No Comebacks
by Frederick Forsyth   
(Narrated by Nigel Davenport

No Comebacks

Mark Sanderson liked women. For that matter he also liked Aberdeen Angus fillet steaks, medium rare with tossed heart-of-lettuce salad, and he consumed both with equal if passing enjoyment. If he ever felt a little peckish, he rang up the appropriate supplier and ordered what he needed to be sent round to his penthouse. He could afford it, for he was a millionaire several times over, and that was in pounds sterling, which even in these troubled times are each worth about two US dollars.

Like most rich and successful men, he had three lives: his public and professional life as the golden-boy tycoon of the City of London; his private life, which is not necessarily what it means, for some men like to lead a private life in a glare of publicity; and his secret life.

The first was regularly chronicled in the financial columns of the major newspapers and TV programmes. In the mid-sixties he had started work for a real-estate agent in the West End of London with little formal education but a brain like a razor for a lucrative property deal. Within two years he had learned the rules of the game and, more importantly, how to break them legally. At the age of twenty-three he clinched his first solo deal, a mere £10,000 profit inside twenty-four hours for a residential property in St John's Wood, and founded Hamilton Holdings which remained sixteen years later the pivot of his wealth. He named it after the first deal he clinched, for the house had been in Hamilton Terrace. It was the last sentimental thing he ever did. By the early seventies he was out of residential property with his first million pounds and into office-block development. By the mid-seventies he was worth close to £5 million and began to diversify. His Midas touch was as shrewd in finance, banking, chemicals and Mediterranean holiday resorts as it had been in St John's Wood. City editors reported it, people believed it and the shares of the ten-division conglomerate grouped under Hamilton Holdings rose steadily.

His private life could be found in the same newspapers a few pages earlier. A man with a Regent's Park penthouse, Elizabethan manor in Worcestershire, chateau in the Loire valley, villa at Cap d'Antibes, yacht, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, and a seemingly endless succession of young and athletic starlets photographed in his company or envisaged in his four-metre circular bed, tends to have a compulsive fascination for the scribes of the William Hickey column. A mention in dispatches at the divorce hearing of a million-dollar film actress and a paternity suit from a dusky Miss World contender would have ruined him fifty years ago, but at the turn of this decade it merely proved, if proof were needed and nowadays apparently often is, that he could do it, which among the 'In' people of the West End of London is sufficiently remarkable to excite admiration. He was a much chronicled man.

His secret life was something else again, and could be summed up in one word — boredom. Mark Sanderson was bored out of his mind with the whole shooting match. The quip he had once coined — 'Whatever Mark wants Mark gets' — had become a sour joke. At thirty-nine he Was not bad-looking in a glowering, Brando sort of way, physically fit and lonely. He was aware he wanted someone, not hundreds of them, just someone, and children by her and a place in the country called home. He also knew he was extremely unlikely to find her, for he had a fan-idea of what he wanted and he had not met one in a decade. Like most rich philanderers, he would only be impressed by a woman who quite genuinely was not impressed by him, or at least the public him, the him of money and power and reputation. Unlike most rich philanderers he still retained enough capacity for self-analysis to admit this, at least to himself. To do so publicly would mean death by ridicule.

He was quite certain he would never meet her, when in the early summer he did. It was at a party in aid of some charity, the sort of thing where a boring time is had by all and the tiny balance left from the ticket money is sent to provide a bowl of milk in Bangladesh. She was across the room listening to a small fat man with a large cigar to compensate. She was listening with a calm half-smile that gave no indication whether she found the anecdote amusing, or the antics of the short man, who was trying to get an eyeful of her cleavage.

Sanderson drifted across and on the strength of a nodding acquaintance with the short film producer had himself introduced. Her name was Angela Summers, and the hand that took his was cool and long, with perfect nails. The other, holding what looked like a gin and tonic but turned out to be just tonic, bore a slim brand of gold on the third finger. Sanderson could not have cared less; married women were as easy as any others. He ousted the film producer and guided her elsewhere to talk. Physically she impressed him, which was unusual, and excited him, which was not.

Mrs Summers was tall and straight-backed, with a calm and handsome if not fashionably beautiful face. Her figure certainly was unfashionable in the lath-thin eighties — deep-bosomed, small-waisted, with wide hips and long legs. Her gleaming chestnut hair was coiled behind her head, and seemed to be healthy rather than expensive. She wore a simple white dress which improved a medium-gold suntan, no jewellery and only a touch of make-up round the eyes, which alone set her off from the other socialite women in the room. He put her age at thirty, and later learned it was thirty-two.

