Peter Lovesey: The Headhunters

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Peter Lovesey The Headhunters
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    The Headhunters
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    Триллер / на английском языке
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Peter Lovesey

The Headhunters


‘ I could cheerfully murder my boss,’ Gemma said.

‘Is he a slave-driver, then?’

‘Oh, no.’

‘A groper?’

‘No. He’s nice.’

The logic was lost on Jo, but her friend had a wild imagination- which was why she was fun to be with. ‘You want to kill him and he’s nice?’

‘Not nice.’ Gemma stretched her small, neat mouth into a large, forced smile. ‘Na-eeeeece.’

‘I get you,’ Jo said. ‘I’ve met people like that. Drive you mad.’

‘Imagine working with one.’

Starbucks on North Street, Chichester, was frantic as usual. It was always a haven for mothers with fractious children but on Saturdays entire families with shopping and strollers rearranged the seating and turned the narrow walkway into an obstacle course. Mercifully, the staff turned up the music to drown the sound of infants. But the coffee tasted right and the eats were fresh so where else would you go? While Jo got in line Gemma used her one-time hockey skills to shimmy to the far end and bag two of the much-sought-after purple armchairs, almost knocking over the elderly couple who had just got up from them.

‘So?’ Jo asked when they were seated with their cappuccinos.


‘How would you do it? What lurid little fantasies have been whirring in that head of yours?’

‘Kill my boss, you mean?’ Gemma was shouting to be heard above a Robbie Williams track. ‘With something extremely slow-acting. I’d definitely want to clock that stupid smile being wiped off his face when he sees what’s coming to him. I could force-feed him marshmallows.’

Jo took a moment to think and laughed.

‘Or drown him in golden syrup,’ Gemma said, her weird mental process churning away now.

Jo joined in the game. ‘Sit him in a jacuzzi until he passes out. They say it’s dangerous to overdo it.’

‘You’ve got the idea. A non-stop massage by a team of gorgeous Polynesian girls until he’s rubbed to nothing.’

‘I can’t top that. You’ve obviously given this some thought.’

‘It keeps me going.’

‘What exactly is your job? You’ve never told me.’

‘I’m his PA. In the office next door, guarding the inner sanctum. Anyone wants to see old sweetie-pie, they have to get past me, the battleaxe. I take the phone calls, open the mail, tell the staff he’s in a meeting when he isn’t. Anything unpopular, I break it to everyone else. The result is I have no friends at work. They see me coming and they think extra duties at best.’

‘What’s the work?’

‘Printing. Everything from parish magazines to pizza vouchers. It’s massive and hi-tech. Well, the machinery is, not the staff. We’re small and plodding. The old printing skills have been replaced by laser technology. A halfwit could do it. And a halfwit is running it.’

‘Your nice Mr Cartwright?’

‘You want the measure of the man? This is something that happened this week. Some political agent ordered some election literature, the stuff that gets pushed through your door. We printed his leaflet and there was a typo in the headline. It read, “‘My Erection in Your Hands Again.”’

Jo almost choked on her blueberry muffin. ‘Gemma, that’s priceless!’

‘Our client didn’t think so. His people delivered two hundred before someone noticed.’

‘Love it.’

‘Yes, but who took the rap? Muggins, as always. Our charming Mr Cartwright never picks up his phone. “Tell him I’m out, my dear,” he said when I tried to transfer the rabid caller. “And remind him politely that he must have been sent the proof to check and passed it. But as a gesture of good faith we’ll reprint the entire batch.” So it all comes down to me. And that isn’t the end of it. I have to find the wretched printer who cocked up and tell him he’s in deep shit and had better stay late and redo the job and deliver it himself.’

‘I’m getting the picture now. Your Mr C is a delegator.’

‘Some sort of reptile, for sure.’

‘I don’t think you heard me.’

As likely as not she did. Her brain had its own anarchic way of working. She was already planning a better fate for Mr Cartwright. ‘I wonder if he’s allergic to anything. You can kill someone with a single peanut.’

‘That wouldn’t be slow, would it?’

‘You’re right. No pleasure looking at that. Forget the peanut. Here’s a neat one. We tell him he’s been selected for one of those reality programmes on TV and it’s going to be rigged so that he wins a million. All he has to do is a filmed sky-dive, and then, of course, when he tries to open the parachute… ’

‘That isn’t a slow death either.’

‘But it’s on film, sweetie. I can watch it again a million times and in slo-mo if I wish.’

This whole conversation was off the wall and not meant to be treated as real, but you’d be a party pooper to say so. Instead, Jo prolonged it by injecting some logic. ‘All these ideas have a fatal flaw. You’re going to be left with a dead body and they’ll do a post mortem and trace it back to you.’

‘The Polynesian girls?’

‘If we’re not in fantasy land, Gemma, the Polynesian girls won’t massage everything away. At some point he’s going to expire and they won’t want to massage a corpse.’

The mouth turned down at the edges. ‘You’re saying I’m stuck with Denis bloody Cartwright, aren’t you?’

‘Unless you want a life sentence, yes.’

‘He isn’t worth that.’ Gemma’s eyes gleamed as yet another idea came to her. ‘How about getting him a life sentence?’

‘What-stitch him up?’

‘Worth thinking about. It would get him off my back, wouldn’t it? It’s the sort of lingering fate I was talking about. I could visit him in prison and gloat.’

‘How would you do it-stitch him up, I mean? You’d need a body.’

‘Trust you to throw a spanner in the works.’

‘And if he’s as charming as you say, the jury might give him the benefit of the doubt.’

Gemma sighed. ‘Dead right. He’d charm their socks off.’

‘The woman sounds mental,’ Rick said when Jo told him. Rick was her latest bloke. He ticked most of the boxes: confident, clever and gorgeous to look at, with sun-bleached hair and blowtorch blue eyes, but there’s always a drawback. The drawback was Sally, a so-called ‘older woman’ Rick had met when he did a survey on the big house she bought in Bosham. He insisted on seeing this Sally every Sunday for a roast lunch-and Jo didn’t like to think what happened after lunch. She wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement, but she had the feeling it wouldn’t be wise to interfere-yet.

‘She wasn’t totally serious. We were being silly, dreaming up ways to kill this freeloading boss of hers, but it was obvious she’s thought about it quite a lot, so there’s a little bit of intent behind the joking.’

‘Waste of space, is he, this Mr Cartwright?’

‘A complete nerd, according to Gemma. I haven’t seen him, but I’ve met his sort before. They ooze charm and get what they want without ever doing a hand’s turn.’

‘He can’t be clueless if he’s managing a print business.’

‘It gets managed no thanks to him, Gemma says.’

‘Is he married?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘The thing is,’ Rick said, ‘scarcely anyone is alone in the world. You rub Cartwright out and then you find there’s a wife and six kids, or a little old mother. If he’s as charming as we’re led to believe he’s going to leave behind a bunch of friends desperate to find out what happened to their dear old buddy.’

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