By Tony Bassett
The assassin slid his sleek, silver Porsche Boxster into the narrow Victorian mews and switched off his Miles Davis CD. He reached into the glovebox and pulled out his favourite toy – a rare 92S Beretta.
‘This should be child’s play,’ he muttered as he cut the engine.
He checked his watch. It was just before 7 p.m. and still light. Sunset wasn’t for a while yet. Time to get ready, he thought as he put on a pair of black leather gloves and screwed the silencer into place.
He loaded ten rounds in the magazine and put the safety catch on.Then he climbed out, opened the front boot and concealed the gun beneath the spanners and wrenches in his plumber’s bag.
The car was parked between two rows of charming, two-storey houses. It was just a brief walk from there to the concert hall, where he would carry out his mission.
He smiled to himself because, a short distance away at the far end of the terraced street, lay the Kensington Road. Afterwards, he could join the fast-flowing traffic and disappear into the anonymity of the London night.
Slipping off his blazer and trousers as discreetly as possible, he slid his legs into light-grey overalls and buttoned them at the front.
As he fastened his tunic, his eyes rested briefly on the purple wisteria clambering up the wall of the white-washed house opposite. Red geraniums, crowded into two wooden tubs, added colour to the street, which lay in the shadow of the high-rise Royal College of Art building.
He glanced around. The cobbled lane was deserted.
After collecting his tool bag, he put on a grey, peaked cap, locked the car and set off at a brisk pace towards the Royal Albert Hall’s southern entrance.
His brow was already glistening in perspiration. He ventured past the glass entrance doors and came to the stage door on his left. He waited there for an opportune moment, which came a few minutes later.
Some men wedged the two wooden doors open and began carrying in some camera equipment from a lorry. Then a minibus drew up, packed with chattering musicians.
A pert young woman with blonde hair was perched behind a reception desk on the left, behind a glass screen, as he slipped through the doors.
‘Yes. Can I help?’
The workman set down his bag. ‘A leak in the toilets.’
Her face was blank. ‘First I’ve heard of it.’
He frowned. ‘Well, I got a call two hours ago.’
She shrugged. ‘I’ll have to call the manager. Where did you say the leak was?’
‘Disabled toilet, behind Block L in the stalls.’
She dialled a number on her phone as two men shuffled in, wheeling a trolley laden with sandwiches and desserts, all wrapped in cellophane.
‘Oh thanks, lads,’ he joked. ‘I’ll take my supper in the champagne bar.’ The two men ignored him.
‘Special order from Miss Kay’s dressing room,’ one of the trolley men announced. Recognising their lapel badges, she waved them through the turnstile before her call was answered.
‘Is Graham there?’ she asked. ‘Do you know where he is?’
Two other men with badges plodded into the reception area, carrying flowers. She beckoned them through as well while the musicians began filing in.
‘Can you ask him to call me?’ she asked, swivelling to face the wall.
By the time she turned back, the assassin had slipped through the barrier along with the flowers.
‘What the hell?’ she cried as he disappeared from view.
* * *
While the receptionist desperately continued calling the deputy manager, ticket holders in the auditorium were beginning to take their seats.
Nick Colton, a journalist on The Post newspaper, and his wife Greta had arrived early to avoid any last-minute rush.
They were sitting near the back of the stalls but nonetheless had a clear view of the stage.
A few minutes after they took their seats in Block L, a stout man clutching a ticket could be seen stepping gingerly down the aisle, peering at the end of every row. He was in his mid-forties with receding greyish hair held back in a ponytail, and was wearing gold-rimmed glasses.
‘Oh, the view’s just as good from here,’ the man said, while nodding at the couple and smiling.
The stranger gazed around the vast arena until his eyes finally settled on the stage.
‘Yes, this will be fantastic.’ He peeled off his jacket, placing it on the empty aisle seat beside him, and settled himself down beside Colton.
‘I’ve just switched seats,’ he informed the couple.
Greta Colton, a slim, olive-skinned brunette, leaned forward and smiled at the man. ‘Oh really?’
‘Yes, I was sitting over on the other side of the hall a few minutes ago. Then this young couple arrived. They said they’d made a late booking and failed to get two seats together. The woman had J51 while I had J50. She asked would I mind swapping tickets so they could sit together. I felt sorry for them. You pay all this money and want to sit together, don’t you, if you’re a couple?’
Colton frowned. ‘So this seat you’ve taken here, L110, was originally the boyfriend’s seat?’ he asked.
‘That’s right. The view is just as good though. It’s also near the bar and toilets.’ He showed him his ticket, which stated, ‘Door 8. Stalls. Row L. Seat 110.”
Colton, who’d just celebrated his thirty-eighth birthday, tutted. ‘I think he should buy you a drink in the interval for doing that.’
Greta, two years his junior, bent forward again. ‘Is that the couple you mean?’
A blonde woman in a black dress several blocks of seats away was waving her hand in gratitude. Beside her was a ginger-haired man with wire-framed glasses in a blue shirt and jeans.
