The first pages of a novel. Always useful to get a feel for the writing style and the beginnings of the story. No embellishments, just whatever I put on the opening page(s) which I'll post here one by one.
(There are 26 books, and yes, you could check on Amazon's 'Look Inside', but not everybody does that).
I hope you find it useful.
Marc Portman #3 of 5
Cuidad Madero – Gulf Coast of Mexico
Competence. It’s a sure-fire way to get yourself noticed by a suspicious security professional.
Most people on the street look unassuming, engrossed in their own brand of the everyday. They don’t have what’s called ‘presence’ – at least not the threatening kind. Many professionals on the other hand, if they’re not mindful, look anything but. Something in their training and motivation gives them an indefinable aura that sets them apart from those around them.
To a watchful eye, it’s the heads-up, can-do attitude that spells potential trouble. Like a wolf in a woolly coat, it might look like a sheep and smell like a sheep; but if it walks like something hairy, it’s time to take a closer look.
Which was why I was shuffling along with my head down, hiding beneath a grubby two-sizes-up faded and beat-up camo jacket and hood with make-do patches on the elbows. I was stopping every now and then to change hands with the box I was carrying, an old television carton which looked a lot heavier than it actually was. But that was part of the plan. Looking vulnerable, which I did by stopping every few yards and flexing my fingers, means you don’t appear to be a threat.
The man standing outside the gates of the workshop yard didn’t look the sympathetic type. The bulge under his coat told me and anybody who cared to look that he was armed, and he worked hard on living the image; he was big and shaven-headed, and sneered every time I stopped. When he spat on the ground and it landed too close to my foot to be an accident, I figured it was his way of passing the time and intimidating people he didn’t like the look of.
I dropped my shoulders and wrapped a piece of my sleeve around my hand, then grabbed the string again and went to shuffle past him. By then he’d lost interest and turned his head to check the street the other way.
Just before I drew level with him I pushed my fist through a slit in the cardboard and pulled out a piece of four-by-two hardwood timber I’d found in a dumpster back down the street. It was eighteen inches long and had a nicely balanced feel to it, although I doubt the guard would have agreed. When I swung it at the back of his head he went down and out without a sound.
I dragged him off the street and through the pedestrian door set in one of the gates, and rolled him behind an old car body that was slowly rotting into the ground. I slapped a length of heavy tape across his mouth and did the same on his wrists and ankles, and just for luck used a further length to secure both ankles and wrists together so he couldn’t kick out when he woke up.
Inside his coat I found a Czech-made Browning semi-automatic in a nylon holster. It was a nice piece but hadn’t been cleaned in a while. In his side pocket was an unopened packet of condoms and a fat silencer the size of a small beer bottle. It looked professionally made but unbranded. It didn’t smell used, so I figured he probably got it out when he wanted to impress the ladies, with the condoms on stand-by in case he got lucky.
I stripped out the magazine and tossed it out of sight behind the car, and threw the gun through the window into the rotting interior. I pocketed the silencer and went back outside for the box. I’d already scanned for cameras on an earlier pass when a couple of cars had driven through the gates, and it had given me a brief glimpse inside before the guard had slammed them shut. I hadn’t spotted any obvious lenses, but that meant the place I was about to hit was either innocent of any wrongdoing or the owners didn’t feel the need because they had a tight control on the entire area.
I figured the second option.
I dropped the box out of sight inside the gates and closed the pedestrian door behind me. I took a semi-automatic out of my coat pocket and tried the silencer for size. It had a rubber insert which fitted tightly around the barrel, and the silencer was probably good for one-time use only. But since I wasn’t planning on starting a long shooting war, it would do fine.
The building had once been a metal workshop, evidenced by a rack of rusting metal sheets at the back of the yard and the remains of an overhead pulley system for hauling heavy loads through a set of sliding doors at the front. These were shut tight with a heavy coating of grime over the inspection glass set in one side. There were no windows overlooking the yard, although I figured there had to be an office of some kind on the first floor – a further indication that the people here didn’t concern themselves with snap inspections by the local police or on anybody else busting in uninvited.
It told me everything I needed to know about them and this part of the city.
A set of metal stairs in one corner led up to the first floor and a walkway running out of sight on the side of the building. It would be the obvious way in but I gave it a miss. In old buildings the vibration set up on metal stairs the moment you step on them is a clear give-away.
Instead I walked down the side of the building, stepping past a pile of twisted metal and ancient car parts, following a concrete path that looked like it had been recently swept of rubbish.
I came to a window and ducked beneath it. A conversation was going on inside, but it was just a rumble of voices and I couldn’t understand the words enough to follow the subject. I counted three different speakers, all male. One of them sounded pissed off and kept interrupting the others, who shut up the moment he began speaking. He was either the boss man or the biggest and meanest; it didn’t make much difference to me.
I crept along to the rear of the building and found another door and a path leading to an outside toilet. It smelled awful and hadn’t been cleaned in years. No surprise there.
I turned back and tried the door handle. It felt smooth and well-used, and moved without a sound.
The door opened outwards, and brought with it a smell of mould, damp and oil – and cigarette smoke. I slipped inside and found myself in a tiny lobby with a wooden door facing me. A flight of concrete stairs to one side led up to the first floor.
The voices were coming from the other side of the door.
I took the stairs on my toes, careful to avoid a layer of grit where the plaster had crumbled off the rotting walls, and reached a single door on a small landing. It was open a crack and I edged it back until I could see inside.
The room had once been an office. All it held now was an armchair, a wooden table and a camp-style bed. The air seeping out from inside smelled of stale bodies, ditto food and quiet desperation.
The armchair was currently filled with a reclining twin of the gate guard downstairs, dressed in creased pants and a filthy shirt. He had a three-day growth of beard and a big gut and was snoring softly, and sporting a pistol on his chest with one hand resting on the butt.
The bed held the slim form of a teenage girl, her hands tied with rope. Her name was Katarina, and she was the thirteen-year-old daughter of local federal judge Antonio da Costa. Just weeks before, the judge had declared war on the cartels in the region and vowed to bring them to justice for their murderous, racketeering activities.
Kidnapping Katarina had undoubtedly been intended to ensure that particular war got stopped in its tracks. The message was simple: Judge da Costa either pulled his head in or he never saw his daughter alive again. The tactic had worked before in other parts of Mexico, and the kidnappers were probably counting on a satisfactory repeat outcome.
The grim truth, however, was that the judge would probably never see his daughter again, whatever he did. The cartels didn’t take prisoners for fun and rarely returned them even when they’d got what they wanted. To them, violence of a kind that would have made I S look almost restrained was the only thing that mattered, and they performed it with chainsaws, just so everybody got the message.
I’d been called in on this job by a local security contractor working for da Costa. He’d quickly found he and his colleagues were too well-known, so he needed an outsider. He told me that the kidnap gang had been identified as a small spin-off cell from the Los Zetas cartel centred on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Formed after the arrest of the cartel leader, Alejandro Morales, or ‘Z-42’ as he was known, this particular cell was taking a huge risk, not least from the Los Zetas, who were still a ruthless force throughout the country, but from the northern-based Sinaloa Federation who were looking for a way of taking over the Los Zetas business and would deal ruthlessly with any competition.
The security firm had discovered through a local mouthpiece that Katarina was being held on a little-used industrial area on the south-eastern edge of Cuidad Madero, where the sprawl of low-cost housing began to leech into the surrounding hills. The infrastructure here was poor and the area almost abandoned by the local politicians, and the only people remaining on the industrial site, which was gradually being cleared by heavy-handed developers, were a few die-hard businesses and homeless families with nowhere else to go. It made a police or army raid virtually impossible to carry out successfully as these hangers-on had no choice but to do the bidding of the cartel.
Thus it had to be a one-man mission and pray for good luck.
Katarina looked okay to me. It was hard to tell, but her clothes were still clean and she didn’t look in pain, so I was guessing the men hadn’t touched her. What her state of mind might be was a different thing altogether. Right now, though, she was looking straight at me, eyes bulging imploringly over the gag that had been stuffed into her mouth and secured by wire looped around her head and cutting into her cheeks.
I held a finger to my lips and signalled for her to turn her head away. If the guard woke up and saw her face, he’d know instantly what was about to happen. I also didn’t want her to see what would go down if things went wrong.
I checked the wooden floor in front of me; it was bad news. The planks looked thin and unstable, warped by time, heat and decay. The moment I stepped through the door, unless the men downstairs figured it was Mr Sleepy up and about, I’d be on a twenty-second countdown to get the girl off the bed and out of here.
And our only way out was back down the stairs.
Hard Cover - Marc Portman #3 of 5 - http://geni.us/35vN
Marc Portman #2 of 5
The man I knew as Arash Bagheri was walking into a trap. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
It’s hard watching that kind of thing happen while knowing you’ve got to get the man out. It’s three parts telling yourself you should have seen it coming and one part knowing it’s your job to do something and it has to be right. Recriminations can come later.
Bagheri was approaching a street named Kandhar, not far from Tehran’s central fruit and vegetable bazaar in the south of the city. A local CIA asset, he was there to conduct an exchange meeting with a man named Farshad Kasimi, an old friend who worked as a laboratory technician for the nearby Iranian Centre for Fuel and Technology Research laboratories. Or, as the site is more accurately known among those who watch these things, the workshop where they build deadly weapons with which to kill people they don’t like.
I had no idea what precisely Bagheri was here to exchange with his friend, only that it had to involve money going in and information or technology coming out. That’s usually the way of these operations. My role was to make sure he came away without getting burned.
And right now that was beginning to look unlikely.
I’d scouted the area the previous evening, which was close by the ring road known as the Azadegan Expressway, noting the street layout, the exits and escape routes, and left a vehicle parked in the shadow of a small park down the block just in case. Forward planning is a major element of getting this stuff right and staying out of trouble.
I hadn’t seen anything about the surroundings to ring alarm bells, unless you call being stuck in a traffic jam on the expressway alongside a parked fuel tanker while the driver had a smoke and a chat with a friend as normal. But what I had seen of Farshad Kasimi the technician, who I’d followed for a while, told me he wasn’t the full deal. If you’re going to put your faith in someone while spying for a foreign country, notably the USA, you should choose a man who isn’t loud and gregarious and seems to like spending money freely. For a lowly technician in a state-run industry, that felt all wrong to me.
With these reservations in mind, I’d got here nearly an hour ago and found a position atop a deserted three-storey warehouse. The rooftop gave me a view of the streets near the bazaar and of the expressway running past in an east-west direction, and at least three exits if I need them.
It was seven a.m. and the morning was heating up rapidly. I already had a coating of motor fumes, smoke and dust tasting gritty on my tongue, which sipping water from a plastic bottle did nothing to shake. And the tarpaulin I’d rigged up in the shadow of an air-conditioning unit wasn’t doing much to keep the heat or the flies off me. But I knew I wouldn’t have long to wait before we could be on our way out of here; the moment I saw Bagheri appear and do his thing, I’d be ready to pick him up and scoot.
The traffic in the area was a mix of private cars, buses, cabs and pickup trucks of every kind, all being buzzed by motorbikes like flies around rotten fruit. Everybody seemed eager to get their business over and done as soon as possible before the heat of the day really set in, which meant a lot of pushing and shoving and blowing of horns.
Impatient people, the Iranians.
As I checked Kandhar Street through binoculars, I saw a familiar figure appear on the next block. From the photo I’d been shown I knew it was Bagheri. He was slim and of medium height, with receding hair down the middle and a heavy moustache. He was walking slowly and carrying a bag of fruit, and looked relaxed. He was even chewing on an apple to add a touch of casual colour, as he’d been trained to do.
Not standing out; that was essential for this business, but easier said than done when your life is on the line and you feel - know - that you’re being watched because you’re in a society where everybody is suspect, even the innocent.
I ran another check of the streets around Kandhar, but there was no sign of Kasimi. He was either suffering the pains of a hangover or he’d been delayed by traffic, which is easy enough in a frenetic, crowded city like Tehran, where time is a fluid concept and apologies are always effusive and well-meant.
Then I discovered I was wrong and the day was about to get blown apart.
Close Quarters - Marc Portman #2 of 5 - http://geni.us/4DG5
Marc Portman #1 of 5
I know the sound of a semi-automatic weapon being cocked. Some might mistake it for a briefcase lock mechanism or a workman slapping a power unit into a high-speed drill. It’s similar but not the same.
And I’d just heard it in the corridor outside my hotel room.
I stepped over to the door and listened. Heard the brush of footsteps on the carpet, a hushed cough and nasal breathing. The movement stopped outside the next door along and I was guessing it wasn’t the room maid.
Wary of getting my eyeball blown out, I took a quick look through the peephole.
Three guys, heads in a close like they were having a team talk. Their features were blown out of shape by the fish-eye lens, but I made out dark, unshaven faces and the standard Colombian attire of crumpled jackets and pants.
