THE QUIET MAN
The countdown started three hundred and sixty-four days ago. Back then there had been all the time in the world. Now it felt as though it was about to run out, and fast. Because that was the thing with time. It was fluid and it lied. Nine and half hours from now August 4 would turn to August 5 and they’d be on the final stretch. Jefferson Winter was aware of the clock ticking, the seconds dripping away like sand flowing through an hour glass. Whenever he shut his eyes all he could see was the bright hot flash of the explosion.
He stepped into Arrivals and did a quick scan of the waiting crowd. The woman holding the sign with his name on looked just like a cop. It was her eyes. They were constantly on the move, searching for danger and taking everything in. She wasn’t a cop, though. Not anymore. Winter knew that for a fact. She recognised him in the same instant that he recognised her. It was easy to see why. He was average height, average weight, and had one of those faces that you wouldn’t look at twice. Where he moved away from the average was his hair. He was only in his mid-thirties but it had already gone completely white. It turned when he was twenty. He used to dye it during his FBI days. Since quitting, he hadn’t bothered. A lot of things fell by the wayside when he quit being a G-man. He walked over to where she was standing.
‘You must be Laura Anderton,’ he said.
‘And you must be Jefferson Winter. Welcome to Vancouver.’
She held out her hand and waited for him to shake it. Her grip was firm and purposeful. It was the handshake of someone who was confident about where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Anderton was fifty-three, with big brown eyes and shoulder-length brunette hair. She was wearing jeans and a plain white blouse. Her ankle length boots had a sensible heel. She must have been stunning in her younger days. She was still attractive now.
‘Where, why, who,’ he said.
‘You say that like it means something.’
‘It does. All we’ve got to do is answer one of those questions and we can save a life. If we know where the next murder is taking place then we can ambush the killer. If we know who the intended victim is we can protect them. Why is a little less obvious, but I’m confident that if we can work that out, the information will lead us to the killer or the next victim. Either one is a win.’
‘Put like that, it sounds so simple,’ Anderton said.
‘I didn’t say it would be easy. I’m just saying that that’s what we need to do. Where, why, who. I’m telling you, it’s a no-brainer.’
‘Okay here’s another question for you. How? As in how do we find answers to those questions.’
Winter shrugged. ‘I’m still working on that one.’
‘Well, work harder.’
He followed Anderton to the exit, his suitcase trundling in his wake. The crowds were parting before her in a way that was almost Biblical. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. Everyone just got the hell out of her way. She was five foot six and slim, so it wasn’t as though she was physically imposing. And it wasn’t like she was waving a gun around. A crowded airport, in the middle of the afternoon, that would definitely have got a reaction.
Outside the sun was shining, the temperature in the mid-seventies. The day was about as perfect as it was possible to get. Winter checked his cell. There was no sign of the text he was waiting for. He put the phone away, found his sunglasses, then lit a cigarette. His last one had been in Detroit. Even without the four hour delay that was too long.
The last couple of days it had been one thing after another. His original plan was to fly here yesterday, but the Detroit case had dragged on. The arrest had gone bad, the killer ended up dead. Winter hadn’t fired the shot, but he’d witnessed the whole thing, which meant jumping through a load of administrative hoops before he could leave. Then there had been that damn plane delay. Time was tight enough without having that to deal with.
Anderton started walking, Winter following close behind. The impression he had got from their email exchanges was that she was professional and business-like, and maybe a little distant. So far he had seen nothing to contradict these impressions. In the near distance, a Boeing 777 decorated with Air Canada’s livery lumbered into the sky, engines screaming as it fought against gravity, two hundred and fifty tons being thrust forwards and upwards at a hundred and fifty knots. The air stunk of aviation fuel. According to the signs, they were heading away from the parking lots. Winter didn’t bother asking why. Wherever Anderton was headed, she was walking as though it was where they were meant to be going.