He assumed the suntan came from the usual winter skiing holiday extended into April or from a spring Caribbean cruise, meaning she or her husband had to have the money to live that way, which the other women in the room also had. He was wrong on both counts. He learned that she and her husband lived in a chalet on the coast of Spain on the basis of her husband's tiny earnings from books about birds and her own from teaching English.

For a moment he thought the dark hair and eyes, the carriage and the golden skin might mean she was Spanish by birth, but she was as English as he was. She told him she had come to visit her parents in the Midlands and a former school friend had suggested she spend a week in London before returning. She was easy to talk to. She didn't flatter him, which suited his mood, nor did she burst into peals of laughter if he said something mildly amusing.

'What do you think of our West End society?' he asked as they stood with backs to the wall watching the party.

'Probably not what I'm supposed to,' she replied thoughtfully.

'They're like a lot of parakeets in a jamjar,' he muttered savagely.

She raised an eyebrow. 'I thought Mark Sanderson was one of the pillars of it.' She was teasing him, quite gently but firmly.

'Do our doings penetrate down to Spain?' he asked.

'Even on the Costa Blanca we can get the Daily Express,' she answered deadpan.

'Including the life and times of Mark Sanderson?'

'Even those,' she said quietly.

'Are you impressed?'

'Should I be?'

'No.'

'Then I'm not.'

Her reply caused him a sense of relief. 'I'm glad,' he said, 'but may I ask why?'

She thought for a few moments. 'It's really rather phoney,' she said.

'Including me?'

He was glancing down at the gentle rise and fall of her breasts under the simple white cotton when she looked round at him.

'I don't know,' she said seriously. 'I suspect that given half a chance you might be quite a nice person.'

The reply caught him off balance.

'You could be wrong,' he snapped, but she just smiled tolerantly as to a fractious small boy.

Her friends came to reclaim her a few minutes later, gushed to Sanderson and prepared to leave. On the way to the lobby he whispered a request to take her out to dinner the following night. He had not asked in that way for years. She made no arch rejoinder about the dangers of being seen out with him, assuming he would take her where there were no photographers. She considered the request for a moment, then said, 'Yes, I think I'd like that.'

He thought about her all that night, ignoring the bony and hopeful model he had found at Annabel's in the small hours, lying awake, staring at the ceiling, his mind filled with a fantasy vision of gleaming chestnut hair on the pillow beside him and soft, golden skin under his touch. He was prepared to bet she slept calmly and quietly, as she seemed to do everything else. He moved his hand across the darkness to caress the model's bosom, but found only a diet-starved puppy's ear and an exaggerated gasp of feigned arousal. He went into the kitchen and brewed coffee, drinking it in the darkened sitting room. He was still sitting there looking out over the trees of the park when the sun rose over distant Wanstead marshes.

A week is not long to have an affair, but it can be enough to change a life, or two, or even three. The next evening he called for her and she came down to the car. She wore her hair piled high on top of her head, a white ruffled blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves ending in a froth of lace at the wrists, a wide cinch belt and black maxi-skirt. The outfit gave her an old-fashioned Edwardian air that he found exciting because it was in contrast to his own private thoughts about her of the night before.

She talked simply but with intelligence and listened well when he talked about his business, which he seldom did with women. As the evening wore on he became aware that what he already felt for her was not a passing attraction, nor even simple lust. He admired her. She had an inner calmness, a self-composure, a serenity that rested and relaxed him.

He found himself talking to her more and more freely about things he usually kept to himself — his financial affairs, his boredom with the permissive society that he at once despised and used like a bird of prey. She seemed not so much to know as to understand, which is far more important in a woman than mere knowledge. They were still talking quietly at the corner table after midnight when the restaurant wanted to close. She declined in the nicest possible way to come up to his penthouse for a nightcap, which had not happened to him in years.

By the midweek he was admitting to himself that he was smitten like a seventeen-year-old boy. He asked her what her favourite perfume was, and she told him it was Miss Dior, of which she sometimes permitted herself a quarter ounce duty free on the plane. He sent a minion to Bond Street and that evening gave her the largest bottle in London. She accepted it with unaffected pleasure, and then immediately protested at the size of it.

'It's far too extravagant,' she told him.

He felt embarrassed. 'I wanted to give you something special,' he said.

'It must have cost a fortune,' she said severely.

'I really can afford it, you know.'

'That may be so, and it's very nice, but you mustn't go buying me things like that again. It's sheer extravagance,' she told him with finality.

He rang up his Worcestershire manor before the weekend and had the heating in the pool turned on, and on the Saturday they motored down for the day and swam, despite the chill May wind that forced him to have the sliding glass screens wheeled round three sides of the pool. She appeared from the dressing rooms in a one-piece swimsuit of white towelling and the sight of her took his breath away. She was, he told himself, a magnificent woman, in every sense.