Two of the men were holding semi-automatics with big macho can suppressors, while the third, who was gesturing a lot and therefore the leader, was holding a machine pistol. It looked like a Steyr TMP, a nasty weapon capable of spitting out 900 rounds a minute. Lucky you can’t get a magazine that big. The men looked jumpy, turning to watch both ends of the corridor, like they had no business being there.
Definitely not cops.
FARC, at a guess. That’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – the national guerrilla group with a brutal reputation for high-profile kidnappings and killings. If not them it would be one of the drugs cartels in town looking for an easy ransom. Whoever they were, I was thinking the man next door had been selected as their next source of income.
It was none of my business.
I’d heard my neighbour in the bar the previous evening. He was an American mining engineer, middle-aged and well-dressed, head of a minerals company. He’d been friendly and chatty and everyone within earshot knew he was in the country talking business with the government. Careless of him. What the two guys he’d hired as security clearly hadn’t told him was that here in Colombia, you don’t go round pushing that kind of detail about yourself. It’s asking for trouble.
Worse, he’d dismissed his two minders saying he’d got some shopping to do before heading home and could handle that all by himself.
I watched the man with the Steyr lean across and knock on the door. He called out in accented English, ‘Sir? Room service.’
Like I say, it was none of my business. I could wait right here and let it blow on by; let it be somebody else’s bad-hair day. No point inviting trouble.
I picked up my overnight bag, opened the door and stepped out into the corridor.
For a second nobody moved. The nearest gunman, short, heavy in the gut and sporting a large moustache, rolled his eyes at me in surprise. The other two were busy waiting for my neighbour’s door to open. None of them were expecting any interference from the hotel staff or guests.
Moustache was the first to move. He made an ‘O’ of his mouth and began to haul his gun round at me.
I threw my bag at the other two to distract them, then stepped forward and kicked Moustache into the opposite wall. He bounced back with an ooff and dropped his semi-automatic right into my hand. I smacked him across the head with it and turned to face the others.
The man with the Steyr was already looking up in surprise from the bag at his feet, and his colleague was only marginally slower. There was no time for niceties; if the Steyr began firing, I’d be mincemeat. I shot them both, Steyr first, then his friend, the suppressed shots sounding flat in the confines of the corridor, a round each to the head to reduce the chance of a reflex firing.
‘Hey! What the-?’ The engineer was standing in the doorway, a bag in one hand, briefcase in the other, white around the eyes as he saw the blood and bodies lying right where he usually picked up his Herald Tribune.
I reached forward and grabbed his collar, dragging him out into the corridor, then picked up my bag. ‘Express check-out,’ I said, and hustled him towards the emergency stairs. We had to get out of here now.
Not that he came easily. ‘What the hell is this – who are you?’ he demanded, trying to break free. He was pretty strong and wasn’t making it easy to save his skin.
‘Those men were here to snatch you,’ I told him. I kneed the emergency door open and pushed him towards the stairs. ‘If you’d argued or fought back, they’d have cut their losses and killed you where you stood. They’ll have friends who still might. The choice is yours: you haul ass and come with me and do exactly as I say… or you stay here and die.’
He complied but I had to nudge him all the way down the stairs and out through a narrow door close to the kitchens. I was hoping we didn’t bump into hotel security along the way. They’d just be doing their job, but I didn’t want to take a chance that they were in on the set-up and have to start taking them out.
I opened the door and we stepped outside into a blanket of warm, spicy air and the rasp and clatter of city traffic in downtown Bogota.
And more trouble.
The Watchman - Marc Portman 1 of 5 - http://geni.us/1xVL
DEATH AT THE OLD ASYLUM
Inspector Lucas Rocco No 8
Late summer 1964 – Picardie, France
Fouad Hamal eased the Mercedes-Benz 220S to a stop at the top of a gentle rise and turned off the engine. It had been giving off a harsh, metallic click-clack ever since leaving Marseille. The sound was at one with its silver-grey coachwork, now much faded and bruised by time and wear, and the stained and battered hand-written TAXI sign in the front window. As a taxi driver himself, Hamal knew cars, and there were signs that this one had been given a cheap rebuild after being written off in an accident. The doors didn’t close properly, the chassis creaked incessantly and only the quality of German engineering beneath the bonnet had kept it going this far.
In any case, there was nothing he could do about it; it wasn’t his car and the sooner he could get shot of it along with the three passengers sleeping in the back, the better.
He eyed the soft, rolling landscape of Picardie, northern France, with a growing sense of unease. Unlike the streets of his home in Marseille, the near-featureless fields and slopes here, revealed in the growing light of early dawn, were unwelcoming and scarily open.
The air was chilly to his sun-baked skin, and he wanted nothing more than to be back to the warm and familiar and his wife, Simone. He’d even begun to fantasise about the pleasures of a pleasant breakfast for two; maybe fried eggs, yoghurt and rghaif pancakes, all washed down with mint tea… although right now a large black coffee, strong enough to float a dead dog and with a side order of a jambon beurre would do fine.
Dealing with the promised hell and eternal damnation could come later.
‘What is it? Why have you stopped?’ The old man, seated centre back between his two sons, was awake again. When not asleep he’d grumbled incessantly for most of the long overnight drive, about the suspension, the roads, the discomfort and everything else that seemed to displease him. Clearly sleep had done nothing to sweeten his sour disposition.
Hamal seriously wanted to tell him to shut the hell up, but he’d seen the weapons carried by the two younger men. All three were, like himself, Moroccan, and newcomers to France. They were unshaven and wore crumpled suits and shirts showing signs of the long, cramped journey. Worse, the two younger men were either cops or military, he wasn’t sure which.
Two sides of the same dangerous coin.
‘Answer me, damn it!’ The old man again, voice gravelled by fatigue and more than a hint of spite.
‘Just checking the map, sir,’ Hamal replied softly, eyes flicking from the road in front to the rear-view mirror. He was exhausted after the long drive, with only one decent halt at a truck stop, where he’d been able to make a brief telephone call, and two comfort breaks on quiet stretches of road to interrupt the monotony. Not that there had been rest or comfort; even when the two younger men were out of the car, the air had been punctuated by hissing arguments between them about the need for progress, while the old man, when awake, had been staring at him throughout the journey as if trying to bore a hole in the back of his head.
And therein lay a disturbing element for Hamal: he’d recognised the old man the moment he’d seen him, bringing back memories of Morocco before he’d fled to France. He’d tried to brush them off but the thoughts were too embedded to dispel easily.
Perhaps the old man remembered him, too. If so, it made matters worse. It was like travelling with a scorpion in his back pocket.
Hamal started the engine and made moves as if to drive on, shifting in his seat and adjusting the mirror. He was playing for time, his mouth dry and sour. Surely the men in the back must be able to hear the pounding of his heart and the blood racing through his veins? He had no idea what was about to happen but he hoped it would bring a sense of relief and allow him to go home. Whatever their reason for travelling in this furtive and joyless manner, he had a growing feeling of dread hovering around him like a storm cloud.
‘Let us go on, then!’ The old man sank back with a sigh and rubbed his lined face with a sound like sandpaper on wood.
The younger man on the old man’s left back-handed Hamal hard on the shoulder. ‘You heard him, imbecile. What are you waiting for?’
Hamal didn’t respond. His eyes were on a vehicle coming up behind them. It had appeared out of a side road a few kilometres back. A brief flash of its headlights was the signal he’d been told to look out for during his call at the truck stop, and it had followed him at a distance.
Now it was approaching at speed, kicking up a dust swirl in its wake and pulling up behind.
Death at the Old Asylum - Rocco #8 of 8 - https://geni.us/SdYcgIw
ROCCO AND THE PRICE OF LIES
Inspector Lucas Rocco No 7
1964 - Picardie - France
The first letter was delivered in a yellow Citroën 2CV fourgonnette.
Drifting along a curving street of elegant houses, tall trees and sculpted gardens in Le Vésinet, an outer suburb to the west of Paris, the van wore the familiar colour of the PTT, the French postal service. It caught no more than a glance from the area’s residents - at least those who were up and about - who valued their leisurely life style as much as they did their privacy, and PTT yellow was commonplace and safe, as much a part of everyday life as fresh baguettes, Johnny Hallyday and, when called for, enthusiastic renditions of La Marseillaise.
Only one old man, on a morning stroll with a tiny rat-like terrier, looked faintly surprised at the van’s appearance. He stopped to check his pocket watch, the driver noted. He would find it read seven am.
Earlier than normal for the mail. But this delivery wasn’t in any way normal.
He gave the old man a casual lift of his hand. The other responded automatically before dragging the dog away from a lamp post in mid-performance, causing it to hop inelegantly with one rear leg stuck out at right-angles. The driver watched in his mirror as the old man continued on his way, no doubt bound for a bowl of coffee and a nice warm brioche.
The driver’s name was Georges Peretz. In spite of his initiating the exchange of greetings he didn’t know the old man, whose name was Baptiste Dupannet, from a hole in the hedge. But as postal workers were known to interact with their customers and he’d been instructed to act accordingly, it would allow him to pass by and be quickly forgotten. And Peretz, who’d lived his life careful never to stand out, was unremarkable to a degree that made him almost invisible.
It was what made him so useful to his employer.
He slowed after a hundred metres, studying the name plates on the gates of the houses. The one he wanted was Les Jonquilles and, if the directions he’d been given were correct, it should be just up ahead.
In truth neither the van nor Peretz belonged to the PTT. And had Dupannet been a little more alert, he might have noticed that the mustard-coloured vehicle bore none of the official insignia normally emblazoned on the side panels or doors. But that was a deliberate omission; any official PTT member seeing it might question another delivery van encroaching on their patch, and that was to be avoided at all costs. Postal workers in the Paris area were not noted for their casual acceptance of anyone trying to take over their jobs. But for the general public like Baptiste Dupannet and his rat-like dog, it was yellow and that was all they needed to see.
Peretz pulled into the kerb a few metres past an impressive set of sturdy metal gates. A mail box was set into the wall to one side, with an ornate metal bell-pull to alert the occupants of a delivery. Pulling a leather mail bag strap over one shoulder, a piece of misdirection for idle onlookers, he climbed out and approached the mail box. The gates were open, he noted, a clear signal that a vehicle was expected and that there was little time to delay.
He extracted a plain white envelope from the bag and dropped it into the slot, casting a quick glance through the railings. Beyond the gates was a gravel drive between twin sweeps of immaculate lawns and colourful flower beds. He couldn’t see any of the flowers after which the house was named, but that was because it was late in the season.
The drive ran up to the front of a mansion. It was imposingly elegant, the structure impressively broad, with double sets of tall French windows opening onto a stepped patio flanked by two sand-coloured griffins. The roof of the building was a traditional mansard design topped with black filigree ironwork, giving it a faintly menacing air. Peretz couldn’t help a touch of nervousness, sensing eyes watching him with suspicion from behind the darkened windows. If he were fortunate enough to live in this gilded place, he decided, he’d be just as wary of everyone and anyone who came near.
He gave a firm tug on the bell-pull, hearing the rattle of the connecting wire behind the wall followed by a distant tinkle from the house. Then he returned to the van and drove away. It was a close call; just around the curve in the road he saw an official looking black limousine approaching, its indicator signalling to turn into the open gates.
Peretz was several kilometres away and merging into the traffic heading towards the city before he finally felt fate wasn’t about to clamp a heavy hand on his shoulder. Anything to do with government officials made him nervous, coming from a belief fostered by his peers that such people were always watchful and skilled at spotting those with ill intent. Blending in was a skill he’d cultivated many years ago and came as naturally to him as it did game birds in deep cover, but even game birds got caught. He had two further deliveries to make, neither of them in the immediate area, and the sooner he was away from each one, the sooner he could report the jobs completed successfully.
But first he had to make a telephone call.
He spotted a café up ahead, on the edge of a small industrial area. It looked quiet enough and he slid into a car park at the rear, tucking the van between a beer truck and a weather-beaten garage with rusted sheet-metal sides. He’d seen no signs of police vehicles in the area, but there was no point in tempting providence by leaving the van out in the open.
The café was quiet save for four men in work clothes hunched over rolls and large cups of coffee, and the delivery driver in a grey uniform exchanging paperwork with the owner. The air smelled of stale beer, tobacco, fresh coffee and sweat-stained clothes, an aroma familiar to Peretz from the regular haunts he used every day. He caught the eye of the owner and ordered a coffee, and made a signal with one hand for the use of telephone. The owner pointed to a short hallway at the rear of the room and moved towards the coffee machine, scooping up a cup on the way.
Peretz found the phone on the wall above a shelf holding a clutch of directories. He dialled a number and waited. It rang three times before being picked up.
‘It’s done.’ His instinct was to say more, that he’d completed the delivery before the man left for the office as instructed and had done so without incident. But it wouldn’t be well received. The man he was calling had little time for unnecessary words. All he needed to know was that his orders had been followed to the letter. No more, no less.
‘Good. Call me only when you’ve completed the next two, not before. Space them out, as I instructed.’ A click ended the call.