She had first contacted him last year, back when she was still running the police investigation. At the time he’d been tied up with a case in Europe and hadn’t been able to get away. He’d asked her to keep him in the loop, and she had. Most months he received an email updating him on the situation. Because of the nature of the case there was rarely anything new. That didn’t matter, though. By the third email he’d concluded that the real reason for the updates was that she wanted the case to stay on his radar.
Not that it was about to fall off any time soon. This one had got him curious. It was the sort of puzzle he lived for. To start with, most murders happened without warning. They came completely out of the blue. The first you knew about it was when the call came through informing you that another body had been found. That hadn’t happened here. The year-long gap between murders made these crimes unusual, but what made the series unique was the MO. Most serial killers wanted to be there at the moment of death. That was a big part of the thrill. They needed to see the lights go off in their victim’s eyes. It gave them a massive ego boost. In that moment they were more powerful than God.
This killer hadn’t been there at the end. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to make sure he wasn’t. He’d gained access to each victim’s house, overpowered them, and then bound them to a kitchen chair with duct tape. After attaching a homemade bomb to their chest and wiring it so that it would be triggered when the kitchen door opened, he had left. All three victims were female, killed when their husbands came home from work. Basically he was using the husband as a murder weapon. Winter had come across killers who took a hands off approach before, but never to this level.
‘I guess this is where I’m supposed to ask if you had a good flight,’ Anderton said. ‘But since your plane was four hours late I don’t think I’ll bother.’
‘There was a mechanical problem. One that needed to be fixed immediately.’
‘I’d hope so.’
‘You’d be surprised. Most aircraft have something wrong with them. If you insisted they were a hundred per cent operational a hundred per cent of the time they’d never fly anywhere, and that’s not good for business. The reason they don’t fall out of the sky is because there’s so much redundancy built into the systems.’
‘And you’re okay with that?’ Anderton said.
‘So far, so good. I haven’t been in a crash yet. And I fly a lot.’
‘Yeah, well I’d prefer to think that everything’s in perfect working order.’
‘Not going to happen.’
‘Maybe so, but that won’t stop me from tell myself that. This is one of those rare occasions where ignorance is most definitely bliss.’
A short while later they arrived at a restricted area. There were signs promising that very bad things would happen to anyone who parked there illegally. Anderton’s SUV was next to a Vancouver PD cruiser. The SUV was a Mercedes, five years old and sparkling in the sunshine. Even the tyres were clean and gleaming. Anderton clearly loved her car. The card on the dash stating that she was on Vancouver PD business looked official enough. It made Winter wonder what else she’d kept from her cop days.
Anderton opened the trunk and he heaved his case into the back. It was a battered old Samsonite that he’d had forever and his whole life was in there. Since quitting the FBI, he’d been a person of no fixed abode. Home was whatever hotel suite he found himself booked into. Anderton slammed the trunk shut and got into the driver seat. Winter climbed into the passenger side and buckled up. He checked his phone again. Still no sign of that text.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Let’s go talk to Nicholas Sobek. Since he’s our client, it would be good to touch base. Plus there’s the added bonus that he witnessed the first murder. Two birds, one stone.’
‘I’ve got to warn you, he’s a bit strange.’
Anderton looked as though she was going to answer, then shook her head slowly. ‘It’s probably best if you judge that one for yourself.’
Nicholas Sobek still lived in the house where his wife had been murdered, which could definitely be classed as strange. As far as Winter was concerned things didn’t work that way. If the person you love is brutally murdered in the place you call home, you’re going to get straight on the phone to a realtor. You’re not going to spend another day there. You’re not going to want to spend another minute there. So far, Sobek had spent one thousand and ninety-four days there, and counting. That added up to more than a million and a half minutes.
Strange thing number two: Sobek had only left his house twice during the past three years, both times to visit his wife’s grave. On the anniversary of her death, he’d driven himself to Mountain View cemetery, arriving as the sun came up, and leaving as it set.