Their last evening out was on the eve of her departure for Spain. In the darkness of the Rolls parked in a side street round the block from where she was staying they kissed for a long time, but when he tried to slip his hand down her frock she gently and firmly removed it and put it back in his lap.

He proposed to her that she leave her husband, divorce him and that they marry. Because he was evidently very serious she took the suggestion seriously, and shook her head.

'I couldn't do that,' she said.

'I love you. Not just passingly, but absolutely and completely. I'd do anything for you.'

She gazed forward through the windscreen at the darkened street. 'Yes, I think you do, Mark. We shouldn't have gone this far. I should have noticed earlier and stopped seeing you.'

'Do you love me? Even a little.'

'It's too early to say. I can't be rushed like that.'

'But could you love me? Now or ever?'

Again she had the womanly sense to take the question completely seriously.

'I think I could. Or rather, could have loved you. You're not anything like you and your reputation try to make you out to be. Underneath all the cynicism you're really rather vulnerable, and that's nice.'

'Then leave him and marry me.'

'I can't do that. I'm married to Archie and I can't leave him.'

Sanderson felt a surge of anger at the faceless man in Spain who stood in his way. 'What's he got that I can't offer you?'

She smiled a trifle ruefully. 'Oh, nothing. He's really rather weak, and not very effectual...'

'Then why not leave him?'

'Because he needs me,' she said simply.

'I need you.'

She shook her head. 'No, not really. You want me, but you can get by without me. He can't. He j ust hasn't the strength.'

'It's not just that I want you, Angela. I love you, more than anything else that's ever happened to me. I adore you, and I desire you.'

'You don't understand,' she said after a pause. 'Women love to be loved and adore to be adored. They desire to be desired, but more than all these together a woman needs to be needed. And Archie needs me, like the air he breathes.'

Sanderson ground his Sobranie into the ashtray.

'So, with him you stay ... "until death us do part",' he grated.

She didn't rise to the mockery but nodded and turned to stare at him. 'Yes, that's about it. Till death us do part. I'm sorry, Mark, but that's the way I am. In another time and another place, and if I weren't married to Archie, it might have been different, probably would. But I am married to my husband, and that's the end of it.'

The following day she was gone. He had his chauffeur drive her to the airport to catch the Valencia plane.

There are very fine gradations between love and need and desire and lust, and any one can turn into an obsession in a man's mind. In Mark Sanderson's all four did, and the obsession grew with the mounting loneliness as May turned into June. He had never been baulked in anything before, and like most men of power had developed over a decade into a moral cripple. For him there were logical and precise steps from desire to determination, to conception, to planning, to execution. And they inevitably ended in acquisition. In early June he decided to acquire Angela Summers, and the phrase that ran incessantly through his mind when he studied the stage of conception of the method was from the Book of Common Prayer.

Till death us do part. Had she been a different woman, impressed by wealth, luxury, power, social standing, there would have been no problem. For one thing he could have dazzled her with wealth to get her; for another she would have been a different woman and he would not have been so obsessed by her. But he was going round in a circle, and the circle would lead to madness, and there was only one way to break it.

He rented a small flat in the name of Michael Johnson, contacting the letting agents by telephone and paying a month's rent and a month's deposit in cash by registered mail. Explaining he would be arriving in London in the small hours of the morning, he arranged for the key to be left under the door-mat.

Using the flat as a base, he telephoned one of the no-questions-if-it's-legal private inquiry agencies in London and stated what he wanted. Hearing the client wished to remain anonymous, the bureau needed money in advance. He sent them £500 in cash by special delivery.

One week later a letter came to Mr Johnson stating the commission had been completed and the account balance was another £250. He sent it by post, and three days later received the dossier he wanted. There was a potted biography, which he skimmed through, a portrait taken from the flyleaf of a book about birds of the„ Mediterranean, long since out of print after selling a few score of copies, and several photos taken with a telephoto lens. They showed a small, narrow-shouldered man with a toothbrush moustache and a weak chin. Major Archibald Clarence Summers — 'He would have to keep the Major,' thought Sanderson savagely — expatriate British officer living in a small villa half a mile back from the coast outside an undeveloped Spanish coastal village in Alicante province, halfway between Alicante and Valencia. There were several shots of the villa. There was finally a rundown on the way of life of the villa, the morning coffee on the tiny patio, the wife's morning visits to the Castillo to teach English to the Contessa's three children, her inevitable afternoon's sunning and swimming on the beach between three and four while the major worked on his notes about birds of the Costa Blanca.