Peretz replaced the phone, feeling a shiver of relief down his back. It was ridiculous at his age, feeling like a kid in front of an angry headmaster. But he knew others in the man’s employ felt the same. The soft voice had carried no hint of threat, but it was there all the same, lurking beneath the surface like a hungry pike. They were paid well, but employees who did not measure up were never forgiven and quickly removed.
He dropped the phone back on its rest and returned to the bar, where he drank his coffee, paid up and left. By the time he got back in the van the owner would have trouble remembering anything about him.
He opened the flap of the mail bag, revealing two more white envelopes just like the first. He had twenty-four hours in which to deliver them. He knew nothing of the contents, but he was familiar enough with the man he’d just spoken with to know that the recipient of this first letter was probably finding his morning omelette curdling in his stomach like a round of cheap Camembert.
'Rocco and the Price of Lies - #7 0f 8 - https://geni.us/vCJzXXk
ROCCO AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Insp Lucas Rocco #6
1964 – Picardie, France.
JoJo Vieira didn’t know what to make of back-country roads. A Paris-born voyou and proud of it, anywhere outside the familiar streets of the city’s north-western banlieues was an alien world. He especially didn’t care for any location where food, drink, entertainment or a chance to make an easy few francs weren’t immediately available. And this remote spot, deep among the fields of northern France, had none of those.
He swore in frustration, his smoker’s rasp startling a few birds and a solitary cow nearby. The battered moped he’d been riding until a couple of minutes ago was deader than yesterday’s cold mutton, and his efforts to propel the machine forward had proved futile. He’d tried working the pedals, but his legs weren’t up to it, weakened by a lifetime of bad habits and little exercise. He took the cap off the petrol tank and shook the handles, hearing only a faint movement of liquid inside. Barely half a kilometre from where he was now standing, the engine had begun to cough intermittently, before giving a death-rattle and drifting to a complete stop.
The moped was already a step down from the motorbike he’d borrowed from his brother-in-law, Nico; but that had developed a flat tyre yesterday and he’d been forced to abandon it on the outskirts of Beauvais. Even if he’d possessed a repair kit he wouldn’t have known how to use it; yet another of life’s skills that had eluded him. Short of cash and desperate to avoid public transport, he’d stolen the moped from outside a café. It was a poor choice, as he’d just discovered; it had held barely sufficient fuel to get him even this far.
Now he was on a narrow, deserted patch of rough tarmac in the middle of nowhere, the surface dotted with cowpats old and new, shining wet from a recent fall of early morning summer rain. To cap his misery, his shoes, made of finest Italian leather according to the market stall owner in Clichy, had turned out to be cheap Moroccan fakes and were now little more than damp cardboard. His once sharp suit, of which he’d been proud, now hung like a rag around his skinny shoulders, the fabric dotted with fragments of straw from a cold and uncomfortable night in a filthy, rat-infested cowshed back down the road.
He hurled the petrol cap away in impotent fury. It glittered briefly in the sunlight before falling into the ditch a few metres away. He’d have to walk, there was no other choice. Worldly-wise JoJo wasn’t, but he had instincts enough to know that he couldn’t stand around waiting for good fortune to come along, because it so rarely did.
He had to reach Amiens. Then he’d be safe.
Inspector Lucas Rocco would make sure of that.
Rocco and the Nightingale - #6 0f 8 - http://geni.us/W5XcSNJ
ROCCO AND THE SNOW ANGEL
A Rocco novella
Picardie, France. 1964.
The man was very dead.
A bullet hole in the centre of the forehead will do that, thought Inspector Lucas Rocco, although lying in a field in northern France in the dead of winter is hardly a recipe for a long life. The wind out here had a habit of slicing through you on its way south, taking your breath away and chilling you to the core like frozen salami. Not like his old stamping ground of Clichy, in Paris, where the buildings and bistros provided warm retreats even on the coldest of nights.
‘I said you wouldn’t believe it.’ Local garde champêtre Claude Lamotte waved at the open countryside before them, which was a small part of his patrol area. ‘I can hardly believe it myself, out here . I thought it was a dead sheep at first. Then… that.’
That, on closer inspection, had revealed a man lying on his back with arms and legs spread wide, eyes staring up at the grey early dawn.
Rocco sighed and pulled his long coat around him as he felt his face beginning to tighten under the relentless chill. At any other time the blanket of white would have been scenic, even welcome, covering all manner of blots on the rural Picardie landscape.
But not now.
‘Good job you checked. How long ago did you find it?’ It was too early in the day for murder, in his view, although long experience had taught him that death was no respecter of timetables.
‘About thirty minutes. I came and got you immediately. No idea how long he’d been here, but it can’t have been more than an hour or so, going by the snow covering.’
A line of depressions already being filled in by wind-blown snow told their own story: the dead man’s footprints led in a straight line from the gate. Then they had stopped. One moment he’d been standing there, then he wasn’t.
Rocco’s interest level increased. A puzzle.
Instinct told him there would be little or no evidence here, no vital clue to pinpoint precisely what had happened or why. That would have been too easy; a murder scene concocted for the theatre or the big screen, where clues were piled conveniently one on another waiting for the eager cop to make sense of it in no time at all. Out in the living world the reality was that the elements often conspired with wrong-doers to confuse and confound any investigation, leaving no-one the wiser, least of all the workaday cop.
‘It’s like he was playing snow angels,’ Claude murmured.
Claude pointed at the position of the limbs. ‘We played it as kids. You lie down in the snow and… ’ He flapped his arms and one leg wide, then stopped and crossed himself. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean any disrespect.’
Rocco said nothing, intent on trying to understand what could possibly bring a man to end his days lying here in the middle of a snow-covered field with a bullet hole in his head. Neat. Undramatic. Convenient.
Especially when, judging by the direction of the man’s footprints and the disturbance of snow by his feet, he had been walking into the field and had stopped for some reason, and turned to face the gate.
Why? Had he seen somebody? Changed his mind about venturing further into the open snow?
Or had he been following instructions?
Rocco tried telling himself he was being fanciful, that a gangland-style execution could have visited this peaceful backwater. But he’d seen it too many times before in other parts, where killings were carried out in a way that conveyed a very visible message to others. So why not here? And the truth was he’d seen violence not a few kilometres from here that in many ways outdid anything the street rats in Paris could conceive of.
He turned to study the field beyond the body, to check he wasn’t misreading the signs. Nothing. Just a blank space leading nowhere.
He squatted for a closer look at the body. The entry wound was small and neat, dead centre between the eyes. There was some blood, as one might expect, a small seepage around the hole and running into the hairline at the back of the head. He’d have to get Dr Rizzotti to check that later. The man was in his late sixties at a guess, with thinning hair gone grey and a neatly-trimmed goatee. He was dressed in a heavy coat and shoes, both of good quality – which Rocco knew something about – and looked well-fed; hardly common in a poor rural area where most inhabitants scratched a living from the soil, the men in traditional bleues and the women in black or sombre greys.
He’d looked healthy, too.
Until someone had decided he shouldn’t be.
Rocco and the Snow Angel - https://www.canelo.co/books/rocco-and-the-snow-angel-adrian-magson
DEATH AT THE CLOS DU LAC
Inspector Lucas Rocco #4
Spring 1964 – Picardie – France
The man was standing on the bottom of the therapy pool in the Clos du Lac sanitarium, his white cotton shirt billowing out like gossamer in the clear, blue water. Staring up through the glass-panelled roof at a pale, three-quarter moon bathing the world in an eerie light, his expression was one of deep melancholy. But that may have been because his face was some way beneath the surface, and breathing was a thing of the past.
Garde Champêtre Claude Lamotte’s rubber-soled boots crunched with grit as he moved along the side of the pool for a closer look. Behind him a woman in a nurse’s uniform was sobbing quietly, reluctant to come closer. Somewhere in the distance a door creaked open and shut repeatedly, a lonely drumbeat in the night.
The combination of sounds and atmosphere, more than the sight of the body, caused the hairs on the back of Claude’s neck to stir uncomfortably. Responsible for policing the area around Poissons-les-Marais in rural Picardie, he was accustomed to moving around the lakes and rivers and marshes in the small hours, inured to the sometimes sinister mists and dark waters and sudden unexplained rushes of hidden movement in the night. But a death in this place, a supposedly secure haven of luxury and quiet, was something else entirely.
He propped his shotgun in the corner by the door and sniffed at the chlorinated air. It reminded him of his army days and the enforced swims with fellow conscripts every morning. The only difference then was they never had to contend with finding corpses in the water. Not real ones, anyway.
He shivered in spite of the clammy warmth, and gripped his flashlight for reassurance, irritated by the spider-touch of fear crawling up his back. Maybe this was what the training had been all about: finding stiffs in pools and remaining calm.
Signalling to the nurse to stay back, he forced his breathing to settle and knelt with a grunt by the edge of the water. A residue of cold moisture from the ribbed tiles soaked through his heavy cord trousers. At this level he could see every detail of the pool and its grisly contents, lit by a number of underwater lights spaced along one side. A faint mist was lifting off the surface as the colder air from outside met the warmer temperature inside. He debated shedding his jacket and boots and going in. Maybe there was a trace of life left in those staring eyes, a remote chance that he could keep that thread going.
Then a glance at the man’s feet decided him against it. He felt a cold tremor go through him. ‘Merde!’ The word slipped out unbidden, and he glanced guiltily at the nurse. ‘Sorry.’
A large metal milk churn was resting on its side on the tiled bottom of the pool. It was attached to the dead man’s ankles by a heavy chain, the links bright and glistening against the dark of his trousers. Holding the chain in place was a padlock.
According to the nurse, from the time she’d noticed the lights on and had come to investigate, to when she had finally rushed out of the pool house to seek help, the man must have been in there for at least twenty minutes, probably longer. Even if Claude could get the chain off, it would take a kiss of life of which only God himself would be capable to bring the man back from whatever dark and distant place he’d gone to.
‘A telephone. I need to call this in.’ He had to get Lucas Rocco here. He’d make sense of it. He was an experienced investigator, accustomed to this kind of stuff.
He stood and followed the nurse as she hurried away to a desk near the entrance to the pool house. The movement made his stomach lurch, and he fought against the urge to let it all go. He’d seen his share of fights, stabbings, shootings and the gut-churning results of car crashes and agricultural accidents over the years. But nothing like this. It seemed worse, somehow, in a setting associated with health, to see death standing here so casually, so cavalier and blatant.
There was no answer from Rocco’s house in the village of Poissons les Marais a kilometre away, so he rang the office in Amiens and left a message. The duty officer recognised Claude’s voice.
‘The inspector’s been called in to an unexplained death in the town centre,’ he said. ‘I’ll get a message to him. Is it urgent?’
‘Very,’ Claude breathed. ‘Tell him I’ve got another dead one for him, even more unexplained. And he’ll need Doctor Rizzotti and his swimsuit for this one.’ Rizzotti was the Amiens area’s forensic representative, a self-confessed amateur seconded from his role as a GP to fill a post vacant now for two years. But the doctor was good, and Rocco had faith in his abilities.
Claude had no wish to return to the pool, but he felt bad leaving the dead man alone. Not that the poor soul would notice, of course, but it just felt wrong. Besides, as first man on the scene, Rocco would want his opinions, so he walked back across the tiled floor and knelt once more by the edge of the water.
He focused on the knuckles of the man’s right hand, just breaking the surface. The fingers, with a sprouting of coarse, dark hairs, were locked into a fist, gripping a thin, helical steel wire running up to a boxed wheel device sitting on an overhead cable stretched across the pool. He followed its length, wondering at its purpose. The cable was held at each end of the pool house by steel plates bolted to the walls, with a wire running out to the box. The down-wire was taut, he noted, and the only thing keeping the body upright.
He heard a scuff of footsteps and found the nurse standing nearby. Her face was a pale oval, the expression unchanged since he’d seen her running out of the building earlier[f1] . He didn’t know her name, although he’d seen her in the village once or twice, at the co-op store. A handsome woman with a nice figure. Or maybe it was the uniform. She was lucky he’d been passing, otherwise she would have had to call for help and wait for a team to arrive from Amiens. She had clammed up now, though, he noted. Probably shock.
‘I’d put some coffee on, if I were you,’ he suggested kindly. The activity would keep her occupied until Rocco and the others got here. ‘And if you haven’t done it already, wake your boss because this place is going to be invaded.’
‘My boss?’ Her eyes flickered uncomprehendingly, edging towards the body in the water with reluctant fascination, then away again.
Claude let it slide. ‘Coffee,’ he said again. ‘Make it a big pot.’
Less than half a kilometre away, a dark figure waited for the moon to slip behind a cloud, before emerging from the cover of a hedgerow and walking with a confident stride along the edge of the lane leading away from the Clos du Lac. The narrow route was little used in daytime, even less at night, but the man believed in taking simple precautions.
