of yellow lamplight; the darkness swallowed her. She felt no apprehension about walking through the dark in the countryside. Her mother, fearful of her long trips alone, warned incessantly of rapists. Beatrice always dismissed the threat as unlikely.

She shivered with the cold. She thought of home, a large cottage on the edge of Ipswich left to her by her mother. Behind the cottage, at the end of the garden walk, she had built a light-splashed studio, where she spent most of her time. It was not uncommon for her to go days without speaking to another human being.

All this, and more, her killer knew.

After five minutes of walking she heard the rattle of an engine behind her. A commercial vehicle, she thought. An old one, judging by the ragged engine note. Beatrice watched the glow of the headlamps spread like sunrise across the grass on either side of the roadway. She heard the engine lose power and begin to coast. She felt a gust of wind as the vehicle swept by. She choked on the stink of the exhaust.

Then she watched as it pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

The hand, visible in the bright moonlight, struck Beatrice as odd. It poked from the driver’s-side window seconds after the van had stopped and beckoned her forward. A thick leather glove, Beatrice noted, the kind used by workmen who carry heavy things. A workman’s overall — dark blue, maybe.

The hand beckoned once more. There it was again — something about the way it moved wasn’t quite right. She was an artist, and artists know about motion and flow. And there was something else. When the hand moved it exposed the skin between the end of the sleeve and the base of the glove. Even in the poor light Beatrice could see the skin was pale and hairless — not like the wrist of any workman she had ever seen — and uncommonly slender.

Still, she felt no alarm. She quickened her pace and reached the passenger door in a few steps. She pulled open the door and set her things on the floor in front of the seat. Then she looked up into the van for the first time and noticed the driver was gone.

Beatrice Pymm, in the final conscious seconds of her life, wondered why anyone would use a van to carry a motorcycle. It was there, resting on its side in the back, two jerry cans of petrol next to it.

Still standing next to the van, she closed the door and called out. There was no answer.

Seconds later she heard the sound of a leather boot on gravel.

She heard the sound again, closer.

She turned her head and saw the driver standing there. She looked to the face and saw only a black woolen mask. Two pools of pale blue stared coldly behind the eyeholes. Feminine-looking lips, parted slightly, glistened behind the slit for the mouth.

Beatrice opened her mouth to scream. She managed only a brief gasp before the driver rammed a gloved hand into her mouth. The fingers dug into the soft flesh of her throat. The glove tasted horribly of dust, petrol, and dirty motor oil. Beatrice gagged, then vomited the remains of her picnic lunch — roast chicken, Stilton cheese, red wine.

Then she felt the other hand probing around her left breast. For an instant Beatrice thought her mother’s fears about rape had finally been proved correct. But the hand touching her breast was not the hand of a molester or a rapist. The hand was skilled, like a doctor’s, and curiously gentle. It moved from her breast to her ribs, pressing hard. Beatrice jerked, gasped, and bit down harder. The driver seemed not to feel it through the thick glove.

The hand reached the bottom of her ribs and probed the soft flesh at the top of her abdomen. It went no farther. One finger remained pressed against the spot. Beatrice heard a sharp click.

An instant of excruciating pain, a burst of brilliant white light.

Then, a benevolent darkness.

The killer had trained endlessly for this night, but it was the first time. The killer removed the gloved hand from the victim’s mouth, turned, and was violently sick. There was no time for sentiment. The killer was a soldier — a major in the secret service — and Beatrice Pymm soon would be the enemy. Her death, while unfortunate, was necessary.

The killer wiped away the vomit from the lips of the mask and set to work, taking hold of the stiletto and pulling. The wound sucked hard but the killer pulled harder, and the stiletto slipped out.

An excellent kill, clean, very little blood.

Vogel would be proud.

The killer wiped the blood from the stiletto, snapped the blade back into place, and put it in the pocket of the overall. Then the killer grasped the body beneath the arms, dragged it to the rear of the van, and dumped it on the crumbling edge of the tarmac.

The killer opened the rear doors. The body convulsed.

It was a struggle to lift the body into the back of the van, but after a moment it was done. The engine hesitated, then fired. Then the van was on the move again, flashing through the darkened village and turning onto the deserted roadway.

The killer, composed despite the presence of the body, quietly sang a song from childhood to help pass the time. It was a long drive, four hours at least. During the preparation the killer had driven the route by motorcycle, the same bike that now lay beside Beatrice Pymm. The drive would take much longer in the van. The engine had little power, the brakes were bad, and it pulled hard to the right.

The killer vowed to steal a better one next time.

Stab wounds to the heart, as a rule, do not kill instantly. Even if the weapon penetrates a chamber, the heart usually continues to beat for some time until the victim bleeds to death.

As the van clattered along the roadway, Beatrice Pymm’s chest cavity rapidly filled with blood. Her mind approached something close to a coma. She had some sense she was about to die.

She remembered her mother’s warnings about being alone late at night. She felt the wet stickiness of her own blood seeping out of her body into her shirt. She wondered if her painting had been damaged.

She heard singing. Beautiful singing. It took some time, but she finally discerned that the driver was not singing in English. The song was German, the voice a woman’s.

Then Beatrice Pymm died.

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