He started the next stage by informing the staff at his office that he would be staying at home until further notice, but that he would be in daily contact by phone. His next step was to change his appearance.

A small hairdresser advertising in Gay News was most helpful in this regard, cutting Sanderson's longish hair to a very 'butch' crew-cut and dying it from its natural dark chestnut to a pale blond. The operation took over an hour, would be good for a couple of weeks and was accompanied by much appreciative cooing from the hairdresser.

From then on Sanderson made a point of driving straight into the underground car park of his apartment block and taking the lift to the penthouse, avoiding the lobby porter. By telephone from his apartment he secured from a contact in Fleet Street the name and address of one of London's leading archive libraries specializing in contemporary affairs. It contained a superb section of works of reference and a copious collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings. After three days he had obtained a reading ticket in the name of Michael Johnson.

He began with the master heading of 'Mercenaries'. This file contained subfiles and cross-indexes bearing such titles as 'Mike Hoare', 'Robert Denard', 'John Peters' and 'Jacques Schramme'. There were other subfiles on Katanga, Congo, Yemen, Nigeria/Biafra, Rhodesia and Angola. He ploughed through them all. There were news reports, magazine articles, commentaries, book reviews and interviews. Whenever a book was mentioned, he noted the name, went to the general library section, withdrew the volume and read it. These included such titles as History of Mercenaries by Anthony Mockler, Congo Mercenary by Mike Hoare and Firepower which dealt exclusively with Angola.

After a week a name began to emerge from this welter of snippets. The man had been in three campaigns and even the most notorious of the authors appeared to speak warily of him. He gave no interviews and there was no photograph of him on file. But he was English. Sanderson had to gamble that he was still somewhere in London.

Years earlier, when taking over a company whose main assets were in blue-chip property, Sanderson had acquired a small menu of other commercial firms which included a cigar merchant, a film-processing laboratory and a literary agency. He had never bothered to be shot of them. It was the literary agency which found the private address of the author of one of the memoirs that Sanderson had read in the library.

The man's original publisher had no reason to be suspicious and the address was the same as the one to which the slim royalty cheques had once been sent.

When the property tycoon visited the mercenary/author, on the pretext of being from the man's own publishers, he found a man long gone to seed and drink, over the hill, living on his memories. The former mercenary hoped that the visit might herald a reprint and further royalties, and was plainly disappointed when he learned it did not. But he brightened at the mention of an introduction fee.

Sanderson, passing himself off as Mr Johnson, explained his firm had heard a certain former colleague of the ex-mercenary might be thinking of publishing his own story. They would not want another firm to get the rights. The only problem was the man's whereabouts...

When the ex-mercenary heard the name, he grunted.

'So he's going to come clean, is he?' he said. 'That surprises me.'

He was unhelpful until his sixth large whisky and the feel of a bundle of notes in his hand. He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Sanderson.

'When the bastard's in town he always drinks there,' he said.

Sanderson found the place that evening, a quiet club behind Earl's Court. On the second evening his man came in. Sanderson had seen no picture of him, but there was a description in one of the mercenary memoirs, including the scar on the jaw, and the barman greeted the man by a first name which also fitted. He was rangy, wide-shouldered and looked very fit. In the mirror behind the bar Sanderson caught a glimpse of brooding eyes and a sullen mouth over the pint of beer. He followed the man home to a block of flats 400 yards away.

When he knocked on the door ten minutes after watching the light go on from the street, the mercenary was in a singlet and dark slacks. Sanderson noted that before opening up, he had killed the light in his own hallway and left himself in shadow. The light in the corridor illuminated the visitor.

'Mr Hughes?' asked Sanderson.

The man raised an eyebrow. 'Who wants to know?'

'My name is Johnson, Michael Johnson,' said Sanderson.

'Warrant card,' said Hughes peremptorily.

'Not fuzz,' said Sanderson. 'Private citizen. May I come in?'

'Who told you where to find me?' asked Hughes, ignoring the question.

Sanderson gave him the name of his informant. 'Not that he'll remember in twenty-four hours,' he added. 'He's too boozed up to remember his own name these days.'

A hint of a smile appeared at the corner of Hughes's mouth, but there was no humour in it.

'Yeah,' he said, 'that fits,' and jerked his head towards the interior. Sanderson moved past him into the living room. It was sparsely and shabbily furnished, in the manner of a thousand rented premises in that area of London. There was a table in the centre of the floor. Hughes, following behind, gestured him to sit at it.

Sanderson sat down and Hughes took a chair opposite him.

'Well?'

'I want a job done. A contract. What I believe is called a hit.'