He was dressed all in black, from flexible, rubber-soled boots to the woollen cap covering his head, practically invisible to anyone unless they took him by surprise. But that wasn’t likely to happen. Even so, he stopped periodically to test the air around him, using skills gained over many years to seek out the presence of others. All he heard was the faint, mournful shriek of a fox drifting on the night air, and a flap of wings in the trees nearby. Satisfied he was unobserved – by humans, at least – he moved on.
He reached a small, dilapidated barn at the side of the lane and stepped inside. He moved easily in the dark, having scouted the place in daylight two days earlier to study the layout and memorise any obstacles. The air was thick with the smell of old straw and mould, and he felt his nostrils react to the dust in the atmosphere.
He reached out and located the moped parked against the wall of the barn. From a pannier on the back he took a slim flask and opened the cap. The aroma of coffee with a lacing of cognac took over from the smell of straw. He poured a measure and drank it quickly, savouring the warmth spreading through his gut. He wanted a cigarette, too, another craving, but it was a risk too far. He would save it for later.
The moped held a second pannier, this one containing a collapsible net and rod, and a box of bait. But he was no fisherman; they were props, simple distractions in the unlikely event that he was stopped by a patrolling policeman or spotted by a farmer with insomnia. Fishing without a permit was easily excused, given the right amount of reasoning and charm and a willingness to apologise. As he knew all too well, the success of a mission was in the preparation, not simply the execution.
He smiled at the play on words. Tonight’s job had been just that – an execution. And it had gone as planned, if a little convoluted at the end. But he didn’t mind that; it added to the frisson he still gained from a task done well. Tomorrow was the next phase, and undoubtedly the most important part of the plan. However, that was for others to deal with. His skills lay more in the role of a troubleshooter – a fixer of problems.
He replaced the flask and checked his watch using a flick of a flashlight. The glass over the face showed a tracery of fine scratches. Plenty of time to get clear. He had to be back on his way to Paris before sunrise. Seconds later he was wheeling the moped out of the barn and along the lane, heading for a route deep into the countryside that connected eventually with a back road out of the area, and his car.
Once he was certain he was well beyond earshot of the Clos du Lac, he jumped on and pedalled at a steady pace, travelling a full half-kilometre before engaging the engine.
He smiled to himself and placed his feet together on the central rest, enjoying the quirky feeling of using such a bizarre mode of transport away from a killing.
Death at the Clos du Lac - Rocco #4 of 8 - https://geni.us/AuYxvTt
DEATH ON THE PONT NOIR
Inspector Lucas Rocco #3
December 1963 – Picardie, France
The gleaming black Citroën DS with the curtained rear windows ghosted along the deserted country road at a steady 70kph, its hydropneumatic suspension making light of the undulating, pitted surface. Inside the car, its two occupants were as shielded from the cold tarmac underneath as they were from the frost-glazed mud of the fields on either side, warmed by the controlled whisper of heated air wafting gently around them.
‘Belt up tight,’ said the driver. His name was Calloway. ‘This could hurt, otherwise.’ He checked his double shoulder harness with its quick-release button and, for luck, tapped the padding on the roll cage, an ugly non-factory addition to the otherwise plush, stylish interior.
‘Just get on with it,’ muttered Tasker, his passenger. ‘You talk too bloody much.’ But he checked his harness and settled lower in his seat, bracing himself with both hands.
Calloway flicked a glance across the field to his right, to where the stubby shape of a truck was moving away from a strand of pine trees. It accelerated quickly, bouncing along a rough track on heavy-duty tyres, bits of mud and vegetation flicking up in its wake. Olive green in colour, it had the low, front-heavy bulk of a bulldog, made uglier by a large, black oblong strapped across the grill.
And it was aiming towards the road in front of them on an intercept path.
‘Two hundred yards,’ Calloway murmured, watching the truck’s progress. He was calculating its trajectory, his foot steady on the accelerator. A quick glance at the road, keeping to the centre line, then back to the truck, the eye movement and speed of the two vehicles bringing them closer together in sharp bursts like the stuttering frames of an old film reel.
‘He’s gonna miss.’
‘No, he’s not. Seventy.’ Eyes to the road and back. Surface clear, no other traffic, just as they’d been assured. Something on the grass verge but no time to look now. Concentrate.
‘He’s bloody shifting a bit, isn’t he?’
‘Fifty yards.’ The truck was suddenly bigger, solid. Brutish.
‘Go, for God’s sake!’ Tasker pounded the dashboard in panic as the Renault tore out of the end of the track and loomed all over them, its grill grotesquely dwarfed by a railway sleeper held in place by steel hawsers.
Calloway calmly flicked the wheel and stamped on the accelerator. It was too late for a complete miss, but limiting the damage was as instinctive to him as breathing. The Citroën’s rear end drifted sideways on the slippery surface, an elegant shuffle of its aerodynamic lines like a lady performing a two-step. The movement absorbed some of the impact, but the wooden sleeper still slammed into the car just aft of the passenger seat, punching the panel hard against the reinforcing struts welded into the interior. The car spun violently on its axis, jerking both men hard against their harnesses, and the scream of tortured metal and rubber echoed across the cold acres on either side of the road.
‘What’s he trying to do – bloody kill us?’ Tasker turned to glare at the truck driver, who was grinning down at them as he slammed the truck into reverse and pulled back several yards along the road.
‘Isn’t that the general idea?’ Calloway coolly spun the wheel and stamped on the accelerator, taking the car back up the road, its rear end sinking under the extra power being transmitted to the wheels.
‘Idea! I’ll bloody give him an idea,’ Tasker raged. ‘Let me out! Now!’
Calloway stood obediently on the brakes. Stopping the car altogether took a while due to the extra weight of steel reinforcements. But he compensated by spinning the wheel again and bringing the Citroën to a wallowing halt side-on to the truck, now stationary on the grass verge. The sleeper, he noticed, was hanging drunkenly from the front where it had become dislodged by the impact.
Throwing off the harness, Tasker struggled into the rear seats and kicked at the door on the undamaged side, moving with difficulty in the confined space. His breathing whistled harshly through his ex-boxer’s smashed nose and his face was flushed with anger.
Before he could clamber out fully, however, two shapes rose up like wraiths from a nearby ditch and ran towards the damaged car. Dressed in camouflage smocks, each man carried two bottles with rags stuffed in the necks. They paused a short distance away, breath puffing white in the cold air, and hurled the bottles against the side of the vehicle. As the glass smashed on impact, the two men stepped closer, drew handguns and opened fire at point-blank range.
Death on the Pont Noir - Rocco #3 of 8 - https://geni.us/d84ucB7
DEATH ON THE RIVE NORD
Inspector Lucas Rocco #2
October 1963 – the Somme Valley
Armand Maurat was in the presence of death. He couldn’t see it, couldn’t hear it… but it was there, sticking to him as relentlessly as the tail-lights of the Berliet truck he was driving.
His stomach lurched as the narrow road dipped unexpectedly, catching him off-guard. Outside the cab, a cold spray was being blasted across his windscreen by a solid, vengeful easterly, reducing visibility to a blur of trees and hedgerows and an occasional sign pointing to a remote village tucked away in the darkness.
He reached out and banged the radio perched on the dashboard. It responded with a hiss of static, but even that drifted and ebbed as the sound waves became blocked by a nearby hill. Cheap crap, he thought savagely. Bought under the counter at a transit warehouse outside Paris, the packaging had guaranteed high quality music but delivered mostly mush – or worse, what passed for singing these days. Give him Aznavour any day, even Brel. Depressing son of a bitch, Brel; enough to make a weak man jump off a bridge. On a lonely drive in the dark, though, it suited his mood of isolation.
He’d been on the road for over fifteen hours straight so far; first heading from his home in St Quentin, where he lived with his mother, to a transit depot beyond Dijon to pick up a load of car parts for an assembly plant near Amiens; then dropping further south to an isolated depot near Chalon-sur-Saone to pick up his second consignment. This part of his trip wasn’t going to be mentioned anywhere; no paperwork, no names, no records. Staying clear of major towns and by-passing areas of known police activity had put dozens of kilometres on the journey but he was now curving westward towards Amiens and hadn’t much further to go. Then he could be shot of his special load and whatever misfortune they might have brought with them, and get back home.
His lips moved silently, subconsciously mouthing the instructions he’d been given. His face looked unhealthily drawn in the light from the instrument panel, and he shook his head periodically to counter the deadly, hypnotic beat of the wipers. Not that falling asleep at the wheel would be his worst problem; if he missed his mark, the reaction waiting for him when he didn’t make the delivery would make hurtling off this God-forsaken stretch of tarmac the least of his worries.
He checked the time. Gone three. He was on schedule. There should have been a clear sky, according to the weather reports, heralding a mild frost and a clear day to follow. Good driving weather. A trucker’s weather if you didn’t mind concentrating for long stretches. But if there were any stars out there, they were hidden behind a dense layer of low cloud. He might as well have been in a dead landscape, with only the occasional farmhouse light showing through the gloom to indicate any signs of life beyond his cab.
He shivered and hit the demister switch. Thoughts of life or death served no purpose right now, and reminders of his own mortality were the last thing he needed. Welcome as the cash was, he knew he was ultimately playing with fire. The kind of people he was dealing with, if anything happened beyond his control, shit would follow as surely as Sundays.
He turned his head and spat the soggy remains of a Disque Bleu through a gap in the side window and longed for a raw Marc - brandy - to wet his throat. A nice Calvados would be even better, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
The road dipped again past a narrow turning on his right. The sign said Vailly, a tiny hamlet too small to appear on his road maps, but one he’d been told to watch out for. Not long now. He began to ease off the accelerator, the engine noise diminishing from its clattering roar to a more subdued rumble, like it had sounded when he’d first bought it three years ago. A lot of oil had gone into it since then, and a lot of kilometres on the clock.
The ghostly sides of a barn loomed close on his left hand side, a brief glimpse of posters advertising a moto-cross event plastered across the boards. Then a bend came up, and across the road the dark emptiness of a field caught momentarily in the headlights. He tapped the brakes and hauled on the wheel, the tyres skittering slightly on the wet, rippled surface. Too fast; he should have been down to forty kph and reading the road, not fantasising. He corrected the beginnings of a skid by increasing power slightly, then eased off as the road straightened. Felt a wash of relief overtake the hot and cold sweats that had broken out between his shoulder blades.
Behind him came a brief rumble and what sounded like a thin squeal, cut off abruptly. He ignored it.
Another sign flashed by, rough and homemade. Pêche Privée 1 Km. Just past this, he’d been told. Eyes open and don’t be seen. Not that anybody sane would be fishing at this time of year in the middle of the night. Look out for the marker. Miss it and you might as well continue driving until nobody can find you again.
Death on the Rive Nord - Rocco #2 of 8 - https://geni.us/AujmPx
DEATH ON THE MARAIS
Inspector Lucas Rocco #1
Picardie, France - 1963
She was going to die. She could feel it, her life ebbing away as surely as fine sand through fingers. The thought caused her more sadness than fear; less a sense of foreboding than a cause to wonder what lay ahead.
Maybe it was the drugs. She didn’t know much about the effects of what a doctor at one of the parties had called hallucinosis, but she’d sensed this odd disconnection before. It wasn’t usually this bad. And never in water.
The water. Seconds ago it had been over her chest and soaking into the heavy uniform jacket with the hated decorations. Now it was lapping at her chin, the waterlogged material dragging her down like lead weights. A splash, and she tasted it, cold and oddly chalky on the palate. She clamped her lips shut, fighting to breath through her nose, eyes tight shut. But the bruised tissue around her septum hurt too much. In desperation, she inhaled…and choked. It could only have been a drop, but it felt like a bucketful, instantly blocking her airways and inducing panic.
God, how her chest hurt! She wondered if she had a broken rib. She could only recall one punch, but that was last night and seemed to be an age away. There must have been others.
She pushed back the pain, managing to thrust her head above the surface. She tried to shout, but her throat was constricted by fear. Besides, she was too far from any source of help and her cries would go unheeded, lost among the trees and in the shrill dawn calls of the marshland birds.
The water was intensely cold, especially around her feet. She kicked out, fearful at what she could not see, too terrified to look. She had never liked swimming; her imagination always too colourful to dismiss as benign the depths beneath her or whatever creatures might be lurking there. Yet oddly, seeing her hands floating before her, this water seemed as clear as day. And there was an unnatural brightness around her. It reminded her of when she was a child, pretending to swim as her mother filled the bath. Back then when her mother was alive, swimming was always safe.
She reached out desperately for the bank, and felt a slimy texture beneath her hands. Her fingers sank into a chill, paste-like substance with no solidity, offering nothing onto which she could hold. She felt like a spider she’d once seen trapped in a soup bowl, tiny feet scrabbling for purchase until it had stopped, too exhausted to go on.