The house was on Balsam Place, a tidy, spacious cul-de-sac in Kerrisdale. The neighbourhood was to the south-west of Downtown Vancouver, prosperous and shiny, with wide streets and plenty of green. The homes weren’t Hollywood A-lister massive, but nor were they shacks. Each one sat on its own large plot of land. The garages were large enough to accommodate two cars and the yards were kept tidy by groundkeeping companies.
Anderton stopped in front of the large gate and waited for it to roll open. It was made from solid steel and looked relatively new. The ten foot wall surrounding the property was topped with sharp pieces of metal and glass, and looked new, too. Beyond the wall was a line of tall Douglas Firs. All you could see of the house was the occasional glimpse of the roofline. The overall impression was that this was a fortress rather than a home.
Anderton drove onto the driveway and parked directly in front of the garage doors. The move was smoothly executed, like she’d done this a hundred times before. There was no hesitation. She just drove up to the garage like she owned the place. Then there was the way the gates had opened for her. Usually there would be a conversation with whoever was watching the security camera, a quick back and forth to establish whether you were a friend or foe. Winter looked up at the house, then looked back at Anderton.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘I’m just wondering how this works, that’s all. Three years ago you were convinced this guy was the killer. Two years ago you were still trying to find a way to make the facts fit that scenario. Fast forward to now and you’re best friends.’
‘I wouldn’t go that far.’
‘You know what I mean.’
For a moment Anderton just sat staring up at the house. It was an impressive property. Five bedrooms at a guess, and a similar number of bathrooms. There would be a study for sure, and probably a gym, maybe even a home cinema. The architect had gone for an Art Deco look, bright white walls and elegant curves. There was no way this was built in the thirties, though. Or the twenties. Or the forties. Sometime during the nineties was a safer bet. If you wanted the world to know that you’d done good, this was the sort of place you would buy.
‘Nicholas Sobek is as keen as I am to see his wife’s murderer brought to justice,’ she said.
Winter kept quiet and waited for her to fill the silence. There were things he knew about her and plenty he didn’t know. He knew that since she retired she’d been working as a private investigator. And he knew that she only had the one client. He also knew that most retired cops had unfinished business, a case that haunted them to the grave.
‘I don’t like leaving a job half done,’ she said eventually. ‘The fact that the murderer is out there walking free kills me. But what gets me even more is the fact that in a little over twenty-four hours he’s going to kill someone else. I’d do anything to stop that happening. Anything. Working for Sobek means that I get to stay in the game. I get to keep chasing him.’ She nodded to the house. ‘Sobek’s got the means and he’s definitely got the motivation. I’ve got the skill set he needs to pursue his goal. Like I said, we’re both after the same thing here.’
‘So, you’re using him.’
‘Only as much as he’s using me.’
He waited for her to say something else. When it became clear that she was done, he said, ‘Anything else I should know?’
She answered with a smile that hinted at a whole treasure trove of secrets. Maybe she was keeping something back, maybe she was just screwing with him. Not that it mattered. They got out of the car and followed the path around to the front door. The grass in the front yard had been cut recently. Bright flowers filled the planters that lined the path. Winter checked his cell while they walked. Still no sign of that text. He became aware of Anderton looking at him over her shoulder.
‘A watched cell phone never seems to beep,’ he said.
‘If you say so.’
There were two security scanners attached to the wall of the porch. Anderton pressed her eye against the top one, and her thumb against the bottom. Ten seconds passed, then the door clicked open and a disembodied voice said, ‘I’m in the gym.’ It took a second to locate the speaker. It was hidden in the roof of the porch. Whatever Sobek was doing, it sounded like hard work. Winter hated gyms. He worked on the theory that you were as fit as you needed to be for the lifestyle you were leading.
The entrance hall was two storeys high with exposed beams and an ornate chandelier that sparkled and threw off shards of light. The floor was pine, the staircase wide. Modern paintings hung in brushed metal frames on the walls. Anderton led the way to a corridor that took them behind the staircase. The door hidden in the shadows opened on to the basement stairs. There were two more scanners fixed to the wall here. Anderton went through the same song and dance she’d gone through at the front door. Eye against the top scanner, thumb against the bottom one. There was a quiet click as the lock released.