The man squinted across at the couple. ‘Yes. That’s them.’
As he waved back, Colton noticed a Cartier watch on the man’s wrist.
More and more fans of the American soul singer Loretta Kay were drifting in. It was now just after seven o’clock. The show was due to start in less than an hour.
‘I’m glad we came early,’ Greta remarked. ‘It’s good to miss the crowds.’
Colton, who was slim with short, dark hair and a studious look, grinned. ‘When we were in the bar a few minutes ago, I overheard someone say that Loretta’s concerts rarely begin on time, so we may have a long wait.’
He gazed round. One by one, or in pairs, ticket holders were arriving and filling nearby seats.
‘You a big fan?’ Colton asked the newcomer. He gazed intently at the man’s chocolate brown eyes which lay at the centre of a slightly podgy face.
‘You could say that. I’ve travelled all over the world to see her. She was sensational when I saw her at a concert in Atlantic City last year. Afterwards she signed her autobiography for me.’
Greta peered across. ‘What did she write?’
‘Oh just, “To David, my number one fan. All my love now and always, Loretta Kay.” I’ve got all her albums. Do you know that, over the years, I’ve seen her in America, Germany and Britain? If she sees me, she always remembers my name.’
Colton smiled. ‘It’s great to have an interest like that.’
‘She’s a living legend,’ David continued. ‘She may be in her late sixties now, but she’s note perfect.’
‘What’s your favourite song of hers?’ asked Greta.
‘It’s probably End of the Dance.’ He sighed. ‘Unfortunately, my wife’s not a fan.’
‘That’s a pity,’ Greta replied, gazing over her left shoulder to watch for any new arrivals.
As she did so, she caught a glimpse of a man through a gap in the tall, red velvet curtains that hung near the exit behind them. Tall and bearded, he was wearing grey overalls with a peaked cap and seemed out of place among the well-dressed music fans searching for seats. He was just a few feet away and staring towards her. Embarrassed, she quickly averted her gaze.
‘What’s your wife’s choice in music?’ Colton asked.
David never replied. At that moment, the couple were startled by the muffled sound of a gunshot behind them. It was followed by two more in quick succession.
Concert-goers nearby screamed. Some leaped from their seats. Security staff in the gangways raced around like rookie sailors in a cyclone. Two of them ventured bravely in the direction of the noise.
Greta shrieked and sat trembling in her light-green dress. Colton gazed about him in shock. Loretta Kay’s most loyal fan slumped forward in his seat with the grace of a toppled statue. As his head struck the seat in front, blood began to drip from his skull. His dislodged glasses slipped down his face and dropped to the floor. He emitted a croaking noise.
Colton bent down anxiously and listened. The man was trying to speak. The faint words sounded like, ‘Please help me.’ But nothing more passed his lips.
‘My God!’ he whispered to Greta as other spectators stared in their direction. ‘I think he’s dead.’
‘Dio mio!’ cried Greta as blood trickled down seat L110 and formed a pool on the blush-coloured carpet. Colton stretched his right arm round the man’s chest and gently returned him to his seat. The man’s head rolled back, his eyes open and lifeless. His arms lay still.
Raised voices echoed round the auditorium. Some of the audience raised their hands in horror. Some remained rigid in their seats, transfixed by shock.
Greta was so frightened she was nearly sick, and crouched down on the carpet. Her husband handed her a white handkerchief. Then, as she seemed to recover, he helped her to stand and wrapped his arms around her. He hugged her while, together, they stared down at David’s body.
For a moment, Colton felt himself standing as still and expressionless as the statue of the Prince Consort outside. He’d written much over the years about violent death in his newspaper, but he’d never witnessed it in real life before.
Even when his mother had died suddenly, he’d recoiled at the suggestion he might view the body.
The cold reality of the present tragedy dawned on him. Other concert fans were rushing to the dead man’s side.
He stared into Greta’s appalled face.
‘What the hell happened?’
‘Nick, there was a man in a grey uniform and cap looking through the curtains behind us. He was staring at us. I’m sure he pointed something. It could have been a gun.’ She gasped and began sobbing.
As a Fleet Street reporter, Colton’s first thought was, ‘This is a cracking good story. I better ring the bloody news desk.’ Then he had another thought.
He released his embrace and stepped round the body before reaching the aisle.
‘Back in a minute,’ he shouted as well-meaning audience members, unaware the man’s life had ebbed away, rushed to see if they could stem the blood.
‘Nick, where are you going?’
‘To find the man you saw.’
He ran along the walkway, passing several access doors that led to the stalls, until he reached the main south exit.
‘A grey uniform and cap,’ he repeated to himself.
He dashed outside onto the stone concourse and caught a glimpse of a man in grey. He was running away from the hall clasping a tool bag.
As he sprinted along the pavement, Colton guessed the singer known in the press as the ‘Sovereign of Soul’ would be unable to perform that evening.
But he was not concerned about their evening being ruined. He was intent on following the man.