She began to slide further down, the water a rising blanket around her face and now tinged red by the blood from her broken nose. She kicked harder, bubbles bursting in a thin trail from where air had been trapped in her clothing. Another brief respite. She took a deep breath, felt the urge to cough. If only she could take off the jacket that was weighing her down, then she might have a chance. But the uniform buttons had been hard to do up in the first place; they would be even harder to undo.
A crackle of vegetation sounded from nearby, and she looked up, desperate for a helping hand, a friendly face. Maybe a villager out hunting early. Or maybe not. Scared out of the copse where she had been hiding since last night by the sound of a car arriving, she had tripped and plunged headfirst down a steep bank, the flash of cold water replacing one panic into another.
‘Help… help me!’
A familiar shadow framed by the thin dawn light, loomed over the water’s edge. She felt pathetically grateful, reaching up to take the helping hand.
But grasped only empty space.
Then string fingers clamped down on her scalp, and suddenly she had no buoyancy left. Her kicks were futile. Instead, she watched through the clear water as the bank, brilliant white, slid past her face, and below her the bottom of the pool, like a funnel leading into blackness, approached all too quickly.
Death on the Marais - Rocco #1 of 8 - https://geni.us/v3hSPb
THE LOST PATROL
A standalone YA novel
France – the Battle of the Somme – March 21st - 1917
The heavy guns began their relentless pounding at dawn. The dull, crumping sounds came from several miles away, leaving smudges of dirty smoke on the horizon, like soft, deadly flowers opening with the arrival of daybreak.
The line of men trudging across the slope of what had once been a pleasant, tree-filled valley hardly noticed. They were intent on keeping their footing on the treacherous frozen mud, their breath blowing white puffs into the cold air. No trees around them now, only twisted stumps and dead, blackened branches, long devoid of life or colour.
If they had any thoughts at all, it was to pity whoever was on the receiving end of the barrage. Some other poor devils getting a pasting, instead of them. Made a change not to be them cowering in their trenches and feeling the ground shake around them. They had orders to follow and couldn’t be worrying about every burst of gunfire that broke out. It was what the Somme had become known for.
Gunfire and the awful shortness of life.
A lone pigeon clattered up in fright from the ground yards in front of the lead man. The soldier hesitated, surprised to see any sign of wildlife in this desolate landscape. A quiet oath burst forth as the man behind him, head down with exhaustion, collided with him, helmet jarring against his backpack.
‘Sorry,’ the leader muttered. He lifted his gaunt face and watched the bird jink erratically across the heavy sky, envying its freedom. A few hours, he thought, and with a tail wind that bird could be... well, anywhere it wanted. Over untouched fields and soft, rolling hills where men weren’t trying to blow each other to pieces in the name of king or country. That’s if any such place existed anymore.
The thought made him uneasy, and he wondered if the enemy had noticed the pigeon’s sudden flight. All it needed was a sharp-eyed observer and the heavens would open. We’ll soon find out, he guessed, and turned to look at the men behind him, motioning them on with an urgent signal. As they came abreast of him, they each looked up in silent hope of a brief moment’s rest, eyes showing the results of having been on the march for nearly three hours. He set his jaw. Time enough for rest later.
For now they had their orders.
The men’s uniforms were stiff with fresh mud and old sweat, shoulders dusted with the white of morning frost. Their faces were drawn with exhaustion, eyes deep holes in unshaven pudding skins, devoid of expression or light, intent only on putting one weary foot in front of the other.
He nodded as they passed, an encouragement as much as a greeting. His men, he thought wryly. His charges.
Millgate C. Private. Rail worker. A sour grumbler, but a good man.
Sommerfield G. Private. Lied about his age, only seventeen. Not even shaving yet. Hid his fear by being cheeky. Deserved better but probably wouldn’t get it.
Christopher H. Lance-Corporal. Drayman. Fat when he joined up, but not now. Battle has a way of making a man thin. Quiet, solid. Good with a rifle.
Hendry R. Captain. Landowner. Family man. No longer aware even of the time of day. Better officer than most - or had been once.
And himself. Stone N. Sergeant. Less said the better, really.
All in all a sorry lot, he thought grimly. Oh to be a pigeon...
As Stone turned to follow his men, a whistling sound pierced the atmosphere, followed by a rush of air above his head. Before he could react there was a deafening explosion tearing at his ears, followed by a giant column of frozen mud rearing up right in front of the new lead man, Millgate. It hung there for an instant, a dirty brown curtain blocking out the light, before raining back down to earth all around them, a torrent of cold mud and stones.
Stone’s voice was lost as he shouted at his men to take cover. Millgate, he noted sadly, had dropped much too quickly; the man had never been that fast at reacting to anything.
Stone flung himself on top of the Captain, an arm across his shoulders, holding him down and preventing the poor, demented man’s instinctive reaction to scramble to his feet and run for a cover which no longer existed.
Another whistling sound heralded the arrival of another shell. The ground shook violently as if pounded by a giant hammer. Another volley of cold mud hit Stone’s back, lumps of hard chalk in its midst stinging briefly and clattering on his tin helmet and his unprotected hands. Someone screamed, a high-pitched sound like a girl’s, and was cut off as if by a knife. Another man sobbed and swore.
Then total, utter silence.
Stone stared at the ground in close-up, concentrating on the colour and texture and trying to block out the hideous sounds and fury that had just happened all around him. Strange, he thought dreamily, how he had never noticed the colour of the soil here; a mixture of white chalk, brown earth and bright red tints.
Red? But that’s not right-
He felt desperately tired, as if he had run a mad, frantic dash up a long, steep hill. With enormous effort he lifted his head and glimpsed Captain Hendry’s dead eyes inches away from his. They were staring into that bottomless pit from which there was no return. Beyond the captain he saw Sommerfield’s smooth, unshaven cheeks turned up towards the sky, eyes unseeing. At peace.
He tried to lift himself further. But then another rush of air bore down on him. This time there was no whistling sound. No noise at all. It meant further movement was pointless. In his final remaining second, Stone rolled over in weary resignation, staring one more time up at the cold, flinty sky. What good their special orders now?
Oh, to be a pigeon....
The Lost Patrol - a YA novel - http://geni.us/1TYI
Harry Tate #6
‘Target on the move. Repeat, target on the move.’ The voice came from a phone on the van’s dashboard, startling the driver.
As he reached for the gear lever the woman in the passenger seat said, ‘Not yet. She’s on the sixth floor. We go when she leaves the hotel.’
‘Whatever you say. But I really do not like this.’ The driver’s accent was, like the woman’s, Russian, with a faint American twang. He checked his mirrors repeatedly and scratched at a recent tattoo on the side of his neck where the skin was red and puffy. It was meant to be a phoenix but bore only a faint resemblance.
He had good reason to be concerned. At a mere spit away from the Houses of Parliament in central London, one wrong move would bring a firearms team to the area within minutes. If they managed to get away, their actions would be captured by the extensive array of cameras on every street and they’d be tracked through the capital like watching a bug on a table top.
‘What you like is not important.’ The woman, whose name was Irina, was stocky, with wild, curly hair, and the way it bounced when she was agitated gave her the appearance of a caged animal. Dark clothing and black jump boots rendered her almost invisible in the gloom of the van.
‘Why do we have to speak English?’ the driver queried.
‘Because English with accents is common here – you know that. If anybody hears us, we’re just a couple of dumb foreigners working crazy hours.’
He shrugged. ‘Dumb and crazy is right.’
Her voice took on a hard edge. ‘Don’t let Kraush hear you talking like that.’
He shook his head and turned up the radio. A news announcer was talking, the mellow tones flowing around the interior of the van like treacle.
‘Amid shifting reports of the on-off relationship between Minsk and Moscow, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has voiced characteristically blunt concerns about the supposed union between the two countries, telling a press gathering that the reality was of a proposed take-over by Moscow, undermining and destroying Belarus sovereignty. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov reacted—’
Irina reached out and hit the off button. ‘More lies,’ she said briefly. ‘We don’t listen to that—’
She was interrupted by the voice from the phone. ‘Target approaching exit. Repeat, target approaching.’
‘Once only!’ she snapped. ‘You think we’re in a freaking movie?’
Silence. When the voice came back on it was deliberately and dryly British. ‘Target to exit . . . five, four, three, two . . . one and out . . . and turning left. Over to you.’
Irina nodded. They had checked out the area around the hotel after hacking the target’s phone. They knew where she was going. All they had to do was choose their moment.
‘Now,’ she said, grabbing the door latch. ‘Go!’
The driver The driver stamped on the accelerator, jumping the boxy delivery van away from the kerb. The sudden movement rattled the boxes in the back and pitched the phone on the dashboard into the woman’s lap.
‘Slower,’ she muttered, flat-handing a signal for him to ease off the pedal. Getting spotted by a keen-eyed cop wasn’t part of the plan. In the meantime, the watcher on the hotel would follow the target to ensure they didn’t lose her.
The plan of attack had been decided as soon as they had learned their target’s location. They had been down here three times the previous day, the first on foot and twice in the van. On the last two occasions they had stopped at the kerb feigning delivery drops, scoping the buildings and streets around them, then checked the intersections and alleyways, the routes in and out and the likely presence of police and traffic wardens. Nobody had given them a second look. And why should they? Delivery vans were a common sight in these streets, part of the patchwork of city life.
The driver, who knew the area a little, had pointed out that a fast exit wasn’t going to be easy. But Irina had accepted no argument, saying time was against them. With luck they’d be gone and far away before anybody could react.
‘Target turning left.’
The disposition of street lights cast patches of heavy shadow, while light refraction from elsewhere combined to create the false impression of movement.
‘We need a description!’ Up against the windscreen, Irina was searching for a sight of the target. ‘Clothing, bags – anything.’
‘Short hair, medium height, knee-length coat, collar up, black boots, a bag on the left shoulder. Padded laptop bag in her right hand. The street is clear. No traffic or pedestrians. Am now pulling back.’
‘Good. Go back in and clear out her room.’
‘Got it. Over and out.’
The driver increased speed towards the corner, which he knew would take them into a narrow street with double yellows either side. A movement in the shadows showed the watcher making his way in the opposite direction, his task complete.
Once round the corner they would have a clear pavement on a darkened street, with no obstacles save for an occasional rubbish bag or wheelie bin. Two of the street lights had been deactivated in readiness by the watcher less than an hour ago.
‘Slow as you turn,’ said Irina. ‘We don’t want her spooked.’
‘Got it.’ The driver hauled on the wheel, the headlights flaring off glass on each side, illuminating the rich gloss-painted iron railings and the polished brass of door furniture.
Irina jabbed at the windscreen. A solitary figure was walking away from them on the left-hand side of the street. ‘There!’
She released the door latch. They had rehearsed the manoeuvre many times, tracking, spotting and moving in. The vehicle type had been similar and the tactics transferable. Only the scout in the hotel was different, a local contractor with no connections to them and no knowledge of what was about to take place.
Stop. Snatch. Go.
The driver was humming again, working the simple mantra in his head, seeing it unfold just as they’d practiced. He waited until they were thirty metres behind the target before lifting his foot a fraction, ready for a quick stop.
Then the mantra was ripped apart. Without warning Irina grabbed the wheel, yanking it downwards and out of his hands.
Terminal Black - Book 6 of 6
Harry Tate #5
She awoke to the scuff of leather shoes in the corridor. Eyes dragged open, gummy with sleep, then closed again, a reflex action.
Easy does it. Relax. You’re safe.
She froze as a random thought wormed slowly through her befuddled mind. The nurses don’t wear leather shoes. She was familiar enough with the hurried tread of the consultants, or the heavier, measured stroll of the security guards. So who?
Outsiders. Not good.
She willed her breathing to remain steady. Not easy with a hole in her side. She focussed instead on the air around her, going over the small details to get her brain working. She’d been shot. She was in a hospital. King’s College, south London – the Major Trauma Centre, they had told her. She kept forgetting that bit. Stuff seemed to leak out of her head all the time like water from a holed bucket.
She concentrated. It was night, she was certain; at a guess, two a.m. There wasn’t the hum of daytime activity, the rush of feet, the voices; nor the beep of electronics signifying seconds to someone’s total blackness and a bed left empty. Wakefulness brought a throb in her temples and a woozy feeling from the drugs, and the stickiness between her shoulder blades from lying in the overheated, cloying atmosphere for too long. There was a tightness across her middle and the tug of plaster against skin, still tender and sore.
So who was out there? And why now?
The door to her room whispered open. Soft footsteps approached the bed, accompanied by a man’s nasal breathing. Her body shrieked with a sense of vulnerability but she remained still. It wasn’t hard – she’d had a lot of practice in this place; using it to distance herself as much from the probing of questions as of fingers, of their barely-restrained curiosity about what had brought a civilian woman here with a gunshot wound.
A ghost of warm peppermint fanned her cheek. Along with it came the tangy smell of damp clothing. It made a change from the sickly aroma of anaesthetics and cleaning fluids. Must be raining outside. God, what she wouldn’t give for a walk in the rain and a lungful of fresh air. And a Starbucks to go. With a double shot.