‘How does Sobek know that I’m not forcing you to take me to him at gunpoint? Maybe I’m not even who I say I am.’
She answered with a look.
‘I’m only half joking, by the way,’ he added. ‘I’m figuring that the security precautions didn’t end at the gate and the walls. Am I right?’
‘Okay, you passed through a metal detector when you walked into the house, so unless your gun is made from polymer and doesn’t contain any bullets, then we’re good to go there. As for point two, your photograph was taken in the porch, and checked using facial recognition software. That’s why the door didn’t open straightaway. The photograph it was checked against came from me. I found an old one from your FBI days on the internet. You looked so young back then, almost wholesome. What happened?’
Winter smiled at that. ‘I take it all these security measures weren’t in place three years ago.’
‘Correct. The Sobeks had a burglar alarm, but forgot to turn it on as often as they remembered. The wall and gate wasn’t here either. Back then, Sobek wanted everyone driving up this street to see the house. Image was very important to him. Take a look in the garage and you’ll see what I mean. There’s an Aston Martin Vantage and an S-Class Mercedes in there, both cars just gathering dust. He’s also got a Cessna 206 that he hasn’t flown since the murder. There’s an airfield at Boundary Bay, twenty miles south of the city. That’s where he keeps it. The maintenance is all up to date, but it never flies anywhere.’
‘All this security, it’s like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.’
‘Maybe so, but nobody’s broken in during the last three years. On that basis you could argue that it’s having the desired effect.’
They descended the stairs in single file, Anderton still leading the way. The stairway was the same width as the basement door, the roof low, which made it feel claustrophobic. They could have been descending into an old Cold War bomb shelter, or a dungeon. At the bottom two corridors split off left and right. Anderton turned left. They passed another two doors, both closed, both made of brushed steel.
‘Since the murder, this is where Sobek has been living,’ Anderton said. ‘He’s got a bedroom, a kitchen, and an office down here. He’s even got a firing range.’
‘You’re kidding, right?’
Anderton shook her head. ‘I’m totally serious. The person who owned the house before Sobek was a bowling fanatic. He had a lane built down here. When Sobek bought it, he had all the machinery ripped out and converted it into a firing lane.’
‘Is he any good?’
‘He shoots better than I do. I’ve seen him hit the bullseye six times out of six.’
‘What’s the deal with the rest of the house?’
‘Everything up there is exactly how it was when his wife died. Sobek hasn’t changed a thing. It’s like some sort of shrine.’ Anderton glanced over her shoulder. ‘I told you he was strange.’
The corridor ended at a steel door that was identical to the ones they’d already passed. Anderton went straight in without knocking. The gym was fully kitted out, the equipment arranged neatly. There was a treadmill, an exercise bike, a crosstrainer and a multigym. A punch bag hung from a steel plate that had been bolted into the ceiling. Martial Arts weapons were displayed on a large board that had been fixed to one wall.
Sobek was lying on the bench press, pumping iron. The amount he was lifting equated to an Anderton, maybe even one and a half Andertons. Each time he pushed up he let out a long loud grunt. His arm muscles were bulging and the tendons in his neck were as taut as piano wires. He was in his mid-thirties with a full beard and piercing blue eyes. He did two more pushes then sat up and pulled his ponytail straight. It was straggly and shiny with sweat, and reached down past his shoulders. His face was red and he was taking deep, measured breaths.
He stripped off his T-shirt, grabbed a towel and started patting himself dry. He had good muscle definition on his arms and chest, and the full six pack. He hadn’t gone overboard, though. Working out was clearly an obsession, but he was a long way from being a steroid-enhanced freak show. There was a small key on the chain around his neck. Both hands were wrapped up with white boxer’s tape that had turned grey at the knuckles from where he’d been pummelling the punch bag. The T-shirt he put on was identical to the one he’d taken off. Plain and black. He dumped the towel on the back of a chair and walked over to Winter. For a moment, he just stood there staring.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Do you think I murdered my wife?’