His quarry remained in sight as he hurried past the south-western side of the hall and passed the Imperial College Union building on his left. Colton observed the man was wearing distinctive, black work-boots with red laces. He pursued him past a row of five-storey mansion blocks in Kensington Gore until, finally, they arrived in a mews.
The man in grey, apparently unaware he was being followed, opened the front boot of his car and placed his bag inside. Then he jumped into the driver’s seat.
Colton darted to the passenger window and tapped on the glass. The driver had piercing blue eyes and a short, dark, goatee beard. He’d removed his cap to reveal a mop of black hair.
The journalist could see the driver was in no mood to answer questions. He started the car and the engine purred into life. Colton slipped his phone from the breast pocket of his grey shirt and hunted for the camera button.
But, before he could snatch an image of the driver, the car had careered away up the lane. He managed to take just a single shot of the speeding Porsche before noting down its registration.
Then, as he stood alone on the cobbled street between two tubs of red geraniums, he drafted the first few sentences of a news report and then called his newspaper, The Post.
‘News desk,’ growled the voice of the night news editor.
‘It’s Nick. Nick Colton.’
‘Hello, mate. You were on days. Haven’t you got a home to go to?’
‘You’re right, I was working earlier. Listen, I’m at the Albert Hall. A guy in the audience has been shot.’
‘Yes, there’s something on Twitter about it. I’ve sent Luke Foster down. He should be there in forty minutes. Can you link up with him?’
‘Yes, no problem. But listen. I was right there when it happened. The guy was sitting next to me, for God’s sake.’ His breathing was erratic. The dark reality of the gruesome crime was swirling through his mind.
‘You all right, mate?’ the desk man asked.
‘Yes, I’ll be OK, but the shock’s still with me.’
‘I’m not surprised. You sure you’re all right?’
‘Yes. I can file some copy straight away, if you like.’
Within minutes, the call had been transferred to one of the staff, who listened carefully and typed as Colton slowly dictated. His report began,
This reporter witnessed a brutal murder last night when a concert-goer was shot dead in the seat next to mine at London’s Royal Albert Hall. I chased the killer into the street after the brazen attack and watched as he drove away in a silver Porsche.
He stated the victim’s name was David, was in his forties, lived in London and he was an avid fan of the singer Loretta Kay.
He also described how the suspect was wearing grey overalls. Then he sent his image of the car to the picture desk.
When he returned to the hall’s south entrance, Colton discovered a police cordon had been set up. Two harassed policewomen were having to cope with a huge crowd of disgruntled Loretta Kay fans. He’d been working on newspapers for fifteen years, but he’d never seen such a smartly dressed rabble, he thought.
He guessed immediately that, as he’d feared, the sell-out concert had been abandoned.
‘I’ve paid a hundred and thirty pounds for tickets,’ one man shouted across the cordon.
‘They’ll start paying out refunds tomorrow,’ a policewoman called back.
Colton pushed his way through the throng and waved his ticket in front of the younger constable, who had short, blonde hair and a harassed expression. ‘Can you let me through? I’ve got a ticket. I only slipped out for a moment.’
He added in a low voice, ‘I know about the incident. I was right there when it happened.’
‘You were? Why didn’t you say so? Let me see your ticket. All right. Go to the stalls and look for Block L. One of our detectives will need to speak to you. Just show them the ticket.’
She raised the tape and he ducked underneath.
The entrance to their block was by now cordoned off. A policeman was standing in front of the doors. Colton made his way instead towards the entrance to Block J, but found a melee of concert-goers blocking the corridor.
Chaos reigned. Stewards in red jackets were appealing for ticket holders to be patient. For a while, he was unable to make his way through. Then he reached the doorway and he spotted Greta’s green dress.
‘Not so fast, sunshine,’ said a burly policeman who was standing at the entrance alongside a policewoman. ‘You can’t go in there.’
Colton grimaced. ‘I was sitting next to the guy who was shot. I’ve just been away for ten minutes.’
‘What’s your name, sir?’
‘Would you wait there, sir?’
The constable ventured into the auditorium and approached a man in his mid-forties with untidy, dark hair who was speaking to Greta. The pair were standing some distance away from the corpse, which was still lying outstretched in seat L110. A forensic team in white clothing were huddled round it.
Greta’s companion was dressed in a crumpled grey suit. His purple tie was hanging loosely round his neck. He moved away from Greta briefly to exchange words with the constable. Then he beckoned the journalist inside and beamed at him.
‘Mr Colton?’ he asked. ‘DCI Haynes. I’m in charge of the investigation.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he replied, shaking the chief inspector’s hand. ‘Has my wife filled you in on what we saw?’
‘Yes, you were sitting next to her when this terrible incident happened?’
‘That’s right. I’d been chatting to the victim.’
Haynes spoke with a pronounced London accent and gave the air of being an experienced, long-serving policeman.
‘So I understand,’ he said. ‘Look, I’ve got a few things to ask you.’
Greta was sitting at the end of one of the rows of seats as Colton stepped towards her. She leaped up and hugged her husband, her face alive with questions.