She tensed as the man leaned further over her. She didn’t need to open her eyes to see him. Normal times, she’d have reacted by kicking back the covers and planting her foot in his face for invading her space. Watched him fall and lie still, before stepping over him and kicking him in the balls for good measure.
But these weren’t normal times.
‘She awake?’ A whisper from over by the door. A second man, the accent rough.
The peppermint smell receded. ‘I don’t think so.’ The air around her shifted and she sensed the man move to the foot of the bed, heard the clank of the clipboard being lifted.
‘What’s her problem?’
‘She has a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Not pleasant.’ This man sounded more educated.
‘So she’s army.’
The clank of the clipboard being replaced. ‘It doesn’t say. Most of them are, here. Who cares? She’s out of it, so not our problem.’
Footsteps moving away. The door closed and she once more felt the emptiness of space. They had gone.
She continued to remain still, fighting against the temptation to open her eyes. A minute ticked by in silence. Two. Three. Then the door huffed, as she knew it would.
Heavy breathing. They were back.
‘Well?’ The one with the rough accent.
A long pause, then: ‘She hasn’t moved. Come on, let’s get this done.’
‘What if she hears us?’
‘Then we’ll have to finish what the bullet started, won’t we?’
‘We could save the bother – do it now.’
‘No. There’s no time. The guard might come back.’ A pause, then a whisper, very close:
‘You’re lucky, Miss Jardine, whoever you are.’
Execution - book 5 of 6 - http://geni.us/3V64
Harry Tate #4
Kosovo, Autumn 1999
The girl slithered over the wire like a silver fish, her thin cotton dress plastered to her body by the driving rain. Globules of water shook loose from the mesh as she climbed, plummeting to the earth around her, a contrasting flicker of tiny jewels against the mud, gravel and coarse grass.
Thirty metres behind her lay a dense treeline of spiky conifers. Beyond that, high in the hills, her brother was in hiding, close to death after a severe beating by a drunken Serb militiaman. She didn’t dare approach the hospital for help, didn’t trust the international military mission called KFOR that was supposed to be keeping the peace, or any of the local residents.
All she could do was come down here and climb the fence, to see what she could find to help make his last few days bearable.
She crouched, scanning the compound. It was lit by a tall gantry mounted with six floodlights, the glare pushing back the encircling gloom and highlighting the curtain of solid rain that had been falling relentlessly for over an hour. To one side stood a clump of low, interconnected huts, dimly lit. Across the way a clutch of shipping containers formed a tall barrier against the cold, barren hills half a mile away. Mitrovica, the nearest town, was out of sight, a forbidding place of whispers and certain danger.
A flicker of movement made her freeze. A stocky figure stepped out from one of the huts and paced across the yard, footsteps echoing on the puddled tarmac. The girl noted the waterproof cape, camouflage uniform, jump boots and assault rifle. American, she thought automatically.
She knew about soldiers and their weapons; she had seen too many in her young years not to have learned something about them, the main thing being that they represented danger and death, no matter whose side they were on.
As the soldier disappeared among the shadows thrown by the containers, the girl moved quickly towards the huts. This was where the Kosovo Force (KFOR) troopers ate and slept. There was always something lying around.
Food was her priority: powdered milk, sugar, tea, tins of meat, army rations – especially chocolate if she was lucky. It was never going to be enough, but it might keep her and her brother going for another day or two in their hiding place. Anything was better than falling victim to the Serb killer squads roaming the villages.
A brief flare of a match showed from between the containers. It was the chance she had been waiting for. The guard’s night-vision would be gone for a few moments. She ran for the nearest hut, light-footed, almost ephemeral in the glitter of rainfall against the lights.
She slipped inside. It smelled of coffee and stale food, making her stomach lurch. She listened. No sounds of snoring here; so this wasn’t a sleeping area, which was good. Ghosting along a narrow corridor, she entered a small space on her right. A security lamp threw a dull glow over cupboards, chairs and tables, and sideboards with a kettle and a portable gas stove.
She checked the cupboards, found a tin of coffee and some powdered milk. No sugar but better than nothing. A packet of biscuits lay opened on a bottom shelf, and she took one, the temptation too much. The packet rustled loudly in the silence. She froze. Then she took a bite of the biscuit, followed by another, wolfing down the crumbly sweetness in a moment.
Moments later her stomach rebelled, and she sank to the floor, pain ripping through her. She’d been too long without decent food. She took deep breaths until the pain subsided. She clutched the tins of coffee and powdered milk close to her, trophies too valuable to leave behind, and a panacea. She blinked hard, feeling her eyelids beginning to droop, betraying her. She had to get out. Selim was waiting.
But, warmed by the residual heat in the hut, it was a losing battle.
Retribution - book 4 0f 6 - http://geni.us/1hFB
Harry Tate #3
‘Three minutes to landing.’ The pilot’s Texan accent sounded terse through the comms unit. ‘Three minutes.’
‘Roger that. Three,’ echoed the crewman on the port side M60 door gun. He lifted his chin at former MI5 officer Harry Tate, who nodded to show he’d got the message. The crewman on the opposite gun flicked a hand in acknowledgement, busy scanning the gathering gloom below as the MH-60L Black Hawk, a sinister, sand-blasted war machine stripped of markings, clattered across the vast, darkening sprawl of Baghdad city.
Harry peered through the open doorway to where the snake’s-head outline of an Apache AH64 attack helicopter was running parallel some 300 yards away and slightly to the rear. Another AH64 held the same position on their starboard side. None of the aircraft showed running lights.
It had been the same since he’d come aboard; no smiles, no welcome. If they had any curiosity about what Harry was doing here, or the man with him who was now handcuffed to his seat, they kept it in check. Just a few terse words of safety from the crew chief, and an agreement about what they were to do when they reached their destination. There was more chatter, this time between their pilot, Postal One, and the escorts – referred to as Shotgun One and Two – confirming direction and co-ordinates, the talk stripped to its essentials, almost unintelligible to an outsider.
Subhi Rafa’i, the reluctant cargo, showed no interest. The former Iraqi cleric was dressed in plain tan pants and a white shirt beneath a flak jacket. He looked listless and withdrawn, staring at the rooftops flashing by below and occasionally shaking his head. If ever a man looked like one going to meet his doom, Rafa’i was it.
Forty minutes earlier, two military policemen had hustled him out of a covered truck parked in the corner of a secure section of the US operations base – where they had been driven immediately on leaving the main airport – and straight up into the belly of the Black Hawk. Rafa’i had been in the open for no more than twelve seconds, watched by several armed guards.
It had been the longest twelve seconds of Harry’s life.
‘He’d better be worth it,’ US Army Colonel Seymour White, the Assistant Operations Officer, had muttered. He watched the transfer, the skin around his eyes pale with tension. ‘These guys got better things to be doing than playing cab driver.’ He didn’t add ‘for British spooks and their rag-head prisoners’, but the meaning was there.
Harry ignored it. The colonel was flexing some psychological muscle, showing that he didn’t have to like what he was being asked to risk men and equipment for, but he had his orders and would do whatever was required. In this case it was the unusual job of delivering an insurgent back to his people.
The two crewmen reached down and grabbed Rafa’i and hauled him aboard with little ceremony. They were in their late thirties, lean and tanned, forearms covered in exotic tattoos. Although dressed in combat fatigues, Kevlar helmets and flak jackets, and wearing side arms, little about them echoed regular US forces. They wore no badges or insignia, had shown no reaction to Colonel White’s arrival, given none of the normal snappy US military response to an officer being within shouting range. It was as if White didn’t exist.
‘Who are they?’ Harry queried. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but Colonel White surprised him.
‘PMCs,’ the American replied. ‘Private military contractors. We use them when we can’t spare our own crews or …’ He left the sentence hanging and tilted his head slightly.
‘You don’t want to?’
‘You said it, not me.’ White shifted his weight and tugged at his waistband, eyes flicking around the base perimeter. ‘We use whoever we can get. And these boys are good and willing.’ He glanced at Harry. ‘And they’re expensive, so don’t go getting them busted.’
‘I’ll try not.’
White nodded. ‘This is the best time to fly. They’ll take you in low once you’re near the coordinates, then go down fast. You’d better hold on to your lunch.’
‘Hope so. You’ll off-load your cargo and get straight back out of there. No chit-chat, no fond goodbyes and try not to start a fire-fight. Just in case of trouble, they’re sending over two Apache six-fours to run interference; they’ll join you as soon as you leave here. Do exactly what the crew tell you and you’ll be back in time for dinner.’ He nodded once and walked away, stiff-backed; the mention of dinner clearly not an invitation.
Now they were approaching the Al-Jamia district west of Baghdad, where Rafa’i had once had his heavily fortified base and centre of operations. Until he had blown it up, anyway. Part of a failed plot to gather support against the Western Coalition Forces, he had sacrificed a number of his closest followers in a bid to disappear, believed killed by the Coalition. Tonight he was being returned home to face those he had left behind. Nobody expected the outcome to be a good one.
But it solved a tricky problem the UK government had faced only a few days ago: what should they do with a former cleric-turned-insurgent who had tried to gather sufficient financial and terrorist support to throw out every westerner still in Iraq? Having him die on UK soil was unthinkable – although that had been the plan if a group of shadowy Coalition businessmen and others had had their way. Equally, imprisonment in a UK jail on terrorist charges would have turned any establishment holding him into a tinderbox. The solution was brutally simple: send him back home.
Harry felt the seat shift beneath him as the Black Hawk changed direction. The gunners focussed their attention on the ground. The escorting Apaches kept station with them and the houses below suddenly sprang into view as the nose dipped. They were coming in fast. Colonel White hadn’t been joking.
Deception - Book #3 of 6 - http://geni.us/4kT
Harry Tate #2
Baghdad – Al-Jamia District – August.
The dead don’t need food, the man in the black leather jacket and dark glasses thought coldly. He plucked a tomato from the delivery of vegetables being wheeled towards the kitchen door of the heavily-fortified villa in the west of the city. As he bit through the ripe skin, a burst of voices from the local Dijla Radio rose momentarily from inside the building, then faded abruptly as the heavy door slammed shut again.
It was time. Holding the tomato to his mouth to shield the lower half of his face, he ducked his head and left the compound through a reinforced door set in a high wall, stepping past a watchful armed guard. Glass shards and razor wire glinted atop the barricade, and the door groaned under the weight of steel plate. The guard studied him as he passed, blinked with uncertainty, but said nothing. Bolts rattled into place. The door closed behind him.
As he crossed the sun-baked square outside, he tossed the tomato aside and took from his pocket a mobile phone with a single, pre-programmed number on speed-dial. The device felt awkward through the bandage on his hand and he winced, recalling the moment he had cut it on some glass while clambering over the outside wall to dispose of incriminating papers in a brazier along the street the previous evening. He shouldn’t have bothered, he knew that, because it would soon all be gone. But old habits die hard and he was being watched too closely in the house. Only the foolhardy tempt providence by not being sufficiently prepared.
He thought about what would happen in the next few seconds. A brush of warm air – deceptively gentle at first – would turn into a lethal pressure-wave. Then a monstrous roar, invading the atmosphere and sucking the oxygen out of every space, collapsing lungs and buildings alike. Heavy objects would smash against the walls around the square and, amid the splintering glass and crumbling structures, screams would rise, some old and faint. Others young and shrill.
But that could not be helped. Insh’allah. It was the will of God, may His name be praised.
Next would be heard a patter of small sounds, like hard rain. Falling on the rooftops around the square, growing in intensity and tearing through thin structures and fabrics, it would bring a thick, choking dust, boiling through the narrow streets and alleyways like an angry fog. Amid the wails and shouts of alarm there would be the first signs of response from the security forces.
They would be too late.
Behind him, the door in the compound wall groaned again and a man’s voice called after him. It was the guard, recognition coming too late, duty overcoming doubts. He was asking – but respectfully – where he was going and why he did not have anyone with him.
He ignored the man and increased his pace, lips moving soundlessly in a steady, silent mantra. He was sweating profusely and his heart was pounding. But not simply because of the borrowed leather jacket. Beneath it were extra layers of clothes into which he could change at a moment’s notice, skilfully discarding one appearance for another, as surely would be needed in the minutes or hours ahead if he were to get away safely. He passed two small boys, a scavenging dog and an old man sitting in the shade of a leather goods shop. They spoke but he ignored them.
In the distance, the speck of a US helicopter gunship was circling a column of heavy, black smoke. The thud of rotors rose and faded, sunlight winking off the canopy. He ignored that, too; it was a common enough sight here and too far off to be of concern.
The guard called out again, sharper this time and shrill with concern. Or was it fear? He continued walking, heavy dust muffling his footsteps. As he reached the corner of the square and the shelter of a deserted madrassa, he murmured a soft, final incantation.
Then he pressed the SEND button on his mobile phone.
He did not look back.
Tracers - book #2 of 6 - http://geni.us/1pdK
The first Harry Tate
Death came in at three minutes to four on a sluggish morning tide, and changed Harry Tate’s life forever.
It edged up a shrouded Essex inlet, a scrubby white 50-ft motor launch with a fly bridge, its engine puttering softly against the slow current. The exhaust sounds were muffled by a heavy early mist rolling along the banks, blanketing the dark marshland like cold candyfloss.
Three figures stood outlined by a flush of refracted light from the open cockpit. One was on the forward deck, a swirl of dreadlocks framing his head like a war helmet. He was holding a thick pole balanced on one shoulder. Number two, the helmsman, was a bulky shape up on the fly bridge, head turning constantly between the instrument panel and the banks on either side.
The third man stood on a swimming platform at the stern, inches above the murky wake. Skeletal, with long, straggly hair under a baseball cap, he had one hand down by his side, the other bracing himself on the rear rail.
‘It’s Pirates of the frigging Caribbean!’
The whisper drilled softly into Harry’s earpiece, gently mocking, forcing a smile in spite of the tension in his chest. The voice belonged to Bill Maloney, his MI5 colleague, in cover fifty yards along the bank to his right.
A light breeze lifted off the water, brushing past Harry’s position behind a hummock of coarse grass, fanning his face with the sour smell of mud and decay. The sickly tang of diesel oil seemed to ooze out of the ground everywhere, and something moist was seeping through his trousers. He tried not to think about the kinds of toxic waste festering beneath him from decades of commerce, skulduggery and neglect.
He toggled his radio. ‘Where the hell are you, Blue Team?’ The query was strained with urgency. As Ground Controller, he’d been chasing the back-up police unit for fifteen minutes with no response.
Still nothing. Accident or a comms malfunction? Either way, they weren’t here. He swore softly. Having been slashed at the last minute - economic demands, was the vague explanation – and now with the support van lost somewhere in the darkness, they were down to three men. With what was rumoured to be concealed in the boat’s its bilges, from bales of hash, ‘bricks’ of heroin each containing up to fifty individual pay-and-go bags, and enough methamphetamine crystals to send half the kids in London off their heads for a month, the prize was too valuable. They needed all the help they could get.
But it wasn’t there.
Red Station - book #1 of 6 - https://geni.us/uVxz
(A Standalone novel)
I never thought of guys having bad hair days.
Bad razor days, sure. Relentless stubble and scraped skin is no joke – try kissing my grandmother. Bad head days, too, from too much of the wrong kind of booze. But that’s commonplace for anybody with a real life. Some problems, though, can’t be overcome with a slap of skin balm or a handful of pills.
‘You’re laying me off?’ The words dropped into the room like a stun-grenade and rolled across the carpet. I stared at my boss, Niall Dunckley, in disbelief.
‘Sign of the times, Jake,’ he replied flatly. ‘Sorry.’ I wondered if that was the beginning of a smile threatening to edge past his bloodless lips. They went well with his fish eyes and the strands of lank hair carefully arranged over his balding head. The overall effect gave him the appearance of an undertaker’s assistant. The kind who stays late at work for all the wrong reasons.
Pathetic response, I know. But being laid off is having someone say, ‘We don’t need you.’ Or, ‘Get the fuck out of here’. Or, ‘We found someone we like better.’
Even in this business – what am I saying, especially in this business – it’s akin to a death sentence. A bullet behind the ear. A quiet visit from a bad person on a dark night. I mean, I didn’t know for sure if that had ever happened, but people talk. You hear stuff.
I should explain. I have this oddball kind of job; I work for a side-line operation in a multi-divisional business called HP&P. Nobody knows or cares what the initials stand for, or precisely what the company’s core business is. But I know it has its fingers in a great many pies from civil engineering to shipping to nightclubs - and allegedly, a few things in between.
It’s the in-betweens which we’re encouraged not to ask about.
Not that I’m in that sector. I’m a project troubleshooter, and it’s my job to solve problems in faraway places. A gentle talk here, a nudge there, a discreet payment if something gets stuck in the pipeline, that kind of thing. The company operates on a time-sensitive schedule, and delays are unhelpful to the bottom line. As are glitches caused by local officials trying to muscle in and cause problems for their own ends.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t uses physical pressure - I don’t have to. A sweetener with a local regional governor or a union boss usually does the trick, from Azerbaijan to Zambia and anywhere in between. If that doesn’t work I make a report to Niall Dunckley at HQ in London, and that’s the last I hear of it. Because by then all the talking and offers and mild threats of lay-offs will have been exhausted and it’s time to call in the big guns and for me to catch a plane out. I don’t actually know what the big guns are, but that’s where I’m encouraged to turn and look the other way.
The job pays well and I rarely get to follow up on a previous visit. If I do, it’s usually bad news because the project got canned and there’s a lot of name-calling going on. I’m just there to see that everybody knows whose fault it really is: theirs.
Over the three years I’ve been doing this I’ve managed to refrain from asking too many questions. It’s one of the main requirements of my job description. Come to think of it, it’s the only requirement.
Don’t ask, don’t nose, don’t look.
And because I find it easier to take the money and not rock the boat, I’ve gone along with it ever since. My bad, as the kids say. Still not sure what that means but it sounds about right. But it doesn’t mean I’m dead from the neck up and haven’t occasionally put two and two together and made seven. Being suspicious and doing something about it isn’t always that simple. Or wise.
What my job is, at least in some parts of the civilized world, might be regarded as slightly unethical. The use of money – slush funds as some people like to call it – to solve problems is never on the up-and-up. Sure, it’s been going on since time began and will continue. But bungs, bribes, emoluments, skims, unscheduled performance bonuses, call them whatever the hell you want – do serve a purpose. They oil the wheels.
In that sense, I’m a bag man.
The first instance I had of thinking things were a little unusual about my job was a year ago. Until then it had been pretty much the same; get on a plane, talk to people, find out what the problems are and look for a solution. That meant asking questions of local representatives and negotiating our end of the argument to get things moving. If I couldn’t get agreement there and then, I’d make a project-on-hold report and head for home. The rest was up to Dunckley and his management team. The big guns.
But I’d never been asked to deliver a package before.
This was an envelope to Denver, Colorado. Actually, I never made Denver city itself, just the airport arrivals hall. I’d been met by a sweaty guy in a suit, clutching a shiny briefcase. He looked stressed. A lawyer, I figured, since most lawyers wear stress like a second skin and that was the profession I seemed to meet a lot: men in suits and shiny cars, with that money smell mixed with a vague hint of effluent. He handed me a business card which matched the photocopy in my pocket, and in return I gave him an envelope before making my way up the stairs to the departures lounge for the return trip, as per instructions.
As I turned to look back down the stairs, I caught a flash view of Sweaty Suit being hustled away by two police officers, one on each arm. He didn’t look happy. For some reason I was relieved he didn’t look back and shout, ‘There he goes!’
When I got back to the office I relayed this incident to Dunckley. He listened, made a note or two on a lined pad, then gave me a sideways look before saying it was probably a private or local issue and to forget all about it. End of.
Strange stuff like that had happened on a few other occasions, and each time I’d come close without being picked up. It was like I was charmed. Eventually I came to the conclusion that whereas delivering these documents seemed to be an OK job, collecting them was a whole other issue.
Then a guy doing a similar job in another division disappeared. Just like that. His name was John Baddeley and we’d met a few times like ships in transit, one of us leaving, one arriving. It took me a few days to realise I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks, although that wasn’t surprising because he travelled as extensively as I did. When his desk was taken over by another suit I asked where Baddeley was, but the new guy shrugged and said he didn’t know and looked at me like I should go away. I asked around, but nobody knew a thing – not even the people he worked with. In fact it was obvious that lips had been zipped and I should stop poking my nose in.
Two days later I chanced on a news item about a body found floating in the river by Tower Bridge. A suicide, it was speculated, or a drunk who’d wandered too close to the embankment. It happens all the time along that stretch of London’s waterway; once in, with the cold and the currents, people don’t always come out alive.
It was John Baddeley.
I asked around some more, and before I knew it I was being marched into Dunckley’s office and being told to mind my own. Accidents, he’d said heavily, sometimes happened, and Baddeley had been reportedly stressed of late and must have found it all too much.
‘It’s a dangerous place, the river,’ he’d pointed out unnecessarily, ‘especially with a gutful of booze and a confused state of mind.’ He made it sound no worse than tripping and falling into a puddle on a wet Friday night.
‘You know what I mean.’ Dunckley’s voice was a snap, and he gave me his best fish-eyed look. His demeanour took on a whole new level of cold, and I sensed something I hadn’t really associated with him before: he might look like a creep but there was something about him that suddenly told me he’d be a dangerous man to cross. I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed it before. Maybe I’d never had to. As if to reinforce the message, a stranger came in and stood by the door. I hadn’t seen Dunckley call anyone, so I guessed he had a panic button on the floor beneath his desk. A quick flick of the foot sideways and help was on the way. The newcomer wore a smart, purple-toned security uniform but that was the only civilized thing about him. The rest was all bunched muscle and scar tissue and a wave of aggression coming off him like electricity.
‘Actually, I don’t.’ I turned back to Dunckley; it was easier on the nerves rather looking at King Kong. I nodded backwards. ‘Who’s this?’
Dunckley sighed and ignored my question. ‘You do good work for us, Jake. Always on time, never any issues, no questions asked. Until now, anyway.’ He leaned on his desk and stared hard at me. ‘Don’t go spoiling a fine record.’ He pointed at the door. ‘Now go about your business – our business – and forget the rest.’
The suited primate held the door open for me, and I took it as my signal to leave. But the way he leaned towards me and sniffed the air as I passed was the scariest thing I’d ever experienced. And I’ve seen scary before.
It hadn’t taken a genius to confirm that this weird, one-man division I worked for was connected with something very unusual and not entirely above-board.
And now I’d discovered they didn’t need me.
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NO KISS FOR THE DEVIL
Riley Gavin and Frank Palmer
The woman arrived in a black VW Golf GTi. Her approach was watched by a man on the deserted fourth floor of an anonymous office building just off London’s Euston Road. As the vehicle turned into the car park below, he took out a mobile and pressed a button. He allowed it to ring once before cutting the connection.
The woman who stepped out of the car was tall, with blonde hair, neatly cut. Smart suit, dark court shoes. Professional. A flash of white slip peeped from beneath the hem of her skirt as she reached in for something on the passenger seat. When she ducked back out, she was holding a burgundy leather briefcase with a shoulder strap and gold buckles. She turned to look up at the office building, hand raised to shield her eyes against the setting sun, but the man knew she wouldn’t be able to see him from down there.
A movement behind him showed in the reflection from the window.
‘She’s here.’ He spoke in careful English, trying to flatten his tongue and get the words out of the base of his mouth where he felt his origins always betrayed him. ‘Are we still secure?’ His words were lost across the vast, empty floor space.
‘Yes, Boss. Nobody will bother us.’
‘Good. Take her to the basement. Make sure you get her briefcase.’
The other nodded and moved away. Moments later, a brief snatch of conversation echoed along the corridor, then faded. Elsewhere, silence returned as the building emptied for the day.
The man, who used the name Grigori, walked over to a desk, the only item of furniture in sight. On it was a cardboard folder, a touch telephone and a plastic in-tray. The last two were covered in dust. The folder contained everything he had needed to know about the woman: name, age, background, friends, past jobs, past loves.
He fed the folder into the mouth of a portable shredder on the floor beside the desk, and watched as the cardboard and its contents became strips of spaghetti. As of that moment, its subject ceased to be of interest to him.
Or, more importantly, a threat.
He reached into an inside jacket pocket and took out a sheet of paper and a photograph. The paper was a brief biography, the subject of which was - like the woman downstairs - a freelance reporter. She also had no ties, no close family and no obvious corporate loyalties. Another loner.
He preferred loners. They were uncomplicated.
He studied the photo; it might almost have been the same woman. Not as thin, perhaps, but the same blonde hair and pale skin. The same look of self-reliance.
He returned to the window as the driver of the Golf mounted the steps to the front entrance. Graceful, he thought idly. Elegant, even.
But a dead woman.
She just didn’t know it yet.
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NO TEARS FOR THE LOST
Riley Gavin and Frank Palmer
The box contained a severed finger.
It lay on a bed of cotton wool like a grisly jewel, dark in colour and slightly curled, the nail torn and rimmed with dirt. The amputation had been made just forward of the main knuckle, the separation ragged and crude, a flap of skin hanging on one side.
‘Who delivered this?’ He couldn’t take his eyes off it, his voice barely above a whisper. A faint smell of chemicals hung in the air, overlaid with something he didn’t recognise. The unstamped brown envelope which had contained the box lay discarded, the front bearing three simple words in bold print: Sir Kenneth Myburghe.
‘I don’t know, Sir Kenneth.’ The man in the smart grey suit spoke respectfully, his voice a deep rumble. He stood in the doorway, broad shoulders filling the frame. ‘It was on the doorstep.’ His face, all angles and crags, stayed carefully blank. ‘There was nobody about.’
‘Go check. Search the grounds.’ Myburghe brushed at a stray lock of distinguished grey hair above one ear. A faint sheen of perspiration had appeared on the mottled skin above his cheekbones, adding to the already unhealthy appearance of a gaunt face.
The man departed silently, leaving Myburghe alone with the object on his desk. It took a moment for him to realise that the finger in the box was a small one - a pinkie - and in studying the cut, he’d been ignoring something else lying alongside it.
It was a gold signet ring.
He took a tissue from a drawer, wet it and dabbed at the ring’s rim. Beneath the film of dirt – he tried not to think about what it might really be – was a crest, worn down by time and use. When he saw what it was, he felt sickened and sank into a nearby chair.
The ring had been commissioned and manufactured over a hundred years ago, barely twenty miles from where he was now sitting. Originating with his great-grandfather, it had been passed down the line of what had once been a noble and honourable family.
But that, he reflected, had been a long time ago. And the last person seen wearing this ring was barely nineteen years old.
His son, Christian.
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NO SLEEP FOR THE DEAD
Riley Gavin & Frank Palmer
Germany – 1989
Like nature’s sugar icing, a thin layer of snow soon began to dust the runner’s body.
Two hundred metres away, beyond the strip of barren land marking the border between the two Germanys, a watchtower loomed against the sky, a sinister symbol of repression that would, like the Berlin Wall 300 kilometres to the north-east, soon be a ghostly landmark in history. On the tower, a guard in a heavy coat scanned the scene through binoculars. Below him, a patrol vehicle’s engine gave a raucous clatter. A guard-dog yelped eagerly, its cries echoed by others in the distance, each a soulful, lonely message, drifting on the wind across the fields.
Minutes before, the runner had been a living, breathing being, hugging the ground among the thin brush growing in a tangle along the low ridge. He had inched with agonising care past warning markers and stones, checking for tell-tale ripples in the soil indicating a mine, or the hair-thin glint of trip-wires. Ahead lay a field, his route to the West. A US army tower in the distance was a reflection of its East German counterpart. The thick windows showed no sign of movement.
He flexed his shoulders, dislodging a layer of ice crystals formed while lying motionless in the night. In the nearby tower, the guard yawned towards the coming dawn, impatient for his shift to end.
The runner wormed free of the thin cover, sucking in deep, energising breaths. Then he was up and stumbling at a stomach-burning crouch, one hand reaching to touch the frozen earth. Twenty metres, thirty, forty…he was in full view if the guard should turn and look west. Not that he would, if all went to plan…
He ran faster, responding to the tantalising pull of safety. Suddenly, over the sound of his exertions, a shout. His stomach tightened. He ran harder, dancing sideways as a searchlight sliced through the thinning gloom. He tripped and fell, then pushed off again, coat flapping like broken wings. The searchlight caught him a glancing blow, moved away then darted back, bathing him in its glare. His shadow, thrown ahead by the light, raced on alone, unstoppable toward the west.
Another shout, followed by two flat reports snapping out across the cold morning air. The runner staggered, splay-footed, then pitched forward and lay still.
And the new dawn began edging the horizon.
On the western side of the border, clear of the searchlight’s reach, stood three men. Two wore leather jackets and boots, with woollen hats pulled down over their ears. One of the men was zipping up a long, slim bag, which he threw over his shoulder.
The third man wore a long, dark coat and a burgundy-coloured cashmere scarf. Middle-aged, of medium height and build, with thinning, sandy hair, his glasses were speckled with moisture. He nodded to the others.
“Call it in,” he said quietly, his voice tinged with what sounded like relief.
The man with the bag walked over to a mud-spattered Range Rover nearby. Placing the bag on the rear seat, he picked up a radio handset and began to speak.
“Twenty minutes,” he announced minutes later, rejoining the others. He clapped his hands, the sound echoing out across the field.
The man in the long coat checked the emerging outline of some woods half a mile away, and a farmhouse, huddled low as if clinging to the earth. He thought he’d seen movement earlier, but knew that couldn’t be. Nerves, that was all.
“When they stop playing with that bloody searchlight,’ he muttered, “go fetch him. Don’t leave anything behind.” Then he turned to the Range Rover and climbed in. Picking up a flask, he unscrewed the top. The interior of the car instantly filled with the smell of coffee. As he poured his drink, the searchlight dipped and went out, and his two companions looked at each other, before stepping out warily across the uneven field.
Change was coming, the man was thinking idly, as he watched them. Change of a magnitude that would repaint this sorry corner of Europe forever. And God help those who hadn’t seen it coming.
The two men returned with the body, putting it down near the car. Twenty minutes later, a dark green Opel estate appeared from beyond a belt of trees, bouncing along the track from the main road. It was the only sign of movement, the headlights pushing back the gloom and highlighting the skeletal trees, withered grass and sagging fence posts marking the boundary of the farm’s land. The vehicle had a long radio aerial bolted to the tailgate, and contained two people.
The man got out to meet them, flicking away the remnants of his coffee.
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No Help for the Dying
Riley Gavin & Frank Palmer
The white van made two measured circuits of the block, drifting like a shabby ghost beneath the street lights. A curtain of rain rippled down the windscreen and out across the tarmac, lending the road the sheen of molten liquorice. A digital clock in a shop window read 01.45.
The vehicle’s bodywork looked tired and scuffed beneath a layer of dirt, in sharp contrast to the precision sound of the engine. While this and the heavily tinted windows might have seemed unusual, to a casual onlooker it was simply another white van, doing what white vans do. On the third circuit, the vehicle slowed, swinging sharply into a side street. The tyres crunched through the nightly debris of fast-food cartons, discarded cigarette packets and greasy chip wrappers. A plastic water bottle resisted briefly before spinning away into the darkness.
‘Anywhere here.’ The man in the passenger seat took a bible from the dashboard, held it against his chest and caressed it absent-mindedly with his thumb.
The driver stopped across from a travel shop and a photo boutique. Wedged between them was a narrow alleyway like a gap in a row of teeth. No light reached into this recess, and whatever lay inside had been swallowed in a dark soup of shadow.
After a few moments the passenger door clicked open and the man with the bible stepped lightly to the ground. He stood for a moment, his breath vaporising in the cold air and quickly snatched away by the bitter March wind. The colourful glitter of Piccadilly, with its bright lights and electronic advertising panels, a relentless flow of people and noise, lay a short walk away. But none of that reached here.
The man was tall and thin, with rimless spectacles perched on a pale, bony face. His shoulders were loosely wrapped in a long coat covering dark pants and a black silk shirt with a mandarin collar, and on his feet he wore black, rubber-soled boots. He reached back into the van and lifted a silver metal flask from a box on the floor, then nodded to the driver and moved away. Seconds later he was swallowed by the dark.
He paused for his vision to adjust before stepping forward. He passed the windows of a pub, long shuttered and dead, and a network of scaffolding interlaced with ladders and boards. A row of wheelie bins waited with their accumulation of refuse. The smell was sharp and strong, a mix of old food, stale water and something unidentifiable. He ignored it and continued into the gloom, favouring the wall to his right where the darkness gathered like molasses. There were stirrings from the shadows and an empty can clattered away from his foot. Something drummed against cardboard, and further on someone coughed, a brief bark of sound quickly stifled. Another voice cursed in a soft protest, blurred by the effects of alcohol or drugs or the bitter cold.
The man stopped alongside a battered skip, its solid presence indicated by the glow-worm speck of a warning lamp. He transferred the bible to one coat pocket and the flask to the other, and took out a slim, black Maglite torch. Bending easily, he reached out with his free hand, finding the slippery texture of a sleeping bag, the fabric stiff with ingrained grease and dirt. He ran his fingers along the top and located the zip pull. It snagged briefly before running free with a faint purr. The smell from inside was sharp and feral. He flicked on the Maglite.
The bag’s occupant came awake with a cry of alarm. The man was ready; placing one knee on the sleeper’s torso, he clamped a strong hand over the mouth, choking off any further sounds. When the struggles ceased, he shone the torch on the white face and fearful, blinking eyes.
It was the right one.
He put the torch down and withdrew the silver flask. As he unscrewed the cup one-handed, a heady aroma of tomato filled the air around him. He bent close to the sleeping bag.
‘I’ve got some soup for you, kid,’ he whispered softly. ‘Nice hot soup.’ He squeezed the occupant’s face, cupping the mouth into an elongated ‘O’. The skin was soft to the touch, as yet untainted by dirt or infection. He tipped the flask in one movement, using his body’s weight to stifle the sudden eruption of movement beneath him, a hideous parody of a lover’s embrace. He ignored the choking sounds and what might have been the beginning of an agonised scream and placed his hand back over the mouth. A spot of soup forced its way between his fingers and stung his cheek, but he ignored that, too. He continued pouring until the flask was empty and the body lay still.
When he removed his hand, there was a gloop-gloop sound as the last of the thick liquid found its way down, followed by a pop of an air bubble rising to the top. He checked the pulse.
He zipped the sleeping bag and replaced the top of the flask, then stood for a moment like a priest over a grave.
‘Tough luck, kid,’ he murmured softly. ‘Seems Daddy didn’t want you back badly enough.’ He flicked the spot of soup from his cheek, then turned and walked back the way he had come. He stopped at the mouth of the alleyway. His eyes moved across the dark recesses one last time, then he took out the bible, and clutching it to his chest, walked back to the waiting van.
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No Peace for the Wicked
Riley Gavin & Frank Palmer
The first old man died on the beach.
Unaware of his impending fate, he watched, huddled in a blanket, as gulls screamed over a plastic bottle bobbing in the choppy water, while under a heavy sky a tanker plodded up the Channel. Apart from him, the beach was deserted. It was too early in the season for day-trippers and too cold for beachcombers with their wretched metal detectors.
He wasn’t interested in seagulls or tankers. The birds were noisy and demanding, like people, and the tankers too remote. He had long ago given up interest in anything much, surrendering willingly to an ill-tempered isolation. Now all he had left was the creeping disease of old age, made bearable by the few bits of comfort a well-stocked bank account could buy. As long as the account received regular additions, that was all that concerned him.
A car approached along the promenade and he sank instinctively deeper into his deckchair, pulling the blanket tighter around him. If he’d wanted strangers stopping by for a chat he’d have hung out a sign.
Maybe it was Willis. His minder was due about now with a flask of coffee laced with something that would truly piss off his doctor, if only he knew.
The hairs on his neck stirred as the footsteps approached, bringing faint memories of other times when danger had moved against him.
Well, he’d faced that and usually walked away laughing.
The newcomer stopped behind him, so close he must have been staring down at the top of his head. He fought a strong desire to turn and look. Damn him! He’d sit and defy the intruder to come round and look him in the eye.
Whoever it was didn’t bother. Instead the old man heard a rustle of cloth and a familiar metallic click. It turned his blood to water. Then the seagulls and the wind, the impending rain and the tanker, all ceased to matter.
Half a mile away, in a block of exclusive flats overlooking the sea front, another old man stared out to sea, puffing on his first cigar of the day. He knew it would likely kill him, but he didn’t give a bugger. Too old to let it worry him now, anyway. He wriggled his toes into the pile of his new carpet. Nothing like the feel of a fresh nap, he thought. About as far from Linoleum as it was possible to get.
He brushed a speck of ash from his sweater and debated going for a walk. Over to the east he could see two figures down on the pebbles. One appeared to be huddled in a deckchair, the other standing behind him. Bloody mad, some people, he thought idly. Probably asylum seekers, looking for something to steal.
The standing figure appeared to be holding a hand out to the other. Offering something maybe, or pointing. There was something familiar in the stance that made the cigar smoker shiver. He decided he was better off staying in. Far too cold to venture out, anyway. Easy way to catch a chill. In any case, the boys would be here later for a game of cards.
He glanced at the coffee table, with its single sheet of paper covered in neatly typed figures. He smiled momentarily. Money was still rolling in, and as long as the managers didn’t get greedy and the other two let him run things the way he always had since… well, since the changeover, it should be fine.
The front door clicked. Startled, he swung round. Two figures were standing in the hallway as if they had materialised out of the walls. Their heavy coats and dark slacks gave them the appearance of men attending a funeral.
“What the fuck do you want?” he demanded. For the first time in years he felt a skewer of fear deep in his gut. “How d’you get in?”
The leading figure stepped forward and pointed at the smoker. There was a sharp, flat sound and the cigar snapped into the air. It landed on the new carpet where it sizzled pungently.
The old man fell alongside it.
The second newcomer stepped past the gunman and carefully retrieved the cigar. He placed it in an ashtray where it could burn safely without threatening the other residents in the tower block.
Then both men stepped across to the window and looked out. Over to the east a solitary figure was walking up the beach towards a car parked on the promenade. Behind him was a figure slumped in a deckchair as though sleeping.
The two men turned and left the flat, barely glancing at the man lying on the floor.
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